Monday, March 11, 2019

Treasure in the Borderlands

The last couple weeks I've been thinking a lot about D&D campaigns, specifically how I might incorporate existing adventure modules into a single, long campaign. There are multiple reasons my brain has been on this track...but the reasons aren't really that important.

Here's the main skinny: there are pre-published adventures that I like, and that I'd like to run as part of a campaign. That's really all that matters.

More on that later (perhaps)'s post is about The Keep on the Borderlands (module B2) and its subsequent 2nd edition sequel Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. I've owned Return for a while now (a couple years, at least), but I've never run the thing. I'm not sure I'd even given it a really thorough read before the last couple-three days as A) B/X has been my edition of choice (and the original Keep my introductory adventure of choice) for the last decade or so, and B) 2nd edition AD&D has never really "been my bag, baby." However, two things (thinks?) made me want to pull my copy and scrutinize it:

1) I've been thinking a LOT about the Advanced game lately...and what I liked/enjoyed about it in the past, and

2) I've come around to the simultaneous thoughts that "pre-packaged modules aren't necessarily terrible to an original campaign" and "pre-packaged modules usually need substantial revamps to work in an original campaign."

That latter idea mainly due to me poring over the various module reviews GusL did on his old Dungeon of Signs blog.

But it's more than just GusL. I have an idea for another, similar post on this subject called "I Hate Bugbears" in which I intend/hope to discuss various classic adventure modules that I'd like a whole helluva' lot better if they used something besides bugbears (I1 and Q1, for example). Giant, hairy goblins that sneak up on a party are

Whatever (excuse the digression)...back to the two Keeps. I really do like the original B2 a lot...a lot. But its sequel (which I shall hereafter call "RtB2") has a few good ideas as well. Ideas that are worth stealing and adapting. However, I was torn on thought of whether or not I wanted to adapt the thing wholesale to B/X (I'm not quite ready to go full on Advanced). And after a thorough analysis of the changes between the two modules, I'm 90% sure I'd rather use B2 (with a few changes) than its successor.

The main issue I have with RtB2 is with its treasure. Not the amount present in the adventure (which is actually quite a bit more than the original), but with its distribution. For the sake of collating my thoughts, here's what I found when I went through the modules side-by-side:

B2 (original) Treasure
Inside the Keep: 43,413 g.p. and change
In the Wilderness: 1,280 g.p. and change
Inside the Caves: 35,696 g.p. and change

[as I've noted before, you can get more treasure...and experience points...sacking the Keep than adventuring in the Caves of Chaos]

RtB2 (sequel) Treasure
Inside the Keep: 3,015 g.p. and change
In the Wilderness: 8.987 g.p. and change
Inside the Caves: 91,420 (!!) g.p. and change

"There's gold in them hills!"
That is a shit-ton of treasure in the caves and only counts the monetary value of loot to be pillaged (in AD&D, PCs also receive XP from magic items discovered and retained...and have the option of selling such items for even more XP/gold). This makes the Caves of RtB2 a much more lucrative delve than the original, both in terms of physical reward and advancement. Likewise the vast reduction in treasure found at RtB2's Keep makes it a lot less tempting of a target for the more villainous (PC) adventuring parties. All to the good, right?

Well, kind of.

Thing is, while there's a lot less treasure in B2's caverns, the treasure there is more widely spread and accessible. Of the original modules 64 numbered encounters (in the Caves area), 48 of them have some sort of treasure to be found. That's a 75% rate of return on exploration (even "empty" rooms are ones that are going to be searched by adventurers, depleting food and light resources and running the risk of random encounters). Sure, half of these (24 of 48) are yielding small change (less than 100 g.p. worth of loot...almost all coins), but the PCs are still getting something...and nearly one-quarter of the treasure drops (11 of 48) are hits of 1000 g.p. or more, which is a good chunk of bling for 1st and 2nd level characters.

