Based on Nojo’s comment, which alerted me to the idea of player wish lists, and Matthew’s excellent article, Improve Your Game Guaranteed, talking about treasure and loot, I got to thinking about 4e’s use of player wish lists.  Though I’ve never run a 4e game, and I’ve only played in a game or two at conventions, there are a lot of fun elements to it. One of those elements is the use of a Player Loot Wish List.

The Concept
At the beginning of each level, players write up a list of magic items that they are interested in. The DM (it’s D&D after all) is encouraged to incorporate at least one of the magic items on the list into the loot that is giving out during the adventure.

The Drifting
The idea of a player wish list is something incredibly easy to drift. It is a simple concept. Players write down things they’d like to see happen, the GM (Sorry, I can’t break myself of saying GM.) incorporates some or all. At its core it’s a very simple example of shared narrative. Players influence the game by requesting events beforehand. Here are some places that you can drift wish lists to:

  • Other games, obviously. Player wish lists aren’t exclusive to D&D. The idea isn’t even unique to D&D. More on that later.
  • Player wish lists for magic items are good, but they can be used for all sorts of loot as well. Mage looking for specific spell components? Maybe she puts it on a more generalized loot wish list and the GM throws a wagon train of stolen spell components in the next encounter. Maybe the players are tired of getting coin loot or gems, so they put a few suits of armor or art works onto their wish list. Now you, as the GM, might have them raid a barracks or art gallery on an unrelated mission, and maybe they get away with a few other pieces.
  • Player wish lists can be a listing of character goals. I’ve been in loads of games where the GM asks for a list of character goals at the beginning and tries to work them in as the game go along. Its almost common in the games I run, and its a great way to get ideas to build your games around. Even published adventures have room for customization.
  • BBEG – Who do the players really want to take out? Are they hunkering for a hankering of half dragon hide? Are the players aiming to axe an axex or archon? Using a player wish list for enemies can integrate with player wish lists for loot as well.  Do they want to down a dinosaur and divvy up its dentures?
  • Where and how do the players want to play? Players can write up wish lists of locations they want the game to move to, or styles of play they want to try. Do they want their adventures to occur in a big city environment? If they let you know this you can start researching  Sharn and Ptolus for ideas. Maybe they want to do more dungeon crawls or be involved in more large scale battles. Maybe aerial battles or pirate ships are looking pretty good.

The Undertow
So the thing is, player wish lists aren’t all that unique. I”d say they’re actually a pretty common concept at their core. Martin wrote about player flags on Treasure Tables, and every company tries to get customer feedback to know what direction to take their products next. Comment forms adorn nearly every website, and suggestion pots are common as well. For another gaming example, look at Robin Laws’ player goal chart in Robin’s Laws Of Good Game Mastering.

So the concept isn’t that new, but I’ll definitely say one thing for D&D’s implementation of it. It takes a very abstract thought: “Get feedback from players about what to do next” and makes it into a rule. For some games, like D&D, it is much easier to implement new ideas when they are rules and not just a thought on how to do something. The abstract doesn’t always make the impact that the tangible and cogent does. Sometimes it has to be written out and codified. So next time you’re wondering what your players want to see out of your game, have them write it down on a wish list.

How have you gotten player feedback in your games? Is it always as tangible as player wish lists, or is it easier for you to do it more abstractly? Does it feel more permanent when its written down, or is it less limiting when it isn’t?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.

22 Responses to Player Wish Lists

  1. In terms of feedback, it can be tangible or not. I think that depends greatly on the system and whether that is built into the mechanics. Since I’m currently playing Burning Wheel, I don’t really need feedback since it’s all written on the players’ character sheets in the form of Beliefs (and Instincts). “Knowledge is power; I will uncover the secrets of the ruins of Drathan Library” is an example of a Belief, and pretty easy to cater to in terms of wish lists.

    In D&D, we used magic item wish lists, but I think I was the only player to submit one. So I got what I wanted. :)

    As far as feedback goes, I think it’s a very healthy thing to get into a routine of soliciting it after the session or story arc (multiple sessions). Straightforward questions are best (“What could have been done differently or better?”), but more indirect questions also work well (“What was your favourite moment this session?”).

  2. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    I’m mixed on this. On one hand, 4E recognizes that the GM should take the players’ wishes into account, and codifies it into a rule. This beats the heck out of the “random item creation table” that almost guarantees disappointment.

