Treasure: Trick and Traps

One of the more important but underdeveloped parts of the gaming is how the GM rewards the characters with treasure. Too often, the PC's find some gold, some silver, some gems, and some random magic. How boring! Treasures can be used to enhance player enjoyment and excitement in so many ways!

Tons of items the PC's would consider valuable but have not seen before are available to creative GM's. This writing covers ways of creating new valuables, placing them intelligently in a campaign, and handling the crazy things characters do with them. What treasures to include in adventures is a very open-ended problem. The list of things that PC's can recover and sell or barter with is unending. Think of what items merchants buy and sell, what valuable objects kings hoard in their vaults, what people pay money for in city bazaars and shops, and what things monsters raid villages and castles to obtain. Some suggestions:

  1. Coinage: The most universal money in the game has many variations and possibilities. The types and amounts of coinage the PC's will find depends on the sources of such money in the campaign world. What size and shape are the coins? What are they made of? How valuable are they in the current market? The currency can be newly minted, or produced thousands of years ago in some forgotten kingdom. It could be imported from overseas, made right next door, or the maker could be completely unknown. Trade with unknown or rare currency is difficult at best, and, if not kept simple, can make role-playing tedious. Merchants may accept or reject old or foreign money, and some coins may have no value at all! On the other hand, finding a stash of ancient gold coins that collectors want badly can be very satisfying. Coins can be game clues, also. Finding rare dwarven money in a dead bandit's pouch can mean someone has discovered an ancient dwarven hold in the area. Finding money can be much more interesting than counting gold and silver pieces
  2. Jewels: Beautiful jewelry and gems are some of the most sought after nonmagical items that characters may find. Portable and extremely valuable, characters finding them can turn a great profit with little trouble. Types are not limited to the known lists--they can be of any size, shape, color, design, and value imaginable. The amount that PC's will get from gem buyers can vary greatly with the buyer's honesty, also.
  3. Tradable Items: These are the things that merchants devote their lives to--items of real worth only in bulk. They can range from intricate tapestries to barrels of wine, from bars of smithing iron to delicate ladies' perfumes. Anything can have value. Look around your house for things of some value and translate it into the game. A ball-point pen becomes a quill pen made from a rare bird's feather. A chair becomes a throne of intricately carved and inlaid wood. A clock becomes a bronze sundial made by an ancient mage. A rug becomes a rich patterned carpet from a far-off land. A cup becomes a silver flagon decorated with battle scenes.  Use your imagination! The value of the items can vary wildly, as can the demand for them. These trade goods should be one of the most common, if not THE most common treasure found in most campaigns.
  4. Cumbersome Items: Occasionally the PC's should be faced with a huge, heavy object of value. Rare statues made of heavy stone, huge doors of brass or other semi-valuable metal, an ancient chariot without wheels, a heavy throne, unique artworks of heavy materials, or anything really big and unwieldy can challenge the PC's to find transportation and handling solutions. Such items should have considerable value to certain buyers, but only if delivered.
  5. Documents & Books: Sometimes, the words on a page can be worth more than the book's weight in diamonds. Sages may pay dearly for old texts, scrolls, and notes that pertain to their studies. Land grants and deeds signed by long-dead kings can cause great upheaval in their kingdoms, and many would wish to pay (or kill) for such precious parchments. Maps to unknown lairs and ruins can spur the party on to further adventures. Written songs and legends will trade vigorously among bards and singers.
  6. Priests may deplete their temple treasury to buy old holy books from a successful party. Alchemists will buy books on formulas and strange processes, dwarves may purchase books on rare smithing techniques, and scholars will buy everything else. Again, use imagination.

  7. Magic Items: It goes without saying that PC's will grab all the magic they see. Don't stick to the same old magic item list--it gets old. Look at the powers of other magic items, and put them in new vessels. Give spell-like ability to weapons or everyday objects. Make up new powers, or modify existing ones. Use cursed items now and then. Keep the players guessing about the next ring or dagger they pick up. Don't forget intelligent magic items (use sparingly) and psionic items (in most campaigns, very rare). Potions, scrolls, and spellbooks are great aids to parties which need help in their campaigns. And don't forget spell tokens, the single-use items which have a spell effect. (I made these up-- they're great little items for PC's to find and carry.) Distribute magic moderately, for it can really unbalance a party if hoarded by a few PC's.
  8. Weird stuff: There is usually a market for strange spell components, potion ingredients, and such. Here is where you go whacko. Get weird! The party can bring in live monsters to sell to collectors. They may find funny gnomish machines that do nothing useful, preserved basilisk eggs, dried beholder eyes, or bottled gorgon breath. Things that somebody(!) would pay money for. The party could be hired to get buckets of fresh lava from a volcano, jars of green slime for a botanist, or cartloads of dirt from the netherworlds. Go nuts, surprise your players, and have fun. If a character in the party has the ability to divine history or legends about an object, you need to make preparations before he/she uses it on magic items the party finds. Even if there is no bard, the PC's may hear an item's history from a buyer or other NPC. Get ready! Write out some history on each item, where it was made and by whom, when it was last seen, famous owners, etc. Use more detail for the more valuable and older items.
  9. Jot down notes on famous battles fought with the item, people killed by thieves wanting it, legends surrounding its creation, etc. If one doesn't get used, use it later on a different item. I believe that very valuable treasures (gems, statues, jewelry) that aren't magical but over 5000 g.p. value should have tales about them also. Treasure can be used to create problems and/or new adventures for the party. Perhaps someone comes looking for "his" magic wand, a king recognizes his father's sword on a visiting PC's belt, or a previously destroyed mage comes back to retrieve his magic hoard. Items can lead characters to explore ruins in search of related items. Generally, the more powerful or valuable a find is, the more trouble it will cause the characters.

  10. Conclusions: Placing the treasure with care is another consideration. If a monster or NPC has a treasure, where did he get it? How did he keep it from being stolen before the party got there? Does the creature care about collecting treasure? Can it use magic items against the party, and does it know how? Where is the stash kept? How well-known is the hoard? These questions will keep you from creating a ridiculous situation, or at least you will have a reason for the ridiculous situation. Place treasures with care, use your creative gifts, and make the game lots more fun for your players and yourself!