Saturday, December 11, 2021

Why Treasure

This post has been long in the making...only because I've been so concerned about getting it right. But that's probably an impossibility; let's just plow ahead, shall we?

I've written a lot about the importance of treasure in D&D over the last few years, but (weirdly) most of my best thoughts (I think) are scattered around the internet, either in the comments on other folks' blogs or...when actually posted here...fairly ancillary to whatever topic I'm discussing. There just doesn't seem to be a definitive post here that reflects my current thoughts on "treasure" in Dungeons & Dragons.

[yes, there are a lot of posts with the label "treasure" on Ye Old Blog, but most of these are magic items I've written for one system or another. Should probably go through and re-label those...]

The fact is, my thoughts on treasure have changed over the years, evolving even as I've reverted (game-wise) to an older...I mean really old...mindset. I'm sure most geezers will tell you...things that ain't broke don't need to be fixed.

Though they can still be improved upon.

That in a second. A couple months back, Adam from Barking Alien shot me an email asking me to consolidate my thoughts on why treasure is awesome, in order to dispute my thoughts in good-spirited debate. My succinct explanation (as much as I am ever “succinct”) included the following reasons: 
  • As an object, “treasure” (gold coins, jewels, etc.) is easily understood and recognized by players. 
  • As a goal, treasure acquisition is an objective, measurable means of success. You’re not worried about what may constitute (for a particular DM) “good roleplaying,” humor awards, etc. 
  • For a GROUP of individual players, it provides a UNIFYING objective; if they all want treasure, they can work (together, cooperatively) to acquire it. 
  • As a target objective, it invites a multitude of ways to accomplish the objective (stealth, trickery, negotiation, combat, etc.). When experience is only awarded for combat (as in 3E and 4E D&D, for example) there is only a single means of advancement (fighting), limiting the overall game experience. 
  • As a “tangible” objective of play (the imaginary characters must pursue it), it encourages proactivity on the part of the players to gain the reward. Passive reward systems (XP for participation, for example) do not encourage proactivity; they provide no game-related impetus/motivation for action. 
  • With regards to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition) specifically, treasure is tied directly to the game economy (it’s needed for hirelings, training, equipment replacement, magical research, tithes and fees, construction, etc.) providing REINFORCEMENT of the reward system (we need money – we need to adventure – we acquire money – we spend money – we need money) leading to perpetual long-term play and character/campaign development. 
All this appears to baffle BA (or “perplex,” to use his own word), but he seems to not understand this only pertains to the Dungeons & Dragons game, not to other fantasy adventure games like Star Trek or DC Heroes (he cites Captain Kirk and Superman specifically as individuals unmotivated by money). D&D has a specific premise, rather neatly laid out in the first paragraph of Moldvay’s Basic book: 
In the D&D rules, individuals play the role of characters on dangerous quests in search of fame and fortune. Characters gain experience by overcoming perils and recovering treasures. As characters gain experience, they grow in power and ability. 
If that ain’t your bag then there’s not much reason to play D&D. If you don’t play a group of characters “in search of fame and fortune”…well, that’s kind of what D&D is all about. 

But, of course, it’s about more than just that. There’s the “fame” part, too…but pride and envy, the driving forces behind fame-seekers, are just as base as the greed and avarice that drive individuals in search of riches. 

Except they doesn’t. Not always. Sometimes it’s necessity. 

[I’m reminded of the Sarojini Naidu quote: “it costs a lot of money to allow Gandhi to live simply”]

MONEY, one of the many things D&D’s treasure represents, is something that many folks have issues with. Some people want more of it; some people hate needing it; some people do terrible things in the name of acquiring it; some people use it against others. All sorts of negative emotions are attached to this thing we call “money.” 

In actuality, money is just a convenient means of exchange. It has been described as a tool, a weapon, a type of energy, and “the root of all evil,” but it’s just a means of exchange. Other things have been turned to evil purposes…including love and desire…just as easily and as often. Well, maybe not AS “easily and often” as money…but easily and often enough.

