by Mike Shea on 14 November 2011
In October 2011, Monte Cook wrote a Legends and Lore article entitled Magic and Mystery that discussed some of the problems with the magic item system of 4th edition. It's an article worth reading, but it doesn't give us a lot we can do today to improve how magic item rewards are handled in 4th edition.
In short, because core magic item bonuses are factored into the overall balance of the game, there is a requirement that PCs receive certain rewards at certain times. This puts a burden on the dungeon master to ensure that the loot he or she rewards keeps up with the requirements of the PCs. That's a lot of work and, as lazy dungeon masters, we don't like that work.
The existing 4e loot system also removes some of the excitement from magic item rewards. Instead of magical treasure feeling like something special, players will recognize that there is a certain amount of treasure they SHOULD receive. When they receive it, it isn't special, and if they don't, now they feel underpowered.
Back in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 WOTC introduced the concept of "Inherent Bonuses", a system where PCs automatically gain the required bonuses to AC, defenses, attacks, and damage they should have assuming ideal magic items for their level. This optional system works very well in low-magic games like Dark Sun but can work well in any D&D game just as well.
Using inherent bonuses frees us DMs from needing to worry about loot distribution. Now we can give out the items we want to give out whenever we choose.
Here is a simple way to handle loot in a game that puts a lot less stress on the DM, ensures PCs stay at the power level they want, and still gives players an opportunity to acquire some fun magic items.
Implement the "Inherent Bonus" system in your game. Players can select this in the Character Builder under the "Character Options" section.
Use the random loot charts in the Dungeon Master's Kit or the Rules Compendium. When they receive a magic item, use Sly Flourish's Random Loot Charts to determine which random magic item they received.
Pick out one nice rare magic item per PC. Work with your players to determine which ones they really want and build a backstory and quest for the item. Interweave this quest and backstory into your game and give each player a chance to win a nice rare item once every 10 levels or once per mini-campaign.
Players can, if they choose, buy any common magic item using the cash they were awarded from the random loot.
This system gets back to what Monte Cook talked about in his article. It keeps PC power where it should be, gives some random chances for interesting uncommon magic items, and interweaves an "epic weapon" sort of system so both storyteller players and power gamers have something to shoot for. It's also much easier on the dungeon master.