Wish lists are great for players getting exactly what they want when they want it. The only thing the DM has to do is drop the items in a chest in the cavern. The characters have to do all the footwork, because they have to figure out what items at what level they want, and just wait with hands held out waiting for their items. The main problem that this type runs into is verisimilitude. What are the odds that this particular Goblin party just happens to be holding the exact sword, out of hundreds of swords, is the one you wanted? It’s a little bit of a stretch, but of course who cares about verisimilitude when there’s an anthropomorphic dragon breathing fire right next to you? The way that I work the Wish List into the game is making it a literal wish list. Your characters aren’t lore-masters on every magic item in the universe (at least not until Epic). The only way your characters know about the items is by hearing about them. You want a legendary warhammer? Of course you do! The hobgoblin chieftains have been passing that item down for generations, and it even killed your little cousin when you were younger. What better way to get revenge than getting that item and killing hobgobs with it? This segways into my other use for loot: there is little to no chance that magical items are hoarded by most creatures. Even if you are battling goblin cutters, if they have a magical greataxe that sets things on fire they will use it. Edit a creature to be wielding the magical item. If it’s an item that they aren’t used to using (archer using a longsword) give it a -2 to attacks using it. If it’s an item that makes no sense being used by that creature (goblin cutter using a greataxe) give it a -5. This will give some flavor to the items, and can lead to characters running off without checking bodies for that item. This takes a lot of planning by the DM, which brings up the next list. PRO: players get what they want, and do all the work. CON: makes the game (more) unrealistic.
Planning a campaign is tough and time-consuming. It takes a lot of work to weave a story of intrigue and adventure with the struggles of life upon you. Adding treasure seems like the last thing to think of. “I’ll just throw in a magic item of plus two level and move on.” This leads to the worst of contrived adventuring, and eventually leads to the wish list approach. Using a planned rewards type of loot placement requires time and thought. To make it work, you have to think “why is the item there, is it being used, and if it isn’t, what will drive it’s hoarders to use it?” This type of planning could be your greatest asset, though, creating loot that is highly connected with your characters and story. Some encounters can be built around the treasure first, and the monsters and traps second. Kobold warriors have been worshiping a Dragonborn-styled Flame Sword. They have built traps to emulate the flames that lick off of the sword, and they have adapted their breath weapons to match its fiery nature. They would never use the item unless it were directly threatened to be used by infidels, and then only by the Kobold highpriest. A pack of bulette’s could hoard healing potions, but may have no idea that they heal injuries. They look like the shiny red baubles that they tried to eat once and broke a tooth, and collect the items to illuminate their caves. Using planned rewards can create more deep storytelling, but require a fair amount of (you guessed it) planning to work well. PRO: can aid in encounter and story creation. CON: takes additional DM work to make the items fit into the story instead of looking like a band-aid.
Money makes the world go ‘round. There’s bound to be tons of it around the world, and tons of it hoarded away by evil hands. The gold-buy system takes all the itemizing out of the hands of the DM and the players, and allows PCs to go on a huge shopping-spree the next time they get to town. This is great for a DM, because all they need to do is look at the average gold cost of an item, plug it into a treasure chest or on the body of a raider, and you’re done. Lather, rinse, repeat. This can be problematic for PCs. 20 pounds of gold is great, but I’m in the middle of a delve. I can’t drink molten gold to regain 10HP, and I definitely can’t use my gold to add three to my AC once a day. When I get back to town I’m great, but I’d really like to live until I get to town. Another thing this can cause is PC hoarding. They keep their cut for the first two or three levels, then takes their entire hoard of gold and buy one super-powerful item. This can create an unbalanced player and an eventual unfun experience. The way to make this type of system work is in parcel management. Instead of giving out four magic items a level, give only one or two and convert the rest into gold. Give more healing potions (to make up for the lack of magical support) and give non-magical baubles (like art and jewels) that can be melted down and used for magical items when in town. This, I feel, is the most realistic form of loot distribution. There’s sure to be tons of gold in the world, but probably few magical items. When you get back to town, you drop a large bag of gold onto the blacksmith’s lap and commission a magical item. The item then has personal value to the PC. It’s not just A +1 sword, it’s YOUR +1 sword. Never underestimate the power of sentimental value, even with a min/maxing player. PRO: most realistic, and least-thought taxing for PCs and DMs. CON: can put PCs in a bind in the middle of an adventure, and may cause PC hoarding and un-balancing.
Random Loot System
Variety is the spice of life. What DM doesn’t want the pressure of loot distribution off of their shoulders? The random loot system takes all the pressure off of the DM. “It’s not your fault you didn’t get a shield this time around, it was the loot table. I rolled right in front of you; you see the chart, that’s how it worked out.” This system, more than any other, will require DM adjustment to make the game enjoyable for everyone. I find that this system is the best for a non-magical item campaign. I create a 100 item list in Excel of mundane items, gold, healing potions, and divine boons. I then randomly scramble the list and save it. Then, I have written down in my notes how many items I need to roll for, then roll a d100. This type of system takes the most forward work, but after you have it built you can use it indefinitely (or if you don’t allow repeats it will last the number of parcels you use). This also limits the stress of creating parcels. You just write down the number of rolls you do and refer to your table. Sometimes you get really lucky PCs, which is where the best laid random loot system sometimes goes awry. Overpowered and underpowered PCs are most likely in this system, and lucky PCs can get the upper hand in the random system. The final disadvantage to this system is that it sucks all the verisimilitude out of a game. Rolling loot after an encounter will make it look like there was no planning at all in putting treasure in a delve. The items have no logical place to be in there, and the specialness of getting a magic item is diminished when it just magically ‘poofs’ in there. The way to make this work is to combine this strategy with the planned loot system. Roll your prizes beforehand and let that be a guide to creating the reasons why the loot was there. PRO: least amount of preparation after the creation of the chart; completely random to reduce player ire. CON: over and under-powered PCs can occur very quickly; realism becomes almost zero.
How do I give PCs Loot Then?
Personal preference is always the way to go when considering how you will give PCs loot. Most will mix and match different ways of doing this. Hopefully many DMs will look through and decide which is best for them. Things to consider when making loot distribution is thinking about how much time you have to plan, how much realism you want your game to have, and how much you want your PCs to be involved in the loot creation process. Hopefully this guide would help you in deciding how to distribute items. So the next time you are sitting at the table, and the PCs finish an encounter, take a look at the elephant in the room square in the eyes, and ask her if she could pitch-in on the pizza. Then tell the PCs what they’ve earned from their encounter, because you had no problem trying to hand out loot to your players.