Given enough time, certain arguments and kerfluffles will occur around the game table. Someone will quote Monty Python, and often the table will split into two camps: those who Holy Grail and those who think it’s stupid (the latter camp is wrong, of course!). Someone will bicker about alignment and the conundrum of where Batman sits on that matrix. And before the first character drops in a campaign, some dude in the group will insist he doesn’t believe in using raise dead or similar back-to-life effects. "Pure cheese," he calls them, yet he finds justification to use them when his character kicks it.
And then there is treasure.
On the player side, the conflict typically hinges on the fact that players don’t feel like they have enough treasure or they don’t have the right bits of treasure. In 4E, those players can point to treasure assumptions, poor defenses (real or imagined), or their “wish lists” to fuel such arguments. One player in my game has more magic items from his wish list than any other player in the group, and often more magic items of all types than anyone else in the group, yet he still complains about his treasure deficiencies ad nauseum.
On the DM side, managing treasure is one of the more tedious tasks in upkeep. Making sure that everyone has the treasure they need so they don’t “lag behind,” as Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 puts it, can make DMs wonder what happened to the magic of magic items. Other DMs may become frustrated with the various flavors of the magic item game that become more numerous with each month. They’ll get wish lists from their players, or overhear conversations their players are having on the sweet bit of optimization they’ve discovered with the release of the newest supplement or issue of Dragon magazine, only to be stymied in their role of Santa by finding that item was the new hotness last month, the optimization boards have moved on to something new, and so has the player.
This month, let’s look at some itemization strategies that can help the grumblers on both sides.
Handing Over the Wish List
Some DMs are not fans of the wish list. They see it as blatant grabbiness or as breaking the game's narrative.
They have a point. Wish lists serve the purpose of putting useful things into the characters' hands and allowing players to build the characters of their dreams, but too-hasty implementation can cheapen the wonder of a magic hoard.
The new magic item rarity scheme offers a good model to follow. Limit wish lists to the normal, baseline versions of armor, weapons, implements, and neck items. It's OK to assume that armor has the baseline masterwork bonus (for light armors, +1 at 14th, +2 at 24th; for heavy armors, +3 at 14th and +4 at 24th). This lets you give out +1 items early, +2 items starting somewhere around 4th level, +3 items at about 9th, +4 items at about 14th, +5 items at 19th, and +6 items at 24th, before allowing for masterwork bonuses.
But what about all those other properties and powers? Those are what really put the magic into magic items!
Let them be discovered. And by "them," I mean the properties, not entirely new items. Treat every magic item as if it's a legacy item.* In a manner similar to the Alternative Rewards system in Dungeon Master's Guide 2, you can create story seeds, allow NPC sages or wizards to unlock powers within an item, or just riff off something amazing that a character did that could reveal or merit a new power. Base the powers on those already littering magic item sections of books and the online Rules Compendium. Alternatively, you could set up triggers where the characters' magic items get better according to some subtle schedule and allow players a certain amount of control over what they get.
* For readers unfamiliar with that concept, a legacy item is a magic item with powers and properties that aren't apparent when it's first acquired; its power keeps pace with yours. You thought that you found a simple +1 sword. It was two days later before you discovered that it could become searing hot at your command, and you carried it for two years before the fortune teller unlocked its potential to trigger small earthquakes.
For example, you could allow critical hits to have a chance to unlock latent properties and powers in a magical weapon or implement. On the other end of the spectrum, when a character is missed by a monster or trap with a natural 1, this could unlock a property or power of armor or a neck item (based on the Defense under attack). The specifics must be up to you. You might require a second die roll, along the lines of 'confirming' the hit or miss, as 3E did for all critical hits. Or you might require quests and knowledgeable NPCs to unlock latent powers. In either case, the player has some control over the power, with the caveat that it must somehow fit within the story. The player gets the new toy when the DM approves of the story, not before.
Fun with Random Treasure
If you haven’t played with the new treasure charts in Essentials, you should. I hate random, but I have to admit that rolling for treasure really appeals to me. Part of this has to do with the joy I had as a kid rolling up treasure. Hey, it was the 80s! But there is something to be said about a system that can surprise even the DM during the game … in a good way.
The problem with random tables of all the treasure possible in today’s day and age is that it’s a moving target. With books coming out every month, you would like the D&D Compendium to do that sort of thing. But even if it did, the number of items within certain slots would make the selection overly random and cough up a lot of items the characters have no use for other than to pawn for cash. (Remember Diablo?)
With different class builds and all the class-optimized items out there, you will end up doing what I did in the 80s—rolling and rerolling until you get a useful item. The solution, I think, is to make your own random magic item generator. You can either have people submit their wish list, or you can include the items you'd like the characters to find. I think a mix of both works best; here’s how.
At every level, let your players make a wish list of three items. For each character, you come up with another three items. I like to go high on wondrous items, consumables, and the head, belt, feet, arms, and hands slots at common and uncommon rarity to balance out most players' focus on uncommon or rare weapons, implements, and neck items. You and the players bring item cards from the character builder, and you create a deck of magic items. When treasure pops up, a card is drawn. If you don’t want to make a deck, you could just randomize with dice, but there's something satisfying about placing a physical object in a player's hand, even if it's only a card.
