Friday, March 14, 2014

Interesting Non-Magical Treasure, Part I

What you say:

"You find an exquisitely carved ivory hairbrush, sized for a small human woman or perhaps an elf. There are floral patterns in it, including several different kinds of flowers, each picked out in a different inlaid precious metal. It's not radiating magic, but it's worth 1500 silver, easily, by your estimate."

What the players hear:

"Blah Blah non-magical comb worth 1500 silver."

and all they write down is:

Comb 1500 silver

Why do they do that?

Because the kids today just don't appreciate what we all went through, mapping the levels, statting the monsters, writing up detailed treasure, only to have them bash a hole in the wall, kill the monsters, and take the stuff and write it down as "comb, $1500."

Thing is, while equipment and magical items tend to be useful, non-magical, non-gear treasure tends to be seen as money. And treasure that is ultimately just useful as money is fungible. The description matters about as much as telling people in a modern-day game the exact breakdown of 20s, 10s, 5s, and 1s they find and who was Secretary of the Treasury and thus has signed the bills. Unless that information is plot-useful ("it's a fake!" "it's a clue to the killer" etc.), it's just extraneous detail to the players.

You might be thinking "But if I describe all the treasures this way, they will have to decipher for themselves which are the special ones, or use Player Agency to decide which ones are!"

That's true. But they equally might just do what I do, and my players do - write down the value and use their player agency to decide if everything could be special, nothing is special, and it's easier to just sell the crap and buy a new sword and some rations with it and look for magical stuff. Enough of that and you start describing only the special stuff, and we're back to square one.

So you want to break out of that fungible nature of money and make some of it special - make it something the players have to or want to deal with differently. That means it has to has some kind of value aside from money to be interesting.

How to make it interesting?

Think "does," not "is."

Interesting treasure is interesting not because it is well-described or unique, but because it does interesting things from a player perspective.

It has to be interesting in the sense of utility or in the sense of being a clue to something else valuable - whether that is more money or information.

Or there can be something interesting about how the treasure is used, sold, or transported.

It might have some kind of challenge to toting it, lifting it, or disposing of it.

If it comes down to just something to turn into coinage and split, it'll get turned into coinage and split, in my experience. So next time (possibly tomorrow), I'll take a look at some of the ways I think you can do this and keep the players interested in your "interesting" treasure.


  1. FWIW, I don't provide a value for items unless one of the PCs has an appropriate skill for appraising them, which they rarely do. If nothing else, that kinda forces them to record "the ivory comb with the silver inlay" vs "the tortoiseshell comb with the elephant carving."

    1. In my games, it's be "rarely lack such skills." They have in my current game at several important stretches, but generally, they load up on the loot-identifying treasure.

      Besides, they'll just write "comb from wights" and "silver ring." "Which silver ring?" I will say. "The one from that room with the chest." So I guess in my case, I get "Comb, 150" or "Comb."

  2. I wonder if we're all just indoctrinated from our years of D&D to assign values to treasure - how else do you award XP, after all? - and more than anything need to get out of the habit of attaching that value to the game until it becomes relevant.

    Still definitely looking to see your ideas in part two.

    1. Is there workable and speedy way to NOT assign value to treasure? Even "you can evaluate it with some time and effort" doesn't change the issue of them not caring about the details beyond what it might be worth.

    2. I think my take was more "don't volunteer that info" than "don't assign it in the first place" - your comb might get at least a token bit of action if it isn't immediately reduced to a value in their eyes, and only becomes so when they ask "what's it worth" and then a roll, if appropriate, makes sense.

    3. If you try that, let me know how it works. I suspect that in my game it would drag out the process as they ask "what is this work? And this? And this?" and roll and roll and roll. I can see them saying "anything that looks well-made or is made out of the following (list of materials) we always appraise for value on the spot." If that would make them care about the pieces more, that might be good - but I'm not convinced yet it will.

    4. Do you think that's a feature of any fantasy game, or more your reality because it is a DF game?

    5. It's happened in all of my fantasy gaming, really - either I tell them the value to the extent the characters can identify it, or they ask and make me tell them.


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