Let Monsters Use the Treasure

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 28, 2011

DM – With that final blow the evil Warlord falls. You’ve defeated him and saved the village from his ruthlessness and cruelty. Well done.

Player – I search his body. Does he have anything good on him?

DM – As a matter of fact he does. Let’s see… he has a few potions, some gp and a +3 flaming weapon.

Player – Really? He has a flaming weapon? I wonder why he didn’t use it when he fought us.

How often have you found yourself in a situation similar to this one? You fight a bunch of monsters, search their treasure horde after the battle’s over, and find a bunch of stuff that the monsters could have – but didn’t – use in the fight against the party. Regrettably I find this happens way too often.

Determining treasure is one of the very last things I do when I design encounters. In many cases I don’t do it until well after the encounter is done, often between gaming sessions. The only time my players have issue with it is if their PCs are really low level and a +1 sword might make a big difference. Otherwise they’re content to wait. After all, they’re not going to add it to their character sheet until they get home and onto character builder anyway.

But with a little bit of advanced planning a DM who determines loot ahead of time can add it to the encounter if it’s something the monster can use. This is especially true for weapons, armor and neck items.

I will concede that having the monsters use magic items against the party does make the monsters slightly more powerful than their stat block intends. If all the monsters are using magic items then your XP budget won’t be accurate and the party will end up facing something more difficult than they otherwise should have. But it does make more sense to have the monster using the magic sword than to lugging it around as a trophy.

Assuming that a monster has sense enough to know that an item is magical and has the capability to use the item, then the DM should add it to the monster’s active inventory and not just leave it in the bottom of its backpack awaiting discovery. Taking this small step has the potential to make any combat more interesting.

Imagine that the party is facing off against a band of Gnolls. The Gnolls are wearing ratty leather armor and are armed with axes; except for one dressed in a fine suit of chainmail and another wielding a long sword dripping with acid.

The PCs will assume (correctly) that these items hold some kind of special significance. The party’s tactics will likely change when they see something that stands out as unique. They’ll be encouraged to kill the Gnoll wielding the magic sword more quickly than the others because his attacks are more accurate and hurt more. It’s even possible that one of the PCs might take the enchanted blade from the Gnoll’s dead hand and use it during the rest of the battle.

In previous editions of D&D I always had monster carry potions, usually healing potions, and I wasn’t afraid to let the monster use them during the battle. The players caught on quickly that if the monster drank the potion it would not only help the monster but deny the PCs a consumable item. The PCs started employing smarter tactics and made sure to kill monsters fast and not give them any chances to draw and consume the liquid loot.

When monsters face off against the PCs they usually realize that it’s going to be a fight to the death. With these kinds of stakes at play they would absolutely use anything to give them an advantage over the PCs.

By equipping your monsters with the loot in their treasure horde you have the potential to make an otherwise typical encounter into something memorable and exciting. It’s possible that the monster doesn’t know the item they possess is magical, or they may not know what the magic is capable of doing. Having the power activate during the combat can be a thrilling moment or one of tremendous humour.

Showing the heroes the treasure up front, in the hands of heir foes, makes them want it even more. Greed is a powerful motivator. Dangle the shining object in front of the PCs but don’t let them play with it until they defeat the monster that currently possesses it. If you really want to see players get angry, give one of the monsters a magic item to use against them and then have that monster flee the fight with it. It’s a mean thing to do, but it makes sense. Chances are that the PCs will pursue that monster almost to the point of being reckless about it. If they decide to take a short rest then they can kiss that loot goodbye. Some choices are harder than others.

DMs in 4e D&D have absolute control over what type of loot monsters will possess, whether it’s a weapon, armor, implement, boots, a ring, or whatever. When treasure is chosen ahead of time the DM can and should let the monsters use it. In previous editions of D&D when loot was determined randomly, and often at the end of combat, this wasn’t usually an option. Now if the DM plans appropriately he can intentionally choose items that will be useful to the party (when they acquire it) and useful to the monster until then.

How often (if ever) do you have monsters use their magical “treasure” against the PCs? How do you handle questions about why the monster wasn’t using obvious magical items like weapons and armor? Have you ever had a monster flee with treasure? How did the players react?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Megan October 28, 2011 at 9:48 am

My DM regularly designs encounters with the monsters specifically balanced and built around magic items. The only instances when we receive loot that the monsters didn’t use is when we receive it as rewards from NPCs, or when the monsters couldn’t physically have wielded it.

