Trinkets Ahoy!

Of course, all treasure is not in precious metals or rare or finely made substances. Is not a suit of armor of great value? What of a supply of oil? a vial of holy water? weapons? provisions? animals? The upper levels of a dungeon need not be stuffed like a piggy bank to provide meaningful treasures to the clever player character.

—Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

Old-school adventures are full of junk. Treasure troves don’t just contain precious metals in thousand-coin increments! There’s all sorts of other valuables: furs, furniture, jewelry, silverware, casks of wine, wheels of cheese, and any number of other knick-knacks, many of questionable value.

This smorgasbord of variably-valued valuables serves two functions. The obvious one is verisimilitude; an interesting array of treasure helps make clear where the dungeon came from and gives a sense that the treasure is there for a reason. But many old-school play groups aren’t concerned with simulating a living world! So why should they bother?

Such groups can get mileage out of the other reason, which is that unusual treasure poses a challenge for the players. Any dunce of an adventurer knows to take the gold coins and leave the copper ones. But which is more valuable, the silver-chased coffer or the mahogany chair? The fancy porcelain serving dish or the collection of scrimshaw? You can only carry so much, so what do you take and what do you leave to be despoiled by the dungeon’s other denizens?

More importantly, unless the DM adds a selection of minor valuables, the major ones shine forth as blatantly as diamonds on black velvet. If every trove contains nothing but gold, gems and jewelry, the moment the PCs find a carpet, censer, girdle, horn or mirror, they’ll know it’s some sort of miscellaneous magic item. Don’t just give the show away with such transparency. Make them use precious spell slots to prepare detect magic!

12 Responses to “Trinkets Ahoy!”

  1. April 5, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Excellent post.
    –Thank you. :)

  2. April 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for reading!

    I suspect that the simplest way to handle this is to make stuff up on the fly rather than trying to detail the entire hoard in advance. If the party defeats some humanoids and loots the bodies, come up with a quick list of things they might have—cheap copper jewelry, shiny rocks, bits of string, and so forth. In a ruined castle’s kitchens, the party might find spices, silver dishware, wine, oil and salt. Visualize the environment and its inhabitants, picture what sorts of valuables might be there, and don’t bother coming up with gold piece values until after the session when the PCs return to town!

  3. April 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    I dont know about 1e D&D, but my box set for 2e Undermountain had “Dungeon Dressing” tables with random crap on it.

  4. April 5, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    This is exactly the approach I’m taking with treasure in my own Emprise! game.

    Monsters are given a total g.p. value of treasure, but the exact nature of the treasure is determined by rolling on tables. Some creatures will have their treasure in gems, coins, or jewelry, but most of the time it will be household goods, furnishings, art, foodstuffs, livestock, (non-magical) books, rugs, tapestries, etc. The idea being that most treasure monsters get is obtained from raiding merchants or villagers, and thus the stuff the monsters *have* is the stuff the villagers *had*.

  5. April 5, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Making players deal with strange and concrete treasures instead of abstract gold pieces is a great response to cr0m’s question about how to get players involved with the setting. If I were restarting the White Sandbox campaign now, I’d give a lot of attention to the question of “who will buy the players’ weird trinkets?” This is a great resource for player involvement because it offers lots of open-ended possibilities and plays into both the insanely greedy and venal drive (can we rob this storekeeper? can we find his suppliers, ruthlessly cut out the middleman, and establish our own shop) and the noble one (gee, now that we care about this gem buyer, we may take an interest in his local political problems).

  6. 6 James_Nostack
    April 5, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I’d also add that there’s a Ben Robbins post (he of the original West Marches idea) where the best way to get setting information to players is by encoding it in treasure. “This is, you think, a hobgoblin wedding anklet: in their culture, the females wear an anklet as a symbol that they will not run off from their doubtlessly abusive mates. It’s exceedingly well-made… etc.”

  7. April 5, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    That Ben Robbins post is called “Treasure Tells a Story” and it and a similar one from the Alexandrian are linked in one of my first-ever posts about magic items. Note that the guy you sell the wedding anklet to can be the mouthpiece for all that info dump, and the players will pay attention because there’s money in it (e.g. they can use that lore to convince others to pay more for furure bracelets).

    This is inching towards appraisal and issues of correct valuation.

  8. April 5, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Or that shopkeeper might broadcast that apparently there is treasure in them thar hills and more adventurers might show up to snatch a little treasure for themselves. Or some ill-equiped townsfolk might go get themselves killed, stir up trouble, etc.

  9. 9 1d30
    April 5, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    I created a few connected random tables so I could generate random valuables by type. A short example:

    Table 1: Treasure Type
    1 Books
    2 Spices
    3 Clothing
    4 Paintings
    5 …

    Table 1A: Books
    1 Census / Tax Records
    2 Holy Text
    3 Journal
    4 Wargaming Rules
    5 …

    Table 1B: Spices
    1 Cinnamon
    2 Cloves
    3 Paprika
    4 Salt
    5 …


    A referee should be able to throw his own tables together without too much effort. You can use the same process to determine the results of foraging, hunting, fishing, etc.

  10. 10 Brendan
    April 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    This is right on. As a PC in Carter’s Arandish Campaign, we spent large parts of a few recent sessions traveling between towns and exchanging costly ass-kickings with wandering monsters: a roc and a saber-toothed cat that ended up killing two NPCs. Being so disgruntled to have lost so much for no loot, we ended up taking the Roc’s talon’s and the Saber-tooth skull, pelt, genitals, and other parts assuming someone might want these in the next town. We got some cash for it, not a whole lot, but it was better than nothing.

    After a second terrible trip, we killed another Roc, took it’s talons, and by this point just wanted to get to town, being low on hit points, carrying a dead PC, and frustrated. Then of course 4 mountain lions start following us as we look for a camp site. Screw that. So my PC says, “All right. I take all these talons, which are still kind of bloody and nasty and leave them in a pile by the road for the mountain lions to distract them , and we keep going.” So Carter rules that this works to dissuade the lions and we escape without having to fight yet again.

    I see this as similar to the random stuff in dungeons that isn’t treasure, but can be really useful when played right. Wandering monsters are basically resources drains as someone has put it, and it makes sense (as a PC anyway) that the characters would be motivated to try to get at least trophies along the way (or just to mutilate a foe). Of course if we weren’t always hauling carcasses around the countryside maybe we wouldn’t attract so many large predators.

  11. April 6, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Thanks for reminding me about that post of Ben’s. I had done a bit of that way, way back in the beginning of the Red Box experiment, with the Lost Mine and Dwarven treasures, but it fell by the wayside when I started getting more pressed for time (read: had another kid).

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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