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I just saw this question about loot division and it struck me as a very odd question to even have to ask, because in every game I've ever played or run (with the notable exception of some artifacts in one Pathfinder campaign) loot was always doled out with an eye toward making sure that the players had no use for the items in the haul.

The items were usually useful items like magic weapons, because a few of those go a long way value-wise. However, these items were not useful to the party; they were either low power compared to existing gear (basic +1 swords to a party running at +3 or better) or were gear that the party simply couldn't use (high-level magical bows for a party whose only ranged damage dealers are the casters). This made certain practices more-or-less mandatory and prevented a lot of fights in the process; loot simply had to be sold and the money divvied up to be spent on materials for crafting items that the party could use.

In Pathfinder, loot was always carefully managed from a value stand point, calculated to place the party at a particular wealth to level balance.

My question is two-fold for D&D 3.5e/Pathfinder:

  1. Is it normal practice to give parties items the PCs can actually use?
  2. If it is a common practice, how does a GM ensure that wealth is distributed evenly within the party such that any discrepancies don't disrupt the overall game balance?
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D&D 3.5 recommends this, although it's optional

The standard rules in D&D 3.5 are to generate treasure randomly (Dungeon Master's Guide p.51-56) based on the challenge rating of opponents and with the goal of having each player character at a reasonable and equal amount of treasure for their level. Hand-picked loot is also a given as a valid option, as long as no character strays too far from the treasure by level guidelines.

On page 212 of that book, it gives the following advice:

Occasionally, however, you'll want to give your players items you have hand-picked as especially suitable for their characters. Feel free to do this more and more as you gain experience as a DM and—most important—as you become familiar with what the items can and can't do.

In my personal experience, DMs often (though not always) choose items which will be useful to their players. There's no point in handing out a +3 glaive when your party's fighter has invested feats in greatsword. That would just become vendor trash, an item which has no purpose but to be sold at half value.

To answer your second question, the Dungeon Master's Guide p.54 advises an even distribution of wealth between player characters, giving the following advice:

Your job is also to make sure that the wealth gets evenly distributed. The third column in thetable above shows that each character should get an equal share of the treasure from an adventure. If a single item, such as a magic staff, makes up most of the treasure, then most of the party earns nothing for their hard work. While you can make it up to them in later adventures, it is best to use the methods described in this chapter to ensure an even distribution of wealth.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ BTW, for purposes of this question (and my +1) aside from quoted pages I'd say Pathfinder is the same as 3.5. \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Jul 9 '18 at 21:45
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1.) Yes

This is entirely normal and often a fairly interesting way of handling loot. It gives a sense of history and accomplishment to what would otherwise be another boring data point on a sheet of numbers. Knowing that you have wrenched the Sword of Thermodynamics from Maxwell's Demon and have atoned it for your holy mission is of far greater emotional reward than merely buying a +1 Flaming Axiomatic Longsword and writing it on your character sheet.

2.) By keeping track of what they've given, and ensuring the group distributes loot fairly.

Generally speaking, in your 3.5/Pathfinder game, there is a concept of wealth per level(you've already touched on this idea). As long as the total loot given out is equal to number of players * current WPL, then the GM has performed their duty to the most basic degree. They are responsible for making sure that there is a roughly fair distribution, but on some level, players will be players. Getting it even down to the exact gold piece isn't really going to happen.

Obviously, as noted in the question you linked to, this isn't always fair, as it might be possible that all the loot given out is immensely useful for 40% of the party of useless to the others. It is the responsibility of the GM to make sure that all the loot isn't just going to be funneled to one player. Frankly this shouldn't be too difficult, as long as they mix up the kinds of loot dropped. It should naturally follow that a varied group of enemies are going to provide a variety of loot.

Magic item slots also naturally prevent this from being too much of an issue. The fighter can only wear one belt, so they must choose between that belt of strength +2 or that belt of con +2, and presumably some other party member gets the hand-me-down item.

This starts to touch on a more important issue though: how the group distributes loot. Much of this seems to vary by group, and largely this is something that needs to be worked out in session 0.

I (as a player) personally push for keeping a general spreadsheet of loot gained, track when someone takes an item, and subtract that from their share of the gold. This spreadsheet should be shared with the GM. So if in a 5 player party, they earn about 10k gp in loot, one of those items being a 2k gp thingy, player A can claim the thingy as their own. When the party splits the gold, player A gets 0gp, and the others get 2k gp. If need be (for a particularly powerful/useful/rare item), someone could go over what their share would be, it just means that at the next time there is a splitting up of loot, that player should accept less of a share to pay off what they took earlier.

For expediency, it should be considered that consumables (potions, scrolls, wands) are party loot, and that claiming them really isn't the same as taking gear, but rather for the benefit of the party. As well, all looted gear should be appropriately considered for the party. So while mid-dungeon it is expedient that the fighter take the ring of protection, it should be put back into the pool of loot and offered to whomever needs it most once things are done.

What really needs to be prevented though is loot theft. While it can make for cute RP to make claims such as that, it really shouldn't be done in the actual tally of loot.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the point on magic item slots. Also, I tend to use player-desired treasure as a carrot for going on side quests - if the archer is needing a bow then letting the party hear legends that there is a historic one in dungeon X will ensure they take the job. Long term patrons who are dwarves, elves or wizards can also offer payment customised to tempt the party. \$\endgroup\$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 12 '18 at 7:50
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1) of course it is, sometimes even on purpose!

