Placing Treasure

A Hoard of Treasure including items of artistic value
Art from “Excerpts: Hoards” posted by Wizards of the Coast

In the comments to yesterday’s post, regular commentor Jimmy asked:

“I’m bad at placing treasure. Any advice on that?”

You’re not alone, Jimmy. I’m bad at placing treasure too! I even wrote about it just a few months back:

“I also have a bad habit of being a great deal more generous with treasure than I ought to be, because I’m worried about keeping my players engaged in the adventure if they don’t feel suitably rewarded.”

It hasn’t been long since I wrote that, but if I do say so myself, I think I’ve improved a great deal. I’m sure many GMs would scoff at how wealthy I’ve allowed my players to become. But I no longer feel as though treasure “gets away from me.” A lot of different elements come together to support this, so I’ll go over them and hopefully some of what has helped me will help you.

Traditional Dungeon Crawling.

Like many young GMs, the dungeon crawl for which the game was named didn’t interest me when I began crafting adventures. Its only within the last year that I’ve reflected on my own gaming history, and realized that I’d avoided many of the fundamental experiences of D&D which are commonly considered “played out.”

My first real dungeon crawling experience was a mere 6 months ago when I began playing in Vaults of Pahvelorn. Since that experience, I’ve worked similar dungeons into my own games. Dungeons with fifty or a hundred rooms, each of which must be navigated slowly to avoid traps, and carefully examined for hints.

The traditional dungeon crawl is limiting in a good way. It reduced the game to its core elements: the players want treasure, and the environment wants to kill them. The rooms are puzzles where failure means death and success means gold. The obfuscation of heroism is torn away and the game’s foundations are laid bare.

There are many different kinds of adventures, and most of them can be fun. But having thoroughly experienced the game in its fundamental state, I now have a much better grasp for what players must do to earn their treasure.

Greater Rewards Require Greater Trials

It’s easy to get into the first room of the dungeon. Any treasure found there will be minor, if there’s any treasure to find at all. After all: it’s easy. Many adventurers have come this far before you, and would have carried off anything of value long ago. If you want to find some of the good treasure, you’ll need to make your way past deadly traps and merciless monsters which have scared off or killed the adventurers who came before you.

The really good treasure will be behind secret doors, and guarded by deadly monsters or traps.

Gold, Hidden in Non-Gold Form

When we think of hidden treasure, we think of secret alcoves, and gems buried in a pile of fireplace ash. But this is only the most obvious way of hiding treasure. A much better way is to hide treasure in plain sight, as books, fine clothing, land deeds, exotic animals, bags of spices, or any other number of possibilities.

Recognizing treasure is part of the game’s challenge. You can tell your players flat-out that they find 3 silk gowns when they open the dusty armoire. They may or may not realize they’re looking at 300 gold pieces worth of tailoring.

Encumbrance!

While I confess I still struggle with encumbrance in my games, it cannot be undervalued. The character’s income is limited by their carrying capacity. In a society where learning has largely been lost, the discovery of an ancient library deep underground could be worth more than a dragon’s hoard! But books are heavy. How many can each PC actually carry themselves?

Make the players think about whether they’d like to take multiple trips, or hire a crew to get it all out in one go. Make them wonder if the treasure will still be there if they turn their back on it for a few hours. These are interesting choices for the players to face, and go a long way towards maintaining a reasonable level of wealth for them.

Missed Treasure is Forever Lost

Let your players miss treasure, and never hint that they missed it. It may be difficult as fuck, and I’m not perfect about it, but I’ve found it to be an essential skill to practice. I take immense delight in hiding treasure as well as I can without making it downright impossible to find. (with a fair scattering of less difficult to find treasure to keep my players from getting discouraged).

Often, this means my players miss out on a really cool magical sword or badass piece of artwork that I was looking forward to them finding. But that’s okay, because you can always use that treasure again later. And when they do find some of the better hidden treasure, it’s exciting. Both for them, and you.

1d6 For Wasting Time

In keeping with oldschool rules, roll 1d6 once every 10 minutes of in-game time. If a 1 is rolled, then the players encounter a monster appropriate to the area they’re in. If that’s too much fighting for your game, bump the die up to 1d8 or 1d10. The important thing is that there is a penalty for wasting time. The players can search every 10′ square segment of wall in the entire dungeon for secret doors a dozen times over if they please. But they’re going to encounter a shit-ton of monsters while doing it.

Making time a resource which the players have to be careful about wasting, makes them more focused on their goals, and less likely to search for treasure by process of elimination. This means that more of your hidden treasure will stay hidden as noted by the point above. And while I’m never happy to see my players miss out on something cool, I would rather reward smart play than time wasting.

1d6 For Cleverness

Sometimes, while exploring a room looking for treasure, players will look in a place that the GM never even considered. And sometimes that hiding spot is so damned clever that the GM decides they’re going to remember it so they can use it in the future. When that happens, I roll 1d6. On a 6, I tell the player they find a small amount of treasure, despite the fact that I never placed any there.

The treasure they find is usually pretty minimal. A sack of 20 gold pieces or a small gemstone worth about that much.

Budget by Section

This is an idea I just thought of today, so I’ve not tried it, but it seems as though it would be helpful.

Divide your dungeon (or other adventuring area) into whatever sections seem natural. For most dungeons, a single level of the dungeon would probably be most appropriate. Determine what level you think your players ought to reach for completing that section of the dungeon. Look up how much gold the players should have at that point on the wealth-by-level table, then increase that value by 50% to account for the treasure the players probably won’t find.

The resulting gold-piece value should be the sum-total of all the treasure in that section.

Does anybody else have tips? I could still use some improvement myself!

EDIT: Generally speaking I prefer not to edit posts once they’ve gone up, but I’ve just remembered an entire section I had intended to add to this post, and completely forgot about. Apparently I didn’t add it to my notes!

Hoards are for Dragons

Sometimes its appropriate to make a big pile of treasure, or “Treasure Hoard.” A hoard will typically represent multiple types of treasure, and require a great feat of skill to obtain. Hoards should not be the default method of placing treasure. Most treasure should be found piece-by-piece. A coinpurse in this room, a valuable painting in the next. These smaller items are still exciting to find, and they provide context for the day that the players finally do discover a true hoard of treasure.

If every chest contains an assortment of gold, gems, and magic items; then such treasure is the player’s expectation, when it should be a coveted and exciting accomplishment.

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3 thoughts on “Placing Treasure”

  1. Thank you so much for this! And to think I almost edited out that question… Honestly the last section of your post is probably the most helpful, and drove the rest of your points home. I now have a better sense of what I can do to liven up my PCs’ purse strings!

    1. Glad I could help!

      By ‘last section’ do you mean the bit I edited in (Hoards are for Dragons) or the bit before that (Budget by Section)?

      1. The Hoards are for Dragons section. Reading this, plus reading the Inner Sea World Guide has really got me thinking of a character who keeps all of his money in gems, and has them made into jewelry and sews them into his clothing. “Money is safer when worn instead of hidden.”

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