Adventure Builder09/08/2006

Copper Bits and Gleaming Hoards
Part 4 of 6

From the player's perspective, there are just two reasons to risk character's life and limb: experience points and fat loot. This time around at Adventure Builder, we'll take a look at combat gear, mundane treasure, trick treasure, magical treasure, information treasures, and more.

The Treasure Curve

First though, we'll consider the Treasure Curve. The idea here is to spread out the size of treasures, increasing the difference between low and high-treasure encounters at any given EL.

% of Encounters Treasure Found EL 1 EL 3 EL 9
45% Little or no treasure up to 15 gp up to 50 gp up to 200 gp
20% Half treasure 150 gp 450 gp 2,250 gp
20% Standard Treasure 300 gp 900 gp 4,500 gp
10% Double Treasure 600 gp 1,800 gp 9,000 gp
5% Hoard, 10x standard 3,000 gp 9,000 gp 45,000 gp

The standard treasure line on the Treasure Curve table is equivalent to the value provided in Table 3-3: Treasure Values per Encounter (Dungeon Master's Guide page 51). The values above and below that line show the little, half, double, and hoard values.

Because many encounters using the treasure curve provide little or no treasure, the total amount of treasure per adventure is exactly the same as if you gave exactly standard treasure on the usual table. The few double and hoard treasures make up for the lack of small bits of loot -- and they have a LOT more impact on the players. A 1st level party finding 3,000 gp of gold, gems, and magic is more impressed than the same party finding 10 treasures of 300 gp each. Differentiating the size of treasures makes the big ones more memorable, and makes it easy to determine just how big a dragon's hoard or an evil Lord Cardinal's treasury ought to be at any level.

Hidden and Buried Treasures

Players invest in Search ranks for their characters for a reason: treasures are often hidden. So any DM who wants to make an adventure interesting will hide at least 20% of the treasures to be had, and possibly much more. Yes, a dragon likely sleeps on a big pile of coins and gems -- but it might hide the rubies and sapphires it values most. Likewise, the commander of a garrison of hobgoblins probably keeps his treasure locked up -- and possibly keeps it sealed in a chest at the bottom of a well, except on payday.

Hiding and burying treasure poses two problems in gameplay. The first is that PCs need to have enough ranks in Search to make the DC checks (which should probably not run much higher than 10 plus average character level, since only the rogue is likely to have maximum ranks in Search, and maybe not even him).

The bigger problem is that of hiding things too well: no one wants to spend an entire gaming session saying, "Okay, we dig up that floor, and poke around the attic under the eaves," for every room they search. This is where roleplaying encounters and documents can help. If the party is smart enough to capture a minion, he might well offer to reveal the location of hidden or buried treasure in exchange for mercy. Documents can help as well, but most people don't write out "I buried the treasure here," no matter what pirate movies might have you believe. They hide the information in code, they draw maps that only make sense to themselves, and they general obfuscate the issue. That's fine if you have the inclination to make up similar puzzles for your players, but they can eat a lot of prep time. To get around that, I recommend allowing uses of Decipher Script and the dwarven stonework racial ability to help guide them to the loot. A clever use of a locate object spell could help too. If the PCs learn (from a minion, for example) what one item of the larger hoard is, they can use that with locate object to find the entire treasure. Let them figure that connection out for themselves.

If you bury a treasure, make sure you create at least one or two paths for the party to find it. They don't have to be easy paths, and they'll have a greater sense of satisfaction if they do a little deduction than if you had just hand the treasure to them by saying "It's right there in the middle of the room."

False Treasures

Certain things look like treasures, but aren't really. Some of these are false treasures, things that fill out a room with the look of fat loot but that can't be taken away and sold. A false treasure might be a collection of cheap glass "jewels" that glitter from the doorway, but are worthless once appraised, or a huge pile of gold and silver coins that turns out to be almost all silver. Use these sorts of treasure sparingly, especially if the fight to win them is a tough one.

False treasures really are worth nothing when examined closely. This is what distinguishes them from what I call "challenge treasures", which are truly valuable but difficult for the party to take away and sell, or a challenge to recognize as treasure in the first place.

Challenge Treasures

A barrel of wine eight feet tall or a four-ton statue are just too heavy to be looted easily without special equipment. But beware of calling them false treasures; some players just love a challenge. Put that barrel into ten smaller kegs and presto -- that old wine IS worth a fortune. The party just has to figure out how to rig the harnesses on their mules to carry the keg, and off they go with vintage wealth.

A statue too big to carry? Maybe not -- add in a shrink item spell and a bag of holding, and presto, it's off to the market. If the party finds the reducing spell on a scroll and figures it out, they deserve to walk with the money. In most cases, if an item is worth a lot then serious players will struggle to make it work. As the DM, you should emphasize the "struggle" part of that equation. The wine might need to be carried over a mountain pass. The bag of holding might rupture when the shrink item spell wears off! Think of those challenges when you place the treasure, rather than scrambling to justify the difficulty when the party decides to melt down an "unmovable" mithral pillar by building a dwarven smelter onsite.

