Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Treasured Items

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

T is for Treasured Items, which is different from the simple treasure found in all editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

All Old School adventurers are treasure hunters…treasure might as well be the name of the game (or at least an extra letter: D & D & T). Without the promise of treasure, there is no impetus to go into the dungeon, no motivation to go on adventures.

Oh, sure, I suppose there are some few adventurers that are motivated by fighting evil or some special “quest” B.S. that they have to complete to get their paladin powers back or something. But let’s look at the spell Quest for a moment…it has a saving throw! Obviously no one wants to VOLUNTARILY go on a quest. Only those forcibly compelled will do so.

Not so with treasure…everyone wants treasure; why do you think it’s called “treasure?” Because it is something to treasure…something considered precious and valuable.

But is it? Do we truly treasure our treasure? Do we treasure it enough?

Like most of the topics I’ve discussed this month, I think that treasure is one of those things we notoriously “gloss over.” It’s all well and good to count GP value for the purpose of how much experience is handed out at the end of a game session, but I don’t think we spend enough time detailing the value and sheer coolness of the treasure discovered.

And by “enough time” I mean ANY time. “Oh, you found a bag of 235 gold pieces.” “There seems to be a pig pile of silver and gems in the chest.” “When you draw the sword from its sheath it gives off a magical glow.”

Wow, how BORING. And yet, the acquisition of treasure (especially in B/X as my players will tell you) can be quite tough, costing more than a few lives in the pursuit of wealth. Shouldn’t the wealth be worth the trouble involved? Holy Jesus yes!

[speaking of Jesus, I almost did T is for Theology...hope everyone is having a happy Easter weekend!]

Recently, my players got slaughtered almost to a man due to a miscommunication and a snowball effect of bad luck. The two characters that managed to “make it out alive” acquired very little in terms of treasure…probably under 500gp worth of loot once the silver and copper was converted. Pretty weak for a pair of 2nd level adventurers…especially considering they left eight of their fellows for the stew pot.

But let’s consider what 250 gold pieces worth of treasure is. First off, it’s a damn sight more than any starting adventurer’s portable wealth, even one from the Upper Class. If “standard rations” are 5gp for a week’s worth of food, the character can eat for almost a year. And this is hearty “adventurer’s food,” not peasant gruel.

Hell, a fully trained war horse can be purchased for 250gp…if the characters were business men instead of adventurers, they could invest their money in a string of ponies and go into the ranching/wrangling business.

But they’re not, and probably the loot will be spent to outfit some new mercenaries. 500 gold could buy ‘em five man-at-arms for double the hiring price of Clem, Chip, and Roy and outfit the lot with plate, shield, and sword. Now how’s THAT for a heavy bodyguard?

Not bad.

But that’s just talking about VALUE. In the end, players are responsible for their own expenditure of currency (and who’s to say they won’t simply blow it buying drinks at the tavern). Treasure should still be treasured for itself, NOT just “what it can buy.”

And that means (DMs) that you must do a better job at describing the haul…not just in terms of encumbrance and value but in terms of what it is. Coins can be ancient or shiny, clinking and jingling or encrusted with the dirt and grit of ages. Gemstones can be plump or small or fist-sized or precious, shining like stars in the night sky, wrapped in black silk or red velvet or neat, little paper packages. Jewelry…well you need to go for broke when describing bling-bling. Make it stuff the characters want to WEAR not just sell. Arm bands and bracelets and rings and earrings and buckles and clasps and broaches of precious metal and more precious stones. Make their mouths water…make ‘em fight over who gets the 50gp emerald rattling in the small clay urn shaped like a demon. The adventurers aren’t jewelers after all…let their eyes glaze over as you describe the wealth they’ve found.

“Only 50gp for the sapphire! It’s the size of my thumb!” Yes, but close examination shows a serious flaw just beneath the surface…what you thought was just a little grave mould is actually an imperfection. Still, it’s enough to buy a suit of chainmail, five kite shields, or half a dozen halberds topped with the “finest elvish steel.”

As for magic items…even if they’re not bestudded with gold and jewels, they should still carry apt descriptions. Maybe the +1 sword doesn’t glow, but it is the straighter and more true than any blade you’ve held, it’s steel shines in the torch light and it’s light as a feather in your hand. Maybe the +2 sword found later is a crude and ugly cleaver, a goblin weapon with attitude, sporting a grinning skull pommel and evil-looking runes carved along its crooked length. Perhaps the +3 shield is battered and dented and only a learned (16+ Intelligence) magic-user or sage can tell you the armorial design on the front is the crest of a family of renowned giant-slayers, the last of whom died centuries before…the wear-n-tear obviously due to the blows of monsters capable of shattering stone and iron .

Make treasure something to treasure. Not everything has to have a page-long story attached, but a sentence or two of description can go a long way to making it more than just a point-gathering exercise. Yes, for some people treasure collection IS only a “point-gathering” exercise and they won’t give a shit what description you attach to the loot so long as you tally up their XP at the end of the night. So what? This series of posts is about ELEVATING your game…give ‘em some description anyway. If they don’t care then let ‘em fence the loot for half the value (and half the experience) they’d normally receive. If all they care about is rolling dice, than making them work twice as hard to advance will give them the opportunity to roll twice as many dice rolls.

For the other players…well, they’ll be happy to bask in the glow of the treasure they find.
: )


  1. Awesome post! Descriptions do tend to go by the wayside. I especially like your take on magic weapons.

  2. Personally, I think that coins should be crazy, as well. Which is better (or at least more interesting), getting 20SP that you can spend anywhere or getting 10 pennies (fine for the local country), plus 3 silver riyals (worth about 2 pennies each) from the Corsair Coast and 4 groschen (about the same as a penny) from the Eastern Empire which you can either save until you get to the appropriate land, take to a moneychanger (for a fee!), or risk getting caught trying to pass illegal foreign currency? If the Referee knows the precise weights of the coins, there can even be the possibility of coin shaving (and we all know that PCs need as many possible scams available to them as the Referee can stomach)!

  3. More, in fact, as they likely won't find all of them.