If you’ve played in any of the basic dungeon crawling analogs, you’ve experienced that magical post-combat moment: treasure anticipation.
There’s loot — you know there’s loot — but you don’t know what it is yet. Your brain is awash with the endless possibilities, visions of the shiny wonders that could be stashed in the ogre’s cave. What could it be? Something wonderful! It’s Xmas morning and you’re a kid again (unless you are a kid, in which case carry on).
And then the GM opens his mouth and ruins it: 200 gp and +1 leather armor.
So dies the magic and the mystery.
Treasure is a GM’s curse. It’s our terrible, spiny cross to bear.
Don’t get me wrong: I love crafting cool treasure. But treasure has a lousy prep vs play ratio: creating truly interesting treasure is a lot of work for a very brief splash of game time. It literally fills as much play time as it takes you to read the text, plus a little extra for fighting over who gets the magic ring. I can spend all afternoon honing the description of a “basket-hilted cutlass, with a grip of cracked red leather wrapped in gold wire and a single deep notch low on the heavy blade” but that’s 12 seconds of game time (party treasurer: “cutlass, check”). Compare that to the pay-off for picking a few critters to fight: hours of potential play.
Players crave treasure, not just because they want the literal loot, but because they want that magic moment, the fulfillment and vindication of their real victory, i.e. what they did to get to the treasure. You defeated the dragon and the pretty treasure is the proof that it was a mighty deed. It’s recognition of a job well done, the validation that you done good. It’s the victory lap, the trophy for winning the race.
So when you cough up lame or boring treasure, it deflates that victory a little bit. Even if you try your best it can be difficult to come up with a worthy bounty that doesn’t cause instant game inflation. We’re tainted by our childhood visions of Smaug sleeping on that mountain of gold. We want the treasure to live up to the same mythic standard as the monsters or else the victory is hollow, the picture incomplete.
Dilemma, huh? Sounds like you’re doomed to disappoint or saddled with lots of work to give players a little pat on the head. A little good news is that detail substitutes for raw value. A carefully described small treasure with cunning jewelry and artifacts feels more valuable than a huge but generic “um, ten thousand gold pieces,” so detail helps you reward the players without wrecking the game economy. It’s not just a +1 sword, it’s an elvish weapon fashioned in elder days before the great wars.
Which leads us to the secret weapon most GMs overlook: players pay attention when you describe treasure. Treasure is (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a golden opportunity to reveal information.
There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.
You want to show the players something? Put it in the form of treasure. Want to tell them about the history of the elves? Tell it through treasure. Want to tell them about the cult in the area? Tell it through treasure. Want them to give them a clue about the dangers that are three doors down? Tell it through treasure.
Why is the bugbear’s rusted breastplate engraved with dwarven symbols of an anvil and thunderbolt? What is a pilgrim’s reliquary doing here in the middle of the wilderness? Why is the hidden strongbox painted with crude wolf symbols?
You can describe some detail about a room they search, or lecture them about history and lore when they talk to random NPCs, and sometimes they’ll listen and sometimes they won’t. But when you drop clues as treasure details you can be certain they will hear you and wonder what it means. They will be curious. Sure it’s just a handful of gold coins, but that faded portrait on them looks a lot different from any coins of the realm. What ancient emperor’s motto is graven in those strange runes? Are they just a stray remnant of an empire lost and better forgotten or the clue to a hidden city..?
And tell me, what’s more interesting: having some old guy in the bar say “hey, here’s a map, go find this not-so-lost city” or having the heroes inadvertently stumble across a few gold coins that lead them to a hidden kingdom? Getting lectured about elven history or finding an ancient elven sword that’s part of that history?