Archive for the ‘Treasure’ Category

Magic Shops and the Fairy Market

August 17, 2015

I don’t like magic shops. They sell stuff that’s too high-value so they would be constantly robbed, so to exist they need super-duper security. Players inevitably want to rob the magic shop, and either they get stomped by security and slain (because come on, will the shopkeeper seriously let them live to try again or tell their friends how you always get a free bite at the apple) or they win through and get a long ton of magic items. Typically, it’s worth it to destroy the magic shop as a service if you get all his inventory – and clever ways to prevent theft begin to look more and more like adversarial DMing and lead to recrimination and disappointment.

You could have individual sellers and buyers. Typically they would be other adventurers or higher-level established NPCs like the high priest of a temple or a wizard in his tower. Stealing from that NPC would be virtually identical to just attacking a random high level NPC to get loot, which is what happens in a lot of dungeons. The concentration of loot is lower than a magic shop, and the loot-to-difficulty ratio is normal. The PCs will also lose access to important services if they screw over or slay the NPC.

For a campaign I had magic brokers. This would be a guy who has contacts instead of inventory. If you want an item, you go to him and he will keep an eye out. If you want to sell an item, he will either have a buyer waiting or will put the word out that he has a seller. In any case, the trading parties never meet. The broker takes the payment, pays the seller for his item, brings the item to the buyer. This helps the magic shop robbery issue because you can only ever steal the proceeds from one deal, not a whole inventory. If you get the broker’s books, you have a list of magic item locations, but you need to go through the adventuring effort to actually break through separate sets of security, reducing the magic item windfall.

The second problem with magic shops is just the feel of having players ask for specific items. It unduly rewards system mastery for players who know which items to ask for, or which items tend to be good deals, and destroys the mystery of finding magic items as loot.

So, my current attempt is the Fairy Market.


Every PC (not henchmen etc.) in the party who is level 3 or higher gets a 1 in 6 chance to spot the Fairy Market at the start of each game session. One time I described it as the PC taking a night stroll after the tavern and seeing a strangely different alley in the village, paved with hexagonal mossy stones and illuminated with hanging lanterns, far-off glows and sounds of laughter and delicious scents through a faint mist. The player can run off and gather the whole party, but there isn’t time to go around town making deals before entering the Fairy Market.

The market has five or six vendors who are people with features that make them look like an animal or plant: the owl guy has thick glasses, bushy eyebrows, and says WHO words a lot. Each vendor sells a bunch of normal stuff, and one magic item (or a few potions or arrows).

For my market, I decided that (1) there would never be cursed items, (2) the vendors would sell at book price, (3) the vendors would buy PC magic items at book price, and (4) if the PCs steal from the market they can never return – that part of the game is just gone. I didn’t tell them any of this, but they’re assuming 2-4 without my assistance.

I could see someone balking at the 1:1 exchange rate. I did that because it doesn’t offer a huge array of items, so it’s not an “exchange whatever loot the DM says I found for the exact thing I want” but instead “exchange my undesirable loot for something that I think might be better for me”.

One time the market was accessed via a large oven, with the passage beyond leading to a steam tunnel-like area with insect and slug themed vendors and “bad” items like poison and necromantic magic.

Once I did a rundown, faded casino with a 3d6 slot machine for money, a claw machine with magic item prizes, and a potion vending machine. The claw machine had a low success chance, but a couple of players managed to get something. One player sipped a Potion of Elasticity he found earlier to reach into the claw machine through the prize chute. I described it as a suspiciously long, winding chute – he couldn’t see the prizes because he was crouched beside the machine, so he still had to roll but with a much better chance, and the other players got to choose which thing he would get because they were directing him. He got 1 try per turn, and the potion lasted a secretly-rolled 2d6 turns. He pushed his luck and kept going until the end, and I made him roll a DEX check to get his rapidly-shrinking arm out before it got stuck in the machine. The players were suspicious that the ruse might be discovered despite the fairy attendant snoozing nearby, so they plugged in enough gold into the claw machine to cover one attempt per nabbed prize – which I decided was enough to keep the market from going away.


The other thing I always do is talk about the food. The first fairy market, based on the early scenes in Spirited Away, required a save vs. spell for all who went in to avoid spending 250 GP on delicious morsels. The casino had a free buffet that wasn’t great, but they didn’t turn it down. The steam tunnels featured coal braziers of streetmeats and soups of garlic and onions.

