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Context

Most of the time, Loot distribution is Players' and PCs' problem. From my point of view, I'm responsible for putting the chest with X loot in the dungeon. The PCs being able to find it and how they are going to handle it should be their problem.

This works in organized play (i.e. AL), since there are specific rules for loot distribution. It also works when your players aren't selfish and aren't playing a selfish character while having My Guy Syndrome. The thing is: sometimes problems happen.

  1. Sometimes a published adventure that we're running in a home-game (meaning without AL rules) happens to have an incredible useful item for more than one character.
  2. Sometimes I suck as a DM and don't think carefully about the loot I'm putting in the chest (usually happens when I roll for loot instead of tailoring it).

The problem

When one of these situations happen, i.e. when things go bad and the loot isn't perfectly tailored for the party easily taking it, what can (or should?) I do, as the DM? I will repeat myself: I want to intervene as little as possible in PCs' actions, and sharing the loot is a PC action, but sometimes the game simply needs this intervention - either because some players start feeling uncomfortable arguing for loot or because the loot sharing takes more time than the fight to get that loot.

In particular, my current party, with some new players, running LMoP, are having some problems with that.

Some recent examples

  • Party for six players finds a chest with some loads of gold, one item that is only a valuable (= gold) and 3 potions of healing. They spend some time arguing about the valuable until I tell them it's just gold coins in a different shape. Then they proceed to argue about the potions of healing. I end up throwing in 3 spell scrolls (we have 3 spellcasters and 3 martial classes) so it becomes easier to divide - scrolls for casters that actually can use it, potions for everyone else.
  • Same group. Barbarian and Paladin. Weapon +1, both can use, both would be happy with it. They start arguing and going into a min-max discussion, which was sad to hear since they aren't min-maxers and the math was off, but anyway... significant amount of time lost. I wanted to proceed with the session so I just made them roll for it.

I'll be the first to say that my solutions in both scenarios were horrible, but I was thinking more on "I just want to keep the session going" than solving the loot problem, to be fair.

I would note that every discussion is friendly and nobody gets personally offended. In the end, we're all having fun, but I personally don't like the idea of spending so much time in something that should be more trivial, and some players already told me they would rather having me handle the loot distribution.

This means we're somehow not agreeing about how the loot system is handled - I think this should be players' responsibility, some of them would prefer me handling it. This is not a problem large enough to say we're playing different games and the table should be changed, though.

As an additional context/information, we did not discuss loot distribution in Session 0, which was probably dumb in retrospect.

Question

So, again, what can I do? Is there a way to find compromise between both approaches? As a possible solution, how can I approach the players and convince them to form a social contract about loot, which probably should have been done in session 0? (I.e., I'm predicting "talk to the players" answers and I'm already asking for some advice on how to approach this "talk")

Note on loot systems

I'm very used to MMORPGs and loot systems used by guilds, as well as some loot systems for TTRPGs. That's not the point on this question. I don't want to implement a loot system. Best case scenario is suggesting the loot system for the players and let them do what they want.

  • Answers simply presenting a loot system won't help me much.

Related questions (and why they don't solve the problem)

This question is very similar, and closely related. Contrary to mine, the DM is interested in intervening, though. A good amount of answers point out my view - that this is not DM's territory to rule over. In particular, the accepted answer is about a loot system - it might be worth mentioning it to the players and if they agree to use it, fine for me, but this is not the scope of my question. SSD's answer is easily my favourite answer in that question and I feel it would be amazing for more important items. The problem with that is that a) I don't want to drive a story about a dispute over a gold statuette worth 50 gp or 3 potions of healing and b) If the situation becomes too frequent (and it seems it will) it will get annoying to roleplay these disputes every time.

This question again gets answers focused on how the loot distribution is Players' territory, not DM's. This is already a premise of my question, so it doesn't help much.

There are some questions about Players/PCs getting items that aren't even useful for them or supposed to be theirs, as in here and here. Thankfully, we don't have this problem - if the item is clearly more useful for a specific character, everyone is nice enough to let them have it. We also have questions on players feeling bad about loot, but again, this is not a problem here. My problem is mostly time and players not willing to argue, but kinda having to (since they don't just want to give away an item that's useful for them).


