There are many questions in life that have been debated for eternity. The chicken or the egg? Pie or cake? Fish or cut bait? Pirates or ninjas? Yankees or Red Sox? Democrats or Republicans? Add to this list another age-old question -- merit or DKP? Although there are several systems for awarding loot, these two have traditionally been the most popular with guilds. I've used both extensively, and while each system is time-tested and works well, I've slowly become a DKP convert. In this week's Guild Counsel, it's time to take a look at the hot-button issue of what to do with loot.

As a guild leader, defeating a raid mob brings both joy and panic at the same time -- joy because it's satisfying to organize a team of members and successfully work through a challenge; panic because after all that time prepping and working through strats, everyone on the raid wants something really nice to show for it, and a token just isn't going to cut it. I have to award those really nice items, and it's almost certain that at least one person on the raid will walk away feeling spurned.

Merit-based looting 101

One way to award loot is to us a system of merit. There are several types of merit systems, but in general you have one or more players considering certain factors and then arriving at a decision. The best part of merit systems is that they can account for the many outlying factors that come into play with loot. Awarding loot is never a cut-and-dried decision; lots of factors come into play: attendance, performance, class suitability, how much of an upgrade it is for one person vs. another, how much it helps your raid force to have it on one player vs. another, and so on. On the surface, merit loot seems fair because those deciding loot distribution have taken the time to carefully think things through.

But the beauty of a merit system is also one of its biggest drawbacks. To have merit work successfully requires absolute trust from every single member in the guild. Granted, it's possible, but that often takes years to build, and it can evaporate in a second if a loot call is perceived as being unfair.

The problem with loot is that players often assign meaning to a reward beyond its in-game value. People feel that being awarded an item is a symbol of their worth in the guild, and if they don't get it, they feel slighted. A merit system actually reinforces that feeling because players are judging each other as they decide on loot. Unfortunately, all of the "grey-area" factors that a merit system takes into account are the exact same ones that make loot into a drama grenade.

The DKP-based loot system

After years of using merit, and after spending hours and hours trying to explain calls after the fact, I gave DKP a try and haven't looked back since. DKP stands for "Dragon Kill Points," and I remember seeing it used as far back as the original EverQuest. Back then, dragon raids consisted of dozens of players filing in each week for a slim chance at a handful of items from a successful kill. Because it was impossible to evaluate everyone on the raid and make a fair call, a system of points was developed based on participation. The more often you were present for a raid, the higher your DKP and the better your chances of winning an item. Over time, players have developed many different systems, but the idea is the same -- come up with a consistent, quantifiable point system that's equal for all.

On the surface, that sounds like a very cold way of awarding loot, and those who criticize it often dismiss it as something that only hardcore, "eat their young" types of guilds would choose. But what makes DKP shine is the fact that it gives the members all of the power over loot decisions. They can choose what item they want, and how badly they want it. They are rewarded for their participation and effort, and because those things are tracked and posted, everyone can see them. (You'd be amazed how often players feel that their raid attendance is much higher than it is in reality.) And there isn't much room for complaints afterwards, because the only person a member can blame is himself. The leader (or loot council) is no longer part of the process, other than keeping track of points and keeping the bids on pace.

There are a couple of criticisms of DKP. One is that players don't like the idea that they have to bid against each other -- it could lead to a cutthroat atmosphere that breeds ill will. This was my biggest concern as we tried out the system. What I've found is that it actually has the opposite effect in our guild. Several times, members have backed out of bidding wars, even when they have the points to win, because they prefer to let another member have a certain item. The arguments we have sound more like, "Here you take it." "No, you!" It has actually helped bring the guild closer together and strengthen the trust that people have in each other.

The other main criticism is that it's a pain to track. I agree that it does take work, but the amount of time that's spent entering attendance and loot is a fraction of the time I used to spend talking to unhappy players and putting out fires. I use a slightly modified version of EQDKP, which can be adjusted for use with any MMO. I'm sure there are many other trackers out there as well, and some games have even begun to make it an in-game feature. It is important to balance out what you're trying to quantify with how much time it takes to keep track of it. Sometimes the simplest system can be the most successful.

Loot systems are like snowflakes, and we've barely begun to scratch the surface when it comes to the nuts and bolts of awarding loot. But whatever system you choose, it's important that it's fair for all and that your members are on board with it. Like many aspects of guild culture, if you have a solid system that members are happy with, new members will fall in line with it rather than rock the boat.

What loot systems have you experienced in the past, and what have you found to work the best? Share your thoughts below!

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.

This article was originally published on Massively.
One Shots: Fight fire with fire