Treasure
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Basic Information

Treasure is a collection of wealth and riches in one place. Outside of the gaming context, the term usually refers to valuable riches that were once lost, hidden, or forgotten, and then rediscovered. In gaming, however, treasure can range from the powerful artifact at the end of a major quest , or the huge mounds of gold a dragon uses as a nest, all the way down to a few spare coppers in pocket of a goblin. Surely the goblin and the dragon haven't lost or forgotten their wealth, yet we still call it treasure1.

Basically, in RPGs (especially in fRPGs) treasure is the worldly goods (and potentially remains) of the people and things that the PCs rob and kill whilst on their adventures - it's the payoff for their adventuring (in most cases), their means for obtaining more and better worldly goods of their own and (in some systems) a source of personal development.

The one stumbling block in this - and a source of endless fun for creative GMs - is that most modern people (and therefore players) think of treasure only in terms of magic items, precious metals and stones or jewelry. This is, after all, the norm in fantasy works. However, in real life - for the majority of history at least - treasure has taken forms that might surprise your players. For those with a taste for realism, some of the following might be appropriate loot as well:

  • Animal furs, tusks, shells and other products (including musk glands, ambegris and insect products like cochineal)
  • Spices (and/or Tea)
  • Salt (vital for much of the pre-modern era, but quite hard to produce)
  • Wax (an expensive by-product of honey making, greatly in demand for making candles)
  • Candles (made from wax as above, tallow, or even human adipocere)
  • Incense (including the famous frankincense or myrrh) and Perfume.
  • Dyes (murex purple was ridiculously expensive until displaced by artificial dyes)
  • Tin and other rare industrial metals, possibly including part-manufactured goods like sword blanks
  • High quality textiles
  • Artwork, furniture, carpets and the like - which has the added bonus of not being particularly portable
  • Domestic goods. Seriously. Look at the Illiad and their obsession with tripods - basically lamp stands - large cauldrons and similar bits of metal work are also very valuable in pre-industrial eras2.
  • Glassware (a luxury in Europe until the Renaissance)
  • Tools (from the heavy mattock or adze, to the delicate and multi-functional astrolabe)
  • Preserved herbs - culinary or, more importantly, medicine / folk remedies, including prepared ointments, tinctures and the like
  • High quality alcohol (or, mass quantities of low-quality orc ale)
  • Other drugs - recreational or otherwise depending on your campaign, but remember tobacco or equivalents count here
  • Other rare (possibly alchemical) compounds such as mummia, greekfire, pitch, naptha and saltpeter
  • Medical supplies generally - very useful to units in combat3.
  • Livestock: especially horses, but even today people are fighting small wars over goats, cattle and camels. Exotic animals may also serve as trade goods
  • Food - legitimate booty in eras where surplus food is rare and/or always marketable. Iron Rations can "survive" the apocalypse. Large storehouses of grains or other easily-stockpiled, slow-rotting foods can serve the basis of a Grain-Based Local Currency. In some places, for example where protein items are standard fare, fresh food may be a valuable, if short lived, commodity.
  • Clothing - for much of history manufactured clothing has been a lot more expensive than it is now (and even today feral gangstas mug each other for overpriced shoes). Most RPGs underprice it ridiculously, but there is a reason the guy the Good Samaritan helped was stripped naked - his clothes were valuable enough to mug him for4.
  • Weapons and armour - given the historical prices of military grade kit (especially swords, plate armour and chainmail) even battlefield salvage is worth having and undamaged equipment seized from stockpiles is a prize indeed. Again, most RPGs under-price and over-supply.
  • Slaves. For large parts of history, it wasn't just the enemy's goods that were worth money - a large part of G. Julius Ceasar's personal fortune came from selling conquered Gauls and he was neither the first nor the last Roman magnate to benefit in this way, nor were the Romans alone in this. Even where your culture doesn't practice slavery ransoms might well be available - in much of medieval Europe ransoms paid on POWs were a normal perk of victory.
  • Wood. No, seriously, the right kind of woods - high value stuff used for decorative work and for making things like musical instruments (and wands?) - may also be treasure. And the PCs might be tempted to leave the "pile of logs" behind (or use them for their camp fire…). (Even charcoal can be of value in the right era.)
  • Burial ephemera (such as death masks, shrouds, fancy sarcophagi, an army of mass-produced burial statuettes, or other things that a grave-robber might fancy.