Some GMs use purely random loot generation, some hand-craft every creature's inventory and treasure chest, and a lot fall somewhere in between (per my experience).

With purely random loot generation, there's bound to be the occasional drop that's perfect for at least one of the characters (that first +1 sword is perfect for the sword-and-board fighter who's still rocking the non-masterwork sword they got at character creation).

Hand-crafted loot drops, unless the GM is explicitly trying to make the treasure not-immediately-useful, will similarly have immediately-useful stuff on occasion simply by chance. My experience also holds that GMs will intentionally sprinkle in items that specific characters will find useful, especially if the character feels underpowered compared to the rest of the party or just needs some help to properly fill their role (eg., a certain dwarven cleric I ran many years ago was trying to keep an oversized party alive; the GM dropped an artifact that boosted his healing ability to compensate for the ridiculously large party).

Additionally, pre-gen'd adventures are rife with dropping loot that will probably be useful later on: potions of break enchantment a bit before the party faces enchanters, an item that will let them rest peacefully in a dangerous dungeon, etc.. GMs writing their own adventures are entitled to do the same (and, in my experience again, are at least middling-ly likely to do so).

2) why should they?

More to the point, not all classes depend on treasure equally, nor do all classes depend on treasure equally across levels.

I ran a very long-lived campaign in which the wizard basically chose to not take any loot (aside from scrolls and a few cure potions, just in case) until around level 7, relying instead on their spellcasting and uncanny knack for finishing off enemies with a crossbow and letting the more martial characters get a bit ahead of the curve gear-wise.

The party was able to keep more of the more-expensive items and liquidate the less-expensive ones rather than having to liquidate expensive items in the interest of "equality", so the party as a whole had more wealth available to it; plus, it was a lot easier for the wizard to get dibs on stuff later on (including the "single item, such as a magic staff, [that] makes up most of the treasure") instead of trying to liquidate the fancy stuff so everybody had the same amount of wealth individually.

Which isn't to say that the GM shouldn't ever step in if the wealth distribution is wildly off and the "poor" character isn't on-board with the disparity, but it is this GM's opinion that they should typically do so with a light touch wherever possible - gently suggest that the party's overall survivability would increase without the disparity; it's all well and good that the fighter can one-shot a demon lord at level 10 because she's got all the party's wealth, but if the demon can command them first...

This is also where the "something the party can actually use" thing can come in; if the rogue's behind the curve and just can't find a trap to save their life, dropping an item that boosts their ability to do so might just be a good idea.

This GM does have one hard rule about loot, though: no stealing (thanks @Kommissar for reminding me). Characters are free to lend items, and it's possible that a borrowed item will be eaten by a rust monster, but once a character "owns" an item (ie., it's written on their character sheet), the only three ways it's removed without their explicit consent is (a) an NPC legitimately steals it (disarm, etc.), (b) another character takes it to save their life (pull a cure potion from the down'd character's bag to force down their throat), or (c) the PC is dead and won't be resurrected.

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Is it normal practice to give parties items the PCs can actually use?

Probably, but I don't have poll data from DMs to confirm.

If it is a common practice, how does a GM ensure that wealth is distributed evenly within the party such that any discrepancies don't disrupt the overall game balance?

Some sort of DM crafted treasure method quickly becomes a requirement. The standard random treasure tables, by their random nature, over time can end up giving your party more or less wealth than the player's expected wealth gain. The PHB recommendation for selling loot at 1/2 price can also reduce the expected wealth gain if they aren't finding items they find useful to keep. I keep track of player wealth and modify treasure up or down to achieve the expected wealth gain of each member. Otherwise it can go all over the place. Tailoring the treasure specifically helps avoid this, but perhaps at the risk of feeling a bit contrived. I have used the crafting points variant successfully to give players a bit more control over their wealth (and magic item) gains. If things get far enough off, I've actually adjusted wealth in between adventures. It's a lot easier to give away more wealth than to take it away, so the latter is usually fixed by giving out less treasure over time, while the former can be dropped in at any time from a patron or other story excuse.

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1) Yes, it is common practice

However....

I seem to have a slightly different method then the ones described here by others.

I try and keep loot stashes or treasure chests somewhat useful to the party, but NPC encounters I keep filled with extremely varied equipment. Often times PCs will toss an item to the side, not because it isn't useful to them, but they couldn't think of a use at the time. Hence, I use NPCs and varied types of equipment as a showcase of whats possible, what types of things need to be prepared for, and generally as a method to trying and open the PCs minds to more options.

Throwing slightly better stuff to what they are already using at them over and over seems to be way too linear to how a person actually develops. If they want to just get an extra +1 on an Axe, let them buy it (assuming it's an adventure that allows such an event). Having incrementally better versions of everything everyone already has is just boring.

That said..

2) On the other hand

I agree with the point that if someone is falling behind others in their group, steps should be taken to bring them up to par. Dagger for the rogue, bow for the archer, etc etc. In a particularly greedy party, you can make it a reward or plot item for a character specific quest line... "You must help your brother, but this shiny heirloom is all i have to give you."

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