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I've been GMing a very successful (Pathfinder) campaign for quite a few months now, but we've developed a bit of a problem I'm not sure how to resolve: loot distribution.

None of my players are particularly selfish, but we've fallen into a trap of: "If I opened the chest, the contents are naturally mine." Now, the funny thing is, no one actually seems to care. If the Magus pulls out a DEX + 4 magic item, the ranger doesn't fight them for it. So, in that sense, everything is totally fine.

However, it's unbalancing the game. We're just past the midway point of the campaign and I have two characters who have nearly all the magic items and are overpowered and another two who barely have any and are embarrassing in combat as a result. It makes designing encounters pretty hard for me.

Any suggestions?

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You have players that are weird, stupid, inexperienced, don't actually like each other that much or some combination of the four. I've never been in any kind of sustained campaign where people acted like that. If I found an magic item that was much better suited to another PC, unless it just didn't make sense in game, I would give it to him and know that other players would do the same for me. –  Kevin Apr 26 '13 at 14:48
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@Kevin what if the character is selfish? –  giorgian Apr 26 '13 at 15:03
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@giorgian That would fall into the "doesn't make sense in game" category. However, you have to be really short sighted not to see that it benefits yourself to have strong teammates. When your mage is lying on the ground and his elf teammate is trying to shoot the orc that is about to deliver the killing blow, he's going to wish that he had given him the +4 long bow rather than keep it for himself –  Kevin Apr 26 '13 at 15:07
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Short-sighted, selfish characters are perfectly fine in campaigns, how else would you describe the group's rogue? –  ioanwigmore Apr 26 '13 at 16:37
    
@ioanwigmore That's why Making the Tough Decisions is required reading at my table. –  KRyan Jun 7 '13 at 14:23

9 Answers 9

There's a two step process needed here.

  1. Say to your players what you just said to us
  2. Then mind your own business

Have they not noticed that imbalanced loot is throwing off their party balance? Or is it that they don't care? If they do not care and are having fun, it is not a problem. If they haven't noticed, then just telling them "Hey gear is important to power in Pathfinder and have you noticed that the way y'all are going about it is keeping some characters really loot poor?" should be sufficient.

For some groups, loot distribution is not some game rule thing where you must ensure adherence to "wealth by level," it's a roleplaying exercise because it's an in character activity. If they're a bunch of CN Vikings then "first with your hands on it gets it" is a perfectly viable treasure distribution practice.

I disagree with most of the other answers here that there's some burden on you to go stick customized magic into the poorer PCs' pockets until they are matched up. There's nothing wrong with personalized rewards (with in game justification) but a) that doesn't scale to someone's whole gear loadout and b) it's not healthy to do that when they are deliberately unbalancing the gear anyway - they end up getting way too much gear if you are pouring in more gear to make up for a minority of the group getting most of it.

I've been in groups where the party decides to distribute loot in a wide variety of ways - and it's not always constant in a group, it's what makes sense to the characters. In my first pirate game, for example, there was a complex ruling on who got to pick items from the loot in what order based on job title on the ship encoded into the crew's Articles. "Our raid got 10 items? Well the choice order is captain, first mate, quartermaster, master gunner, carpenter..." In my newest pirate game, there's a quartermaster who instead doles out virtual shares to all crewmates in cash and they have to "buy" specific items which are otherwise liquidated. I mentioned to them that this has a downside - if I give them high power/high gp value magic items they are inevitably liquidated for gold instead of being used for their intended purpose - but they don't care, and in the end character activities (including loot distribution) are the players' business, not the GM's.

In one campaign of ours, one player wasn't bothering to gear his caster character up well at all and the other characters sat him down had an in-character talk with him. "Dude, you're starting to not be able to affect our enemies, do you need some money for some magic or something?" In the games where groups hand out magic according to their need, it's always an in-character discussion. Because differential power levels are not a player/metagame issue, they're a character/in-game issue.

But what about encounter design being hard because of a mixed-gear-power group? It only makes designing encounters hard for you because you're inappropriately trying to compensate for player behavior. Design your encounters, and if they are too hard for the people with bad gear and they get beat up while the people with good gear skate through, it will encourage them to address the gear disparity in the interests of "everyone being able to pull their weight." You're not their mom, you don't need to "serve balance" - you are attempting to control something that's hard and frankly undesirable to control and that's what's frustrating you. Stop, and let the burden lift from your shoulders. It's not your job to compensate for every decision, good and bad, your special little snowflakes make.

