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.