One Man's Treasure Is Another Man's Garbage

5d4 kobolds were one day
away from retirement.
I have been meaning to write this for awhile now, and I figure what with 5th Edition more or less actually out, what better time?

One of the big—some might say biggest—default motivations in Dungeons & Dragons is treasure. In older editions I guess it inexplicably accounted for the majority of your XP gains. Like, you did not go into a dungeon to fight monsters, but to take their shit, which somehow translated into making you better at fighting, sneaking, or casting spells.

Confusing, but not necessarily the most confusing aspect of the game.

This bizarre practice thankfully ended in 3rd Edition, where you instead amassed heaps of it in order to buy readily available magic items—namely so you could get better numbers to keep up with the monster's numbers—and continued on into 4th Edition. In addition to this unnecessary number-based arms race, I have some other issues with how treasure is handled in the game:

  • It is stupid easy to get: just walk into any dungeon—if you even need to go that far—and you are bound to run into critters packing obscene amounts of wealth.
  • Objects and gems have seemingly random sale values: in the 5th Edition playtest a gold ring with a ruby is worth 700 gp (the same price as a jeweled gold crown), but a star ruby by itself is only worth 100 gp?
  • Magic items are almost always incredibly underwhelming, as if each room were a disorganized, absent-minded wizard's breakfast nook.
  • Sometimes the treasure is also a monster.

Welcome to Dungeons & Dragons, the game where your coins (and treasure chests, pillows, sheets,
cloaks, walls, floors, ceilings, sword, beholders, etc) can actually be disguised monsters.

Before I get into money and magic items, I want to briefly touch on the other two issues.

I'm not exactly sure how to deal with art objects and gems. Generally speaking that shit is useless to adventurers, so I have no idea why anyone would shell out hundreds of gold pieces for a gold ring, whether or not it has a ruby. If anything I would expect the characters to get ridiculously short-changed, unless it has some sort of significance to the buyer, and probably not even then, because what are the adventurers going to do with it?

I think the next time I run a D&D game I'm going to try having merchants offer so little for a gem-studded crown (either in raw coins or trade), that one of the players will just fucking wear the damn thing.

As for monsters pretending to be other things, the only one that gets a pass from me is the mimic, and that's because you can do a lot of fun shit with it. The most memorable use I can recall was from an adventure that I think was called The Tainted Spiral: at one point you walk into a room with a mimic disguised as an alter that has a magic hammer on it. When you try to get the hammer, the mimic gobbles it up, and you get to beat the hammer out of it (I think that when you bloodied it, it barfs up the hammer).

Fortunately the best solution for the others is also the easiest: don't use them. There are less contrived ways to challenge and hinder your players.

Moving on!

Too Much Money And Magic
Let's take a look at The Temple of Elemental Evil, specifically just the surface level of the moathouse: there is a frog with a 100 gp gem in its stomach, a snake's nest has a dagger worth 850 gp, and the group of ten or so bandits squatting there have something like 750 gp of assorted cash and art objects if you assume some conservative rolls for the randomized coins and gems. Mind you this is just the stuff that you turn around and cash in when you get back to town; there are also some magic arrows and a shield, too.

In the 3rd Edition adventure The Whispering Cairn you start out exploring the tomb of an extraplanar being that died in a war against demons (oh, spoilers). Extraplanar beings? Demons? That sounds pretty fucking awsome; who knows what you will find down there!

Try some glass shards worth 20 gp, a gold bracelet worth 75-100 gp, a ruby worth 50 gp, three statuettes worth 200 gp each, a red pedastal worth 300 gp, a masterwork quarterstaff (150 gp), a silver ring worth 75 gp, another ring worth 200 gp, 2 pp, 73 gp, and 70 sp. All told this nets the characters at least 1,570 gp, and this is not counting the magical armor, wands, potions, ring, and other assorted trinkets that they probably will not sell.

On one hand there is no dagger that somehow accounts for almost half of the cash goods, but on the other this stuff is just the leftovers of the leftovers from a previous party of unscrupulous explorers that got there before you did. You do not run into any extraplaner goodies until the very end, and even then it just ends up being a pair of demon horns notable for their sale value and nothing else, a Wisdom booster, and some tongs that you can use in the last adventure if you keep them around until then.

That is not all, though: back in town there is a good chance that you will end up picking a fight with a gang of NPCs that are packing a bunch of potions, and a magical axe, cloak, suit of armor, and wand. Granted these guys are near the top of the food chain, but they work for one of the worst people in an already pretty dismal, poverty-stricken town, so...where did they get it all?

Did their employer just give them thousands of gold pieces worth of magical loot on good faith? Did they somehow scrape together the cash over several decades, maybe centuries? Perhaps they are still making payments to one of several NPCs that are just selling magic items that have miraculously not been stolen?

Nah, they probably went into another cairn and robbed some dead explorers, there.

The Dungeons & Dragons circle of life.
From what I can recall the game started making assumptions as to how much cash you should have in 3rd Edition, with 2nd-level characters Scrooge McDuck-ing at around 900 gp each. Going off of the silver-piece-per-day assumptionthis means that the typical 2nd-level character could live very comfortably at a gold piece per day for almost two and a half years. If the character wants to scrape by like the common man? She should be fine for around twenty-five.

