How does loot end up in a monster’s treasure horde? The beholder wasn’t wearing the chain mail or wielding the great axe when you fought it, yet there it is in its lair among the other wonders and treasures. You probably just assume that it belonged to the last guy who attempted to defeat the beholder before you and your party came along. But do you ever wonder who the last guy was? Do you ever feel guilty claiming his possessions? Sure he’s dead and has little use for them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them yours, does it?
No matter how prevalent magic and magic items are in your campaign world, each and every magic item is unique (as we discussed in What’s a +1 Sword?). Each item required time and resources to create, even if it’s just the most basic magic weapon. So when adventurers loot a treasure horde after fighting and defeating monsters, any magical treasures are unique and probably identifiable. But most PCs make no effort to identify who the previous owner was. They take the item as their just reward and move on. But if the items are unique doesn’t it make sense that someone could and eventually would recognize them?
Let’s assume that during your latest dungeon crawl in addition to everything else the party claimed as treasure, the Paladin found a suit of magical plate armor. When arriving in the nearby town to spend some gold and brag about their accomplishments how would they react if their spoils are recognized?
“Excuse me, good knight, but you’re wearing Sir Delian’s plate armor. It’s been in his family for eight generations and was thought lost forever when we heard he was killed defending those gnomes from the beholder. I’m sure you’ll do the right thing and return it to his brother since it’s a family heirloom.”
Which response do you think is more likely?
“I had no idea this fine suit of armor was so valuable or important to Sir Delian’s family. Now that I know who it truly belongs to I’ll return it immediately. Thank you for informing me.
“I regret that Sir Delian died while wearing this armor, but I found it after my party and I defeated a deadly beholder. Regardless of its importance to Sir Delian’s family I found it and I claim ownership.”
Very few PCs would give up any treasure, especially something as valuable as a magic item. Finders keepers is the generally understood law of the land in most D&D campaigns. The only real exception is when a party is hired to recover a lost item. In all other circumstances possession is 9/10ths of the law.
But even if finders keepers is the accepted practice, isn’t it likely that when the PCs acquire new treasure from monster’s lairs that some of it is recognizable. And in those circumstances isn’t it reasonable that someone will challenge their claim. The more important and influential the previous owner, the more likely his heirs will want his equipment returned.
This is an interesting scenario that most adventures are likely to face as they earn more XP and become better known. In this circumstance what’s a PC to do? Why bother risking life and limb to fight monsters if the treasures you find along the way are claimed by previous owners or their heirs?
Perhaps this is one of those instances where we shouldn’t try to apply real life logic to D&D. We need to just accept that when someone dies in D&D all of the possessions on their body becomes fair game.
The DM in me sees this as an interesting situation that has a lot of good role-playing potential. The most obvious situation is the one we keep describing where the PCs are asked to relinquish their latest find. But it can work the other way too. Perhaps the PCs are looking for an item themselves. A mentor or a patron was killed with a legendary blade in his possession. The PCs see someone else with it and attempt to claim it. Suddenly they’re on the other side of this situation.
All things considered, this kind of encounter would get pretty stale pretty fast so I don’t think this is something I’d likely use very often. However, having it happen every now and then might be a sufficient eye open for the players. Maybe every once and a while they’ll actually try to find out who these items belonged to before they just take them for themselves. They may not end up returning the items, but some PCs may want to do the right thing by making the effort to identify who it belonged to previously.
Is this a situation you’d ever include in your campaign? Do you think the argument has merit or is finders keepers the best way to handle found treasures? If your PC discovered who owned their favourite magical treasure before they did would he do anything about it?