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.
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).
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!
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.
- 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.