Very recently I made a huge miscalculation during my D&D campaign.

The players in my D&D campaign were chasing after several pieces of a broken magical item. They had been spending their time researching in the capital and were slowly finding more info about these pieces.

They eventually found out that one piece was being protected by an adult green dragon, so naturally this team of 4 level 6 adventurers went on to take it from the dragon.

What I had planned was a stealth encounter where they would have to sneak by the dragon slowly, while trying to get closer to his huge gold pile where the fragment was, and possibly reward them with a minor magic item.

However, they decided to rush forward and kill the dragon for reasons unbeknownst to me. They somehow succeeded; nat 20 after nat 20 they kept destroying the dragon and eventually succeeding. So naturally they took his entire gold pile of gems and magic items back to the capital and have now gotten themselves a huge amount of other magic items and have blown the balancing system completely out of the water.

Encounters that should be around their difficulty have suddenly become way too easy, and puzzles and problems have become even easier with all of their new magical items. I know if this continues they will become either bored or they will become power obsessed murder-hobos.

I have no idea how to actually balance this back without striping them of their magic items completely (which I know will piss them off). How can I correct this mistake and balance things back out? What can I do to get things back on track?

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    Despite it being for a different system, you may be interested in this question. – Hey I Can Chan Oct 6 at 22:19
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    Welcome to the site! Take the tour. I am certain you're not the first DM who's an issue like this, so don't take it personally if this question ends up closed as a duplicate of another on the site or if folks (like me!) refer you to other questions that may help your situation. No matter what, though, good luck, thank you for participating, and have fun! – Hey I Can Chan Oct 6 at 22:22
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    @Slagmoth O, I agree that the question is system agnostic — O, crap! I gave my PCs too much stuff! is kind of universal —, but I think the answers are likely to be (to some degree, anyway) system-specific. (Champions would have this problem handled differently from Seventh Sea, for example.) – Hey I Can Chan Oct 6 at 22:29
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    @Slagmoth Honestly, that's a red herring. The querent is playing D&D 5e, and experienced this problem in D&D 5e, so we're tagging it as that. Solutions should be mindful of that and present a solution that works in their context, as well as information about how to avoid that in their specific context--and there is D&D 5e-specific context here with what's happened and specific things which were missed or which can be done. "This might happen in other systems!" -- OK, great, but explain to them how this should be examined and addressed in this system. – doppelgreener Oct 6 at 22:30
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12 Answers 12

up vote 69 down vote accepted

So, your first mistake was allowing the players to go to Fantasy Costco and freely spend their wealth on magic items. Magical items aren't purchasable by default; the only things players can buy are what you say they can buy. The Dungeon Master's Guide discusses this on p.135.

But it's done, so what can you do to fix it?

1. They might be cheating (intentionally or not).

My first thought is that there are some kind of shenanigans going on here. Even having a lot of items should really only increase the characters' capabilities so much because of the way bounded accuracy and attunement (DMG p.136) work. If the items are allowing the party to punch way above their weight class, it makes me suspect something isn't quite right on the "following the rules" side.

Look carefully at each item and make sure they aren't exceeding the limits on how many attuned items they can use at once. That's the single largest balancing factor that prevents magic item abuse. To wit, each character can have only three items attuned, and only one of any specific item. (This rule is somewhat tucked away in a specific paragraph of the DMG, so sometimes players don't realize "requires attunement" has some specific limitations beyond being unable to easily hand the item around to other PCs.)

Make sure the players are accurately tracking how many charges their items are using and recovering. Sure, a staff of frost might let you use cone of cold long before you should have access to it, but that also spends 5 of its 10 charges, so two shots of that and it's dead, and it only regains 1d6+4 per day. Plus it's attuned, so see previous point on that front.

2. Wait it out.

If they're hitting harder than expected, it might not actually be a big deal. Increase the difficulty of their fights a little -- add a few extra monsters to each fight, or use slightly tougher monsters. They'll gain more XP for each fight, which means they'll level up faster, and they'll soon be back on the right level for the amount of stuff they have. The problem will rapidly become less of an issue. So your best bet might just be accepting that they'll be unusually tough for their level for a while, and just adjust for it.

