Alternative Ways for Awarding Treasure Besides Tomb Robbing?

Ondath

Adventurer
The topic I'm discussing only applies to a specific subset of TTRPGs: Namely, those with an item/wealth-based progression. D&D is the ur-example of course, what with dungeon delving and treasure seeking being the primary motivator in the early days of the game. I'm well aware that this isn't universal for TTRPGs, and that there are plenty of games where wealth and items are either abstracted, or are considered a fix part of your character that does not need to evolve even if the game has a different progression system (think the Resources background in WoD games. You can play a pretty rich character from the get-go or one that's scraping by, and the game doesn't assume you'll get more dots over time, though you're welcome if you want to). I'm interested solely in games where the assumption that your character will get richer/get cooler items over time is baked in.

When getting more money is an inherent part of the core gameplay loop, it leads to a lot of fun play opportunities. PCs have a nonmoral justification for going on adventures together. If the game offers things to spend your treasures on (which is something 5E fails to do), getting more treasure means having more character choices, and spending treasure becomes an alternate character progression system. And of course, players like for their PCs to have shiny things, so there's a deep psychological satisfaction in finding and taking that phat loot.

Having said that, in my experience with DMing, this wealth progression system leads to an interesting clash of play styles. The expectation that players will get progressively higher amounts of treasure seems to imply some game elements that don't entirely gel with contemporary play styles, namely, the fact that most treasure obtained in such games comes from robbing tombs or pillaging differently-coded folks. Don't get me wrong, I think a playstyle where the party goes after some inherently evil creatures and gets all the wealth & glory off of the adventure is perfectly valid. It leads to a Conan-esque story that is enjoyable in its own right. But if we look at the kind of stories that people try to replicate in modern TTRPGs (and most importantly D&D), Conan-esque sword & sorcery is on the way out. People play games where their characters are heroes who fight evil because it's the right thing to do, and in these cases pillaging your enemy's stronghold does not seem to gel with the tropes that you'd find in such a story. Aang doesn't pick the armour Fire Nation soldiers wear after combat, and the Avengers don't really get their wealth from their adventures.

Hence my question (3 paragraphs to get to the discussion prompt, I know...): If you run a heroic game in a TTRPG system with wealth progression, how do your players get treasure (and magic items etc.)? Do you just accept that in your universe the victor gets all the possessions of the defeated? Do your questgivers handle the majority of the rewards? Did you make item progression abstract in some other way? What are some ways you deviate from the typical tomb robbing/pillaging treasure collection TTRPGs usually assume?

This doesn't mean that it is impossible to have a wealth progression system in a heroic game, of course. Lots of GMs do so succesfully. Hell, I do it in my games all the time. It's just that the overthinking part of my brain dislikes the inherent opposition in these two play styles, and I'm trying to see if alternatives exist to "These guys are selfless heroes who take on morally justified quests, but the majority of their wealth and magic items comes from robbing tombs and taking the possessions of their enemies". Not that the style I just described is inherently bad, I'm just trying to see how we could move past it.
 

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Yora

Legend
My setting has plenty of abandoned sorcerer's towers, old demonic temples, and bandit camps.

Also, any bounty paid for recovering something from a dungeon is effectively the same as a treasure taken from a dungeon. You just have to exchange the head of the big monster for a sack of gold instead of taking the sack of gold from the dungeon.
 
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Ondath

Adventurer
My setting has plenty of abandoned sorcerer's towers, old demonic temples, and bandit camps.
I guess that deals with some of the moral qualms about finding loot, but I'd say it still falls under tomb robbing (getting stuff you don't own from abandoned places) or pillaging (getting the possessions of the defeated bandits/demonic cultists). One idea I had (as far as getting loot from ruins is concerned, at least) was following the law of salvage: In real life maritime law there is the rule that anyone who helps recover another person's ship or cargo is entitled to some compensation proportional to the value of the salvaged goods. Perhaps one way of going out of the paradigm of "adventurers going into places and claiming abandoned items as their own" would be there being a "law of adventurers" where people who venture into ruins are entitled to some compensation by the ruler of the land, which usually takes the form of the adventurers skimming a bit from the gold and magic items they found.
 