    On the other hand, this can easily evolve into the expectation that “players always get what they want”. While satisfied players are always a good thing, I think it’s very easy to go too far and end up with spoiled players. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I feel that hardship makes victory sweeter.

    I’m currently playing in a 4E game where we basically get what we want for five magic items, and have to buy everything else. The game is very combat-oriented, so it works in this instance, but I really wouldn’t want to overuse this aspect in an RP heavy game.

    Then again, the assumption that magic items are necessary to a game (insert automatic weapons, better blasters, etc depending on the genre) may not be a valid assumption, even though it’s one that has its roots in the origins of the hobby. Damn, I’m onto another article here…

  3. @Kurt “Telas” Schneiderthe assumption that magic items are necessary to a game (insert automatic weapons, better blasters, etc depending on the genre) may not be a valid assumption, even though it’s one that has its roots in the origins of the hobby.

    Magic items or better gear in general (“Stuff”) tends to be an impetus for a few games, but not as many as one might think. Rather it tends to be a heavy impetus in D&D, specifically, due to how progression works. Without magic items and depending solely on feats and stat adjustments via leveling, it would take forever to change one’s damage bonus, for instance.

    All that said, I’d definitely love to see an article on this. :)

  4. @Rafe – I always ask for feedback in my games, but I find players sometimes need a little guiding in order to give it. Asking too generically has often generated “Everything was great” type of responses, or shrugging and “It was good” depending on the involvement level of the player. Asking people to write down 3 places they might want to see the game go seems to give them enough of a guideline to build off of.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – 4E, I’ve found, tends to boil everything down to a simple mechanic. That’s great, but it does hinder RP heavy games. Hinder in the sense of “requires you to modify more.” Getting what you want in a game can definitely be as detrimental as never getting what you want in a game.

    @Rafe & Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I second the love to see you do an article on the necessity of increasingly powerful gear in games. Three games that I can think of, off of the top of my head, that don’t have the increasingly powerful gear scenario are Shadowrun, BESM and W.O.D. games. Shadowrun is definitely all about the gear, but you generally tweak out gear at character creation and don’t increase it as much as you go on. You might buy improvements to it, but you don’t keep switching weapons for more magical ones, etc. I haven’t played long Shadowrun games, so I might be off base on that, but its always been my experience. BESM has the characters building most of their gear alongside their character. Its more like buying attacks and saying why it happens. The weapon and gear becomes more a part of the character than a thing they use. And W.O.D. games are more about character power increase than item increase. There is still a power increase, necessary I think, but not necessarily in the form of gear.

  5. @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Your not the only one that has an issue with Wish Lists. Maybe it is because I’ve been playing D&D in some form or another for 28 years and that just isn’t the way that treasure has been done or perhaps I agree with your sentiments about possibly creating spoiled players. Of all the oddities in 4th Edition, the Player Wish List for rewards just might be the hardest one for the old schoolers to accept.

    In the old days, we were thrilled to find any magic item that would help the group overcome future challenges. We expected to find something of value during the course of a dungeon crawl but we certainly did not make requests. Finding an unexpected item was part of the thrill. Figuring out an item was part of it to. The idea that one can request what will be given out in rewards just seems to be hitting my disbelief button too much.

  6. @BryanB – Totally agree on that one. The item wish list “rule” just rubs me the wrong way. The players get what I give them, and that’s that! I love wish lists for goals (become a duke, kill the high priest of such-and-such, etc.), but a list of items that I’m expected to give out? Sorry, that’s just not kosher.

  7. @BryanB

    In the old days, we were thrilled to find any magic item that would help the group overcome future challenges. We expected to find something of value during the course of a dungeon crawl but we certainly did not make requests. Finding an unexpected item was part of the thrill. Figuring out an item was part of it to. The idea that one can request what will be given out in rewards just seems to be hitting my disbelief button too much.

    I think it’s actually a good solution to the also immersion breaking “magic shop on every corner”. In 3.5, players usually sell everything they get unless it’s exactly what they’re looking for, and turn around and buy what they really want. If that’s the way it works [and in my experience, it really is], why not skip the immersion breaking magic shops and just hand out the items that actually excite them? They won’t have to fake excitement for loot that they just want a GP value from– they can actually be excited by the loot.

