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Im having a bit of trouble getting a general sense of what amount of loot my players should receive during their sessions. They are started as 3rd level, mostly new players to the DnD universe. I wanted to create an enjoyable experience where they are rewarded, but Im running into issues of balancing. Since I recently picked up the Dungeon Masters Guide for 5th Ed I decided to utilize the loot tables for their rewards, to save belaboring thinking of what to reward them on the spot and taking up time. Unfortunately, RNGesus gave them some very powerful items for their low level. Which then imbalances a player from the rest of the party. How do I get it so that everyone is rewarded fairly, evenly, but wont throw off the balance where one player is stronger than the other or I have to throw greater challenges at them that could wipe the party should I give everyone something neat? Besides writing my own loot tables or restricting things to scripted encounters.

TL;DR How do I balance loot without being a jerk, or making PCs OP?

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I am having the same problem, although my characters just reached level 3.

However, I think that the best answer is for the party to better share the loot between each others. They, after all, are the ones who want to survive, not you.

If you have one player who always takes it all, he will create the imbalance, not you as the DM.

For what to "distribute", I use the tables on DMG p. 136-139. That gives me a way to determine the various types of objects I can give my players. The main problem is to avoid giving them way too powerful items.

However, I do not like to roll on the tables because I prefer to be in control to give the players exactly what they are likely to need (plus a little more).

Also, there are certain things that make sense. If you kill a mummy, it makes sense to find a Staff of the Python and if you kill a Wizard to find a Robe of Stars, for example. Plus, I prefer to offer items that make sense in the adventure rather than random things.

That being said, there is one rule that will limit a player from using all the items. If you look closely, there is a rule about attunement (DMG p. 136) which prevents a user from having more than 3 items that require attunement. So if you offer many of those, the one player who wants it all... would not be able to use the extras and may then start thinking he should share a bit more (because such items in his backpack won't do much good to the group as a whole.)

Another way to limit is to give similar items or items that the user(s) do not have proficiency in (i.e. give 3 short swords + 1, it is likely that people will stick to their existing weapon because they don't have proficiency in short swords. That being said, they'll need magical swords for killing those werewolves...) Also you cannot use two magical items of the same type simultaneously (DMG p. 141). So that's another way. Obviously, that could become quite a bit monotonous... but it could be a temporary solution to get everyone to have a similar power level. And the characters can sell or exchange the extras too.

Finally, there are items that require a specific class or set of classes (see Staff of the Adder, DMG p. 203). You could also impose limits such as race or size or even level... since you do not have to specifically use what the DMG presents. I myself use it as a large set of examples rather than the actual source of magic items in my worlds.

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Problem vs Opportunity

There are a few different ways to deal with the issue of players' loot and balancing the resulting crunch and power imbalance. A lot of it really depends on how you want to deal with the "problem" you're experiencing.

Without knowing exactly who's playing and what they're playing and what they were given, I would say you should analyze the crunch of what these loot items provide for the players. Once you know what new abilities/stat increases they receive and what that allows them to do, you know how to maneuver around it. Find a way to scale the power of NPCs and monsters to allow them to meet the challenge the PCs provide.

A Barbarian with a shiny new ax that penetrates armor might find themselves facing monsters that don't have armor, making the bonus useless. The Wizard with that smoking hot Wand of Fireball might end up facing some creatures that are immune to flames.

From a story perspective, if the players now are in possession of some uber-powerful (or at least relatively so) items, they might be at the whim of stronger NPCs who want to take the items for themselves. Or maybe the former owners have allies that want revenge. The problem of overly powerful loot is actually a great story hook if played right.

I think you shouldn't worry so much about "being a jerk" when you're a GM. Your players either respect the fact that it's a game or they don't. If your group is the sort that will call you out if their characters ever come up against any real resistance, then they're just sore losers. That being said, you shouldn't punish them for what you seem to feel like is your own mistake.

If you really find the situation eminently unworkable with the power disparity caused by the loot, I would talk to the players OOC about the mistake. I want to note that this would be a last resort for me, as I think this situation is easily twisted into a fun opportunity.

From an interest curve perspective, the highs of getting these awesome new tools MUST be followed by a low of having their new powers tested and probably still failing, or at least it being close enough that the overpowered-ness is negated or at least not as prevalent.

Personal Example:

As an aside, I actually do this sort of thing on purpose sometimes. In a DH-2e game I'm running currently, the players took down a noble and stole his plasma pistol. Nobody knows how to use it and it might end up killing them if they shoot it, but it's really powerful. It also only had the partially used clip remaining, further limiting the usefulness. The power imbalance potential fits well within the grimdark setting, and gives the whole group a sort of trump card.

I get it's a different setting/system/aesthetic, but the fact remains, the players could experience a number of problems from their actions beyond even just the mechanical problems the plasma pistol represents. The noble's family might come after them for revenge, or the glow of the gun might give away the player while hiding, or, or... the possibilities are as unlimited as your imagination.

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You haven't included a lot of specifics on what the item is or how one character got overpowered, so my answer will be pretty general as well.

In general, one OP character is not going to steamroll an adventure, and even an OP character will have weaknesses.

If the cleric can heal big huge chunks of damage but doesn't keep AoE heals, swap some single target traps for AoE, or vice versa. If you have a melee fighter that is amazing, throw in some flying enemies. If the tanker has a huge AC, throw so many chumps at them he can't block them all. If there's a sustained ranged dps that's great, put them in low visibility situations or have the monsters take cover.

I played with a DM for a long time who went strictly by the dice. That resulted in our party picking up some silly things in 2nd edition - like an artifact capable of using True Resurrection 1/month when we were level 4. The key to balancing some of these items is adding downsides when it makes sense (an artifact being used by a low level character may backfire or is guaranteed to cause weakness for a day, week or month, or age them) or realizing the OPness will pass as other characters gear up (the fighter who now has a +3 sword when everyone else is using non-magical weapons). In my parties, when someone picks up an overleveled piece of gear, they usually forfeit loot rights on the next adventure unless you wind up with something no one else needs and even then, it might get sold rather than go to that person.

TL;DR Play to the weakness of that character or realize that this situation is temporary and move on. If you can't figure out a weakness, let us know. I'm sure someone here can.

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The random loot tables in the DMG seem pretty well-balanced by CR, and shouldn't result in characters that are too OP. One trick I've seen is to make a magic item only attunable to one person, and useless to others that might try to use it. This way, players aren't tempted (or guilted) into redistributing their items, and everyone can be stuck with a magic item.

Anyway, others have answered ways to mitigate the OP-ness of the magic items, but I'm going to suggest that you let your players be OP.

Part of the fun of RPGS (for some people, at least) is just being able to use abilities and magic to solve problems. For example, it's a lot of fun to pick up a quiver of Arrows of Dragon Slaying and defeat a dragon far above your CR. It's a lot less fun to get a vorpal sword, and find out that none of your enemies have heads. Even if you're going to eventually pit them against encounters that mitigate their magic items, it's good to let your characters revel in their powerful item at least a few times.

This will also happen naturally, against varied encounters. Maybe a fight will take place in an antimagic field, and the casters will be useless. Maybe the enemies will be across a huge ravine, and melee fighters can't do anything. Variability across situations is a feature of the game.

Of course, if your players start complaining that they're too underpowered or they want a more difficult campaign, you can start implementing some other tweaks (a secretly cursed item, maybe?). If you're using level-appropriate magic items from the DMG, though, I think it should average out over time.

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