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How do you handle loot disputes as a DM? Say we are doing a random loot drop from a felled enemy, and there happens to be one thing that two players really want. Do you make an initiative roll to see which character finds it first? or is it better to try tailor the loot drops from the campaign to the group? Any other ideas of how to avoid these situations?

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15 Answers 15

up vote 31 down vote accepted

As noted, this is a player decision rather than a GM one. However, here is the system that one of my groups used to good effect in the past:

Loot is pooled until the end of the night or adventure (although particularly powerful upgrades may be lent out on a temporary basis).

Calculate the total sell value of the pool of items (that is, how much the players would receive if they simply sold everything). Add any coins found during the adventure.

Divide the total value by the number of players. This is each player's "share" of the loot.

Players can "buy" loot out of the pool for its sell value.

If two players both want the same item, they bid on it as in an auction. The winner receives the item, and divides the extra gold they paid above the item's sell value evenly among the rest of the party members.

After everything is said and done, unclaimed items are sold to cover each player's remaining share.

The GM's main concern in this scheme is to avoid getting in the way of the players. Making selling items difficult or inconsistent will undercut this method.

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This is by far the most fair system, in the case of a dispute. It ensures everyone in the party gets equal loot. A couple of games I've been in have done it this way. This is a great way to resolve the issue if one character is getting a super powered item, and the rest of the party is left out. It's also a little bit of math and bookkeeping, so if the players are more relaxed about it, they might settle for a less complicated solution – RMorrisey Aug 24 '10 at 1:28
This is pretty close to what we do as well. We also let players "buy on credit" so to speak for expensive items and then they owe the party the extra amount which is taken out of their share before anything else during the next loot divy. Either way, this is a player issue and the DM should keep strictly hands off in this. – BBlake Sep 5 '10 at 3:34
I see a problem with this method. There are a lot of quirky magic items that players will only use if they find it as loot. Players generally buy items that give straight & obvious bonuses (weapons, AC & saving throw increasing items, etc). They party will just sell all their quirky stuff if they have to invest their own gold into it. – Macona Apr 4 '12 at 8:01
@Macona In my experience, this isn't particularly true. Keep in mind that buying from the party pool isn't the same as buying from a book: There are relatively few items, and each item has a history (as opposed to winnowing through hundreds of generic lines of a table). And items in the pool are at a steep discount (usually 50% or better) triggering the "it's on sale!" mentality. Sure, some oddball items get sold anyway... But in other loot systems I've seen people take items "just to sell" as well. – AceCalhoon Apr 4 '12 at 13:05

This is clearly something the master has no decision whatsoever. The characters need to find an agreement on that. Let them fight. Don't get involved until you see Coke bottles flying around.

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Do intervene if it halts the game completely and other players are looking bored. – MadMAxJr Aug 23 '10 at 20:45
This can also turn into a really serious problem in a system like 3e D&D where equipment is an important part of character power. If someone is consistently able to win these kinds of arguments they can completely derail the campaign. The DM does have a roll in adjudicating those kinds of social issues. – Oddysey Aug 23 '10 at 20:58
If they fight for more than a couple minutes, then make it cursed, just to teach them. – digitaljoel Aug 23 '10 at 21:08
@Oddysey : then the issue is different. You don't have a loot fight. you have an attitute issue of your players. This requires a out-of-game approach. – Stefano Borini Aug 23 '10 at 21:10
I agree that this should pretty much be settled "in character." The DM does have a responsibility if it turns into problems, and that does happen, but his first instinct should be to look at the players and say, "What do you do next?" – mxyzplk Aug 24 '10 at 0:24

I notice that you didn't tag this question with a D&D tag, so I'm going to add an answer that doesn't assume D&D party dynamics.

If both players want their characters to get a particular piece of loot, awesome! They have their characters in a conflict, which is what makes stories interesting. Run with it. In this case, I would turn it over to the players, managing the situation as the GM like I would any other in-game situation.

