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The 5e DMG only gives proximate levels of item strength: common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and legendary. The item levels don't really seem to help me judge if two items of the same rarity will be equally as strong. I am not looking to keep my party on track with the recommended starting equipment listed on page 38 of the DMG as an answer to a 3.5 question would have me do. I only care about balancing the power level within the party.

I don't want some members of my party having items that prove to be incredibly useful while others have items that are rather impractical or too situation dependent.

In the 5e DMG on page 153 it says:

"Rarity provides a rough measure of an item's power relative to other magic items. Each rarity corresponds to character level..."

I understand that I can give my party as much or as little treasure as I want (DMG, p. 133) but when I do give items to them I don't want the party to be drastically unbalanced.

Is there some way to award magical items while also keeping a balance of power in my group?

Note: I'm not overly fond of randomly rolling for magical items in the first place. Solutions where I chose each members items is not a problem as long as the solution helps me gauge the strength of the items I'm choosing. If it helps I have a party of five consisting of a Paladin, a Rogue, a Monk, a Druid, and a Bard. The party level is 3, though this should hopefully be a solution that I can use throughout a long campaign as they make their way to 20.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain what advice you imagine receiving in an answer beyond, "If someone is too powerful, don't give them good loot for a while"? \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Jun 3 '15 at 0:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage "the solution helps me gauge the strength of the items I'm choosing" therefore the answer I'm looking for should be preemptive and not reactive. Ideally the dmg would have some sort of mechanic for more than a rough power level, buy that doesn't exist. I am hoping that someone might be able to give me some sort of method of analysis to determine if items are going to be equal. Simply ignoring one character is not an acceptable way of making balancing the party. I want to start people off on the same level, not just compensate for one PCs strength by flooding the others. \$\endgroup\$ – SolidusVerum Jun 3 '15 at 1:11
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Arguably, this isn't your problem. In most circumstances, you don't give loot to specific characters - you give it to the party, and let them sort out how it gets distributed.

Yes, this could theoretically lead to one player hogging all the magic items, but that's a solved problem; As long as your players are aware that they can negotiate how stuff gets shared around, they'll generally spot unfair situations, renegotiate as necessary, and generally agree on equitable solutions on their own.

If one player's lack of magic items is dragging the party down, that's the whole party's problem, and most players will realise that pretty quickly; Even the most selfish of players will agree it's a good idea to share the wealth if it improves their own survivability.

If magic items have already made one player much more powerful than the others - Well, it's not like magic items are bound to the first person who picks them up; Your players can always just redistribute them where they'll be more useful.

If your players don't find an uneven distribution of loot to be inequitable - Well, then there's no problem to solve; Everyone's already having fun, and that's what the game is all about.

So, to repeat myself, this isn't your problem: Working out how to distribute loot is just another part of the game. Heck, some players find it one of the most fun parts of the game: Working out how to effectively use available resources is core gameplay, and deciding how magic items should be distributed for best effect is part of that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The party I game with has always allotted magic item picks by random roll. We all roll d100 and that is the order you pick from the available loot - you are free to pass but that bumps you to the end of the line. Obvious party benefit (wand of CLW goes to the Cleric etc) doesn't go into the pool. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 3 '15 at 1:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Yeah, there's a lot of ways of doing it. In one of my campaigns the players use group consensus for all loot distribution; They don't even bother keeping separate gold totals for different party members. In another game all loot went immediately into the party's pool, from which each party member drew a fixed monthly salary. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 3 '15 at 2:04
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I find that in order to keep power in check, staying away from raw damage items and + magic weapons is a good bet. Give characters utility items instead.

Example:

A flamebrand sword with no + damage. All it does is change the longsword damage to fire damage instead of slashing. This has the added benefit of being doubly effective against undead.

Give them a flask that never runs out of water so long as you drink from it. Give them a Horse figurine that they can utter a command word to summon their horse (travel only, no combat - that way they don't try to sell the figurine for thousands of gold) with.

Heh. Hehehehehehe. Give them some cursed items. A sword that gets jealous if you use anything but it, giving the player disadvantage on attack rolls if they don't use it. A helmet that screams whenever the lights are put out. A torch that's afraid of the dark. A sling that only hurls insults in the targets tongue (it does 1d4 + CHA self esteem damage, no save).

I could go on. There's lots you can do. Let your imagination go wild and start having some fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Now I want to drop a sling that hurls insults for the Dragonborn bard in my game. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – Asher Mar 1 '18 at 18:25
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TL;dr - if you want to maintain intra-party balance, hand out items that fall into a single category.

So, if you want to make sure you maintain balance within the party, there are, fundamentally, 2 solutions.

