It all started with Dungeon™, the board game. I didn't play the wizard to play the wizard. I played the wizard because he was the only dude who was going to come back with the diamond. I loved finding boots of speed in a level one room. I stared at the pictures on each item, imagining what it would be like to hold or have such a thing.
Here is what I have learned about treasure in my 30 some odd years of gaming:
Players don't care.
An example of me handing out treasure:
DM:"You open the steel coffer by clicking open the last pin on the Clip Chest Deadpin lock, and find a pile of mixed coins, so—"
P1:"We start counting out the mixed coins."
DM:"Do you want to do that? It will take a turn."
DM:"Ok, you find 10,971 silver pieces, and 27 platinum pieces, A white marble gameset, 13 badger pelts, A granite helm with an inverted 5 point star diamond inserted in the top, A pewter girdle engraved with concentric circles, and a shiny black sheepskin leather suit of armor."
P1:"We cast detect magic"
DM:"The leather armor glows, it's magical."
P1:"How much are the items worth?"
DM:"The helm is worth 6,529 gp, The girdle is worth 3,656 gp, The gameset is worth 2,400 gp, and the beaver pelts are worth 3 gp each."
P1:"Ok, no one needs leather armor so we go back to town and sell it all."
I just wasted everyone's time. I could have just said, you find 15,856 gp in assorted treasure. Players often don't even want to keep the magic items, if they aren't immediately useful.
Now, there's caveats of course. Treasure in different situation serves different purposes. Treasure, like the above, from Numenhalla, matters to the players as far as portability and how they are going to manage to extract it from the megadungeon.
But what matters to the players are the gold pieces they get for experience and what services they can buy to buff their character. In Pathfinder, what matters is what magic items you can craft or buy. In 1st edition, what matters is how much you have for experience, and in 1st & 5th, what matters is what in-world purpose you can use the money for. Players are concerned with what the treasure can do for them mechanically.
The treasure itself? Unless it's magical and somehow useful it is just unimportant.
I think I've finally found the answer to how to make treasure interesting.
Real Interesting TreasureThe reason treasure isn't interesting is pretty obvious, now that I've been thinking about it for 30 years, but it took discovering out what players found exciting to see it.
I worked hard to find a good balance on what players could do with gold besides buy magic items in both my megadungeon games and old school style play. I've gotten a lot of feedback that these systems are super successful. Players are excited when they get treasure, because they can turn it into things and effects that they want. What players get excited about are opportunities to improve their characters. This doesn't just mean mechanically, but it does mean something concretely. It could be building a fortified castle, or buying a lordship, or getting questions answered by a sage.
Treasure is important to the degree to which it can do something for them, rather than as an end, in and of itself.
I'm interested in the treasure itself, for reasons unknown. Nostalgia, perhaps? Maybe because the idea of treasure is awesome and generates a certain internal feeling. It's lost art, hooks into the world, an aesthetic item of beauty itself. Unsurprisingly, I'm also interested in treasure that makes players interested in the treasure itself.
Set PiecesThe problem with treasure as it stands is that there is no feature of the treasure that is interesting to the player, beyond its value, magical status, and weight. But other features also hold intrinsic value; The culture that made this mask, what is engraved on this helm, what this statue represents. What I'm proposing is that beyond gold, beyond "trade goods", that there's interesting treasure, and this interesting treasure is divided into sets. And when you collect a set, your benefit increases.
It can't be as simple as it simply being worth more as a set—that simply takes the reward and makes players wait for it. That's not interesting, that's annoying. What we are looking for is to generate interest in the actual treasure.
The first step in doing this is to not assume that the characters all know and trust each other as well as the players. In older games (and the relevant Appendix N fiction) characters would often be known by and associated with the items that they carry. Elric didn't hand out Stormbringer just because he wasn't going on this mission. The items recovered by the character are a large part of the definition of that character. A modern iteration of this is the idea of attunement in 5th edition. Items are a part of the character.
This core assumption is important in making set items work. Each player is in competition with each other player. They must all have their own separate resources, such as gold. We are going to reinforce this mechanically, because without this, it isn't interesting. it instead becomes just like handing out a magic item, because the players will be working together to (trivially) find the most effective result.
How it WorksHere's how it works. There's gold, There's Trade goods, There's Experience, There's Magic Items, There's Consumables/Craftables, and finally, there are Set Items.
A set item would be something like:
"A troll doll stitched from hydra skin, with round black opals for eyes, worth 120 gp."
It would arbitrarily belong to the sets:
"[Troll doll trio]"
"[Four Dolls stitched from different fabric types]"
"[Three items using opals as decoration]"
"[A dozen Native/Primitive art items]"
When selecting treasure, divide gold according to shares, and then divide magic items and set items. Set items are picked at the same time as magic items.
Once selected as a players magic item pick, they have several options.
- Set items may be sold for their gold piece value and the player gains experience equal to that gold.
- Or the player may sell the item to other players at whatever cost they can extort, and gain experience equal to that gold total.
