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So, I started running a standart 3.5 campaign (magic average) with four PCs several weeks ago, and as I am a rookie DM and quite an inexperienced player myself, I am starting to wonder when and in which order should I start handing out minor magic items. So far, I have only given out a few potions and scrolls, and would like to know:

  • Which level do I start giving enemies magic weaponry (+ other gear) the party can take?
  • With which permanent magic items do I start? Weapons, shields, wondrous items, or other?

I know that there are random loot tables, however, I disagree with random magic items - at least on lower levels I want to assign all the magic items myself, since they tend to shift the game balance if handled improperly. Any help appreciated.

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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your greatest assets when it comes to determining appropriate treasure are the Treasure from Encounters table on page 54 of the Dungeon Master's guide, and the Character Wealth by Level guideline (WBL) on page 135 of the same book. In theory, random treasure generation should have the PCs end up with something in line with those guidelines, but if you are assigning treasure manually, you will have to do that balancing act by hand. If the player characters are significantly "beneath WBL", hand out more treasures. If they are "above WBL", cut back for a while.

Integrating this kind of balancing work into your campaign is tricky. For example, fighting animals for an extended period is going to leave your players poor, fighting NPCs is going to leave them decked out with bling. Getting around this problem without artificially altering the kind of opponents you're churning out can require some creativity, but stock solutions include things like valuable pelts for animals and cursed (keyed to certain races or characters) items for NPCs. And, of course, there's nothing much wrong with straying a bit off the WBL-path for a while, if you know it will eventually be corrected.

As for what specific items to hand out first - that depends vastly on your group. In most cases, I'd start with handing out cheap, generally useful tools that make a huge difference for low level parties. Healing Belts (Magic Item Compendium), partially used wands of Lesser Vigor (Spell Compendium), Anklets of Translocation (Magic Item Compendium), and so on. The Magic Item Compendium in general is a really good source of items like this. Aside from that, just start pouring in the magic weapons and ability score boosters when

  1. It's appropriate according to the encounters
  2. When the characters seem to need them.

On a final note, the Magic Item Compendium includes a system of "item levels" that were designed to speed up magic item assignment. You may want to look at it, see if you find it useful.

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Isn't there a problem with using Wealth by Level to determine amount of treasure? This was why I raised the question about 'free' potions' - rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/21337/… –  Simon Gill Mar 11 '13 at 0:14
    
+1 Your first line was my first thought. –  CatLord Mar 11 '13 at 21:17
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@SimonGill A rough guide can still be a good guide. Add a little extra each level for potions, if you like. Players only rarely spend all their money on consumables if they can find permanent alternatives. –  GMJoe Mar 12 '13 at 6:10
    
Oh, right, @SimonGill, I should have mentioned that. Will update the answer once I get to my books (if someone else doesn't beat me to it!). –  Ernir Mar 12 '13 at 11:04
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Good instinct!

Random loot tends to be very aggravating for players unless they either specifically enjoy that wealth paradigm, you're using a module to run a one-shot, or they have some method (typically an Artificer [Eberron Campaign Setting] in the party, or another crafter who can take gold from selling magic items) to turn random loot into non-random loot. Wealth does have the power to affect balance - too little and it restricts the kinds of enemies you can throw at the party, too much and your players are above the curve for a lot of level-appropriate monsters. Here's some suggestions:

Know Your Monsters

Some monsters require certain kinds of magical items to fight, depending on the character. Do you use a lot of monsters with DR/Magic? Maybe after a fight or two like that, it's time for your PCs to find a magic weapon. Lots of flying monsters? Then access to flight (for melee) or magical ranged weapons (for archers...well, for that matter, also for melee) would probably be appreciated. In some ways planning ahead can help you with this - for example, if you hand out a magical cold iron weapon now, your players are partially equipped to fight fiends later.