The Group

Additional info asked by @KorvinStarmast that might make a difference in the answers: Our group is formed by (close) friends of mine. One of the players is also friend with everyone. Other than him, 3 players are from a group and 2 from another. The people from different groups don't have any personal problem with each other. Age goes from 18 to 25. There's no hierarchy involved (one being boss of another or anything like that), but we have a couple and two girls that live together. As I mentioned, the discussions haven't scaled to anything personal (yet, and I don't think they will).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like the loot discussion/arguments are all out of character ones rather than IC ones, is that correct? I'm basing this assumption off of the fact that in your second example you are talking about min maxing and maths. The first example though could as easily have been IC as OOC... Obviously how the discussions are currently happening can influence what steps you might want to take... \$\endgroup\$ – Chris May 30 '18 at 11:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chris Yes, most discussion about loot is OOC. This might be one of the main reasons they think I should be interfering somehow, as it would be clear that I have no power there if it was IC. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 30 '18 at 16:03

11 Answers 11

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“When you agree who gets it they can use it. Meanwhile back in the dungeon ...”

Let the players sort it out however they like away from the table and when they have, the person who gets it can use it.

Why should you do this?

Because you are the DM, and you can explain to your players two things:

  • By forcing them to get a grip, and to come up with a team friendly way to resolve these kind of disagreements, that very process will improve their team cohesion. (This applies both IC and OOC).

  • Player agency. The players are the ones, in character, who have to resolve this kind of disagreement. It is completely fitting that you delegate this conflict solution problem to them.

    It's not your problem to solve as the DM. It's their problem to solve both as players and as payer-characters. Guide them, lead them, mentor them ... do what you need to do at the OOC level.

    From the small group dynamics perspective, one of the best ways to get "buy in" to a problem solution in the group is for the group to arrive at it "from the ground up" rather than having it imposed "from the top own." (That applies in RPGs and in settings outside of gaming).


Aside: the community filled with expertise in this game form (RPG) is sending a message of agreement with this answer. Consider that as a form of emphasis that no amount of bold or italics can offer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dale, I went ahead and incorporated one or two of the points made previously in comments with an edit; I hope you find that the edit improved the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 4 '18 at 21:24
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Make them realize time is running

When you feel that their discussion is taking too long, make them realize the game time was running all the time.

PC1: ... I still want these Earclippers of Elven Might for myself
PC2: I want them too!
GM: While you were arguing for a considerable time, the afternoon ended and shadows now creep around you in the grass. Moreover, the forest went strangely quiet and echoes of your voices are carried quite afar
in this unnatural silence...
PC1: Wait! We were not talking in game!
GM: Oh, but you were!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm all for the "Hi, don't mean to startle you. I'm Random Encounter 17, and my troupe of bandits couldn't help but overhear how wonderful that item is and we decided that Theif2 over there could really use it. So, we're going to go ahead and take it now. And that sleepy feeling you're sensing if from multiple castings we did while you argued..." \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott May 31 '18 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ This kind of strategy can be used for all sorts of player time wasting. Whenever you feel that group discussion is dragging on or going in circles, just describe time passing, or throw them another encounter. Pretty quickly, your group will realise what's going on and stop wasting so much time in discussion that's not going anywhere. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas May 31 '18 at 20:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ As well, suggest that they appoint a leader to make decisions quickly when needed. Said leader can allow a brief appeal by the interested parties, then assign loot; so that time isn't wasted attracting wandering monsters. Back at the resting place they can go into more nuanced arguments. \$\endgroup\$ – Arluin May 31 '18 at 22:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ This definitely works. My fairly experienced (20y+) GM calls it a "Dithering Tax", applicable to pretty much every system he GMs: if you spend too long talking out of game, time passes in game. We mostly play a homebrew magic-focused system that often means spending more time planning than fighting, which leads to a mood of "It's my turn to fight, but first let's talk strategy". The tax is very effective in focusing us, usually without any real negative consequences. But deliberate too long, and that spell you started casting 15 minutes ago might just blow up in your face. \$\endgroup\$ – j4eo Jun 1 '18 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ This works if the argument is mainly academic, and the players aren't personally invested in who gets the goods. If it's a personal dispute and "some players start feeling uncomfortable arguing for loot", the extra pressure can add to anxiety and cause players to shut down - without resolving the dispute. \$\endgroup\$ – starchild Jun 1 '18 at 23:58
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When disagreements arise, here are a couple of ways you could help:

1. Remind them that it's a team game

I get the feeling that you're playing with a fairly settled group (attendance-wise). While some groups may take longer to gel together than others, pretty soon, the PCs will come to rely upon each other in combat. Most PCs will therefore become aware that what's best for the team is also what's best for them (long term) — even if that means they don't get the big shiny this time.

