How much do I love RPGs? Let me count the ways…I love the role-playing, the sense of community, the exploration and storytelling…but let’s be real here. One of the most exciting things in D&D is, without a doubt, the loot!! It’s a great way to reward your players, help balance out a party and make the drag between levels a bit more rewarding. These things are especially important when running D&D for young players who can sometimes get discouraged by unlucky rolls or become bored with the “grind” that us older players sometimes pride ourselves on enduring!
There are nearly endless source materials out there for you to populate dungeons, towers, and bandit camps with fantastic treasure…but how do you decide which ones to use? Unless you have something specific in mind, it can be easy to become paralyzed by all the options at your fingertips!
While random item tables are great for making a world feel populated and”lived-in”, there are certain items that could and should be chosen more deliberately. Think about a set for your favourite movie or TV show: more often than not, the items you see in the backdrop were chosen for a reason, to convey some aspect of the scene or characters that isn’t necessarily spoken outright. By applying that same concept to some of the items in your game, you can convey meaningful details to your players and build upon that sense of wonder and exploration.
Here are some things to consider when choosing rewards and loot drops for your D&D parties:
Player Goals and Backstory
Are there certain things your PCs are trying to accomplish? Are they working their way through a major (or minor) story arc? Loot drops are a great way to leave breadcrumbs in the form of clues and lore-filled items to keep them motivated and moving in the right direction. Maybe one of the items they find holds the answer to one of the questions they’re trying to solve. Or they might find a piece of a larger item or mechanism that will be integral to the plot in some way, like the Rod of Seven Parts.
You can also use loot drops to leave clues about certain backstory elements. It could be a piece of armor that belonged to a relative or ally they thought was long gone, or an item from their childhood, mysteriously found in a place that it shouldn’t have been.
Balancing the Party
Not all parties are perfectly balanced and I don’t always think they should be! Sure, it’s easier to balance out a party with the “perfect” combination of classes and specialities: melee tank, spell caster, healer, etc…but I generally try to encourage players to create a character they want to play, and leave the balancing to me as the DM.
One of the ways you can help balance a party is through the items you place in their path. Now, when I say “balance”, I don’t mean that you should give all PCs the same skill sets. I mean you can give them items that enhance their strengths while helping minimize some of their vulnerabilities that might make them more cautious during an encounter.
Take the classically “squishy” spell caster, with powerhouse spells but a downright laughable AC of 10. That player is going to be less likely to take certain risks out of fear that they may lose their PC. You can help balance this by dropping in some enchanted armour or wearable item that raises their AC, to help them gain a bit more confidence before taking on that Beholder you’ve been saving up for them 😉
Lore and Setting
Similar to Player Goals and Backstory, you can use loot drops to deliver some serious lore in a manner that gives the party something more tangible to interact with. Something they can actively use and take with them as opposed to a history lesson from an NPC (though I still love a good lore-master NPC)! Feel free to drop in some forgotten tomes or items from a long-forgotten kingdom. It gives a sense of the age of a setting or complexity of an encounter, like having undead in the catacombs wearing the armour of a mythic adventurer.
It’s also a good idea to ensure that the loot makes sense for the setting, or at least the plot lines that you’re weaving in. Unless they’re part of a smuggling ring or hiding a secret hobby, it’s unlikely that a farmer will keep spell scrolls in their closet. Think about where you’re placing valuable or rare items and what it means for them to be there.
DIY Magic Items
What if the thing you have in mind doesn’t yet exist in the published resources? One of my favourite things about home-brew is the opportunity to create original magic items tailored to your players! Don’t get me wrong, the DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide) and other sourcebooks are chock-full of fantastic treasures, but the light in a player’s eyes when they find an item that was specifically crafted for them is simply priceless.
When creating a home-brewed item, I think about the same considerations listed above: does it fulfil a goal or backstory element for the PC, does it help to mitigate a vulnerability, and is it connected to the setting or world lore in some way? I also think about the level of the PC. If they’re lower level, giving them something better suited for a 9th level adventurer will probably be a bit too over-powered (OP). Likewise, if they’re levels 5 and higher, a simple +1 weapon or piece of armor will feel rather cheap. Try to match items with enchantments that will provide a unique ability formerly unavailable to the player.
For example, Amber Ironfist, our Dwarven Paladin of Skaoi (a.k.a. Lady of the Northern Lights) recently found a beautifully crafted winged helm of strange, iridescent metal. Once she attunes to it, she’ll be able to create a dazzling display of kaleidoscopic lights that can enchant and confuse her foes.
Another thing to consider is whether or not it will grow and evolve with the wielder. This is a great option for players who form attachments to certain weapons (particularly when the weapon has a backstory tie-in) and are likely to forego shiny new toys in favour of sentiment. Think about developing scaled abilities and characteristics that they might be able to unlock with time. If you like this idea (and have a dmsguild.com account), check out the Ancestral Weapons guide from Dungeon Rollers!
That’s all for now! I hope you found this helpful as you fill your dungeons treasure! Share some of your favourite loot drops below!