  8. @BryanB & @Micah – I see your guys point with feeling tied in to giving out loot based on player wants. I think it is a question of Meta and how it is done. Are the players saying “Hey, It would be cool to come across some cloaks that help conceal us, as we are working towards being an elite team of rogueish spies” or are they saying “I want two wands of wish, a couple of +1 daggers, etc.”.

    I remember having the same reaction to the old Treasure Tables for magical items. My DM would roll something and give it to us, but it would be fairly inappropriate for our characters. If he’d stuck to that, most of us would have been annoyed, or just sold the items off. So,the DM would often re-roll until something appropriate came up. There is an issue with realism that way, i.e. Why is a strong barbarian carrying around a wand of fireballs, a cloak that is only usable by a mage or appropriate spell components.

  9. D&D 4th edition is even stranger than this. The players can always get what they want with the rituals Disenchant Magic Item and Enchant Magic Item. Effectively, they can turn 5 magic items that they don’t want into 1 magic item (of equal level) they do want without having to bargain with a shop owner.

    The way I see it, the problem is that the ‘discovery’ of magic items are now lost and its just a matter of what the items are. Rarer items are not any rarer than any other items — just higher level.

    So for D&D 4e, because the way the rules are, you might as well give the players what they want and save them the hassle.

    (Side note: The disenchant/enchant rituals also usurp the need for any concept of crafting).

  10. The sell 90% of all loot so we can buy / pay for crafting the items we’ll actually use takes up game time. I hate GMing shopping time. That’s why god created email.

    The 4E rule is to let people give you lists. It isn’t that you must give them what on their lists. At least you have a clue what rewards they are after.

    As far as goals go, I was thinking of “What do you want to accomplish before you go insane or die?” for my Dark Heresy game. A list like that helps set expectations. ;)

  11. I’m gonna be a real old-timer curmudgeon here, but I’ve felt that ever since feats/edges/what-have-you have come along, the need for magic items has drastically decreased.

    Magic items used to be able to let you do things you couldn’t do otherwise. With special abilities (feats) that tie to game mechanics, you can choose to gain that desired special ability internally through feat selection.

    Getting a magic item that essentially duplicates a feat or gives you access to a class ability that you don’t currently have becomes simply a “force multiplier” and not an item of wonder.

    I remember from original AD&D & Rolemaster, the best items were ones that impacted the game in a way that no player progression could duplicate (increasing critical ranges was a biggie in both).

    This is probably the number one reason I hardly ever give out random treasure (my players end up scavenging it from dead opponents, though).

    The second being that I often play Savage Worlds where items can become unbalancing quickly, but taht’s another story.

  12. in my current game, the DM has asked for wish lists, and most of us have provided them. well, we did several levels ago. mine, i’m certain, is still littered with level 1 and 2 items and not particularly relevant. i should really address that. but i think the point is that my group’s not particularly good about them, and the whole thing seems a little off.

    anyway, for my next campaign, i’m planning on building the setting to be very well suited for adventuring. level one dungeons are inhabited by level one monsters, which have level one treasures. very old school. half of the treasures will be randomly selected, the other half will be “level 5 magic item” which the players may choose as they wish.

    adventurer’s guilds will maintain extensive libraries on local dungeons, and which adventuring parties disappeared into them without a trace, and what magic items they were carrying. if the PCs want a particular item, they have only to look it up, find out that its probably on the fifth level of the halls of the dire necromancer, where acquisitions inc met its untimely end three years ago, and go have at it.

    the purpose behind all of this is to give them clear and usable tools to guide their own hacking and slashing. if they want some mindless mayhem, they can just muck around on level 1 as much as they like. if its not challenging enough, they can go deeper down.

    there will, of course, be some elements which are out of their control, perhaps radically so. the adventurers wanted board at the tavern will be filled with plot hooks and more meaningful fare, which might draw them into slightly riskier dungeons than they’d normally venture into, and there will be gates to other worlds where the random encounter tables include everything from goblins to mighty dragons all at once.

  13. For our regular game the DM asked us to create a list of items we’re interested in. We post this on our gaming blog and update it every few levels. This gives the DM a range of items to reward us with and cuts down on some of the preparation required of him. The list is 90% reality and 10% fancy, as the 9th level paladin is getting the +6 Holy Avenger anytime soon.

  14. Lord Inar @11:

    I’d be happy enough to do without magic items completely if I got more feats and powers instead. Maybe an extra at-will power and a feat at every level. A slight loosening of the multi-class rules would help too.