If the majority of PCs are capable of this level of thought, in character, then their respective players should be, even more so, capable of thinking that way. The PCs have simply been thrown together by the conceit of the narrative, but the players, in contrast, should all have bought in to the social contract of their PCs working together, long term, to build something exciting. They know that the best thing for their PC is that the items are distributed to the group's greatest benefit.

For instance, when it comes to healing potions, it'll make sense to spread them around, rather than have one person hoard them all. If there isn't enough for everyone to have one, then your players can probably come up with other criteria for reasonable distribution. Maybe the person who puts themselves in harm's way and goes down in combat most often is most deserving? Maybe those who can't heal themselves magically should be next in line?

If your group prefers, don't bother distributing money objects (jewels and art pieces etc.) amongst the party. Just assume they'll be sold at the next town you visit and convert them to gold straight away. Then, either distribute the gold as evenly as possible, or (preferably) have once person act as treasurer and keep track of the whole group's collective finances. If there is disagreement about what to spend the group's money on, a quick straw poll can decide the majority decision, with a tie resulting in the money not being spent (the same decision can always be revisited later).

If there is a character in your party that compulsively hides / steals loot from the rest of the party or behaves only selfishly, and the rest of your players are unhappy with this, then your problem may require a different solution, but that doesn't to be your issue here.

If your players do not generally see themselves as a team or behave as such, and your expectation was that that they would do, then it may be worth having another session 0 to discuss this (or revisiting it at the beginning of the next session).

2. Know more about the items than they do

One way to avoid unnecessary disagreement is to make sure that you know in advance the answer to questions that they're likely to consider. In most situations it's unlikely that an item will be just as useful to multiple players. Normally there's some way of differentiating who'll get most use out of something, whether it's based purely on mechanics — or play style.

Unless you roll loot while at the table, you knew before the session that there was a chance that they'd find it. So, let's take your +1 weapon as an example. As you're playing LMoP I'm going to assume it could be the longsword from Tresendar Manor (if not the principle still applies).

When my group found the +1 longsword at least three of my party members wanted it (Fighter, Fighter, Rogue). They debated amongst themselves, who would take it. Without intervening in the discussion, and telling them who it was best for, I was able to clarify helpful details for the players whenever they came up in their discussion. For example:

  • How it compared damage-wise to the fighters' current weapons (greatsword and greataxe respectively).
  • That despite the rogue having proficiency he wouldn't be able to attack with Dex with it (or sneak attack), as it wasn't finesse.
  • That its 'Versatile' nature would be more useful to a melee tank who sometimes wore a shield than a character that did the majority of their damage from range.

I already knew who the optimal character to take the longsword was, based on mechanics and their play style, but I didn't need to tell them. It was enough to make sure I corrected any misconceptions I heard them making in their own discussions.

3. Having fun is more important than anything else

Ultimately, if none of the above works then remember that the most important thing is to have fun. You've said:

'some of [the players] would prefer me handling [loot distribution]'

While you don't think that loot distribution should be part of the DM's role, if none of the above advice (or that supplied by other answers) works, then provided all of your players are happy, why not consider taking over loot distribution for a while? You can revisit the decision after a couple of sessions to see if players feel like it's working (they may find it more frustrating than expected).

If it's what they want, do you dislike the suggestion strongly enough to risk the group's enjoyment of a whole campaign on this issue?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To be clear about your last point, as I already mentioned in another comment: I will take charge of it if the problem persists or grows and no other solution solves it. But I simply would like that to be my last resource :P - I don't hate handling it so much and I like the table enough to do it if needed. I don't think it's needed though and hoped to get better solutions. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 31 '18 at 5:58
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Tell them that they should come up with a general way to distribute generic stuff and if they can't decide in the span of a minute or two when they get generic loot what to do with it they should talk about it between sessions.

