Magic Item Dispersal: New Players, Old Problems

I ran into a situation recently where a player pointed out the discrepancy between the levels of magic items possessed by the characters that have played in the campaign from Level 1, and two characters that just joined the group last session at Level 10. I informed our two new players to use the basic formula for selecting equipment during the character creation process:

  • 1 Level +1 magic item
  • 1 Level magic item
  • 1 Level -1 magic item
  • Gold equal to Level -1 magic item

The new players wisely chose a weapon and armor for two of the three “free” magic items, meaning they are starting with an 11th and 10th level magic item for the weapon and armor. The third “free” magic item is typically going to be a neck slot item, which boosts defenses and grants other helpful properties. I think of the trinity of Weapon, Armor and Neck as the player’s main gear. Others may disagree with this distinction; a two-weapon striker would likely consider both weapons and their armor as main gear. You can analyze the magic items for your party whoever you wish; this system made the most sense to me. As a result, a Level 10 character joining the party will have main gear items of Level 11, 10, and 9 to start the adventure. Plus, he or she will still have 4,200gp to spend on other equipment.

"It's mine!" "No, it's mine!"

Compared to the long-time players in my campaign, they new PCs are perhaps overloaded with high-level magic items for their main gear. This presents a bit of a problem for me as a DM. First, I don’t consider myself to be stingy with magic items but the new PC equipment formula makes me rethink that; perhaps I am stingy and didn’t realize it. Second, as a player in my group pointed out to me, it might be better for the long-time players to roll up a new character and start out with better gear than keep their current character. Obviously, the roleplaying component of the character is lost, but I’m strictly talking about combat and tactics in this post. I don’t want my long-time players to feel nerfed by new players with flashy gear. There are a few solutions to this. However, when in doubt, it is also helpful to obtain data instead of just going with initial hunches and opinions. Below is one method to track the magic items of your PCs and keep everyone happy with loot at your table.

Tracking Magic Items

First and quite simply, track the magic items for all of your party members. There are probably fancier ways to do this, but I am now using an Excel spreadsheet. I was previously keeping track of magic items in a Note in MasterPlan, but got out of that habit after we had several players turnover in our group. I will return to the issue of turnover in a moment. I have provided an Excel template for you to use to track and analyze the magic items of your party (hat tip to Ultimate DM for first generating the table, and I later added some modifications).

Click here to download Excel Spreadsheet for Magic Item Analysis

Second, change the basic formula for the starting equipment for incoming players if you think it will unbalance the party. Review where your party is with magical items and bring in new players in that same range. There are a few ways to calculate this. You can take a look at the average level for the magical gear in the party. I believe a better method is to limit your analysis to the main gear I mentioned above: Weapon, Armor, Neck. If you have a Level 10 party but their average level of their main gear is 7.5, then bring in new members with the following equipment build:

  • 1 Level 8 magic item
  • 1 Level 7 magic item
  • 1 Level 6 magic item
  • Gold equal to Level 6 magic item

Finally, you can plan to bump up your long-time players in upcoming modules with better gear. Reward them for their commitment to the campaign, and don’t allow power envy to creep into the group. 

Potential Problems for Magic Item Dispersal

That brings me to some potential problems in allocating magic item parcels over the life of a campaign. One such problem occurs when you give an item or two to a player that later leaves the group. Those items are likely not useful for other players in the game and are just lost or sold for significantly less than what they are worth. Multiple departures in your campaign can throw off the balance of your treasure parcel distribution.

For example, you may have built a module around the fighter in your party and given them a very nice magic item. But two sessions later, that fighter leaves and no one else in the party can really benefit from the item. This type of thing has happened in my group a few times, and it can become confusing to keep track of parcels unless you monitor what gear all the players hold in your campaign.

Second, you may run into a situation where an imbalance develops between players in your campaign through no fault of your own. Perhaps one or two people are benefiting the most from magic items. You may have a player in the group that is assertive (in either a roleplaying sense or just as an individual) who takes the most from parcel drops. I’ve also seen players engage in a “roll off” to determine who gets the new magic item. A couple of lucky rolls could have one player benefiting while the other player is left wanting for new treasure. Also, be mindful of players who tend to be quiet or reserved as they may not “remind” you that they are looking for a new weapon or armor, and may not assert themself when treasure is being split among the party members. It is helpful to request a magic item wishlist from players, but they may not respond to such a call. Even if your players are not vocal about their magic items, it is still wise to monitor your group to ensure that all PCs are equipped to about the same level.