Once there was a controller type, who used her staff to literally control allies and enemies into attacking us. When we beat the encounter we grabbed it, and our Druid has it now. The only instance I can remember where there was loot that we just found after killing a boss was a holy sword that was used as part of the binding spell previously containing that boss, until it weakened over time and the creature broke free.

2 Sentack October 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

I’ve done the same thing with magic item loot and monsters and every time I do it, I keep trying to remind myself to stop doing it that way.

What I might do is start doing is build custom monsters with the item powers embedded into the stat block. That way I remember to use them and it adds a little flavor to combat. I think a slight bonus to damage and accuracy for one or two creatures in the combat isn’t game breaking.

I think I got caught up in having monsters just be monsters and as such they were ‘action denied’ so to speak, so things like potions and using items kind of got lost in the shuffle. I’m going to do my best to resolve that mistake.

3 Sully October 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

I like to use a lot of handouts in my game, particularly custom-made Magic-the Gathering style cards, with magic item info printed right on them (and a picture to boot!) to give players when they find magic items. Makes it very easy to have the info handy for the monsters to use as well.
Sully´s last blog post ..Cross-Edition Pollination

4 Paul Parten October 28, 2011 at 10:52 am

Early on in a game I was running, the party came across a couple of bad-ass skeletons with really nice scimitars and medallions around their necks. The battle ensued and the ranger got hit and dropped like a stone, not dead, but hit with electricity! After the party thoroughly trounced the skeletons, the ranger picked up the swords and tried them out. Nothing. Then he remembered that whenever the skeletons attacked, the medallions would flash. He tied the chains around the swords and tried again. ZAP. Because he figured out the key to their power I let a 3rd level ranger dual-wield 1d8 scimitars with 1d6 electrical damage. Fun times.

5 Dixon Trimline October 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

Good article! You raise some excellent points about magic-wielding enemies, but I’m curious what you think about the enemies using the Daily powers of items.

In previous editions, this wasn’t an issue, since magic items were always ON, so if you took it from the cold, dead hand of the troll, you could use it immediately. If the monster burns out all the Daily powers, the PCs won’t be able to use them for at least 24 hours. That’s kind of a bittersweet treasure.

6 Chris P October 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Great article. This is something I just decided to do myself, thought I haven’t had a chance to implement it yet. I’m going to try and make sure that the magic items make sense of who’s carrying it. A skeletal mage shouldn’t be carrying around a bastard sword or plate armor.

7 Jess October 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

4th Ed already has an answer for this in the DMG (page 174). It actually encourages monsters using magic items and gives a way for their presence to not overpower the encounter through the use of the magic threshold. Ultimately, all a magic item would do in those cases is grant abilities.

8 Ameron (Derek Myers) October 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm

@Megan
By putting the item in the hands of the enemy it makes the reward seem more important. It also gives the PCs a great story. “This flaming sword was once used by an Efreeti noble from the City of Brass. I defeated him in combat and now I use this weapon to fight evil.”

@Sentack
I find that the items without plusses are often easier to include in combat because they don’t change the attack and damage numbers. A monster with Boots of Furious Speed won’t draw immediate attention until he becomes bloodied and gets +2 to speed or a monster with a Viper Belt may seem ordinary until attacked with poison damage. When the X-factor kicks in mid-combat PCs will second-guess what’s happening and this always makes things more interesting.

@Sully
If the players know that the DM prints loot on cards they’ll realize that the monsters have stuff they can acquire when they see the DM using the cards during combat. It’s a good out-of-game way to get the players’ attention. Good idea.

@Paul Parten
This is an excellent way to add another challenge to the mix. I like the idea that some items require a command word or some other trigger before they can be activated. If the monsters were able to use the magic items but the PCs can’t, it will make them wonder what’s going on. I see the example you’ve provided becoming a regular occurrence where the PCs have to really think back and try to remember what the monsters did during combat to activate the items.

@Dixon Trimline
I don’t see any reason why the monster can’t use the daily property, assuming that it understands what that property is and how to trigger it. Building from the comment above, if the monster knows the trigger it will use it; if the monster doesn’t know the trigger it won’t. But the PCs will then have a much harder time figuring out the trigger themselves if they don’t see the monster doing it first.

