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How much can any single possession take up a character's wealth? For this question, I'd like answers that operate under the presumption that wealth-by-level isn't a minimum but instead a target.

I've had DMs rule that a character can only have an item up to half their wealth-by-level. Others have ruled that a single item can only equal a third. I myself have gone between these two, depending on the relative mortality level of the game and number of players. Is there a RAW ruling for this, perhaps?

Say I'm making a tenth level NPC. Say the approximate wealth for those is 16k. Can I equip him with a +2 longsword (approximately 8k) or +4 armor (approximately 16k) without too much risk of accidentally overempowering my PCs?

DMs, what's been your rule-of-thumb here?

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That entire section of the DMG is guidance. Treating any of it as "RAW" misses the point. –  mxyzplk Dec 4 '12 at 3:30
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To answer your two bolded questions in the order they were presented: It depends if you consider that section of the DMG to be rules or guidelines, and it depends on the answer to the first question. Perhaps you should ask something like "What are the possible pitfalls of allowing a player to sink a large amount of their wealth into a single item?" –  GMJoe Dec 4 '12 at 3:43
    
Guidelines yes. My DMG and I have been separate for several years and I'd forgotten that disclaimer. Opening the question to edit it, I found myself at a loss though. However, I did find the answer I sought even if my question was a bit funky. –  LitheOhm Dec 4 '12 at 20:26
    
I would say it's a matter of the world. I've been in worlds where if you're not decked out by level 3 you're probably fodder. I've also been in worlds where if all your gear adds up to a +3 you've hit a jackpot. –  CatLord Dec 9 '12 at 19:19
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Certainly: Some DMs run what my group calls "low magic". If you're a cleric or M-U then awesome, but otherwise don't expect to see too much magic gear unless it's on a well established NPC (or NPC group). Other DMs give the party magic gear like candy on Halloween because the world is so treacherous that they need every ounce of help they can get. Thus even a level 1 character might have a +1 sword and +2 armor (IE +3 worth of gear by our standards) –  CatLord Dec 13 '12 at 3:43

6 Answers 6

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+50

For PC Creation:

I think that as long as your DM allows it, you can have any single item take up as much of your wealth-by-level as you want.

Personally, I would allow it - if you spend all your money on one item, you won't have any other powerful items and will probably limit yourself a lot when you can't use your main item. However, if you wanted to specialise in using that weapon and not buy any other magic items, that's a valid explanation for your choice and could lead to good role-playing, so I wouldn't have a problem with that.

Generally:

I don't think putting all your money into one item will make you overpowered, unless you then use that item for everything. A character with a longsword +2 and chainmail is not inherently more powerful than a character with a longsword +1, chainmail +1 and maybe a longbow +1. In a straight-up fight the character with a longsword +2 will deal more damage more frequently, but will be helpless if the enemies are far away, and will be worse-protected. At the same time, a character with armour +4 will probably be outperformed by a character with armour +2 and a weapon +2 in most encounters I use.

The problem with balance, as for as I've experienced, is not that someone putting all their eggs in one basket will be more powerful, it's that they'll be weaker. So, if you want to specialise an NPC to that extent, that's your choice, and I'd probably call it at least as balanced as one who has split up his wealth to get a variety of magical items, and I wouldn't argue against it to stop them from becoming more powerful.

PC loot balance

If you are referring to the problem of PCs getting a weapon that is too powerful for their level, then I'd repeat that in my experience, a range of weaker items is at least as strong as a single more powerful item.

Also, if you believe that such an item would break the balance of your game and decide to instead give the NPC a range of weaker items with the same value, what is to stop your PCs from simply selling the items and buying a more powerful single weapon? The main balance issue is the total wealth, not how it is distributed, as far as my past games have gone.

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+1, you present a very good point with the fact that they could just resell, within the rules. I also like how you handle the concept of quantity/quality of items balanced against one another –  LitheOhm Dec 13 '12 at 11:20

Yes, there are rules on this. However, they are contradictory.

Page 42 of the 3.5 DMG (Making a New Character) suggests a per-item limit of one-half the character's total wealth.