Analyze the Magic

I have included an Excel Spreadsheet for anyone to download and use to keep track of the magic items in a campaign.  I believe this spreadsheet, and some of the calculations I have built-in, can improve your ability to fairly distribute magic items to your party. For those of you who enjoy sports, think of yourself as a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football. You have the ball (treasure) and you want to get everyone involved in the game and make them (PCs) happy. If a quarterback continues to only throw to one player (PC) time and time again, then the rest of the team will likely get frustrated with not seeing the ball (treasure). Spread the ball (treasure) around! 

Magic Item List for PCs in My Campaign

First and foremost, it’s essential to have a good overview of where each PC stands in terms of their magic items. To use the PCs in my campaign as an example, let’s simply look at the total magic items for each person. Today was the first day I did this exercise in months, and several noteworthy things grabbed my attention. One thing that immediately jumps out is that Lelu, an Elven Ranger, only has four items, which is about half of everyone else. The only other PC with a similar number of items is Wulfing, a Barbarian, and he just joined our campaign last session. The player who controls Wulfing just started to play Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and has not finished shopping yet. Second, Griffo, a Halfling Rogue, is loaded with nine magic items. The rest of the party members fall within that range. As a result of analyzing the spreadsheet, it’s clear that Lelu is “due” for a magic item or two. Since I was not tracking the PC’s items in this detail, she was overlooked in the treasure drops. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s just happened that way.

To continue with a closer look at Lelu, she is a Level 10 PC without a magical weapon. I refused to believe this for the better part of the day while preparing this article. However, it seems that a shiny new bow has never been dropped as a reward and she has not purchased one with her gp. Combined with the knowledge above, it’s clear that a sensible move on my part would be to have a magical bow drop to the party in the very near future.  

Taking a closer look at the items, it seems  I have an aversion to giving out Belts, which makes some sense because I find most of them boring. However, it’s still a magic item that each PC could benefit from, so more Belts are likely in the future. The same applies for Head items; I don’t find many of them interesting, but I should start to delve deeper into the options to make the treasure parcels more interesting. Also, now that I started using Power2ool, I can create my own items with great ease and drop them for the PCs.

I realize an average is not the best statistic; it is skewed by outliers and has a host of other problems. But for my purposes, looking at a few averages for the PC’s magic items has been useful. The orange/tan boxes in the spreadsheet are calculated by the item levels for each magic item for the PC. You can use this chart to track the gear for your party and the calculations will automatically display for you. (If you have more than 6 PCs in your party and want the same type of chart for 7 or more PCs, then contact me and I can create it for you).

For example, Wulfing has the highest magic item average as his items have an average level of 8. However, once Wulfing uses his gp to buy a few more lower-level items, his average will drop. This is just one example of the average not telling you everything you need to know.

Remaining consistent with my belief that a PC’s main gear is the Weapon/Armor/Neck trifecta, I next calculated the average for each PC’s main gear. The picture changes a bit as George has the highest average main gear item level at 9.7. The lowest main gear item level is Griffo with 6.3. George just got new armor last session in my campaign, so his score would have looked quite different just a few weeks ago. Griffo has the most magic items, but his armor is only Level 4, so that drags down his main gear average. It would probably be unwise for me to “fix” his main gear average by giving him new armor right away. There are other players who are in greater need at the moment (Sorry, Jeffrey!).

The final line in the spreadsheet is the average level of each PC’s weapon/armor magic items. The results show that all of the PCs, except for Lelu (who will get a new bow next session) are in the same neighborhood as the range is 8 – 10. Returning to the original point by one of my players that the new players are overpowered, the data does not really support that conclusion. Certainly Lelu is under-equipped compared to everyone in the group, but the new PCs have a similar number of items and their averages are not overpowered by comparison to the longtime players in the campaign. Now that the players are on the cusp of Paragon, they will start to find greater rewards . . . and face greater challenges.

