Players love loot. Next to story, it is one of the main driving forces behind a gaming session. Good loot allows your players to tell better stories, but it can also be used to challenge them. You don’t want your loot to make everything super easy, but you also don’t want it to be useless. Here’s what I like to keep in mind when I’m designing loot drops for my players.
What to keep in mind when designing loot?
There are a lot of different ways to give out loot. The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide has some basic rules for it in chapter 7. It breaks loot down into a couple of basic categories.
I find there are two types of people when it comes to designing loot: Those who design before an encounter, and those who roll randomly after an encounter. That’s not to say that every person will always design loot beforehand or roll it randomly. There are situations where both make sense.
Random encounters lead to random treasure. Planned encounters lead to planned treasure!Axiom of the Dungeon Master
I find that I enjoy the storytelling aspect of a game more when I can leave specific treasure for my players to find. Even if I’m generating it randomly, it can be fun to sprinkle the treasure into a description of a room.
You walk into the final chamber of the cavern, and see 10 orcs waiting for you. Behind them on a pile of rocks formed to look like a chair sits the biggest, most disgusting orc you’ve ever seen. His lower lip is shredded; drool leaks down onto a filthy embroidered silk handkerchief. Scattered on either side of the throne are piles of copper and silver, with a couple of gold pieces twinkling in the low light. In the corner, a blanket covers a small square object. As he stands, he pulls his great axe off of his back, and howls menacingly.
Roll for Initiative.
In this case, a horde treasure roll was used to determine what the players found, and it was sprinkled into the description of the room to try and paint a more vivid picture. There are plenty of coins to be had, but also under the blanket is a mirror that’s worth 25GP.
When you’re coming up with loot for your players, here are a few things I like to keep in mind.
- Can they use it?
- Can they sell it?
- Does it make sense in the context of the surrounding?
- Is it interesting?
So, without further ado…
Can they use it?
This is probably one of the most important questions you can ask while designing loot. A good rule of thumb: If your players can’t use the treasure, they won’t enjoy it. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to only give them treasure they can use. Far from it. But it is worth keeping in mind when you’re picking out items to give your players.
A majority of the treasure you give out is going to be in the form of coin. Coin, of course, can be used very easily by the players, and it allows them to customize their characters in a way that regular treasure won’t. But it’s only useful if there are places where they can use it. So don’t give your players 3,000 platinum pieces in the middle of the desert.
Driving the story
Anything your players can use should drive the narrative forward. Coinage is universal loot. Your players can use it to help craft and drive the story in ways you might not have considered. The important thing to remember is give your players opportunities to spend it. That can mean steering players into larger towns with larger economies as they grow in level, or using trade caravans with “one-off” surprise items to tempt your players out of their coins.
All treasure should be used to drive the story in some form or fashion, though. In the example provided at the start of the article, our players found an old mirror covered in a blanket. It was set aside, and well taken care of. Orcs are not known for being gentle, so this is a red flag for your players. There may be something special about the mirror, or there may be something hidden on the mirror. Either way, you’ve just given your players a clue for the future.
Of course, sometimes a mirror is just a mirror.
Can they sell it?
I like to give my players loot they can use whenever I can. Sometimes, our players don’t like what we’ve picked out for them. This can be especially true when dealing with specific magic items.
It is important that players have the ability to swap out the stuff they don’t like for things they do. A lot of games include merchants that scale with the players so they can continually upgrade their weapons and armor as necessary. This is something you should consider with your games, too.
As your players become higher level, the tales of their deeds and adventures should spread. This may turn their little village into a town, and then into a small city. Or they might start traveling wider, and make a home base in a larger city that has the resources they will need later.
As a DM, it is your responsibility to guide players to find locations where they can make trades. This should feel natural for your players. There are a lot of ways you can do this. If your players have mentioned wanting to upgrade their weapons or armor, drop in a rumor about a rune smith in a larger city. If they’re in a smaller town and need healing supplies, a group of clerics on missionary work might drop in. They could be willing to trade some supplies in exchange for a donation.
There is one big flaw that a lot of DMs make when they are designing loot. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it can be a lot of “short term” fun, but it makes the game less enjoyable overall.
They design loot for specific players.
When designing loot for a specific player: Don’t.
Okay, this may be controversial, so let me explain. When I see Dungeon Masters designing loot with the intent that a specific player will use it, I begin to think the DM is railroading the players. This isn’t always the case, but I find it is more often than not.
Power creep is the other problem with designing loot for specific players. You’re wanting the players to do great big awesome things. Here’s a story from one of the first DM’s I played with. I think exemplifies the problem:
I was playing with this group, and they were level 2, so I put them up against a Gorgon. Luckily for them, I’d just given them some +2 magic items and a bottle of air, so they were able to beat it pretty easily.
There’s nothing wrong with giving players the tools necessary to complete an upcoming job. But those jobs should be equal to their level and ability. When designing loot, resist, heavily, the temptation to design loot players loot because it is “cool” and will make things “easy”.
Keep the story in mind
Remember: stories are interesting because of their challenges, not because the main characters are super-awesome and perfect. The players may have fun short-term “whoopin’ ass”, but that will get boring very quickly. The more specific the loot you give out, the more you’ll have to work to top it in the future.