3. Talk it out.

If you can't wait for them to just naturally even out, maybe the best thing is just an honest discussion with the players. "Hey, I made a mistake when I let you buy all that stuff, and it's messing up the game. We need to fix this, but I don't want to impose a fix on you. So can we come up with a story together that removes the strongest items from your characters?" You can back up that it was a legitimate mistake on your part by pointing out that the DMG specifically says all magic item purchases are up to the DM to allow. You didn't actively stop them from buying those items, but you weren't really aware of what you were allowing and that you had the means to put on the brakes, either.

Maybe your players will resist losing their power fantasy, but in most groups the players are more than willing to work with you on something like that, and may come up with a much more interesting story than anything you could've made on your own. (And I find that surprising the players with story twists is overrated anyway.)

Or, depending on the group, they might be willing to just hand-wave it and downgrade or remove some of the items without actually acknowledging that they did so in-character. That +2 sword was actually a +1 sword all along, the Wand of Lightning Bolts was a Wand of Magic Missile from the start, and Cloak of Protection? What Cloak of Protection? This is just my usual traveling cloak. (You can negotiate whether the excess gold just disappears, or if it gets credited to them so hey, they have a chest of treasure they can use for buying stuff later, or they retroactively acquire a small barony or something.)

4. Hit them in the dump stat.

I don't mean this literally, but rather, aim for where the characters will be weak. This is an adjunct to #2, really, but I want to call it out in specific as a strategy apart from just 'make the encounters harder'. If you can't or won't remove the items and they're playing legally, then upping the challenge is your main response, but you can also look towards what kinds of challenges you use. If they're getting a big power boost from magic items, it probably means their damage output is higher than expected, but their HP and saves won't have changed much from the usual for their level, so that's probably their most vulnerable point.

The characters are very likely to be 'glass cannons' -- that is, they hit hard, but can't take much damage in return. One or two tough monsters that can just soak the hits and deal out big damage will be a bigger challenge than a swarm of smaller monsters that don't hit as hard, even if they have the same encounter rating, because the total damage of a horde drops off as members get killed, while a big monster remains dangerous until it loses that last hit point.

I'm not saying you should kill the party, just that you may need to adjust encounters to focus more on big beefy enemies in this case.

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    You dont have to cheat with good items, a simple +2 Greatsword can increase your damage output by 40%, more if you have GWM. No attunement required. – András Oct 7 at 10:56
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    @András Sure, and the impact is even greater if you use a smaller weapon (i.e., the magic damage bonus is a greater proportion of the total damage output). But that only works for a few character classes (Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin) who depend on basic attacks to deal the majority of their damage, so such things will likely only have a minor effect on the group's overall damage output. I'm not saying it doesn't change things, I'm just saying the change shouldn't be so great that it really changes 'on level' to 'simple'. All it really does is increase the 'glass cannon' factor. – Darth Pseudonym Oct 7 at 16:00
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    Anyway, I'm taking into account that it might well be all on the up-and-up. I didn't say they're definitely cheating. It's just the first thing to check. (And to clarify, I don't necessarily mean cheating-mua-ha-ha. I'm including 'forgot about that one rule' as 'cheating'.) It'd be great for the DM to find out the players were inadvertently ignoring attunement limits, and so there's an easy fix that brings down their ridiculous power to less ridiculous levels. – Darth Pseudonym Oct 7 at 16:07
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    Send some Tucker's Kobolds on them? Low level enemies using smart tactics media.wizards.com/2014/downloads/dnd/TuckersKobolds.pdf – jo1storm Oct 9 at 12:53

Consider that "sudden, undeserved wealth" is a fantastic story hook.

The party is now famous. Against all odds they defeated the dragon and spent its treasure with abandon at all the best shops in town. The tale is going to spread of a band of adventurers and their dragon's hoard. Bards are going to sing about it in taverns far and wide.

This kind of thing is going to attract attention, not all of it good. The party is famous for having lots of cool stuff, but they're also heavily rumoured to have acquired it more through luck than skill. Somebody, maybe more than one somebody, is going to see this as an opportunity.

