Ten Ways to Make Treasure Cool
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  1. #1

    Ten Ways to Make Treasure Cool

    Every GM at some point is faced with the conundrum of coming up with new treasures. Yes, you could throw infinite piles of gems, gold, and jewelry at the party; but eventually itís just going to become routine. Hardly what you want for your magnificent treasure hoards of fabulous wealth. While going overboard with treasure is one option, making the treasure cool and unique is another.
    So how do you make gold coins cool? What do you replace them with? Why should you even bother? Thatís what this article is here for.


    The Pitfalls of Too Much Treasure

    A. The players donít really care when they find treasure.


    B. The players can buy anything.


    C. The solution to problems becomes ďCan I afford to hire/employ Ďxí to beat this?Ē


    The Pitfalls of Too Little Treasure
    A. It takes away a valuable motivator for adventure. Itís something like telling a guy to do a long and arduous job without pay. Itís also a convenient way to bribe and condition players to do things you want them to. A player who will run down a corridor lined with traps and monsters for a pouch of gold is likely to be unmotivated to do anything if the treasure is worthless or non-existent.


    B. Youíll need a valid replacement for the material reward of treasure. For example, if itís for a good cause, a background motivation, or the equivalent of money such as honors and privileges. Otherwise, most players will seek to gain money even if they arenít supposed to. You donít want your band of government spies scrounging money off of bad guys, you want the government to provide them reasonable amounts of Ďequipmentí in line with how well they perform in the field (and mooching money off bad guys would probably be considered bad form).


    C. The players, if not presented with a reasonable alternative goal, will end up creating their own. If the game still has levels, and they gain levels by killing things, a lack of treasure will likely generate a Ďkill everythingí mentality which can really play havoc with your game. Their motivation will switch from greed, to power-mongering by death dealing which probably wonít fit too well with your cool story-line. Using B. effectively itís probably possible to train them to be true and noble heroes just for the sake of it in the long run which would be pretty cool. In the meantime, thereís always treasure.


    Making Treasure Interesting

    1. Magic: Thereís almost nothing which beats a cool magic item to add to your character sheet. However, handing out infinite magical treasures can quickly ruin your game if not handled correctly. Several strategies exist to remedy this: 1. cursed magic items, 2. extremely weak magic items, 3. GM created weird magic items, and 4. normal items with odd minor magical abilities like coins which glow in the dark and can be used to distract monsters or navigate mazes.


    2. Story: When you create a unique item(s) with a story you double your benefits. Not only is the treasure valuable, but it can also be used as a mystery, an adventure hook, or as a record of past campaign history. If you keep the value of the item hidden, the players must hunt down a historian or similar and listen to the whole tale just to figure out how much money they actually have. If multiple groups want the item(s) or only one person will pay the true value, the quest to sell the items can be an adventure unto itself.


    3. Junk: Very handy for not unbalancing the game, random junk can be nifty to hand out to players. The teeth of giant monsters, acid blood, horns, loin-cloths, etc. These baubles can amuse the players while not giving them insane amounts of wealth.


    4. Historically Intrinsic Wealth: Using valuable items with intrinsic historical value is a tried and tested method of pleasing the players. While 1,000 credits might be good or bad, having a pile of 24 karat gold is pretty awesome all the time. Depending on the era, one dollar might make you rich or ridiculously poor. Lugging around diamonds, platinum, and 1,000 bars of titanium almost always makes you rich.
    5. Useful Equipment: While wealth is cool, most players secretly know it does squat unless they can use it to buy something cool. Items they can immediately put to good use always make for cool treasures. Weapons, armors, tools, and gear can all be valuable additions to a character so long as theyíre better than those normally available. Simply gaining a more powerful axe than anyone else can buy can be a great benefit.


    6. Visual Representation: Having pictures of what the players find can be time-consuming, but makes the treasures more real and quantifiable. Also, simply describing the treasure really well complete with markings, brilliance, lustre, and craftsmanship can go a long way to adding a real feel to the treasure they find.


    7. Weird Treasure: Who says all treasure must be instantly recognizable as valuable or junk? Weird slimes, alchemical substances, art, stones, forms of magic, monster tentacles, and more can all be treasures which arenít so obvious. These treasures may have a hidden use, only be valuable when mixed with something else, or be complete junk but not obviously so. If you want to encourage the players to poke around everywhere for money; use weird treasures.


    8. Non-Material Wealth: While money can be cool, donít forget that not all treasure is even material! Fans, fame, notoriety, followers, castles, strongholds, mounts, cattle, livestock, grain, land, property, respect, and more can all make great treasures. There are few players who donít appreciate a little fame and hero-worship.