Final Thoughts

  • Be mindful of how you create treasure parcels. Monitor the gear that each PC has in your campaign, and plan accordingly. Many groups may not be vocal about treasure drops, but I’m guessing even the groups that are quiet about this secretly get annoyed if there is an imbalance in the treasure drops.
  • Balance random treasure drops with targeted magic items for a specific PC. It can be suspenseful to have a “roll off” for a high-level item that everyone wants, but doing that all the time will get old. At the same time, every drop shouldn’t be obviously only for one person.
  • Try to tie in rewards to the story in your campaign. If the quest relates to stopping an evil witch, then it’s likely your Wizard will stumble upon some gear that is useful. But having an amazing sword drop from the final conflict with her will not make much sense . . . unless you write it in that she has slayed previous champions, etc. Be creative in how you describe the treasure in your campaign. Try to make it more than just filling in the slots on the spreadsheet.
  • Experiment with creating your own magic items with Power2ool or another program. Create items that capitalize on how your players use their characters and infuse them with story elements from your campaign world.
  • Be fair. Think about how you would feel as a player as you review the magic items held by your PCs. If you find an imbalance, try to act on that quickly.

About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
This entry was posted in DM Advice, PC Behavior, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Magic Item Dispersal: New Players, Old Problems

  1. David Flor says:

    Because almost all my games are “play by post”, I’ve had new players come and go quite often. Luckily, most of the time the campaign is very low level and the PCs haven’t found enough items to make a difference yet, but there have been cases when it’s been an issue.

    Usually I forego the L-1/L/L+1 and gp allotment you use above, and take educated guesses as to what the new player should appear with. Then again, I admit I don’t quite follow the parcel system all the time and just make sure all players are treated equally: they all get magic weapons and armors on or about the same time, only increase the base enchantment level when everyone has an item (i.e., no +2s until everyone has a +1), and everything else comes gradually or is designed to be appropriate to the character from a storytelling standpoint. My players haven’t complained yet… They’re in to the campaign more because of the story than hoarding equipment.

    I’ve also been involved in campaigns where there was barely any treasure at all (I mean, why would a pack of goblins be carrying around powerful weapons and armor in the first place? Are we seriously led to believe that goblins beat one or more well equipped heroes?) and these campaigns were great fun.

  2. AJ says:

    Sigh… Yer going to make me challenge yer Average issues aren’t ya Iddy?

    Here is why I strongly dislike Averaging Magic items.
    Fist of all, lets talk about your “big three”. Your own calculated number for Lelu should be 5 instead of 7.5 as she has no magic weapon…. But that’s far from the real issue. The real issue is you are telling players what is important to them. Or rather, how they are to be judged in terms of loot. This is faulty logic. For example, a Wizard does not value armor anywhere near as highly as fighter does. Nor do classes like Barbarian who are not built to avoid hits, but rather to absorb them. The same can be said for rogues who (much like Griffo has stated) prefer to dodge in and out of combat rather than stand toe to toe. This is why his AC is like 8 higher vs. Opportunity attacks. Does he like armor? sure. Is it anywhere near as valued as his weapons or speed? I would doubt it. Thusly look at his items. He has four items all of which are higher level than anyone elses HIGHEST level item. It would be well within his potential to sell 2 of those and purchase/craft “better armor” if he wanted too. But he doesn’t. Why? The answer is simple, because it’s not as important.
    Anotehr example is the Wonderous item, Salve of Power. This is by far the Wizards second Favorite item. The ability to recall and encoutner power is extremely coveted to a wizard, and far outweighs armor or neck slot items.

    So what’s the solution? The answer, in my experience, is to take note of the highest level items a character owns. No matter what they are. Secondly you need to take note of what items are being carried for the party and not owned. For example, Morgoth on your sheet carries a Battle Standard designated as a party item, yet this is being factored as an item he owns and working against his avg. (actually it helps his avg. because it’s a lower level item than his avg. but I’ll get to that in a second).
    Thirdly, pay attention to the class and the play style of the character as certain slots are more beneficial to certain classes. As you pointed out two weapon fighters would value a second weapon. A single weapon fighter would value a good shield, where a barbarian such as Wulfing values Boots of Charging. It’s no coincidence that being a new character he had the choice of items to buy, and BOOTS are his highest level item. Not a weapon, nor armor, nor neck.

