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. Sometimes...as 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 services...money 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 money...as a means to survival...is 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 survival
...one 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.