The issue under discussion was placement of treasure in D&D. (Those of you who don't care about D&D can switch off now - I'm not working my way back to some more general point.)
In the first editions of the game, treasure placement was haphazard, at best. The DMG had a bunch of random tables that DMs mostly ignored, and (in 2nd Edition at least) included dire warnings against giving out "too much" treasure - a term that was largely undefined. Meanwhile, the published adventures were much more treasure-happy, which created some odd results when trying to use a published adventure in an ongoing treasure-poor campaign.
When they came to do 3e, WotC revised the treasure tables, making them much more robust, and insisted that their published adventures stuck to those guidelines. Furthermore, they formally introduced the buying and selling of magic items (which had been common up to that point, although the rules never really supported it). Finally, they introduced a "Wealth by Level" table for DMs.
On the one hand, this was a massive step forward. Suddenly, the rules were nice and consistent across DMG and adventures, there was a clear definition of "too much" and "too little" treasure, and it was now obvious how much gear a starting PC should have.
However, there were three complaints:
- The easy market in magic items gave rise to a "Magic Item Walmart" complaint. Now, that wasn't really implicit in the rules as written, but it was a mindset that took hold and was never shaken.
- DMs objected because suddenly they 'had' to give out a particular amount of treasure - too much or too little would throw off the balance of the game.
- Probably most significantly, some items gave much better results than others, and those items tended to be really dull. One of the best items for a Fighter was a belt of giant's strength, but that was one you just added to the sheet and then forgot about forevermore.
With 4e, WotC dropped the random treasure tables entirely (in fairness, they had always been largely ignored), and replaced the "Wealth by Level" table with a much simpler formula. Finally, the DMG recommended that the DM ask the players for "wish lists" of magical treasure that they would like to find, and then the players should "just happen" to find mostly those items as they went.
This idea came in for much mockery.
What I think is wanted from treasure in the game is the following:
- The players should have a sense of wondering: "What are we going to get?"
- When they find out what they've got, the response should be, "Cool!"
- You probably want the players to actually use the items they find... but don't necessarily want to enforce this.
Now, what I have traditionally done in the past is to place treasure largely in the form of gold, plus a small number of 'cool' items, and a small number of 'tailored' items - these being those "dull but powerful" items I mentioned previously. However, I've typically assigned treasure to a budget - the WbL table says they should have X gold; they currently have Y gold; I will therefore assign (X-Y) gold in treasure.
I think that's the wrong way to go about it. Instead, I think a much better solution is probably:
- Over the course of the level, about a third of treasure should take the form of non-magical valuables. (That is, (X-Y)/3 should be valuables.)
- Of the valuables, only a small percentage should take the form of raw gold. Instead, as much as possible, it should take the form of more interesting items - a gold crown from the giant empire, a set of paintings by some famous artist, and so on. Ultimately, these are going to be liquidated into gold, but they're worth a moment or two to lovingly detail.
- When placing magic items, you shouldnot place the perfect item. So, no belt of giant strength, no ring of protection, no +1 flaming holy bastard sword, bane against evil outsiders (which is probably the most powerful melee weapon in the game).
- Instead, when placing magic items, assign double the value in items that are useful and interesting, but not quite what the PCs would choose for themselves. (Or, in 4e, or indeed my house-ruled game, assign five times the normal amount - because items can be traded in at only 20% of their purchase cost.)
- One more thing: it's okay to assign an item that the party simply can't use. Since they're likely to take such a thing off a defeated NPC, that only makes sense. However, such items should be considered as part of the "non-magical valuables" part of the treasure assigned.
That way, the items that are found are suddenly nice, powerful items, likely to elicit the "Cool!" response. Additionally, they're more likely to be kept and used (until the party outgrow them, but that's fine too). And if they choose to trade them in for the "powerful but dull" items, well, that's their choice, but it's not exactly efficient!
The consequence of this will immediately be being felt in my "Eberron Code" campaign when it returns. Up until now, the PCs have not really been receiving enough treasure, so it had been my intention to give them additional funds to boost them up to where they 'should' be. However, I wasn't looking forward to doing that calculation. But now I don't have to - I can just give them a flat 8,000 gold pieces and not worry about it (since that takes them well past the 13,000 value on the WbL table). Additionally, it means that when they go on their quests from here on out, I can start assigning more treasure than before.
Somehow, I can't see anyone complaining about getting more treasure...