You Could Let Them Pick

The Dungeon Master's Guide contains tables for average WBL, which in a "standard" campaign is the guide to about how much GP worth of magical and nonmagical crap the PCs should have. One technique that's worked for me in the past is to give the players wealth that's roughly equivalent (maybe some gems or fine art works - if anyone has Appraise, let them use the skill to wring a few more gold out of the sales) and let them purchase their own magical items. Temple armories, local Artificers (or Wizards, or Warlocks) and/or the vaults of adventurer-friendly organizations (like the Knights of the Chalice [Complete Warrior] in an anti-fiend campaign, or the Mages of the Arcane Order from Complete Arcane) can provide a funnel for that wealth without making it seem like one or two people are running MagicMart. Mind you, if you're running a setting where MagicMart is appropriate (Planescape, Eberron, maybe a custom setting) then by all means, turn them loose on MagicMart. By restricting their wealth to the value(s) on the table, you prevent them from grabbing anything that the game doesn't already "expect" them to have available.

There's Items Everyone Wants

Some items are considered "essential" by the community's examination of monster math. Most notably, ability score boosters (Headbands of Intellect, Belts of Giant's Strength, Bracers of Dexterity, Periapts of Wisdom, and the like) are desired by every character in their primary ability score and will often be worn for secondary ability scores as well. For spellcasters, these item boosters directly translate into more spells at higher save DCs. For melee characters, these item boosters mean accuracy and damage (for some classes, secondary items might boost save DCs or minor benefits, such as a Warblade's intelligence-keyed abilities). Melee characters want items that provide flight (Wings of Flying), swift-action movement (Anklets of Translocation [Magic Item Compendium]) and/or defensive utility (Blindfold of True Darkness [Magic Item Compendium]). Spellcasters, on the other hand, usually like things that extend their resources - like wands that cast valuable buff spells for them (try to pick ones with long durations, like Mage Armor or Bull's Strength), metamagic rods (empower is a great choice, and you'll find them in both the Dungeon Master's Guide and Complete Arcane), Blessed Books and the like. A lot of times you can afford to give kooky stuff like a Ring of the Ram to a spellcaster just because they are magic and can thus afford to get away with things that don't necessarily boost their own resources. If you and your group is new, this advice will last you awhile; if your group develops an interest in high-op play, I'd suggest coming back and asking about this subject again.

Monster Loot: Generic Grunt Edition

The various Monster Manuals provide a rough guide on when generic mooks start picking up magical items, and you can also look into modules like Expedition to Undermountain for a rough guideline as well. Generic mooks with magical loot are essentially good for two things after the fight: providing the party with raw wealth to be turned into more/better items in town (see above) and replenishing resources like potions and scrolls that the game expects them to have on a semi-regular basis. At low levels, these generic mooks might also provide them with starter items like their first magical sword, a suit of enchanted armor, or the like. The thing to remember is that at higher levels, what qualifies as a generic mook now was a campaign Big Bad Evil Guy a few levels ago; at higher and higher levels, the mooks are less "generic" and more "well equipped special forces who happened to pick the wrong people to fight." Don't be afraid to equip your mooks better once it becomes appropriate.

Monster Loot: Lieutenant Edition

Named antagonists can, of course, carry better or more relevant loot. Maybe the Blackguard serving the lich at the center of your campaign wields a Screaming Greatsword that the party Warblade might lust after. The module Ruins of Myth Drannor had an example of a unique-seeming weapon in the form of a Frost sword covered in Continual Flame spells. Lieutenants, at lower levels, are also a source of higher-class disposable resources like wands and high-level scrolls, might provide spellbooks encoded with new magics, and depending on their specialty (magic, melee, archery, skillmonkey) may have other nifty tricks like metamagic rods, enchanted thieves' tools, weapon crystals (a very handy type of item out of the Magic Item Compendium that I highly suggest to you), and the like. I have a special fondness for giving my players extradimensional storage space (Bag of Holding, Portable Hole, Handy Haversack) by looting it off of lieutenants.