    Then, all the magic items could be real plot items with flavor, mystery and impact, e.g., The One Ring.

  15. @LesInk – “The way I see it, the problem is that the ‘discovery’ of magic items are now lost and its just a matter of what the items are. Rarer items are not any rarer than any other items — just higher level.”

    That is definitely a problem I saw with using a list, LesInk. “Hey, this must be that +6 holy avenger I ordered!” Finding a magic item and discovering what it is always gave me a big sense of wonder and involvement. It might just turn out to be a +1 sword, but the process of discovering that made it fun.

    @Nojo – “What do you want to accomplish before you go insane or die?” for my Dark Heresy game.

    I played one of the promo adventures for Dark Heresy. The go insane or die aspect was definitely fun and interesting.

    @Lord Inar & @TwoShedsJackson – The type of magic items you both describe are definitely the way I like to see it done. One of my favorite 3E items was the hat of disguise. It only replicated a disguise self spell, but it gave so many options that weren’t available to non spell casting characters.

    TwoShedsJackson, I agree that magic items should really have impact. When you get a magic item, you should feel like you’ve got something awesome and important. Even if it is a +1 sword, if it’s the Sword of Valenar, bane of the lower grasslands, then it becomes an awesome thing outside of its mechanical aspects.

    @drow – Your setting description really makes the kind of structure that loot wish lists could bring possible. I like settings like that, where adventurers are actually part of the class structure of the world, and have an actual fit. The fact that they breed support industries is awesome.

    @Wimwick – It doesn’t hurt to try. The next game that I run (non D&D, fantasy setting), I’m intending to use them but incorporate random chance into it. I’m thinking I’ll mix all the items into one big pool, and then leave it up to a die roll. So their might be a chance to find that +6 holy avenger.

  16. I have a couple of thought about this for my current campaign:

    A) I pick the magic item treasures with an eye to being useful to the party, but not wish listed.
    B) Occasionally, I say, “and you find an X level item of the party’s choice.” This always generates an interesting back and forth to see what they pick and who carries it.
    C) The paladin just got the Enchant and Transfer Enchantment rituals. Not that they have enough money to use them much.
    D) They don’t know it yet, but any item higher than 10th level will require specific ritual components which are hard to come by. So there’s still lots of fun to be had to produce the cool stuff you want.

    As for previous editions –
    In 3rd edition, by the book, you had to sacrifice XP to make items. That basically meant the wizard made what he really wanted and nobody else got any custom items unless they made some extreme sacrifices. Yeah, they later made it legal to point your finger at who would give up the XP, but nobody did it very often, did they?

    In 2nd edition, by the book, the Permanence spell you had to cast required you give up 1 point of CON, IIRC. Since most mages didn’t have much to start with, again – no item creation.

    I think the new system is reasonable for allowing however much freedom you want your players to have in your game.

  17. @tman – You’re definitely right, magic item creation in previous editions of D&D was a B!+@#. Don’t know if you’ve ever played Eberron, but they had the best take on it I’ve seen. The artificer class had temporary craft points, could drain existing items of their XP and could make temporary items that others could use.

  18. I’m not reading every comment (need… more… time…) so I may be covering old gound, but in modern and sci fi settings, characters can buy pretty much anything they want, or build it, or some other such thing. Why not have that option in a fantasy game? Really, I kind of like players being able give me a theme for their characters items, and me helping them achieve that. As well, there is the idea that characters in the fiction D&D mirrors aren’t acquiring items that they discard when said items are no longer capable of providing the correct amount of assistance in favor of another. The new magic item enchantment rules really work with this concept, too.

  19. @DocRyder – Not covering old ground at all Doc. In fact its a great idea, and I think a lot of people do that in their settings. They just go to the local magic shop and pick up something new once they’ve got the money, whether its written in or not. It brings up a thought about the weird mixing of the realism of the world setting and the mechanics of the game. Its also heavily tied into what BryanB, Kurt and Micah mentioned about their issues with D&Ds implementation of it. The way I see it is like this:

    Ok, you’ve got a setting like drow’s setting. Adventuring is common, people know about it and trade might arise from it. In the story of the game world, it is easy to take a +1 sword, sell it to a shop and get a new more relevant item.

