Thursday, January 6, 2022

What Treasure Is

The title of this post is meant to be read literally only as applies to the D&D game. I would hope we all agree that REAL treasure is the time spent with family, friends, and loved ones (as I am often reminded by the holidays).

[and speaking of "treasured time:" we DID manage to finish our Axis & Allies game...after THREE DAYS...with the Allied forces capitulating once the Krauts had taken all of the USSR save Moscow, and after Italy had invaded the central United States through Mexico. Folks may find me silly to crow about beating a kid two weeks shy of his 11th birthday; truth is, I'm proud of how well he plays. He's also pretty sharp (he beats me in chess about one game in three these days) and a fast learner. And I was playing from behind most of the game after Italy got pwned in the Mediterranean theater and after I stupidly chose to neglect Russia till Turn 4 (I'm so used to having Japan invade from the east, and had a difficult time adjusting to the needs of the game's European Only limitations). Still, I managed to take the UK...twice!...and while London was firmly in the hands of the Allies by the end of the war, the Americanos' need to bring overwhelming force to the North Sea ended up losing them all of Africa to a German "end around"...which gave Italy the space they needed to recover their naval forces. I seriously doubt Diego will make the same mistake again]

[of course, now he wants A&A Pacific for his birthday. Oh, boy]

Onto AD&D.

I am running the kids through Hommlet. Yes, T1...not the Temple of Elemental Evil mega-set (which I own and which is a disaster to parse). This is the first time I've run T1 using the original rules for which it was intended; my only other experience with the adventure was running it as a PBEM 3rd edition conversion (you can read the transcripts which I posted to my blog a few years back). 

It's bit of a rough go. Mainly due to their being so few party members. The adventure itself seems fine for a group of six/seven 1st level players. We have two. They ended up hiring four of the NPC adventurers hanging around the Inn of the Wanton Wench, three of whom were of the evil, "ambush-the-party-when-they're-weak" variety...with the inevitable results; i.e. Total Party Kill. HOWEVER...the kids want to make new characters and go back to Ye Old Moat House, and I have a few workarounds that I'm going to try implementing with our next go of it. That will all be detailed in a (later) post.

[for the curious: the players are still playing in the same campaign world, but I haven't taken the time to place Hommlet on the map. I'm thinking probably down around Tri-Cities...or near them...due to the proximity to the Columbia River. Probably Burne and Rufus should be agents of the Tri-City States, though my first thought was to make them vassals of the Red Empire - i.e. Spokane - far to the north]

Treasure in Hommlet...a rather important consideration in AD& quite good. Leaving aside what might be stolen from the village goodfolk, or looted from the bodies of evil henchmen, the moat house contains well over 30,000 g.p. of treasure, not even counting the sale value of magic items (which could push the total over 73K). Parties managing to find every scrap of loot AND retaining magic items (as opposed to selling them) can expect a haul of more than 41,000 experience points...enough for even a party of eight to climb to 3rd level...or higher! This is found in 17 of the 35 numbered areas, so roughly every other encounter will have something valuable for PCs to purloin. 

Certainly whets the appetites of new players. No wonder T1 is held in such high regard.

Of course, not all the treasure found is of the coin and gemstone variety. One locked door protects "30 shields, 12 suits of leather armor, and barrels of salted meat." Another hides "50 spears, 10 glaives, 6 guisarmes, 3 battleaxes" as well as "two crates holding 120 arrows and 200 crossbow bolts respectively." Along with hidden kegs of brandy and four score of "black capes" sewn with a "yellow eye of fire," these two rooms alone yield a rich hall of nearly 1,200 g.p. value (even counting the capes as a 5 s.p. traveling "cloak" from the PHB).

But JB, that stuff isn't treasure! It's just gear and supplies that can be used by ill-equipped parties or given to arm henchmen and mercenaries. Where's the REAL treasure...the coins and jewels and such? Okay, first off all money...are simply a medium of exchange. One uses coins as a portable way of acquiring goods and services. In the AD&D game they also serve an ADDITIONAL purpose of providing experience points to ambitious players. But all treasure serves that latter purpose...coins are simply going to be exchanged for provisions and supplies anyway.

Let's ask: what's the real objection here? That a sheaf of arrows doesn't glitter the same as a box of silver? Okay, fine. But leaving aside the practicality of an arrow (which can be used to kill a foe), do folks understand the cost-weight ratio is the same for an arrow as a silver coin coin? 

