Many monsters come with treasure in D&D. Taken at face value, these can quickly overwhelm a campaign. I thought I would run through a few measures that the GM can use to control how much hard currency the party gets their hands on.
First they have to find it
Most treasure will be found in a creature’s lair. Most encounters will take place near but not in the lair. That means that characters have to find the lair.
Even then, there is nothing that says that the treasure is in plain sight. Perhaps it’s buried. Perhaps its in another part of the lair – and say, how big is that lair, anyway? Is it a single discrete location, or distributed over a number of sites? Over how wide an area?
Let’s talk about prime real estate for a moment. What’s the chance that some other critter comes across the empty lair and sets up home in the meantime – a creature whose treasure allocation is therefore the same goodies as the first creature had? Okay, so it won’t happen very often, but even the occasional two-for-one deal can contribute to stemming the tide – when you’re talking about two critters for the one stash!
Material Goods instead of hard currency
Let’s say the the rulebooks list a creature’s treasure as 100 gp. Often, a GM will simply give away that much hard currency; this is exactly the wrong thing to do.
How much is the pelt worth (maximum)? Subtract that from the 100gp; then depreciate it according to the wounds and damage inflicted by the party. How about ivory from tusks, or antlers, or horns? Even if only prepared as decorations, they are worth something. There are bones which can be carved into tools, there is meat that can be consumed (even if it is socially unacceptable to do so, or the taste is unpalatable). Or perhaps the remains can be rendered down into glue. All of these subtract from the 100gp.
How about medicinal or flavourful herbs growing near the lair? Or natural veins of mineral that can be found by digging out the walls of the lair? Or rare delicacies like truffles that require exceptional olfactory senses to locate? Or perhaps there’s a pack full of rare foods that are on the verge of going off in the cache, and have to be consumed by the party because they won’t be able to trade or sell them in time?
Are there young in the lair that might be trainable, or inherantly valuable some years from now, or even right now as pets? Are there eggs that might be considered a (valuable) delicacy?
Chinese medicine is another topic worth consideration – are the organs of the dead creature worth something when dried or otherwise preserved? Whether they actually have any medicinal value or not? Sympathetic medicine until modern times often used such “remedies”. All of that should come off the 100gp.
And that’s before we even get to items that might actually be considered “treasure”. One of my favorite treasures to emplace in an artifical environment are artworks like statues and tapestries that are both inherantly valuable but inordinately inconvenient for transport and storage.
It’s not necessary to employ all of these, all the time; even one or two at a time can cut quite deeply into the currency available to the PCs. As with combat itself, treasure is a contest between the creativity of both PCs and GM.
Even in terms of hard currency, perhaps there’s a single coin that’s worth substantially more than its face value for some reason – if the players are clever enough to recognise it!
Finally, consider the potential for treasures that are worth the “book value” that the GM assigns – but only to the right person. A bag that has been embroidered with a particular crest might have a value of only half-a-gold-piece to the market in general, less if the bottom has rotted through; but to a particular collector, or to the family to whom the crest belongs, it might be worth a 1,000gp reward. It’s quite fair and within the rules for the GM to value that bag as 1000gp and leave it up to the party to discover the circumstances which enable them to get full value from it – no small trick if they don’t know what it is that’s worth all the extra currency.
All this discussion also points out that the treasure itself can be the source of future scenarios in its own right, or just the hook to link one scenario with the next. Again, it’s not the only way, but it has its place in the GMs repetoire.
Magic Items: a different problem
The real problem with magic items is that they concentrate and focus wealth into direct benefits for the character who has them. So much wealth that they can be devestating to an economy, and to the game, if converted back into currency; but we want them to be rare, so that the characters appreciate them when they find one. This is a vicious cycle with no easy solution. But there are some stopgaps that can be used to keep things from getting completely out of hand.
When is a treasure not a treasure? When it’s incomplete and only partially functions (if at all) – like gathering the shards of Narsil before it can be reforged, this could be a way of giving the unwashed some goodies without letting those goodies take control of the PCs capabilities. It’s a nice tip of the hat to the original “Wand Of Orcus” from AD&D, and can serve as a way to tie scenarios together that would otherwise be completely unrelated and unconnected.
Even better is a magic item that seems to be quite low-level, but that has additional abilities under specific circumstances – in a particular plane of existance, or in a temple, or in a library, or under a full moon. But that brings up another issue that I’ll get to in another blog sometime – the problem with Identify.
Another possibility is a ‘mundane’ treasure that has been prepared for specific magics to be enchanted into it, but that is ‘empty’ until a specific ritual is performed to ‘awaken’ the magic within. Of course, the PCs won’t know the ritual, or even if they want to perform it; that will take further research, consultations with experts, etc.
You can get a wealth of such ideas from “Master Of The Five Magics” by Lyndon Hardy. Although it’s currently out-of-print, Amazon lists a number of second-hand copies for as little as US$0.01 – just click on the image to order it.
The next best solution to the problem is to restrict the lifespan of the object. Potions, Scrolls and other 1-shot items are the best example. Wands and the like – with a healthy percentage of the charges used up – are next best. You should never give away a wand with all its charges intact!
Side effects from flawed construction can work a few times, but tend to exasperate players who feel more than a little cheated, so that solution is best reserved for a few special occasions.
The final answer that comes to mind is, paradoxically, to make the item uberpowerful – something that the party can’t use, but that they don’t dare release onto the market for fear it would wind up in the hands of their enemies. The risk you take with this ploy is that at some future point, a new character might be introduced into the party specifically to take advantage of the item, taking it out of the closet as it were. This is especially likely if the players know that the party treasury has something sitting around that gives that particular character a substantial advantage.
Grabbing Hold with one hand
Of course, just because the characters have something doesn’t mean they get to keep it. Taxes, tarrifs, moochers, beggers, con men, and thieves should all flock to their vicinity. A good rule of thumb is to equate the party’s total wealth (including magic items) to the xp total of the most-skilled thief trying to take it away from them. While not everyone will inflate prices on them, enough to at least knock the edge off their accumulated holdings should try.
The alternative is for the party to make out to be paupers. This deters the swindlers, and their kin, but it implies that the party are unsuccessful, a reputation that should come back to haunt them.
Another excellent tool to bear in mind is the power of expectations – “we have a standard to uphold” should be the refrain from any affiliation the characters might have. Opulance implies wealth, which implies success, which implies power, which confers authority – not only directly on the characters but on any guild or profession that can claim to represent them.
GMs should not ignore the temples, either. There should be pointed sermons on charity whenever a successful character glances sideways at a temple or church, and if a donation is made to any one of them, the others will most assuredly fill the ears of any who will listen with allegations of favoritism.
One measure to be avoided is the ‘poor relatives in trouble’, which has become something of a hackneyed cliche. Far better to have the ‘poor relatives’ kidnapped for ransom, or to play the expectations card again.
The best solution of all, of course, is to find something that the characters want to invest in and soak them for all they’re worth. Political office, with its implications for servants, estates, wardrobe, receptions & parties, is a wonderful choice. Throw in a drought in the region, lowering tax revenues while requiring the purchase of wheat and other foodstuffs from greedy neighboring kingdoms, can relieve PCs with too much wealth on their hands of a substantial burdon!
Levies of troops and funds for a foreign (and hopeless) perpetual war can also be a useful lever to have at hand.
Managing the wealth of your player characters gives them motivation to keep adventuring, creates opportunities for new and interesting events in their lives, adds to the realism and believability of the campaign, offers new and difficult challenges, and keeps them from destroying the campaign with their very success. Its in their best interests, really.