Benefits of Random Treasure

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 19, 2009

The way DMs determine what’s in a treasure horde has vastly improved since the advent of 4e D&D. In previous editions the DM would open up a random treasure table, roll some dice and the PCs would get a mish-mash of random loot. The power level of the items in question weren’t taken into consideration – nothing was. It was totally random. Without a good DM to apply some common sense and adjust random treasure accordingly, things often got out of control in a hurry.

Enter 4e D&D. The DM no longer assigns magic treasure randomly. Random treasure is dead. In its place are treasure bundles. A balanced system in which the party loot is doled out in carefully divided portions. The power level of each item determines whether or not it’s suitable treasure for these PCs at this particular level. No more rolling dice and no more unexpected elements. The inventory of every treasure horde is now chosen by the DM one item at a time. But is this a good thing?

By removing random treasure something important was taken away from D&D. Some of my most memorable role-playing scenarios from previous editions of D&D stem from the use of totally random magic items. In most cases imaginative PCs found incredibly creative ways to use those often forgotten or unwanted baubles. Items like an immovable rod, a horn of fog or a decanter of endless water are not the usual treasures PCs seek. However, when the DM rolls them randomly and assigns them to a treasure horde the PCs realize that these miscellaneous items have real value. They may not come into play during every encounter, but when they do the payoff is invaluable and often incredibly memorable.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the way things were. I’m the first to admit that completely random treasure assignment is chalked full of problems. Randomly chosen treasures rarely turn out beneficial to everyone. I remember playing in an AD&D campaign where my level 3 Barbarian found a +3 Battle Axe of Sharpness in random treasure horde. No one else in the party had any magical weapons and when they finally got some they were just regular +1 weapons. It wasn’t until many, many levels later that someone else in the party was lucky enough to get a cool item or accumulate enough gp to purchase something suitable for a PC of their level.

But before we look at adding any kind of random element back into treasure assignment, we shouldn’t overlook or discard some of the vast improvements to treasure in 4e. I think the best thing to happen to magic items in 4e is the generic +1 weapon. Magic weapons are no longer of predetermined type. So that +1 weapon can become a long sword, dagger, crossbow or pole arm, depending on what the lucky PC who just found it needs most.

In an attempt to add a healthy dose of reality to previous editions of D&D, the random weapon tables heavily favoured more common weapons like the long sword, short sword and dagger. If you tried to add some “cool” to your PC and equipped him with an exotic weapon – like a khopesh – the odds of finding a magically version of that specific weapon type in a treasure trove were next to impossible. By going generic with magic weapons, PCs are now free to choose whatever type of weapon they think is most suitable for their PC. This is another great example of how 4e DMs can say yes.

Although I criticized the precision of treasure bundles above, they do present some positive aspects to the game as well. The DMG suggests that each PC provide their DM with a treasure wish list. The end result is that everyone gets exactly what they want. PCs end up with very few items that they didn’t specifically request. And this brings me back to the down side of eliminating random treasure.

Now that the DM is no longer required to roll for treasure, those hidden gems I referred to above are even less likely to make their way into the hands of the PCs. DMs need to adopt a hybrid system for treasure assignment. Take the best of all editions of D&D. Learn from the mistakes of the past. Let the PCs provide wish lists and for the most part use them. However, be sure to dole out a good portion of random treasure as well. Encourage the PCs to try to use any item they see as useless or less than ideal at least once before trying to sell it. Every now and then throw them a bone to illustrate your point.

When a DM assigns random treasure with regularity the players will start to wonder if the item they’ve just acquired is indeed random or if the DM may have some insightful, long-term plan that will eventually reveal the random item’s true purpose.

For example, in my main game I play a Paladin. Early in his adventuring career he found a +1 Frost weapon. I was so happy to get a magic sword that I didn’t care what kind of powers it possessed. As the levels passed I realized that a Sunblade was a far more suitable weapon for my PC. However, the DM never saw fit to include such a weapon in any future treasure bundles. By the time I’d finally saved enough gp to purchase the Sunblade the campaign had taken an unexpected turn. We were about to battle creatures from the plane of fire, most of whom had vulnerability to cold. Suddenly the +1 Frost weapon I was so eager to get rid of was the most appropriate and powerful weapon in the party’s arsenal.

Careful planning by the DM provided my PC with an incredibly useful tool months before its real value was actually revealed. If the DM had given me the upgrade I requested I would have sold the Frost weapon as quickly as possible and now I’d be fighting fire monsters with a Sunblade rather than a more effective Frost weapon. I was once again reminded that PCs should trust their DM. He’s not usually out to get you, even if you sometimes think he is.

