There’s a horrible wealth disparity between PCs and NPCs. At 4th level, a PC has twice as much gear as an NPC, and by 11th level this increases to five times as much. There’s a reason for this: if NPCs had as much treasure as PCs, winning an “even” battle between four PCs and four NPCs of the same level would mean the PCs would double their wealth after one encounter. The reduced NPC treasure values allow PCs to fight CR-appropriate groups of NPCs without exploding the Character Wealth By Level table (Core Rulebook 399).
(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)
Unfortunately, this means that NPCs get crappy gear.
For example, Nightblade is a badass 10th-level NPC fighter. According to Table 14–9: NPC Gear (Core Rulebook 454), he has 12,750 gp worth of gear. When you apportion that according to the categories in the table, Nightblade gets 4,000 for “Weapons”, 4,000 for “Protection,” 3,000 for “Magic” (other permanent magic items), and 1,250 for “Limited Use” items like potions. If we allocate all of the Magic category to his weapon, Nightblade can almost afford a +2 sword. Spending 4,000 gp for Protection almost gets him +2 armor, and the Limited Use gold is probably a potion of bull’s strength and a couple of healing potions.
Meanwhile, a 10th-level PC fighter probably has 20,000 gp worth of weapons (that’s a +3 weapon right there), 20,000 gp worth of armor (that’s +4 armor), and 10,000 gp worth of miscellaneous items (maybe a ring or protection +2 or amulet of natural armor +2). The PC fighter kills Nightblade, and laughs at the junk gear he loots from Nightblade’s body because his PC gear is far better. If the PC is lucky, Nightblade’s primary weapon could useful as a backup weapon. For Nightblade to actually be an interesting encounter, and to give Nightblade a chance to have an item the PC may actually want, the GM has to skew the suggested NPC gear allocations, perhaps giving Nightblade a weapon worth 10,000 gp, and shortchanging his defensive items by only giving him the remaining 2,750 gp (out of 12,750 gp total) for that purpose. If the GM does that, it means Nightblade has good treasure, but is easier to kill than a typical NPC. Still a problem!
So what if we change the paradigm of NPC treasure? What if we stop assuming that the PCs get to loot all of the items from an NPC? After all, it’s not like a typical PC is going to loot an orc of his shirt, rations, junky armor, boots, and arrows (unless you’re in a gritty campaign where scrounging every last copper is the only way to survive).
I’m going to use monster encounters in World of Warcraft (WOW) as an example. (I know, I know, outrage, “keep your MMO out of my tabletop,” etc., etc.). Let’s say you’re a level 6 PC and you’re fighting a level 6 monster such as a castle guard. That guard is wearing a full set of armor, like this Northwatch Marine. Now, if your WOW character kills that guard, do you think your character gets to loot the Marine’s sword and a full set of armor? Hell, no! That Marine’s treasure is a few coins, some items your character can use for crafting, perhaps a healing potion, and some junk you can sell to a vendor for a little more money. The game doesn’t account for his weapon and armor at all. You could say that’s a flaw in the game, or violates your suspension of disbelief, but I think you can rationalize it as, “I just beat the crap out of this guy, his weapon is blunted from hitting my armor, and I damaged his armor enough that it’s basically worthless.” So your loot from this guard is just what you can salvage from him. In WOW, you can clear out an entire castle of 30 guards and you’ll get various small treasures. In a tabletop RPG, you can clear out an entire castle of 30 guards (or bandits, or whatever), and now you have 30 complete sets of chainmail which you can sell for 75 gp each or outfit your own garrison of guards for the castle you now own.
Let’s use another WOW creature as an example, this time a boss, Scarlet Commander Mograine. This guy is basically an evil paladin, and he’s wearing heavy mail armor and carrying a big magic mace and a shield. We know he’s equipped with these things because when the PCs kill him, they can loot a shield, gauntlets, mace, or leggings from him. But you only get one of those items, not all four. Obviously he was wearing more than just that one item, but the treasure you get from him is what you’re able to salvage from his corpse. Maybe the other items were damaged, or they’re magically attuned to him and you can’t use them, or whatever. You only get one. This means an encounter with Mograine can be a fun, tough battle for the PCs, and any warrior-type PC is going to get a really nice magic item from the fight–but it’s not an instant upgrade of that PC’s armor, weapon, and shield.
