On Treasure Design

What is the best way to design and present treasure?

It depends on what type of game you are running.

Treasure has different purposes in different games. It is important when placing treasure that it serves the purpose of the game you are playing. Treasure used as a reward structure should be designed and presented differently then treasure used as a puzzle element of play.


If treasure is primarily used as the method via which your players advance in level:
  • Treasure should be randomly generated for several reasons
    • The variance in the amount of treasure drives play by invoking the intermittent reinforcement response* (i.e. gambling) causing players to seek out the next treasure cache
    • You should avoid systems which don't vary treasure, because that requires that the Dungeon Master create "Interesting Exceptions". This keeps the game feeling fair and doesn't give the feeling that the Dungeon Master is 'going easy' or 'being hard on' the players
    • It also reinforces the living world, by giving you average values over time, but local variances, it creates information about the world and the activities that are in it
  • It is very important to note that "Giving the players what they want or what should 'logically' be there, because you want them to have fun" generates boredom and tedium. There are no surprises and getting the 'appropriate' thing all the time generates the feeling of reward being work.
  • The treasure that creatures should have, should be consistent and the players should have access to that information, either in-game or out of game
    • Players should know that ghouls hoard/guard scrolls, and that dwarves and dragons have huge hoards, so they can make informed decisions
  • You should avoid blurring the line between treasure and junk lying around. 
    • Because treasure is a reward mechanic, anything that isn't specifically designated as treasure should essentially be valueless. This prevents having play bog down with players trying to steal everything that isn't nailed down, and spending hours of time at the table working out how to move 800 pounds of junk that will garner them 30 gold. 
    • Because treasure is tied into advancement, players will spend 1 low-risk hour in game for an incremental advancement, because that is so important. Therefore being explicit about anything not designated as treasure not being treasure makes play at the table go much quicker. (no writing down every copper pot, dented helm, and rusted dagger and then checking later to see how much they can get for it).


If treasure is primary used as a pillar of game-play:
  • Treasure should be constructed as a logistical puzzle. This has 2 parts
    1. It should be unclear from appearances how valuable the treasure is. This requires either in game skill use or player skill through interaction with the Dungeon Master to determine the value of the treasure
    2. Treasure should, in general, be large and difficult to move. Part of the value of the reward of gems and jewelry is that they are light, and requires no logistical sacrifice to gain the benefit of it. 
  • The puzzle is broken down into several parts
    • How valuable is this treasure?
    • How difficult is this treasure to move safely?
    • How do we protect and manage our resources to address this logistical challenge
      • i.e. Food for mules and protecting them from monsters, navigating carts down stairs, protecting the treasure from people who might want to steal it


If treasure is primarily a resource that your characters use to maintain their power or manage their ability as in modern tactical games
  • All treasure should be converted and given in the base exchange value i.e. gold pieces or residuum. You find coins and art objects worth 8,000 gold pieces. You find 1500 gold pieces in armor and weapons. You find 1000 gp of residuum in enchanted toys.
    • The play in these games is about character building and facing tactical challenges. Often the power levels of characters in Pathfinder style games allow them to easily address logistical problems, so making them track individual goods for sale just eats up table time which could be better spent arguing over grapple rules or figuring out five foot steps.


If treasure is primarily a macguffin, then the focus should be on its theme, history, and uniqueness. Magic items should be characters in their own right, gear and items should be descriptive and tie into the story or provide background information.