The point is: it's easy to have a negative attitude towards something that, at its base, is simply a means of exchanging goods and services for other goods and is a convenient and oft-used punching bag given as an excuse for the exploitation and manipulation perpetrated by humans against humans. But D&D really isn't about capitalism or colonialism (despite having a few of those trappings). It's about adventurers seeking fame and fortune. The "dungeons" and "dragons" of the title indicate where those adventurers seek those things: fame (for heroic deeds) and fortune (in the form of treasure) is acquired through the delving of dangerous adventure sites and facing fantasy monsters. 

[and with an ADVANCED attitude, these things can be expanded to the point that the entire campaign world becomes a "dangerous adventure site" suitable for adventure and achievement of fame and fortune]

In another recent post of mine I explained two of four possible priorities of RPG play are being challenged and genre exploration. Dungeons & Dragons, as originally conceived, is not about genre exploration. Oh, I can see how one might mistake it for an exploration of the classic "hero's journey" monomyth...and, in fact, one can see the times where D&D designers tried to pawn this off on gamers over the years (beginning with 2nd edition AD&D). But it was only able to do this once fantasy began to eat its own; i.e. once the fantasy literature being published began to ape D&D and inform gamers' assumptions about the game (which is to say, after TSR found they could make more money as a publishing house than as a game designer and started flooding the fantasy fiction market with self-referencing trash). But that's not how it was built. It's not designed to "tell stories," all post-1987 rhetoric to the contrary.

Let's come back to Adam's points for a second: not because I'm trying to beat him up but because I think his points represent the opinions of many other RPG players, especially players of D&D that began with a latter edition that de-emphasized the value of treasure (both literally and as a game mechanism). Adam wants to play games that tell heroic stories with characters motivated by something other than money...he cites Captain Kirk and Superman as two prime examples. But look at those two universes: in neither one does money have any value! Economy is not an issue in a fantasy world where your ship provides all the food and energy you need or where the Man of Steel can simply squish lumps of coal into diamonds (or where Batman and Robin are so wealthy as to render money no consideration at all). 

Economy and a means to a prime consideration in MANY genres one might want to explore. Money is definitely a motivation for the crew of Firefly, and for the Ghost Busters, and for most stories of the western genre. I haven't read Moorcock's Corum or Hawkmoon, but money is a consideration for Elric once he sets off to explore the Young Kingdoms (as Moonglum constantly reminds him). 

The only genre that routinely disregards money are one that provides "mission based" objectives: for example the Mission Impossible/James Bond spy thriller or the superhero "villain of the week" that must be dealt with or the city/world/universe will be wrecked. But such mission-based RPGs aren't conducive to the sort of long-term play that I consider the strength of the medium; they are short-term play at best, better served for one-shots and con play (where the immediacy of the mission is a plus) as, in my experience, they tend to peter out very quickly. 

[adventurers motivated by "revenge" fall into this category]

"Living" in a fantasy world long-term generally requires some sort of economy for the game to have any kind of meaning. Even in a setting like Star Wars; certainly waging a guerrilla war against a galactic empire requires a lot of resources: guns, ammunition, manpower, ships, fuel, provisions, etc. These things cost money, and it's hard to pay for things out of the space princess's bank account when her planet's been blown up. Ignoring the necessity of acquiring money renders the campaign a paltry thing...unless you're concerned with something other than the escapist fantasy experience RPGs can offer (for example, exploring group dynamics between characters of widely disparate backgrounds).