As a general rule, a new character can spend no more than half her total wealth on a single item, and no more than one quarter the total wealth on consumables such as ammunition, scrolls, potions, wands, or alchemical items.

However, page 199 (Creating PCs above 1st level) of the same book suggests one-quarter.

You’re free to limit what magic items characters can choose when they create characters of higher levels, just as if you were assigning those items to treasure hoards in the game. You can exercise an item-by-item veto, but an easier method is to use maximum cost for a single item as a limit. For example, while an 8th-level character has 27,000 gp to spend, you can limit him to owning no single item worth more than one-quarter of that, or 5,500 gp.

As others have pointed out, the phrasing suggests that the rules should not be taken as absolutes in this case, but yes, they exist.

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It doesn't suggest one quarter so much as suggest that you can make a price limit, and provide a quarter as an example. Furthermore, the "general rule" is only a general rule, i.e. a guideline as others have pointed out, not a hard-set one-half limit. There's no contradiction there. –  Jonathan Hobbs Dec 9 '12 at 3:45
    
Seconding @JonathanHobbs here: I think the first citation, the general rule is way stronger than the second one, which is just an example, not even a strong recommendation. (Upvoted the answer, nonetheless. :)) –  OpaCitiZen Dec 13 '12 at 12:29

The wording of the DMG sections on treasure make it very clear that RAW here are fast and loose, and there's no set way to handle this. Practical experience in the game makes it clear that proper magic item distribution is crucial to balance, though, so it is important to have some way to handle this - it's just up to you what approach you choose. There are many options, and I'll detail the ones I know in this post.

You're asking about NPC magic items, and I'm going to mostly answer with PC-based rulings; NPC items become PC items with great speed and regularity.

Limit the max item price to a portion of total wealth

The DMG suggests (entirely optionally) that magic items selected by PCs created over level 1 should be limited to a fraction of the max GP for their level - it variously suggests either one quarter (p199) or one half (p42) for a good fraction limit. This has been my rule of thumb, and for NPCs I usually go with one quarter to one third NPC wealth as an item cap.

Create a treasure per level limit

Divide treasure per character per level by 3 or 4 to get the max item value. This results in a much lower per-item max price, and seems oddly low to me based on my experience.

[About one item drops per encounter (Table 3-5, DMG 52-53). It takes about 13 or 14 encounters to level up (DMG 51), and the average party is four people (DMG 48). So we divide 14 by 4 to get 3.5: the number of items a single PC gains per level. Divide the amount of wealth a PC should get in a given level (Wealth Comparisons, DMG 54) by 3.5 and you have the average value of each item he acquires during that level.]

Don't have any limit at all!

It can be argued that so long as the player doesn't go over his max wealth cap, however he spends his gold is not imbalancing. This is because if he spends all his money on one high-level item, he does not have the many minor items most characters require to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. He may be a powerhouse in one scenario, but in most others he will fail.

I personally disagree with this argument, as I do not underestimate my players' ability to find That One Perfect Item. For NPCs, you could use this strategy to create a powerful one-trick pony.

Base your limits off the encounter treasure tables

Use the encounter treasure tables to determine the range of items available to drop in an encounter of the NPC's level and just use that as a guideline. For simplicity, this is probably the best combination of ease and balance.

Something Else Entirely

I'd just like to add that, as you've seen, the DMG is not very consistent and I personally dislike using treasure tables because their randomness jeopardizes the party's balance. Toward the end of my 3.5 days I just gave each NPC its level value worth of useful-to-the-NPC items without much concern for per-item caps, and my party's looting habits made them keep on par with expected wealth per level. If I were still running 3.5, I would standardize treasure drops in a way similar to 4e's system, using the table on DMG 54 as a baseline, and I would use the standardized treasure to equip my NPCs.

