A game of D&D can cover a wide variety of styles, but one of the inevitable constants is that somewhere along the line the adventurers will find themselves in possession of some loot and will need to decide who gets what. The variations on treasure distribution styles are legion, from random roll-offs to spreadsheets intended to make sure everyone has their shares equally shared out down to the copper piece. Most gaming groups have a favored style, but when group membership changes or when members shift from one group to another, they may come into conflict over their preconceived notions of how treasure ought to be split up. The division of treasure can have a significant impact on the balance of power between party members and can cause hard feelings if the perception (justified or not) of unfairness exists. Whether your character is a selfless ascetic or a greedy money-grubber, figuring out how to divide things fairly is essential in a well-run campaign.
WORDS TO THE WISE:
1. How often should you divide treasure? Whether it is every time something is found, once per session, once per adventure (an arc of several sessions), or whatever, a regular schedule is less important than an agreed-upon principle.
2. Which characters receive shares? Equal shares for all? Splits by level, or merit bonus for exceptional contributions? Half shares for cohorts, or none? What about temporary NPC allies or for characters who are present for only part of a mission?
3. Are money and magic treated separately? If treated separately, it can lead to very unbalanced distribution of treasure. If treated as part of a common pool, you can end up with an accounting nightmare and useful/desirable items being sold out of the party to ensure fairness.
4. How do you decide who gets an item? The ultimate question, whether by vote, random roll, auction, or any other method. Who picks in what order? Do past treasure splits affect present shares; is there a catch-up mechanism for characters who are well behind other characters in terms of money and/or magic?
5. How will you account for special cases? Some items pertinent to particular classes are relatively more expensive than those for other classes. Other items are of benefit to the party as a whole but not really to the individual who owns or uses it. Others may be of limited use, but might be critically important in particular situations. Will some treasure be reserved in a party contingency fund? What allowances (if any) should the party make for treasure other than individual ownership?
Why is treasure division so important? In a game like D&D, much of what a character is and can do is defined by his or her possessions, which can supplement or amplify existing character abilities (for example, magic weapons, stat-boosting items, and wands that allow extra spellcasting) or may grant entirely new capabilities, whether offensive, defensive, movement-related, or anything else. Even for those who do not seek to beef up their personal power, money and magic are the literal and figurative coin of the realm in amassing political and economic power in the game world, in supporting and assisting allied NPCs, or just about anything else that the character would like to do. Depending on the optional rules used in your campaign, characters may need to save money and/or items to pay for training (for skills, spells, feats, or level gain); a character getting shafted in treasure distribution may find herself frustrated or left behind as the rest of the party moves on up.
Taking the importance of treasure division as a given, the party needs to answer several basic questions, and it needs to think about them before heading off on the adventure so that they can avoid hard feelings, retroactive treasure split changes, or anything of that sort. The first question is how often the group will stop to divide treasure. Obviously, this is only an issue during adventures where the PCs find treasure; there may be sessions where the party comes up empty. More often than not, however, the party will come across at least some amount of loot, and they must decide when to split it. Perhaps they want to do it immediately after the encounter is over. Or perhaps they wish to divide it at the end of the game session. Regardless of what the characters may be doing at that point, the players may want to split the stuff right then, while the memory of the session is fresh, to make sure the treasure isn't lost in the recesses of someone's notepad. Maybe they will split treasure only when they return to their home base, whatever it might be (their favorite inn, their liege lord's castle, a cozy farming village). Whichever they choose, they should attempt to find a standard system and stick with it.