Reynard

Legend
I would say that heroes doing heroic things is at least perpendicular, if not opposed to, adventuring for wealth progression. Are the characters heroes or mercenaries?

But be that as it may, if wealth progression is important and you don't want your PCs to pillage the dead or loot cultural artifacts, just pay them. The Good King gives them magic items from the Royal Treasury, or the Mages Guild rewards them with enchanted gear for services rendered. Or just cold hard cash.

Another option is to structure wealth progression as active recovery of items formerly looted from the good guys, with an explicit indication that it is okay to use the stuff they find in service of recovering even more stolen artifacts. Maybe a dragon's hoard was looted, but the dragon was actually a good being protecting the Artifacts of the Realm. Now the PCs have to get it all back. or any number of other similar setups.

Finally, if the reason for wealth progression is baked into the game in such a way that it is necessary, maybe disconnect the bonuses/abilities from gear and call it boons from the gods or whatever. You don't et a +1 sword at 4th level, you get a magic aura that acts as a +1 magic tag for melee attacks.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
A friend of mine ran a 3e game (heavy on the psionics) in which he didn't give out treasure. The various adventures were missions the PCs were sent on and, rather than have them loot and pillage, they were kitted out with level-appropriate gear each mission. So they were continually able to change up what they were using from level to level, never worried about tracking loot and treasure value (and stealing from their opponents), and were always meeting the expectations of the system and its challenges.

Another option is to treat the loot as rewards given out by the people who are heroically aided/protected/saved by the PCs. "The City of Cheapham would like to recognize your heroism and bestow upon you a gift. We don't have much but we were able to find these winged boots once worn by Sir Long-gone, a hero of the city of years past..."
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
So rather than being freelance tombrobbers,

1 the PCs get paid bounties for doing jobs OR work as mercenaries for various Lords/Factions/Questgivers

2 the organisation load out is also possible - ie PCs work as specialist for an organisation and everytime they get sent on a mission they get supplied with a kit of gear (they can choose some bonus extras)

3 the PCs are merchants/pilgrims/villagers/troubadors NOT adventurers they are earning a living doing decent work but then get caught up in some hijinks

4 the City builder game - PCs are given undeveloped land in the Marches and commissioned to clear it out and develop it. Thats the whole premise of the sandbox…
 

Mezuka

Hero
Grand-parents of some characters have hidden magical items they acquired when they were young. The PCs earned them after helping save the village. There are many possible variations of this.
 
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Mezuka

Hero
Progressive magical items. Some items sense the PC has acquired more experience and unlocks a new power. What appears like a puny wand of magic missiles can become a mighty object.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
In one of my D&D settings, the King realised how much treasure there is within his kingdom in old dungeons and monster hordes, that he declared it all Property of the Crown. Adventurers get a "finder's fee" for gathering and turning it in.

It's not any more moral, but it does come approved by the law of the land. And it gives Players the quandary of keeping treasure for themselves, which would be Stealing from the Crown or handing it in, which would come with fame, royal favour, and pressure to do it again.

So more like doubling down on the idea that Adventurers are mercenary tomb-robbers, rather than avoiding it! At least in that setting, It's Official!
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Finally, if the reason for wealth progression is baked into the game in such a way that it is necessary, maybe disconnect the bonuses/abilities from gear and call it boons from the gods or whatever. You don't et a +1 sword at 4th level, you get a magic aura that acts as a +1 magic tag for melee attacks.
I had a setting/campaign once in which the PCs were employed specifically to act against evil priests and cults and take away their evil magic artifacts to disempower them. The good temples had altars and rituals which would immolate these evil items and receive a "gem" in return from the gods, which would be given to the PCs and could be attached to their weapons or other gear to empower them as magic items.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
When getting more money is an inherent part of the core gameplay loop...
I need to speak up here. In 3.x it was inherently part of the play loop, and in 4e is was explicitly part of the character advancement math. Both because of items. But it's not an inherent part of the 5e mechanics at all. You can run 20th level characters without items if you want. And the recommended number of items for the entire party (Xanathar's pg 135) makes it abundantly clear that not everyone will have "+X weapon and armor" and such as expected in earlier editions. It isn't calibrated into the monster math and isn't inherently needed in the game.

