Experienced DMs know that there are two easy ways for the DM to ruin interest in the campaign; the first is too little loot; the second is too much loot.
That's a lot of pressure.
I have clear memories of a Palladium RPG campaign I ran for 2 years in the early '80's. It had a detailed world with rich history; well-rounded NPCs; a compelling arc with a logical progression that made sense. I know these things because the players praised me for them and thanked me for the hard work I put into the campaign. It was a 'fixed duration' campaign (meaning it had an overall arc with an end that also ended the campaign) so everything built to the final adventure and the Big Reveal. When the Big Reveal happened I was greeted with actual gasps of surprise from the players before an epic battle where they (barely) prevailed, literally saving the world.
After the destruction of an Evil from Beyond the Walls of Reality the players ensured they were truly victorious and sailed off for home. Post-game there was a lot of talk about the epic game, the story, the villains, the plot twists - and all the players seemed unhappy. Finally I asked what was wrong and, reluctantly, Frank said,
"Well, for such an amazing adventure and powerful villain we really expected better loot."
Huh. They players didn't enjoy the conclusion of the campaign because in the last battle of characters they would never play again in a campaign world I would never use again (well, not with them, at least) because the final loot, which they would never use or spend, was inadequate.
Saving the world from enslavement to cosmic horror just wasn't as fulfilling without also getting a +4 sword.
Here's the thing - the previous sentence isn't sarcasm, it is part of game planning. In a FRPG saving the world from enslavement to cosmic horror just isn't as fulfilling without also getting a +4 sword!
Of course, this varies a lot. If you are running a low fantasy Conan-style campaign with no orcs or dwarves, wizards are largely mumbo-jumbo and priests have healing skills instead of spells, then some rubies, a nice warhorse and a jeweled sword are great loot. But in a high fantasy game where the city guard rides hippogriffs, the bazaar has 3rd level magic-users selling trinkets and there are competing magic-item shops in villages along the route to the dungeon the loot needs to be a bit more high fantasy, too.
Of course, too much loot is just as bad! I will admit, in my youth I once ran a campaign where each of the 6 PCs had an artifact or relic by the time they were 9th level and went on to get real items by the time they were 12th level.
In my defense, I was 15.
Thing is, my players didn't enjoy that campaign. In fact, they enjoyed it less than the players with too little loot.
Now, I am certainly not the first RPG blogger to notice this or point this out, but it bears repeating - while there are no "winners" in games with no winners or losers, players like to feel that they have succeeded and this is often measured, emotionally, by the loot. But if the loot is too excessive it both loses its emotional appeal and can make the players feel as if they success was because of items, not characters or playing. Or, the shorter version - there are reasons the first paragraph in this post is true.
So what does a DM do about this? I am not totally sure, but I will tell you what I do. First, I tend to give very little, if any, loot in random encounters. In the typical encounters in a scenario I limit the loot to a relatively small amount of valuables (coins, etc.) and minor objects like potions. For the bigger encounters I lean heavily toward scrolls, potions, charged items, and such because they go away.
You know why Gary didn't put rules for recharging most things in the DMG? They aren't meant to be recharged, they are meant to go away. Wands are the disposable razors of dungeon crawlers.
I also include non-standard stuff in the loot: the journal of a famous mage that drops clues to the arc and gives a bonus on researching a particular spell or two; a prisoner of the orcs who turns out to be the daughter or a barbarian chief who now owes the party a favor if they treated her well; a box of rare/expensive spell components; etc.
I will write another post about what I call 'long-term magic items' which I use to build tension over time, too.
But in all of this how do you deal with money? After all, characters like a piles of gold under the dragon, right?
Well, I limit big hauls of money to big encounters and then give the players so many ways to spend money they get the rush of a big haul and then still feel poor.
And how do I suck the money out of the PCs coin purses?
1) Make magic-users research spells they want. Let them find the occasional Scroll of Protection or of Unseen Servant etc., but if they really want Fireball they may just have to research it. Do they have a research library? No? Well, the local NPC wizards are going to charge a lot for access to theirs - and that is in addition to any standard costs, of course. And make sure they are paying for every single spell component they need in advance. They only spent 200 g.p. on components for a spell which costs 50 g.p. to cast? The fifth time they try to cast it, point out they are out of components and can't.
2) You can just make clerics give it away. Alms for the poor, orphanages, widows, a local church with a leaky roof, you name it. What's that you say? Your player made a Dwarven cleric of commerce that thinks the poor deserve their lot in life? First,interesting pantheon. Second, all you need are a few bad investments, an additional tithe from him to cover caravan guards, and the requirement that he provide an ostentation display of wealth and success (i.e., new, expensive, fashionable clothes all the time) and you're in.
3) Thieves have overhead; informers, personal guards, middle-men, lookouts, bribes for the watch, bribes for the magistrate, bribes for the soldiers, a cut to the guild, another cut to the guild, how much does the guildmaster spend, anyway?, whadda' ya' mean I gotta' buy the guildmaster's son a birthday present, I just gave 33% of my take? Of course details on the security of the temple of the dwarven god of commerce is worth a little consideration, etc. In one campaign I had an evil guard captain that shook down thieves for money to such an extent it was a plot driver.