First I would set it up:

  • "You both grab for the Orb. Make an opposed roll with [whatever system-relevant ability] to see who gets it first."

Then depending on the results, either:

  • "Tie? Awesome! Both your hands grasp the Orb. You tug a bit, neither managing to overcome the other. Now what are you going to do?"
  • "Angela wins the roll, snatching the Orb before Brand gets there. Angela, what's your attitude toward Brand now that you've got the prize? Brand, what are you going to do about that?"

Either case might lead to a follow-on contest, deepening the conflict and the immediate story. With the uncertainty of what happens next, everyone at the table will be suddenly paying attention and engaged with the game.

The follow-up depends on what the characters are willing to do for the loot and how they already relate to each other. They might engage in a reasoned/heated argument (using a social conflict system in games that support that). They might just break out into a fight. One of the PCs might make an impassioned speech about why their character needs that item for the greater good. Bystanding PCs might intervene in any argument or fight. The conflicting PCs might ask for a impartial third PC to act as arbiter. It might be an opportunity for wider roleplay where the arguing PCs are dressed down for infighting by the other PCs or a superior.

The end result is that you, with the player's help, have turned a minor logistical point into an engaging story event, given the players the chance to roleplay their characters' motivations and methods, and made the distribution of loot an interesting matter rather than just an entry in a spreadsheet.

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Awesomeness in its purest form. – raven Sep 24 '10 at 20:52
My thoughts exactly! – neontapir Apr 4 '12 at 4:36

Hopefully, you've got one PC acting as group leader. Assuming he's trying to be fair, all loot should be evenly divided at the end of a story arc.

Of course, if you've got this, you probably wouldn't need to ask the question. As GM, you can give gold to each player while looting an area. This may lead to PCs trying to loot areas first and keep everything they find. A few spot/notice checks for the other PCs can help balance this.

Finally, it's almost impossible to divide the loot perfectly evenly. As long as it isn't too unbalanced, I just try to move on with the game.

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The players should be able to work this out on their own, with minimal DM involvement. However, as the DM is generally held to be the moderator of the game, it may occasionally fall to them to resolve disputes. Of course, there are probably as many ways to solve this as there are DMs in the world.

Probably the most commonly-agreeable method is a d20 roll-off. Forget Initiative or any other bonuses, and let a fair and bare roll of the die decide. Re-roll as necessary if both die come up the same.

Another thing one might wish to take into consideration, is whether the item in question is particularly better-suited for one character over the other, or whether one of the characters may already possess an item of similar quality and purpose.

If the argument stretches to a stubborn extreme, perhaps a time may come when a PvP battle could be considered. I've seen players leave the table over less, so it wouldn't surprise me that this might happen from time to time.

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If it's a one-off incident, then yeah, let them work it out on their own. If it turns into an extended conflict that's annoying the other players, tell them to drop it for now and work it out between sessions.

If you're having consistent issues of this kind, you need to talk to your players -- and get them to talk to each other. Designing treasure around the party can help, but it's also a lot of work, and if your players really are fighting and not able to work this stuff out on their own then there's probably some other issue going on. Either they have a personal problem with each other, or they just don't have good enough conflict resolution skills to handle it on their own. Ask questions (Why do your players think the problem keeps coming up?), suggest possible solutions (like rolling off, or trading off who gets to pick first), and maybe be willing to set boundaries. (If one or more players are disrupting the game consistently, you might need to take a break, or remove those players from the game entirely. This sucks, but some people can't play well with others.)

You might also consider switching to a system or a style of game where loot isn't as big of a deal. Or even stop handing out items entirely, and just give them gold and let them shop for the stuff they want. This won't work for every game, but in some situations it might be the easiest way to deal with the problem.

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Seems to me it's an issue between CHARACTERS, not players, and thus the DM shouldn't get involved.

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But characters aren't real, so it's an issue between players isn't it? – cr0m Jun 15 '12 at 0:51

Related to the social contract question, in a game where loot is important this should be part of the social contract. Agreement upfront is always a good thing.