When the time comes to divide the kitty, the party must have some system for determining how much each character will receive. The standard is one share per character, but you could also allot shares by character level (on the presumption that higher-level characters have higher expenses and presumably brought more to the table during the adventure); this latter method, however, holds the danger of leading to an ever-widening gap between the shares of higher- and lower-level characters. The 1st Edition Player's Handbook suggests the possibility of setting aside an extra share to be given to one character (determined by party vote) who had rendered particularly meritorious service during that session or adventure. (I believe something like this is included in Kenzerco's Hackmaster game.) Some groups set aside a share of treasure to put into a party fund to pay for healing scrolls or potions, raise dead spells (or other restoratives), buying mounts, paying gate taxes, and other sorts of general party expenditures. Cohorts and other allied NPCs typically receive 1/2 share (or 1/2 normal based on their level), but some groups may demand that cohort treasure be paid out by their "employer" and that deals with any other types of NPCs simply be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
These initial two points presuppose another important side point, which is how to deal with the share of a character who misses part of an adventure. This applies most commonly when a character is killed or incapacitated during an adventure. It could also apply if a treasure division is based on the aggregate total of several gaming sessions. In this case, how do you adjudicate the share of a character who was there only part of the time? If they were there for 1 out of 3 sessions, do they get 1/3 normal treasure? What if they happen to get lucky and nab the best magic item in the haul, beating out people who were there all three sessions -- should that be allowed? Do they get a shot only at items that were found while they were present? If your gaming group does not have perfect attendance (and no game I have ever played or DM'ed has for more than a few sessions in a row), this point moves from a technicality to a critically important clarification of how the campaign is going to work.
In figuring out the allocation of treasure shares, you also need to decide exactly what a "share" is worth. Is it money? Magic? Money or magic (but not both)? Some combination of money and magic equal to a set gp value (assuming that you assign cash values to magic items, as per the Dungeon Master's Guide)? Some groups treat magic items as completely separate from money (which usually includes gems, jewelry, or other valuables as well as coins); that is, every character gets a certain share of money, and then the magic items are split among party members (or perhaps sold for cash if no one wants them). Getting a magic item does not affect your cash split in any way. Other groups take the opposite tack, that magic items are simply "potential cash" and assign every item its sale value. In this case, your share would include the gp value of monetary treasure and magic items (if sold). You use your share of the treasure to "buy" as much cash or magic as your share allows. If all items are gone by the time it is your turn to pick, your share is all money. Any items that no one can afford are assumed sold out of the party. In fact, in a sense this kind of system assumes that all items are always sold; it is simply a matter of whether they are "bought" within the party or sold out of it. This system attempts to balance money value with magic value; hence, a character whose share is expended "buying" a magic item will get no actual cash from the treasure.
Example: Three characters find a ring of protection+1 (2,000 gp), a cloak of resistance+1 (1,000 gp), and 3,000 gp in coins. Using the first system (money and magic are separate), each character would receive 1,000 gp in coins. They would then determine an order of selection (see below) where one character would get the ring, another the cloak, and the third nothing but his coins. In the second system, one character would end up with the ring and no money, another the cloak and 1,000 gp, and a third with no magic but with 2,000 gp.
The second system seems to be more fair, but I can tell you from long experience in a group that used it that it can create a bookkeeping nightmare when your treasure division is more complicated than the above, especially when magic value is greater than monetary value (meaning that those who get no magic or a lower-quality item will not be getting an even split, requiring them to take on a sort of "forced debt" owed them by the character(s) who got the best stuff). It also can create a sort of "forced homogenization" problem in that everything is boiled down to GUMUs (Generic Universal Monetary Units), as my players took to calling them. This is perfectly fine if you are running a standard campaign where all coinage is based on metal value, but it gets really complicated if you use national or regional coinage, where it matters whether your coins are from Waterdeep or Zhentil Keep or ancient Netheril. Likewise, this system assumes that items can be automatically liquidated for full normal value at any time; no haggling over gems or jewels or magic items or objects d'art -- everything is simply a numerical value placeholder. This makes for easier accounting, but it can weaken the roleplaying experience and the believability of the world.
This is one of many places where the feelings and convenience of the players may have to be weighed against the imagined actions of their characters, and each group will need to decide for itself how far it is willing to go along that line. Do your gems have type and color, or are they just six 500 gp gems (worth precisely 500 gp at every market from Nyrond to Netheril)? This same point was discussed in an earlier column in terms of roleplaying out day-to-day living expenses or allowing players to use the "Variant Rule: Upkeep" from the Dungeon Master's Guide, and it really depends on what your players like to do. If they are willing to put in the time and effort into keeping track of everything, it could be a great addition to the richness of the campaign; if they don't, it will bore them and you to tears and waste precious gaming time counting beans.