Keeping this in mind...that money is just a medium of exchange and a necessity of can see that many of the issues that perplex Adam don't really wash:
It is a simple, common, base desire/need that isn't heroic. 
Ensuring survival is certainly a common challenge, but acquiring money...sufficient money…may not be simple at all, and may require thrilling heroics, according to the situation.
It isn't noble, emotionally driven, and serves no greater purpose beyond personal gain. 
Depending on the use for which money is put, all this may be patently false. Money CAN be put to noble use, its acquisition may be coldly clinical (or driven by emotions other than greed), and can definitely be spent in ways that facilitate a "higher purpose."
Making it the primary goal promotes envy, greed, and distrust. It can divide the group. 
Even in Dungeons & Dragons, having treasure as an objective (in my experience) fails to have this effect. Treasure generally unites the party in a common objective in a way that multiple disparate motivations seldom do, thus instilling a spirit of cooperation. Monetary treasure is generally divided evenly at the end of an adventure/session with all surviving party members getting an equal share, and I've often observed surprising magnanimity in players after pulling a rich haul, as they bestow bonuses and choice items on trusted henchmen and cherished NPCs. The main thing I've seen "divide" a D&D group is a magic item of surpassing power that multiple PCs argue over...but that's not a "money" issue.
It is never enough, partly because no reward is as epic as described in stories or art. 
This is rather a feature of D&D play (as I stated above) as the continual need for money in a "living" economy sets up a feedback loop that spurs and motivates a proactive search for more adventure opportunities, thus allowing play to continue in perpetuity.
If genre appropriate, Treasure would end the story. Filthy rich PCs need not adventure.
It really depends. Leave aside (for example) the fact that The Hobbit is story, a modern fairy tale, written with a beginning, middle, and end already in mind (leave aside also the argument that the goal of the protagonist is to find his own courage and sense of excitement/adventure outside of a rather staid existence, and that the treasure isn't really the point). If it were, in fact, based on an actual RPG campaign, one can see there is far more complexity and adventure that can occur even after acquiring the hoard of Smaug. Towns must be repaired, gifts must be given to allies, the logistics of carrying wealth back to the Shire across miles of orc and troll infested wilderness (not to mention the costs that must be paid out in hiring a baggage caravan with beasts of burden, drovers, drivers, and guardsmen) will provide an enormous...and expensive!...venture in and of itself. There is a good reason Bilbo only takes two small chests of loot with him when he leaves Lonely Mountain...only as much as his pony can carry.

[and, again...the acquisition of wealth wasn't the point of his story anyway]

But fairy tales are fairy tales and (as I've written elsewhere) RPGs are designed to be played and experienced, not fed to us through our senses like a film or novel. It requires a collective and interactive imagination...and as smarter minds than mine have pointed out, the older we get the more mature our imaginings become. And I don't mean "mature" in the NC-17 meaning. We have more life experience upon which we can draw and we can concern ourselves with the "burden" of a meaningful campaign filled with the logistics and challenges of a humongous dragon hoard.

I will not argue against the complaint that the awarding of experience points (and, thus, increased character effectiveness) for wealth is a simplification. But as an expedient mechanic, it works magnificently in practice and symbolically represents exactly what the game purports to model: adventurers hunting for fortune and fame. The D&D universe is akin to the world of Sinbad the Sailor, a hero among heroes and as wealthy as a sultan (if not the Caliph) by the end of his seven voyages. If that's not to your liking, that's fine and dandy. But if you don't understand the type of heroic adventure (like the  Sinbad stories) that originate the "D&D genre" you are bound to be perplexed in perpetuity.

FWIW: I find the system of advancement in Chaosium's games (Stormbringer, ElfQuest, Cthulhu, etc.) to be the most realistic method of modeling increased effectiveness. But I prefer the streamlined, less-fiddly system of D&D to Chaosium, giving me more room to attend to and concentrate on the game I'm running. And, again, D&D's system of advancement (XP for levels) ties directly into the premise of the game.

All right. I think that's enough for now. However, I do have more to say about treasure...but it veers away from the particular topic at hand (the "WHY" of treasure) into tangential topics. Later, gators.


  1. Sigh.

    Can't let this one go.

    Well done, JB. I have quibbles but who cares about that; this is an excellent, well-constructed argument defending the necessity and innate value of incorporating treasure into the game world, and ought to convince anyone that they're on the wrong path if they're thinking in the manner of Adam "barking" Dickstein.

    It won't have that effect ... but it will strengthen the core belief of many, many readers who already agree with you in theory, who can now discover they agree with you in fact also.