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I prefer to tailor loot drops, because I know some of the groups I play with can't sanely handle the conflict. :)

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There could always be an in-game solution, where the PCs actually start fighting over it. I admit this is unlikely in a normal party, but there's always the chance that someone is playing a chaotic, or evil character, who in-game would actually fight other PCs in the party for the item in question.

I'm not sure this is a good solution, as generally you want the characters in the party to get on, but if you've got some frictional relationships in-game in the party it could add to the internal conflict.

It's a different style of playing, and perhaps requires a different style of game or role play, but (in-game) internal party conflicts can make it that bit more interesting.

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This is a little weird for me. Not the individual question, but coupled with the answers, I almost feel like I should look to make sure I am answering on the right board. This is about an RPG, not WoW.

One person mentioned that it is between characters, but then said the GM should not get involved....What?

When you are running a roleplaying game that invovles treasure, if there is any immersion or verimilitude involved, the Characters should have this discussion long before 'grabs of opportunity'. And it does not need to be part of the outside, social contract, though that is a reasonable option, especially in groups with a bad history, or in a short term group.

IN most cases, however, any formal grouping of exploerers, robbers, adventurers, tomb-raiders, orc-baby killers, expeditioners, etc, would realistically come up with a distribution contract. I think every group I have run for decades has done this as a matter of course if they leave for an adventure.

Have an NPC ask what his share of the loot is, if you need to push it a long, or a shopkeeper asking what system the group is using out of 'professional curiousity'.

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The best I can offer is that it's a player issue unless you dabble in "destined" items or items granted by a class ability/advantage (Puzzle Sword in 7th Sea or Anointed Knight's weapon in D&D 3e). In those cases they are only special to the individual and are specifically earmarked for them. When it comes to loot, the only fair way to divvy magic items I can recall if players are particularly greedy is being in a particularly dangerous setting. I was in a rather difficult AD&D campaign, and it involved a lot of magic items for survival and the party needed to put the items on the best person possible just to live.

Otherwise, only DM Magic can make them share. If they hoard more than they can use, and they steal/strongarm from the rest of the party, only something like a party curse or geas or powerful NPC in party can solve the issue effectively.

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The old school response it to roll wandering monster checks while the players and their characters argue or fight.

If the game does not consist of hardcore dungeoncrawling, then using whatever mechanics for social conflict resolution the system includes would be a nice response.

If the game does not have useful social conflict rules and if the issue bothers players, then talking to them is required. I'd start with suggesting some sort of equal shares with auction, as in AceCalhoon's answer.

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thief and barbarian dividing the loot....

  • thief: oh look, Angeline Jolie's over there and her top's fallen down
  • barb: no... she's not.
  • thief: oh well, I must have been mistaken. Right, lets divide the loot up.
  • barb: hmm, weren't there 4 magic swords in there earlier?
  • thief: look, we've told you before.. counting does not go "1, 2, erm, 4, umm 8, ahh many"
  • barb: ok, but what's that bulge in your backpack?
  • thief: umm, I'm err, pleased to see you?

In other words, divide the loot up anyway your characters can argue amongst themselves. Keep it fun and don't even try to make it 'fair'. And absolutely don't turn it into an bean-counting accounts session (seriously, I have to do my own accounts in real life, dull dull dull)

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From experience this approach doesn't work with some groups, and it can lead to serious resentment. As commented by previous answers, you have to tailor how to do this to the people in question, and I do not believe there is a one size fits all approach. – Wibbs Apr 3 '12 at 11:33

From a gamist point of view, I believe loot should be divided by how if effects the overall party. If a melee Barbarian and a switch-hitter Ranger are both arguing over a +3 sword of awesomeness, it should go to the barbarian because he spends more time in melee and the party will do more damage overall if he has it.

As for your problem though, a DM can’t really control how players divide loot, but you can control what loot they find. If the Barbarian & Ranger mentioned above also find a +3 Bow of Coolness lying next to the sword, everyone will be happy.

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