    9. Power: Money, at a basic level, represents the power to do stuff. If you take money out of the equation and just give them the power to do stuff, youíre really still giving them treasure. Loyal servants, free food, free room and board, a personal navy/army, knighthood, privileges, high status, and whatever can all be just as good as wealth. While your knight might be broke, the respect and authority he commands could be equal to boatloads of gold. The same applies if you somehow become a prince or king. The very essence of your high position can be worth much more than mere gold.


    10. Non-existent Treasure: Who says you really need treasure in you game? Yes, itís cool. Yes, players love it. Yes, you can buy a mansion with it. Do you really need it? No. Iím not saying ditch all treasure rewards in your game, just to remember that the best rewards arenít necessarily material ones. Defeating a legendary foe, saving the world, rescuing princesses, and navigating huge dungeons can all be rewards unto themselves with or without money thrown in to boot.

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  2. #2
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    Although I understand your points, in experience I've found that some of this can be a bit problematic.

    The DM goes out of his way to craft these cool (and sometimes mundane) items and rewards, and the players often write them down on their character sheets and mostly forget about them.

    D&D is often a social event where some or even many of the players at any given table are not necessarily as deeply ingrained in a DM's world as the DM is. The important elements of a campaign to many players are the villains, the details of the current mission, etc. The story becomes important, but a bunch of strange or unusual details just bogs the game down into turning over every rock to try to understand those details.

    Minutia like weak magic items, junk, alchemical substances often fall by the wayside in the minds of the players. Even in a once per week game, too much time has often gone by for players to remember that a month ago, the DM handed out a coin that glows like a candle. Maybe they remember, maybe they don't, even if it is written down on someone's character sheet. The same type of problem can occur if the DM introduces too many NPCs.

    For many players, the important aspect of magical items are their mechanical abilities. Histories are all nice and well, but unless the DM hands out a write up on the history of a given item, then all but the basics of it quickly gets forgotten. If the DM does hand out a write up, then it is just one more note card or sheet of paper in the player's stack of stuff for his PC that he has to keep track of.

    Not that a little of what you suggest cannot be good for a campaign, I have just found in my experience that the more of this type of thing that gets introduced, the more the game bogs down with flavorful, but unimportant details. Magic item balance is really difficult, but having the players not really care when they find magic items is sometime better than them having to separate the wheat from the chaff in order to determine what is actually important to them. At least in the first case, their expectations might be met.

    As two examples of where this can be a little problematic:

    1) A DM can put a tapestry into a dungeon and describe the awesome fight scene on it. After listening to this, many players might just have their PCs roll up the tapestry and take it back to town, hoping to get cold, hard, cash for it. If the DM intervenes about the history of this tapestry, suddenly, the PCs change their plan (because the players now suspect that the tapestry is somehow important to the story). The very introduction of a history on the tapestry railroads the players a bit on their PC's actions. Not necessarily intentionally on the part of the DM, but it can happen nonetheless.


    2) Another aspect of having a plethora of "non-standard" rewards or useful equipment is that the DM sometimes revolves some aspect of the game around what he handed out or introduced, thinking that he added in a cool option, but the players might not see it. For example:

    DM after the fight: "Didn't any of you remember that there was a barrel of salt 3 rooms back? You could have much more easily taken out the Giant Slug."
    Player 1: "Yeah, silly us."


    All in all, although the ideas you listed can be fun, a DM should use them a bit sparingly. He can introduce a few of them instead of normal magic items and see how it goes. But, if the game starts bogging down on the PCs investigating mundane details, or focusing on thinking that a given item is overly special because of a cool picture that the DM showed on that item, then the DM should consider limiting how much he interweaves the mundane rewards with the magical ones.

    If it works out, then great. If not, the DM can back off.


    Note: Some DMs want most of the story to be heavily driven by the players. If the players start focusing on the "Washbasin of Cleanliness", the DM (or even a player) responds by adding in a story act on the fly about how it can be used to clean out undead. Other DMs want the world to be fairly consistent and not add on the fly strange elements driven by the players. In a campaign where the players just wing it and start introducing story arcs and game elements, then more of your ideas above can be introduced because the players might actually be looking for these types of hooks to hang their hats on. In a campaign that the DM lays out a lot of the story details ahead of time, maybe not as much in order to avoid going down dead ends.