The key point is that the deck resets every level. Players and DMs are welcome to put cards from past decks into the new level’s mix, but they can also opt for all-new items. Yes, there's some metagaming involved, but it's enjoyable metagaming that does an effective job of creating a more interactive and focused treasure environment while retaining some randomness and surprise.
Make It Up!
Don’t be afraid to make up new magic items. Unless you are playing in a shared campaign of some sort, the only people you need to please are those sitting around you. Your new item may not talk to the D&D Character Builder, but don’t worry. Players are not reluctant to apply a good-old pencil to their character sheet if the payoff is shiny new toy for their character. The gods of game balance will not judge you poorly. Wizards has never had a goon squad that comes to your door and makes sure you’re playing D&D “the right way.”
The game is a tool to tell your own story within the fantasy genre. Mash items up; give them crazy interesting powers; do whatever you like, as long as your players are enjoying it. The only person who has to live with the effects of those items is you.
This month, the mailbox has an old question with some new ideas and a new question with a most definitive answer.
Large Groups Redux
Hey guys, I was hoping you could help me with a DM problem.
I run a game with a large group. We have 6 regular players in the party as well as one or two irregulars. I often find that fights that might take 30-40 minutes but provide a reasonable challenge for a 4 or 5 player group can take as long as 2 hours with my (large) group just to provide the same level of challenge. Can you give me any advice on how to either speed up fights or perhaps how to design encounters for larger groups that don't just involve larger numbers of monsters? I have tried throwing much higher level monsters at the group before but the problem I find is that the party can wind up needing to roll 17+ just to hit their armor class, which needless to say isn't much fun for anyone.
Oisín (it's an Irish name, pronounced usheen if you are wondering) from email
Large games are always a problem, and something that Save My Game has addressed before. But before you use that advice, ask yourself this question: who are the fights too long for, you or your players? If the answer is your players or both, absolutely find a way to speed up the action. Use cards or some other form of initiative tracker, reward players somehow for speedy turns, and use a good number of minions or lower-level monsters as chaff. You can also create more combat puzzle encounters, where there is a way to end the encounter without killing all the monsters. All of these can help.
If the answer is that it is going on too long for you but the players are still having a blast, then find ways to spice up the encounter with triggers, story points, and traps. Ask yourself what you like about encounters and encounter flow. Then make sure you put those elements in your big encounters. Small skill challenges (no bigger than complexity 1) that can dramatically change the tone of the battle are one of my favorite tricks.
Imagine, for instance, the lair of a dread necromancer. He might be an elite monster surrounded by a bunch of wraiths and skeletal chaff. Behind the necromancer is a glowing purple orb upon a pedestal. The orb is the focus for the wraiths. If it can be disabled, then the wraiths go poof! Conversely, maybe the necromancer is only aided by the skeletal chaff and the floor of this place is a litter of bones. The orb could create another skeleton each time one is destroyed. The only way to stop the effect is by disabling the orb or the death of the necromancer. There doesn't need to be an overwhelming number of monsters to keep everyone occupied, because some players will be busy dealing with the puzzle and/or trap. Fewer monsters for you to control means a quicker encounter.
You could use that basic structure with just about any encounter with enough creativity and invention.
How Dead Should Someone Be?
When a player dies in a campaign, which is better—Let the player roll up another character at the same (or 1-2 lower) than the rest of the party or make the player roll up another character at level 1? At what point does the difference in party level vs. new character level become detrimental to the game?
-M0shing_smurf from the Save My Game Wizards Community group.
First, never, ever start a new character at 1st level if all the other characters are level 2 or higher. That way lies madness in the form of one frustrated player.
It would be better to either let the character be resurrected or come back as a character at the same level as the rest of the party. The problem is that the latter choice creates a story disconnect, and in this day and age, can bring a bit of rules creep.
Even in a game as balanced as D&D, new rules material often comes with a deeper understanding by the designer of the game system. That phenomenon alone creates more optimal choices in classes and other rules-related decisions. A new character also gives a player to optimize from the ground floor, with all the new understanding of the game that he's learned, which can make other characters that grew more organically seem a bit out of sorts.
Rather than having a character come in at a lower level, it's better to let the player build the character and have the DM assign magic items. Always err on the side of giving fewer or sub-optimal magic items, but not ones that are totally useless. This enhances the illusion of an organic item distribution and gives the new character something to strive for. If you were too stingy, it's easy to rectify during play—much easier than if you were too generous.
You could also give the character the -1 penalty until three milestones have been reached that is already intrinsic in the Raise Dead ritual, but have a good story reason for it. Maybe the character just escaped a sticky situation or is under the effect of a curse. With the curse option, you could have a story trigger for the penalty’s end rather than just relying on milestones.
About the Author
Stephen Radney-MacFarland caught the D&D bug at an impressionable age. Once the content manager for the RPGA, and a developer for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he is now a freelance game designer doing work for Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing, and he is part of a fledgling group of game commentators and game designers called NeoGrognard. During the daylight hours, he teaches game production classes at the International Academy of Design and Technology of Seattle.