Random treasure may not be an official part of 4e D&D but I implore DMs to try and remember the benefits of random treasure. By providing random items you can introduce important items without arousing suspicion. You’re also likely to get your PCs thinking of creative ways to get the most out of items they’d usually overlook when creating their wish list. Even if the PC uses the random treasure and hates it, they can still sell it and at least get something in the end. In most cases I’ll bet that something is a memorable role-playing experience that no one could have predicted if not for the random element.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Swordgleam October 19, 2009 at 10:25 am

This baffles me. Why is presenting the option of treasure parcels “removing random treasure” from the game? Surely you still own dice. I hear they’re pretty good at generating random outcomes.

I have no quarrel with your argument that there are both positives and negatives to each way of handing out treasure. I just continue to be utterly confused by the belief that not having something in the core rulebook means that it is no longer part of the game – especially something that the DM does with no input from the players.

I hand out treasure the way I always have – at my whim. Do people really change their style of DMing just because of advice in a DMG? I am honestly trying to understand this.

2 Ameron October 19, 2009 at 10:59 am

@Swordgleam
What I’m seeing and hearing from the players and DMs I talk to is that experienced DMs are getting lazy and new DMs don’t know any better. The PCs provide wish lists and the DMs use only those lists to generate treasure. There’s nothing wrong with doing it that way, but I wanted to remind DMs that they still have the final say on everything in treasure bundles. It sounds like you’ve got a good grasp on the way you handle treasure in your game.

You make an excellent point by saying that you’re “utterly confused by the belief that not having something in the core rulebook means that it is no longer part of the game.” I think more DMs and players need to keep this in mind. The core books are meant as a guideline and players and DMs should feel free to do whatever they feel will improve the game and make things more fun. Great feedback. Thanks.

3 Tom October 19, 2009 at 11:53 am

@swordgleam – This article is about the recommendations in the 4e dmg, it includes advice, people will use it; what exactly is baffling?

Of course anyone can do whatever the heck they want, including not even buying a single book and making up all your own rules.

4 Swordgleam October 19, 2009 at 1:17 pm

@Ameron: Thank you. I hadn’t thought about new DMs – when people talk how it’s “changing the game” it always makes me think it must be long-time gamers, or how is it change? I can understand being frustrated that new people to the hobby are missing out, and never even had the chance to learn what else they can do.

@Tom: I have no problem with the article. It was just the first few paragraphs that confused me, since he seemed to be implying that 4e was straightjacketing how people handed out treasure by providing options that were different from the options earlier editions provided.

5 Mike Shea October 19, 2009 at 1:29 pm

As a DM, I’m totally overwhelmed by the amount of possible treasure to give out. Even my players aren’t sure what they want until they get it so wish lists don’t really help. I wrote up an article on a treasure system I’m using now that gives players some freedom to pick what they want and still give me the flexibility to give them some unique items.

Like powers and feats and classes and paragon paths and everything else – I’m just overwhelmed with too many options to do much with it. For this reason I tend to use Asmor’s Quartermaster script to randomly generate treasure parcels.
.-= Mike Shea´s last blog ..Ration Tracking System =-.

6 Chris Lee October 19, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Thanks for the article. Whilst I am quite ambivalent on your suggestion of random loot, I am, however, all for using rewards and magic weapons to tell the story of the campaign.

I’m a new DM, but I guess I never really faced this problem before. I have been DM-ing ever since 4E saw print, and have tried to follow the rules by the book. In regards to items rewards, while the DMG advises to obtain wishlists from the players – which I did, I never did. My players didn’t care about what items they really wanted, they just wanted to roleplay the game. Which I ask, is to my benefit. Therefore, whatever new magic items that appear in front of them is random, and on top of beefing the characters up, magic items must fulfill at least one of two purposes of mine:

1. a magic item that is tied to the place that they are adventuring. My previous campaign saw the players venturing into a lost dwarven capital, reliving the scenes of horror just before the climax of the civil war between the dwarves and the greys (duergars). I had magic items in there to reflect the dwarven origin and the spoils of war. The last adventure or two saw the players going through many skill challenges and few combats and therefore they missed about 2 levels of magic items. I reimbursed them in this way, explaining that it was a war between two powerful dwarven clans, and each had their own trove of magic items. It brought out the flavour of the place and got the players really questioning what the heck was an elven bow doing there in the midst of all the dwarven weapons.

