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Every GM at some point is faced with the conundrum of coming up with new treasures. Yes, you could throw infinite piles of gems, gold, and jewelry at the party; but eventually it’s just going to become routine. Hardly what you want for your magnificent treasure hoards of fabulous wealth. While going overboard with treasure is one option, making the treasure cool and unique is another.
So how do you make gold coins cool? What do you replace them with? Why should you even bother? That’s what this article is here for.
The Pitfalls of Too Much Treasure
A. The players don’t really care when they find treasure.
B. The players can buy anything.
C. The solution to problems becomes “Can I afford to hire/employ ‘x’ to beat this?”
The Pitfalls of Too Little Treasure
A. It takes away a valuable motivator for adventure. It’s something like telling a guy to do a long and arduous job without pay. It’s also a convenient way to bribe and condition players to do things you want them to. A player who will run down a corridor lined with traps and monsters for a pouch of gold is likely to be unmotivated to do anything if the treasure is worthless or non-existent.
B. You’ll need a valid replacement for the material reward of treasure. For example, if it’s for a good cause, a background motivation, or the equivalent of money such as honors and privileges. Otherwise, most players will seek to gain money even if they aren’t supposed to. You don’t want your band of government spies scrounging money off of bad guys, you want the government to provide them reasonable amounts of ‘equipment’ in line with how well they perform in the field (and mooching money off bad guys would probably be considered bad form).
C. The players, if not presented with a reasonable alternative goal, will end up creating their own. If the game still has levels, and they gain levels by killing things, a lack of treasure will likely generate a ‘kill everything’ mentality which can really play havoc with your game. Their motivation will switch from greed, to power-mongering by death dealing which probably won’t fit too well with your cool story-line. Using B. effectively it’s probably possible to train them to be true and noble heroes just for the sake of it in the long run which would be pretty cool. In the meantime, there’s always treasure.
Making Treasure Interesting
1. Magic: There’s almost nothing which beats a cool magic item to add to your character sheet. However, handing out infinite magical treasures can quickly ruin your game if not handled correctly. Several strategies exist to remedy this: 1. cursed magic items, 2. extremely weak magic items, 3. GM created weird magic items, and 4. normal items with odd minor magical abilities like coins which glow in the dark and can be used to distract monsters or navigate mazes.
2. Story: When you create a unique item(s) with a story you double your benefits. Not only is the treasure valuable, but it can also be used as a mystery, an adventure hook, or as a record of past campaign history. If you keep the value of the item hidden, the players must hunt down a historian or similar and listen to the whole tale just to figure out how much money they actually have. If multiple groups want the item(s) or only one person will pay the true value, the quest to sell the items can be an adventure unto itself.
3. Junk: Very handy for not unbalancing the game, random junk can be nifty to hand out to players. The teeth of giant monsters, acid blood, horns, loin-cloths, etc. These baubles can amuse the players while not giving them insane amounts of wealth.
4. Historically Intrinsic Wealth: Using valuable items with intrinsic historical value is a tried and tested method of pleasing the players. While 1,000 credits might be good or bad, having a pile of 24 karat gold is pretty awesome all the time. Depending on the era, one dollar might make you rich or ridiculously poor. Lugging around diamonds, platinum, and 1,000 bars of titanium almost always makes you rich.
5. Useful Equipment: While wealth is cool, most players secretly know it does squat unless they can use it to buy something cool. Items they can immediately put to good use always make for cool treasures. Weapons, armors, tools, and gear can all be valuable additions to a character so long as they’re better than those normally available. Simply gaining a more powerful axe than anyone else can buy can be a great benefit.
6. Visual Representation: Having pictures of what the players find can be time-consuming, but makes the treasures more real and quantifiable. Also, simply describing the treasure really well complete with markings, brilliance, lustre, and craftsmanship can go a long way to adding a real feel to the treasure they find.
7. Weird Treasure: Who says all treasure must be instantly recognizable as valuable or junk? Weird slimes, alchemical substances, art, stones, forms of magic, monster tentacles, and more can all be treasures which aren’t so obvious. These treasures may have a hidden use, only be valuable when mixed with something else, or be complete junk but not obviously so. If you want to encourage the players to poke around everywhere for money; use weird treasures.
8. Non-Material Wealth: While money can be cool, don’t forget that not all treasure is even material! Fans, fame, notoriety, followers, castles, strongholds, mounts, cattle, livestock, grain, land, property, respect, and more can all make great treasures. There are few players who don’t appreciate a little fame and hero-worship.
9. Power: Money, at a basic level, represents the power to do stuff. If you take money out of the equation and just give them the power to do stuff, you’re really still giving them treasure. Loyal servants, free food, free room and board, a personal navy/army, knighthood, privileges, high status, and whatever can all be just as good as wealth. While your knight might be broke, the respect and authority he commands could be equal to boatloads of gold. The same applies if you somehow become a prince or king. The very essence of your high position can be worth much more than mere gold.
10. Non-existent Treasure: Who says you really need treasure in you game? Yes, it’s cool. Yes, players love it. Yes, you can buy a mansion with it. Do you really need it? No. I’m not saying ditch all treasure rewards in your game, just to remember that the best rewards aren’t necessarily material ones. Defeating a legendary foe, saving the world, rescuing princesses, and navigating huge dungeons can all be rewards unto themselves with or without money thrown in to boot.
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