Dungeon Mastering, Elementary (DnD Guideline)
From D&D Wiki
- 1 Introduction
- 2 General Information
- 3 Creating your world
- 4 Creating a campaign
- 5 Playing your campaign
Being a good dungeon master will make or break your campaign and will greatly influence the game play experience the the campaign that you have set out for your players. Especially for beginners who have no or little experience as DM's will have their work cut out for them. There are many do's and dont's that you will need to know about to increase the gaming experience for your players while you are hosting a game. I myself have encountered many pitfalls that could easilly have been avoided if I knew everything that I know today, while at the same time getting my blood sucked out from under my fingernails by experienced players trying to take advantage from my inexperience and lack of knowledge towards the rules of the game. This page has been set up for anyone who wishes to share their knowledge on performing the task of a DM so others may learn from it. This page is mainly intended to give a helping hand to starting DM's but even experienced DM's may find and learn a thing or two on best practices from others.
When contributing to this page try to fit your tips / tricks into the correct chapter and ofcoarse do not forget to sign it or place it in the discussions page and I will move it for you. If the chapter does not exist or your contribution does not fit any existing chapter then please feel free to create a new one altogether.
What is a DM
A DM or Dungeon master is a lot of things at the same time, you are the story teller that will embark your guests on a journey filled with treachery, deceit, mystery, glory or death. On the other hand you are the referee that must decide on the fate of the adventurers that will explore your world and reward them for their actions or punish them for impassable actions. You decide on the fates of the players that will explore your world. However a DM must also be a mediator for the group, as you will experience that not all problems you must face as a DM are inside the game but can quickly become a problem outside the game. You must enforce game rules whenever someone will try to break them, you will be tested and provoked by players to see how far they can go before you dare to oppose them.
Being a DM can become an overwhelming task for beginners and you must be prepared to spend a decent amount of time preparing for your first sessions. Your friends will test you, and they will try to provoke you no matter how good a friend they may be. Do not expect everyone to play by the rules becouse they know the game better then you may do.
What do you need to create and host a game
If you want to host a game as a DM you must have the following resources:
1: A copy of the Dungeon master manual (in this case the 3.5 edition which is out of production, but you may be able to borrow it from someone or locate a second hand copy on e-bay). This manual will hold essential information on hosting games. Read it from front to cover twice and then just to be sure read it again. Understand the mechanics of the game, combat, how difficulty ratings work and how to handle exceptional situations or skill checks.
2: A copy of the Player Handbook (3.5 also not available in stores any more). You will need this book as a reference for feats, skills and spells also combat mechanics are described in here. It will be hard to learn all spells available to players but be sure to know what you can expect from your players as not to be suprised by them. Trust me, they will do anything in their power to suprise you!
3: A copy of the monster manuals (3.5 not available any more) This book is your main reference to monsters and npc's that may inhabit your world. The book is detailed and provides flavour texts that you can use for your story telling. The monster manual also describes how difficult it will be to face a particular monster or character by it's challenge rating. You do not have to learn every monster in the book but you must (critical) understand how challenge ratings work, what kind of modifiers can be placed into effect. This knowledge is essential or you will end up placing a far too easy / deadly creature as a challenge into your game.
4: You need a set of dice, I personally would recommend the following list as a minimum:
1 x d3 (these are uncommon but they do exist, if you cannot find it use a d6 and devide by 2 and round up)
2 x d4
4 x d6 (for rolling character ability scores)
2 x d8
2 x d10
1 x d100 (actually a d10 but increments with steps of 10, this is used in combination with a normal d10 in order to roll percentile values (1-100%)
2 x d12
4 x d20 (as alway's someone will forget to bring their dice and a borrowed d20 will come in handy)
This is the bare minimum that you will need to play the game, however I would recommend the following items as well:
- A plastic coated grid on wich you may draw situational maps for the players and use miniatures (break out your stratego box, or buy some decent ones) to mark their characters positions. These maps are not very expensive and can be found in many specialised boardgames stores or on the internet. Alternatively you can use paper and pencil to draw situational maps.
