This is part two of a two part article. The first part, focused on non-magical treasure, can be found here. Part two is focused mostly on magic treasure.
As discussed in part one, treasure is supposed to be an exciting part of most games, but it often boils down to “How many gp worth? Got it. Great!” or surreal laundry lists of items. This is the second set of seven tips to help make treasure a more exciting part of your campaign.
Treasure as Clues:
Treasure details can be used as clues to aspects of your campaign world you want your players to discover. To highlight the fact that a demon invasion eradicated a lost civilization, you might include a number of weapons that are especially effective against demons in treasure caches found in it’s ruins. Similarly, finding a shield engraved with elven runes, even if it’s just a normal shield, is a clue that the lost elven necropolis is somewhere nearby. Treasure hand outs, more than any other time, your players are paying attention. Take advantage of it.
Similar to “Counting it Later” from part one, you can deduct a portion of the treasure the characters would have gathered in their adventure, and give it to them later as a quest reward. Since this is being given to them by a patron, it can come in any form imaginable, from a simple gold payment, to a magic item, a land deed, or even a herd of goats. Whatever’s appropriate to the patron in question is fine. Much like “Really Different Currencies” from part one, it’s up to the players to find out how to make best use of any strange reward they receive.
Handing out treasure on index cards can help reduce the bookkeeping involved with recording treasure, and allows you to impart as much or as little information as you see fit. If your want to keep some details about a particular item hidden, just make a note on the card you hand to the players including the session it was given to them and a unique identifier, allowing you to look up the rest of the information at a later date.
Names, History, and Legends for Magic Items:
Back when Carter was in office, magic items were unique and named and felt special. While you could technically find a magic sword +1, players were encouraged to discover the properties of these items through experimentation instead of being told outright or using spells. This meant that even if your treasure was just a magic sword +1, it was still “The sword we took from the Hobgoblin Chief” or “The Mace of the Black Knight” which is a great deal more interesting to have on your character sheet than “short sword +1 fiery burst”. When you hand out treasure, even if you also reveal it’s nature and properties, make sure to refer to it with a name or history first. Using this in reverse order, you can reveal the name or history before the item itself by adding magic items when the characters hear legends or stories. Change “Sir Rolf, who saved the kingdom from Manfred the Lich Lord” to “Sir Rolf, who saved the kingdom by splitting Manfred the Lich Lord in twain with his holy blade, Angel’s Edge” Where these weapons of legend lay, or if the characters ever find them is completely up to you, but setting up a legend ahead of time means that if and when they do find the magic sword, it will be “Angel’s Edge, the holy sword of Sir Rolf” not “Long Sword, +2, Holy”.
In your campaign, magic might all be rigid and codified, but it doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to. Fiction and folklore are full of magic that occurs spontaneously from the will of greater beings, or exposure to great sources of magic. It all depends on the way you want to portray magic in your campaign. If one of your players states that his character prays for success in an upcoming endeavor, it’s completely within the realm of possibility to decide that their deity hears their prayers and imbues one of their items with magic power. This might be an obvious event, or they might be completely unaware of the change until much later. Maybe a shield used to block the fiery breath of an ancient and powerful dragon absorbs some of the great beast’s inner fire and remains warm forever after, providing protection against the cold. To keep this kind of spontaneous magic in check, it’s easy enough to simply remove a like amount of treasure from an upcoming challenge.
If your group is able to craft their own items, handing them a portion of their treasure in the form of a material ideal for crafting items can provide them with a jumping off point for inspiration. The heartwood of an ancient treant might be an ideal material for the shaft of a spear, a wizard staff, a wand, or anything else that seems appropriate. On the other hand, if they choose to fashion it into the haft of an axe or a wand of fire, they may find themselves haunted by the angry nature spirit.
Changing the appearance of your treasures is an excellent way to not only add flair to your treasure, but highlight different aspects of your campaign. This is most easily done with single use items like potions or scrolls. Changing a potion to a magic rune that must be thrown to the ground, or a scroll to a preserved giant frog’s egg the wizard must hold to his brow to absorb the knowledge of the spell from the mummified tadpole’s mind, alters nothing mechanically, but helps these items stand out from the norm, and helps inform the players about the beings that made them.
The comment thread on part one is already full of good ideas, and no doubt there will be lots of contributions here too, so if you’ve got a great tip for making treasure come alive, share it with the rest of us!