The Yin and Yang of Treasure Division

Had a party argument last game session over loot. I had been hearing grumblecakes from every player about how all the other players were getting more loot – which is kind of absurd. I instituted a different method of treasure division which would take more effort but would result in transparently equal shares – which everyone hated. They realized they cared more about sharing and keeping things easy, and fixing imbalances later when people spoke up about them. It’s almost as if their DM had that planned all along …

Except nah, I’m not that good. But it did make me think about some things that make sense to blog about.

My premise is that treasure division schemes tend to fall somewhere along two axes: how easy it is to implement, and how fair it is. First, some extreme schemes:

#1: The King. High ease, lowest fairness. Everything the party gets goes to one player. Haven’t seen this one in practice.

#1A: The Regent. High ease, low fairness. Each game session one player is The King and gets all the loot. Again, theoretical.

#2: The Fire Sale. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets sold and the money gets split up. But what if the players want to keep some of the magic items? Then we get more complicated. I’ve seen this used when the players are frustrated with their old treasure division strategy and just want to get back to the fun part of the game.

#2A: The Bonfire. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets thrown in a pile and lit on fire. I’ve seen it proposed but never carried out.

#3: High Roll. High ease, low-mid fairness. Split up the cash equally, everyone rolls percent dice, highest roller chooses first from the magic item list, then next highest, and so forth. It’s in the high roller’s interest to grab the most valuable item, and then sell or make trades to whoever in the party actually wants the thing. If he picks the sword +1 because he’s a Fighter and skips the Staff of Doom which is a lot more expensive, he basically just handed his high roll to the M-U.

#3A: High Roll With List. Moderate ease, moderate fairness. Works like High Roll, but you have a list of players and the roll list is kept until everyone has gotten something. For example, if you roll and players 1 to 3 get an item, but 4 through 7 don’t get anything, it’s fine: next loot that comes along is picked by 4 through 7. Only after everyone has gotten a pick do you reroll. This helps fairness because it makes it impossible for someone to consistently roll lowest and miss out on treasure picks because the hoards are never large numbers of items.

#3B: High Roll With Equal Shares. Low ease, moderate fairness. This variant on High Roll (or High Roll With List) packages up magic items with money to create more-equal shares before a split happens. Say a hoard contains a magic item worth 5k, one worth 3k, and money worth 7k. Rather than splitting the money and then dealing with magic items, you create three shares: the 5k item alone, the 3k item plus 2k in coin, and 5k in coin. These three shares are then diced for. You still have an issue when players 1-3 get a 5k share each, and players 4-7 get nothing, but the next hoard has 10k shares because of the power of the magic items. Generally, it helps prevent people from picking the most valuable share regardless of whether they want to use the item, but leaves some members of the party receiving zero loot from any given hoard.

#3C: Per-Item High Roll. Moderate ease, low fairness. A less-worthwhile variant on High Roll, this puts every item up for roll. It’s possible for one player to get literally every magic item in a hoard, and while in the long run it might even out, the experience is pretty negative for everyone when it happens. Because there are more rolls, it takes longer. A proposed variant rarely seen in the wild would be for players to claim an item only if they really needed it, and a roll-off only when more than one player wanted the item. Because magic items can be sold and traded, there is always the temptation to grab some loot that you won’t use. Because of that, the Per-Item High Roll generally feels better when everyone rolls for everything.

#4: Buyout. Low ease, high fairness. Split up the money. Price out the magic items. Anyone who wants to put in their 5000 GP into the pot in exchange for the item worth 5000 can do so. After all the magic items have been bought, split up the money in the pot equally. This takes a long time, and only works if the PCs have enough money to do it. If they’re money-poor, such as when they’re just starting out or the item is especially high-value, you need a kludge like a debt to the other players to make it equal. If two people want to buy out the same magic item, roll off to see who gets the option. Some players may also have a problem with the idea of “paying” for a magic item the party already found (which doesn’t make mathematical sense, but I’m realizing that the feel of a rule has a lot more to do with its success than its precision or odds).

#5: Common Sense. Moderate ease, moderate fairness (at best). There’s one dwarf who uses hammers, if we get a magic hammer it goes to him. This works if the treasure coming in is pretty evenly spread among classes. It’s easiest to apply when the item is restricted (M-U only, or works far better for a Dwarf). It’s hardest to apply when the item is something everyone can use – and in those cases you’re left to fall back on another treasure division strategy. Common Sense is used a lot at low level when hardly anybody has any magic items, but gets switched out for a different strategy when inequalities emerge. As my group decided, it’s possible to continue with Common Sense and adjust later if it looks like the Cleric is getting shafted, for example by getting everyone else to pitch in to get him a magic item, or someone else giving up a magic item that could go to either player (but giving it to the Cleric reduces inequality), or a general-use item everyone could use going to the Cleric instead. This strategy definitely awards player negotiating skills, and less-confrontational players may get shafted.

