Just The Rules: Jewels, Gold, and Other Treasures

There are many kinds of rewards PCs can gain during a campaign. I posted yesterday about items of power, and this post will discuss monetary rewards.

I’m going to admit to a bias here: monetary rewards usually bore me. The needful is… needful, in game money is useful, but it rarely interests me beyond that.

In old school D&D, you could score huge hoards of loot, and it was kind of fun. A lot of it got siphoned away (training!), but since the primary point was to Get It Home so you could claim the XP, it wasn’t that big a deal. You couldn’t buy things that helped make you more personally powerful (no “50,3xx gp = +5 magic weapon”, you can to go out and find those). You could use the money to buy things that would help you socially (castles, titles, that sort of thing) but it wasn’t a matter of going out to get money to buy more adventuring stuff.

In D&D 3.x and beyond, gold could be converted more or less directly to power. You could roll into town with a few tens of thousands of gold and expect to be able to trade it for magic items that made you more powerful. This led to wealth by level guidelines, and all sorts of overhead I don’t like to deal with.

Let’s see if we can make money interesting.

Monetary Rewards

There are many kinds of rewards, and I might or might touch on them later (I’ve consumed my post buffer for the A-Z Blog Challenge, so I no longer know what posts are coming…). For monetary rewards, though, I see a few primary types.

  • Coin
  • Gems
  • Jewelry
  • Trade Goods
  • Valuable Objects (the so-called ‘objets d’art‘ from previous editions)

What can we do with these to make them interesting?

Coin

As far as straight currency is concerned, there are some story aspects that can be applied. Foreign coins might be a clue in a story (the classic “what is a person like this doing with freshly-minted coins from our neighboring, not-quite-friendly nation?”), or coins might be enchanted or cursed, but… that’s about it, really.

Coins are not particularly interesting. Useful! But unless you have something interesting to do with them, not terribly interesting.

Gems

Easily portable and more valuable for their weight… coins. At least, that’s how they’re often treated. It’s kind of exciting to find them, brief, because hey, they’re worth a lot of money and they’re easy to carry.

… and there ends the excitement, I think. That diamond is just another 1,000 gp in convenient form — though a convenient form useful for casting certain spells, I suppose.

Still… not that exciting.

However, gems do have some potential. Throughout history they have been associated with various mystic properties, and as raw resources for enchantment they could become more interesting… at least, until they become part of a recipe (“I need four diamonds, three sapphires, and some dragon’s blood to make <JRPG music> Ring of Blue Sparks”).

On their own, I think they’re still either ‘basically money’, or ‘enchantment materials’. I’ll expand on the latter in the next bit.

Jewelry

Jewelry, for my purposes here, represents items made of a combination of gems and some other material, shaped into a form that can be worn (or in some cases, just carried, such as a scepter).

This can be an even more valuable form of portable wealth (i.e. ‘special coins’ again), and I’ll ignore that point because there is a more interesting idea to look at.

Gems and metals both have had mystic properties attributed to them. I googled recently and most often gems (especially the jewels) are associated with ‘wealth and health and good fortune’ (duh, you have a bag of sapphires). Historically the options were more interesting and specific, such as the believe that amethyst could neutralize poison. I haven’t been able to find anything that looks like a definitive source, so I might end up assigning my own associations.

This is potentially of use to me. Yes, there’s the enchantment recipe problem I mentioned above, but I like the idea of the metals, gems, and even patterns of a piece of jewelry or other ornamentation giving a hint to the abilities of an item of power. If sapphires as associated with healing and with water, a silver wand with a sapphire tip will likely not be a wand of fireball. If the want is studded with sapphires it might give an idea of the relative power (more sapphires means higher-level spell) or capacity (one sapphire per charge, and cracked or missing stones indicate expended charges).

Ornamentation on a weapon or armor could likewise convey meaning. A were-bane sword might not actually have a silver or mithril blade, but a sword with silver chasing might still be a were-bane. The pattern of the chasing might provide some clarity — perhaps it’s not a were-bane, but blessed by the goddess of the moon and a holy item in its own right, giving bonuses when calling on her power.

Coins and gems alone are unlikely to be of great interest to me, but the metals and stones, when applied with purpose, very well could be.

Trade Goods

Mostly money, less portable than coin but can have use in and of itself, if you’re willing to consume it — in the case of foodstuffs, perhaps literally.

These tend to be mostly less convenient forms of money when found in an adventure. Sometimes they can be of value if they have specific use in the scenario — in one campaign we made a huge impression on a king by arranging to have a wagon train of dried fish sent to his starving people — but mostly… sold for coin.