- A set of pawns, this can be anything and can be easily be cannibalised from other games like cluedo or monopoly. A had to use the strangest pawns as my character (Donald Duck) while fighting some very evil cleric (Mickey Mouse). It didn't bother the game and even got some funny remarks while playing. Nowadays I use the awsome miniatures from a game called runewars (it's a nice game) which has nicer looking miniatures.
What do the players need to know of your campain
Make sure everyone that will be playing your game knows of any additional rules you will enforce before letting them create their characters. It will be a disappointment for a player who has spend hours in creating a kick ass character only to find out that elf’s do not exist in your world and he has to adjust his character. Enforcing special rules can enhance a specific world / era inspired game however be wary of enforcing any rules that limit the selection for players. A good way to deal with this is to allow players to create elf’s and give them normal ears, or allow gnomes and let them role-play them what would be perceived in your world as children or midgets. This last suggestion is what I used in a mediaeval based period on the normal world where the player playing a gnome got carried away role-playing it as a supposed child which led to a few laughs along the way.
Make sure they are allowed to choose any item or equipment they would like as long as they can afford it. A first level character only has the gold to buy some basic gear while a 7th level player will have 8k - 10k gold to his disposition and may opt to use that gold to buy a magical sword or armour. This may seem overpowered but if you create your campaign right they will most certainly need such items.
As a rule of thumb any restrictions that you enforce on your world is a no-no. If your world reeeeaaaaly cannot support specific classes or races make it absolutely clear to your players that they cannot use those races or classes and do it well in advance!
Creating your world
As a DM you will lead the game and most of the time you will decide for them what kind of actions they will take. This may sound a bit awkward but it is the truth. A good DM will make sure that the players are not aware of this fact. It is your responsibility to make the players believe they are in control and not you. It will take time and practice to steer the players to where you want them to go while making them believe they wanted to go where you wanted them to go... Confused already?
It takes a lot of time and effort to create a believable world that your guests will play in yet it is a very important aspect of the game and you must take care to get it right. As you can imagine creating a world will take many variables to consider. As a start ask yourself the next questions:
- What era are you playing in?, is it futuristic like starwars or cruel and mediaeval where the witch hunt was at it's prime? There is no real rule to this question and is limited only by your imagination.
- How big is the world? A world can be as large as the universe or as small as a tiny island in the sea. In fact one of my campaigns was set in the mediaeval era on a tiny island that was inspired by my visit to Mt. Saint. Michelle. located just of shore in France (Look up some photo’s and you will be amazed how epic this place looks like!). I set out an campaign from level 5 to 10 just there, within a few hundred feet of space which turned out to be an excellent location to fill their minds with riddles and mystery for many game sessions. With this example I limited my world to a very small area but I made sure that small world was very, and I mean very detailed. (If I can find the campaign map I will post it) while reserving the possibility to go back to the main land at any time and continue the campaign there. I did not have to bother to detail the outside world until the campain was almost over. Think of games like Lineage and World of Warcraft where the world feels open and massive while playing on just two tiny islands. It doesn’t need to be very big.
- What kind of people are inside your world? Think about this and make it clear. Is it a world where magic and mystique is the normal passage of the day or are the people inside your world scared of magic and do they prosecute witchcraft with torches and pitchforks? These type of decisions will greatly influence how careful players will need to be while not being murdered by an angry mob.
- What is the history of the world they will play in? This is a hard one. You need to give your world a sense of time. Events must have passes by in your world and prominent people (dead or not) will most likely have existed in your world. Are the players part of some recent history or can they use that history in their adventures? Making up history can be hard but you may be inspired by real events that happened in the world. One thing is certain, if a world has no history what so ever it will imediatly feel empty and new which will downgrade the players experience. You don't have to create elaborate histories and even some local history will be enough until the players move out of that local zone.