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+1 for the "Let the players play!" vibe. Too many of the other answers here give the impression that the GM's role is to control the game. To augment a bit, if the characters are embarrassed by their performance, but the players aren't experienced enough to see how the game mechanics of these items could help them, or if the players are embarrassed by their character's lack of prowess, then educate them out-of-game. And if the imbalance makes their encounters harder, they'll look for solutions. The "deux-ex" approach is probably too heavy-handed. –  Zimul8r Apr 26 '13 at 13:27
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+1 for letting the last paragraph about getting the players to address the encounter disparity instead of the GM. –  Ben-Jamin Apr 28 '13 at 16:49

Introduce NPCs and plotlines/quests to handle redistribution and to bring the "lagging" PCs up to "speed" via personalized rewards (and, if very, very badly needed, punishments.)

Examples:

  • If your ranger has barely any items, run a sylvan quest for whose completion he is given a magic bow made / customized especially for him by a dryad.
  • If it's your mage who's poorer than the rest, have the next noble for whom the party completes a quest give her part of the heirloom of his court mage who's just passed away... saying that she can get the rest too, if she convinces the party to run just one more errand for him.
  • If your halfling thief is poor, have the party find their next loot in a well... into which only the thief can descend.
  • Have an important / powerful NPC whom all the PCs respect tell the party off for this situation, either appealing to their social and/or tactical/strategic sense: "It really doesn't seem fair to me, good sir, that you let your brothers walk so poor in our noble city, making them the laughing stock of my excellent peers!", "Are you out of your mind, ye oh so heroic companions? You there, you can barely walk under the weight of the magical riches! Can't you see it slows you down in combat? And this sad brother of yours here has to hide behind you even in the lightest skirmish unless he wants the enemy to die laughing at his bare ass hanging out of his breeches? Share them weapons already, you fools! Who's ever heard of a gauntlet that has double the iron on two fingers but lace on the other two! Yes, yes, I know... but the fifth has already been chewed off!"

...and so on. :)

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This is exactly what I would suggest. The loot does not need to be random every time, you can balance the game by introducing loot that will profit a certain player who currently has inferior items. –  MMM Apr 26 '13 at 9:19
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#4 is the way I'd go. Have an NPC make it clear that the inequality has been noticed IC and that they consider the magically enhanced guys the lesser for it. If that doesn't shift your PCs to action and they're not pushed to it by finding out they can't take on the challenges then you might as well drop it. –  Gaxx Apr 26 '13 at 13:58

You say this makes designing encounters pretty hard for you. I say you care too much. You seem like this is your problem, though in fact it should be theirs.

If you design encounters that take into consideration their self-imposed handicaps, then they won't ever feel there is a problem. You nurse them overmuch. If you tell them the problem, they will not realize it but have it spoonfed to them. Meaning you still nurse them. The party is a team, and that does not include the GM. The GM is the project environment. As team dynamics usually go, it is best if the team realizes and solves its problems all on its own, without interference from the environment.

How to put this into practice? I say you design encounters with the ideal equipment disposition in mind. If there is this Dex +4 item the Ranger should wear, consider him wearing it.

Now the party will be self-handicapped. Which they will soon begin to feel. Several things can happen.

  • They realize the problem and start rearranging the loot. If not in the encounter, then soon afterwards.
  • They do not realize the problem, and have to yield. Or worse, some of them die - probably the less-equipped first, then the rest due to inferior numbers. This is not a problem, though, as this is a fantasy milieu. They can get resurrection, either for money or as a favor. If for money, it is for big bucks, and they now have to sell some of the items. And if for favors, you now control them. But anyways, they now most probably realize that something is amiss. And if they still don't know what that is, now they gonna ask you. Now, you can tell them that they had every means to win the encounters but their greed and indifference have brought this upon them.

If that still does not work, you can always rule that double equipped characters count as ECL +X as the encounter is easier for them and under-equipped characters count as ECL -X as they have to try harder to win (of course if they die, they don't get the XP).

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I strongly agree with Xabei. This is not the DM's problem - it is the player's problem. Make them sort it out in a way that makes them happy. –  Greenstone Walker May 6 '13 at 21:41
    
I strongly disagree here. The fact that the characters are placing other factors ahead of party effectiveness isn't a problem that needs to be solved; it's called roleplaying. Encounters are supposed to be interesting and engaging for the party as it is, not 'a party of your level could have beaten that if they had done X Y and Z' –  TimLymington May 23 '13 at 22:44

Long term the players need to rethink their loot policy and how it affects the effectiveness of the group.

Personalised quests to help out lagging members of the party as suggested by OpaCitiZen can certainly help in this but the policy of "first come first served" needs to be revised so that the group gets the most out of the loot they find.

