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Seven ways to Spice up Your Treasure

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On July 14, 2010 @ 2:59 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 12 Comments

501595_55750409 The post-combat treasure handout can be the most electric and exciting moment in a lot of RPGs, especially traditional dungeon crawl oriented campaigns, but it has one fatal flaw:  the nature of the treasure itself. All too often, treasure is codified and organized in a way that destroys a GMs carefully crafted sense of wonder and immersion. Instead, players are given a laundry list of coins and items as if they were neatly packaged and stacked like cordwood. “5 short swords, 6 suits of chainmail, 50gp, 20sp, 80cp, and a long sword engraved with runes.” Hmmm…. Wonder what we should try casting detect magic on? And coins always in groups of ten? Are these bad guys carrying their change in roll form? Of course, there’s a reason for this efficient treasure distribution. Earlier RPGs may have confused tedious record keeping with realism or immersion, but that concept was put out to pasture long ago, and treasure was made simple and easy to deal with. Unfortunately, this also made the process about as exciting as a trip to the dentist, relying on the treasure itself for the excitement. Then, in a remarkable step forwards for mechanics, treasure was broken down into components to be reassembled from tables. This had the effect of expanding the available magic item pool from dozens of unique items to millions of combinations, but it also turned magical items from special legendary items to mass produced cookie cutter garbage. True, handing out treasure is never a bad thing per se, but there are ways to make it better, not all of which involve stepping up the amount of work you have to pour into treasure generation.

Since there are as many ways to spice up your treasure as there are types of treasure, this is a two-part article. Part one is focused on non-magical treasure, while part two is mostly focused on magic treasure.

Random values:
You’ve already heard the “coins in groups of ten” joke, so we’ll give it a pass here, but the fix for this is fairly simple. If your system uses set coin bundles, a die roll added or subtracted to the amount will give it a more random appearance. As long as the die rolls are random and subtract as often as they add, it won’t affect your long term treasure allocation at all. If you’ve got a calculator handy, adding/subtracting a percent instead of a set value will work even better, as it scales with the magnitude of treasure.

Trade Goods:
I don’t know about you, but when I’m on the players’ side of the screen, many of my characters are compulsive hoarders. Inkwell and quill? I’ll take it. One dirty orc shoe? Mine. Fine mahogany paneling? There’s a reason I have “exotic weapon proficiency: crowbar” and “craft: carpentry” on my character sheet. For the record, this is the reason that bags of holding have become increasingly scarce when I play. There are two lessons I learned from this. One: most other players find it annoying when you hold up the game for an hour figuring out how to pry the gold symbols out of the glazed flooring with only a stone sarcophagus and some bottles of acid as tools. (give me a shout out if you remember this one guys!)
Two: scattering mundane items in treasure to add flavor can be a lot of fun.
Adding misc trade goods to treasure hauls adds some flavor and spice while not being too difficult. Just grab some appropriate items off of a price list and then remove their value from the treasure horde. If they’re only going to sell for a fraction of list price, only deduct that amount, and you won’t have impacted value at all.

If these first two options sound good to you, and you happen to run a 3rd or 4th edition DnD game, you’ll want to check out the treasure generators (and the many other very helpful programs) at donjon.bin.sh. The 4e generator is still a work in progress, but if it ends up half as good as the 3e generator, it’ll be the best one I’ve seen yet.

Description, Description, Description:
Regardless of what else you do to spice up treasure, nothing is as effective as good descriptions. It’s worth investing time in some description for treasure. Ask yourself questions like “Are there any particular sensory traits linked to this treasure? Does it have a smell, make a noise? Is there anything unusual or notable about it? Where do the characters find it? Is it in a container, hidden somewhere nearby, or do they scavenge it from the bodies of the dead?” and work the answers into your descriptions. Just a few extra details can make the difference between a well visualized treasure and another laundry list.

