Scarcity! When The Loot’s All Gone But You Must Go On, It’s Scarcity.

The title is much more effective if you start singing Tragedy by Bee Gees. And you are quite welcome since the song will likely stay in your mind for the better portion of the day! The good folks that brew and market beer for Saint Arnold Brewing Company have taught me a valuable lesson today. Saint Arnold is a local microbrew, and I am a huge fan of their products. Each year, they release “Divine Reserve” beers that are limited-edition and quite difficult to find. For several months, Saint Arnold has teased their customers with information about another limited-edition release for the Fall season – Saint Arnold Pumpkinator.

The release of the Pumpkinator was today, and it set off a frenzy by those hoping to get a taste of the beer. Calling different stores to see if they had any in stock resulted in the same-sounding weary and exasperated clerk answering the phone and stating before I could even utter a word, “We are out of Pumpkinator.” My wife attempted to call a few stores and one clerk laughed, “What is the deal with this pumpkin beer? Everyone is calling about it.”

Saint Arnold has a brewery in town and certainly a strong presence in local stores, but there are not mountains of advertising blasting the product. They have weekly tours, send out news bits through email once or twice a month and the company (and also the owner) posts through a Twitter feed. They have cultivated a rabid following, and their release of Pumpkinator is a testament to how well their strategy is working.

They are giving the customers what they want, but they sometimes make is very difficult for the customers to find what they want. It’s a tough balance act. The scarcity of Pumpkinator is driving interest and motivating people to drive all over the city in search of a single bottle of the brew. I find myself wondering, “How can I use scarcity to engage the players in my D&D campaign?” Perhaps I could do some things to create a similar sense of urgency to build up the players’ energy between and during gaming sessions.

What A Player Wants, What A Player Needs.

The first question I ask myself is, “What do players want the most?” It would seem likely that each player values something different about the gaming experience. The most common suspects would include:

  • Killing monsters
  • Acquiring loot (gold, magical gear, etc.)
  • Earning XP to Level Up (new powers, feats, etc.)
  • Roleplaying a character
  • Meeting new NPCs and furthering the story
  • Socializing with friends

A DM should be aware of each player’s wants while running the campaign, and pepper them throughout the gaming sessions. It can be tricky if two players want to run from dungeon to dungeon and kill monsters, two players want to hang in town and meet the locals to further the campaign story and the final two players just aren’t focused on the game and are happy hanging out to eat and drink (Pumpkinator!).

Learn what your players want. It should not be difficult – simply ask them! Once you learn what they enjoy most about gaming, you can begin to employ scarcity to motivate your players.

Less Is More

When you find out what each player wants, find interesting ways to drag out the experience. Instead of giving the players that wish to dive into combat the opportunity to kill monsters all the time, create some space between battles.  Create a supervillain that locals discuss in hushed tones, and allow the party to slowly learn more about the destructive force the villain possesses. The party could enter a town that the villain just left days early, and see broken buildings and bodies littering the town square. Build up the threat so the players that crave battle want to find the villain. The villain could even leave taunts behind to antagonize the party, but it could take many sessions for the party to finally “get their hands on” the villain to fight him.

By creating up a specific villain and teasing the party with the notion that the fight against the specific villain will be challenging and epic, the players that crave battle will not mind sitting through some story elements because they will want to find the villain to end their reign of terror. Take the player’s bloodlust and channel it into a specific villain so the eventual battle is that much sweeter.

The same principle can be applied to the other player wants addressed above. Monte Cook recently discussed adding more mystery to magic items. He wrote:

But if the players come to expect certain treasure items, or if they can just go to a magic item shop in a large city and buy what they want, there’s no mystery there. This means that to restore mystery to magic, one great way would be to complexly decouple magic items from character advancement.

Another way to state this is that magic items should become more scarce. For players that desire new magic items, do not shower them with loot drops every other battle. Instead, space out magic items and build them up through the story in the campaign. If you know that the Fighter in your group desperately wants a +3 Flaming Sword, then spend many levels building up a specific flame sword that has been used to slay many creatures. The sword could be locked away deep inside a mysterious ruin of an unknown location. The player may have to seek out knowledge from a variety of sources before learning of the location of the magic weapon. When the player finally finds the location, and earns the weapon – either through a complicated puzzle, skill challenge, or wrestling it away from a powerful creature – he or she will feel more satisfied than if they found the sword through a “random” loot drop or purchased it from a store.