    My complaint - one that you address adroitly in your argument, JB - is the notion that an existing fictional character or actual person serves as an "argument" for how a game ought to be played. Say WHAT?

    "Um, I don't understand why the queen in chess attacks the bishop and takes it off the board. Ru Paul is a queen and I've never seen her do anything with a bishop, so it doesn't make any sense. I don't think queens and bishops should have anything to do with each other in chess, especially since we have actual real life examples that they don't even converse."

    I'll send in a tape of my banging my head against my desk for twenty minutes later.

    1. You made me chuckle out loud. From now on, I think “Ru Paul logic” is going to be a phrase in my personal lexicon describing a specious argument.
      : )

  2. Agree with only one caveat, ODD and ADD were designed around genre emulation, just a different one than most assume now, specifically swords and sorcery. The mechanics of how treasure was used in the game was developed from hundreds of hours of actual play experience.

    As for no need for treasure after a big haul, I have one thing to say - more money = more problems = need for more money. In campaign play, my pcs ALWAYS need more cash then they have to complete their goals, and their goals get bigger as they advance in level. Engagement happens as players realize they can impact the world.

    1. When I write about genre exploration as a priority of play, I’m not really talking about the emulation (or, as I call it, “modeling”) of a genre with game design.

      But…yes, I take your point. D&D was definitely designed with a particular “genre” (or genreS) in mind. I just don’t feel exploration of that genre was the objective of D&D play…not in the same way it is the objective of certain other RPGs.

  3. My last OD&D group was composed by 5e and 3e players that never had experience playing older editions. They disliked some things about OD&D (specially the lack of character options they were used to), but treasure as goal was something they really enjoyed. Im thinking about playing AD&D with them next time, but those books have so many specific rules for specific situations that I'm a little lost.

    1. AD&D can seem daunting, especially if you haven’t played it before or haven’t played it in a while. I’d strongly suggest checking out The Blue Bard blog of Anthony Huso, beginning with his earliest posts and working forward (it’s only a dozen or two, not hundreds). Well-written, very inspiring, very candid look at how to run 1E (mostly) “by the book.” It’s an excellent place to start.

  4. Well written JB and I do understand where you are coming from. It is still not my cup of tea of course (as I drink coffee) but I have a better comprehension of why it works the way it does and why that might appeal to a portion of the gaming community.

    None of this works for me personally of course but that's fine. This is what D&D is and it goes on the list of reasons I don't enjoy D&D.

    I find it amusing that Alexis deems my approach to be 'the wrong path'. I am sure it is if D&D is the road you've decided to travel. Based on my own interests and experiences and the hundreds of other games out there that aren't D&D, I'd say there are lots of other paths one could take.

    I am currently posting about/obsessing over a Ghostbusters RPG concept I'm working on and money and doing business are indeed a key component of the setting. At the same time we don't really add up the dollars and sense or do our bills and budgets at the end of an adventure. It isn't designed nickel and dime (if you'll excused the expression) the PCs. Money is used as a 'Narrative Resource', which is how I like it.

    The only element here that doesn't ring true for me at all in this post is the idea that treasure unites a party. It is simply my personal experience and granted it last occurred long ago when I was a lad who still played D&D in 'the old way' but treasure always caused in-party turmoil. Thief PCs pickpocketing from other PCs, arguments over Magic Items and high value gems - blech. Count me out of that nonsense. You mileage must have varied and if so be thankful.

    Playing old school D&D has a way of driving one away from old school D&D.

    1. @ BA:

      Mmm. Magic items are their own kettle of fish (perhaps I'll write about that in a later post). In the Advanced game, they certainly count as "treasure," having both an XP AND monetary value, but in the B/X and OD&D games (and clones derived from them) they do not, so they're OUTSIDE the advancement/reward mechanism, and shouldn't affect it.