By contrast, Return has 77 numbered encounters in the Caves of Chaos and only 28 of them yield any kind of monetary treasure. While this isn't a terrible ratio (I generally strive to have at least a 1-to-3  treasure yield in my own B/X adventures), it feels like a lot less. Cave complex F, for example, has nine chambers of which only two have any treasure. Yes, one of these is a yield of 12,530 g.p. (after a very tough encounter), but the other has a measly 66 g.p. The same complex in B2 finds loot in every single chamber, and while the total is hardly more than one-tenth the sequel adventure (a bit more than 1,550 g.p.), PCs can feel like their explorations are yielding dividends, not simply depleting their resources while hoping to hit "pay dirt."

[likewise the treasure feels more "honest" to me; that 12,530 g.p. hoard? It requires a character to make two successful "appraisal" rolls to determine the true value of a gemstone, otherwise they lose 4,500 g.p. of its value. That's pretty crappy to hinge one-third of the reward on random chance]

In both versions of the adventure, the bulk of the treasure (roughly 50%) is found in the uppermost cave complex (the "Hidden Temple"), which is all fine and dandy as characters should probably be at least 2nd level before venturing into its dark recesses (and thus needing the same amount of XP found in the entire lower levels to advance to 3rd level). But the other distribution is a little strange: in B2, the minotaur's labyrinth contains about 10% (11.7% to be exact) of the Caves total treasure take, while the ogre cave only accounts for 1.3% (it only has one monster)...the other eight cave complexes have between 2.5% to just over 5% with most hovering close to the average of 3.8%. That's not the case in RtB2: three complexes contain less than 1% of the total treasure found in the Caves (.9%, .6%, and .1%). The "ogre cave" (now home to a troll) contains a whopping 5% of the treasure, and while the labyrinth (upgraded to be even more dangerous) still has close to 10% (9.2% actually), two other cave complexed have over 13% each.

In other words, three of the eleven cave complexes in RtB2 contain more than 75% of the total treasure. And while these three complexes all contain hostile enemies that are unlikely to become allies with the player characters, it feels almost punitive that the potential "friendly factions" carry so little in the way of reward, as if to say "join with these guys or you get nothing for your trouble." It's the same with the under-stocking of treasure in the Keep itself. "Crime doesn't pay," is kind of a theme here (even should a party decided to fight the Keep's forces, they'll get bupkis for their efforts). Which isn't exactly enforcing 2nd edition's "goody-goody" mindset but...kind of?

However, there's another downside to under-valuing the Keep's treasure. All joking aside (no low level party is going to be able to knock over the bank with the forces the Keep can muster), there's a good reason the vault holds so much treasure: for buying and changing the wealth the party brings out of the Caves. For a modest 10% fee, the bank is happy to change sacks of bulky coins for small gems and precious jewelry (and vice versa) and the trading post will take those piles of furs and rolls of silk tapestries off their hands as well (presumably after making some cash withdrawals from its own bank account). That the Keep in B2 has so much liquid wealth on hand ensures PCs won't be requiring a wagon caravan to haul a (literal) ton of loot to their next adventuring site. Yes, there's more treasure available in B2's Keep than in B2's Caves, but much of it is of a portable and practical variety to readily exchange with the player characters.

Adventurers in RtB2 are going to find themselves facing a bit of a logistical hurdle when it comes to disposing of their treasure. The Keep is dirt poor, both the bank and the trading post having disappeared, and while regular caravans stop by the Keep "every few days," the merchants carry trade goods, not easily exchanged valuables or portable wealth. While most of the (valuable) treasure found in RtB2's Caves is of the gem and jewelry type (and, thus, already pretty portable), an exchange issue remains, and most adventuring party are going to end up hiking out with backpacks stuffed with bling rather than letters of credit and currency. And a lot of the stuff (like the valuable library found in the necromancer's lair) is far from portable and subject to easy destruction on the road (say, in bad weather)...which is where PCs will have to be if they want to find a place to fence the goods.