    PS. Never just allow players to "buy anything magical" and some of the indifference to magic items due to other monetary solutions goes away because the DM decides exactly what magical items the players might acquire.
    Last edited by KarinsDad; Monday, 19th November, 2012 at 05:19 PM.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by KarinsDad View Post
    PS. Never just allow players to "buy anything magical" and some of the indifference to magic items due to other monetary solutions goes away because the DM decides exactly what magical items the players might acquire.
    I think the opposite; if you don't allow magic items to be purchasable, money becomes useless. Because 99% of what is listed as purchasable is magical items. There's very little detail put into what else you can buy (and by 5th level, you can buy pretty much anything that has been listed). The economy in D&D exists purely for magical item purchasing*.

    I mean even if there exists listed prices for say, a keep, that means "Congrats you own a keep". But there's no mention of what you need to pay in upkeep, staff it, or to improve it, etc etc.

    *Well, this started with 3e. In earlier editions, gold = xp. I understand 2e had a lot of discussion about keeps and the like. But 3e expected you to buy items, and didn't give much detail about alternatives.

  4. #4
    Still a cool article, even if I agree with post #2.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rechan View Post
    I think the opposite; if you don't allow magic items to be purchasable, money becomes useless. Because 99% of what is listed as purchasable is magical items.
    I probably should have qualified my statement there. I don't mind PCs buying consumable magic such as potions.

    I don't prefer a DM to just allow PCs to purchase non-consumable magic items as if they were going to WalMart. If a given NPC can craft such an item, then it should require a quest for the PCs to get the proper materials (not just residuum as per 4E), and the NPC time to doing the crafting (as in game weeks or months, not hours).

    That way, purchasing a magical item cannot be a solution to a given problem. Yes, a given player can get that Portable Hole for his PC, but it takes quite a while to accomplish this.

    As for not having anything to spend money on, there's potions, scrolls (4E and pre-4E styles), rituals, ritual components, etc. Let alone horses, ships, keeps, bribes, charities, etc. PCs can also spend money on crafting their own items, but if the DM limits that to common items (shy of a quest or whatever), then it still basically avoids the issue of purchasing items being a solution to the problem du jour. Most common items are not that powerful or utilitarian. I prefer PCs to craft items as opposed to purchasing them anyway.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by greyhaze View Post
    Still a cool article, even if I agree with post #2.
    Its a good article, though I kinda agree with KD. (I don't agree with Rechan...but thats ok).

    Stuff can be forgotten on sheets. Thats ok. Even in the moment, the find can be amusing in play, which is what counts.

    Some of the stuff above won't be forgotten, and I think the point is to have more impact through a wider range of rewards. Yet another +x item can be forgotten, being a knight won't be.

    There is diminishing returns to all this...but who says otherwise? Through time characters may have 4-8 key "rewards" that are not forgotten...notable magic items, things related to status, one or two key pieces of equipment, trophies, properties or other notable non stat items. Let everything else be consumable, ephemeral or forgettable.

  7. #7
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    I'd rather have strange / unusual / useless in combat magic items instead of Generic Sword +1. You can always scale combat situations up and down to fit the party anyway; that's not hard to do. Party has a bunch of cool pew pew toys? Add more bad guys or make them tougher. The game hasn't really changed at all, you're just looking at bigger numbers against other bigger numbers.

    What a Generic Sword +1 has a problem doing is help to tell a good story.

    There's a recent thread that asked people for their weird magic items. Nearly all of them have no direct combat benefit, but they could be used to trick someone, find out information, or maybe they're just good for a laugh or too - and that's okay.

    And, you never know when Tucker Blackfeather's Bottomless Bag of Birdseed might actually be useful. Or a sunflower that tells you "Good Morning!" whenever the sun peeks over the horizon. What about a mug that heats its contents to a nice, hot-tea temperature?

    When players are in a difficult situation you WILL be surprised at how a magic item can be "creatively applied" in ways you and the players themselves never expected. That's fun. Fun you can't get with Generic Sword +1.

    YMMV, in general you want to give stuff out that makes your players happy, but tossing in something off the wall from time to time can't hurt.

    I agree with some of the thoughts above that, for many players, history isn't all that important to magic items. I like to run low-magic games where every permanent magical item has some kind of history, and I find that a few sentences is more than ample. If the players want to embellish further, that's great!

    it can be fun to have the players find an item but its history is lost or unknown - and then they later learn, perhaps, that it was used by some nasty big bad of old. Then they might not want to use it anymore...

    You know you have a cool group when someone says, "I know that this would help me in a fight, but I don't know if I feel comfortable using this sword. It was owned by Gut Ripper, the legendary orcish barbarian that marched his army through the empire, murdering and torturing all that stood against him... He even kicked puppies and gave mean looks to kittens. Maybe a museum would be interested..." And they give it to someone for safe keeping (without expectation of compensation), or they try to destroy it, or (unwisely) just leave it where it is.

