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I've been playing since the system was released. I've been a fan of the design changes, except the loot. I loved random loot that allowed my players to be surprised by something awesome, and then again by something equally awful. But at least they could sell it. With 4e, I've been varying between just giving items and upgrades to items as "rewards" and also just giving the loot parcels whenever possible.

I come from a 3.5 background and have found that the players' ability to use random loot they thought was useless allowed for entertaining sessions. I also understand that 4.0 characters require a certain amount of magic items to be successful. How can I give the characters the magic items they need to be successful, but also make it feel random, and allow for fun items to be used in creative ways.

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13 Answers 13

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To preface this I am a relatively new DM, (only DMing for a year and all of it 4E) so my advice may not hold the weight of experience some of these other may have. What I do for loot is hand my players about eight playing cards (any kind will do as long as they all match.) Then I have them write the items they want on them. I do the same with about double the amount of cards they had (so in this case 16). Then I shuffle them up and when they happen to find loot (either on a monster or in a hidden area) they draw from the shuffled deck. This makes it so they get the items they wanted for their character, and I can still give them things that they didnt specify.

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If you do this with standard parcels, you will end up with characters well below average. When only the third of the items is actually usefuly you have to hand out three times as much treasure. –  András May 29 at 8:06

DMG2 has a good suggestion intended for DMs wanting to run a low-magic game that I have adopted to help my problems with the treasure parcel system. Basically, you incorporate the average bonuses all those magic items provide into the character advancement.

If you start with this, you take away the problem of players NEEDING x number of magic items to be on par. Then you have a lot more freedom with treasure distribution, because it's extra. I have actually been rolling random treasure using 1e charts and then adapting it to 4e.

Also, the essentials line coming out in the next few months will have a random treasure generation system that should hopefully help with this a lot.

Lastly, I'll just throw in one reason I don't like the parcel system: It doesn't allow players to get ahead through good ideas. If my players come up with an awesome, fun, and creative way to get some loot, I shouldn't have to "deduct" that from their treasure allotment. I know that's a broader design philosophy point about where balance resides, though, and not everyone agrees.

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Its also in the Dark Sun Campaign book. If you're using D&Di on step 8 you can check off Inherent Bonuses which basically automatically updates defenses, to hit and damage bonuses excluding out magical item bonuses. There are also alternate rewards which you can give that replace the item powers that players would get and use from items. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jun 15 '12 at 17:17

This is my crazy idea for playing D&D 4: make the characters some sort of elite strike force. They've already got the powers for that. If there's this military organization that they are part of, then they can requisition items they will need. Before adventures, they can go to the quartermaster and get the magic items they've requisitioned. The items they are allowed to requisition fit the parcels they would normally get.

Players get the items they want and it makes sense in-game. It's not perfect, but it's a fun idea.

Another concept I actually do use in games is upgrading the items the characters have based off their behavior. If you went crazy with your sword last game, I'll be upgrading it.

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Do you have any actual experience with this idea, how did it work out in your game? In my games "requisition systems" quickly becomes a mechanical pain point or a common complaint. –  C. Ross Jan 18 '13 at 15:41
    
I've upgraded weapons for players before - but only at level-appropriate times and not based on gameplay. Particularly when that +1 long sword has a significant meaning for the character (the weapon of a long dead hero of the PC for example). I find that's better than dumping off something story-significant at the pawn shop as soon as you find a generic +2 flame sword. –  SuicideClyde May 29 at 15:48

You should NEVER give your players items they will just sell.

A lot of the love for random loot comes from 3.5, where that was how you were supposed to give out loot. It's important to remember that 4e is not balanced around random loot; instead, it is balanced around the idea that every single item the party finds will be useful to them. Gems, art pieces and other things that exist only to be sold are fine to give a player just to sell, but the equipment you give them needs to be stuff they'll keep and use.

Consider the differences in how awarding loot is handled in 3.5 vs 4e. In 3.5, you have the Wealth by Level chart, which tells you how much stuff the party should have. If they don't have enough, the DM just keeps giving them more until they have the right amount. No matter what you give them, it's easy enough to look at their character sheets & see how much they have, and adjust to keep them at the proper point.

In 4e, by contrast, you use the parcel system, which rather than telling how much the PCs should have tells how much they should get. Consider two parties, A and B. Every item A gets is off their wishlist, so they only sell gear when it's been obsoleted by a piece with a higher enhancement bonus. Every item B gets is useless junk: weapons & implements & armor that nobody in the party can use, consumables that give situational bonuses for situations that never arise, weird useless wondrous items, etc. Because their DMs both follow the parcel system, parties A & B both get the same amount of stuff. But because they're selling everything to buy gear that's actually useful to them, party B has 80% less stuff.

The parcel system is balanced around the idea that the party is getting items they want (or at least will use) rather than vendor trash. If you're following the parcel system and the players insta-sell an item they found, you need to give them a replacement item. If you don't want to do that, then you should abandon the parcel system entirely and work out a wealth by level chart to use. To make a WBL chart, I would recommend adding up all the parcels the party should have received up to that point, reduce the value of certain older items by 80% to simulate selling off obsoleted enhancement gear (3 per PC at level minus 5, level-10, level-15, etc.), then divide by the number of PCs in the party. That's about the amount of wealth each PC should have. Remember that gear they have is valued at what it would cost them to buy it.