      As for arguing over gems...that only becomes a thing in the BECMI rules where Mentzer has XP doled out by actual share of treasure received (which is stupid but...whatever). However, most parties find the need (and means) to convert such treasure to an easier means of exchange (i.e. money) so it's not a big deal who keeps the gem except to know who's the person carrying it when the party is ambushed by trolls.

      [PC pickpockets are generally dealt with by discouraging/prohibiting PVP actions at the table, but even so it shouldn't affect the reward mechanic. This may need a separate post as well]

      Regardless: I certainly see the value of using an abstract system with specific genres; for example, a supers campaign might include a "flaw" PCs can pick up called Always Broke (which would apply to Spider-Man but NOT most of the characters in the Marvel-verse) because keeping track of bank accounts isn't the point. But once you start getting granular with your resources (or whatever you call it), you'll probably want to create a "real" (fantasy) economy.

      Specificity of design creates depth and richness.

      RE: Wrong Paths

      This post is (mostly) pertaining to D&D in its myriad forms. Different folks play D&D different ways. "Wrong" may be a bit harsh; perhaps "unproductive" would have been a kinder word to use.

      Still, it's hard to argue strenuously against the word "wrong" when my own delves into the game have shown that playing without treasure (or without valuing treasure) causes play to veer and skew in ways that make it unrecognizable as "D&D." Playing this way, it is far from a "true" or "correct" path...calling it "lesser" is actually over-generous, IMO. "Wrong" may be the best way to describe such thinking without being too inflammatory.

      But with regard to other RPGs...those, of course, have different design goals and different "correct" paths to productive, satisfying play.

      RE: Old School D&D

      It is clear that the way YOU have experienced "old school play" has driven YOU away from the game. For some of us (like myself) the opposite effect has occurred, as we are drawn deeper into its nuance.

      My children are constantly clamoring to play "old D&D" (with me or with others), and they see no need to abstract away or streamline the clunky mechanisms that make the game what it is.
      ; )

    2. A perfect example of where the disconnect often lies between myself and old schoolers...

      "As for arguing over gems...that only becomes a thing in the BECMI rules where Mentzer has XP doled out by actual share of treasure received (which is stupid but...whatever)."

      That assumes people playing the game do things for exclusively rules based reasons. It doesn't take Human nature into account. If a Gem is worth a lot of money, money motivated graverobbers like the average D&D party want it. If one feels another got the bigger gem - Read: Got more money or cool things - they will covet it from the other people who they see as having more.

      This is just the thinking I've seen in D&D games many, many, many times. I don't think I've EVER played with anyone in 44 years who said, "Now according to the rules for Share of Treasure...", and then flipped through the books to find such a thing.

      If D&D is 'correctly' played by requiring that be done...good grief. It might fix the issue but my excitement level for the game would drop even further.

      To each their own of course.

    3. ???

      I think this argument holds no water at all. I’m discussing the design of the game not what you think might happen or anecdotal hearsay.

      If you dislike the rules of the game, then it’s not the game for you.

    4. It is not what I think might happen. It's happened far too many times to count. I was there. Proof is that because of it and other factors I am not there now. As you say, I dislike the rules and it's not the game for me.

      My statement isn't an argument though. In fact, it could be a question:

      How is it you're players don't ever fight over treasure if having the most is integral to improving in level and generally being better of than their compatriots? How have you overcome this or are you saying you've never encountered it?

    5. Adam,

      It's not the responsibility or the fault of any game to provide for the mutual respect shown by one human being towards another around a game table. It doesn't matter how many hundreds of examples you can pour forth on how hideously the players you've played with have acted when met with the game's play or how envious or self-serving they were during arguments that broke out over gems or any other game element.

      These things are evidence of what sort of people you play with, not what sort of game you play.

    6. That’s an easy question to answer:

      In the edition of D&D I play, XP awarded for treasure earned is divided evenly between all surviving members of the party. This is explicit in the text of B/X and (I’d say) implied in the text of AD&D.