One other problem: It takes some of the creativity out of the game for the players. There’s nothing quite as fun, (in my experience) as watching your players do something weird with a random item you gave them. You can be proud of your player’s ingenuity, and they have a fun story to tell other people. It’s win/win.
But I know what you’re thinking, what about in x situation, when y happens, can’t I give player z this cool item?
Designing Loot for a player is okay, sometimes.
Just be careful when you do it, you know? I still don’t recommend doing it often, but if your player is using a specific weapon and they haven’t had an upgrade in a while, it can be OK to throw out a more powerful magic version.
Just don’t do it often, and don’t let it unbalance the party. When you design loot for a player, it should be to fix an imbalanced party.
It’s too early for magic weapons
Magic items, (but especially weapons) unbalance games faster than anything else. This was especially true in D&D 3/3.5, but it remains true in 5e as well. That’s why a +3 magic weapons are considered “Rare” in 5th Edition
Even in a world (like Faerun or Eberron) where Magic is very common and people might see examples of it a few times in their life, it is important to remember that it should still be treasured. Some magic items, (Everburning torches, for example) may be used in larger cities at night. Common folk are still not going to own anything magical.
So it should be a bit of a big deal when your players get their first permanent magic items. I try to hold off on giving them one until they are level 3 or 4, personally, and stick with single-use items more often than not.
Magic items that don’t seem magical
Not every “magic item” needs to seem magical. (Or, honestly, even be magical, really). Xanathar’s Guide to Everything includes even more of these that may be able to help give your players an edge without tilting the balance.
I like to start my players off with single-use magic items. A good place to start: Potions of healing, wands with hardly any charges, or ammunition that breaks on use. It won’t break your game balance if the players get an extra cure light wounds during your session. Likewise, giving your players a “Candle of the Deep” will probably only matter in specific roleplaying circumstances.
Candle of the DeepXanathar’s Guide to Everything, Chapter 2, page 136
The flame of this candle is not extinguished when immersed in water. It gives off light and heat like a normal candle.
I have a friend that is somewhat new to being a Dungeon Master. He’s running a series of level two characters through a Pathfinder adventure module. By the end of the session, they were expected to be level 3, and they were supposed to get master work weapons and armor as treasure.
They already had +1 armor and weapons, however. In Pathfinder, second level characters should have about 1,000gp worth of treasure. Most of that, in my opinion, should be in gold and non-magic items. In fact, I’d lean towards all of it being non-magical, except for healing potions.
In Pathfinder, a level-equivalent encounter (that is, CR2) should provide a party of 4 characters with about 125 gold pieces per encounter. That is in the form of gems, gold pieces, art, weapons, armor, and magic items. So, at the end of a 2nd level adventure where they should become 3rd level, the players were supposed to have a Masterwork Weapon and Masterwork Armor.
This friend asked me what kinds of magical weapons he should give the players. He had some in mind. They were 10,000+GP weapons. Definitely beyond the pale for 2nd/3rd level characters. When I suggested that he come up with items that were non-magical, he said this:
My players already have +1 weapons. I can’t give them something worse than what they already have, they won’t use them.A New-Ish DM.
You absolutely can give your players worse treasure than they have, especially if they have treasure that is already beyond their level by a significant amount. (In Pathfinder, you wouldn’t expect a player to have a +1 weapon until level 3 or 4, where it would make up half to 1/3rd of the characters’ total wealth.)
We fall into a trap where we must keep giving out bigger and better items, but that’s not the way a good story is always laid out. Sometimes, people have advantages, and then those advantages are robbed from them. How they overcome these challenges is what makes the story good.
To that end…
Creative treasure is best treasure
Whenever you give your players something non-standard, (re. Not a weapon and armor) you force them to think creatively whenever they use it. Consider, for example, an Immovable Rod. It has some fairly traditional uses to bar doors and things, but have you ever jumped into a dragon’s mouth and activated it?
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything gives a number of interesting common magic items that can be useful to players in and out of combat. The Tankard of Sobriety, for example, can be used to get information out of someone. (Get them drunk, stay sober yourself) The Wand of Pyrotechnics can be used to startle a group of goblins into thinking you’re a very powerful wizard. A Hat of Vermin can be used to create food for a Gully Dwarf, which might endear them to you.
I am a big proponent of non-combat oriented treasure. Not only do they promote roleplaying opportunities outside of combat, but you’ll never know when making a war hammer taste like grape jelly might come in handy.
Agnate, the Barbarian, asked his wizard friend to enchant his war hammer to taste like grape jelly. It made for delightful situations when a big scary barbarian was seen licking his war hammer. People underestimated him as being stupid and dumb.
Why does it matter?
Cooperative storytelling games are always a balance. I find that they are more enjoyable when there are a lot of options. The more you stretch outside of the traditional “Weapons and Armor” loot, the better, I believe. Players will have more fun, and you’ll tell better stories trying to keep up with the crazy things they do.
The more challenges you throw at your players, the more proud they will be to play in your world. They will be eager to return. Keeping players at the table can be one of the hardest parts of gaming, especially as we grow older.
Hopefully this information helps you out!
Do you have any helpful tips for designing loot? Feel free to add it in the comments below.