With my group we quickly realized that talking about who gets how many coins is extremely boring. My players talked about it and decided to let one person collect all the coins throughout a session, then go through his notes between sessions and tell everyone how much they get.

They quickly decided to do this with everything else they couldn't immediately use, too, for example with weapons or accessories that need to be converted to money.

For consumables they decided that they would like to split it in an even way. It doesn't matter if they are a martial or magical class, or how many healing potions they have already used, when they find healing potions they distribute it evenly. For more fancy stuff, like better healing potions, the one who found it keeps it, except for when someone doesn't have any healing left.

For scrolls they have general ideas about distributing them, like "X is the healer, he gets all the healing scrolls, Y is the damage dealer, he gets all the damaging spells and Z is the utility/battlefield control guy, he gets everything in that direction" (as long as the character can use the scroll of course).

These are details that the group decided themselves and it massively reduced the amount of time spent talking about loot distributions during the sessions. Tell your players to come up with a general system like that and tell them that if they can't decide how to do something right now one of them, who will be designated when talking about the general system, keeps all the stuff and the group can distribute it between the sessions. Let them figure out how to do it and just be there in case they would like to get ideas on how a distribution system could work. But require them to come up with one and explain to them why you feel this is necessary. Your question shows that you can do that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, the player characters appointing a "treasurer"/loot carrier is a common method; they can always deal with the loot between sessions or at the end of a session. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 30 '18 at 10:20
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I would recommend that you do almost nothing- don't make them roll off, don't add extra loot to even things out. If they are getting into arguments about which character would get more use out of it (referring to their hit points, attacks, etc.) you should enforce that they talk about it in character. Say, 'Your barbarian doesn't know what a hit point is.'. If they have to talk about it in character, the argument can't run endlessly as it could if they were arguing over stats. It's really up to them to divide the loot. It can be helpful having a third character in the party make the decision impartially, but it shouldn't be up to the DM.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.se. When you have time, please take our tour. I appreciate the answer. Making the discussion happen IC instead of OOC should help alot. Not necessary, but if you have had a similiar situation, writing your experience on how different the argument becomes IC x OOC would improve the answer :) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 30 '18 at 19:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, welcome to RPG.se, and congratulations on making what I think is the best answer to this question given so far. It's an essential part of what I do as GM, and what the GM's I've enjoyed playing with would do. (Unlike most/all of the other answers.) As @HellSaint mentioned, this site's policy and voters strongly favor citations, but I imagine if this is your answer, it comes from experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz May 30 '18 at 22:19
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Take a DM break, then continue on

When they start discussing the loot, let them know you are taking a 5 minute break to stretch your legs, get something to drink, and go to the bathroom. They have that time to decide. When you get back, just continue on. If you don't want to be as heavy handed as having another wave of bad guys attack, something as innocuous as "Ok, I'm back." Look at your notes. "Everyone roll a perception check" could very well get things moving along.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Heck, when isn't "getting that last slice of pizza" a DM prerogative? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 30 '18 at 15:34
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You can always dumb down the loot. If you run loot in pure cash then there's nothing to really fight over; it does make for a slightly blander game but it should save on arguments. It doesn't necessarily have to be straight up coins; gems and jewelry with no practical purpose are essentially the same thing.

If you do make such an adjustment, be aware that you'll have to make magic items more accessible for purchase to even out their total availability.

You can implement this in one or both of two ways;

  1. Have your party encounter hording monsters, emphasis on monsters, creatures who use no equipment, oozes with gold, jewels, and bones in them are a fun example.
  2. Run the party finances as paid bounties rather than looted corpses

    To make the second part work, give them a powerful patron, a lord, the church (whatever works in your particular campaign setting) who pays for results; capturing or killing particular creatures.

While this doesn't solve your "my guy" problem, I've never found anything that really does.

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A cool solution I learned from a actual play podcast, is to have an in-character "trial", where each of the PC's states their reasoning for getting the item in-character (not speaking directly about ability scores or hp, or attack bonuses).