Perhaps in actual 2nd edition play, these issues become "non-issues;" players can discard the treasure that's too bulky or "useless" and gain plenty of advancement-worthy XP from the plethora of magic items taken off the corpses of dead monsters. However, much though I've been reminiscing and longing for AD&D lately, I'm still of a B/X frame of mind when it comes to treasure...I still want it to matter and its acquisition to be the most desirable aspect of gameplay. Hell, even RtB2 "strongly urges" that DMs go back to the treasure-for-XP model of 1st edition AD&D when playing the adventure, giving players the signal that a multiple variety of avenues might be taken in pursuit of the goal. If you're going to follow that advice (and why would you not?) then problematic issues with regard to treasure are going to take on a greater importance.


  1. Loot for XP was on its way out in 2e. If I were to read RtB2 using only my second edition eyeballs, the treasure ratios wouldn’t even occur to me.

    1. @ Scott:

      Indeed. However, I'm reading Return with an eye towards converting parts of it to B/X. As such, treasure is a big consideration.

    2. I'm sorry I should have been clearer. I mean to say the person who wrote the adventure (or edited it) probably wasn't looking at the real world implications of an empty Keep or what the number of gold pieces per room was. In the sense of conversion it's important because loot means something else in older D.

  2. I have always liked the idea of sacking the keep - I think I even mentioned making it a gray on gray sort of thing (Orc replaced with barbarous humans, goblins with unseelie fey - pick a side they don't like eachother and it's the only way you're getting a gang together to sack the keep...) The keep of course becomes an outpost of some entirely typical human empire - a penal colony being built by coffels of chained slaves who have the most mournful songs and lorded over by sadistic and well equipped soldiers.

    What does the campaign become at that point? Has anyone run such a magnificent beast? The PCs bandits and wolfsheads in human society striking out into the wilderness with a mess of loot and maybe a tribe of humanoids to back them? The Church o' Chaos thier enemy as the PCs are the only force remaining in the Borderlands that won't join, the legions of the Center marching out to retake the ruined Keep as it writhes in a bacchanal of freedom.

    How does that work? I mean we could all write this up - but has anyone?

    1. @ Gus:

      It's tough when the guy who wants to run it this way and the guy who wants to play it this way is the same guy (me, for example).

      Some DMs aren't willing or able to roll with this kind of anarchy in their campaign world...and not every player has the mind of a miscreant. Players being the contrary bastards they are, even if the DM gave them a set-up to sack the Keep (they're evil overlords!) they'd probably find a way to avoid what you (the DM) wants them to do.

      Might work, though, to run such a scenario at a convention...the "Sack the Keep!" game for six to nine players. Give 'em pre-gens and see what kind of guerrilla forces they could build up from bandits, lizard folk, and goblins willing to deal for a cut of the action. Sounds like a good time to me.
      ; )

  3. Funnily enough, since I'm only using the Caves section of the module in my West Marches game at the moment, I was considering using the Keep as another location dungeon. Just give the residents some less savory motives (and maybe switch a few humans for some monsters) and see what my players do with it if/when they encounter it.

  4. First, you sack the caves, exchanging the coin for gems, as you take your time handling one section apiece. Depending on your level, this takes some time. AFTER you've sacked the caves, THEN you sack the keep, expecting that you'll get the money from the caves all over again.

    'Course, a nasty DM will say all that money was shifted out, but the DM I had at the time didn't.

  5. That's interesting how the wealth distribution drives an implied morality. That's not something I've ever noticed, though most of the modules I own are either 1st edition or OSR. I didn't buy many 2nd edition and beyond modules.

    Though I have noticed that the 2nd edition modules I've looked at tend to gather treasure into fewer, larger hoards and not spread the wealth around. It felt more like rewards for boss fights than exploration.

    1. @ Tom:

      There is a decided lack of emphasis on treasure in 2E (and beyond) as the "gold for XP" mechanic was phased out of the game. Treasure matters a lot less when it isn't the main system for advancement.