Mostly. Among the trade goods are materials that can be used in creating special items as described above. In another campaign I’ve played in, we found some special metals that let us get better gear, and that was much more interesting than ‘just money’… especially since we didn’t really have anything good to spend money on.

(Seriously, a door of ‘unbreakable metal’, if we can get it out and find someone who can work it, is going to get turned into unbreakable armor and weapons as fast as we can make that happen. And if we can find a way to pull the other 10 or 11 such doors out of the place, damn right we will.)

So… potentially interesting and useful, but mostly a pain to deal with.

Valuable Objects

If presented in a “this is worth money” form, they’re basically just inconvenient coin. They can have some story value at times, but mostly they’re only worth carrying out because we can sell them. If they do have story value — provide valuable information, are the target of a fetch quest, and so on — I would argue the monetary element is not really the point.

There are exceptions. One of my latest characters managed to avoid getting skewered by a trap, and found that the blades were unusually shaped (we were playing DCC and they would give a bonus on critical hit rolls). I made sure to take them with me to our supersmith (who was able to figure out how to make use of the unbreakable metal doors) who forged some unbreakable swords and daggers for me (this design, the unbreakable door metal).

This was worth more to me than gold. Between the material and the weapon design, I had a couple of mundane but really cool weapons. They weren’t particularly more powerful than others, though the unbreakable aspect came into play once or twice, but they were unique and they were mine.

Keith’s Choice

I mostly don’t want to make this game about monetary rewards. Money is useful, but not terribly exciting. Even when it can be converted to power (i.e. buy powerful items) that’s… not particularly interesting, to me at least, and certainly not exciting.

I would prefer other rewards that help ground the PCs into the setting. Honors, membership in groups, lands and titles, all are more interesting. They’re also out of scope of this post, so I’ll leave it that that.

That said, it’s not all about me. I know many players like monetary rewards, and they have a place in the game.

The big thing, I think, is to divorce ‘heaps of gold’ from ‘personal power’ (in the combat sense). If you can trade a 32,000 gp for a +4 weapon, that’s a big deal… especially if you have the option, at the same level, of getting together 50,000 gp and buying a +5 weapon. Same principle applies for any of the other Big Six, or really big spell bottles and so on.

If instead money cannot be exchanged for personal power this way, I don’t mind characters amassing huge amounts of wealth. I really have no problem with a PC who has the money to build a unit of cannoneers to go dragon hunting with.

I think I would be quite happy if I can make it work out that immense personal wealth — a huge stack of coin — has only indirect application and cannot increase personal power. Tony Stark can afford basically anything he wants, lives a lavish playboy lifestyle, and his wealth explains how he can adapt his gadgeteer load out as needed… but it doesn’t really increase his combat ability beyond the Variable Power Pool he spent even more points on than his wealth.

And I think I see how to get there… but it’s now after midnight and I need to sleep. I’ll return to this topic later in the month.

2 Comments

  1. Steve Gunnell

    I don’t think that a dungeon should have any significant amounts of coin at all. Small incidental amounts, sure, but unless you are invading a treasury or similar then no bulk coin. IIRC the largest Roman hoard ever found was 1,700 silver. Probably Roman and Viking hoards would be a good guide to treasure sizes. A dragon hoard with rooms of gold is just so unlikely. Anything like that should be a major centrepiece of your campaign rather than an incidental pickup.
    I like the idea of gem significance. That makes all kinds of sense. Chivalry and Sorcery had an entire system for preparing ingredients for enchantments. The better quality the base ingredient was the easier it would be to enchant it and the better chances of success. It also makes for the character decision … do we keep this wand for its spell content or do we break it down for the material content?
    Re: doors of ‘unbreakable metal” and inch of steel would be effectively just that. It could be salvaged and sold but wouldn’t make vastly better armour or weapons. On the other hand a titanium door might be equally strong but could never be reworked by medieval technology and tools. On the other hand the door may be unbreakable because of that enchanted pattern of diamonds set into the back side.

    • Agreed regarding coin and gems. I like the idea of coin being basically incidental rather than a deliberate goal, and gems being valued for their utility as much as anything else. If the metals also have significance then jewelry of particular construction (especially if we can bring other symbolism in) becomes not only valuable, but useful and those with the knowledge can decipher the powers.

      Unbreakable metal… the GM let us do it. Having an unbreakable sword was almost a shiny thing more than anything else, though we were at times able to make use of this quality. The lighter armor was nice, and awfully important. Fumbles in DCC are vicious, but low AC is dangerous on its own. Real-world credible? Nah, not really. Gameable? Yep, and we ran with it.

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