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GM Tips: Giving Luster to Your Loot

Treasure chest artwork by Pawel Parol

Your party has just vanquished Malnor, the dreaded evil red dragon who's been devouring cattle and terrorizing the villagers of Terria for months now. You take a few moments to catch your breath, before your party's rogue slowly points into the distance in awe.

"Treasure," she says.

Your eyes follow her extended finger where you see a pile of coins, gems, and a sword with some fancy looking boots nearby. Excitedly, you all head to Malnor's hoard and begin sifting through your hard-won spoils. You receive...600gp, 150pp, 8 gems each worth 120gp, a +2 broadsword, and Boots of Spider-Climbing. You quickly divvy up the coins on a separate sheet of paper, and then argue about who gets to have the sword and boots. In the end, Kayleigh's rogue gets the boots, Bill's fighter gets the sword, and the rest of you get yet more coins. Doesn't sound very engaging, right?

Quick Aside

Want a free adventure you can play tonight with 30 minutes of prep? Have one on us!

Well, what if I told you it doesn't have to be that bland? I mean, sure, if that works for your campaign and your players - go to town! But for some of us, we crave more worldbuilding, more immersive bits of material, and more details.

What if instead of 600 gold coins it were actually 30 gold bars and they were stamped with the royal seal of the neighboring kingdom of Walpole? What if the platinum pieces were counterfeit? What if the +2 sword was actually an ancient blade called Temerity and had not only specific magical powers, an entire backstory, and accompanying art but a curse on it as well? And what if those boots had a message stitched into them with a name familiar to the characters? What if the gems fit perfectly into the fabled Crown of Saints?

Sure, not every magic item or piece of treasure needs a backstory, but maybe you should consider giving your players adventure hooks, worldbuilding details, or just interesting facts with your treasure hauls. Don't be afraid to shake things up. In one of the adventures I ran, at one point the bard found a ring among some treasure. It wasn't magical, but the player didn't sell it on the off chance it was special (because I made it seem special). In the end, when the player wanted to switch characters, I turned the ring into a magical prison which held an Elf sorcerer inside it for hundreds of years and the two of them eventually switched places, with the bard becoming trapped in the ring and the player able to try out a new character. This resulted in lots of character development and what could have originally been sold for 10 gp for its fine craftsmanship was now an integral part of the campaign's story arc and though that player retired her bard, she returned as an NPC who had an effect on the story.

Consider ways in which you could flip the treasure on its head, especially if you're rolling for it on treasure tables. If the table says there are 1d4 silver pieces, have the silver contained in an ornate silk pouch with gold embroidery. Don't just go with "boring" coins when you can help it; at the very least, give it an interesting container. And you also don't need to always have hoard weapons be magical in nature. Maybe the players find a dagger made from a dragon's tooth, or a khopesh made from a meteorite. They could still function as a regular dagger or khopesh as far as the game's mechanics go, but they automatically become much more memorable weapons and stick in the minds of the players much more if they seem special. And who knows, maybe they could become magical at a later date under the right circumstances.

When it comes to items in the treasure hoards, players will usually just ask what the item is worth and not even care that it's a silver chalice. You can change that mindset (if you don't overdo it) and make the player consider actually keeping the item, though it serves no practical usage via the game's mechanics, if you just take the extra time to make it less about numbers and more about imagination. Maybe it will become an item important to the story or to an NPC, or maybe the player just thinks having a silver chalice engraved with the Battle of Menard and encrusted with deep red spinels is just cool to own.

How do you keep your own treasure hoards interesting? Let me know in the comments below!

-Joseph Carro

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