Deciding on these few questions will open up a nearly incomprehensible amount of new questions. This is the main difficulty while creating a world to play in. It is nearly impossible to fill in all the details but do try to put as much of it as you can on paper and for the next and final point on world creation:
- Consistency: Be consistent! Once created worlds do not suddenly start to behave very different unless some cataclysmic event has come to pass. Try to give one feel to the world, one history, and stick with it. Radical changes to your world or world map will completely destroy the gaming experience. A town can be burnt, a legion of undead can attack a capital but rows of mountains wouldn't just appear for no reason, inhabitants wouldn't behave completely different! Do not confuse this with small and local events, like a small town behaving strangely, or a strange passage way in a forrest has appeared, those are the irregularities that you are looking for. I tried a massive change in my world and it was clear that it wasn't appreciated.
Interaction with the world
The world is not a static object, the world will react to events and players. Whenever your players are moving through your world you will need to supply interaction. A world with no interaction might as well be a cardboard cut-out and will become boring very fast. As a DM one of your main tasks is to bring a world alive by telling a story, describing people and buildings, marketplaces and buzzing taverns. These world interactions with the players are important as it will make your world "feel" alive. Give attention to details.
The first level of interaction with your world is describing it. A very common mistake to make as a DM is not paying any attention to the world they walk in while focussing only on the story or battle they will encounter next. Try the next examples to make your world more alive, these examples may seem exaggerated but they are all to common (also When I started to DM) :
- "You are walking on a road". YAAAWN..... That what you walk on is important for many aspects of the game. A stone plated road may bear the signs of many carts and horses that have slowly grounded away the top surface, already the road has become more interesting because it indicates a road that has a lot of commerce flowing over it. These may indicate that the next town or city will have the prospects of having good opportunity to sell or acquire items. However the road can reveal other things like: The dirt path leading away from the left of the forest trail you are walking on seem to bare a single set of tracks of a hobbit that, by the depth of the impressions, seems to carry a heavy load. Already I would be interested what that hobbit was carrying. Maybe it was a chest of gold or maybe a corpse that he is trying to hide. The world interacted with the players on a passive bases, no conversation has been made but the information / interaction with the players may have led them to believe that certain opportunities may lie ahead. Just there your world has come alive and interesting by a mere road.
- "You enter the city by a small gate and a road is leading to the centre." (Again) YAAAAAAWN!.... What kind of city is it, is it big or small? Is it a city made up primarily by wooden or stone houses, what state are the houses in? What is the road made of? (see above) Are there shops and groceries that may be of interest? Maybe even a marketplace? How about that gate? What is it made of? Is there any chance for a player to break that gate when he must flee the city? Is there a wall protecting the city? Are there guard towers? Are there commoners to talk to? Tavern? Just a few more details and your world will become much more alive!
These are just two examples of how to improve your world and make it intractable by just adding >>Detail<<. Detail is your first weapon on creating an acceptable world for those that explore it. Adding detail might seem like a lot of work but reality it is easy. Well it is easy as long as you have a clear image in your head that you use to describe your world. Imagine that what they walk on / past / under and describe it in construction, quality and size and wear and tear and you will notice that this will become very easy. Important details like footprints on a sandy road should never be omitted. Your players are interested in what kind possible trap they are walking into. Just imagine a heavy plate warrior charging an enemy and you have to tell him that he needs to roll a balance check because you omitted to tell that he is charging on a muddy and slippery road.
A world does not exist out of cardboard cut-outs when it comes to commoners or other creatures that live in your world. Just like in the real world every NPC (non playable character) would react to certain questions or actions differently. Be prepared to change roles quickly when players enter an area where there are many different NPC's.
Questioning NPC's are the players prime source of gathering information. An NPC may direct them to someone that they should visit or may be reluctant to provide information because he is told to do so. Your NPC's in your campaign will set much of the mood or "ambiance" in your campaign at any given time. Often you need to give them names, try to have a random name chart prepared in advance when the situation may rise to give a nameless NPC a name. If you made your world believable enough your players will be quickly inclined to gather information by unusual sources and that may even surprise you :D.
Reaction of the world
Many places react to actions of players, especially if they are perceived as bad. This doesn't mean that players cannot be evil but in a lot of circumstances your players must take precautions when performing certain actions. For example murdering some innocent bystander while in the middle of a crowded area will most likely have most of the inhabitants flee for their lives while the town guard will start to pursue him with all it's might destroying the murderous player in an instance with no remorse while an evil aligned village made up of pirates will not give him a second look while proceeding with whatever he was doing. Every action has a certain reaction. Do not be afraid to enforce that action.
