Greatest Hits 2011: Let Monsters Use the Treasure

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 18, 2011

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2011. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

In our home games the monsters will often use magical items against us (treasure bundles we’ll earn if we defeat the monsters). Where this has become a bit of an issue is when the monster is using a magic weapon and the person who claims it wants to drastically change the weapon type.

For example, in a recent encounter we were fighting Githyanki. They were armed with Silver Swords, a character-defining item for this race. When we defeated them we discovered that one of them was using a +3 silver Greatsword sword against us. The PC who claimed the treasure (because he badly needed a weapon upgrade) was a Rogue who used a dagger. Normally the DM is supposed to just wave his magic DM wand and say “the item is now a dagger because that’s what you, the PC, need it to be,” but in this case the DM decided to do the more sensible thing and said no.

He was willing to change it from one big sword to another, but he felt that going from the biggest blade in the game to the smallest was too much of a stretch. The player was ok with this ruling and we actually though the DM made the right call.

In a another recent game we fought Salamander archers and one was using a Great Bow +3. Again, when the PCs defeated the monsters and claimed the weapon the DM would not allow the bow to become anything other than another kind of bow. And again we were ok with this ruling even though the rules say otherwise.

This is the only real drawback we’ve had when letting the monsters use magic items against the party. You either have to equip the creatures with the exact weapon-type that one of the PCs can use or you have to suspend disbelief and say that the treasure bundle says “+3 weapon” so the PC can make it whatever weapon he needs it to be. In our games we’ve opted to go the former route. In those rare circumstances where we can’t use the form of the item we find we have to expend time and resources to transfer the enchantment or we just sell it. More often than not we sell it because that is easier.

So DMs, before you give the monsters items to use against the party give some thought to how you’re going to handle the inevitable transfer of the item from monster to PCs. Will you let them change the weapon to a more suitable type or will you break the rules and insist that if it was a Great Axe when the monster used it against the party it has to be a Great Axe if anyone claims it as their own?

From October 28, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Let Monsters Use the Treasure.

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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