120 arrows = 240cns encumbrance = 12 g.p. value
240 silver = 240cns encumbrance = 12 g.p. value

And more valuable equipment has a greater weight-cost ratio:

30 shields = 150# = 300 g.p. value
1,500 s.p. = 150# = 75 g.p. value

10 glaives = 75# = 60 g.p. value
750 s.p. = 75# = 37.5 g.p. value

50 spears = 250# = 50 g.p. value
2,500 c.p. = 250# = 12.5 g.p. value

Now, sure, spears aren't worth their weight in silver (you'd rather find 250# of silver than 250# of spears), but how many times has a low-level party been perfectly happy with bagging a pile of 2,000 or 3,000 copper pieces after some fierce battle with giant rats? More than a few, I'd imagine, as starting adventurers can't afford (literally) to be picky about the loot being left around. But given the choice between retrieving six spears or a sack of 100 coppers, it's clear which "treasure" is worth more...not just for cash and x.p. but for practical value. 

The original D&D game (the LBBs) only offered only three types of coin to be found in a treasure: copper pieces, silver pieces, and gold pieces (electrum and platinum were offered as additional alternatives but their specific value was left undefined and in the hands of the referee). Rather than look at them as literal coins, I prefer to view them as valuables based on weight when building a treasure:

Copper = bulky items 
Silver = portable items
Gold = precious items

[when using electrum and platinum pieces, as in the AD&D game, this adds the categories of "semi-precious" and "very precious," respectively]

"Bulky" treasures weigh (approximately) 20# per 1 gold piece value. "Portable" treasures weigh about 2# per 1 gold piece value. "Precious" treasures are worth 10 gold pieces for every 1# of weight...again, as a rough approximation. 

Keeping this concept in mind, one can furnish and outfit one's adventure site with all manner of "treasures," rather than stashing coins in crevasses and under loose flagstones. A barracks or guardroom may have solid furniture (bulky treasure) rather than copper. A wizard's closet may have fine clothing (portable) or even expensive clothing (precious). An alchemist's lab may have glassware (portable), rare herbs (semi-precious), and an amazing collection of journals/notes (very precious). Even a torture chamber might have iron implements and strong shackles (bulky and/or portable) of value to someone.

This idea...that the coin values given in the Treasure Tables can be used in the something I hit on a few year back when writing Five Ancient Kingdoms (my Arabian Nights version of OD&D) and it's something I've been doing ever since. I've seen others that have since stumbled onto the same concept; however, the underpinnings of this has been present since Gygax published the DMG in '79 in which he gave the following example:
A pair of exceedingly large, powerful and ferocious ogres has taken up abode in a chamber at the base of a shaft...these creatures have accumulated over 2,000 g.p. in wealth, but it is obviously not a pair of 1,000 g.p. gems. Rather, they have gathered an assortment of goods whose combined combined value is well in excess of two thousand gold nobles (the coin of the realm)...there are many copper and silver coins in a locked iron chest. There are pewter vessels worth a fair number of silver pieces. An inlaid wooden coffer, worth 100 gold pieces alone, holds a finely wrought silver necklace worth an incredible 350 gold pieces. Food and other provisions scattered about amount to another hundred or so gold nobles value, and one of the ogres wears a badly tanned fur cape which will fetch 50 gold pieces nonetheless. Finally, there are several good helmets (used as drinking cups), a bardiche, and a two-handed sword (with silver wire wrapped about its hilt and a lapis lazuli pommel to make it three times its normal value) which completes the treasure. If the adventurers overcome the ogres, they must still recognize all of the items of value and transport them to the surface...the bold victors have quite a task before them.
[from page 92]

When the Monster Manual tells you that the individual orc has 2-12 electrum pieces...or that the individual dwarf has 10-40 gold pieces...this should be taken as the value of the creature's goods on its person. "I'm going to loot the dead goblin's morning star...the PHB lists the weapon's price at 5 g.p. so I should be able to get at least a couple gold!" No, the combined value of the corpse's possessions is 3-18 silver pieces. 

[that morning star? It's a twisted piece of wood studded with spikes, teeth, and jagged metal. The goblin's helmet? Too small for a human and has an incredible'll need to purchase some strong lye just to get rid of the odor, even if you can find a halfling willing to buy it as a "collector's item." The shield? Broken when you killed the guy. His rags? Good luck selling those]

It's not like the orcs use electrum as the basic currency of their culture (though that might be interesting if they did).

D&D can, of course, be played in the abstract, and these treasure hoards facilitate that. "You find 1,000 copper, 3,000 silver, and 1,500 gold in the den of the hydra." But while this is a great expediter of play (it is!) it's also one of the main complaints voiced when detractors talk about how "boring" old edition D&D is. "Man, half our party was killed by giant rats and all we got out of it was 2,000 copper pieces."

