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DM’s Guide to Dealing With Treasure

posted Tuesday, March 23rd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

I’m playing in a Legend of Zelda themed D&D game where the DM is having trouble deciding what magic items to give out. It’s got me thinking on methods of handing out treasure.

In D&D third edition, it’s not so important for the DM to get the items right. Players can sell unwanted magic items for half price and buy the ones they want, so two wrongs make a right. Not everyone likes this approach: it leads to magic supermarket syndrome, vendor trash hoarding and poor realism. There are solutions to these problems, though.

You can’t hand out magic items carelessly in D&D fourth edition, since items sell for 20% of their buy price. This discourages trash item hoarding, but it means players have to sell five wrong items to make the one they want. You absolutely cannot drop items a player can’t use, even if it’s unrealistic that every major villain wields the same obscure polearm as the party’s fighter. Powergamers will also hate you when they need a certain peculiar item for their build and you pick treasure at random, because unlike an MMO you can’t grind for the item.

One approach is to hand out whatever items the players ask for, but this doesn’t sit right with me. There’s no narrative to that. It’s like writing a list to Santa and then being surprised when you get everything on the list (or disappointed when they don’t). My DM’s compromise, which I somewhat like, is to ask the players for a wish-list of items, then pick from a table of these items when it comes to placing treasure. However, that still makes it hard for powergamers to intentionally get particular items.

An alternative approach is to give out extra gold and gems, and allow the players a method to buy items. If the “magic item supermarket” doesn’t sit well with you as a DM, get creative: players can hire a magic item artificer, have a temple bless the item, seek out someone who owns the item and buy it from them.

Yet another method is to let players declare a quest for the item they want. This is a useful synergy of player and character motivation and it’s easily solved by putting their item at the end of whatever dungeon you already had planned. It also creates a convenient adventure hook, secures player motivation and generates enthusiasm.

My favourite method, however, is to allow players to craft items themselves. Price the item at the usual cost, and allow any character of the appropriate spellcasting class and level to create items. For extra flavour, hand out magic item components as treasure. Magic item components count toward a certain value when crafting a magic item and can be almost anything, so long as they’re rare and valuable: a rare mineral, the horns of a powerful creature, old broken magic items, the relics of a saint, or anything else you can think up. Don’t make players craft all their own items, however, or the players who don’t know what they want will be left bemuddled.


  1. Anonymous

    March 24th, 2010

    “You absolutely cannot drop items a player can’t use”

    Yes you can. Just drop more of them, and the players can break them down and use them to make/improve/buy the items they want. In fact, it is EASIER in 4e, just throw in a bunch of magic junk items nobody will want.

  2. Noumenon

    March 24th, 2010

    Reposting cuz it didn’t post:

    I actually went to the 20% sales price idea in 3.5 at low levels, because I want a high magic game where people might actually use something like a helm of comprehend languages. This way I can give out lots of interesting magic items and see what they keep. At higher levels, there’s too much magic so I encourage selling it at 50% and buying fewer bigger things.

    You might want to consider this system for giving out random treasure in 4E. You can give random treasure and still have the players appropriately equipped if you

    a) allow selling items for HALF price rather than one-fifth (enabling the players to buy equipment they need)
    b) raise all item treasures by one level.

  3. Jonathan Drain

    March 24th, 2010

    @Anonymous: If you’re handing out magic items as a surrogate for gold, you might as well hand out gold or other valuables, as the article suggests.

    Giving out too many items is a terrible idea because the players can keep them, and then they’ll have too many items.

  4. Stormcrowe

    March 25th, 2010

    The D&D game i’m running right now i’ve tried to keep it a low magic game. They find minor items along the way but most of the major stuff is either handled in quest rewards allowing me to choose what they get or they can research and quest for a particular item. Its worked well so far.

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  6. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-03-26

    March 26th, 2010

    [...] DM’s Guide to Dealing With Treasure I’m in the camp of random treasure is the best kind of treasure. It can sometimes point a game in new directions or give the players abilities outside their strengths, which will make them stronger characters. Having the players give a wish list to the GM for what they want to find just seems wrong to me. I realize that with D&D 4e this is almost a requirement because of the stated book rule that an item can only be sold for 20% of its full value. Instead of tossing out items that the players want the most as “treasure”, I’d rather see the 20% rule tossed and go back to the traditional 50% market value rule. Jonathan over at d20 Source has some other alternate systems that can be put into place to replace the “wish list syndrome” that drives me batty. [...]

