Rewards Vs. Gifts

Treasure serves many purposes, first, it enables a party to continue adventuring. Second, it can make them artificially stronger then what they are naturally entitled to be. And third, it is a reward. I stress this word, a reward, and it should always stay a reward, vs. just giving out gifts.

Introducing treasure is an art-form. There are no set rules about how to do it, but if you don't do it well then you'll run into problems. Now, I'm just going to assume that you know what happens when you give out to much treasure, as well as what happens when you give out too little. This post isn't really about that. It's about rewarding creative and inquisitive PCs.


We also won't be talking about money, art items, or gemstones. Specifically, we'll be talking about magic items. There are surprisingly enough, only a few different kinds of magic that you can dish out.

  1. Limited Magic: These items are always preferred. They have a limited amount of uses, and once they have been exhausted, they are discarded.
  2. Throw-Away: These items are things that players love deeply, but once they find something better, they forget all about them faster then a nice girlfriend.
  3. Campaign Items: These are items that can define a character, and are never upgraded. These things must be given sparingly because their very existence can throw a wrench into the most well planed gaming scenarios.
The DM should always sit down and design his treasure. We will always keep in mind: Rewards, not Gifts. There are two ways that we can go about this.

  • Using the Item: The monster or NPC will actively use the item against the party. Sometimes we DM's don't think, and instead of just increasing the NPCs level or numbers, we'll give them an enchanted sword of some kind, which is crazy! Always remember that magic swag is worth their XP value in gold, thus even a +1 Sword is worth 1,000GP so if you aren't willing to give them that kind of cash, Don't give them a +1 weapon. Everything that an NPC owns can easily find its way into the hands of the Players.
  • Hiding the Item: Magic items are treasured items. Many of them cannot be constructed by player characters, we have to hide these things in areas where we don't think that the players are going to go, but if they do, then they will be rewarded!

Hiding items is where some of the fun actually comes from. Hiding them well is a skill! Designing hidden passages to protected items. Hiding them in every day objects, or AS every day objects is a good trick, but in order to pull it off, you actually need to decorate all of your scenes with window dressing.

  • A cursed sword-1 has a hidden compartment in the handle.
  • Secret compartment in a treasure chest
  • A Hollowed-out book
  • Secret drawer in the heel of a boot
  • Tattoo or Painting is actually a cryptic treasure map
  • Hiding small things in an empty eye socket
A little imagination goes a long way. Magic items shouldn't be on the top of treasure chests, or in places that just scream "PICK ME UP!"

Magic Swords 101

Just a quick word on Enchanted Swords and other weapons/armor. Not all of our weapons need have a back story, especially if the item is something that the character will be upgrading in the future, but we still have to ask ourselves, "What is a magic sword?"

The Norse created magic swords by giving them names, however we aren't talking about Bob, Jim, or even Harker of Blood. The Runes are a magic alphabet, each letter gave the blade power. It was the letters themselves that formed magic names. Of course, this is advanced stuff! We needn't have actual magic words, but the name of the sword will be carved on the blade, this name should give a hint at special powers, and we should keep these powers consistent, thus we wouldn't give a +1 Sword the name of WOLFSLAYER, because it would take a long time to hack apart a werewolf with it, on the other hand, if it was a Sword +1, +4 vs. Lycanthropy, then this would be a good name.

An enchanted sword, even a +1, is sharper and lighter then your average sword, it is something to be coveted, but if you get angery because you created some crazy back story about how the sword was owned by King Luther and nobody seems to care, you are over thinking it. Now if it was an intelligent sword, well then THAT is cause to build a proper back story.

4 comments:

David said...

Treasure distribution and control is probably one of the tricks to DMing that takes the longest to learn. For instance, I still screw it up.

Along the lines of not giving an NPC a +1 sword if you don't' want the players getting hold of it, be careful with inventory you list in shops. My previous campaign had a thriving black market run by a large criminal organization. The market dealt primarily in stolen magic items. Normally this isn't an issue, except that the party polymorphed themselves, destroyed the market, killed or drove off the criminals in the immediate area, grabbed as much as they could carry (in a dozen bags of holding and a few Tenser's Floating Discs) and planeshifted.

Suddenly, I had a party that had randomly shifted to a point in the Heroic Domains of Ysgaard with three million gold in magic items.

