GM Advice: Why You Should Design Unique Treasure For Your Campaign

Every player loves finding shiny treasure. After killing the villain and thwarting his evil scheme it’s a tangible reward the PCs can hold in their hands. However, so much treasure these days is nothing more than boring, bland gold and description-less gems…

 

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

 

Players like treasure; it gives them a tangible feeling of success and enables them to buy their PCs the things they need to become even greater heroes. Almost all PCs crave glimmering treasures.

Of course, treasure is often quickly identified, sold and the proceeds spent; it spends a relatively short time in the game. That doesn’t mean a GM shouldn’t spend time designing unique and interesting treasures. There are many reasons why time spent designing treasure is well spent:

  • Verisimilitude: Items are rarely plain, functional and extremely valuable. Providing a description of a necklace or longsword brings it alive in the players’ minds.
  • Clues & Foreshadowing: Perhaps the PCs find half a treasure map or realise the heads on the ancient coins found in an abandoned crypt have a startling resemblance to a nearby baron famed for his cruelty. If the PCs slay mercenaries sent to kill them and discover they’ve been paid in coin minted in a nearby kingdom it may provide a clue as to their enemy’s identity or location.
  • World Building: If the necklace is wrought in a rare, high elven style it adds detail to the campaign world. If it’s simply a 100 gp necklace, it doesn’t. Because players pay loads of attention to treasure, flavoursome treasure is a great way of subliminally building the flavour of the campaign world in their minds without dumping shed loads of information on them.
  • Provide Important Abilities: If the GM is planning an upcoming underwater adventure, adding in a wand of water breathing or some such is a great way of providing the PCs with the tools to actually go on the adventure. This is a much better solution than simply having a magic shop at the start of the next adventure that just happens to stock exactly what the PCs need.
  • Give The PCs What They Want: A PC specialised in fighting with a warhammer is going to get way more excited about finding a magic warhammer than finding a magic longsword.
  • Make The PCs Feel Special: Remember, a +1 longsword is boring. A finely balanced longsword set with several small black gems in its pommel and finished with an engraved wave pattern on its blade is so much cooler and interesting. It becomes an item of note and one the players are far more likely to keep (and remember finding) than the aforementioned +1 longsword. The mechanical benefit to the players is identical, but the item is much more individual and remarkable. Bearing a unique treasure – particularly one with a background, history and name – elevates the treasure from just another standard magic item and could mark the PC out as a true hero. After all, for example, only one person can wield Gregorian’s Bane.

That all said, use detailed treasure judiciously. If every piece of treasure is special, none of it is special. Using too much detailed treasure will almost certainly crush a GM’s preparation time and submerge the players beneath so much flavour they’ll eventually start to ignore it.

Help Fellow GMs!

Do you design unique treasure for your campaign? Have you got tricks or tip about how to do it quickly and effectively? Share what they are in the comments below and help your fellow GM design exciting, flavoursome treasure today!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “GM Advice: Why You Should Design Unique Treasure For Your Campaign

  1. I always set aside an entire session-length day for all my potential players to come and meet with each other and do character creation with each other before the very first game session. It helps everyone get to know each other better and understand what they want out of their characters and game experiences. Generally at the beginning of every character creation session I have, I give the player’s a choice between three possible unique things they can have to help flesh out their character: One unique weapon, one unique piece of equipment/gear, or one unique skill, talent or trait. They will give me their choice, and I will create a special one-of-a-kind item or ability for their character based on their background and stats they can use in game. I see it as not just a way to make their experience more special and give them great plot hooks and plot points, but as a sort of GM-Player gift for wanting to play in my games and give them incentive to get into the story and have a great time.

    • I totally agree with this. Character generation is one of the most important sessions in a campaign and to do it in vacuum – alone without any of the other participants seems like madness to me! Doing it together has so many benefits it’s not funny. Hell, I might even write an article about this!

  2. About the only rule I have is that everyone will find a piece of gear for them. It might be a weapon, armour, ring or amulet that boosts them in some way. Everyone will get their own little unique thing for the game, campaign.

    That being said, I don’t really hand out treasure as most do. Sure, coin is easy to hand out, but I try to have everything make sense, it’s going to be a random coin pile in the middle of a forest. It’s more likely to be detailed maps, messages, certificates of trades on this dead messenger, with common change for living. In tombs and the like, ceremonial weapons more than usable ones, bowls for offering etc. one of the greatest treasures I can hand out are books, because what they are to the right person is much more than gold. I’ve got nothing against allowing people to improve magic items, if they have the knowledge.

    I guess for me there has to be context for each piece. Even quite minor ones.

  3. Don’t forget to add things that are mundane or “useless” to add flavor. I once put a necklace holding a small iron key on a humanoid npc the players defeated. The key was never planned to go to anything and my players carried it around for what seemed like ages, waiting to find the lock it went to. Finally the players couldn’t stand it any longer and used divination to find the lock that the key opened. We all had a good laugh when the spell revealed a dusty armoire full of clothing at the npc’s family estate.

  4. You might look up Dragon Magazine 180, it had an article specifically about creating interesting magic swords and why you would do so instead of “+1/+3 vs. dragons”.

    A few years ago (May 2012) I hosted an RPG blog carnival on ‘fantastic creations’ where we mostly gave examples of fantastic creations, but in Devising Fantastic Creations I describe how I go about creating one.

  5. If you keep current copies of your players’ characters it really helps you fine tune treasure to fit each PC. From the different weapons they use to their choices in equipment or skills. All of it can help you construct magic items that will appeal to the individual characters. Knowing what the players value can really help too, as no one can help but allow their personal preferences to bleed over into their characters.