4) Fighters can be tricky. Sure, paladins and rangers are really easy, but fighters can be tough. First, consider the entourage effect that I describe below and then have a campaign expectation that successful fighters are generous. Saxons expected good fighters, war-chiefs, and kings to be generous. If you weren't generous, you must not be that good! This should range from rounds of drinks to new armor and weapons for 'friends' or even celebrating a great victory with horses for all his 'friends'!
5) Upkeep. I am putting detailed rules on upkeep into my next supplement, so-far titled Far Realms, but consider just a flat 100 g.p. per level per month, as Gygax suggested. This is everything from ink and holy incense to trainers and weapon oil and is in addition to everything else.
6) An entourage. Do your characters still cook and clean for themselves? How successful can they be? I mean, if they were really good, why are they tending to their own horse and cooking their own gruel? You can work on this is a number of ways ranging from an increased chance of getting parasites from poorly cooked food until their hire a cook to having a fat fee slip away when the NPC hires a different, lower-level, party - a party with a standard bearer, and henchmen, and cooks, and such. To really drive it home, have the lower level party try to 'sub-contract' the PCs for 1/3rd the fee the NPCs are receiving!
6) Henchmen. See 'entourage'. I also do little things like, oh, make spell research faster and more likely to succeed with the help of henchmen, or point out that a cleric henchman can 'stack' Chant spells, etc. And if that isn't enough, do what I call the 'Horatio Hornblower trick' (from a scene in that series of books). here's a sample
The Kingdom of Anglia is at war! The hobgoblins and their allies overwhelmed the smaller border kingdoms two years ago and the forces of Anglia and its allies are only now preparing for a true counter-attack. In the preparations the party's fighter, Beorn, is summoned to meet the king.
Beorn is a high level fighter and is really looking forward to this meeting. Will he be asked to lead the vulnerable left flank? Command a mission to destroy the hobgoblin baggage train? Lead the main charge?!
Finally Beorn is presented to the king. The king looks Beorn over and says,
"Your reputation is strong and word of your prowess has reached our court. Are you willing to take on a job of great personal importance to me?"
"Of course, Your Majesty, I am ready for any task you need me to accomplish."
"Well said. Lord Uffingdale shall introduce you to your charge, Sir Beorn."
Beorn... no, SIR Beorn, follows Lord Uffingdale into a nearby chamber where a young man, no more than 18, stand in silver-chased chain mail wearing a sword whose hilt glitters with emeralds. Behind the boy stands a man is the black robes of a priest of the Stern Lord, a Master of Discipline. Lord Uffington bows deeply to the boy, who dips his head in return. Lord Uffington then turns to you,
"May I present His Highness Jory, surviving prince of the Kingdom of Alsatia. His kingdom was overrun by the hobgoblins in the early days of the war while he was here under the care of his uncle, the King. The King hopes that a warrior of such strength, skill, and courage as you would be perfect as mentor to his nephew in anticipation of the day he will reclaim his own throne. Since the Prince currently only speaks Alsatian his religious tutor, Brother Kane, will accompany him to translate for you until he is more fluent in Anglian."
In other words - BAM! instant henchman. And a henchman you can't leave to die or ditch because he slows you down. A henchman with expensive tastes, too. And the best thing is, he's also a walking plot hook and incentive. Further, if Beorn's player roleplays it properly he could end up being the beloved mentor of a king!
7) The players' own laziness. Start making the players roleplay out going through treasure in the dungeon. Talk about how long it takes to sort and count all the coins, to catalog everything. Unless you have a particularly focused party they will almost certainly soon take to just shoveling everything into a bag to be counted 'later'. Then have an NPC, like a money changer, offer to do that for them for a small fee! Before you know it '6,237 g.p., 12,102 s.p., and 40,002 c.p.' becomes '4 mules worth of coins' becomes '6,000 g.p. after exchange and sorting costs'.
8) Uncertainty. Don't tell they players they found a 50 g.p. ring, tell them they found a silver ring with a pearl. When they try to sell it, have the fence, uh, merchant offer them 30 g.p. and see what they do. Then start charging them above book price for new goods ('inflation'). What is the party to do? Why, hire an NPC merchant to negotiate for them! All he needs is a small monthly fee and a percentage of the savings he makes for you. heck, he'll even count and catalog the treasures for less than the money changer! [Again, I have detailed rules on this coming in Far Realms].
9) Knowledge. Information should cost. Don't tell them where the Lost Tomb of the Golem Master is (its lost, remember?), have them find a plate covered in runes that turn out to be magically garbled. They have to find or research a spell to un-garble them. Then they have to find someone who can translate and obscure ancient language (travel to where he is and pay him) or find/research a different translation spell. Then it turns out the writing is a poem full of odd imagery. With more research (travel, fees, buying books, etc.) they find out it might be part of a poem from a lost empire that was originally in a totally different language, so they have to travel again to see the only sage that is familiar with the poetry of this long-gone empire in the hops he can explain the imagery, but he needs a book found only in a library in another distant country to be sure.
You get the idea - turn it into 3-5 adventures and an excuse to vacuum out the PC's money pouches.
If done properly, this process has two very important effects - it ceases being 'just loot' and becomes an integral plot element of the campaign. And while every copper is now precious (do these for a while and see if anyone but the paladin leaves a single coin behind!) no amount of treasure is too much.