Monster Loot: Boss Edition

Dragon hordes! The armory of an evil fortress! The magical wealth arrayed around the deadly lich, now ripe for the plundering! Bosses are your chance to hand out minor-seeming essential items, either on the dead boss or socked away in a treasury as a magical curiosity. They can hold things like Blessed Books, higher-end stat boosters, Ioun Stones, and the like for you to give to the triumphant heroes. Bosses might also hold items of powerful and dangerous natures (like most cursed items) that the PCs can turn over to temples or good-aligned organizations for a monetary or magical reward that can then be turned into the wealth they want. If you don't mind PCs being slightly above the curve, bosses can provide small magical tricks that are handy, but not particularly powerful - things like a Ring of Arming. You might even sneak a plot hook or two in.

Monster Loot: Assassin Edition

Special consideration should be given to the point of balance between "faceless expendable" and "lieutenant" in the form of assassin or special-forces class enemies. These guys are better equipped than mooks, usually operate in teams, hate your PCs and want them to die. Assassin encounters have their own pitfalls and flaws (which I won't get into here) but they're useful for handing out specialized equipment that doesn't really cost a lot, but also doesn't see use outside of, well, adventuring and assassination. Items like Blindfolds of True Darkness, Anklets of Translocation, martial scripts (Tome of Battle), and other niche things that make you think, "Who uses this outside of adventuring?" are a good fit for most assassin-type encounters and might be a good way to introduce a character to a utility item they didn't even know they wanted.

One Last Thing

Being conservative with wealth isn't a bad thing if you're willing to adjust it once you realize you've gone too low. It's always possible to give wealth away, but much harder to take wealth back once you've granted it to your PCs. Start low, then slowly increase the amount of available wealth until you find a sweet spot for your game - then live in that sweet spot and don't leave it until or unless you start a new game! In 3.5, wealth is very literally power, and should be handled with the care and respect that implies.

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The fourth edition core books include a statement that I wish Wizards had realized for third edition: The DM should endeavor to make sure that player characters receive their most-desired items “on time” so to speak. Player characters often rely on certain items, and challenges tend to be balanced around the idea of them having them. The Challenge Rating system is not nearly as useful as you might like, since monsters’ CRs are frequently wrong, but nonetheless in theory they were designed around players having certain capabilities by certain levels. CR might not be too useful as-is, but it’s guaranteed useless if you deviate too much from this paradigm.

So try to have a good idea of what items your players want, and try to make sure they crop up in loot. This should be limited roughly based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide wealth-by-level guidelines, since obviously players cannot have every item they’d ever want all at level 1. This does not have to mean magic marts: in most campaigns and settings, those are out of place. But you can just as surely include useful items in appropriate places in a dungeon. Better, you’ll make the players really earn them by fighting foes who have them.

Remember also that “wealth” is an accumulated store of value, and value is defined by how much something is worth to you. A staff of power might be nominally worth 211,000 gp, but if the party doesn’t have any sorcerers or wizards in it, at best it’s a +2 quarterstaff worth 8,300 gp, at least until they can sell it (at which point it is worth 105,500 gp). More than likely, it’s a significantly weaker melee weapon that whatever everyone is using, so it’s just shoved in a bag until it can be sold, so it’s literally worthless. And if no one in the setting can or will buy it, it remains worthless. And if it’s counting as 211,000 gp worth of someone’s wealth-by-level (i.e. you’re playing tied extremely tightly to the rules, more than the rules themselves recommend), the staff of power is actually hurting the party.

I’m also going to countermand Lord_Gareth’s suggestion of starting off conservatively. The WBL guidelines in the DMG are conservative. Wealth is an equalizing force in the party: when players can buy items that shore up weaknesses in their classes relative to their teammates, the intra-party power disparity is lessened. When they fall behind even the DMG’s recommendations, then non-magical classes become increasingly incapable of meaningfully participating in a variety of challenges. At the same time, while spellcasters like items, they are not nearly as important to a spellcaster as things like a magic weapon are to a warrior. So while there is absolutely such a thing as too much wealth, but I feel strongly that you have more room between “suggested” and “too much” than you do between “suggested” and “not enough.”

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