Gygax On…Treasure

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that most players love finding treasure. While, of course, you don’t get XP for treasure in later editions of the game, it is rather handy to pay for living expenses and shiny new magic items (if a GM allows magic shops in his world).

Small Treasure Hoard by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

Small Treasure Hoard by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Beyond the challenge of crushing your enemies and advancing in power, treasure is one of the things most players expect to get out of an adventure. It’s sad, then, that treasure seems to be becoming more and more bland and flavourless.

In the “good old days” treasure was often described in great depth and detail— detail that really had very little impact on the game, but was just cool to know. It was cool to know that the silvered longsword you wrested from the bandit chieftain had a pommel shaped like a snarling wolf. You might still sell the item, but the act of describing it made it feel more “real” and part of a dynamic, living, breathing world.

Of course, this level of detail adds another burden to the poor, overworked, time-crunched GM, but does add cool depth and flavour to the campaign.

While I don’t want to edition bash, I think treasure hoards reached their nadir in 4e edition, where PCs simply found one of a certain number of treasure parcels which as I understand it now basically equates to a certain gold value. Of course, 3.5 and Pathfinder are not immune to this criticism either. How often have you found a treasure hoard including gems that have a value, but often aren’t even identified as a specific type!

So what did Gary say?

“A pair of exceedingly large, powerful and ferocious ogres have taken up abode in a chamber at the base of a shaft which gives to the land above. From here they raid both the upper lands and the dungeons roundabout. These creatures have accumulated over 2,000 gp in wealth, but it is obviously not in a pair of 1,000 gp gems. Rather, they have garnered an assortment of goods whose combined value is well in excess of two thousand gold nobles (the coin of the realm). Rather than stocking a treasure which the victorious player characters can easily gather and carry to the surface, you maximise the challenge by making it one which ogres would naturally accrue in the process of their raiding. There are many copper and silver coins in a large, locked iron chest. There are pewter vessels worth a fair number of silver pieces. An inlaid wooden coffer, worth 100 gold pieces alone, holds a finely wrought silver necklace worth an incredible 250 gold pieces! Food and other provisions scattered about amount to another hundred or so gold nobles value, and one of the ogres wears a badly tanned fur cape which will fetch 50 gold pieces nonetheless. Finally, there are several good helmets (used as drinking cups), a bardiche, and a two-handed sword (with silver wire wrapped about its hilt and lapis lazuli pommel to make it worth three times its normal value) which completes the treasure.”

AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 92), Gary Gygax

This example has massively influenced the way I try to describe treasure in my own campaigns and in Raging Swan’s various adventures and sourcebooks (particularly All That Glimmers which is basically a Big Book of Described Treasure). I say “try” because sometimes I simply do not have the time to put this much detail into treasure hoards. What’s really notable about this description to me, though, is the way the treasure is logical and appropriate (perhaps apart from the 100 gp worth of food).

It’s a great example of Gyagxian Naturalism at work in the early editions. (If you don’t know what Gygaxian Naturalism is, hit the link and find out – it’s an awesome concept). The example is also notable because even once the PCs have defeated the monsters (in this case ogres) the adventure’s challenge hasn’t finished! They still have to sort through all the treasure, value it and get it back to town. Looking at the sheer amount of loot present in the example above, I sincerely doubt the party will simply be able to stuff it into their backpacks!

What Do You Think?

Is this detail a colossal waste of time? Alternatively, is it awesome? Let me know how you do treasure, in the comments below.

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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37 thoughts on “Gygax On…Treasure

  1. No, it’s awesome. I like to keep track and review some treasure descriptions after some time. The details can always be used to create new stuff for your adventures, or even new adventures.

  2. Many years ago — it was many years ago that I wrote the program, the Dragon Magazine article it was based on was many years older than that — I wrote a program that would create beauteous items. There was the normal objets d’art and jewelry, but there were also many weapons and armor chased with precious metals or with (semi-, usually) precious stones.

    I can see if I still have the scripts.

  3. Excellent article. Encourages me to be more descriptive and varied with my treasure allotments. What boundless opportunities for roleplay, simply by thoughtful use of more “interesting” treasure!

  4. My go-to for randomized treasure is a Tablesmith file that generates treasures like this. In addition to your usual piles of coin, gems, and magic items, it takes a portion of the GP value and distributes it among ‘mundane’ items like ordinary gear, trade-goods, and low-valued trinkets.