Anyway, just presented as a cautionary tale. Yeesh.

Ripper X said...

Oh man, David. That would suck, but the cool thing about mistakes is that it challenges the DM to be more creative. How did you rectify this situation?

I think that I would invent a nasty cursed item that infects all of the other magic items. Something that can't be detected right away, and will corrupt or destroy all of it, even the stuff that they had before the robbery if they aren't careful.

I never sell magic items, EVER. Stores full of magic just seems to take away the mystic of what a magic item is. They aren't common things, if they were then the world would be a silly place, and that is the last thing that I want.

David said...

To be honest, I kind of blunt-forced the issue. Though they'd stolen a great deal of material, I decided that they each found a single item of notable worth (the party was mid-high level at this point) amongst a pile of 'useless' +1s and whatnot. I allowed them each to pick a category, and I rolled a major item from that. Other than that, it was a pile of what might be considered junk at that level.

Also they lost quite a portion of sales by the fact that no vendor can afford the wealth they were trying to sell, and no vendor can reasonably move that much in a lifetime anyway. I think they ended up getting something on the order of one million gold from the sale.

Also three quarters of the party died shortly afterwords, because they were stupid. They decided that the cursed (intelligent, CE wizard soul) Amulet of the Planes was fun to go sightseeing with. Since the intelligence in the item forced an opposed roll against the amulet's user to wrest control of the plane shift, it took control fairly commonly. Eventually it tired of overuse and shifted the party into the Nine Hells, directly in front of a Pit Lord. The party all failed fear and scattered, though I ruled that the wizard had presence of mind enough that "Fleeing in the most direct route possible" included "Planeshifting to the Prime Material". The party took heavy hits from the huge devil, and then on the wizard's turn, he ported himself and the two party members in reach to the Prime Material, in a random location. They cowered from the fear effect on the ground in a forest, while one of them bled to death from wounds. The fighter of the party (technically Dragon Shaman) was captured and enslaved in the Hells.

The campaign involved a lot of planar travel afterwords, but they did stop the stupid sightseeing nonsense. They also used a combination of spells to remove the intelligence from the Amulet, so that it became reliable.

Though the influx of money and loot certainly 'broke' the campaign regarding PC power levels, it also led to some fun stories.

Erik said...

It isn't the right fit for every campaign but the Earthdawn style of handling magic items works rather well and tends to lead towards a game that's more like a story. I mean really, how many fantasy stories get all detailed about how the characters are constantly upgrading their gear?

In Earthdawn there are few if any random magic items. They were all created and there are two basic sources. Craftsmen and legends. Crafting a magic item takes a lot of effort and is moderately costly. These items are the +1 swords and daggers and the general workhorse items. The powerful ones all come from legends.

These legendary items are fairly normal at base, you have to actually bond with them and learn what they are to get any great use out of them. And as you learn more about them, you invest time (and in Earthdawn, the equivalent of XP) in them. Sometimes to increase an items power you don't passively learn about it's legend, you must go imitate it. If you find the legendary sword of a pirate king it may require you to subdue several pirate lords and take command of them at some point, much as it's former master did.

Whether to charge XP for each step like this is up to you. In Earthdawn there are several ways one can spend XP so it doesn't stand out there. Doing so in D&D might require more thought. But if legendary items are slightly more useful or powerful than what everyone else has, charging XP to ramp up their power might not be a bad way to balance things if everyone doesn't own one.

Oh and for David's scenario... Wow that sucks. Sounds like it was probably really lousy roleplay. Although scenarios like that are easy to introduce villains and extra plots to. Just add another, more powerful layer to the guys they stole from under the surface. That market was just a branch of a much larger cartel spanning dozens of prime material worlds and only a few people knew of that. The head honcho had a shipment of infernal weapons on the premises he was buying from a demon lord but the deal hadn't been finalized yet. The god of thieves is angry at them because many of his fervent worshippers died to the party's weapons and the god is mad because the PC's didn't even pull the job off with any finesse, they just killed everyone. One of the newly acquired magic items is a prison for a powerful creature with an agenda, whom the party accidentally frees.

I know that won't help with the game you mentioned but hopefully it'll give you ideas for next time. Or maybe it'll just remind me. I tend to go all deer in headlights when players do things that grossly overbalanced to me too.

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