Friday, October 1, 2021

What's Treasure Worth?

One of the sacred crows of Old School gaming that I've always have a strange relationship with is the concept of 'Treasure'. 

Let me start by saying I will not be addressing Treasure from my usual vantage point as a Gamemaster and (occasional) player of games wherein Treasure simply isn't a thing - Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, and others. I may talk about this in a separate post. We'll see. 

Instead, my goal is to discuss Treasure from a more general gaming point of view; though obviously one that is based on my own experiences and ideas on the subject, including my earliest forays into Dungeons & Dragons with Basic and Advanced 1st Edition.. 

Treasure is defined by Merriam-Webster as 'Wealth (such as money, jewels, or precious metals) stored up or hoarded'. 


Something of great worth or value
A collection of precious things

These certainly fit the traditional RPG meaning of Treasure wouldn't you say? We usually imagine piles of gold coins, a smattering of jewelry and gemstones, and perhaps a magical sword or ancient urn. Riches beyond ones wildest dreams are to be had for the Adventurer brave enough to seek them. 

Unless...that isn't what the Adventurer seeks.

In order to discuss Treasure as an Old School fan might understand it, I went to an Old School D&D fan - JB of B/X BLACKRAZOR - to give me his explanation of what Treasure is and why its awesome:

- As a goal, "money" is easily understood / recognized by players.

- As a goal, treasure acquisition is an objective, measurable means of success. You're not worried about what constitutes "good role-playing" or humor awards, etc.

- As a measurable objective, it invites risk-reward assessment (should we spend our resources (HPs, spells, etc.) to take down a big difficult score? etc.).

- For a GROUP of individuals (the players) it provides a unifying objective...we all want treasure, let's work (together, cooperatively) to find treasure.

- As a target objective, it invites a multitude of ways to accomplish the objective (stealth, trickery, negotiation, combat, etc.). When experience is only awarded for combat (as in 3E and 4E D&D, for example), there is only one means of earning experience points (fighting), limiting the experience overall.

- As a "tangible" objective of play (the imaginary characters must go after it), it encourages proactivity on the part of the players in order to gain the reward. Passive reward systems (XP for participation, for example) do not encourage proactivity. It provides no game-related impetus/motivation.

- With regard to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition) specifically, treasure is tied directly to the game economy (it's needed for hirelings, training, equipment replacement, magical research, tithes and fees, construction, etc.) providing reinforcement of the reward system (we need money - we need to adventure - we acquire money - we spend money - we need money). 

Money is a common and easily understood goal and a common motivator for adventurers in many stories across an array of genres. isn't really. Certainly Captain James T. Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and Superman aren't motivated by the promise of wealth. Ah, I said I was going to avoid those universes so let's look at Fantasy...

Bilbo Baggins does not except the undertaking of traveling to the Lonely Mountain for the treasure. At the end of the Hobbit he is indeed a wealthy man but he is back home with a story to tell and that is his reward. 

Frodo Baggins doesn't go to Mount Doom to get rich. He journeys to rid the world of the evil of The One Ring and Sauron. 

Neither Elric, Corum, nor Dorian Hawkmoon were motivated by wealth but rather a mixture of political power, obligation, and on occasion love. 

Surely, Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser, the quintessential D&D Fantasy style heroes were drawn to the call of adventure by wealth, yes? Well...many of their adventures start with this idea but along the way they end up with more altruistic goals of saving cities and defeating villains. 

Money is mundane. It is a base need in societies that utilize it. The desire for it is easy to understand but simple, even shallow. There are also easier ways to obtain money than go through a trap laden cave network infested with monsters. If you're going to go through all that you'd better come out with a king's ransom in gold and there is the second problem...

If a group of PCs go through and adventure and face the same hardships, do they get the same share of the Treasure? Perhaps. Though perhaps one believes they did more work and they deserve a larger share. Another feels they exhausted resources and need extra Treasure to recoup their investment. A Fighter might begin and end a dungeon excursion with the same sword or find a magic sword but a Wizard isn't often getting their material components back if used and wands have charges. Incidentally, it always kind of bugged me that such items were finite while a dagger never runs out of stab. 

Wealth and the desire to obtain it promotes greed and greed is one of the lowest and saddest qualities of your...of the Human species. How many Thieves have attempted to rob from their own party? The common motivator of Treasure can easily become the thing that divides a group. A lot of wealth is never enough. On that note...