Who can they trust? Can they trust anyone ever again?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – mxyzplk Oct 10 at 11:38

Level Them Up

In early versions of D&D, characters would earn experience points for gold pieces gained. Although this wasn’t the most popular rule, it did serve a useful function: it brought characters’ innate powers “along for the ride” with sudden material success. In this way, it helped keep the game balanced.

Right now, you have a 6th level party equipped like a much higher level party. If you throw monsters/challenges at them suitable for the typical 6th level party, that can be a cake walk. If you throw much stronger monsters at them, they might easily be killed.

If you give them a couple more levels (over the next few play sessions) their innate abilities (notably, hit points) will come more in line with their equipment, and on-level monsters (or monsters of slightly higher CR) will pose an appropriate challenge.

Get familiar with their new equipment

You’ve discovered it can be challenging to run a game for well-equipped characters, but this same problem can happen whenever characters gain magical powers, such as spells. Fireball can wipe out an interesting encounter in a single round. Spells that allow characters to read thoughts can short-circuit mysteries.

To keep things interesting, you’ll need to get familiar with the ways your characters can subvert the obstacles that used to be challenges, and switch things up appropriately. (They might be able to just walk up a castle wall, but finding the portal to the Feywild can still be a challenge.)

Read a Published Adventure or Two

The ways to make trickier encounters suitable for more power characters are not necessarily intuitive. But published D&D adventures provide lots of example to borrow from, or at least provide inspiration. Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation are two challenging adventures that come to mind.

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    Use smarter enemies Level 2 Goblin horde 200 strong out in the open where the players can use AOE skills and tactics and magics? Easy peasy. Level 2 Goblin horde hiding in the cave system they know as their own loin clothes, every foot of it covered with traps, using guerilla tactics, retreating every time they seemed to be cornered, using poisoned weapons, using range weapons from covers and flanking? Absolute nightmare. – jo1storm Oct 8 at 20:11
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    @jo1storm: Depending on the situation, the horde might not be that easy. One game I was in, a kobold horde attacked the village where the party was staying. There were maybe 4 or 5 PCs, a couple of attached NPCs -- and a nearly infinite number of kobolds. We didn't stop them all, we just protected the village chief until the GM had enough of his fun. I can only guess what it would be like if our party had gone into the horde's base, but "absolute nightmare" sounds right. – Codes with Hammer Oct 9 at 18:35

Usually this sort of problem can be solved by making the encounters larger. Instead of fighting three CR2 giant boars, make them fight six CR2 giant boars -- et cetera, et cetera. Usually when I do this, I adjust the combat difficulty dynamically: if the first three monsters go down too fast, I tell the players that three more were hiding in the bushes.

If your problem is that the characters have too much AC, you might need to make the individual monsters actually harder: give all monsters +1 to hit, or make sure to use monsters that don't target AC. For example you could replace the CR2 giant boars with CR3 hell hounds, and trust that their fire breath would reliably deal damage even against high-AC targets.


So far as magic items go, you should start by checking the attunement rules. You wrote that your players all have lots of magic items, but remember that each can only be attuned to three magic items. How many of those magic items require attunement?

Also: it might be too late for this advice, but you're not required to sell the group magic items at all. In many settings, magic items are just really rare and cannot be bought for money.


One solution I use sometimes is to end the campaign. Who's the final villain for your group? Give them a chance to fight him early, and when they win, tell them the campaign is over and they have won. Then tell them you're starting a new campaign, in the same setting, which they will use new characters for. I do this sometimes (not always in the same setting) and I find it's a good way to reset character progression without annoying my players.

The thing you should definitely not do is take the wealth away from them with some DM decision or trickery. They acquired it through huge risk taking and now they should enjoy the reward.

The two ways to deal with it are:

Give them a Money Sink

What do people with lots and lots of money do in the real world? They invest it. Many years ago, when a long-standing adventure group of mine had completed a few campaigns and accumulated lots of wealth, we spent it not just on equipment, but also on real estate, on a more luxurious lifestyle and in actual investments. Two of our characters opened shops and hired people to run them while we were going on the next adventures. It made our characters so much more real, so much more like actual people to think of "this is what I'll have when I'm too old for adventuring".