Certainly in every case where a treasure is merely unwieldy, the PCs might struggle with the weight and trouble, but unless you impose fatigue and exhaustion penalties (followed by a bandit encounter or robber barons), the players don't mind putting the heroes through hell to bring the treasure home.

Appraisable Treasures

Some players love unusual treasures, even if their monetary value isn't that high, because they have a high coolness factor. Consider the following list:

  • Ancient coins, green with verdigris
  • Illuminated (illustrated, not glowing) manuscripts picked out in golden ink and colored with lapis lazuli
  • Dusty bottles of elven wine, sealed with blue wax
  • Stained glass windows
  • Decanters brimming with halfling brandy
  • A spotless red temple cat

Beats the heck out of 100 gp or a silver bracelet, no? While the gp value of these treasures could be about the same as a standard chunk of coins, these treasures are all a little more memorable -- and they provide an opportunity for Appraise checks.

A party rogue or skill character who invests in Appraise proves his worth with these kinds of treasures. After all, some old coins are just old coins, some manuscripts are religious screeds from forgotten cults, and some bottles of wine are truly best used as cooking vinegar --- all "treasures" not worth carrying around. When you do place treasures like this, make sure that both the valuable and junky variety are present. After all, if every dusty bottle is a treasure, the party will never learn to use the Appraise skill on them -- they'll just carry every crate to town for someone else to appraise.

Not every memorably treasure is rare, collectable, or valuable, of course. The rangers and animal handlers in the party might be amused to find simple casks of ale, bushels of oats and rye to feed a village, a herd of oxen, or a valuable breeding mare famous for her bloodlines. The party that figures out that the best treasure in the adventure is a mare worth ten times the normal cost of a warhorse deserves the extra cash -- many groups will just sell her without any idea of what they've found.

Land and Status

Many of the richest treasures aren't either cash or physical goods. In fact, the truly wealthy medieval times depended on several things far more than money: land, fiefdoms, and status.

These non-monetary treasures could be found in physical form as treasures, or they could be granted as gifts by a grateful king, noble, or city-state. In either case, set them up ahead of time with entry requirements. These sorts of treasures should be associated only with complete success on big adventures, not side treks or partial success.

In some cases, the treasure can be a written one: crucial genealogical information about a family's heritage, for example. That information might reveal that a PC has a claim to a fiefdom, that the current noble lord is actually a bastard son, or that someone else might have a better claim to a title (and that someone would presumably be happy to reward the PCs for telling him about it). Physical status might also be a matter of owning status items, items best identified by identify spells or by the legend lore ability of the bard. An ax that looks pretty mundane and does not light up under a detect magic spell still might be hugely valuable if it is the ax of the clan ancestor or a famous dwarven defender, a named weapon of song and story. The dwarf who finds and recognizes that ax will have found a terrific treasure, and might use it to claim clan leadership or a fiefdom, even if it is only a masterwork item.

What about those fiefdoms? In medieval times, a fief was just a holding that a vassal got from a feudal lord. It was usually land, but not always. More interesting fiefdoms included the right to collect bridge or river tolls at a crossing, or the right to levy a tariff on goods at a harbor. Fantasy fiefdoms might include a hunting fief in an elven kingdom, a mining fief among dwarves, or even the right to tax magical artifice in a major urban center. If the party helps a group of elves, dwarves, or artificers out of a fix, they might be rewarded that way rather than with standard treasure.

Plot Coupons: Information, Clues and Keys

When she was DungeonMagazine editor in the early 90s, Barbara Young had a term for certain items of treasure or information: plot coupons. These were the items from many old adventures (and even supposedly modern video games) that the party would have to wander around the adventure collecting. You know the kind of thing: puzzle pieces that make a map, the fragments of a letter or diary, magic crystals, or a series of colored keys of any kind. Old published adventures like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were notorious for this (for that one, it was colored access cards).

As a treasure, these plot coupons are lame. And they are called plot coupons for a reason: when the PCs collect enough of them, they can trade them in for the next story arc or for the grand finale. It makes a convenient way to force the party around the map, but it is forced. Unless the adventure really truly demands collecting a sequence of items (think Rod of Seven Parts), avoid this type of "treasure." Players don't appreciate it, even though it makes lazy design easier.


Some players enjoy intricate roleplaying, others prefer rounds of complex combat, but everybody loves treasure. Make sure that the treasures you design into an adventure include some standard loot and some unusual items, and your game will be richer for it.

About the Author

Wolfgang Baur is the author of dozens of adventures, from the "Kingdom of the Ghouls" and "Gathering of Winds" in Dungeon magazine to upcoming releases from Wizards of the Coast. He offers custom-tailored adventures and professional advice to patrons of the Open Design blog.

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