Ending Sessions With Cliffhangers

Another option for the DM is the place the very thing the players want at the very end of a gaming session. To stay with the most recent example above, a player may have finally learned about the resting placed of the famed Sword of Fiery Might. The player has led the group through levels of treacherous ruins and finally reaches the final room complete with a sword of fire in the hands of a great enemy.

Create an "Avalanche of Thrills" for players.

End the session there!

The player will be eager to rejoin the game and pry the fiery sword from the hands of the enemy. You may even use email to send taunting messages from the enemy to your player searching for the Sword of Fiery Might.

Advertise, Advertise, Advertise

Consider how a major motion picture like The Avengers is released. The movie is first announced, the cast is slowly introduced to the press, followed by an announcement of when the movie will be shooting. Later images from on-set are released and then we get the first “official” production photos of the characters. This is followed by anticipation for the first trailer for the movie. The Avengers does not come out until next year, but the movie has been carefully marketed to build up anticipation in the audience.

A DM can do the same thing with their audience around the gaming table. Foreshadow future events and let the players know what they want is coming up “in the future.” The DM has to “pay off” these promises in a big way, but think about how you can take something that could be mundane – another combat encounter – and turn it into a summer blockbuster action movie.

Give the encounter a name such as The Well of Souls. The party could hear about The Well of Souls in a tavern as a legend many sessions before they actually find it. The party could slowly learn about the rumored monsters and hazards in The Well of Souls. Provide the group with teasers through new information provided by retired adventurers or captured villains. When the time comes, the encounter in The Well of Souls will mean much more to the party because they have been waiting for it for months.

Turn a "map room" into something more dramatic.


  • Less can be more! Stretch out aspects of the game that your players enjoy to maximize effectiveness.
  • Use advertizing techniques in your game to “sell” locations, villain, items and plot points.
  • Slowly give the players more information to build up anticipation and make the final payoff more memorable.
  • Find a bottle of Pumpkinator and mail it to me!

Author: 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.

8 thoughts on “Scarcity! When The Loot’s All Gone But You Must Go On, It’s Scarcity.”

  1. Fantastic post! Not quite what I thought you were talking about with “scarcity,” but now I see what you were driving at.

    I see easily enough how spacing out combat and loot can be done. How do you stretch out RP, though? How can you dangle “Ooh, very soon now, you’ll get to *talk* to people!” in front of players? I guess you could create specific high-RP events, like parties, audiences with the king, or high holy days. But, I’m having trouble crossing the gap between theory and practice here.

    (BTW, this is @samldanach from twitter.)

    1. I really like your ideas for streching out RP for players. A DM could focus on building up the most important and charismatic NPCs, and even give the players the chance to meet with him or her . . . only to just miss out on a social interaction. The big social events you mentioned are great ideas. Other options would include:

      Seasonal Festivals
      Days of Mourning

      “King Giroux’s words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw. The King only passes through town once each year on Victor’s Day to visit the graves of dead soldiers that persished in the Third Goblin War. A large parade begins in the town square and ends with a solemn rememberance at the cemetery.”

  2. As a quick follow up, I spent the last session this weekend teasing a magic holy symbol that the Cleric in my group has coveted for quite some time. The party participated in a skill challenge, some RP and a couple of battles before reaching the final room. A mind flayer was holding the symbol and obviously in the middle of an unknown ritual, and I annouced, “And we’ll find out what happens next time.”

    The Cleric cried out, “What!? We can’t stop now!”


  3. I like this post too! I think magic items are a huge one for scarcity because of the way the mechanics expect characters to have magic bonuses. I decided to use the rules for inherent character bonuses so that magic items can be more rare and flavourful.

    1. I think your design is becoming more common. It seems the generic +1, +2, etc. are build in as needed by the characters to keep the game balanced. But that forces the DM’s hand to give out armor, weapons and other items to ensure the players have items that grant bonuses. It does strip a bit of “the magic” out of magic items.

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