For items like magical weapons where the daily power is usually some additional damage I’d likely shy away from using the extra power. I would, however, have no qualms about applying the +1d6/plus damage on a crit though. Many non-weapon items only have daily powers so in those instances I’d absolutely let the monster use them. An Ironskin Belt which provides resist 5 to all damage for 1 round is a daily power that I’d allow a monster to use. The burst affect from a lightning weapon not so much.

@Chris P
One way I’ve tried to explain why monster have treasure they can’t use is to say the PCs find it on the body of the last adventurer who tried to defeat this foe. The bastard sword and plate armor was found on the remains of the poor Paladin who sacrificed himself in order to let his adventuring party escape. In fact it was one of the surviving members of that party who drew the map you used to find the Mage’s tower in the first place.

9 Thorynn October 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I am a big fan of this concept. I’ve used it in the past in some of my games, and one of the added benefits is that the PCs have a bit of history to go with their loot.:
“Where did you get that Ice Staff?”
“Remember, when we took out that necromancer in the tomb of the dwarf king?”
“Oh yeah, that was awesome!”
Thorynn´s last blog post ..Kamakura Review

10 rabbitiswise October 28, 2011 at 6:11 pm

If a monster has loot like a flaming sword i have him use it in the battle. But…
every now and then the Pc’s in my game will find a nice lookin sword in the gear of an intelligent enemy, and wonder why the enemy didnt use it.
Curses
In my games many cursed items can not be forsaken voluntarily. If you try and leave it somewhere it just shows up in you pack a littlle later. This makes that really shiny sword really interesting.

11 Taed October 28, 2011 at 7:52 pm

I definitely do that. The one and only time that I think that I didn’t do that was when I had armor specifically sized for a halfling in the chest in a room of orcs. (I don’t like the idea of armor magically sizing itself that dramatically, even though it does with RAW.)

One time that it became clear to the PCs that I do that was when a human fighter charged past them to get the wizard in the back (due to a Badge of the Beserker, as I recall), and they were confused about why I wouldn’t let them roll opportunity attacks. I suppose that I should have actually let them roll but said that they miss regardless of the roll as that’s more of the mechanics — that it always misses, not that they can’t try.

What I couldn’t decide was when one of the monsters used the item’s daily power if it could be used again by the PC. I think that I decided that it couldn’t (because otherwise PCs could just trade items and each use the daily), but then reversed myself for that monster case since what’s the fun of getting a new magic item that you can’t use right away!

12 rabbitiswise October 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm

@ Taed ” but then reversed myself for that monster case since what’s the fun of getting a new magic item that you can’t use right away!”
(insert sarcasm here)
d&d isnt about fun its about following the rules

13 Sunyaku October 28, 2011 at 10:50 pm

I’m a big fan of magical treasures that monsters use against players, and I found that my players never sell these kinds of items… they keep them mounted on the wall of their guild hall when they’re not in use. :D
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..I have a Plastic Addiction

14 Kilsek October 29, 2011 at 10:20 am

As for the monsters becoming more powerful than “intended,” after seeing 4e in action for a few years now on both sides of the table, it’s not going to make much of a difference at any tier of play.

The difficulty/lethality level of most encounters feels understated to me, so a couple of extra magic item challenges to handle isn’t much different than a couple of extra fantastic terrain features to me.
Kilsek´s last blog post ..Meeting R.A. Salvatore

15 Rian Q. October 30, 2011 at 1:02 am

Ever play a Roguelike and look at your inventory after your death, realizing all that time you had a fully-charged wand of healing? It’s usually something like that if you want to handwave it.

16 Freak October 30, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I have A LOT of fun with this.

Currently, I’m running a goblins campaign, where the goblins are semi-aware of the mechanics of the world; Enough that they decide to become PC’s to gain power and protect their village from the XP & loot hungry adventurers.

In the latest example, the goblins attacked the in-game adventuring party, and found they had all sorts of loot from a dungeon crawl they just finished. But none of them had used any of it . . . The barbarian had a magic battleaxe. The dwarf had a Stein that could cast a fireball spell twice per day. The enchantress, (Sorceress tricked out for charming), had a magic mirror. The fighter had a brooch that when tapped, turned into a full suit of armour around the wearer, (and back, later).

The wizard had a big chest in his bag of holding. It was labelled “Unidentified scrolls”. Inside, it had 132 scrolls of identify, and 1 scroll of Dramatic Irony, triggered when identified.

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