The above four points deal with when you divide treasure, who gets a share, whether they get a full share if they weren't there the whole time, and what a share is really worth. We can now deal with the real brass tack of the whole situation: How do we decide who gets what? The classic method is to roll randomly. Either you, as the DM, roll from a list of characters, or each player rolls and each player picks starting from the highest result to the lowest result. The 1st Edition Player's Handbook suggested that you allow characters to roll once for each experience level and to keep the best roll, and I have seen groups allow characters to add their Charisma bonus to the roll (another way to try to make Charisma helpful, presumably in you charming/swindling your comrades into giving you the best stuff, which I suppose makes at least a teensy bit of sense). Even then, do you go highest to lowest, and then back up to the top of the list again, or do you go highest to lowest and then reverse order (lowest to highest) for the second round of picks?
If you don't like the whole dicing for picks idea, you could roleplay the division of treasure and try to find the best fit for each item within the group. Some items are obviously best suited for certain characters, but unfortunately a great many items are equally desirable to and useful for any kind of character. While potentially very satisfying and appropriate to the game and genre, this system breaks down very easily unless your players know and trust each other. Even if you do not use this as the basic model for assigning items, the party may wish to assign certain strictures or rules about treasure division -- a sort of party contract or covenant. For example, at low levels (when magic items are relatively few and far between), the party might agree that a character who already has a magic item (a permanent item; single-use items shouldn't really be counted for this purpose) cannot choose another one if there are other party members who do not have one, unless, of course, none of the others wants that particular item. If the character wants the new item more than the old one, then he or she must put the old item back into the party kitty if he or she is able to get the new item.
Another method is selling items by auction, with items going to the highest bidder within the party. The winning bid is then distributed among the other party members (including dividing up any magic items offered up in that bid). If you are dividing treasure acquired over a long series of sessions, you might allocate picks based on each character's XP award as a percentage of the party's total experience points. This has the benefit of reflecting not merely the number of sessions attended by the player (assuming you hold back XP awards from those characters not present) but also the relative difficulty and/or productivity of that session. This system is less well suited to the current edition of D&D than previous editions, however, given that XP awards are now scaled by character level and thus would skew such results in favor of lower-level characters. Of course, that might be a desirable result in a mixed-level party since it can help to bring lower-level characters up to par with their higher-level compatriots, but that is an aesthetic decision best left to an individual group.
Finally, the party must decide what to do with unwanted items, or items that perhaps someone might want or find useful, but wouldn't necessarily want to spend a share of their treasure to acquire. Sometimes this might be an item that is only useful in rare circumstances but might be very useful if those rare circumstances came up, so the party might want to save it for a rainy day, or maybe the item is a weapon with a high bonus and a nice special ability, but not a type that any of the characters could or would regularly use. More often, these might be items that are greatly useful for the party (for example, a wand of knock or staff of curing or any number of scrolls) but not really all that useful for the person who bought the item. The party must decide whether it is willing to sift these items out of the treasure pile, not to sell them off or to force anyone in the party to take them, but to keep them as "party items" to be used for the general good of whomever in the party might need them.
Just like in real life, it is often the "wallet issues" that really get to the heart of whether a person is satisfied with the way things are going. Treasure division is necessarily a player issue first and foremost, and your job as DM should be to make suggestions and to help settle disputes, but not to dictate what goes where. You have enough control over treasure as it is, since you are the one who selects what will (or at least might) be found, when, and where (and you should at least try to seed some items of interest suitable for all of the characters in the campaign). Butting in and deciding where it goes inside the confines of the party crosses the railroad line and should be avoided. At the same time, you will usually end up being the primary recordkeeper when it comes to treasure division (especially if one of the more complicated systems is adopted); you should decide how much extra workload you are willing to undertake and should certainly have input on the system to be adopted insofar as it affects your responsibilities. In any event, remember that treasure in D&D is a reward for a job well done; the battle should be over when treasure is divided -- it should not cause a new battle to begin! With a little thought and some shared effort by you and the players, you can make sure to keep it that way.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!