    Neck items are not going to be big draws for characters who are ranged based, simply because they aren’t attacked nearly as often with non AC attacks, and if they are it’s likely to be reflex, and ranged characters usually have a decent reflex due to their attack mode. DEX or INT. For a wizard, head peices are really nice, so are hands; as is the aforementioned wonderous items. Clerics like melee weapons but also value a symbol which is probably higher on the request list than a neck item. The same could be said for Paladins, but you’d have to evaluate the paladin because depending upon his chosen powers it could be armor, weapon, shield, symbol, or even mount slot, this is particularly true for the beast masters.
    The last case is even more silly, but it’s another example of why the Trifecta theory fails. As a new character, why buy a single magic weapon, armor, or neckslot item? So the effect Trifecta number would be zero. Thus ensuring that here comes the loot! Again, silly but what if a character comes along who does this? (not on purpose)

    Ok, now on to total avg. of magic items. This is a BAD idea. You said “The results show that all of the PCs, except for Lelu (who will get a new bow next session) are in the same neighborhood as the range is 8 – 10. Returning to the original point by one of my players that the new players are overpowered, the data does not really support that conclusion.” I disagree. What if Wulfing does not buy any other gear? His avg. gear level stays at 8, and the Wizard Morgoth’s avg. gear level is 5.5. What If Morgoth crafts 4 level 1 items. His Avg. magic item level will drop to 4. Does that mean Morgoth is now subpar and deserving of a BIG payday? I don’t think so either, but that’s not what the AVG. is telling you, which is why it’s flawed. By that logic Morgoth, being a wizard would be best to ditch the robe, which is not nearly as valued as the level of the item sugests, (it’s only 2 AC on a wizard, and it’s power is duplicated by a wizard power, which he doesn’t have to be bloodied to use like he does with the robe) and wait for the bigger payday to come. Dropping both his Trifecta Avg. to 6 and his overall avg. to 5.

    The last thing to note is crafting. Do you hold crafted items against a PC as “treasure” granted? I personally do not do this, because that is one of the powers of the class, and is not a “fairness”issue of the DM. This is usually a good idea since Crafted items are usually lower level and would pull your avg. numbers down thus skewing the numbers as I mentioned earlier. Again another reason not to use averages.

    With all due respect, I just see using averages to help guide rewards as bad logic. It’s just not that simple. So what’s the best way to work? In my experience as I mentioned above, it’s monitoring the “highest level items” in the party, and seperating what are “Party items” and what are “character items”. Some parties share bags of holding, some individuals like their own bag of holding, you have to know your group to make that call. As David (poset above) stated he doesn’t hand out +2’s until eveyone has a +1. That’s a good rule of thumb, but I would broaden it the level of the items for me personally. For example, in my game, everyone had a level 6-8 weapon, the ranger had a level 3 weapon. But the other charactes had other items level 10- 13, and the rangers highest was 5. She carries one party item, and eventually adopted a second one which is level 10. When a BIG parcel came up, I decided to grant her a Weapon that is also tied for the the highest level item in the group. (the other being a ring a certain IDDY Rogue wears =) The reason being is because she had the lowest level magic weapon, and was tied for the lowest level overall magic item which was also a party type of item.

    The way I track BIG treasure is by number of magic items that are equal to the characters level or greater. This keeps the BIG items spread around, but you have to stay on top of it because you never know if the player you intend to have it will actually get the item. This past session I had a really nice cloak I figured would go to the fighter, the barbarian, or the rogue (all of which I was prepared for). Well, the rogue NO SHOWED (glare at ID), and the Fighter & Barbarian decided to roll for it, but they let the Cleric and Ranger roll too… Ranger won… In a short span she went from worst to first in terms of loot level… Ergo it’s now my job to readjust for the near future.
    Again, not using any averages, because they would tell me to give loot to two of the most loot heavy characters in the party, and that’s just not reasonable.

  3. Morgoth says:

    /e Mogoth checks the selling prices for Robes of Contingency +2….
    /e Morgoth ponders the benefits of the Disenchant ritual earning him both Residum AND Godlike Magical treasure benefits…
    /e Morgoth starts grafting restful bedrolls in hopes that the Gods will see his pathetically low average level of loot.

  4. The Id DM says:


    I think your response was longer than my original post!

    I certainly agree that Average isn’t the *only* piece of data you should use, but it can be helpful as one data point. All of your points are quite valid, and I think the primary take-home message of the post is that the DM should monitor and track the gear of their party. Otherwise, the various imbalances discussed can get really pronounced over time during the campaign.

