Successful Delver Problems: Unwieldy treasure

by mshrm

There’s been a remarkable lack of coin taken by my PCs. Literally, they’ve remarked on it: “Goblins only use the barter system?  Didn’t they bother to steal the cash when they raided that boat?”

Partly, it’s because Needles and Gabby are intercepting two-thirds of the coin before it’s tallied. Partly, it’s because they’ve been on Level 1* and everything that lives there is relatively poor. But mainly, it’s because I just don’t believe in it.

Let me tell you about this one time… I ran 3rd Edition D&D once. One time only. I don’t remember much of the details of the campaign, and this was before I started keeping detailed notes. I remember being mildly offended at how effective the one fighter’s scythe was. I remember the level progression slipped out of my grasp almost immediately. But, the thing that surprised me most wasn’t from the game system, it was from the style of the players.

This was a unique group, mind you. The guys I play with now, we’ve been gaming together for years. I like to flatter myself that I know how they think. (And they know how I think, which is one of the reasons I dig the random rolls so much… but that’s a story for another time.) The folks in this 3rd Ed. game, I had known for a long time, and played alongside, but that game was the first time I ran a game for them. They surprised me, quite often.

The surprise I’m thinking of came about when the party went after an enemy in his home. He was a wealthy nobleman of some kind. I couldn’t tell you for certain at this late date, but he was probably some kind of undercover evil. At any rate, they took that place like something out of a caper movie, striking in the wee hours of the morning, using stealth effectively, eliminating the guards, and taking out the target with no alarm being raised. I had planned for them to loot the bodies, and I had even planned for when they grabbed the shiniest of the shiny from the guy’s strongbox.

What I had not planned for, in any way, was when they brought the wagon around back, to the servant’s entrance, and started stripping the house bare.

“He’s got silverware, right? Nice dishes? Pantry stocked?”

“Some classy furniture in a joint like this, wouldn’t you think? Oak? Solid oak? Yeah, Sir Badguy strikes me as an oak kind of guy.”

“I bet Sir Badguy has some fine boots. Better than mine, that’s for certain. Let’s correct that. And I grab any nice paintings I see on the way.”

In the end, they made more from pawning the guy’s household than they did from the initial smash-and-grab. As I recall, they made several trips with that wagon. I think they left the barbarian behind with a crowbar at least once, while the others cached a load.

At the time, this was a pain. I had to improvise pretty hard for a while. But in hindsight, it taught me to cast a wider eye at the entire concept of “treasure”.

Look around your home. Odds are, you don’t have much in the way of cash laying around, compared to the value in your belongings. Most of your net wealth is tied up in stuff. The same should be true of sentient dungeon dwellers and their lairs. With the exception of dragons, most creatures are going to get more enjoyment from a warm, stout blanket than a gold piece. Any being that can’t go into town to spend those coins, or trade them to some other creature that can, is better off turning them into a bead curtain than hording them… or melting them down to make pretty jewelry.

(If you’re looking for piles of money, you want to track down a place of business… and even then, most kinds of business, there’ll be more inventory on hand than cash in the till.)

This means, when the party knocks down a monster and takes all the treasure from its lair, that treasure is likely to be in inconveniently-sized chunks. A rich ogre would have a keg of beer and a side of beef, not a sack of coins. Loot, not treasure, if you will.

The other thing it means is, there are two kinds of looters among the PCs. I grew up playing with the first kind: take the magic items and jewels, then platinum and gold, throw the copper aside, and travel light. That 3rd Ed. group was the second kind: extract all the value possible, down to stripping the lead off the roof, if you can get away with it.

The Dungeon Fantasy line acknowledges the second kind of PC, with the rules for selling dungeon scrap. I can’t say that I can recall any other system addressing the issue. This works well for me. I make note of anything consider treasure by my lights, plus any major pieces of furniture, and after that, I just have to estimate poundage. I don’t have to try to adjudicate a fair selling price for half a bent-up portcullis, PCs who travel light never notice, and PCs who strip the dungeon bare get some extra income for their trouble.

Finally, I learned to always note a price and a weight, even if it’s something that I think they’ll ignore. Guaranteed, as soon as I’m positive I’ll never need a weight for the stone heads, the PCs will drag in some heavy lifting gear and a train of mules.

The current group seems more Type 1. They’ve left a fair amount of value on the ground. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re picking out the best value for the weight, or because they just forget to pick things up. Last session, there was argument about whether or not it would be worth it to drag back half a broken door, though, so it could be that they’re shifting towards Type 2…

* For better or worse, I abandoned the “down is worse” paradigm when drawing up my maps. I’m working more on a “further in is worse” system. The Great Bridge is a boundary between “levels”. The opposition on the other side will (hopefully!) be more powerful, the rewards will be higher… and the party walked up several flights of stairs to get to it. I’m not sure that was the right thing to do, at all, since I fear that I’ve taken a valuable tool for risk estimation away from the players. On the other hand, I figure they’re smart enough to cross a level boundary, notice that the locals are scary, and sneak quietly away, if need be.