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Consider that in most campaigns, players are allowed to upgrade an item at-cost. That is, the price of upgrading a +1 longsword to +2 would not be the full price of a +2 longsword, but rather (+2longsword - +1longsword). This still seems low, though, doesn't it? –  Melon Dec 4 '12 at 5:53
    
Many campaigns do that (rightly so), but it's a house rule so I'm ignoring it because he explicitly wants RAW. Thanks for pointing it out though; that might be one reason I'm confuzzled. –  BESW Dec 4 '12 at 5:56
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The 3.5 DMG does provide rules for starting above level 1. See page 199. –  Ernir Dec 4 '12 at 16:07
    
+1 I hadn't thought to break it down by the treasure tables. That's a good idea. I use a variant for these, but not everyone does. –  LitheOhm Dec 4 '12 at 20:28

I don't see any problem with taking any item that fits into the DM's total limitations - assuming, of course, you can justify it.

BESW's answer takes into account the fact that the most expensive item you can collect as your share in any given encounter's loot would be around 4000-4500 gp's worth. But that's an arbitrary limitation, especially when using such an abstract concept as wealth-per-level. There's no reason why that shining +2 sword couldn't have been gotten in somewhere other than a monster's loot.

Your character might have been saving all those magical trinkets he's been finding for his first few months or years of adventuring. He could have spent time looking for the most interested buyers and sold them (assuming your setting has a somewhat functional magic-item economy), amassing enough gold and precious stones to come back to that store he saw, in the first town he ever returned to after his first dungeon crawl in Level 1. He would go into the store, plunk down the sack filled with jewels, point at the sword, shining there on the rack, that sword he's been dreaming of since his first goblin, point to it and say "That! I want THAT sword".

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That's a great point! Can you add some numbers to it based on RAW? Perhaps an analysis of resell values and item-to-gemstone percentages to estimate how much gold that frugal adventurer could collect by level 10 in a 3.5 DMG economy? –  BESW Dec 4 '12 at 6:01

What Wealth is For

Player characters in Dungeons & Dragons are expected to have a given amount of “wealth” for reasons of theme (higher-level characters are more successful and one designator of that success is wealth) and balance (higher-level characters fight more powerful foes and so need more powerful tools). For the purposes of this answer, I am focusing primarily on the latter.

Wealth Inequality

Wealth ought not be a character’s primary source of ability. The weakest classes in the game, not coincidentally, are those that rely most heavily on their wealth1 – their class features are weak, so they rely on items to shore them up. Furthermore, items are worth more, compared to their class features, than they are for more powerful classes. The Druid will only be moderately inconvenienced if he never gets his Periapt of Wisdom. The Paladin will be devastated if he cannot get his Belt of Giant Strength (and Cloak of Charisma, and Holy Avenger, and so on).

1 There’s a really important exception here in the Artificer; for the Artificer, his items are his (extremely powerful) class features.

The Importance of Choice

“Wealth” is defined as the value of your assets (less any liabilities, which are not relevant here). Assets are things you own, and value... is a bit more nebulous. There’s the market value, the resale value, the at-cost value (which happens to equal the resale value for non-art items), etc. But what’s really relevant to an adventurer is what each item is worth to him.

Every character is different, and responds differently to different items. A +1 raging battleaxe costs some 8.3k gp, and is easily worth that much to a Barbarian. To a Fighter, it’s worth 2.3k, because it might as well be a +1 battleaxe for all the good the raging enhancement does for him. Even in non-trivial examples, the nominal value of an item is rarely exactly how much its owner values it at. Either it’s worth more to him than its resale value (which is why he hasn’t sold it), or it’s worth less to him (and he’ll be selling it next chance he gets).

So it’s important that characters not merely have assets whose market value or resale value totals the WBL guideline for their level – because their items may be worth a lot less than that (or, in a few cases, a lot more than that; more on that later), if they aren’t the right items. So preventing players from getting the specific items they need can be a significant nerf to them, which may not be desirable.

Why That Doesn’t Mean You Should Just Eliminate Single-Item Caps

If you have really careful and conscientious players, you can. But that isn’t really the typical adventuring types ;)

Dungeons & Dragons assumes a lot of things about characters. It assumes they’ll have, for example, enhancement bonuses to their most-important ability scores and resistance bonuses to their saving throws. These bonuses are accounted for in characters’ and monsters’ stats – defenses will be set expecting that people have been getting enhancement bonuses to the abilities that power their offenses, and DCs will include bumps to account of those Cloaks of Resistance.