Creating a campaign
Creating a campain is the next step after you created the world. But it is not uncommon to first create the campaign and to create the world based on this campain. In fact this may help you visualise the world around your campain better. A campaign does not have to take the players from level 1 to level 20 but most of the time you will create a campaign that will provide 2 to 3 levels at a time. By chaining multiple campaigns together you will build the master campaign.
Each campaign can more or less be set up in the same fashion as other campaigns.
As discribed earlier you need to steer your party where you want them to go. Your first means towards achieving this goal is to hook your players like a fish and reel thim in, into your next campaign. The best way to do this is by knowing your players a bit and provide the correct bait. As an example on of the players in my group is somewhat of a loot addict and I only had to hint the notion of epic loot to be found somewhere and he would do the work for me. You may not be so lucky and you may want to find other hooks to lure your players into your trap... eeeh, campaign.
Try too place the bait carefully and do not make it blatently obvious to them that you are trying to hook them, a good start would be common npc's gossiping about something nearby or some place became weird and didn't want to trade with them anymore. Make it subtle so the players feel like they want to go there maybe you can even play along a bit and pretend (CAREFULLY) that you do not want your players to go there. Amazingly enough they always go where you do not want them to go.
If they ignore all your baits or they just ignore them then you can increase the lure a bit and send in some newly arived people on a cart that are all dead except for the horse, or some mayor in distress that runs towards the adventurers and begs them for their help promising riches or the like. If your master campain includes some form of nemesis for them then you can use its name or discription to lure the players into your next campaign.
The best lure is a campaign that needs no lure. These are campaigns that can happen anywhere in your world at any time. As an example I created a campaign that I could start anywhere on a forest road. Cince they travel on those roads often I had to set no lure and they walked right into the next campaign. I then trew in a storm and a trader, some falling trees and a big bright purple flash and they had no idea that they were trapped on a microworld and were about to discover the village with no escape.
Once your players are hooked to the campaign the plot can start.
Now what is a story if there is no story? There must be some form of story. Creating a story unfortunatly is limited only by your imagination and can range from a simple dungeon to a complex intrigue and conspiracy inside a palacial palace. Creating a plot for your campaign will help to unfold the story infront of the players.
From experiance I found that the best way for a story or plot to unfold is to build it up gradually. Starting of with a climatic battle will in most cases be quite deadly for events to follow. However this is not always true, if your plot involves them starting of on a massive battlefield just to uncover some gruwesome secret of the general they serve may make certain plots more believable.
Try to build twists into your plot, a evil necromancer my actually not be so evil after all but the cleric of the church may have been. I can recal one campaign where at the end it had so many twists that we didn't know who was who anymore untill we got to the climax and the puzzle pieces fell into play. This was a good campaign.
If you have trouble creating your campaign at the start you can always opt to buy a premade campain that is available at many specialised board game shops around the globe or you can buy them from internet. They are very cheap (3 dollars or so) and contain a detailed campaign for 2-3 level advancement available for nearly every character starting level. Everything in these campaigns are well worked out into detail with decent stories behind them.
This is the part where the players will finally learn the truth of what realy went on. It often includes a heavy battle or a massive twist inside the plot. Did your party unravel the truth behind the campaign? Did they kill the right person or steal the right object? The climax will turn it out. Sometimes if the players did not solve the mistory and the climax actually does not take place that missing piece of information may come and hunt them later in one of your next campaigns.
If players fail to realize the true situation of a plot you presented them you should not be tempted to just unravel the plot before them but use their failure as an added difficutly later in the game. If they come to realize their mistake the supposedly ended campaign will gain a nice climax after all and probably will create a few faces of disbelief around the table. These faces are priceless :P.
Also try to avoid fight to the death climaxes, if the players are having a bad day and they should retreat then let them. Their defeat can come and hunt them later. Or maybe the evil sorcerer fears that he will become defeated and he will try to escape preferably destroying any evidence of his actions in the process. A general exception may be your last showdown of your campaign and after that it ends. In this case a last fight to the death may be in order.