With the exception of the misprinted Treasure cache' at the climax of Tomb of Horrors, no published adventure I've ever seen delivers what it promises in the wealth department. I've yet to see a dragon's hoard that is truly a Dragon's Hoard, with PCs swimming in coins and jewels Scrooge McDuck style. 

Bilbo Baggins and Smaug
Art by Anatofinn Stark

Funny enough, if PCs did come across a Treasure trove like that they'd likely be done. They'd stop adventuring. That's how most folklore and legends go after all; hero goes to say their true love, must defeat cruel antagonist, does so and finds out their opponent have a vast collection of money, gems, etc. This signals, 'And they lived happily ever after', with the hero and his beloved wedding and settling down as a rich couple. 

These are the issues with Treasure that have always perplexed me. 
  • It is a simple, common, base desire/need that isn't heroic.
  • It isn't noble, emotionally driven, and serves no greater purpose beyond personal gain.
  • Making it the primary goal promotes envy, greed, and distrust. It can divide the group.
  • It is never enough, partly because no reward is as epic as described in stories or art.
  • If genre appropriate, Treasure would end the story. Filthy rich PCs need not adventure.

With all this in mind, we come to the real purpose of Treasure in most old school TRPGs: Rule mechanics. Treasure is a means to an end and that end is the meta-reward of Experience Points.

How much money you have translates to how good you are at your chosen vocation. Basically, the more coins you find on the floor the better you are at shooting arrows or praying to your deity for spells. All I can say to this is...HUH?!? This never made any sense to me. Never. Beginning with my first read throughs of Advanced D&D in the late 70s/early 80s to now I can not understand why the game was constructed this way. It feels like design laziness, though I will fully admit that's with the benefit of 40+ years of hindsight.

Dating back to my very first gaming session ever - August 25th, 1977, Holmes Basic Dungeons and Dragons - we had plot. We have reasons for adventuring that weren't related to treasure. 

My Halfling was searching for his father who disappeared.
The Cleric was seeking a cure for a Curse.
The Elf was running from Human Undead out to get him. 

As it turned out, my father disappeared trying to deliver potions to the Human Kingdom (in the form of Hot Sauce!). The Cleric discovered the cure to the Curse involved using the potion, which had magical ingredients. The Curse was turning the dead into the Undead that were hunting the Elf.

The Elf turned out to be the lost Prince of his Kingdom but that's another tale...

The point is we were motivated by something more than money and it gave us deeper purpose. Instead of a group of ne'er do wells looking for wealth, we were heroes trying to save our Kingdoms and each other from an evil priest and his Undead curse. Everything connected and it unified the game to create a story I still remember 44+ years later.

Remember that one time you found that dollar bill on the floor? No? Neither do I. I know I've found money on the ground in the past but if you think any one of those times is specifically memorable to me...nope. Sorry. 

Art by Izzy Medrano

More thoughts to come...

Barking Alien


  1. So true. In heroic stories, money is worthless. All we need is plot!

    1. A bit of a simplification but yes. LOL

      My point is more that it has its uses but it isn't the driving force for Heroic tales. Not once you get below the surface.

  2. Economy in D&D as always been flawwed. It requires huge amount of gold just to live. The gold pieces are the 'standard', silver & copper being relegated to small change status. I remember a few games where (after a few levels) the usual modus operandi was to leave copper and silver and recover gold, eletrum & platinium...
    IIRC, in D&D (BECMI edition), garlic costed 5gp (no mention on quantity). A quart of wine is 1gp. Hiring a light swordman cost 2gp per month.
    I guess that since D&D evolved from a tactical wargame, no thoughts were given to economy. The problem is that they (TSR & WotC) never really tried to solve this issue.

    You should try Chivalry & Sorcery or Harnmaster. Both have a better economy, but might not have a common goal.
    In one of my campains (Harnmaster), there was 3 characters.
    - One priest of Larani sent to a small manor to replace the old local priest. He was born in the region and thus knew the resident when he was a kid.
    - One landless kight from neaby castle, sent to the Earl as a squire and coming back home.
    - One Sheck-Pvar journeyman, a commoner born in Harn but raised far away, trying to find a place to conduct his researchs. He got hired as a chamberlain in the same manor than the priest.
    Their goals were quite mundane and didn't require wealth beyond measure.

    1. My issue with D&D's 'economy' is that it never played a part in our early games. Garlic might be 5 gold pieces but unless you're fighting vampires, who is buying garlic?

      I played Harn a few times many years ago and don't remember much about it. It was cool if a little dry.