After working with Common Sense but without addressing inequalities, I tried Buyout with my group and it flopped. But the ensuing conversation made them want to stick with Common Sense with an emphasis on keeping their ears open and addressing concerns that any PC is falling behind.

7 Responses to “The Yin and Yang of Treasure Division”

  1. John Beltman Says:

    There is one additional thing you can do, I think that I read it from Mike Mornard (who used to play in Gary and Dave’s games).

    At higher levels when you care more about items than you do about coins you can just give the coins to whoever needs the experience to level up. He spoke about it because I think new players were always joining with first level characters while the regular group had high level characters. At the end of the first adventure they would just give the coins to the new player.

    • 1d30 Says:

      It’s a good idea, and the new player probably feels better gaining a few levels instead of getting a +3 sword. But I actually award treasure XP equally to all party members so the XP value of items doesn’t enter into the treasure division process. It’s one less thing for the players to be concerned about – in a lot of cases a player doesn’t care if he missed out on 5k in value because there weren’t enough magic items to go around, but does care about that XP. Also it’s one less temptation for the party scout to nab an item before coming back to tell his friends about a hoard ahead. It eliminates some player choices but in the long run I prefer it this way.

  2. Abdullah Says:

    Not the DM’s problem, surely?

    • 1d30 Says:

      I’m all for an impartial, neutral DM. But the DM is also a host, group facilitator, mediator, etc. It’s really nice when we can get a good game without any group conflict but it does sometimes happen. The most basic level of this might be looking out over your players and deciding to end the game session because everyone’s getting really tired. Managing the game (the rules, content, flow of play) is important, but there’s a second hat the DM wears for group management, with different responsibilities.

    • Abdullah Says:

      If it escalated to the point of an actual real-life conflict, sure, that would apply. Except when DMing for kids, I’ve never had that happen. I never mediate players’ tactical discussions and debates, that’s an important element of gameplay and I would consider myself to be overstepping my role. In-game decisions like allocation of treasure I put in the same category – player decisions made on behalf of their characters are outside the DM’s sphere. If they truly need a mediator the players can always ask.

      • 1d30 Says:

        Yep, I agree. Although I’d step in if the conflict got bad enough whether the players asked for a mediator or not. There’s a point where conflict can get toxic enough that it’s better to dilute the purity of the “neutral DM” role than to let the conflict continue unmoderated. In any philosophy there are always cases that aren’t covered in the basic tenets. You can create a ton of little extra tenets to cover them, or recognize that one philosophy isn’t going to be good at covering all cases.

        I find that conflict over treasure division is never a sudden thing. In my experience it grows over time, and is precipitated by a specific hoard and/or late and tired play.

        For a childishness example, I recall playing in a game where one player insisted on dashing into every room and grabbing whatever loot was available, claiming it for himself. The other players tried to talk him out of it but he refused to stop. It was really kind of weird. I and another player were running Clerics, so our solution was to memorize as many Hold Person spells as we could which were earmarked specifically to paralyze him when we found treasure so everyone could catalogue and equally share it (including him, when he came to). Not ideal, but we worked within the guidelines of not killing off party members. The DM never stepped in to talk with the player between games, didn’t mediate during the game, etc. Eventually the other Cleric secretly liberated a black-market Gold Dragon egg the guy had bought with the intention of raising it to be his own “Chaotic Neutral but basically carelessly evil” alignment, and the resulting blowout made both I and the other Cleric’s player leave the gaming group. In that situation, some DM intervention, with the “DM as moderator” rather than “DM as impartial arbiter”, might have led to some growth on the part of that player and retention of two other players. As postscript to the story, their group later gained a new player and soon after collapsed because of the continued antisocial antics of the Gold Dragon Guy.

        To summarize, the players have a lot of tools at their disposal to negotiate with each other and improve their play experience, but there are times when the DM will find it worthwhile to moderate instead of just arbitrate.

  3. Abdullah Says:

    Incidentally, we usually used the “pirate method” similar to #4: divide the money equally, indivisibles get put up for auction. Anyone who wants them can put up a bid for them, the winning bid gets distributed among the rest of the party.

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