For many roleplayers and certainly many characters, treasure is one of the primary reasons for their adventures. Treasure is rarely the end goal (unless the characters are truly shallow) but fine quality loot is a mainstay of an adventurer’s diet.
So how do you make finding ever increasing sums of gold and piles of magic items interesting? Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about!
In most games, there’s a standard for the monetary reward, a gold standard, as it were. In dungeons and dragons, you get silver, gold and platinum pieces. In star wars games, there’s republic credits, there’s throne gelt in Dark Heresy and piles of jade in Exalted, certified cred or corp script in Shadowrun and many, many more versions of that same old thing: money.
And all of it is so dreadfully boring. The first time players receive a pile of gold in their adventure, they’re probably pretty happy with it but after the second or third pile, you either need to be handing out increasingly large amounts of it or they’ll start getting bored. There’s a bunch of science behind why this starts to happen but suffice to say that getting the same or a similar reward every time isn’t terribly interesting to people.
So you need to spice things up. Step one: different coinage. Give out the same thing in a different flavor. Instead of a pouch of gold pieces, this time the adventurers find a small wad of paper, each one a note of credit from a dwarven bank. Instead of an anonymised transfer from an offshore bank by Mr Johnson, the runners receive a briefcase full of rough diamonds. Instead of finding a strongbox filled with throne gelt in the corrupt administrator’s office, they find a single copper coin, minted in the Dark Age of Technology and worth an enormous amount.
See what I’m getting at here? You can still hand out money to your players but you need to keep it interesting to keep their attention.
Another option is replacing some of this gold with treasure. Add in a golden scepter or your setting’s equivalent of a fabergé egg. Have them find paintings, sculptures, ornate weapons and ivory chess sets. Have them lug a valuable rug or marble statue out of the dungeon or let them steal their target’s high-end entertainment system or luxury vehicle. Sometimes, the keys to a Bugatti are more valuable than its value in cash.
And that brings us to the last item in the list of things adventurers love to get. magic items. In this case, I’m using the term magic items to include any special items or gear the players might not usually have access to. This includes the traditional Dungeons and Dragons style magical swords and staves but also includes things like unusual weapons or armor in more modern settings, nanoforges and exotic spaceships in sci-fi settings, tomes containing strange spells and the like.
Now, magical items are all well and good but unless carefully managed, they quickly become duller than a sack of rocks. Pathfinder is a big offender for this due to the way the system is written. You see, pathfinder has a series of magic items whose some function is to provide a direct numerical bonus to a character’s capabilities. These are things like the longsword +1 (which provides a +1 to hit and damage when used) or the belt of ogre strength +4 (which increases strength by 4). These items suck as a means of reward and they suck for three reasons.
Reason one is that they are very specific. A longsword +1 is utterly worthless to a party that consists of a wizard, a monk, a cleric and an archery-focussed ranger. Sure, the ranger could carry it along but they likely will never actually use it. And none of the other characters are even able to wield it effectively. So it gets tossed in the pile of ‘stuff to sell’ and forgotten about except as a chunk of gold.
The second reason is that these items are very quickly forgotten. Once a character gets these, the bonus is written down on the characters sheet and then the item is ignored until one with a bigger bonus is found. The stat increase becomes part of the character and is no longer magical.
And the final reason is that these items are required by the system. Pathfinder’s challenge system and encounters, especially in published adventures, are written with the assumption that characters will have certain magic items at certain levels. A fighter should have a +1 weapon at level 5. At level 10 most characters should have a certain armor class and a certain bonus to their saves, which is nearly impossible to get without magical items. And while you can ignore these rules, you’re going to struggle.
So how do we fix these boring magical items. The answer comes, strangely enough, from games like DOTA and Dark Souls. Allow me to explain. Some of the most powerful weapons in those games are weapons that have some sort of special ability above and beyond their use as a sharp object with which to murder pixelated foes.
Weapons like the Dragon Great-Axe (Dark Souls) or the Shadow Blade (DOTA)are good weapons in their own right, with decent stats. But what sets them apart from their more mundane counterparts is their unique abilities. These abilities dramatically expand the options a character wielding them has in a fight without directly making them more powerful.
And here’s the best part: your players will LOVE this. Extra abilities above and beyond what their class can do, having to make hard choices between a weapon with slightly better stats and one that allows you to teleport a short distance or hit an enemy behind a wall is a challenge that many roleplayers love. And finding a weapon such as this is an excellent way to spice up combat and the loot your players find.
As a final hint, if you’re lacking inspiration, fire up a database of your favorite video or cardgame that shares a genre with whatever roleplaying game you’re playing and check out the work other designers have done before you. Then, steal liberally.
I personally recommend having a look around at Magic the Gathering’s equipment. There’s a few interesting items in there.
I hope this has inspired you to go out and make a few of your own weapons or items. I’ll probably be writing a post sometime in the future with a few examples of gear that i’ve created for my own games.