Thirdhand science says: Randomize your treasure!

Laura Redcloud’s review of “How We Decide” gives me some (pseudo?)science to justify something I already believe:* random game rewards are more fun.

[W]e get pleasure when our (subconscious) expectations of reward are met, and we feel upset when those expectations are dashed. Additionally, we get extra dopamine when the reward is surprising. So, what we like, from most to least:

-2 Surprising disappointment
-1 Predictable disappointment
+1 Predictable confirmation of expectations
+2 Surprising confirmation of expectations

1e D&D is a hulking eldritch megabeast born from a mad wizard’s experimental combination of surprising rewards and surprising punishments.

4e repudiated randomness for sanity, balance, and survivability. On the whole, 4e is stronger for it.

Treasure, though, is an area where randomness should reign.

Treasure Tables

Early-edition treasure is a Vegas slot-machine – a slot machine whose every third coin is horribly cursed, but that just adds to the allure of Vegas. The random wackiness of treasure makes a nice counterpart to the steady, predictable advance of XP and character level. In fourth edition, treasure is also steady and predictable: the treasure and levels subsystems advance in lockstep like two steady, predictable oxen yoked together. Still, for compelling gameplay, give me the Vegas slot machine.**

I started using a homegrown random-treasure system shortly after 4e came out. I’m interested to see the Essentials DM’s kit, which is supposed to introduce an official random-treasure system. Hopefully it’s as good as or better than mine. It won’t be the first time that 4e errata has un-houseruled my houserules.

* Isn’t that what science is usually used for?

** I believe that, during the course of this analogy, I yoked together an ox and a slot machine, which is a win for the analogy and for D&D! Use that in your next encounter.

5 Responses to “Thirdhand science says: Randomize your treasure!”

  1. Neuroglyph says:

    I recently had a fairly hefty debate on the issue of random loot and my dislike of wishlists for treasure on my blogsite: The Balance Restored: New Rules for Magic Item Rarity. I too am looking forward to seeing how the Essentials DM’s Kit will handle magic item distribution, and if randomness will return.

    I really enjoy using an online random generator called Quartermaster at He keeps it pretty well up to date, and has a nice re-roll feature if the treasure is just TOO random. You might want to check it out.

  2. paul paul says:

    I agree with all your points. Letting players choose their items does result in a “best in slot” situation where 90% of published magic items will never be used. Also, Quartermaster looks handy: I might use it while preparing treasure, and it’s almost, almost enough to get me to use a laptop at the table.

  3. Swordgleam says:

    I like a combination. Randomness for minor and moderate stuff, but custom-made non-random items for major things. Each player deserves a cool signature weapon or something that fits his character perfectly, and that’s a lot less likely to happen with 100% random loot. But when it comes to potions and art and bracers and things? Bring on the rolling – I sure don’t want to have to make it all up myself.

  4. Rory Rory says:

    The problem with randomness is that it can hurt class balance if you keep the really good magic items in the list. Sure, it’s super fun to roll up those epic bracers of mighty striking, but if one person ends up with them and someone else never gets their equivalent item bonus, then one person suddenly has this very noticeable edge, which isn’t fun.

    So I think a random item system only really works if the edge you get from one bonus or another is fairly minimal. So if it’s the difference between a lightning weapon and a flaming weapon, no big deal. But if it’s between staff of ruin and some other crappy staff, it matters quite a bit, and I’d rather stick with wishlists!

    Ultimately, it strikes me that randomization has to go hand in hand with a general toning down of the power levels of the non enhancement bonuses of items, turning them from the crucial part of crafting your build that they are now, into more of a novelty.

  5. paul paul says:

    Swordgleam, you’re right: I actually do a combination of tailored and random items. That way, sometimes the wizard gets his precious Staff of Ruin and sometimes he gets a magic painting of the exile of a queen by her clumsy brother during a rainstorm 😉

    Rory, agreed, stuff like the Staff of Ruin is bad because it makes one character feel much more effective – and thus can make other characters feel more ineffective. Increasing your damage technically benefits the whole party, but it feels personal. More and less powerful magic items can still exist: take an item that, say, teleports the whole party to safety. It’s very strong, but feels like a reward for the whole group, instead of a buff for one guy. Similarly, a weapon that gives an enemy a vulnerability benefits everybody, while making its owner feel like a hero as well.

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