  7. Jenny Snyder

    March 27th, 2010

    I’m playing an artificer in one campaign, and I’ve arranged it with my DM that I get to make most of the magic items. We find convenient piles of residuum, and voila, I’m off to the races. It’s one less thing he has to worry about, and I get to feel like the mad scientist inventor type for my character. Win-win!

  8. mike

    March 28th, 2010

    Think about this: the more rare and powerful a magic item it will attract attention of thieves’ guilds, cults, powerful wizards, rulers of the realm, etc.
    Everybody would like to have the item, great means to start new adventures, gain allies or foes.
    Also, walking out of the shoppe with 100,000 gp attracts its own attention too.
    You might have it where a +3 sword is rare enough for the item to have some kind of history and cause someone to expend effort to acquire it.
    You just don’t pawn Stormbringer like an XBox.

  9. mike

    March 28th, 2010

    Another thought, the loot you bring back will likely have symbols and engravings that may not be to popular to be displayed.
    Defeat a cult of Orcus, get a nice +4 sword. It’s going to have a marking relating to Orcus on it as well as something like “I love Orcus” engraved on it.
    Wearing/using such gear may not make to statement characters want.

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  11. Steam

    June 18th, 2010

    What happened to good old fashioned story telling?

    Let the characters have a wish list? Or dump “trash” magic items that they can sell to get what they want? That sounds like one screwy economy.

    How about they find the old sword that legend says killed the big bad troll who was haunting the countryside?

  12. Dileeria

    September 15th, 2010

    Is it really REALISTIC to hand the players their wishlist items in every game????? Nope. That’s what the word “Adventure” is for! You have to Adventure for the items. You want a better chance to find the Sword of Legends? You better be ready to search for it! And if you have good players… they will not complain. The spoiled brats that MUST have the sword aren’t good for gamming anyway. Sorry if you guys have to handle those types! I run my games with the understanding that there will be NO demanding. If they want it, they work for it, the poor babies!

  13. Aiden

    November 12th, 2010

    I’m glad that the community is finally paying scrutiny to this problem. I think that there might be something to your treasure-is-components plan.

    For your detractors: I started playing back in the old old days and we never really got this right. There are really an amazing number of gear issues that compete with good storytelling. Some examples where “value” is poorly defined: a short bow is almost certainly less useful than a long sword; a dead character leaves behind a whole dump of gear that the replacement character can’t use; new armor might be useless if nobody in the party can wear it; a new divine mace might be worthless to the only character who can use it; or, an item that fits well mechanically might be out of theme for a character and not “make sense”.

    Imagine a party made up of fun, well-themed characters where one wears heavy armor and nobody uses a long sword. They might never really enjoy the fruits of the dungeon, but whatever success they do find may worsen their predicament: more experience leads to harder challenges and the uphill fight gets steeper. So, what should the DM do? Replace some loot with better fits? Tell the players to act more like WoW stereotypes?

    I propose a compromise: the three major item slots get 50% trade value, the rest get 20%, and residuum is freely available as a currency. Weapons, armor, and neck slot items are given at fairly balanced points so it is a real problem if the party can’t use them. The rest are more about specific flavor and only serve to tweak a character’s effectiveness.

  14. Brent

    October 22nd, 2012

    I recently found this site, and wanted to make a comment on this topic. I’m not sure anyone will actually come by to read this, but I can hope.

    I’ve been playing D&D for 20+ years, and GM-ing table-top games for about 20. As GM, I use a combination of random treasure and things that the antagonists would be using. You don’t fight a warrior wielding a +2 sword, and then find that he had a +5 Sword of Badass in his stash. That doesn’t make any sense. Of course they might have cool stuff they can’t use(perhaps from the last bunch who tried to best them), but I often keep that pretty random.

    You CAN ‘grind’ for gear in D&D, or any other game, and I often make my players do that. The trick is making them feel like they’re still winning.

  15. Kyle - New DM

    October 22nd, 2013

    I’m kinda new to all this, but I was thinking of something that might work and fill the need of magic weapons at gear at any level. My players are level one and an epic item has already dropped. I plan for it to function as a better item until the player who it was meant for learns how to use it. At each milestone I have picked for the item, the player will essentially either learn better how to use the weapon and therefore make it more useful, or they will unlock a new feature of the item. Originally I was worried about balance and making the players too overpowered. But then I realized that I am making my own game, with help for monsters from DDI (and tweaking them) and home-crafting my own campaign. When the players are too powerful for encounter, I add mobs, or change HP, or change effect or damage on the fly. DDI helps to re-craft monsters like this. Its cooler to give our epic weapons and crank the encounters difficulty than it is to make the gameplay lame and the monsters lamer to be defeated more easily.

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