- If a player sells an item for the listed gold piece value to a merchant, the merchant will resell the item in one week for 2d4 times the base price, and if there is a player who wants it, they can buy it from the merchant.
- OR the set item may be kept, and the set collected. Once a set is collected, the player doesn't have to sell the items, and they get the experience point value for the items as if they did.
What's more is the multiplier.
If a player in a group completes a group of set items, they get a multiple of the total gold piece value of the set in bonus experience, with one caveat.
This bonus experience is deducted from the other player's earned experience in play.
Let's look at some basic set items:
[5 different gemstones worth 100 gp or more]: When this set is complete, gain 1.5x the value of the set in experience.
[3 different gemstones worth 1,000 pieces or more]: When this set is complete, gain 1.8x the value of the set in experience and the friendship of a jewel crafter who can increase the value of your raw gemstones by 10%-60% by cutting them.
Frank the cleric has a 1,200 gold piece pearl, and while adventuring finds a 225 gold piece ruby and a 800 gp sapphire. Later he finds a 102 gp rock crystal, and a 200 gp ruby, and a 2,650 gold piece emerald.
He has enough to complete the first set right now with a ruby left over, but doing so would prevent him from completing his second set. Because the sets specify different gemstones, Frank can't use both rubies to complete the first set.
We can see why he might want to wait, but let's say Frank wants to go ahead and level, because he's close. So he turns in the first set. He gets a total of:
Pearl 1,200 gp
+ Ruby 225 gp
+ Sapphire 800 gp
+ Rock Crystal 102 gp
+ Emerald 2,650 gp
For a grand total of 4,977 experience, PLUS another 2,488 experience due to the multiplier right now. This experience is deducted from the experience earned in the future by the rest of the party, but not the player turning in the set. Or alternately, this total could be divided by the number of other players and subtracted from everyone else's experience point total for ease of record-keeping. They wouldn't lose levels, but their experience total required for the next level would be higher.
Suddenly, it seems like players will be very interested in the type and features of non-monetary treasure!
- Interesting items belong to a public list of sets.
- The public list contains the bonuses for acquiring a complete set.
- Individual items may be sold and experience gained for the amount they sold for.
- They may be sold to merchants for the listed value, or to other players for whatever you can extort from them.
- Only the original owner of the item (the person who picked it at treasure distribution) may gain experience points for items sold this way. There is no benefit to cyclically selling the item back and forth within the group.
- Merchants will buy the item at the listed price and resell it in one week at 2d4 times that amount.
- When sets are collected and turned in, the collector receives experience equal to their total value, plus the bonus multiplier, plus any bonus effects.
- The experience granted by the multiplier is subtracted from the other players experience point totals. This does not cause a loss of levels, but does increase the experience point requirements.
- If a set is completed and experience received, and it is sold or lost, the character loses the experience gained from the set (though if sold, they do receive the base gold piece value, plus the multiplier value.)
- In our example, selling those gems for 7,465 gold when they are actually worth 4,977 gp might be something a player wishes to do, even at the expense of losing the experience
Further ideasWhat we have above is very basic. There are some further twists that might make it even more exciting.
Rumor, Class, and Race Bonuses: Each player receives a personalized version of the set list, with bonuses that are available from each set only for their specific race or class. Or when selecting rumors, the player may receive a rumor that provides them (and only them) with an additional bonus to collecting the set. The worth of a set might not be equal to an elf wizard or a dwarven fighter. Alternately, this information could be public. Each set should have different effects for multiple classes and races to encourage players to compete against each other for them.
Turning in set restrictions: This places restrictions on turning in sets—whenever you turn in a set it removes (or uses) your next treasure pick. So either you give up your first pick of the next treasure haul, or during the pick process, you use your pick to turn in one of your sets.
Restricted Set List: Provide a limited generic list (5 gems, etc.), and as interesting treasure is found, provide information about the sets it belongs to, to the players. This can be a gradual way to gain knowledge of the setting.
Should I design the sets based on what characters my players choose to play?
My opinion is no. I'd design most of them before the campaign starts. But I encourage multiple characters per player and sometimes have tables with up to 20 or 30 rotating players. Your milage may vary.
Pitting the players against each other? Losing experience? Have you gone mad?
Set collecting as a game mechanic is neither thematic or interesting on it's own. It's only interesting when there's hidden knowledge (poker), competition for similar resources with a penalty for not getting them (rummy) or a cost to collecting the set (ticket to ride).
I think the above addresses that problem in a way that keeps it interesting, since in the long run, it all comes out in the wash. (don't tell the players).
Wait, doesn't this just make sets unusual magic items you have to wait for? Or alternately treasure you have to wait for?
It would, if each item only fit one set, and the players weren't in competition for them. Because any given item can fit more than one set, it means there are multiple choices all down the line. This prevents it from just being a multi-part magic item.
How will they tell what is a set item and what isn't? How do they know what items are in the set?
You tell them. Or you give them a handout.
This sounds like a lot of work.
Tune in tomorrow.
Hack & Slash
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