Mutli path campaigns
Mutli path campaigns are campaigns that have different options that the players may take when playing your main campaign. These type of campaigns take lots and lots of work but give unprecedented freedom to players inside your world. In essence you need to create three or four different campaigns and truly let the players choose where they want to go first. Every action they make from that point should influence the other campaigns available and open up new options to travel to. I started out with one of these campaigns but soon figured out that I did not have the time to create such elaborate campaigns and they started to degrade in quality which was clearly noted by the players. This is something to avoid. It better to have a good single campaign and lure them into it then to create five shabby ones and let them choose from free will. However if you do have the time to create multi path campaigns they can offer players a large amount of freedom and this realy enhances the gameplay.
Playing your campaign
Players exploring your world and campaign will most likely behave strangely, and why shouldn't they? There are no "real" consequences to their actions and everything they do should be for fun. However often one (or more) players may take their fantasies to extreme levels and go berserk on the world you have created for them. Sometimes this may even lead to frustration from other players that want to play the game normally and occasionally it may lead to a player leaving the table in a childish tantrum not agreeing to your decisions at all. A lot of those frustrations can be handled by proper DM-ing and making sure they understand you got a pair. Does that sound strange? Well it isn't, most players will try to push you over and ignore common sense and some are there to play the game. This may be very confusing and frustrating for beginning DM's but you need to handle it. Try the next do's and dont's to avoid common pitfalls. And remember when you are DM-ing you are not only leading a pack of fantasy players but also a table full of real people.
Handling players inside the game
The first rule and golden rule you must obey is that you are the go-to-guy, and you are the only one that may decide true outcomes and you decide fates. This makes you god over the game and you must use that power very wisely. A weak god will be pushed around by it's players and the game will fall rapidly while a too strict god may enforce so many rules the game starts to look like real life and the fun of playing the game is gone. You must find a balance between the two extremes and it is harder then you think. Also leave personal matters outside of the game, if someone just played a nasty prank on you it will be all too easy to seek revenge inside the game and kill of his character within a few minutes. There is also the other extreme, maybe you fell in love with one of the players and you may be inclined to give him or her help that shouldn't be there in both cases the other players will also become victims of your mental state and they will get angry about it at some point.
1: Don't be a pushover, especially when starting to DM you may be insecure on your conduct. You may ask yourself if you did not make the encounters too hard and you may be inclined to listen to more experianced players on how to handle certain situations. Some players will provide usefull information but most players smell your fear and will exploit it in every conceivable way and always in their favor. When in doubt consult the rulebook and be wary of advice from players.
2: The best conduct of playing a DM is to be a passive referee. You should be emotionless and stick by the rules at all times. If someone does something insanly stupid and the logical result is that he should die from that action you should let him die. If you are inclined to let impossible actions happen just becouse you do not want to kill off someones character then your players will turn wild and you loose control over the game. Just remember how you played doom whith god mode cheats on, I bet it was quite different then when you played it without the cheat ^^
3: Do not deny players to play their characters or alignment even if it screws with your campaign. If someone important dies that's the players loss for being reckless not yours, even if it messes up 5 hours of preparation. You set out the world and campaign as a challenge before them if they decide to massacre everything in their way they will most likely not solve the mistory and come out empty handed. This rule is gold, your players are smart and will recognize if they made a mistake and will even taunt you in order to let loose the next step they just missed by killing some important NPC, do not give in and they will only try that tactic once. Give in and you will be tossed around like a rag doll until you realize what is written here is true. Beware of smart people they will try to screw you over even quicker and you may not even notice it until it is too late.
4: Be a judge not a god when it comes to combat. Be honest and fair and stick with it. You will encounter a fight where your players may overpower your enemy by shear luck on their rolls. Do not be tempted to "increase" the difficulty out of the blue. It feels good to fight an easy enemy from time to time and you should not deny them that opportunity.
