Phat Lewt

Posted on July 10, 2012 by


Dungeon Masters like giving out loot almost as much as players like getting it, and that’s a good thing because it keeps the whole game moving along.  Of course, in Wizard’s endless desire to balance every facet of the game, they have somehow managed to create a giant disaster that is 90% garbage and 10% must-have accessory.

Now in my last item post I talked about designing weapons in order to create a unique experience for your players (here).  And my good game-buddy and master DM Alex was inspired enough to write an item post of his own (here).  Today though I’d like to talk about something is a slightly different vein; item availability.

The first mistake that a lot of Dungeon Masters make is allowing their players to choose their own items.  This doesn’t mean that they’re bad DM’s, or that they’re doing something to ruin their campaigns, in fact some of best storytellers I know succumb to this particular form of corner-cutting.

Because that’s what it is, it’s a shortcut.  Running a game is a lot of work, there’s a lot of weight on a DM’s shoulders, and one of the first things that we do is try to find a way to make that just a little easier.  This, however, is not the right place to start (but I will talk about some time-savers in another post).

First off all, in a strictly mechanical sense, allowing players to choose their own items makes them far too powerful.  Your players are wormy, cunning little creatures that will already have designed a hero capable of slaying solos with their bare hands.  Properly armed, they will be nigh unstoppable and all of your careful planning will be for naught.  Boots that grant a teleport speed, helmets that halve damage one an encounter, necklaces that grant instant saving throws, these are just a few of those items that live in the top 10%.  Items like these should be special gifts, given to a hero as a reward for doing something particularly incredible.

The other (and in my opinion larger) problem with giving players whatever they want is that they lose their sense of discovery.  Remember that first time you were playing a Diablo dungeon crawler or an MMO and found your first magic sword?  This sensation, this excitement to find new items and upgrade your character is what games are all about.  Who are we as storyellers to deny them that sweet moment of pleasure?

Unfortunately, this does mean more work on the part of the DM, but I think it’s worth the effort.

The most famous magical item shop in D&D.

The best way to choose the loot that your players will find is to just pull up a list.  It’s that simple.  Use the D&D Compendium or the lists in the sourcebooks, choose items ranging from a level below to a level above the heroes, and voila. I usually try for about as many items as I have players each game, spread out among the different item slots.  I try to choose only items above the 30% margin (mediocre to awesome), and make sure that somebody could use them, but I expect players to sell a lot of the items that they find to sell them for something more appealing to the party.

On that subject, you’ll have to do something similar with your shops.  This is as much work as planning loot for your party.  For each item slot (other than armor and weapons) choose one item a level below the party, two items of the same level, and one above.  These should all be items above the 50% margin.  It helps if you only have one major shop in your setting at a time.  You can adjust the shop each time that the heroes return.

So is it worth it?  Not always.  Some games benefit from letting the players choose their own items, and some games work well without giving out items at all.  All I’m saying is that items are one of the most important parts of your game, and that they deserve the same amount of time that we as DM’s devote to our NPC’s, encounters, and and the other elements that go into our games.

Posted in: Game Talk