2). a magic item should be applicable in future situations. As the DM, we run the game. We know the game best. Or at least, maintain the illusion that we do. Our campaigns, our stories drive the itemisation of the characters. If the players gets hint that they will be venturing into the Frostfell, they will most likely not be taking any frost weapon with them. Hence, I will refrain from giving them out. That said, my first function holds more weight to me than the second function, and if it’s just minor, I know my players are able to adapt and get new enchantments on their own. That said, there was once where I did get wishlists and I doled them out dutifully. But I also tailored the campaign to suit that itemisation such that their choice drove forward the story in more than one way. Of course, another DM might just do the complete opposite by driving the story such that the items players chose were obsolete and ineffectual, but I think that’s just mean.

So that’s my view on magic items. I believe in a little adage about D&D in that: “Give the players an illusion of choice, but the reality is never so.” It just means that a DM has to be at the helm of the ship and be in control all the time, and that’s what makes it so difficult when your players like to take a dip into a sea roiling in a squall. ;)

7 Norman Harman October 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm

I don’t remember magic items being so utterly random. I remember monsters having treasure types with a chance of magic items, sometimes just a couple of potions or a scroll. I remember many magic item tables with lower probabilities for more powerful items. And I remember DM allowed/encouraged to reroll and treasure that was inappropriate.

Just sayin.
.-= Norman Harman´s last blog ..Magical Monday – Personalized Magic =-.

8 Rook October 19, 2009 at 10:48 pm

I don’t care what treasure system you’re using, unless you are really inexperienced or really crunched for time, I don’t think you should use what you roll up at face value. The 4e system is very good for a fair and game-balanced result per encounter, but by taking exactly what you (the DM) are given, there is little wonder or whimsy to the PC’s reward.

Personally, I use the 4e treasure system simply as a general gauge for what is appropriate for the party’s level. I am quite fond of crafting in my own treasure bundles based on the campaign, the nature of the encounter itself, the environment and, of course, the needs of the plot and the PCs (in that order). If I do put something in the salvaged loot that seems strangely out of place, there is always a reason for it, whether the PCs ever discover that reason or not. Some are potential plot hooks and others just have an interesting back-story.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..Playing Good and Evil PCs. =-.

9 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 9:01 am

@Tom
You make an excellent point. Thanks.

@Mike Shea
The sheer abundance of items available is exactly why I encourage DMs to try and include some random items into the fray. It’s practically impossible to be familiar with everything out there.

@Chris Lee
People forget that we generally play in a magic-rich world (especially if you’re playing in Eberron). When everyone has a bunch of items it often makes each item seem less special. I like your approach that items should fulfill some purpose to the story arc or at least advance the story in some way. It reminds players that even something as humble as a magical elven bow can have important long-term implications.

I like your adage “Give the players an illusion of choice, but the reality is never so.” I think more DMs need to keep this in mind (myself included).

@Norman Harman
I think your memory is excellent and correct. The likelihood of rolling up a really powerful item was remote, but still possible if you just relied on the dice. I’ve known a lot of DMs over the years that forget your last point about re-rolling if they got inappropriate results.

@Rook
I’m with you. I try to have an explanation of how and why “random” items are found in a treasure horde. If the PCs discover the skeletal remains of a soldier in heavy armor armed with a big magic sword, it seems unlikely that there would also be a magic orb or wand. The PCs may never know who this fallen hero was but as the DM I try to think of who it might have been. His items need to make sense. It also gives me room to use this as a story hook later as you suggest.

10 Jonesy November 15, 2013 at 11:34 pm

4 years later… :)

I would like to say I have always enjoyed 2nd and 3/3.5. I thought item creation and random generation in 3rd was more effectual towards sometimes beneficial items (especially potions). When rolling randoms, (which I did in its entirety from treasure table) for a 5 headed hydra, most often when potions came up for loot, I saw a good mix of healing and stat boosts (bear, owl etc). Which during the following adventures came in handy being far from any location to resupply.

The tables provided for rolling loot, often produce the highest average sought after items (ie healing)in an appropriate range. As a DM I encourage players to “trust” their dice. While rolling for anything is itself a game of chance, when applied to D&D I think they got the tables right when it comes to ranges for minor, majors etc. If you the DM would let the dice do the work, they will provide what’s necessary and what’s a bonus.

Subconciously as a DM, I may be playing into the Chaotic Neutral tendencies I tend to follow. But the dice do save time, and when a player ends up with an item that seems out of place, they often find a way to use it until ADD kicks in and they have something else new and shiny.

As a DM, I think every once in a while you should (if you retain the char sheets) review players skill ranks, and inventory. I tend to build sessions that utilize the skills they’ve chosen, and if I see something in their inventory that they’ve hauled around for a while, perhaps as a trade off, they may need to use it to progress (use the weight of that unused item to keep a pressure plate down long enough to hold the door open) or for those in an urban setting, perhaps give that blanket to a homeless person.

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