5: Especially in the beginning of your DM-ing, your party may be extremely reckless and charge into battle with no or little regard for the enemy. When this happens do not grant them any favours. Do not make an impossible fight possible by adjusting damage on players or cutting monster hitpoints into half. Retarded actions deserve death or defeat, if they survive every insane action they will become even more reckless. See point 2. Keep your emotions and thoughts outside the game and when that fighter charges 100 goblins fight him like goblins would do and he most likely die instantly (or if he is extremely lucky he might get away without dieing).
6: Enforce logical reactions from the world when some player does an action. For example cleaving 5 people in half on a busy market will make the croud panic and will catch the attention of the town guard. The person murdering the innocent people will most likely be chased by the guard and be killed in the proces.On the other hand murdering someone on a busy street in the middle of a pirate town will most likely raise a few eyebrows from the towns people but will not be that impressed by it. Those kind of actions are "normal" there, if the player goes on a rampage then some powerfull lord or leader may wish to hunt that player before he kills his men and steels his loot. This actually happened in one of my campains. A player felt like massacring the city and I logically assumed that the town guard would have a problem with that. So I send out the entire cities armies on him and they wiped him from the table fast. I did not cheat on the combat nor did I feel bad when he finally died. The player on the other hand was upset that I killed off his character started to argue with me. I simply lifted my shoulders to indicate that I didn't care and asked him what he would expect what would happen if I started to shoot people in the center of a large city. He quickly agreed with me that I would be hunted down by the police and be shot on sight.
7: Do not be afraid to let a party member die, if the game has no challenge there is no game to play.
8: Do incorporate fun challenges for your party other then just fighting. A good puzzle or riddle will increase the game-play. For example you could throw in your own cut out three layer compass with sliding disks from cardboard and use it to let the party solve puzzles with it however I did go overboard at some point and made the puzzles too difficult and it took far too long for them to solve them killing the game play. Puzzles are fun but keep them relatively simple.
9: Reward ingenuity, players that are thinking outside of the box and use their environment or spells towards their favour must be rewarded with some extra experience or a more comfortable fight. This is exactly what you are aiming for. If a player figures that some invisible mage can be seen inside a rainstorm or water on the floor, and he produces rain then that will effectively cancel out the invisibility buy just plainly smart thinking. This kind of actions are highly rewarded by me as a DM to stimulate the group to come up with more brilliant ideas.
10: Punish idiocy, if someone does something insanely stupid, for example walk into a very obvious trap while the rest of the group plants his hand into his face and shakes their heads out of disbelieve I generally tend to punish such actions by awarding (a little) negative XP for such dumb actions, IF he survives it in the first place.
11: Do not give away too much information about your enemies, some hard core players will know every creature in the book and they know what they can do but most players do not. Do not give away any details about your enemies except appearance. Giving away information destroys the mysticism around your enemies and over time will make the game play less fun. Players are generally smart and learn your way of thinking which enables them to predict what something can or cannot do.
12: Oops I rolled a double critical strike with an barbarian in rage... lets see now that would be a total of 124 damage. Mhhh that would kill their tank twice. In this case let the tank die twice, he was unlucky the barbarian attacking him was lucky, it's the challenge of the game.
13: Do not roll back events, you will hear this one a loooooot: I alway's expect a trap and I would naturally move through the corridor searching for traps. *CRY* I want my roll *CRY*. Keep it simple and point to the rules: A person looking for traps need to say so and can only move at half speed. As far as you are concerned the issue is resolved and you are right. Now he may cry some more but dont give in. Do not roll back events unless >you< actually made a major mistake, and 99.9% of the cases you were right.
14: If your players are in control and they know they will not get away with everything they do and they know you will not cut them any favours the party will eventually start to govern themselves. Players that realy step out of line will be put into place by his own group and you can sleep easy by knowing that your DM-ing is functioning correctly.
15: Do not cheat, it is all too easy to cheat fumbles (natural 1) and ignore it alltogether. Your creatures can and must be able to be as unlucky or lucky as the players.