You can also give them opportunities to spend money in other ways. Raising their social status might require attending certain events for which they are expected to appear in expensive clothes and arrive in four-horse carriages, with female characters adorned with expensive jewellery.

Really, there is no shortage of ways to spend money in the real world. Take some ideas from there.

Scale up the encounters

Their level might say 6, but with all the additional equipment, their effective level might well be higher. So scale up the encounters. Treat them like one level higher for encounters, and if they still roll over enemies, two levels, or more. Just raise the difficulty level of encounters slowly until they seem balanced again.

This has the advantage that the PCs will also gain more XP for the encounters, and level up higher, closing the gap between their actual and their effective level more quickly.

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    Depending on the setting, male PCs might be expected to also be decked out in expensive jewelry. For example, in some historical cultures warriors wore arm bands. So the PCs might be expected to wear arm bands made of gold, mithril, or even (hushed whisper) aluminum. – Codes with Hammer Oct 9 at 18:29
  • From real world experience - a castle. They're ridiculous money sinks, and require incessant maintenance. But would be ever so cool for an adventurers base. – Sobrique Oct 11 at 14:01

Walking around with all that wealth on your person is dangerous, foolish and heavy (even magic bags have a limit, right?). Suggest that they put most of it in a bank. Then blow up the bank.

I'm only half joking.

Story time

My own adventuring party had for some time been in the employ of a secretive information trader's (simply known as "Handelsmannen" (en. "The Trader")) organization which is based in Sigil. Stashing our money in a vault managed by this organization was a good idea. They have high security and despite their secrecy they were trustworthy.

We thought that this setup would continue for a long time as we were racking up points with the organization, which we could use for their services (instead of being paid money) and we were expecting that we would soon get our first level 3 mission (mission and service levels were unrelated to character levels). Then one morning Sigil was invaded by armies entering from portals all over the city. The Trader's building was in magical flames which could not be put out and spread to anything it touched (I'm so glad I was wearing gloves). We managed to escape with the characters we cared about, but there's no going back to Sigil right now and the vault is probably already looted.

The lesson

I don't think that the DM did this to remove a large portion of our wealth. It was just a new direction he was taking the story in and our money was simply collateral. But you could do it for that reason. Unexpected story directions like this would make for a fun cover for wealth draining. (Maybe it really was the DM's plan all along!)

You'll have to deal with the magic items differently though, as your PCs are probably wearing them. From my understanding, they shouldn't have come across so many and so powerful items just by having a lot of money. In 5e magic items are supposed to be rare. Only a few people sell them and they don't really advertise that they do. The more powerful the item your players are looking for is, the deeper they need to infiltrate and more contacts they need inside the secret clubs that deal in magic items.

  • This compares very strongly with 3.5e where there are established magical item markets and you can search for a specific wand or ring almost as easily as you can shop in our own world for a 2009 Corolla with a specific trim. Whether you can afford that item you want, well.... – Robert Columbia Oct 8 at 12:04

Disclaimer: I've never played DnD before, so maybe this idea is a totally unworkable.

Why not let it be and maybe make it a teachable moment? Here's how it could play out:

  • They keep following the storyline you've set for them. They complete the quests quickly and easily, the campaign is resolved, everyone's happy. Let's face it, being overpowered feels good. If they use it to complete the campaign quicker, then problem solved. They got to have fun, and you can get on to the next campaign where you won't repeat this mistake. If you're worried that they'll get bored then make it even easier so that it's over even quicker, before the novelty wears off.
  • They become overpowered murder hobos that abandon the storyline and go do something evil. There's a hint they might do this, since they did opt to kill the dragon right away. In that case, let them do this for a while and then hit them with the morals. Pull a deus-ex-machina or something (an angry god maybe?) and force them to listen to the sob stories of all the folks they wronged. Show the damage that they've done. All the consequences of consequences; the full butterfly effect. Make them feel really guilty about it. And then give them the chance to make things right. Still with the overpowered toys, but this time with the added difficulty of nobody trusting them.
  • They abandon the storyline but use their powers for good. Umm... yay? Keep it on until they get bored, then start a new campaign.
  • hey ! I played only a little bit a few times, but I was thinking about answering too. Glad you did it. I agree with you about the "leave the story as it is". Maybe they will keep doing on-pair dungeons, and maybe they will be bored. Well, the next time, they will want something bigger, and when a quest will be offered, they may decline to do something harder! – Don Pablo Oct 8 at 12:12