      Because of this, it doesn’t matter whether one guy holds all the gems while a different person has a sack of silver, or if a single individual carries ALL the treasure (perhaps because of STR bonuses to carrying limits and/or encumbrance of other party members). The DM adds up the total value of the loot, and awards all PCs an equal share (NPCs receiving half-shares). This, there’s nothing for players to argue over…everyone ends up with the same XP award.

      As such…nope, never encountered it. I learned from B/X and carried the same assumptions into the Advanced game when I moved to that.

      With regard to USE of treasure: most players seem willing to loan cash to each other, as needed, provided that it benefits the group…which most expenditures generally do, at least at low levels. As PCs gain levels they tend to have more self-centric interests…but they also tend to have more individual cash/resources so asking for loans becomes unusual.

  5. I think you’re missing money’s keep abstraction. Money is a means by which to measure and assign value. It allows us to assign value to anything. We can even value things which one might consider beyond value. For example, the value of any human life can and is neatly and efficiently valued by the application of money.

    This is, in my opinion, why many consider money to be the root of all evil. So, thanks for the industrialization of human slavery, Ancient Greece!

  6. I am all for gold as xp, but just like any game it's a game rule where you suspend disbelief in the name of having a simpler game. Like wizards can't use swords. I try just to accept it.

    Some random thoughts

    The PC can say they are motivated by money but then they split treasure by meta game reason not actual worth. "We found 200 GPS and +1 leather armor. Old Light Fingers can keep that armor worth several thousand GPS and we will be content with splitting the gold. I'm sure he will pay us back latter"

    Video games changed from measuring your progress by points accumulated to "winning the game" you can't win Missle Comand you just play to try and have the most points but Contra has a ending. Gold for Xp versus Story game.

    Games don't mirror real life sure realistically you would retire after a huge score of gold in D&D versus risking your live against save or die monsters. But realistically once you owned a lot of property and had steady hotel and rental income you would probably be be happy as a successful real-estate magnet and wouldn't need to own everything in town. But that's not how the game is played.

    Once you got a fair amount of gold using the capitol to start legit business or mafia style crime ring is probably a safer way to make gold but that's boring. Again we pretend it's about cash but it's taking the hardest most dangerous way to gain it. So it's really about adventure and gaining levels.

    D&D is it's own genre. That's why it's so compelling.

    1. Melan described a notable case several times, wherein his players - instead of seeking out new excitement - were satisfied with "playing Sim City" with their holdings. So some people actually enjoy what you deem boring.

    2. I should have been more clear. I think running a mafia style campaign is great fun. But the rules and adventures presented in AD&D are for dungeon crawling and some high level domain management.

    3. They're for whatever we want, seven.

    4. For sure the rules are for whatever I want, but the rules on treasure as xp are there to get people in the dungeon. The players are not greedy for money they are greedy for xp. Because money could be earned a lot safer outside the dungeon.

      The AD&D DMG and PHB section on gold for xp explicitly states that if thier was minimal risk the gold doesn't equal xp but some portion of it.

      If you are going to use AD&D to run a campaign that's about con men, shady merchant's, and protection rackets you are going to need to modify how xp is granted.

      Sure you could go with 1 gp equals 1 xp no matter how it is gained but the you get "How did Bob hit third level in the first session? he placed all his starting gold on red 5."

    5. Let go of the books a little, make your own way, be creative.

  7. I've come around to thinking about treasure (or other rewards like titles, lands, "that inn") as not just part of OSR play but *the essential* part of OSR play. I'd venture a guess that a group that otherwise plays AD&D perfectly as-written but that does "story XP" has a play experience farther removed from the original Gygaxian games than a 4E group that only added a single rule, gold=XP.

  8. You really need to read both Corum and Hawkmoon. Treasure is important. The reason for our adventuring is, as Steve Brodie says in the famous Bugs Bunny cartoon, "So I can get me hands on some dough."

  9. These things cost money, and it's hard to pay for things out of the space princess's bank account when her planet's been blown up.

    1. Especially when the Galactic Empire has frozen her space bank accounts due to her suspected terrorism and ties to extremist groups.
      ; )