No. What you found was 10 (or 20 depending on edition) gold coins worth of valuable food stuffs (unspoiled grain perhaps) in four large (50#) sacks. Deliver that to an inn, baker, or tavern and you can create a valuable contact and perhaps a place for rumors of further adventure. 

See, this is the thing: D&D is more than a game...if you allow it to be. It can be a place where you and your players LIVE, engaging with the imaginary setting/environment. And there's no need to write up any hoity-toity story or Uber-Quest to do so. Just develop the rules of the game that are already in front of your nose...and allow yourself the luxury of basking in the fantasy realm.

Back when we were playing through UK2: The Sentinel, the kids managed to acquire a nicely skinned giant beaver pelt (as a reward for something or other) that was worth a fair chunk of change. They took the x.p. for the piece and then, having been a bit flush with cash at the time, hired a tailor to work the think into a rich/warm lining for their armor, boots, etc.  That was the players' decision, not mine. And not only did it work fine as a bit of ostentatious display (hey! we be 3rd level adventurers now!), it also acted to make their wealth even more portable. After all, had the situation arose, they could have traded a rich, beaver-lined cloak (or whatever) for some sort of deal/negotiation with neutral/hostile NPCs.

Anyway...if you're playing Dungeons & Dragons in (what I deem to be) the correct fashion, the treasure is going to matter. What it is, what it does, what it's worth, and what it costs the players to acquire...not just in terms of hit point/resource expenditure, but in terms of weight/encumbrance. Because if you want to live in your D&D world, you're going to have to deal with the burdens associated with living which are (generally) logistical burdens. Do I have enough food? Can I afford to buy food? Can I carry more food? What must I sacrifice to eat?

It's pretty hard to make the trek to Mordor on an empty stomach.

You can deal with these things in the abstract (the treasure from that hydra den weighs 550# in encumbrance and is worth 1,655 g.p.) or you can hand wave such issues completely, instead choosing to focus on the character backstories, formal plots, and PC-NPC interaction in an attempt to create a grandiose story. However, the former approach reduces the game to something little more than the Dungeon! boardgame, and the latter...well, that's really a different animal. I find neither of these approaches to be satisfying in the long term.

So make your treasure meaningful...both to you the DM (as a substance/thing of your campaign world) and to your players (ditto). Value and encumbrance are the starting points, and then use the systems in place as guidelines to flesh out the details. It's those details that will make your dungeon loot something to be "treasured."

Isn't that why we call it treasure?
; )


  1. A very thoughtful post, and a good one to start the year with.

    Watching my kids play Minecraft, Terraria or Animal Crossing I'm always surprised by how much stuff they want to collect or craft and the enjoyment they get from that part of those games. I could see that crafting recipes could be treasure in itself and a hook to further adventure. Thus a book of the ingredients / materials to craft a wood golem or a gargoyle or a living statue would have value even if it was not a set of instructions on how to do so.

    1. “Crafting recipes,” as a subtle variant of the hoary treasure map, could absolutely count as both treasure and an incentive to adventure. Who doesn’t want a gargoyle bodyguard? What wizard doesn’t want to manufacture a homunculus (need to learn that mending spell!)? Scarecrows and statues and golems and undead servants…all manners of alchemy for the ambitious witch or warlock to pursue. And valuable ingredients are probably worth gold (and thus XP) to their fellow party members as well.
      ; )

  2. I think Spells as Treasure is another missed opportunity in many games.

    1. Depends on the edition being played, doesn’t it? In B/X (and, presumably, its clones) there’s no advantage/gain for finding a spell as one does not “add” to their spell book.

      BTB AD&D is another matter, of course, but in my personal (home) campaign, we’ve done away with the overflowing spell books.

    2. Altering the spell book rules is one of the most common house rules I see people use in B/X - though I personally quite appreciate the limitation on spells known. I think it makes MUs more unique.

    3. @ Matt:

      I much so that I've (more or less) adapted the B/X version to my AD&D game.

  3. "Do I have enough food? Can I afford to buy food? Can I carry more food? What must I sacrifice to eat?"

    One of my complaints with all editions of D&D ranging from original to 5e is that these kinds of concerns matter for maybe an adventure or two, and that's it. Once you have found enough coin to level up once or twice, your material concerns are pretty much dealt with. You're rich enough that food and at least basic lodging are in "the noise", as are mundane adventuring supplies. At that point only encumbrance really matters where resource management is concerned (part of why encumbrance is pretty important if resource management is to be "a thing" past the lowest levels).

