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Awarding Treasure and Magic Items in D&D 5e

by Mike on 31 July 2017

This article updates the original published on 31 August 2017.

It's important for GMs to spend time and attention on the treasure and magic items awarded to characters. Selecting treasure is one of the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master with good reason. Treasure and magic items matter a lot to characters and players and yet their dispersement lies completely in the hands of the GM.

Use a mixture of random treasure and hand-selected magic items based on what fits the characters and what players want based on their wish-lists. Roll random treasure parcels and customize them based on what offers the most fun to the group. It's quick, easy, and offers a high value for our game.

Many GMs ask how much loot to distribute and how often.

A couple of RPG community members did great work breaking down how much treasure one can expect across a campaign. DM David did so in his article "What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?". So did Paul Hughes and Andy Pearlman. If you want to dive deep into the math, these articles have you covered.

Like many aspects of D&D, I argue it's better to hang on with a loose grip and not worry too much about it.

How Often?

The breakdowns linked above, and books like the 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide, and Level Up Advanced 5e's Trials and Treasure book recommend offering up one to three hoards per character level. That feels about right to me too.

Don't sweat it too much, though. Drop in hoards when they feel right and when the opportunity arises in the story of the game.

How Much?

Chapter 7 of the 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide has fine tables for rolling treasure hoards. Choose the challenge rating of the biggest monster defeated or pick a CR based on the overall danger of the quest (or even just an equivalent CR to the level of the characters if you have nothing else to base it on) and roll on the appropriate tables.

The equivalent random treasure tables in the Trials and Treasure book for Level Up Advanced 5e are probably better but adding all the CRs of the defeated monsters isn't as straight forward as focusing on the highest CR monster. You can half the CR values in A5e's tables and use them the same way as the DMG tables and things work fine.

Online random treasure tools often work better than rolling lots of dice. It's really fast to roll a treasure hoard using tools like Donjon's Treasure Generator, the Level Up Advanced 5e Random Treasure Generator, or the Lazy GM's Random Generator (a reward for Sly Flourish Patrons). Because it's so fast, you can roll a bunch of hoards and pick the one that best fits the situation in the game and the fun of your group. Which random magic items look cool for the current situation? Does the hoard have too many or too few consumable magic items? Keep rolling until you like what you see.

We're not beholden to the results of such random treasure hoards. We can always roll on individual magic item tables to drop things in but even better is picking items directly for our characters.

Add Items from Wish Lists

Ask your players for the kinds of magic items they're interested in for their character. Write this wish list down in your notes and review it when reviewing the characters for your next game (step 1 of the eight steps from Return). Then, if the time feels right, drop in an item for one of the characters, ensuring you're keeping track of who got what so no one's left out.

Add Story and Campaign Flavor

The "Special Features" tables on page 142 and 143 of chapter 7 in the 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide offer fantastic ways to customize magic items based on the item's creators or intended users, history, minor properties, and quirks. These tables directly inspired my "condition", "description", and "origin" tables on page 6 of the Lazy DM's Companion and the "origin", "condition", and "spell effects" tables on page 13 and 14 of the Lazy DM's Workbook.

You can also build your own faction or origin table to flavor magic items based on the campaign world you're running – either homebrew or published. Here's an example of some factions of Midgard:

  1. Veles the Great Serpent
  2. Freyr and Freyja, the Twin Northern Gods
  3. Loki the Northern Trickster God
  4. Sif the Northern Sword Maiden
  5. Thor the Northern Thunderer
  6. Wotan the Northern Rune Father
  7. Khors the Crossroads Lord of the Sun
  8. Lada the Crossroad Goddess of Dawn, Love, and Mercy
  9. Perun the Crossroad God of War and Thunder
  10. Rava the Crossroad Gear Goddess
  11. Volund the Crossroad Master of Fire and Anvil
  12. Addrikah the Mother of Madness
  13. Boreas the Devouring Wind
  14. Chernobog the Black God
  15. The Goat of the Woods
  16. The Hunter, God of Relentless Pursuit, Skill, and Primal Instinct
  17. Mammon the Lord of Greed
  18. Marena the Red Goddess of Winter
  19. Vardesain the Ghoul-God of the Bottomless Maw
  20. The White Goddess of Bright Pain

When you're playing in a campaign world, build your own faction list like this to flavor your own monuments, one-use magic items, weapons, and armor.

Tie your custom magic items to the secrets and clues so your players can discover more of the world around them while enjoying their new fine loot.

The Lazy GM's Random Generator

Sly Flourish Patrons get access to the Lazy GM's Random Generator. This is a generator for monuments, one-use magic items, treasure, quests, NPCs, and more. Each component can be flavored with over ten different campaign worlds and include spells from the 2014 Player's Handbook, Level Up Advanced 5e, and Kobold Press's Deep Magic books. It's a great tool to help you build fantastic situations for your games. Join the Patreon and get access right now.

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