Ludic Logistics

Treasure is one of the rare times during play, where taking time to roll the dice and look things up isn't really detrimental to play. In fact, looting many small containers or areas that require a roll or two may improve play, via providing the same negative feedback that we receive when being through in the real world. It takes time. 
Here are some concrete methods of speeding up random generation at the table and during preparation. 
  • Combine percentage tables into a single die roll. 50% of 1-6000 gold? Roll a d12, with nothing being present on values of 1-6. 
  • For multiple small creatures that have small pouches with various coins in them, roll a die for each monster in the group and then multiple the result by the number of oppoents (or the hit dice of the opponent if you'd like one table to apply to multiple monsters) i.e.
    • 1:1-12 copper
    • 2:1-10 silver
    • 3:1-8 gold
    • 4:1 gem
    • You kill 5 troglodytes with 2 hit dice each. Roll 3 times (getting a 1,3, 3, and 4). For each value, multiply the result by the total troglodytes (5). So *clatter [8]* There is 40 copper *clatter [3,7]* 50 gold and 5 gems. '
  • Generate a treasure chart that has escalating values of expected gear for common humanoids. Coins are per opponent. You may just give flat numbers instead of ranges for more speed. Roll smaller dice for weaker creatures. You can also just pre-generate coin values and roll those
    • 1: Swords, Leather armors, and 1-10 silver and 1-4 gold per 
    • 2: Swords and spears, Chain armors, and one has a *Potion of Healing*. 1-12 silver and 1 gold 
    • 3: Greatclub, Hide armors 2d10 gold and 1-100 silver
    • 4: etc.
  • Using a die drop table can produce interesting statistically regulated results
  • Use colored dice to represent coins. Roll all of them at once. If the players let dice roll of the table, that is treasure they didn't get. Toss 'em pretty hard. 
  • Use online generators, such as Abulafia, Hackmaster Gem Generator, or Art Generator

General Advice

  • Generating interesting treasure can be a pain in the ass, but a painting worth 500 gold pieces can be something more. It could be the seed for the next adventure. . . (Ed Hackett)
  • I'm too hung over to form a solid answer, but my gut says if treasure only does one thing its function is too narrow for the range of player interests. Also, I sometimes allow players to roll up the treasure in a hoard, which turns looting the dragon into a minigame of its own (Jeff Rients)
  • I use surprising results to think of new twists: dragons without treasure got robbed, a bunch of hobgoblins with immense treasure are on their way to pay taxes to their overlord, things that enrich the world. I never embellish monetary treasure. That includes gems and most jewelry. It's simply there to be brought back to safety and to be converted to xp when spent in some way. I might embellish jewelry if it is expensive (500gp or more) and say that it's a diadem, a crown, a bracelet, a holy symbol of a named person, an aristocratic helmet of a dead people. When it comes to magic items, I still roll on the tables, but I try to embellish every single one of them. Again, things that enrich the world. (Alex Schroder)

I usually write a post like this, and someone takes a specific admonition and applies it globally. Don't be that guy. Note that they are categorized by styles of play to explicitly make it clear which options have value in which situations.

* If you always reinforce an activity, then people are not driven to engage in the activity, because they know if they want to get that need met, they can at will. If you never reinforce an activity (extinction) then eventually they will stop that behavior due to lack of a reward. If you intermittently reinforce an activity, then people will engage in the activity more and more.


  1. I disagree.

    My time is rather limited at the moment, so I've only read the "advancement" section, (since that's the current role of treasure in my games).

    In my games, determining which items are valuable enough to bring with you and which are not is one of the challenges. My players have never cared for items of low value. They, like most adventuring parties, scorn copper and silver peices. They dont' pursue copper pots, or ratty tapestries.

    Treasure isn't something that slows down my game. When my players move insufferably slowly, they do so because they're worried about being killed by a trap or ambush.

    1. Maybe when you read the article, in toto, you might feel differently? You say you use treasure as advancement, and then follow that by describing you using it as gameplay.

  2. One of the reasons why fisherman are so into fishing is because of "intermittent reinforcement response". Fishing is gambling, basically.

  3. Wicked. I like using treasure for any and all of these things, but I think you've really captured the essential elements of why and how it works. Sometimes ordinary things are treasure because they're adventure seeds. Sometimes it's the key to advancement. Sometimes it's the focus of gameplay. Gotta put this post in this week's roundup on my gaming blog.


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