I use the Fairy Market to insert the opportunity to get magic items that aren’t in the adventure I’m running. For example, if someone decided to play a Druid but I didn’t plan for that and there’s a paucity of Druid items, I can have the Fairy Market sell one every time. It also gives them the ability to sell their unwanted magic items (and I try to give magic items as loot value instead of so much money) without the associated problem of figuring out logistics for the buyer in town.

Because the Fairy Market has a predetermined inventory, and different vendors, there’s no player asking for certain magic items and no benefit for that system mastery. The possible extra loot is limited to the current inventory of the market. And there’s no recrimination at DM machinations to guard the magic shop – if the PCs steal, they’ll just get away with it and feel that the market has faded away behind them forever.

I prepare the market for the next game session, and if nobody rolls a 1 in 6 (has happened once) I save that for use next time. I don’t roll items randomly, I try to make it stuff the players can afford and might be interested in.

Pretty sure this isn’t the best way to handle it, but it’s a fun experiment and the players like it.

The Yin and Yang of Treasure Division

July 21, 2015

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.

Layers of Placing Magic Items

July 17, 2015

I’ve said before that I prefer to place a magic item instead of money. Because I don’t like magic shops, opportunities to buy magic items are limited, so players can always choose to trade out a magic item for money but can’t really do the reverse to get whatever item they want (typically they’ll have a couple purchase options every game session but not necessarily the exact item they were hoping for).

But how to place those items? I go about it in several passes.

Layer 1: Total value. I want enough value worth of magic items so the players get enough treasure to level up. This is more important in games where you get XP for GP. In the game I’m running, for example, you get 1 XP per GP, and 1 XP per GP value of magic items you decide to sell without using, but generally about 10% of the XP value for the magic item if you decide to keep it. If the players sell the magic items they get more XP and are higher level, but if they keep them all they are lower level but more powerful because they have the items. It tends to work out regardless of what they choose.

Layer 2: Theme. If they’re exploring a dwarven temple, I want some appropriate magic items. If a monster hoards items the loot can be anything someone might have carried into its lair or that it found nearby. I like each treasure cache to be a little story. One time I had a secret room that connected two hallways, and far in the past some annoyed adventurer had hurled his pile of cursed items in there.

Layer 3: Usefulness. I don’t want a cache to be just a bunch of Fighter items because everyone else at the table is bummed. Items anyone can use are cool. At the same time, I want a balance of usefulness. Not everything has to be combat-related. Especially at low level an item that weighs nothing but replaces a bulky piece of equipment can be worthwhile (like a magical dome that works as well as a 10-man pavilion). This frequently runs counter to Layer 2 because at that point I might have a wizard tower and think that it needs a lot of wizard items in it. But maybe the wizard has a bodyguard, or a magical trap has a thief imprisoned and starved to death, he has some unidentified items, or he just has some goodies he can’t use and might trade away.

It’s tough to predict, like trying to make a viral video, but it’s great when a player really latches onto the idea of a magic item and it begins to make the character really stand out. Imagine if Thor’s player finds a kickass magic hammer at level 2, it becomes a thing with him, and he goes for the whole fur coat and horned helmet ensemble. Later he gloms on additional magic items like gauntlets, belt, and a better hammer. If not for the fortuitous attachment the player had to that first magic hammer, Thor might become just another Fighter. This can happen through the magic of a player being really in the groove and pleased to find a +1 thing behind a secret panel. It can also happen because the magic item isn’t just a bonus and instead gives him a different option to choose from.

Layer 4: Interactions with the other adventure elements. At this point it’s usually just a switch from one item to another so the players can use it in specific areas. Magic items as problem-solving tools. Sometimes I’ll start the process with Layer 4, with an item and a problem that it can solve, and then build the theme (Layer 2) and adventure difficulty (Layer 1) around that. Maybe it means I shelf this adventure idea for later. But when I come around at the end to do Layer 4 it’s typically stuff like “change the Potion of Heroism to Plant Control instead so they can part the razorvine if they found the potion and they think of it”.

You can do just fine without going through all this trouble. You really can say it’s a 5th level dungeon so you should put in a few +1 items, a few scrolls and potions, a +2 item, and a low-end ring or low-charge wand. I think in the published classic modules that’s what you see. But you also sometimes see a strange connection that shows some extra effort has been made to put extra depth in the treasure placement. It’s like the difference between one layer of glaze on a pot and multiple transparent layers of glaze: both pots hold the water.