Different Currencies:
A lot of games assume that all cities and races in their games use the same currency. For simplicity’s sake, even if you introduce different currencies, the biggest ones will probably be value equivalent, so a gold hawk is equal in value to the neighboring kingdom’s golden swords, but notable exceptions can be exciting. Currencies that are rare, of uncertain value, old, or of notable value can be a fun find in a pile of treasure. To save headaches, you probably don’t want to mix a lot of non-equivalent coins into one horde, or the bookkeeping will give your players an aneurism, but “a pile of mixed coins composed mostly of hawks and swords, with a few heavy sunwheels at the bottom, green with age” is a cool find.

Really Different Currencies:
Also keep in mind, that some races or cultures might not even value the same materials as everyone else. The nearby orc tribes might use the knucklebones of defeated foes as a currency, while the decadent elven society hidden away in the mountains might use dried ingots of crushed flowers that can be milled into a magical drug. These sorts of special alternate currencies carry the same weight as other alternatives but also help outline the cultures of your campaign, and also introduce new concerns. Gold is gold, but how much gold is an orcish knucklebone bead worth, and who do the PCs need to find to exchange the two?

Trade Goods Part Deux:
If you like the ideas of trade goods, but don’t like the annoying bookkeeping aspect of stopping for your players to write down every little piece of trash they find, consider using trade goods as an alternate currency.  By setting a standardized value per weight for trade goods, used equipment, and other common bartering units, treasures of these types can be described as before, but noted by a simple numeric weight. Thus, “Searching the abandoned storeroom, you find a few skins of vinegary wine, some rusty iron goods, and a wheel of cheese that’s still good under a forest of mold.” can be followed up with “All together it’s about 23 pounds of trade goods”. Foes’ equipment can be handled similarly with the same or it’s own set of units.

Count it Later:
Ask yourself if you were in a dungeon corridor with only the feeble light of a torch holding back the ominous gloom that likely conceals more horrors like the one you just franticly fought, would you stop to take stock of exactly how many pieces of gold are in the bloodstained sack you just picked up, or would you stuff it in your backpack and get a move on before whatever you might have attracted with the noise of your fight shows up? Can’t say I blame you. I’d haul ass too, and most likely, so would your character. So why do we as players insist on a painstaking and careful accounting down to the last penny each time our characters find something? Instead, try telling the players they found “a bag of coins” or “a heavy sack full of mostly silver coins”. If they want to sit and play accountant, verify that’s really what they want to do, then let them do it. And while they’re busy counting, make a wandering monster check. Don’t be shy about it, or lie if the players ask. Any idiot would know that stopping to count loot mid-run is asking for trouble. After getting jumped while they’re trying to do double entry bookkeeping a few times, they’re likely to do the sensible thing, and just wait till the run is over to count everything, meaning you can save all the treasure information for a single listing at the end of the session.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




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12 Comments To "Seven ways to Spice up Your Treasure"

#1 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On July 14, 2010 @ 3:48 am

You could take the “Count it Later” Concept one step further, only allowing characters that have the necessary skills (or class, profession etc. if your RPG of choice has no math skill) to be able to count the loot. It would bring the banking trade to the foreground, if Brezok the Barbarian will need to find someone to count his loot for him (for a fee of course) or make shopping more interesting (“We have this huge sack of Gold which is about half full. That’s enough for that dwarven armor over there?”).

#2 Comment By BrianLiberge On July 14, 2010 @ 7:15 am

I really like the idea of Count it Later. Its one of those things that seems so obvious after you read it. I’m going to start posing the questions to the PCs as to where and when they want to count stuff like that.

#3 Comment By DiscipleGeek On July 14, 2010 @ 7:52 am

One of the things I do that my players really seem to love is a Loot Card Deck. Basically I plan the loot for their next level out (which 4e makes super easy with its treasure parcels) and write them down on cards. This includes the coinage. Also included in this deck are blank cards about equal to the number of encounters/loot opportunities they will have. Then when they get to a point in the game where they want to search for treasure, each player takes turns drawing from the deck to represent the search. They draw until they encounter a blank card. If there are any special items that I want them to find at specific points, I leave them out, or rig the cards to make sure they draw them at the right time.

