“Wealth abounds; it is simply awaiting the hand bold and strong enough to take it!”
– Gary Gygax, AD&D DMG, 1979
Treasure hunting is a big part of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Every player wants his or her character to nab an awesome magical item to use during the game. Could you imagine Conan not seeking out gems and gold to squander on wine and women? Raistlin without his Staff of Magius? Fafhrd without a bag of gems on his belt? Or even Drizzt without his cunning scimitars? What’s the fun in that?!
However, as Dungeon Masters we cannot simply hand out treasure without considering the logic of the game itself. We must remember that our playing characters work within a milieu of a game based on advancement and achievement. Even as the playing characters gain treasure and magical items they also achieve new levels of ability and power. Balance should be the key. An experienced Dungeon Master must consider the proper placement of monetary treasure within the campaign setting. One must seek to entertain the players and empower the playing characters without ruining the game milieu.
Common sense seems to tell the arbiter of the campaign that the underlying precept of the game of Dungeons & Dragons is advancement in strength from weak to strong. Therefore, the availability of treasure should advance as well depending on the principle of adventuring and success thereat to reward the players for excellent participation and the playing characters for resounding achievement. Therefore, the Dungeon Master should also consider the merit and relative strength of the playing characters and the party when rewarding treasure. So first and foremost we must consider the placement of modest treasures which are appropriate for the beginning stages of the campaign.
Keep in mind that not all monsters will have treasure, and some of them will have trifling amount compared to more dangerous creatures like a dragon or beholder. When considering what treasures to award the playing characters, use some logic. Take the time to consider why the creature has the item in question at all. Why has it not been stolen by a rival monster or abandoned due to disuse. The bulk of treasures awarded for weak, low-level monsters will depend on the campaign that you are devising as the Dungeon Master. But often, these caches will simply contain trinkets, copper and silver coins, and perhaps a few gold pieces here and there.
Assign the treasure to each monster with wisdom. A Slime or Jelly would have a magical sword for completely a different reason than a Bugbear. A band of Bandits might only have a few coins between them due to partying and celebrating in the local tavern. And that nest of Giant Spider had nothing useful except for a few bones and scraps of filthy rags. However, the Giant Centipede made its home in the skeletal remains of several of its victims. These remains hold a few treasures unwittingly hidden within the nests of the creature. There, on a rotting finger, is a gleaming ring and a silver bracelet with a ruby. You see, unintelligent creatures have no need for treasure and would be as likely to abandon them as to hoard them. However, intelligent monsters may either hoard them, use them, or sell them for their own benefit. And then there are the other monsters that may gather treasure simply because they are drawn to shiny objects. They may store the treasure simply by instinct rather than a desire to retain wealth. And naturally some monsters will be so unfortunate to have nothing at all of value within the lair or on their person despite their desire to obtain wealth.
The awarding of treasure should be done with the understanding that players will delve into the Player’s Handbook and other resources to find awesome things for their characters to use on the next adventure. Depending on the playing character’s lifestyle choice, local economy, and ability to fence items of interest, it may be possible for them to amass a decent amount of magical items before even reaching 5th level if the Dungeon Master is not careful. Advancement too fast or possession of improper items too early in a campaign may destroy it. On the other hand, I have had experiences where it has been fun to introduce Artifacts into the hands of low-level playing characters. For example, having The Rod of Seven Parts introduced to First Level characters may prove for a very interesting campaign. It simply takes a little planning ahead by the Campaign Manager to decide what will work and what will not work within the milieu of the ongoing campaign.
For example, I am currently running a campaign for five players using the 5th edition rules. These players are using characters ranging from Level One to Level Three at this point. I decided to use the method on page 13 of the player’s Handbook where ability scores are not generated randomly by using dice, but instead simply assigned using 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8. This produced what most of my players considered “weak” characters, especially with the 8 being a below average stat that awards a -1 to most rolls. However, even in using these supposedly “weak” stats for the playing characters, most of the characters ended up with at least a +5 bonus to hit with their weapons. This +5 bonus may not seem like much at first, but it is a factor that must be considered by the Dungeon Master before handing out magical weapons.
Also, keep in mind that a party of playing characters could be rewarded with a huge stash of treasure but be unable to gather and transport it all. Consider the vast wealth contained in Smaug’s hoard during the Hobbit. No party could hope to lug all that treasure out of the dragon’s den. Another example might be the treasure room from National Treasure. The Dungeon Master could describe the vast amount of glittering treasures within the trove and then allow the playing characters the ability to remove a few choice, portable items. The entire trove would be difficult to transport. Even the most clever of playing characters will be hard pressed to come up with a way to garner the entire hoard without outside assistance. And who is trustworthy enough to employ in gathering up such a huge amount of treasure?