    Re: the main subject of the blog - have you ever published (or seen published) treasure tables for similar weight/value ratio to copper/silver/gold? I don't use a huge amount of random tables at the table but I could see that kind of thing being super valuable.

    1. I'm not sure how concerns about food wouldn't remain after 3rd/4th level *particularly* with 5E, since coin is not required to level and there is such a dearth of treasure in the game. How do 5E adventurers afford to eat? I'd be tempted to run a 5E game just to watch the PCs starve.
      ; )

      RE treasure tables

      Um...not really? If you get Volume 3 of my Five Ancient Kingdoms, the idea is somewhat codified in the "treasure hoard" section, but it is still in the abstract: there's a D6 table to determine if a treasure is "bulky, portable, or precious" and a paragraph or two describing what that means (including weight/value ratio by general "type"). But nothing specific for a B/X or advanced game. When I started running D&D again AFTER publishing 5AK, I ran Holmes first, then OD&D, and simply folded my assumptions into the system. But I haven't published anything since (except for Comes Chaos which, as a setting book, had more things to address than my pet theories on treasure).

      Maybe I'll whip something up (for AD&D) one of these days...but running an "advanced" game, DMs should really be considering things like the local economy of their specific worlds. What is valuable and scarce in my campaign may be plentiful and cheap in someone else's (consider something like Dark Sun versus Greyhawk versus metal-poor Krynn) and thus I'd encourage individual DMs to create their own "lists" based on the world they're using.
      : )


  4. The DMG's "Two Ogre's in a pit" really highlights good treasure design well, but it's always stuck me as a space where AD&D lets one down a bit. The precise the sorts of equivalent value/weight tables that are getting discussed here seem such a natural conclusion, and yet the treasure tables in AD&D remain fixated on hoards of coin - a mechanic more suited for Dungeon!

    Some part of me starts to wonder if by the time the DMG came around encumbrance wasn't so much part of the Lake Geneva game anymore (bags of holding? boredom?), and with it treasure had moved more into post-game XP accounting then wonder and excitement.

    I've found a lot of fun can be had with that the initial inquisitive and acquisitive mentality that starts to take hold of many players in early D&D -- where every bit of decoration or useful material becomes potential treasure. PCs start to pry things off walls, carry away furniture, chisel out carvings, and steal the good bits of statues if better treasure isn't available. It's a lot of fun, but there's a space for guidance in this kind of found treasure - both for the time and risk it takes to obtain and the value and weight of the loot. Plus it's something that more adventure designers should consider - when you start inlaying floors with gold, most players first questions will be "how much" and "can I chisel/melt/smash it out".

    Anyway, nice to see a post about treasure - thinking about rewards in early D&D is something I enjoy reading.

    1. Remember that the MM (with its updated treasure tables from OD&D) came out YEARS before the DMG.

      However, my guess would be Gygax (as often seems the case) gave an example and expected/hoped folks would just "figure it out" from there.

    2. Maybe, though the treasure tables have been in place since OD&D and have always been coin-centric. OD&D also advises entirely random dungeon generation (in keeping with its more 'board game' approach to adventure design). While subsequent editions, including AD&D, sometimes step back from these ideas for bespoke dungeon design, and the DMG at least includes descriptive tables of gems, they never do provide anything (tools, even many examples in published adventures)to encourage more interesting treasure design. Beyond the Ogre anecdote of course.

      It's a space where we can all be aware and put in some useful design work in our own adventures or blog posts.

    3. Actually the DMG provides a couple tables on "rare commodities" and their values by weight (see page 27) and, of course, the discussion on magic item creation is descriptive (of the price of paper, at least!).

      Furthermore, I consider early modules to be something of essential "play aids" for would-be DMs...pre-internet, the example they provide (especially the Gygax-penned ones) were invaluable to new players learning the game from books rather than from a midwest contingent of old-timers or a college campus wargame community.

      RE OD&D and subsequent coin tables

      I will continue to state OD&D was a primordial version of D&D, incomplete and ever-developing. The coin tables are a nice, easy abstract for players who need to calculate value-load. But OD&D's skeletal system was only a starting point.

      Likewise, all versions of "basic" pre-1985 were specifically designed as introductory versions of the game, with the idea that groups would eventually move on to the "advanced" game. Looking at them as the end-point of How To Play is, IMO, a poor strategy for understanding.

      [post '85, with the CMI of BECMI, the point is debatable]