    However, if your world setting doesn’t use that commonality of magic, then finding a valid reason to ditch one magic item and be able to find another that fits better becomes a lot harder. If I were playing in a game setting that held close to LOTR roots, I would be appalled to find a magic item shop where I could just sell my Elven gifted cloak of concealment and get a better weapon. It wouldn’t fit well with the theme.

    I love your idea of open commerce, and I usually build my world settings a little high on the magic and adventurer side, but I also do one other thing. Whenever my players want to sell something and pick up another, I tell them they can, but only if they come up with a creative and unique way to do it. I.e. not just pick it up at “ye olde magic shoppe”. I give them full narrative control to tell me how they did it too. This usually gets them to come back with a story about slinking through alleys to find an auction house that is really a fence for magical items, or they knew a mage who was looking for items and he was able to make an adequate trade, etc.

    In a modern or sci-fi setting, lets say shadowrun, the mechanics make it much easier to just buy something. (They say you can, you do, you never think about it again)But I wonder if there really are Mike’s House of Heavy Hardware shops on the corners in that world, or if its back alley dealings and contacts with military organizations. Its all dependent on how the GM wants the world they are running to be.

    Wow, I got loquacious with this one.

  20. I have mixed views on this. My thoughts will mostly focus on 4E as that’s the system we play at this time. While I hate the pseudo expectation of getting exactly what you want as a 4E player, at the same time, while not quite as savage as 2E ADnD, getting not quite the right item / weapon in 4E can really mess you up. In 4E the game is set up with a curve that the party is expected to fall within. Encounters are setup in such a way, as well as the way the game has shifted mostly the way offensive spells work, that if your attack rolls don’t fall in 2-3 number range of where they should be encounters that are level appropriate no longer are.

    This is really a bit of a marked departure from where magic items used to fall. Before it was the DM’s discretion to run a magic light game, this is no longer an option without a lot of increased work for the GM . This raised the importance of items a whole lot. That unremarkable +1 sword in the realms, it’s a veritable powerhouse of a find in this game world.

    The change in the way classes and weapon proficiency work also has a bit of an impact. Fighters feel it more keenly than any class, but let’s be honest, they always have. My experiences started with 2E ADnD. As a fighter, if you did not find the weapon type you needed it really did not matter if hit had 3 more plusses on it, that would not make up for the loss of all the attacks you lost due to weapon proff investment. This was less true of course for many other classes. It’s still true in 4E with the fighter as it now goes so far as to have powers that only work with specific weapon tips or have added effects by type as well. There is nothing more pain in the butt than to have to look at lost feats on a guy because the artifact sword you found is a short sword not a long sword. This with the way things were done was stupidly painful in 3E.

    Sometimes the functionality of a concept and image require a specific item. Take the Swordmage in my current game, He is an Air Gensai, has a lightning sword and a slew of lightning powers and the feat investment to match. He has a weird 2nd defender / striker role as 6th man in the group. He needs the Lightning sword to get his damage anywhere near a striker’s numbers. Give him a Radiant weapon and the whole thing falls apart. Sure, he could keep wielding the +1 lightning sword he has because the +3 radiant weapon does not have the synergies in damage he wants, but all too soon that 2 points of lost hit is really going to matter. I also see the other side of it where it breaks down. Due to the way untyped damage works in 4E its way more powerful than many other things because you can stack them. I as a Dm would not hand those items out to the party willy nilly regardless of how many people requested them.

    After all that wild tangent, what it really boils down to, is that within the 4E paradigm there is an expectation that the party have x amount of + to hit at any given time for the game to work. The magic item system just works towards meeting this. But within the realm of DnD, while random loot makes a lot of sense, really just punishes players for any kind of focused investment.

  21. What about the non-loot wish lists?

    For example, the cavalier who wants to get into the Duke’s guard? That means that giving him letters of commendation is a reward or a letter of introduction is a reward.

    The cleric who wants to start an orphanage or her own temple? Wouldn’t a land deed or a favor from a builder be a good reward?

    The drow who worships Ellistraee and wants to redeem her people in the eyes of the above landers? See if she can get membership in some well-regarded order.

  22. “Dear Sigmar, please make the next solo controller’s drop a +2 dancing anarchic keen sword. Amen”. All totally IC and reasonable.
    That’s bullshit the degree of which I can’t even begin to describe. Player feedback is fine. Making it an arbitrary rule where it’s absolutely counterlogical by IC logic is a load of what’s 4E made of.

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