The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Why I Hate Wish Lists

There were a lot of rules that were eyebrow raising when 4th edition came out; things that few would have ever considered trying before its inception. One of those things was most certainly the notion of wish lists.

Despite my initial concerns about wish lists I used them in my first two 4E games because I felt I needed to play the rules pure before tinkering with them. Well I tried them, and I don’t like them.

To be very frank I think that a very good analogy for wish lists would be to take a child to a toy store and tell him to pick out his own presents. The points that those who defend wish lists bring up would be equally true for bringing your child to the store to pick his own presents instead of shopping in secrecy:

  • It would be less work for the parent.
  • The child would get something he wants.

However, I won’t take my son to the store to pick out his own gifts and I will never again use wishlists to generate my magic items, both with good reasons. Not surprisingly, many of the reasons are the same.

...slip a sable under the tree, for me...

It is a Labor of Love

A lot of effort can go in to picking a present or a magic item, but I have never considered either to be work. Finding updated monster stats – that’s work. But finding or creating a magic item I know will be well appreciated by my players is a very pleasant experience.

I think from some things that I have read, that part of what gives so many DMs headaches with regards to magic items now days is the complexities of how it is handed out. But that’s not an argument in favor of wish lists, that’s an argument for trusting your own judgement when allocating treasure and ignoring over bearing formulas (that only exist to help you, not hold you back).

I Know What He Wants

Any parent who spends a lot of time with their child knows as well as the child what toys that child enjoys. Moreover, because of their greater knowledge and experience, usually the parent can know even better than the child whether a toy seen on tv or a store shelf will be worthwhile. The child usually imagines enormous fun time with no concept of toy’s limitation or thoughts as to its longevity.

A DM who listens to his players and talks to his players knows what a player would enjoy in a magic item. Moreover, because of both his experience in gaming and his foreknowledge of campaign directions, a DM can foresee if a magic item will continue to be useful for a long time to come.

The Magic of Surprise

The emotions that accompany an unexpected gift (or treasure find) are radically different than those felt when one picks their one’s own gift. Has any child ever burst with emotion while spending the $10 their uncle sent them? Can there be any likeness between a party desperately wondering what this mysterious green sword they just recovered from the villain does and another where a player blurts out “It must be the Thunderburst longsword that was on my list.”?

Lists Aren’t Fair

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with wish lists are that they aren’t fair to all players. If a player understands how wishlists work and how they will be used (i.e. he has read that section of the DMG) then he can create a wish list that will do him much more good than the player who is just coming up with a short list of appealing magic items. If a player loves reading about magic items and is willing to take absurd amounts of time making it, he can make a list of items that are far more effective than the list made by the casual player who does his in five minutes.

...forgot to mention one little thing, a ring...

Lists Are Limited

When players are charged with writing a wish list what do they do? They crack open books and try to find magic items they like. Those in favour of wish lists claim this gives players a say in their character’s future. The problem with this argument is that it presumes that the best way to get magic items that are in tune with how the player envisions his character is to have the player look at a list.

I have posted some unique magic items I made for a 3.x campaign I used to run; could any of those have been found on a list? But I can say with certainty that those items were better in tune with the players wants than anything they could have found in the magic items lists of that edition.

And this in the end is the most definitive reason I cannot use wishlists anymore; because magic items are all either mundane enough I will be handing them out with or without a request (potions, bags of holding) or they are so special that I couldn’t possible just take something from a book – even if the player has written a request for.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


November 11, 2010 - Posted by | 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , ,


  1. I have seen a lot of arguments on forums around this issue, usually DM vrs players. From my perspective, those players that are most heavily ihvested in using wish lists tend to be more into optimization/min-maxing/power gaming and are looking for the proper gear to fully realize their “build”(note: i am not placing a value judgement). the more your players/player moves away from from that end of the continuum the less important wish lists seem to be as long as you are keeping up with the math of the system.

    Comment by middleagedm | November 11, 2010 | Reply

  2. That’s the first I’ve heard of ‘wish lists’ in 4E (haven’t played it enough yet to get that into it), but I can agree with what you’re saying. It’s more or less the same reason I hated the idea of magic shops in 3E. If characters found some magic they didn’t like, they just sold it and bought what they did want.

    I’ve found that players tend to look at unusual, not immediately useful, magic items as a clue from the DM that there may be some use for it in the future. In my games, it’s usually just a random roll that produced it, but it helps get them thinking outside the box.

    If they’re shopping for their magical gear, they’re a little too focused on the simple bonuses, not the unusual fun things they might be able do pull off and save the day sometime.

    Comment by Lord Gwydion | November 11, 2010 | Reply

    • I am certain that wish lists came into being precisely because of how players treated magic items in 3E; Wizards probably saw wish lists as taking out the middle man and stream lining play.

      The thing is, I don’t think that Skip Williams, Monte Cooke or Jonathan Tweet ever intended for most 3E campaigns to have permanent magic item shops that would buy or sell anything; I think they put gp values on magic items purely as a game mechanic to aid in magic item creation and to demonstrate their relative value.

      The problem is that any time you start stating something’s value in terms of money (in game or real life) people start thinking it is a commodity.

      Comment by The Red DM | November 11, 2010 | Reply

  3. Correction: 2nd paragraph, 1st line, should read “I’ve found that MY players…” They don’t get magic shops, so they’re stuck with what they find or can create themselves. 😀

    Comment by Lord Gwydion | November 11, 2010 | Reply

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