You as the GM, then award or penalize each implicated character with a roll bonus, according to how well they make their case.

Then each of these character rolls a D20 and the person with the highest result, gets the item.

I would encourage most players to participate in the roll off, as this counters min-max / munchkin builds. Alternately, other players can state their case, as to why they believe someone particular in the group should get the item, adding an extra bonus (never penalty) to this characters roll.

  • This approach does not purely favor luck
  • It ensures random distribution of items (if that is what is wanted)
  • It emulates an in-game discussion between the group members.
  • You as the GM does not directly interfere with item distribution, rather you offer yourself as a (fair) judge
  • In the end, outcome are decided partly by character rationale, group decisions, and lastly a portion of luck.
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Similar to Edheldil's answer, establish a rule that all loot discussion during session takes place in-game, on game time.

If they want to haggle over it OOC, then someone needs to take it and get the party moving again, and the players can discuss it between sessions for the item to be appropriately transferred at the start of the next session. An in-game way to flavor this would be that, as the barbarian and paladin are arguing over the +1 sword, the bard quietly picks up the sword, slings it on his back, and says "Hey guys, let's get moving, you two can argue over this thing when we get back to the inn. Meanwhile, I want to get moving before another patrol of bandits wanders through."

The gist is, if they can't quickly sort out who gets a particular useful item, a party member who can't use it (or who is otherwise not part of the discussion) can freely grab it and get the party moving again. Once they've sorted out who gets it, then it can be allocated as decided during appropriate in-game downtime -- for my example above you wouldn't have the bard, in the middle of singing his Bardic Inspiration during combat, throw the sword to the paladin!

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Why not treat loot distribution as a fair cake-cutting problem?

If we assume there is a market value to all of the items (whether gold coins or other valuables) in the loot hoard, then players are indifferent to receiving a loot item or its equivalent value in gold. It follows the DM, as a neutral arbitrator, can divide the hoard into n "slices" of equal value and distribute amongst the n players. Each slice may contain a mix of gold coins and one or more items. Since it likely isn't possible to divide discrete items into slices, the DM may have to promise some players larger "portions" from future treasure hauls as compensation.

Alternatively, and especially if there is no market value for one or more loot items, the DM could use a version of proportional cake-cutting.

For example, suppose the treasure hoard contains 100 gp, a +2 sword, and a magic scroll. No definite value can be placed on the sword and scroll. There are three players: a magic-user, a barbarian, and a thief.

  • The DM asks each player to privately evaluate the items. The magic-user player assigns values of 10 gp and 100 gp to the sword and scroll, respectively. The barbarian: 50 and 10. The thief: 5 and 5.
  • The DM gives the scroll to the magic-user, the sword + 25 gp to the barbarian, and the remaining 75 gp to the thief. This leaves the magic-user with an item she values at 100 gp, and the barbarian and thief each end up with 75 gp of value.

  • This still isn't an even distribution since the magic-user comes out ahead. It then falls on the DM to award the barbarian and thief an extra 25 gp (perhaps + interest?) from future loots.

BTW, this all assumes the players are in agreement that each contributed equally to winning the treasure. If players are arguing over who worked harder to defeat the dragon or the Orc guards, the DM may want to award treasure value to the players proportionate to (for example) how many hit points damage they inflicted on the enemy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done this or seen/heard it used? \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs May 30 '18 at 18:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs No, not in D&D at least. But I don't see why it couldn't be applied to a D&D game as the principles are the same. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF May 30 '18 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs It looks a little bit like the treasure distribution tools from AD&D 1e ... PHB p. 122/Appendix V. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 30 '18 at 18:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is similar to this answer in the first mentioned related question. The thing is: as specified in my question, I don't want to force a loot system upon them. I'm completely aware of loot systems that work well in D&D, but I want to use them as a last resource, only if I can't make them agree by themselves and the problems persists or even grows bigger. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 30 '18 at 19:04
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I did this a lot:

If you notice that they could fight over any item right before you call it out, change the quantity of said item so that they can skip right over the issue. The sword, make two. That or not calling out the item if more would overpower your party, and give more gold instead.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The OP went to great lengths to ask for not this kind of answer (even though I agree that this is a viable technique). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 2 '18 at 23:02

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