After a certain point, players are also expected to deal with flying enemies, incorporeal enemies, enemies who use illusions, compulsions, and [Death] effects. Access to abilities that counter these things are often most-efficiently found through items. A feat, and most class features, are set in stone: you cannot change them situationally. An item you can pull out when you need it, or even better, that’s just around but didn’t cost much to put there, is far more economical.

So the goal of single-item caps is to encourage players not to blow everything on the biggest weapon they can find. They may need a big one, but they don’t need one so big that they haven’t gotten their requisite enhancement and resistance bonuses, and later cures or immunities for devastating and common magic effects.

An Actual Suggestion

My goal has been to provide an education on the roles that wealth plays and what it is most important for. It’s not damage. Damage is, hopefully, coming as much from a character’s inherent power as possible. Weaker classes need more help in this area than others, but they still should strive to avoid sinking too much money in that direction. The really important thing is that they get the myriad defenses and static bonuses that the game simply expects that they’ll have.

As such, in my experience, the goal isn’t an arbitrary “fraction of wealth-by-level,” but ensuring that the player has hit all of the necessary points before blowing everything on the biggest sword around. I therefore recommend that you consider the adversaries they’ll be facing – either specifically, or in terms of what’s generally available to level-appropriate foes.

Make sure they’ve got the latest affordable +Ability and +Saving Throw items (if such things only just became affordable, being back a tier is OK; they aren’t outright assumed for a couple of levels).

If it’s mid-to-high levels, make sure they can fly and handle invisibility, or even better have alternate senses that work if vision is blocked.

If it’s high levels, they should have something like Freedom of Movement, a way to teleport or stop those who can, hopefully some way of cutting through magical defenses, and at the highest levels, immunity to a whole smorgasbord of things, including [Death] and [Mind-Affecting] effects.

If they have all of those things, then let them blow everything else on a huge weapon.

Undervalued Items

For the most part, items are overpriced; you rarely have to worry about throwing everything into a single item that will break the game. People who put everything into one item are usually going to get something that's kind of impressive at that level, but they're going to be horribly vulnerable. This is bad for the game, and you should try to avoid it. Single-item value caps are there to ensure that the player is balanced, not in the sense of avoiding him being overpowered, but in the sense of being well-rounded enough to handle a variety of situations and potential threats. It's hard to do that if all your wealth is sunk in one direction.

That said, be extremely careful about people getting magic effects higher than spellcasters of their level have. Note I say “effect” – having more or better versions of an effect spellcasters already have is usually fine. But being able to turn someone to stone before stone to flesh becomes available is bad. This is particularly bad when it’s all their money: that’s a really bad sign that someone’s going to attempt shenanigans. Ban the Candle of Invocation outright, do it now.

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+1 very interesting assault on many fronts of the answer. I am curious, in your suggestion are you saying that part of a PC created above first level should be required to spend money on certain items, from a balance-for-the-PC perspective? –  LitheOhm Dec 13 '12 at 2:05
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@LitheOhm: Perhaps not required to get a specific item, but certain effects are... I probably wouldn't require them outright, but if a player lacked them, I'd be having a chat with that player about it. Ernir (who at present has the highest-rated answer) has actually compiled a wonderful List of Necessary Magic Items that make for a good guideline, though it's not broken down by level. –  KRyan Dec 13 '12 at 2:43
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@LitheOhm: Oh, and I have played in games where +Ability and +Resistance items were banned entirely, and just worked into characters' natural progressions. This is also a good approach, allowing players to focus on more "interesting" things. –  KRyan Dec 13 '12 at 2:44
    
+1 This is one of the best answers, IMO. It focuses on contextualizing the answer, and explaining why proper wealth distribution matters, which is highly important. This would be my accepted answer (though the accepted one touches on some of these points, too). –  Marcus Hughes May 26 at 5:20

I've generally followed the 'no more than half' restriction, and still ended up with players buying items that are more powerful than they should have access to. Note that these items were generally more likely to be wondrous items than arms or armour, but there have been exceptions to this as well (using a magical double weapon, with each head enchanted with a different elemental damage to avoid resistances for instance). Anything that gives a stat or skill bonus should be examined closely for synergy before allowing.

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