The villain’s dead, the dungeon’s sacked, and it’s time for the characters to start divvying up the treasure. The DM sits back and pops open a soda, knowing that this is going to take a while….
There are several ways to split treasure. Some are irrational, some are rational; some favor the sneaky and some favor the whole party. Which works best? That’s up to your players. Here are some options.
S/he Who Steals Last….
The least acceptable way of divvying up treasure is through intraparty theft—basically, taking what you want from each other without getting permission first. The DM should try to discourage this as quickly as possible, although in some cases there simply isn’t much the DM can do. Intraparty theft sows discord and dissatisfaction. Rational characters—even evil ones—should realize that stealing from a party member virtually guarantees that the victim will never, ever, help the thieving character again … pretty risky for a career adventurer. Besides, the thieving character may eventually get kicked out of the party by the rest of the characters! The old idea that you don’t make a mess in your nest applies here—good or evil, it’s more important to be able to trust your adventuring companions than to steal that nifty Wand of Wonder…..
Treasure? What Treasure?
Sometimes a character who steals treasure without others noticing gets to keep it. This tends to tick off the other players, but if their characters didn’t see the theft, they can’t do much about it. It’s up to the GM to decide whether the other characters will notice or not—in some cases a perception roll may be called for, and in other cases the GM may be able to arbitrarily declare that a character has noticed the theft, the presence of a new magic item (“Hey, I never noticed that glowing green sword before!”), or the suspicious bulge where the treasure has been secreted.
When the character snitching the treasure is a thief by class, the GM may want to let the pilfering slide. After all, thieves seldom get to practice their profession in the game—a little pickpocketing while they’re vacationing in the big city, maybe, but most of the time they’re relegated to the unpleasant role of trap-finders and lock-pickers. If the other players complain, the GM can point out that they are traveling with a thief, after all. They should be grateful the thief isn’t stealing directly from their pockets. Moreover, if the thief found the treasure while doing advance scouting for the group, the other characters hardly have grounds for complaint! Advance scouting is dangerous!
In this scenario, whoever finds the treasure keeps it. If somebody’s responsible for killing the wizard, that person gets to claim all the wizard’s possessions. If somebody opens up a drawer and finds a jewelry box, that person gets to keep the jewelry. This method rewards initiative, but the group will probably concentrate on money-grubbing rather than on teamwork or strategy, knowing that unless they get their booty now, they stand a good chance of coming out of the dungeon poorer than when they went in. In some cases Finders Keepers may be worth keeping (the character who fought a one-on-one duel with a major opponent may feel some justification in keeping that Sword of Sharpness that darn near lopped her head off), but in general it’s not a very satisfactory method of treasure division.
Luck of the Dice
In this scenario, money is divided evenly and magic items are split according to the luck of the dice. However, the money can be reserved until all magic items are divvied up, and then split among the characters who didn’t get a magic item, or who had to choose from the dregs
To start the process, each character rolls a die and is listed from high to low, according to their rolls. The character with the highest (or lowest) roll starts by choosing whichever magic item s/he wants first, and so on down the list. Some characters may not get any magic items, if they rolled poorly and there are fewer items than there are characters. Be certain to include significant non-player characters in the list. If an NPC risked life and limb to help your party out, s/he deserves a shot at the treasure, too!
If the end of the list is reached and there are still magic items left, the party can either reroll, start from the top of the list again, or work back up from the bottom. Working back up from the bottom is preferable, because the person who rolled the poorest chooses last and then immediately gets a second choice, with the process working its way back up the list. This gives the poorest roller a sort of compensation prize—two choices in a row.
If characters have a choice among magic items they can’t use or don’t really want, they can either pass their turn or take a magic item anyway. Magic items that can’t be used by a character may still be useful to a henchman or may be sold or swapped for something else. (In some cases, other party members may not want the character to sell the magic item, in which case they should be given the option of purchasing the magic item first.) Spare magic items also make excellent gifts to nonplayer characters.
After all of the magic items are divided, the characters may want to swap. Characters can offer their own magic items or money to each other if there’s an item they really wanted but didn’t get a chance to claim. Sometimes a magic item might be given to a character in exchange for “a favor,” to be called in at some later date.
According to Class
In this scenario, magic items are first divided according to who can use the item best. If there’s only one mage in the party, it makes sense to give all the “mage-only” magic items and scrolls to her. If there’s only one cleric in the party, give all the “cleric-only” items to him. If one fighter has magic armor and the other doesn’t, the new set of magic armor should either go to the one who doesn’t have the armor, or the fighter who already has magic armor should take the new set and give the fighter without the armor his cast-off set.
When all the logical divisions have been made, any leftover magic items can be split by dicing off for them.
According to Need
This is only possible in an extremely cohesive adventuring group in a campaign setting. First, money can be either divided evenly or divided according to collective party agreements. In one campaign I ran, the players all took 10 percent of the cash off the top of each new treasure haul and saved it for the “Resurrection Fund.” This fund was used whenever a party member died. In another campaign, mages were be allowed to skim enough money off the top of the treasure haul to pay for replacing the magic item charges they used. The other characters’ figured they’d rather have the mages blowing charges off their wands for the good of the party than have them hoard the charges for self-defense. Parties may also decide to give more money to a character who’s just suffered a financial loss or has a special need for funds for some reason.
Second, magic items should be split according to need. Like the class scenario, this means that magic items that logically belong to one character or another should be given out that way. But in addition, the entire party should critically examine how its magic items are divided and see if the division makes sense. Enhance each character’s strengths and try to patch up any weaknesses. Make each character as efficient as possible. Of course, some characters will have magic items they don’t want to give up, and that’s fine within reason—but not at the expense of the entire party’s well-being.
Characters should remember their NPC contacts, too. In a long-term campaign, sometimes it’s more useful to the party to give a Ring of ESP or of Truth to their secretary or doorman than to keep it themselves!
There are a few other considerations to mention when it comes to splitting treasure. One fairly common adventure scenario is that the person hiring the adventurers offers to pay them with one single big treasure. What does the party do then? There are four likely decisions. The first two options are best in a single-shot or pick-up game. The third and fourth options are best in a campaign.
First, the party could sell the item to somebody for its cash value and split up the proceeds. That could cause some problems if somebody wants the item. In that case, the second option is that the person who wants the item buys it from the party for its cash value, paying in cash or a combination of cash and valuables, depending on what the person has available.
The third option is to keep the item as “party treasure.”
The fourth option is to give the magic item away. Sound silly? Not if the local temple will give the party some free healing or a couple of free Raise Deads in exchange for that handsome donation. Sometimes a party will benefit more not from the treasure itself, but from the favors it can purchase.
So next time your group is getting ready to split the haul, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re divvying up the loot as efficiently as possible. In the long run, a smarter, fairer way of splitting the goods can only benefit your group.
Originally written June 21, 1998
Image Source: Fairy Tales of India by Jacobs, J., 1892