  5. Charisma says:

    Tourq has a nice solution to magic-item-dispersal issues. It basically reflavors magic items into a single item of power, or luck, or touched by gods, etc., instead of characters swapping magic items like they were trading cards.

  6. AJ says:

    Basically what Tourq is doing is reshaping the 3.5 Vow of Poverty path that was an optional ruleset in order to let a character gain “magical” powers without using magic items. Basically the premise of VoP was that since you swore off worldly gains you aquired powers granted by the gods. This path basically does the same thing without you actually having to be poor. Well, in fact it blends it into the scenario universally, which is fine. It’s not uncommon, or unheard of to see this done and if that’s part of the world flavor that’s cool as long as everyone is all for it. The same goes for low magic campaigns. Again it’s all about game balance PC vs encounter.

    Personally it’s not my cup of tea. If I wanted to do that I’d play one of the many super hero RPG’s out there for that super hero like fix. To me the economy and diversity of having a weapon/item you might want vs. a weapon/item you might need, or some item you never thought about is what keeps the traditional method interesting. There’s a plethora of modules which drop a unique and weird magic item early merely because it’s presence can prove useful later if the PC’s are smart enough to keep it around. That sort of foreshadowing is valuable, and downright fun. Nothing like the look on a PC’s face when they find a bunch of acid resistance potions… “um,,, guys,,, we were going after orc’s, what does this mean????”

    Besides how many folks would spend their slot on some ofthe wonderous items that can prove to be really cool? I imagine not many would. Wonderous Items would probably be mostly forgotten as each player would inclined to “bulk up”.

  7. Pingback: Dungeon Economics 101 | The Id DM

  8. Wayne says:

    I think it would be interesting to see a mini-follow up article, to see how much the gear/distribution has changed in teh 6 months since you started tracking it.


    • The Id DM says:

      We have experienced some turnover in the group so it’s tough to say at this point. But it reminds me that I need to update the list again!

      • Svafa says:

        Old post, I know, but while I’m no maven of Excel I noticed some simple changes that might help. Replace the Total Items cells (C24, E24, etc.) with the function =count(c2:c22) and similar. This way you don’t have to total the items yourself and it will do so for you when you input the item levels. Additionally, if you want, you can simplify/shorten the Item Level average by changing it to =average(c2:c22) and similar (that the blacked out fields are empty won’t make a difference to the average). You can clean it up more by changing it to =if(c24=0,0,average(c2:c22)) which will check the Total Items and only calculate an average if any item levels have been entered.

        You might also consider adding a row for =max(c2:c22) would display the highest item level they possess. Similarly a =min(c2:c22) would display their lowest item level. And here’s where my limitations in Excel come into play: there should be a way to use an =if() to return the row value of the max or min result and then print the corresponding A column value in order to tell you which slot the highest or lowest level item belongs to.

        Anyway, it’s a useful Excel sheet that I’ll probably convert to a Google doc and use for reference in our campaign. Thanks. 😀

  9. I laughed my sides off when I saw this picture of two wizards fighting over a staff!!!

    Brought back fond memories!!! 🙂

    Lyle wanted the Staff of Air for his Black Robe character…
    I of course wanted it for my White Robe mage…
    Lyle’s black-robed elf touched the staff….
    He was blown across the 100×100 foot lich’s tomb by a bolt of lightning off the staff…

    It floated over to my mage’s hand.

    The DM explained “Lundarquarius already HAS one of the staves of Elemental Control! The staff of Fire. No wizard can have TWO staves! Shame on you! That’s 3d10 lightning damage for sheer GREED! Jasryn, the Staff of Air is yours.

  10. I DM myself. Under 5e rules, magic items are rather stingy.

    I myself try to begin each new 1st Level Character with at least ONE magic item, even if it’s a minor item I create (such as a Glowing Ring that puts out the brilliance of a single candleflame, 5 feet diameter) or a Staff of Illumination (which can be vastly powerful, but the mage PC can “grow” into it. He starts out only being able to access the cantrip level spells, and gets access to Daylight and Sunburst when the wizard is capable of casting those spells.)

    Good idea, or am I being…naive? Nerdy?


    • The Id DM says:

      I think that is a fine idea. A magic item that isn’t too powerful adds some flavor to the game and gives each character something extra to do in either combat, exploration, or social interactions. Cool idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s