Now, there's a lot of things to do with money outside of magic items, but that also varies on the game. For instance I'm running a game where the group are agents for the Imperium and can request any mundane needs, so there's no need to buy horses - they just borrow them from the local Post or pay for lodgings or worry abotu upgrading mundane equipment, etc. And they don't care about money at all. It's not a push for adventure or anything like that.

Hence my question (3 paragraphs to get to the discussion prompt, I know...): If you run a heroic game in a TTRPG system with wealth progression, how do your players get treasure (and magic items etc.)? Do you just accept that in your universe the victor gets all the possessions of the defeated? Do your questgivers handle the majority of the rewards? Did you make item progression abstract in some other way? What are some ways you deviate from the typical tomb robbing/pillaging treasure collection TTRPGs usually assume?

This doesn't mean that it is impossible to have a wealth progression system in a heroic game, of course. Lots of GMs do so succesfully. Hell, I do it in my games all the time. It's just that the overthinking part of my brain dislikes the inherent opposition in these two play styles, and I'm trying to see if alternatives exist to "These guys are selfless heroes who take on morally justified quests, but the majority of their wealth and magic items comes from robbing tombs and taking the possessions of their enemies". Not that the style I just described is inherently bad, I'm just trying to see how we could move past it.
D&D 4e had an eye-opening way to do this, which was treasure packets. Great idea to remove one of the causes of murderhobo-ism. Basically it was like milestone XP but for treasure. Important as magic item upgrades were expected and worked into foe math and it was effectively part of character advancement so couldn't be left up to "did they avoid this combat or not".

Basically, the treasure would make it's way to you whichever way you accomplished goals. Capture bandits - get a reward. Realize the law is correupt and join the bandits - they have a few items they can't use they will sweeten the pot of you coming over, and then a share of coin when they hit the tax collector. Etc. So having bounties for doing things, rewards, and all sorts of mechanisms outside "we killed this and took it's loot" or "we found every treasure in a tomb" was pushed by the rules.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
My first two thoughts would be the finder’s fee idea posted above and repatriation. Reverse the typical setup. Instead of the PCs breaking in and stealing things like treasure and gold, have them returning treasure and gold to the rightful owners. They are then rewarded for this act. Either by the people who wrongly held the treasure or the people getting it back. Way easier to do with a valuable cultural item that’s non-magical as it reduces the PCs’ temptation to simply steal the thing.
 
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I dig this solution. It can also be used to incentivize doing things that aren't just killing things and taking their stuff. You can just as easily have someone put out a call for help to throw the most epic party ever alongside someone with a bounty on the carrion crawlers that are infesting the nearby peat bog.

So rather than being freelance tombrobbers,

1 the PCs get paid bounties for doing jobs OR work as mercenaries for various Lords/Factions/Questgivers
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I like to get the PCs spending cash on a headquarters of some kind. Acquisitions Inc is actually quite useful there, as are a number of other supplements like Durnan's Guide to Tavern Keeping. It gives them a stable base and recurring cast of NPCs to help ground the campaign, and developing a stronghold is a great way to both earn a rep and blow wads of cash. On a related note I love the Stronghold rules in Forbidden Lands.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
In one of my D&D settings, the King realised how much treasure there is within his kingdom in old dungeons and monster hordes, that he declared it all Property of the Crown. Adventurers get a "finder's fee" for gathering and turning it in.

It's not any more moral, but it does come approved by the law of the land. And it gives Players the quandary of keeping treasure for themselves, which would be Stealing from the Crown or handing it in, which would come with fame, royal favour, and pressure to do it again.

So more like doubling down on the idea that Adventurers are mercenary tomb-robbers, rather than avoiding it! At least in that setting, It's Official!
I did something similar but via the Church - the Church declared all magic items subject to Church ownership and commissioned the Inquisitors to collect them.
Adventure companies could be sanctioned to do the work on the Inquisitors behalf
 

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