The first, and easiest, is not to give anyone magic items.

This is an option that 5e totally supports, and your party in particular won't be too disadvantaged by it. This is because the only reason a party starts to really need magic items at high levels is because the monsters start having resistance (or even immunity!) to non-magical weapon attacks. However, your party only includes one character for whom this will be a problem - the Rogue. The other characters all have ways around this problem. So not giving out magical items is absolutely an option.

However, magic items are awesome and shiny! And you probably wouldn't be asking this question if you didn't want to give your players some.

The second method is ...

... (somewhat obviously), to make sure the magic items you hand out allow your players to maintain parity. Note that unless you invest in some major railroading, like having items "bind" to players or something, you can't guarantee parity. If you hand out a magical item for each of them, they might decide that they're better off loading 2 characters up with everything you handed out. That's up to them, obviously; all you can do is give them items that allow them to be balanced and hope for the best.

So, to ensure that the items you hand out enable the party to stay balanced, you probably want to give out items that fall roughly into the same category. For example, I made sure that every player in my party had a magic weapon. Simple enough, if not entirely fair on spellcasters.

A DM who I play with took a rather different approach: it's a nautical campaign, so he made sure all of us had an item that allows us to be useful in water. There was a Mariner's Armour, a Ring of Swimming, Boots of Water Walking, a Cloak of the Manta Ray, and a Helm of Water Breathing. All very different items suited to different characters, but fundamentally the same bonus to each of us.

The easiest way to start would probably be to ensure that each of your characters has a magic weapon. You can pace them out a bit, because the +1 bonus won't particularly imbalance your party. If you drop each player's "favoured weapon", odds are good the appropriate character will be the one to start using it.

For the Monk, I'd recommend something like the Insignia of Claws from Hoard of the Dragon Queen: it gives unarmed strikes the usual +1 bonus to attack and damage and makes them count as magical.

The Druid is trickier, being a spellcaster. If they spend a lot of time fighting in Wild Shape, an item like the Insignia of Claws for natural attacks would work well. If they focus on spellcasting, things get really tricky, because spellcasting is fundamentally different to attacking. Something like a Pearl of Power that provides a minor bonus to spellcasting could work.

Going forward, you want to keep giving them all roughly similar bonuses. The obvious next step for me would be AC-boosting items. Like the weapons, most players will have a particular armour type they prefer to use, so dropping a magical armour of that type should make sure it goes to the right person. For the Monk you'll probably want something like the Bracers of Unarmoured Defense.

Final piece of advice: If one of your players seems to be lagging behind in terms of usefulness, it's ok to throw them a bone. Nothing drastically more powerful than what everyone else has, but something suited to them that will allow them to stay competitive with the others. For example, my current group has 3 characters who can fly, and one who can't. So I'm planning to drop a single item that grants flight somewhere in the near future, to help even things out.

One final final note: This answer is based solely around the principle of intra-party balance. You will need to adjust encounter balance based on how many items you hand out and how powerful they are.

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Don't balance the loot. Balance the chances.

For example, a highly rare and powerful ring of charming can be nearly unusable if a party tries to defend a city from a siege of an undead army. But a big stack of relatively common holy water could be much more useful.

Which is more usable, or completely unusable, depends on the actual game scenario, depends on your DM style, depends on everything.

The most enjoyable is for the players, if they can commit important deeds: save the party, reach their (in-game) personal goals, etc.

If you don't have one, then create list. List for each of the players, what they want to reach, what is important for them: both of their characters, and their players.

Between the gaming sessions, think over the last session, and simply count, how many chances each of the players got, to reach these goals. Probably it won't be a really big number, I think it will be at most 2-5 in each of the sessions. Look, who is the smallest. He is the weak spot.

While you are preparing for the next session, create some scenarios for him, where he can fulfill some of his wishes in the list. If it requires to give some magic items for the party which only he can use efficiently, or a situation where he saves the party, or any other, it doesn't really matter.

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Balancing your party's power isn't about magic items. It's about the situation you throw them into. Some characters are just naturally going to be better at certain situations than others. I build characters who aren't optimized for combat on purpose. And I also build optimized damage dealers and super tanks on purpose. They each shine in different situations.

If a party member isn't getting much screen time or is feeling useless, it's your job as a DM to put the party in situations that play to that character's strengths.

The magic items are secondary to the situations you put them in. If one player is lagging behind badly or just isn't having fun, then you have to step in and determine what makes the game fun for them, and give them items and situations where they can feel useful.

If they're dying too much, find an item that increases his or her chances to survive, hopefully something only they can use so the party distributes it to him or her.

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