Keep in mind that such a collection of goodies would likely be the glint in the eye of another monster just waiting for the opportunity to sweep in and take it all for itself. And even if the playing characters decide that a few will wait at the den to guard the treasure while they return to town to secure help in transporting their new wealth, who knows what danger may befall the now reduced party? Perhaps their friends will return to find the guards dead, ravaged by a rival creature that has now taken control of the trove. The process of driving off, slaying, or outwitting the new monster will start yet another dangerous expedition.
In the likely event that your generosity gets the best of you, keep in mind that the playing characters themselves may become the target of devious folk looking to steal what someone else has acquired through hard work. Maybe there is a René Emile Belloq out there just waiting for the party to return to town. Or maybe the merchant who gave his services to help transport the treasure from the monster’s lair to the town is a thief himself. What better way to make a living them to hire yourself out as a caravan merchant and then simply slit the throats of the newest band of adventurer’s who did all the dirty work. Word often travels fast, and if the playing characters have managed to obtain a vast amount of treasure, they will have to defend themselves from others like themselves. Local rulers may depend taxes or a share of the wealth. All in all this is a reasonable abstraction of their actions to generate further adventures and encounters.
Although there is no quick and fast rule to how a Dungeon Master should assign treasure in his or her campaign, there is a sensible logic that may be used carefully. With some thought, and planning the playing characters can be empowered with cool magical items, and the players can be satisfied with rewards for the deeds of their heroes. The judge of the campaign must simply balance the treasure with the danger involved in each adventure or session, advancing the game in a balanced and exciting manner.
I will end my thoughts with another example from my recent campaigns in the Forgotten Realms. This example focuses on an Ettin and how the playing characters might be presented with a reasonable amount of treasure for the danger of having hunted and defeated a giant creature. However, not all the treasure will be available for the playing characters to take with them. They must make wise choices to take some of the treasure and abandon the rest, or maybe bury it for retrieval later in the campaign.
A large and particular vile Ettin has taken up residence in a small cave network south of the village of Phandalin. This Ettin has amassed a small trove of treasure containing about 2000 gold. This is measured in an assortment of goods, coins, and weapons stolen from folks traveling through the region. It is likely that a band of four or five adventurers ranging from Levels One to Three could easily assault the Ettin’s lair and murder him outright. However, it would not be as easy for them to transport the Ettin’s 2000 gold in treasure. If the Ettin simply had a large gem worth 2000 gold, a playing character could stuff it in his pouch and merrily be on his way. But instead we have a collection of trade goods, coins, and weapons to deal with in the lair. Looking around they would find several iron chests, crates, and other heavy vessels containing various coinage. Perhaps this adds up to half of the treasure, leaving another 1000 gold worth of treasure to describe to the players. Therefore, with further searching, they find that one of the boxes containing coins is finely crafted and worth 100 gold on its own. They also discover a beautiful silver necklace worth perhaps 350 gold pieces! Among the assorted weapons, some of the martial characters manage to discover provisions and food of high quality that would cost another 100 gold at the market. One of the characters finds that the Ettin was using a Giant-Sized Fur cape for a blanket on it’s bug-infested cot. Although the cape is probably worth 200 gold, it is infested with bed bugs and not worth salvaging at all! The remaining 250 gold is found by the party’s monk. He uncovers a two-handed sword with a azure gem in the pommel. Just grasping the sword makes the monk feel powerful and ready to enter battle. The sword is magical, but worth only 250 gold on the open market due to the many notches on its blade.
Although I awarded the players with a total of 2000 gold pieces in treasure for their playing characters, they were only able to claim some of the items for there own based on weight, size, and condition. Even though the Ettin was defeated, the characters must leave some of the treasure behind. If they simply leave the treasure in the lair, it will be found and claimed by other monsters in the region. And even if the playing characters take the time to bury the treasure before leaving, the sound of battle and digging may entice other creatures to investigate. Or maybe the smell of blood lures some other beastie from the darkness of the caves. Or maybe the Ettin has been terrorizing some Goblins in the surrounding area who watched the playing characters enter the cave, and now plan to ambush them to steal the treasure! The possibilities are endless.
The key overall is to use common sense and logic to make the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons a fun one for you and your players alike.