This is probably best served by speaking to the group out of character about it about how they can distribute gear when it's found if not "fairly" but at least in a manner that doesn't mean that it all goes to someone who can't make use of it.

Online games like World of Warcraft have taken this to extremes, with whole reams of rules, raid point systems and things like that to balance and ensure that the looting works for everyone, but really just a very simple need before greed policy can work wonders for making sure who gets what.

So, have a chat with your players; point out that if they give the "need before greed" a try it's a benefit to everyone as the party effectiveness overall will increase, people will get items that naturally benefit them rather than stuff they can't use and as a whole the group will be better off for it.

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I see 4 options to solve this depending on how you want to balance the party:

1) Make them share the loot 2) Make loot only available to the poor 3) Tale away the current loot 4) Make the loot less desirable

Option 1 What kind of loot are they getting, is it all usable by the same person?

When you have a cape of +4 DEX and find a cape of +2 STR you need to make a decision on what to wear, when you open a chest to find a third cape of +4 DEX then it would be natural to start sharing the wealth.

You do not need to duplicate every item the strong players have but start filling the chests with items that cannot use with there current gear so they share.

I would go 60/40 gear they can use to gear they cant so they don’t feel cheated.

If they start selling it instead of sharing you have a problem on your hands.

Option 2 If you just want quick balance you could fudge the market in the next town. The two PC are seen a flash and lording there wealth over the common folk and resented being offered only the basic wares at shops while the humble and poor ranger is in luck as a trader came through only this morning and they have 2 finely crafted bows to pick form, workmanship of this quality does not come cheap though.

Option 3 You can bring your wealthy PC down to the others with tailored encounters. Try rust creatures, yes the knight can kill it in one swing but doing so will destroy his +5 sword, suddenly the poor PC are more valuable. If the rich PC have no basic weapons then they can trade some of their magical items with the poor PC that have spare basic weapons. Destroy one magical item off each PC and an extra 2 items on the rich PC, will help balance the party but not a long term solution.

Option 4 Cursed items. You open a chest to find only one ring, its +8 DEX but when you put on on all the other rings fall off your fingers and you can’t take this new one off. You will need an exorcist or priest to purify the ring to remove it. Basically make it so its not a grab fest, they think twice if they need DEX, if not they give it to the range and let him take the chance. This needs to be done vary carefully though and is hard to get right but can lead to some interesting situations.

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+1 for idea no.4 really; taking away items is generally a way to really peeve players (I've found) but putting in something to make players less grabby (the cursed items) is a fine idea :) –  Rob Apr 26 '13 at 11:25
    
Additional suggestions for idea no. 4: a cursed item might control the player character if he fails a will check. He might attack other players or cause self-harm. He might also destroy items or cause other nasty problems. –  MMM Apr 26 '13 at 13:30

I have been a DM of many games for the better part of a decade and I also came across this problem. The key is to be more biased. Document your encounters and make sure they are appropriate CR for your players. This will do two things: First, it makes it so the encounters will not be unfair. These creatures are designed for their level, period. Two, it prevents players from blaming you when an encounter is too much for them.

It may take a couple levels to start showing, but if one player has been hoarding gear and not sharing, your weaker players, statistically, will be the first to drop. They are now down one player. Then your players have two options: Continue, or retreat. Both are negative. If they retreat, they earn nothing and lose time. If they continue, they will have to face encounters that were designed for four players when they have three. Then it's only a matter of time before the others fall. I guarantee, if you play monsters like they're supposed to be played (To massacre your party to the best of their ability,) that the greedy players will fall. Even if they successfully retreat, they're ego will be bruised. Oh and don't dumb creatures or scenarios down. If you have a team of four players and all but one dies, DO NOT make quests after the fact a difficulty equivalent for one player. It's very unrealistic for a world to simply become easier because it's convenient.

After a couple of games like this, my friends very much started going out of their way to gear up EVERYONE in the party before missions. The wizard and fighter who could craft even spent their own gold to craft gear for their teammates. Even though it might be frustrating at first for some new players to die over and over again, they have to realize that this is a game. If you live forever, it becomes as meaningless as a god mode in a first person shooter. By introducing them to challenges that will make them work and create strategies together to conquer, you will also bring them closer together as a team which will, in turn, create unity and a sense of protectiveness amongst each other.

My players now thrive off the challenge and prepare for games by conversing with each other long before the game and even if they died, they enjoyed playing and try new strategies next game.