4th Edition is a little less guilty in it only assumes about 140-ish gp per character by 2nd-level (grand total of 720 gp's worth for the entire party), along with almost enough magic items and healing potions to go around (even if you sell a magic item you only get a fifth of it's value, meaning that you can expect to get anywhere from an extra 72-200 gp out of it). Nowhere near as much as 3rd Edition, but still a pretty hefty sum for characters with just a few kobolds and a quest or two under their belts.

5th Edition claims to have no wealth-by-level assumptions, which is good, but in the tediously titled Lost Mine of Phandelver you can get (assuming all quests completed) about 5,500 gp at the adventure's conclusion—not counting magic items—or about 1100-1375 each, which is an average of 275-340ish per level (assuming you get to 5th-level and depending on how peeps many are in the party). In the equally unimaginative Vault of the Dracolich, I counted somewhere around a staggering 35,000 gp.

Setting a Better Standard
I use a "silver standard" in my Dungeons & Dragons games, by which I mean players start out with whatever gear they need to do what it is they are supposed to do, and some silver pieces instead of gold. I also adjusted prices to levels where, say, a farmer could feasibly afford tools, animals, possibly even a crossbow and ammunition.

My group is not particularly motivated by money, but I think that rather than start out with a fortune and rack up much, much more over the course of a semi-taxing weekend, it would be more rewarding and logical to start out largely dealing in copper and silver, before gradually transitioning to gold and ultimately platinum.

I also tend to avoid putting small bits of loot on monsters, particularly when it comes to "trash fights". My players not only rarely remember to loot the monsters, but often seem confused as to why they should. Carving open frogs on the off chance they were unable to pass a gem? Forget it; none of them are going to even consider it, and why would they? What rational person shuffles through the innards of an animal like it is some kind of meat-pinata? The only reason they would do that is because on some meta-level they are aware that their efforts might spawn an arbitrary priced piece of quantum loot.

No, I keep most of that shit in the monster's lair if it even makes sense to have it at all. One thing that I like about 4th Edition is that you do not need magical healing to survive (kind of like all of the fiction that Dungeons & Dragons claims to derive inspiration from), which also means that you do not need to spend money on healing items (which, despite requiring magic to make are apparently in ready supply).

Enchantment Enchmantment
In my longest running 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign, one character just kept hoarding his cash so that when they finally got to Sharn he could dump it on an artificer to whip him up a cloak of Charisma +4. On a purely mechanical level the cloak was magical, but as far as the player was concerned it was just a potent math bonus that disappeared into his sheet once he put it on.

This is not the only offender, just one of the more expensive ones. The game is rife with weapons, armor, rings, and more that do nothing except increase a number on your character sheet. They are at the same time the most boring, convenient, and arguably necessary items in the game because you just factor-and-forget a bunch of numbers that do little except help you keep up in a numbers-based arms race.

Something else that I actually liked about 5th Edition was that, last time I checked, as with 4th Edition you could assume no magic items at all. Unfortunately, but as expected, they pretty much leave everything to be desired: getting back to (yawn) Lost Mine of Phandelver, the magic items include a ring that gives you +1 to Armor Class and saving throws, a staff that lets you deal +1d6 poison damage and spend charges to cast spider climb or web, and yet another staff that gives you +1 to Armor Class and lets you spend charges to cast mage armor or shield.

The gauntlets of ogre strength are particularly laughable. True to their word, you become as strong as I guess the average adult ogre...which is also as strong as the typical 9th-level character that put a 16 in Strength and increased it each time (or as strong as a 5th-level character that started with a 17 and did it once)? If you already have a Strength of 19? They do absolutely nothing. Kind of like the boots of striding and springing, which give you the awesome power to...make you as fast as most of the standard races. I guess they also let you jump really far, but...meh?

Another default assumption for 5th Edition was also that characters would not be able to freely purchase whatever they wanted. It is because of this that I, perhaps naively, expected to see magic items that felt, well, magical. Like magical gauntlets that let you knock people around, easily smash through doors or walls, and hurl massive objects. The only magic item that I can recall from the playtest packet that did something interesting was the efreeti armor, as it let you walk on lava as if it were solid ground (though given it only provides fire resistance you will still die pretty quickly from heat exposure).

Making Magic Items Magical
When I was writing magic items for Seekers of the Sand I not only tried to give them some mechanical punch, but also at least one interesting thing to do. For example, the landshark gauntlets boost your unarmed damage, give you an encounter-long burrowing speed once per day (even though I do so dislike per-day limitations), and can also let you strike a surface and instantly create a tunnel. I felt that the latter ability was particularly neat, fairly unique, and could be employed in a variety of creative ways.

One of the things I love about writing supplements for Dungeon World is that things need not be so meticulously balanced, and despite essentially being Dungeons & Dragons viewed through the lens of Apocalypse World it actually discourages +x items. It was refreshing when I was writing 10+ Treasures to be able to turn off the "balance switch", and think of items in a purely fictional sense before writing mechanics that conveyed it, instead of squaring off limitations before, during, and after the fact.

In Dungeons & Dragons this could be fixed by focusing more on what the characters can do, and having the occasional magic item just pull out all the stops (and maybe have some kind of drawback). Like, the boots should make you move much faster than the average person, or maybe you have to move in leaps and bounds. Since they are based on live boots from The Dying Earth, maybe you have to feed them and/or they get tired, and if you push them too hard they die.

In addition to the stuff I already mentioned for the gauntlets of ogre strength, you could add side effects to make them a double-edged sword: on a natural 1 (maybe even a normal miss) that you swing widely or misjudge a throw with disastrous results. They could also make you stupider or cruder.

No comments

Powered by Blogger.