There is a published adventure that is relevant to your predicament:

Waterdeep Dragon Heist

Significant spoilers abound below, only read if you are happy to have the above adventure spoiled. In that adventure:

The characters, if successful, will have 50,000 gp between the party (or have to escape from Waterdeep with 500,000 gp...and potentially be pursued for the rest of their days by the Harpers and Lords Alliance). If they choose to stay, a number of eminent figures from Waterdeep will ask for money as an investments, loans, donations in return for favours/boons/gifts. In addition the characters already own a business in Waterdeep that they can sink money into.

I would say the best thing is to talk to the players and agree to "donate" the treasure to some worthy cause which takes it out of the game, or simply pretend it never existed.

If you don't want to do that, well, just make the encounters harder. The idea of an iron-cast balance mechanism is something that keeps getting flogged in these later editions, but it's best regarded as a guideline (if used at all). If your players are beating the "balanced" encounters and they or you are bored no one's going to arrest you if you make things interesting by beefing up the challenge.

The downside of the second option is that you've started a power-creep but if it's not too out of hand it should work out okay. If it is too out of hand, do option 1 instead.

And: we've all been there. I made the same mistake in 1978 and I'm sure others will make it in 2078. It doesn't have to be the end of the world or the game.

Already some great ideas here. But here are a few more that you could incorporate.

Illicit Gains

Some (all?) of the items they purchased were from someone who had come by them in a nefarious manner. Now they are owners of stolen goods. Let them discover this detail, and over time have either law enforcement, bounty hunters, or the original owners coming after them. They can either hand over the goods, or find themselves constantly on the run and the wrong side of the law.

Fame

These guys are now famous. And recognizable. They'll get some nice benefits like people buying them drinks and discounts on food and gear. But they'll also be asked to help and solve all sorts of problems. Many they can ignore, but summons by kings and queens and other powerful leaders cannot. And their "requests" may be more than the party can handle, even with the items. One or more failed missions could mark them as frauds and the leaders may take some of their items in recompense. Or even through them in the dungeon where they'll have to find a way to escape with just their lives.

Possession

If they have some really powerful items, these might actually be imbued with an evil spirit that it derives its power from. Such a low level character using this item is now at great risk. Having the spirit of the magic item take over a character can wreak havoc on them. They'll have to stop the character, get him help which could include a wise sage explaining that these items are very powerful, and require a powerful wielder to control them and not succumb. Suggest putting the most powerful items away until they are strong enough to use them properly.

It happens.

  1. Throw another dragon at them. This one is attracted to the immense treasure hoard they just collected.
  2. The local Thief's Guild has suddenly figured out where their next major mark is located....which in itself could turn into another fantastic adventure as the players work to get their hoard back...only to find...oh, you hunted down the thieves and exacted justice on them, but they've already fenced or spent all the wealth...cause thieves be thieves, after all.
  3. Taxes. Uncle Suga....I mean, the local monarch is highly offended that someone generated so much wealth within his realm and he didn't get his cut of it. Send along a tax collector (with a legion of troops) to collect his fair share.

A simple answer, happened to me, been mentioned, have high level thieves come and take it away.

And when they moan and grown, you could say something like unto what Merlin said to Uther: You betrayed the Duke. You stole his wife. You took his castle. Now, only fools trust you; now, only a fool would. You're not the one, Uther. Give me the child; I will protect him.

Something along the lines of you spent the money without a care of where you spent or who knew you spent ...

protected by doppelgreener Oct 10 at 10:25

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