You know that excited feeling on Christmas morning, when you wake up to see what Santa’s elves gnomes helpers have made for you this year? GMs are lucky– they get to experience that joy several times per session! Just the glimmer in their eyes when a PC finally hefts the shiny new +2 Keen Icy Burst Axe… I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.
Of course, not every battle ends with characters gazing in awe at the One Ring amongst an impressive dragon hoard. Sometimes players have the fixed smile of a kid who unwraps the packages to find clothing, only clothing, under the tree. Sometimes you get halfway through listing the items when the players start discussing where they can unload the spoils of battle for something they really want.
Many discussions of treasure are specific to D&D, with each edition having a new and different philosophy of loot. Other systems navigate the same issues— some of their ideas are quirky and creative, while others work only under that system’s set of assumptions.
Treasure Can Be Fun!
There are many stories of campaigns derailed by Monte Haul heists and imbalanced characters. For most versions of D&D, finding a +4 weapon at first level is wildly out of scale. So as you go through the loot list, you have keep in mind all the ways that “too powerful” items can wreck a game.
There’s less joy in getting an expected reward though. A +4 item is well out of the norm for a first level D&D character—but imagine the players’ jaws dropping when they figure out what they’ve found. Expectation can be tricky; if one character gets something cool, shouldn’t everyone? Plus you have to navigate the waters of favoritism and real life relationships… did he include that item because Mark is his best friend? Has the thief been snubbed for the last dozen adventures because the player and GM aren’t getting along?
Evolving Expectations of Treasure
AD&D had shiny lists of items, with random chance providing a chance at powerful or valuable items at level one. The GM was advised to toss back unusually powerful loot, gave advice on twisting powerful items like wishes against the owner (so every character after the first to encounter a wishing ring soon spoke their wishes in careful contract-speak), and was my first introduction to the concept of Monte Haul and worrying that you were giving out treasure too fast (or slow).
Red Box D&D (and sequels) did a good job of cutting down the overall magic lists to items generally appropriate for the character levels they covered. The lists were nowhere near as extensive as AD&D’s, but also ensured that you didn’t have to keep rolling until you got something that you guessed was appropriate.
Third Edition introduced expected wealth by level and baked expected bonuses from items into their formulas. Converting random items into effective ones became important, ushering in the maligned magic shop and interchangeably bland items. Over time, required (or optimal) bonuses made many characters feel the same—fighters need strength, which means that most acquired a strength boost item as soon as they could afford it, which usually happened to match the wealth by level tables. Equipment became strangely standardized across campaigns. At the end of the edition, the Magic Item Compendium’s codified appropriate treasure by level and reintroduced some simplicity to treasure distribution (plus added many neat new items). It made assigning appropriate and cool treasure much easier for me, as GM.
Fourth edition continues the trend of expected equipment and treasure, but introduced an optional rule to get around the magic shop idea: treasure lists. Treasure lists were controversial when first introduced to my groups, and do take away some of the GM’s treasure sprinkling joy, but it’s an approach I like. It can be ported to any version of D&D or many other systems.
Instead of the GM poring over the magic items (or randomly rolling them up), the players write up wish lists  like children crafting their list for Santa. When evil is vanquished and bodies are rolled over, the GM picks some of the goodies requested by the players and places them in the scabbards and hoards of their foes. This takes away much of the surprise (since the player picked it in advance)—but I enjoy watching the characters find items that they want, without having to pore over the books and read the player’s minds. It also means that I have one less item to prep!
Often characters specialize in something unusual but cool. It could be the spiked chain, the elf wielding a rapier, or other specific items. It rarely makes sense for their opponents to wield an appropriate item; how many goblins do you envision parrying in quarte? How many surly crossbow wielding dwarves carry around a longbow just in case? Feats like weapon specialization can lock characters into those unusual weapons, making them reluctant to trade for something new, even if it sparkles brighter.
If the players face the same foes routinely, it can be difficult to logically equip them with items the PCs use best. In 3.5, fighting small size foes means few PCs can actually use the captured equipment. In these cases, it is often best to accumulate the cool parts of the treasure from several encounters and dump them on the PCs all at once. It doesn’t make sense for goblins to carry human size longbows… but the horde might have a treasure chamber where they toss captured items until they can trade them away later.
Even giving PCs the right item is no sure fire way to excite them… often they have an image in their head , or have planned out the next five upgrades to their armor. But at least you’re giving them something they might desire, unlike ill-sized short swords, which are destined for sale.
A work around that I’ve used for less desired items is magic transference: for a fee, I allow magic to be transferred from one item to another. That allows me to put appropriately sized items in the world, and lets the PCs decide whether they want to transfer the power into their unusual items. It’s basically the same result as selling the wrong item and buying the proper one, but gets around NPCs having to stockpile specific weapons, or making the PCs always wait for items to be crafted.
Other Approaches to Treasure
Lots of other systems also reward accumulating wealth and taking treasures from fallen foes. Shadowrun encourages picking up assault cannons from felled trolls, looting data during matrix penetrations, and so on. Even in Vampire, with characters wielding tremendous supernatural powers, scrutinizing fallen foes and seizing their military grade equipment or mystical artifacts is normal. You’ll find characters in other systems also examining the deceased for their toys– Champions was a rare early bright line exception. Champions forced you to pay character points for using someone else’s goods… if you used it more than once or twice. In most other systems, checking possessions or examining their starship for high tech goods and replacement parts is the order of the day.
One solution to looting is to remove mechanics from items. This ensures that characters who strip bodies won’t wind up any more powerful than their more scrupulous brethren. This can take away some of the traditional joy of loot– describing beautiful items with no game effect often has the players yawning and waiting to get to the relevant part. I often experience this in describing artwork and treasures in D&D; players listen to the description, but immediately ask for the weight and value– and convert them to something generic but advantageous to an adventurer ASAP.
A McGuffin is almost the opposite of treasure. These items may be powerful, but they are rarely destined to be part of a character’s story for long. McGuffin items exist to motivate the opposition, to lure the players, or justify the invasion of the free peoples. Getting attached to a McGuffin can bring heartache to players when the GM steals, unmakes, or otherwise removes the McGuffin after it has served its purpose. Sometimes the GM will allow the PCs to keep the relic or artifact… that is often a sign that its theft is going to kick off the next adventure!
To the Buy More!
My wife avows that I suck the joy out of any shopping trip, so maybe I’m not the best person to give advice on the subject. If your generous heart has better, more vivacious advice, please share it in comments.