The question of how to distribute equipment, specifically magic items, has always been kind of a problem with D&D. How much do you give out? How powerful? How often should they get it? What should be given out? But they aren't easy questions to really answer. So while there have been many answers, none of them have really been ideal. With D&D4e comes the infamous parcel system (which I will not be getting into here) and wishlists (which I obviously will be). The wishlist system (if you can really call it that) has taken a great deal of flak. Mainly from people who dislike 4th Edition, but also from more than a few who do. It's been something argued over a great deal since 4e came out, by both players and DMs. I've got my own opinions on the subject, but first I think it's worth getting into what's good and bad about wishlists as well as the good and bad about some of the alternatives.
So what's good about wishlists? They're easy. On both DMs and players. The player looks up exactly what they want and need, gives it to he DM, and at some point the DM gives it out as treasure. Not a lot of effort involved beyond the small investment of time to create and then update the list and the DM's only effort is to make sure the item fits in with what he wants his campaign to be. It also keeps the players happy. They get exactly what they can use for their characters. At no point will a player get really excited to get a new magic item only to find out that it's really crappy for their character. That's a feeling that's arguably worse than not having gotten anything at all.
So, wishlists have some upsides, but why do people hate them so much? They're immersion/realism breakers for some people. I know, it's a game about elves, dragons, and wizards and I've said as much on Twitter. But I can see where people might find the contrived coincidence of finding an exact item that fits a character perfectly worthy of an eye roll. Especially when you're talking exotic items or strange locales. Further, the game math needs players to get upgrades fairly often to keep up with monster defenses and attacks, so it feels even more artificial. This isn't a problem limited to wishlists, but the wishlists tended to feed into a constant turnover of magic items because as soon as a player got one item off their list they would likely update it and add something else.
Alright, what are alternatives? Random magic items. The option of choice for older editions. What's good about random items? It encourages player creativity and open-mindedness , for one thing. If they often have to make due with what they have, players might find new and interesting ways to use them. It also may allow them to see something as being good even if it didn't fit exactly what they'd had in mind for their character. It also keeps players from getting too complacent and cynical about magic items since they're never sure what they're going to find. Lastly, it might encourage more roleplaying or questing from players as they try to take what they do have and use it to find what they actually want or need. Whether it be haggling with a merchant for a trade, asking an enclave of scholars where a particular magic item may be found, or having to steal something from a sinister baron, players and DMs might be surprised to find what happens in the search for magical gear.
You know there are going to be drawbacks to random items too, right? Although random items might encourage creativity, open-mindedness, roleplaying, and/or questing, at some point players might get upset if they don't find stuff they want. Not just "can use", but "want". The party Paladin may be able to use that +3 Songblade short sword, but chances are he or she won't be all that excited about it. Players might get bored or frustrated having to take the stuff they get and turn it into stuff they want, whether it's because it's tedious, unnecessary, or just taking away from the main story or goal of the campaign. It's difficult to argue that sometimes the time spent on getting or finding "good" magic items might be better spent doing something else.
What about another alternative? Okay, the DM's choice. It's an uncommon method and for a good reason. This involves the DM picking items that he thinks will be good for the party. This is what I initially did for my game. I stopped after a fairly short time when I realised the reason that very few others did it: it's a lot of time and effort for the DM and may not make the party happy anyway. Having to guess what 3-6 players are planning for their characters or what works with their build (and what doesn't) is too much to ask of a DM who already has to do a lot for a campaign.
Then there are more radical alternatives, first of which is the inherent bonuses first mentioned in the DMG2 and again in the Dark Sun campaign book. It's a good sort of simplification and it fits some campaigns well. It's a very predictable progression and doesn't rely on what the DM does or does not give out. On the other hand, some campaigns or groups might not like missing out on magical items. It might lead to a lesser sense of tangible mechanical progression. In magic rich settings it might not feel quite right either. I can't imagine using inherent bonuses for a Forgotten Realms campaign, for example. Divine boons and martial trainings are other alternatives first mentioned in the DMG2 and while I really like them and think that they are a very natural or PC driven reward respectively, Wizards really hasn't followed up very well with them and the selection of either is very poor. This leads to a lot of DM and/or player heavy lifting to create more and not everybody either wants to or has the spare time for that sort of design work. But the concept for both of them is good and a group or DM willing to put the work in might find it worth it.
So, what am I doing for my game? A little of everything. I’ve asked all of my players for a wishlist. One armor, one neck piece, 1 weapon, and 1 misc item (could be a shield, holy symbol, whatever). I’ve told the players outright that they have to choose carefully because these are the core pieces of equipment they will have for the entire game. Won’t that put them behind the math curve for attacks and defenses? It would, if I left them at +1 items. Instead, the items themselves will increase in power, not unlike the inherent bonus option. Outside of those core items, however, I’ve told players that everything will be completely random. Level appropriate, but I won’t be paying attention to whether the items are going to be great for the group or not.
So what does this get the group? Well, the players get at least some of what they want. I’ve thrown them a bone up front. They can’t complain that they don’t have something that is perfectly suited for their characters. They get the exact bonus powers, properties, and abilities that they want for 4 pieces of equipment. They also get to be surprised by the random items that will show up and get to use items that they might not have considered using before since they’re not optimal. They also don’t have to be behind the math curve at any point due to the fact that their gear is growing in power as they are.
As for me, I get a much simplified prep. I have to give out a lot less treasure so I can focus more on things like the story, encounters, or NPCs. I also get to incorporate what equipment they ~do~ have into the campaign and ongoing story. For example, I think the Paladin in my game is going to pick a Sun Blade for his weapon. As he goes up in level and fame, the players will start to hear stories of Allayad, Champion of Bahamut with his glowing silver blade that has struck down many foes of the Platinum Dragon. I can also incorporate quests related to their equipment, like sending them to search for a way to enchant their weapons to defeat a certain foe or to power up their gear (like maybe turning the Sun Blade into a Holy Avenger or something).
Is my suggestion a really radical one? No. Sarah Darkmagic further pointed out that there was no reason that characters with inherent bonuses couldn't use magic items. You get the higher of the two bonuses and you get all the properties and powers of the item being used. So that works too, right? It does. I think my idea is more straightforward and easier to keep track of, but that’s not to say that doing it the other way is bad.
So what should you do for your game? Whatever works best for you, your group, and your story. If you’ve got a game like Dark Sun or you want to have a campaign that’s more Conan the Barbarian than Tolkien, inherent bonuses with the occasional low level magic item are definitely the way to go, for instance. If your group loves the thrill of getting magic items, whether they can use them or not, throw out random treasure as you need to. If everybody is happy with wishlists and surprisingly appropriate items in the most random of places, by all means start picking your stuff to give to your DM. If you want to mix it up, try my suggestion from above. Not every available option is going to make everybody happy, but if you’ve got a good group with mature players, you can find something that will let everybody forget the nitty gritty of things like how you get your items and get back to things that are more fun for everybody.