#4 Comment By Razjah On July 14, 2010 @ 10:07 am

I feel really foolish for not thinking of Count it Later, it makes so much sense and works both players/characters are arguing about treasure the monsters are more likely to come investigate the noise.

I also like the different currencies. This can be great when the players realize the sack of gold coins from one nation is worth more in their nation, or less. Either way it can lead to fun moments realistically and mechanically.

Great article today!

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On July 14, 2010 @ 10:15 am

I like these– particularly as they are things I’ve struggled with before. It’s a little sad when you read off the treasure list and the players just nod, waiting until you gets to “worth X GP”. Like everyone above, I really like the “Count it Later”– particularly since the PCs mostly worry about what it can be converted into (cash value) anyway.

#6 Comment By drow On July 14, 2010 @ 11:04 am

i’d use “count it later”, except i have a habit of planting useful things in the treasure. the goblin warlord carries a tin ring set with three small rubies, not worth much, easily overlooked, but also happens to be a key to the temple room further in.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On July 14, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

I have a major problem with treasure division anyway. So many people these days want to put everything in a BoH and wait until they are back in town so that the monetary value of everything is equal for all. Never mind that the sword can only be used by the Paladin or that it is vital to defeating the dragon on level six.

This got so annoying during one game I played in I figured out a ruse. I would *buy* the treasures I wanted from the group at 100% cash value (to which they always greedily agreed), then I would get x% rebate on it when the treasure divvy was held hours later and I got an equal share of the loot. It made everything right in the world from then on.

The others, completely blindsided by the new guy at the table coming up with something they’d never heard of, never tumbled they were giving me a “buy it now” button with frequent spender rewards, and I didn’t have to go through danger without the item specifically designed to help my character survive or argue endlessly at the divvy about whether I should have whatever it was.

As for those ubiquitous Bags of Holding, were I to GM a dungeon crawl in which they were prevalent I’m damned sure the Orcs would have read the entry on them, including the *very* interesting details of how to damage one and what happens when you do.

Then there’s my BoH Killer treasure, using only DM Guide(1) available items. One in every dungeon until the Bags of Holding were a distant and fabulous memory, so they could become what they should have been all along: a rare and wond’rous treasure to be found in the deepest, darkest recesses of the Earth.

Bwa-ha-ha etc etc etc.

#8 Comment By Razjah On July 14, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

I don’t mind my players each having a bag of holding. One Iron Heroes campaign they brought a donkey pulling a cart to haul loot. The distractions of them having to get a cart and a donkey through various dangerous dungeons was too much. I’m okay with them being greedy little bastards. After even a couple levels selling everything the characters can grab, the mundane stuff sells for mere pennies compared to what the PCs need/want to buy. Which is when they normally stop hoarding everything that isn’t bolted down with sunder-proof bolts.

#9 Comment By drow On July 14, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

and okay, okay, i’m working on the 4e random treasure generator again. its just taking a while to abstract and rebuild all the appraisal code.

#10 Comment By Patrigan On July 15, 2010 @ 7:00 am

@drow: I would say, let them run back when they realize this. This is a realistic detail. You could also add in “wandering enemies”. A group coming back from outside patrol or something. It would also pose another challenge for the players, how to open the door.
Another solution is to let Warlord attempt to throw away the ring to “prevent” that the players can enter the inner sanctuary. This will get the players thinking about that ring.

#11 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-07-16 — Double Stacked Edition! On July 16, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

[…] Seven ways to Spice up Your Treasure Seven More ways to Spice up Your Treasure These two go together. I know that I’m going to take all 14 points that they brought up and incorporate them into the way I handle treasure. I was already doing some of these to a good extent and most of them to a minor extent, but the over effect of using all 14 tips will make things much better for my games. […]

#12 Pingback By More sandbox'ing advice of sorts. | Doomed to Reality On March 27, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

[…] but any special treasure considerations should be noted here. Check out previous articles “Seven Ways to Spice up your treasure” and it’s follow up “Seven more ways to spice up your treasure” for examples and […]


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