  5. I agree with you, and with Gary obviously. At this past Sunday’s game session I handed my DM trainee one of my spare copies of the first edition AD&D DMG and told him “Here is the best book ever made for giving you ideas on how to make your game better.” He runs a 5E game which I play in too, and while I haven’t shriveled up and died from my old school mind’s exposure to the 5E game (though I admit that I find the game a lot less interesting in spite of the oh-so-many-options they give to try to draw interest), I have put more effort into certain things in my early style homebrew rules campaign. A large part of that has been in the realm of ‘interesting’ treasure as in Gary’s description from the DMG that you quoted above. There are more interesting and described art objects to be found. A 4′ tall decorative golden shield. A 2′ tall silver statuette of what appears to be a primitive fertility goddess. An engraved ebony scrollcase with a puzzle-lock cap. These details make things more interesting and give the fantasy realism that helps make games memorable. And that is a large part of the fun of the game, at least to me.

  6. “We’re RICH!” cry the adventurers. Yes it dawns that somehow they now have to transport it back to civilization. Then I believe there is the small matter of taxation or some similar state extortion. Next, there are all those people who sense an opportunity to sell goods and services, or have a new business venture that needs a little start up capital. That alone should encourage the adventurers to pick only what they can carry. Finally, no self respecting self employed entrepreneur will pass up the opportunity to relieve the adventurers of large parts of the hoard by forceful or stealthy means, which means adventurers need to hire additional security. Security require money and is in itself notoriously unreliable at keeping treasure in a desired location (they pilfer or run off at the first sign of trouble). With a great treasure trove come a great many problems.

    • Someday, I’ll run a campaign in which the PCs are the low-mid-level henchmen/followers of some high-level NPC dungeon looters. The game will start after the high-level folks have just cleared out a big dungeon, something on the scale of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Your group is given the maps (incomplete, hastily drawn), some verbal briefing (“watch out for the fungus near the stairs on the 3rd level”), and a lot of rope, sacks, and boxes. The high-level folks are off to Town to celebrate and give the King his cut. Your mission is to get out the heavy or bulky treasures, finish the maps, dispose of the bodies, don’t fall into the traps, and get all the stuff to Town. Of course, it’s never that easy….

      • Wasn’t there a game system that did that something to do with wizards who had to have camp followers which were the PCs?

  7. The longest campaign I’ve ever played had lots of treasure like this. We kept some platinum bookplates decorated with religious script on our treasure list for years because we thought it would be worth knowing. Never did find out if they were important or not . . . .

  8. I think you hit the nail right on the head. I honestly believe (IMHO) that the details of the later versions all went towards game mechanics that bogged the game down rather than making it more fun. I feel that the itemization of the treasures made it a lot more engrossing and captivating. Also, “What do we do with the treasure that cannot carry?” Leave a few party members behind to guard it and hope they don’t get killed by some other monster that wants the treasure? Of course this also means that we can carry less of it to town, and may have to make more trips to tote it all. Would the “toters” be honest with what they are carrying? Would the guards? Do we take what we can and hope the rest is here when we come back? I think it is great.

  9. I still use first addition AD&D DM guild to fill out my treasure rooms… it has a great random generator. Also very descriptive gems and explanations… along with the random potions and magical I teams… all around fun. Oh and the random furniture…. always a great spin.

  10. Yours is a refreshing article. Too often, I had found myself offering convenient treasure in my adventures. I want to reward the character, but also want them to be able to take it with them and continue the adventure without have to return to town at the end of each day.

    I started reviewing my reward system the day my players told me they had a ridiculous amount of treasure that was too much to carry and too expensive to realistically sell.

    I am currently working with what I call the Gauntlet-style of treasure: a few coins or a couple of gems, here and there, with a single significant (sometimes magic) treasure for each character per adventure.

    I’m also working to develop a system of alternative rewards: XP for actions, not attributable to killing a monster, that benefit the adventuring party; and points for successful skill checks (10 points in a single skill provides an additional rank in that skill) are couple that have become popular with my group.

    • The cardcrawl (card-based dungeon crawl game I’m working on) plans on two ‘levels’ (advancement thing, not important here) and two artifacts (major treasures) per significant encounter (most dungeons have two). Each PC is allowed to gain one level and one artifact per dungeon.

      It’s also a deckbuilder. Other encounters give you resources you can use to buy new cards… but they are not as individually significant as the artifacts.

  11. I think making detailed treasure and rewards is definitely worth the effort. I had my party clear out a bandit hideout and amongst the gold and jewellery. They found some detailed old paintings and a very old framed map of the world which they then took to town to sell and thanks to some bad roles on their part and good painting they massively under valued