Epic loot beware
Now the point of every adventure is to gain something from it. Most of the time this will be riches and gold in the form of loot. Some of this loot may be some form of epic magical equipment. Handing out such loot and seeing their cute little smiles grow on their faces may give a fuzzy feeling inside but do be wary as too much candy for a child will make their tummies hurt.
Handing out loot
This portion was the first major mistake I made as a DM that effectively destroyed my campaign and I decided to abandon it afterwards. As a beginning DM I had the urge to reward my players too much, I guess to keep them happy. The final effect from this was them becomming completely unbalanced. They became far too powerfull in attack while being completely squishy due to low level. I had to place more and more powerfull creatures into the challenges in order to make monster not a one day fly but this made them hit so hard that a party wipe-out was becomming inevitable. I had to adjust the creatures in such way's that they became bizarre monsters or I would have to "change" the outcomes from rolls (so I cheated) in order to give them a chance to stay alive. The campaign was unrecoverable at this point and I was forced to either take away their candy or abandon the campaign which I did. I started a new one with what I have learned from my first campaign.
Now this doesn't mean you cannot give away nice loot but dont overdo it. A few less powerfull items are far better then a single very powerfull item. I gave each player home made magical items (it was good fun to create them) but they were so immensly powerfull the campaign fell appart. So how should one destribute candy to children?
Assigning loot to creatures
First of, only very strong bosses should cary special loot. Grunts and slaves have crappy items just like reality. This special loot should be either rolled according to the dungeon masters manual or chosen with their levels in mind.
From level 2 - 5 you can hand out masterwork items to players. Masterwork items are already very good for those levels however they will not insanely alter their combat capabilities. Never the less don't hand them out like cookies.
Around level 5-6 the first +1/+1 loot without any magical properties may be handed out but never hand out cartloads of them. Just one, maaaybe 2 items (for large parties) should be available to players per boss killed or campaign succesfully raided. For one campaign I would never drop more then 1 +1/+1 item per player in the group.
From level 7-8 you can start to drop magical loot. These are extremely valuable and should not be thrown around lightly. I would suggest half the party size for one campaign for +1 magical items. At this point their gold should have reached decent proportions where every player should be able to buy ONE magical weapon or armour on his own. Magical weapons cost around 8301 to 8800 gold. Where they may find such shops is up to you but I usually incorperate atleast one major city in my world who contain specialized shops where such items may be aquired or crafted.
From level 9-10 more +1 magical loot may be found so every player may posses some magical items. From 11 and higher the better forms of loot may be aquired but never more then one per campaign.
Assigning your own loot instead of rolling it randomly may give every player something they can use, but personally I like to keep it random and often give them something they cannot use. They can then sell those items if they wish or use them to bargain or do other things with them. This has the added bonus that everyone in the group may benifit from the loot (as in gold or game progression) while no-one will feel left out.
Creating custom loot
Custom loot that is not described in the manuals are a lot of fun to create and may posses special abilities otherwise not found. There is no reason you shouldn't create custom loot but do not make the same mistake as I did and create custom loot that is faaaaar too powerfull compared to their levels. Custom loot often have a name and a history behind them. For examples of custom loot one can search the homebrew (3.5) in the magical weapons and item section to see examples on custom made loot. As a rule of thumb any custom made loot that does not exist in the manual should be of atleast +2 bonus and should be adjusted appropriatly for every power it possesses. Such loot should never be given away at low levels unless the effect is limited and minor. For example a mithral dagger that allows the wielder to become invisible for X rounds once per day is powerfull but not as such that it cannot be aquired around level 10. A heavy ademantite waraxe with double damage is an extremely powerfull weapon and should not be handed out before lvl 16-17.
But do not stick with weapons only, other items like rings, books or statues are all valid items that may posses magical properties. For example I once gave my party a chest with the spellholding ability. Anyone opening the chest exept for the mage that casted the spel into it would be subjected by the spell. At first they just used it as a secure chest but later in the game they got creative and used to chest in different ways. On one occasion they placed the chest in to an enemy camp and casted fireball onto the chest. Needless to say some curious guard found the chest and delivered it to his leader who opened it to see what is inside. (BOOM).
Unusual magic items may become great fun as long as they are not too powerfull for their levels.