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I'm not clear how this answers the question posed. The question is about dealing with imbalance of loot distribution among the players. Your answer is about encounter balance. –  Simon Withers May 19 '13 at 2:59
    
@Simon To be fair, it's implied in the question that the only reason the OP is asking about loot distribution is because they're having problems with encounter balance. This question might be an XY Problem—if so, this answer is actually quite good because it eschews answering the superficial problem in favour of the root motive for posting the question. –  SevenSidedDie May 19 '13 at 3:06

I ran a game with 8 players for over two years. Dividing loot was always a fun part of the game because most items were desirable by more than one PC, adding a little tension to the game. The players decided to start an auction system. Since cash was usually divided up equally after acquisition, any item that was wanted by more than one person went up for bid. If you didn't have the cash to back up your bid, too bad. If you bid on something that you actually didn't want and then got stuck with it, too bad. We found that PCs only dib on items they really wanted, and after all items were distributed, those that didn't get items had more money for training or purchasing other gear. Also, any item that was not desired by the party was sold off and the cash was divided up amongst the PCs.

To solve the issue of players not dividing loot up in a way that best improves their group, ask them of the pitfalls of their loot process outside of the game. If that fails to change the in game process, then perhaps they will learn when the entire party is wiped out. Another option the DM has is to challenge the hoarded during encounters. Perhaps the opposition can smell the loot on each PC. This would mean your hoarder gets more attention during hostile encounters. The player may decided that the unbalanced attention in combat isn't worth the loot.

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Not having the necessary time of reading all answers given so far in detail, I'd like to state, how our parties usually handle loot:

  • Loot is commonly shared upon all players - they "own" it to an even amount in first place.

    If you have players that miss a session on some occasions, you can let the players that where involved in finding the loot share it and let people, who missed a session go without it - this needs to be discussed and chosen by the players if they want to let rarely playing characters participate in the loot or not. This becomes hard to judge if the loot is the result of a long lasting quest and the e.g. ranger missed the last session only, but did all the hard work to get there...

  • If loot is sold, everyone get his/her share

  • If a character desires an item, he can buy it from the party

    Everyone gets the amount of gold he/she would have got when the item was sold, the buying character saves 50 % compared to the market price. Actually its more than 50 %, because he gets his share as well. E.g. a 2k GP item would be sold for 1k, each of the 4 player gets 250, so it can be "bought" for 750 GP (250 for each of the other 3 players), which is still cheaper than buying it at the merchant. When the player sells the item, he gets his 1k GP and regains his full share of 250 GP. With this rule, the players get either items (for money) or money (to buy items at the merchants).

  • If several characters desire the same item, they have to discuss that themselves. This is where role playing comes into play or rational priorities within the party.

  • Still, it is possible, if the thief finds a ring on its own, he does not need to share it with the party, if this is his role/character. But possibly the other party members will find out, that he has some fancy new stuff and might be interested in where he found that.

  • There are some items that are consumer goods or are items that are usable by some party member, but allow a benefit for everyone (e.g. Scroll/Wand of Cure Wounds or resurrection, Bag of Holding, some tools like pulley/tackle, etc.). These items don't necessarily be bought by one player but are rather of common interest and can therefore be used freely.

This might sound a bit communistic, but it works and keeps the loot distributed evenly across all players. And it still leaves open some questions that allow role playing ("Is this item of common interest and is therefore free to use?")

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I am sorry, but you dont really seem to answer the question - while I find all of your advice true, I dont think your answer is necessarily that helpfull to the asker, since his problem isn't not knowing how to distribute the loot, but rather his players not caring about the distribution of loot. Thanks for the effort thou! –  kravaros Apr 26 '13 at 16:24
    
Welcome to the site. I agree with @kravaros in that your answer, while interesting, doesn't convey well how to bridge the gap between how your group does it and how his does. It doesn't seem to be that the GM doesn't know to split loot, it's that the players seem to work on a first-come first-served basis. Would you mind adding advice that addresses how to present them with this style of community loot? –  LitheOhm Apr 26 '13 at 18:25
    
I get your point and I see it does not solve the problem the GM has now, but it would/could have solved it before. It is hard to present this change ingame. You should just offer them the new system out of game. You could also try to push them harder, so they see that they need those items to survive. –  Peter May 1 '13 at 21:21

You need to have apparitions appear at certain points of your games-- y'know, like the 'Lady of the Lake' -- who offer swords and other magic items to the players who need them. Also, have bad things happen to the players who have too much, where they lose or break their items. Do it often enough that the balance starts to lean in the opposite direction. Your players behaviours will soon change.

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