Seriously - those orcs that have been raiding caravans - where the hell did they get all that cash from? Aren't they more likely to have a big pile of stolen trade goods and barter them for what they need?

Don't neglect the delights of paper based treasures either - unattributed letters of credit and bearer bonds go back further than you think and even attributed ones and attested title deeds can be ransomed. Also books and scrolls need not be magical to be worth money to a collector.

The whole concept of treasure, however, becomes problematic as the campaign setting moves closer to the present day (and to reality generally). Whilst a character can kill an orc and search him for treasure, shooting a gangsta and taking his "roll" may lead to values-dissonance. Going room to room in a dungeon lends itself to stealing anything that isn't nailed down, doing the same in an enemy city somehow feels a lot less heroic. Consumer goods and electronic money further complicate things - the chances of finding anything that can be realistically stolen and sold on for more than a tiny fraction of its nominal value decrease into the modern era, let alone sci-fi territory.

After The End, however, things take a turn back towards fantasy - suddenly functioning consumer goods become valuable, either for themselves or for the parts that can be stripped from them to repair more vital equipment, weapons and ammunition become likewise supply limited and even food and medical supplies take on a far greater significance.

See Also:

Sources

Bibliography
2. Warhammer Random Treasure Generator - 18,000 entries, all very creative and colorful. They vary from "genuine" treasures like artworks and sometimes coinage, to obscure relics specific to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay setting, and even mundane "treasures" like foodstuffs, tools, and domesticated animals. Very cool and fun!
3. d20 treasure generator - Generates random treasures out of the various rulebooks. (Looks like it's 3.5 edition.) Has several options for customizing the treasure output.
4. D&D 3rd treasure generator - Creates random treasures using charts from 3.0 or 3.5 edition (you choose which). Not as many control options as the previous link.

Game and Story Use

  • Treasure motivates many players. Some folks really like to see that their characters are amassing wealth and related advancements. Others simply like the abstract concept of questing after a major treasure, and care more for the chase than the reward. Treasure often serves as a reliable MacGuffin.
  • Pirates are known for their Buried Treasure, and the Treasure Maps that lead to it. This can be applied across a great many genres with only a little tweaking.
  • In a wild and woolly fantasy setting, treasure belongs to whoever takes it. More civilized eras and cultures, however will have salvage law and taxes to complicate things. Your setting and genre will dictate whether or not "finders keepers" applies.
    • A smart player will ask the GM what the local laws are, and how the authorities will respond to you hauling a treasure out of the wilderness. A kind GM will waive all that nonsense for the sake of making the fantasy fun.
      • A clever GM will make "all that nonsense" be part of the fun. A tax code that claims 40% of your treasure is no fun at all. A corrupt baron who attempts to steal all your treasure for himself under the guise of law can be fun, provided the players get the opportunity to foil his efforts or at least get revenge for what he stole.
      • Of course, treasure in one of the alternate forms above may not be taxable - or may attract a much lower rate of tax.
      • Tax exemptions may be a reward in their own right - protection from various taxes was a common medieval privilege.
      • In the right sort of setting, a PCs loot may actually belong to his lord and the actual pay-off be the portion his lord allows him to keep plus the social capital he achieves by retrieving it.
  • Supplies in kind are a more realistic form of booty - and may even be more useful to PCs in the deep wilderness: miles from civilisation, would you rather have access to fresh supplies or cash you can't spend?
  • Selling alternative treasure may be an adventure in its own right, especially in a society with merchant-guild privileges to be catered for. This may be where the party's past comes back to haunt - or help - them: a merchant they pulled a job for years ago might be prepared to buy and sell for them at a reasonable commission, and certainly offer a better deal than they could get just walking into the guild hall.
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