    Something I enjoyed about the 2e D&D rules is that it assumed a certain percentage of magical items were intelligent. Not specifically because of the intelligence portion, but because it helped evoke the idea that a Generic Sword +1 is something more than a Generic Sword +1.

    Something else that I picked up from (I think) the Fear The Boot podcast (might have been HappyJacks) are magic items that are given to the players, but even the DM doesn't really know what they're for.

    "What's this do?"
    "I don't know actually, but when it seems appropriate we can figure it out."

    So at some time later in the campaign, the vial of water given to the players was used to purify a spring or something like that, or maybe cure poison. I forget exactly, but an ambiguous item can be helpful sometimes too.
    XP Psikerlord# gave XP for this post

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Challenger RPG View Post
    6. Visual Representation: Having pictures of what the players find can be time-consuming, but makes the treasures more real and quantifiable. Also, simply describing the treasure really well complete with markings, brilliance, lustre, and craftsmanship can go a long way to adding a real feel to the treasure they find.
    Great article!

    I would add physical representation too, with the obvious loud and shiny disclaimer that that is what Campaign Coins does; but Andre started the business entirely because he wanted to add real currency to his campaign.

    Using any physical coin system (our coins, other manufacturers, foreign currency, craft store finds) adds a real element to the economy. In my game I find that the players feel really rewarded, and also more inclined to count their money and think about what they can buy with it.

    Mind you, it does cause near-fist fights among the nephews when they play, so there are downsides!

    Cheers,

    Mark

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rechan View Post
    I think the opposite; if you don't allow magic items to be purchasable, money becomes useless. Because 99% of what is listed as purchasable is magical items. There's very little detail put into what else you can buy (and by 5th level, you can buy pretty much anything that has been listed). The economy in D&D exists purely for magical item purchasing*.

    I mean even if there exists listed prices for say, a keep, that means "Congrats you own a keep". But there's no mention of what you need to pay in upkeep, staff it, or to improve it, etc etc.

    *Well, this started with 3e. In earlier editions, gold = xp. I understand 2e had a lot of discussion about keeps and the like. But 3e expected you to buy items, and didn't give much detail about alternatives.

    In 4th edition, or to some extent core 3e, this may be true- but in part, that's why I don't play either one (when I do play 3e/pathfinder, it's with a lot of options). But "don't let them 'buy anything magical'" doesn't mean "don't let them buy anything magical", it simply means that they can't page through the DMG and pick everything they want. I always make a selection of magic items that will be available at any given town, from various vendors, and they have to do legwork to find them. When they make characters above 1st level, they get a selection of items they can pick from based on their background, and if they want anything else, they have to have the appropriate item creation feats.

    I've noticed that players never seem to have any shortage of things to spend their money on in my games, though, even if magic is slightly (but far from totally- I actually like letting players shop for magic items, but using a market/dealer approach lets me put them in a position to consider items that they probably wouldn't otherwise; rather than going for the obvious, they start to think, how could I use this?) curtailed. They spend money on -

    -houses
    -businesses
    -armies
    -fortresses
    -mounts
    -ships
    -"crazy projects"
    -and anything else you can imagine

    That, and they also sometimes give up money to their order/liege/guild/master... I record the money given, and find in-game ways to "compensate" them (often by receiving cash-equivalent goods or services). I also tend to re-balance characters that don't have enough equivalent gold-per-level by letting them develop new innate abilities, one-time boons, skill bonuses, bonus feats, etc.

    The economy can go way beyond magic items, if you let it.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Morrison View Post
    I would add physical representation too, with the obvious loud and shiny disclaimer that that is what Campaign Coins does; but Andre started the business entirely because he wanted to add real currency to his campaign.

    Using any physical coin system (our coins, other manufacturers, foreign currency, craft store finds) adds a real element to the economy. In my game I find that the players feel really rewarded, and also more inclined to count their money and think about what they can buy with it.
    I started doing this over 10 years ago and it has worked out well.

    It slows up the game a bit when people stop to count their coins, but we had 4 denominations: 1 GP coin, 10 GP coin (i.e. it represented 10 actual coins, but it was a single larger gold coin than the 1 GP coin), 1 PP coin, and 10 PP coin (same concept as 10 GP coin). I had a different colored cloth bag for each PC and one for the party fund. As DM, I went into the bags once in a while out of game and converted lower denominations into higher denominations, just to make counting faster in game.

    It also has the advantage of making fewer math mistakes. When the DM hands out physical coins, it's harder for them to multiple somehow.

    And for a rat bastard DM, it allows those town thieves to pick pocket the PCs and if successful, coins are just missing one session.

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