When you write for a blog that emerged from the old Treasure Tables, you tend to be the sort that takes an old school approach to stocking dungeons. 

Draw a map. Add monsters. Add dressing. Then last, add the treasure based on random results rolled from homemade d100 tables tucked away in a game master’s folder that you made for just that purpose.

As an exercise, it might prove fruitful if a GM turned that process on its head. Take a look at your gaming group, assess the needs and wants of your players’ characters, and design an adventure with the treasure first.

For instance, let’s assume a standard party: fighter, mage, priest and thief. With those PCs in mind, I thumbed through some D&D Third Edition references for some magical treasures that would be a proper reward for each one. (This works even if your game uses a different system; I used these references because they were handy and had generic descriptions that can be adapted to your game system of choice; I’ve omitted the items’ game mechanics for this reason).

Here’s what I came up with:

Fighter: Desert’s Heart, a magic flaming falchion, a deep red blade that deals flame damage and makes the user immune to fire damage but causes damage if the user is a creature of cold and leaves the user vulnerable to cold attacks. (Arms and Equipment Guide, p. 104, March 2003, Wizards of the Coast).

Mage: Rings of force, pair of black iron rings that must be worn as a set and without any other magic items on fingers or hands. Acts as a mage armor spell and deals same damage when physically touched. (Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, p. 154, 2001, Wotc).

Priest: Battle rod, a three-foot adamantine rod that acts as a magical mace, provides a morale boost to allies within thirty feet and can deliver messages as whispering wind within the vicinity. (Defenders of the Faith, p. 25, May 2001, Wotc).

Thief: Barricade buckler, a magical buckler that with a command word transforms into a tower shield; the command word also returns it to its buckler form. (Song and Silence, p. 55, Dec. 2001, Wotc).

Now we design the encounters those treasures will be found.

Fighter: Jinn stronghold. Walls smooth as glass, this room is guarded by fire elementals loyal to an ifrit (efreeti) who protect a sacred treasure, the Desert’s Heart blade. Perhaps the blade itself is guarded by a champion, who is willing to engage a PC to single combat with the blade as a prize.

Mage: Wizard’s laboratory. Hidden among the scrolls, books and chemical apparatus of this place is a small wood box containing the rings. The box itself is warded with a magical trap, such as burning hands. Beware, a phase spider lurks in the dark recesses of the lab, guarding the wizard’s most precious items.

Priest: Crypt of the Church Mothers. The rod is set into the facing of a decorative shield that hangs above an altar. The shield is warded against evil. The crypt’s celestial guardians, aasimar and hound archon, won’t let just anyone take the rod. The PCs must prove their valor and skill at arms as well as their devotion to all that is holy.

Thief: Hidden stash. This narrow recess holds the buckler among trade goods, including some that have spoiled, the stash of an earlier roguish adventurer long since dead or chased away. This rogue did set traps of tripwires and acid. Unfortunately, the whole area is overrun by bugbears, but they are unaware of the hidden goods.

With that rough outline a GM can draw up a dungeon map and place these encounters within. It’s the kind of session that will likely please many players: There are combat opportunities aplenty and the treasures you’ve picked are certain to please.

But to be on the safe side, be sure to include a small chest of coins or gems — adequately defended, of course — somewhere along the line. They just might be in the mood for a little spending money too.


About  Troy E. Taylor

Troy's happiest when up to his elbows in plaster molds and craft paint, creating terrain and detailing minis for his home game. A career journalist and Werecabbages freelancer, he also claims mastery of his kettle grill, from which he serves up pizza to his wife and three children.

5 Responses to Troy’s Crock Pot: Treasure first

  1. That’s a great approach for building adventures around a known item. I wouldn’t recommend it for every adventure, though, because outside of the few cases where you really do want to start with a specific treasure and build everything else around it, it can be like the tail wagging the dog.

    My usual approach to designing adventures includes treasure as part of the story, not just something diced at random after the monster’s dead. I’ve written before about how I always ask questions in my design: Why is this dungeon or building here? Why is/are these monsters in it? What do they do? Whom do they interact with? How?

    When you answer these questions in your design, appropriate treasures almost write themselves. E.g., “Phase spiders normally don’t have treasure or care about it, but they are guarding a magic item for a wizard.” Or, “This Bugbear clan has been successful raiding merchant caravans so they have a pretty good stash of trade goods plus some coin, as well as a few magic items they’ve looted from adventurers they’ve defeated.”

    You can combine this story telling approach the item-first approach described above. “One of the items in the Bugbears’ stash is a pair of rings of force from a mage they overwhelmed. The clan chief wears them proudly. In fact, having those rings enabled him to attain this status in the violent Bugbear hierarchy.”

  2. This is food for thought– thanks! I admit that I’ve never understood the value of randomly generated dungeons or monsters or treasure. Like Blackjack said, working out the logic, ecology, and the backstory of the different monsters, and figuring out what treasure they might have, is a big part of the joy of writing adventures. But I like the idea of each player having the opportunity to acquire a personalized reward– especially as a result of smart play– and especially if it opens up more options for roleplaying and for solving problems. I like that some of your example treasures had both advantages and disadvantages and quirks. Much more interesting than Sword +1!

    • I have always done the same, and avoided randomness. But lately I have been contemplating the opposite. Generating level-appropriate treasures, making up random encounter tables for every EL and every terrain, using dice to determine things like weather and chances of getting lost…all that stuff.

      I guess I just realized how much fun it might be to not know what would happen next. I usually have every detail worked out. But that can be exhausting and lead to burning out. At a certain point, I am just waiting for a campaign to end because I already know so much ahead of time.

      Having and using such tables won’t reduce the DM’s responsibility to storytelling, as I see it. They’ll act as catalysts for more adventure. When a randomly generated orc is defeated and questioned: “why are you so close to Castle Still pool?” the DM should make something up, not shrug and say it was random. If the orc admits he was looking to capture slaves, the players can now look into that. The DM now knows that future random encounters with orcs will involve slave trade. When the random table comes up with “halflings” it won’t be lame; these guys just escaped with their lives.

      Done like this, the random encounters really work to make the world an interesting place. Creative explanations for why an encounter happens is fun. Remember that not every roll means that the beast jumps out of the bushes. An “encounter” can start with seeing tracks and deciding what to do about them. An encounter can be all about avoiding the dragon flying around overhead, especially if time, resources, and effort is spent.

      BTW: not every encounter on a random encounter table has to be random. Have the PCs hired to track a thief and recover some loot. Create 24 encounters that make sense to the area and put them on a table, with the thief as #25. Then roll 1d20 for encounters, adding a +1 to the roll every time. Custom encounter tables trump generic ones, always.

  3. I strongly tend to build things backward.

    Decide what reward the PCs will stand to gain (treasure and xp); generate that first.
    Design an encounter appropriate to that reward.
    Place the encounter on a random table appropriate to the area/adventure.

    It works much better that way, because tacking a treasure on afterwards never seems quite right. I always feel “why would this monster be caring this?” anxiety. Having the reward worked out beforehand sets a bar helpful in keeping encounters balanced.

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