TLDR: The parcel system is balanced around the idea that players use everything they find. If they sell something without using it, they're only getting 20% of what they were supposed to get.

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I've tried a combination of using the treasure parcel system as it is, plus throwing in things like a one-time ritual that upgrades an item, adding rewards that function like magic items, and increasing the amount of money/residuum that I award to let the players create what they want.

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I've also been really unhappy with the loot system. I don't like the idea of providing magic items that I didn't carefully pick and provide -- magic items and loot always enter my campaign with planning. This becomes a problem because over time, encounters are only balanced if character have the "right" amount of magic items for their level. I haven't yet found a way to reconcile these two things, so I find myself having to keep very careful track of how encounters seem to be balanced, as compared to how the "encounter difficulty" suggests it should go.

So, my advice is that if you choose not to use the parcel system, you must pay attention to the fact that a normal encounter for 4 n-th level PCs assumes that they have magic items, and that you need to adjust either their armory or the total XP value of the combat encounter.

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Yeah that's the rub, if you're rolling random treasure items then your players will get items they wont/cant use and be underpowered if you're building to spec. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jun 15 '12 at 17:18

For my low level game with my regular players I have a loot list that I want to give to my players, usually one item per PC. At the end of the adventure, once they take out the boss or achieve the main goal, I'll roll to see who gets an item (or might not bother rolling if one item is particularly appropriate). Once everyone has had an item I replenish the list and start again. I keep this loot list updated as the PCs level up so they'll always get something relevant to their level.

However, I also do random loot on some mobs, though it's pretty rare for an average mob to have anything more than 'poor' loot.

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The 4th edition system is fluid and easy. All you have to do is make sure they have enough money to equip themselves and let them use that money however they wish. My current campaign is, at least at these lower levels, based on finding ancient artifacts. While the artifacts themselves tend not to be very potent in the hands of an adventurer, they're very valuable to scholars and art collectors. Not only does the money those people pay advance the characters' power through the purchase or creation of new items, it also allows mild foreshadowing and good role-playing as they decide who to sell what to, or if they should sell it at all.

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I hear some people follow the loot "wish list". My fellow DM's agree this is rather lame and ruins a lot of surprise. Plus our players are pretty use to the randomish loot from other games. Essentially we follow the parcel system but the DM's choose the loot. Our players can of course recommend an item they wish to have or request that they get their current awesome item with an extra +1 to it but by and large the DM's choose the items. We know what they want and what they'd like and in general give them something that is needed and in the end they're happy to have an item upgrade with some cool new feature or an upgrade to their already great item.

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It's nice to give upgrades and the like, but it's still nice to throw in both some random loot, and some directed loot that might turn out surprising for the players. I do like throwing out 'satchels' or other slots where you can choose the item--but it's more fun to throw in some odd items at times and see the group use them in inventive ways.

Keep in mind, if the group always receives loot that they can choose, that they will be more powerful, generally, than a normal group that doesn't have as much choice over loot. This may affect the power balance, although it might not be significant enough to be a major concern.

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I tried a story point system, where players could earn a maximum amount of SP equal to the cumulative totals of treasure parcels that they would normally be rewarded with in a balanced game. This gave the players narrative control, and made it easy to focus on story instead of loot.

The idea was that they earn SP for all sorts of things, and could use it to happen upon things that they want. Basically they chose their own loot, but couldn't take up game time shopping. They needed to know exactly what they wanted, and come up with a good reason of why they could get it at that time, and then they would have to spend an amount of SP = to the GP of the item. If their reason was weak, I'd either outright veto the spending of the Story Points, or make it extremely difficult within the context of their current situation.

Magic items were of course more difficult to just obtain, and usually it meant going on a quest in order to obtain the SP purchased magic item. Which was usually being used by some monster or another, or surrounded by some trap, or in the depths of some hostile territory, etc...

Things the players got SP for included an equal amount for every XP they earned, advancing the story through great role playing, and getting themselves into and then out of entertainingly bad situations.

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I've used the parcel system successfully, along with asking for wish lists.

Although over using wish lists can be detrimental to the verisimilitude, so I mix in a bit of stuff I think the players would really like, as well as cursed items.

There's no reason why you can't randomly assign things of the correct level to a parcel though.

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I use the loot system as printed.

One thing to note is that the system as printed, doesn't always get used. Its that many parcels per 10 fights, and for a lot of people that is anywhere from 2 -> 4+ sessions.

As for the wishlist, consider it more as a way for the GM to stay in touch with the magic items the Pc's would like rather than a set of constraining orders. Its still perfectly acceptable to throw in the occassional random or cursed item. The Wishlists are just more to help prevent the occassional dread halberd of pruning +3 (had it happen). Its a suggestion.

If taking suggestions from your players bothers you, well I think your going to have more troubles then any benefits to your surposed style. As for predictability , which some people cite to ward off wishlists, I tend to take wishlists over a tier. I'm just entering paragon, so give me several items from levels 11-21 that you may like.

I've honestly had more troubles getting players to fill out wishlists, then using wishlists.

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My problem has also been filling out wishlists. It's not that I don't enjoy the feedback, it's that it is hard to get constructive with that feedback. –  Quickhorn May 21 '12 at 19:25

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