So what does this mean for a tabletop game? Well, let’s propose that NPCs get more equipment for their level, but they only tend to “drop” (that’s a computer game term meaning “what treasure you can loot from it when you kill it”) one main treasure item, and perhaps some secondary items that might be useful but aren’t a “prize” item like a magic weapon that’s a possible upgrade compared to a PC’s weapon.
Let’s go back to Nightblade, our example badass 10th-level NPC fighter. If we double his treasure allotment, that’s 25,500 gp; approximately 8,000 for Weapon, 8,000 for Protection, 6,000 for Magic, and 2,500 for Limited Use. This version of Nightblade can actually afford a +2 longsword just by using his Weapon budget, without dipping into his Magic budget. And he can almost afford +3 full plate with his Protection budget (he’d have to use 1,000 or so from his Magic budget, as +3 armor is 9,000 gp plus the mundane armor cost). Nightblade can use the rest of his Magic budget to get a belt of giant strength +2 and a ring of protection +1. His Limited Use budget can get him an elemental gem or a necklace of fireballs type I.
When the PCs defeat Nightblade, they can loot items worth about what’s listed on the NPC Gear table for him–in this case, about 12,750 gp worth. Perhaps the +2 longsword and the belt of giant strength +2, or the +3 full plate and the belt, or the belt, ring, and necklace of fireballs–items that 10th-level PCs would actually find useful. Throw in 1d100 gp in coins and you have a reasonable treasure award for the defeating Nightblade. All of Nightblade’s other gear isn’t lootable or usable. And that 12,750 gp worth of loot is still much better than the 4,250 gp the PCs could expect to loot for a non-NPC CR 9 monster (Table 12–5: Treasure Values Per Encounter, Core Rulebook 399).
As another example, consider Bablasto the 10th-level NPC wizard, who under this system gets 25,500 gp; approximately 8,000 for Weapon, 8,000 for Protection, 6,000 for Magic (other permanent items), and 2,500 for Limited Use. Because he’s a wizard, he doesn’t need a weapon for stabbing his opponents, so let’s put that 8,000 into the Protection budget. Protection gets him a ring of protection +2 and an amulet of natural armor +2; if supplemented with a mage armor spell, that gives Bablasto AC of 18 plus Dex mod. Alternatively, he swaps the ring and amulet for a cloak of resistance +4, or a ring of protection +3, or a fun item like a blessed book which has no effect on his stat block but is a nice treasure for a PC wizard to keep). Other Magic budget items can be a headband of vast intelligence +2 and a brooch of shielding to block those inevitable magic missile attacks. As a wizard, he gets double value from using his Limited Use items on scrolls (for 5,000 total), and in doing so he could easily afford to scribe four 5th-level spells (at 1,125 gp each) and still have some left for a nice cure moderate wounds potion. When the PCs defeat Bablasto, they can loot about 12,750 gp worth of stuff from him, like his ring +2 and amulet +2 (or the cloak +4, or the ring +3, or the blessed book), perhaps with the brooch and one of the scrolls. Interesting loot, usable loot, but not disposable loot.
As of right now, I haven’t done any serious math about how much more difficult this would make encounters with the NPCs. However, a +2 (based on the differences in what Nightblade can afford) on hit and damage rolls or saves, or to AC, isn’t a big deal (the advanced creature simple template adds +2 to all rolls and it’s just +1 CR). Considering that four PCs ganging up on one CR-appropriate NPC isn’t a fair fight (it’s an “average” encounter, and the PCs are expected to win and only expend 20-25% of their resources on the battle), if the NPC is a little tougher it may make the encounter “challenging,” but not “hard.” It would be interesting to see how this affects finale-type encounters with higher-level NPCs, but seeing as the game is skewed in favor of the PCs, most boss fights could have a bit of power-up for the sake of better treasure.
If you have comments about this, feel free to discuss them on my Facebook fan page or my long-neglected message boards.