Treasure Tells A Story

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.

The Bad News: The Legacy of Smaug

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.

The Good News: The Legacy of Sting

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?

    Ben Robbins | June 26th, 2008 | , | hide comments
  1. #22 Adam Hall says:

    No one has replied to this for 7 years, but I find it just as useful reading it today.

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  5. #18 Adam says:

    I’ve never handed out a +1 sword that some dude was using. Of course, it depends on the world, some high magic campaigns have this stuff mass produce in the hands of just about everyone.

    But I digress, I find it’s best to never hand out a mundane item, where’s the fun? Sure it will appeal to the power gamer, but that’s a shallow kind of pleasure. It’s not a heck of a lot of prep time to add some personality to a weapon, leave a sword over the tomb of a warrior in a crypt, all of a sudden you’ll have morality debates about whether it’s right to take it, and the weapon has an instant attachment. There’s a joy in a player noting he wants to research the tomb when he returns to town.

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  8. #15 Dionysus says:

    Awesome.
    Why didn’t I think of this before!!!.

    A great place to further the story and give out information without using “narrator NPC” to tell the players/characters explicitly…

    once more: awesome

  9. #14 cr0m says:

    “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?”

    I think you can do it either way. That dragon bane axe could have symbols that say “dead dragons” just as easily.

    However, I do think Identify sucks. My favorite thing about the Neverwinter Nights video game was the Lore skill that let the party identify magic items on their own. The Bard ought to have that ability. Also, that would make the Bard useful. :)

  10. #13 Noumenon says:

    But doing away with identify makes this easier. “This dwarf’s axe and his crossbow — just like the last two dwarves you fought — are both enchanted with dragon’s bane. I wonder what this outpost was built to defend against, and whether it’s coming back?”

    As opposed to “Remember that dwarf you fought, before you fought the ooze and the ettins and before you walked back to town and went to the wizard’s guild for identify? His axe was a +2 dragons bane.” Player reaction — “…oh. I sell it.” And now it’s too late to search the rest of the outpost for clues.

  11. #12 TMan says:

    Noumenon- yes, you certainly can do that. But this article is about the extra little details that could make your players wonder about the last owner of the cloak when they find a small scrap of paper in an inner pocket. Who was the mage who made this wand – is that his personal sigil on the handle? I think your bardic knowledge might recognize that – gimme a roll. I wonder if he lost it, sold it, or what?

  12. #11 cr0m says:

    Although I agree with Noumenon, I think that’s not the point. The point isn’t whether that’s a Hammer of Thunderbolts or a plain old warhammer. The point is that “the hammer is of ancient dwarven make, engraved with the rune “Emza”, the makersmark of Mim Ibuniz, legendary weaponsmith to the Last King Under the Mountain. A weapon like this would always be part of a hoard…”

  13. #10 Noumenon says:

    Once treasure is in someone’s backpack it’s no different than anything else you describe in the game world — you’ve already passed the magic moment of anticipation.

    That’s why I think it totally kills the excitement of treasure when you have to identify everything. “Yay, you got treasure! … but you won’t know what it is until after the adventure, when you go back to town and identify everything in a half-hour session of bookkeeping.” Wouldn’t it be so much more fun to just tell the players “You found a cloak of resistance and a wand of scorching hands” and give them their happiness right away? And then they could use them in the rest of the adventure. Would it be against the rules of D&D if every chest came with a packing list?

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  15. #8 ben robbins says:

    “Just be warned that your players are almost certain to miss this the first time you do it. They’ve been conditioned to experience treasure as simply gold pieces in alternate forms or “useful” magic items. Hence the “cutlass, check” response.”

    The cutlass example is intentionally hollow — there are no interesting details there. Now if I described the same cutlass but said “there is a small symbol on the hilt that looks like this…” now I’ve engaged the players. I’m saying there’s something more to see. They may choose to ignore (they can always choose to ignore) but they are _more_ likely to hear you when you speak through treasure than other times.

    “So when the party attempts to fence the elven longsword, be sure they find out what it is they’ve sold. If you’re nice, you can have the buyer tell them, and maybe agree to pay more for it’s historical value. If you really want to drive the lesson home, though, have them find out after the fact, when it’s too late to go back and ask for more money. And then tell them that another party of adventurers is already on the way to claim the treasure the sword points to.”

    It’s not the item that’s important, it’s the information the item conveys. If they don’t think it’s interesting and sell it, it doesn’t matter — they already missed the message. Once you are to the point of saying “a ha, that was important and you missed it” you’re already long past the treasure reveal advantage. Now you’re just introducing ordinary plot hooks.

  16. #7 ben robbins says:

    “My group has just found an item of no apparent value, but when they get to their next destination, they’ll learn that what they’ve found is so important, it could signify the beginning of a true resistance to the Shadow. It will change the course of history in the world.”

    Actually what I’m saying is the other way around: don’t make it a secret. Use treasure to reveal information, because that’s when they’re listening.

    The details you tell them when they find the treasure are what matters. Once treasure is in someone’s backpack it’s no different than anything else you describe in the game world — you’ve already passed the magic moment of anticipation.

  17. #6 tony dowler says:

    Please come over to my house and run a D&D game for me NOW!

  18. #5 Castellan says:

    I couldn’t agree with this more. I’m running a Midnight campaign for my group, now, and this very concept is suggested throughout the published materials. My group has just found an item of no apparent value, but when they get to their next destination, they’ll learn that what they’ve found is so important, it could signify the beginning of a true resistance to the Shadow. It will change the course of history in the world.

    My players will definitely be sitting forward in their chairs when the historian explains their discovery, and they’ll be engaging each other in urgent conversations when they realize they’ve gotten in over their heads.

    It’ll be a thing of beauty! :-)

  19. #4 Brian says:

    Just be warned that your players are almost certain to miss this the first time you do it. They’ve been conditioned to experience treasure as simply gold pieces in alternate forms or “useful” magic items. Hence the “cutlass, check” response.

    So when the party attempts to fence the elven longsword, be sure they find out what it is they’ve sold. If you’re nice, you can have the buyer tell them, and maybe agree to pay more for it’s historical value. If you really want to drive the lesson home, though, have them find out after the fact, when it’s too late to go back and ask for more money. And then tell them that another party of adventurers is already on the way to claim the treasure the sword points to. ;)

    – Brian

  20. #3 Linnaeus says:

    Great stuff, Ben. It deserves to be stolen for the DMG 2 :)

  21. #2 Mark Causey says:

    It’s like a detective mystery, except you get to keep the evidence.

  22. #1 John Harper says:

    Much like treasure, this is gold, Ben.

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