Treasure has been part of roleplaying games since the beginning. Loot or some sort of expendable resource appears in almost every game, analog or digital, in some form. In the early D&D game, the treasure distribution stems from a worthy desire to replicate the collection of powerful weapons the trolls had in The Hobbit or the huge hoard of Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga or the nameless dragon in Beowulf. It places mystic items in hard to reach places to simulate the objects of fantasy quests throughout the ages. What would Arthur be without Excalibur and the Holy Grail? What would Elric be without Stormbringer?
Trouble is, too many games handle loot poorly. This is something I realized painfully while playing Dragon Age: Origins. The game has a great story with a lot of depth, but little to none of this depth is contained within the items one finds. Treasure, money and otherwise, is given in a context that has little meaning to the player. Open a box, receive riches that might or might not be useful, go on. Accumulated wealth goes only to buy similar items in shops, and some of that equipment is way more interesting than anything one can find. I want to hear about fabulous items and seek them out, or to learn how to replicate a mythical device through my adventures.
One could argue, though, that the Dragon Age video game, having been produced for wide consumption, couldn’t be much better with regard to treasure. Treasure can’t be tailored to the player in a video game like Dragon Age, right? Wrong. Any game can be constructed to make you, the player, care about certain items so that you seek them out or gather the materials to create them. What’s required, then, is a purpose and a story behind the item, as well as hook leading you to desire the object or its creation.
Sure, it’s too much to ask that every bit of treasure be somehow unique. But crafted carefully, numerous objects of desire, with or without magical enhancement, can lead to a narrative that is more interesting and more about a player’s desires. Such items just need a purpose and a hook, and significant effort must be expended to acquire them. Rewards then become more personal. They evoke an emotional response or investment from the player, and they can drive further adventures.
Magic items, especially, need to stand out as exceptional. They need to be more than mundane gear, through exception-based mechanics and other neatness. But good story placement and cool powers aren’t always enough if the item is something a character needs to own to live up to a game’s expectations.
One of the problems with the usual take on treasure, especially magic items, is that most of them provide simple mechanical benefits without doing anything truly interesting. This isn’t a fault in and of itself, since magical trinkets need to affect the game in some way. The essence of the problem, in my mind, is when the game renders such mechanical bonuses mundane by assuming the characters have them. The developers increase the challenges in the game based on such assumptions, rendering the potentially fantastic merely necessary.
Unfortunately, then, acquisition of items then becomes an arms race, rather than an interesting series of narrative events that change the game and give it personality. It’s worse if the game’s math and methodologies requires nonplayer characters to keep up with the escalation. That’s how you end up with armies armed with magic items, and dime-a-dozen +1 swords. It’s also how come to all sorts of narrative shenanigans to deprive victors of spoils. Anyone who hauled a massive trove of drow items to the surface for the first time in older versions of D&D knows this pain.
Needing magic items simply to keep up with a game’s increasing challenge curve is counter to keeping magic items wondrous. That applies from the days of early D&D‘s “can only be hit by +1 or better weapons” monsters to 3e’s DR system, all the way to 4e D&D’s assumed +1 to +6 magic item enhancement bonus curve. It applies to target numbers that assume skill bonuses from magic items. A challenge curve like that makes me wonder why a game bothers to include “magic items” at all, because that sort of curve then relegates these objects to banality. This triviality of “magic items” is exacerbated when one must replace items casually to avoid being behind the curve statistically. (D&D includes planned obsolescence, because treasure has to be part of the game, and the default method of placing treasure is simpler than other alternatives.)
To be truly wondrous and avoid contrivances, mechanical or narrative, a magic item needs to affect the game in a manner that is outside the norm. A mere +1 sword becomes something extraordinary if the game system in which the sword appears ignores that +1 in the game’s attack roll resolution math. Then, a warrior with a magic sword is something to hold in awe and fear. Now imagine a +5 holy avenger in that context. Maybe it’s too good, but I’d rather that than the idea that Sting becomes obsolete when Frodo hits 16th level.
The alternative rewards systems, as presented in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and expanded in Dark Sun Campaign Setting, goes a long way toward allowing the type of wondrous magic items I’m talking about. Fixed, or inherent as I call them, enhancement bonuses based on character level allow you and me, as DMs, to ignore a large portion of the statistics of the challenge curve. These alternative reward systems also imply, at least, a richer narrative environment for character wealth, mundane and magical.
Dark Sun Campaign Setting makes it clear that a character gains an extra +1 per point of fixed enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls. That evokes a seeming of great, crushing skill in combat. I can easily imagine Conan’s Hyboria as a fixed-enhancement-bonus world, with Conan terribly wounding a dragon with a dagger tied to a pole, as he did in the “Red Nails” novella. Having this critical increase tied to an inherent character trait is another way the fixed-bonus system is good for wondrous magical treasure. A good magic weapon can change the die type of you extra critical damage, but it doesn’t give you that damage.
Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and Dark Sun Campaign Setting tell you how to alter your treasure distribution if you use a fixed enhancement bonus. Personal belief and experimentation have shown me, however, that you can be even more casual about items and alternative rewards than these systems suggest. You can give far fewer magic items and boons, and far less monetary treasure, and still have a fun and rewarding games. Further, you needn’t have players provide wish lists at all—except as potential hooks for adventures all about acquiring a desired item. In a gaming environment enhanced with the alternative rewards rules, the characters can find what you, the DM, have time to select and impart. You can also take items away at dramatic moments, or encourage, with sufficient payoff, players to sacrifice items for cinematic reasons.
The new rarity rules in D&D Essentials enhance this flexibility. Using alternative reward rules, you can focus on the uncommon and, especially, the rare items. You can also throw in a few common items here and there as a substitute for monetary rewards. In my games, I’m aiming not only for fewer items, but also items that add interest and wonder to the game. Sometimes the characters find these items, and other times they find such objects, much like the signature items you see in the hands of characters in fantasy literature.
Where Essentials loses me is with the suggestion that rare and uncommon items “are not normally created in the current age of the world” and “are now found only as part of treasure hoards.” (The emphasis is mine.) Both statements cleave to simplicity, for designers and players, at the expense of narrative richness. The latter quote is also needlessly absolute, closing design space that could be filled in later product for advanced players. As a DM, I’d assume such items were never “normally created” in any age, but are instead the results of unique processes that have to be relearned and duplicated. In other words, a character can adventure to find such an item, or adventure to learn to create one. Often, the finding is much easier than the making, and the process might be so arduous that making more than one such item is impossible. In other words, the intrepid DM still has control.
If you’re a really bold DM, you can use magic items with enhancement bonuses that stack with fixed bonuses. Magic armor like this might live in the niche where masterwork armor exists now. You’d have to be a little more careful with weapons and defensive items, limiting them to about +1 per tier (with some wiggle room). Given the system math, not considering all possible alterations from existing game elements, such items should still be fine alongside fixed enhancement bonuses. This is especially true for weapons and implements if you favor higher player character accuracy than what the game assumes, as I do.
All this talk is philosophical, and I’m sorry if that’s less than satisfying, but this essay is more about the spirit of change than execution of that change. Implementation of the idea is something I’m still working out in my D&D game. I also know that some systems, such as GURPS, already allow what I’m talking about. When I reach a resolution, I’ll let you know.
Others among my gaming buddies have mentioned alternative solutions to the same problem in passing. I’d like to see what they think, even philosophically, in writing. I’d also enjoy reading your comments.