Unusual Rewards in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 UThe other day I was working on The Keys of Heraka-at and realized that by and large ‘conventional treasure’ is not a major feature of this adventure. The primary reward of this adventure is the knowledge needed to become the new Donnerkonig — the items that are needed, where they can be found, and what needs to be done with them — rather than gold or jewels or even magic items.

That got me thinking, and I wonder: is conventional treasure really that significant a draw in play?

I’ve been playing mostly old school games for the last few years: D&D 5e playtest to start, and that version felt pretty old school, then Adventurer Conqueror King, OSRIC, and currently Swords & Wizardry. We’ve even had someĀ Tunnels & Trolls in there, if only one session. In all cases, anything we find that looks valuable and we can find a way to get home comes with us, if we have any say in the matter. Coin and gems, magic and mundane, if we reckon we can either sell it or use it, we take it with us.

Maybe it’s an old school thing, but honestly, except for the experience points I find I have little use for the treasure itself. Magic weapons and armor (Erik? Can I have some magic armor? Please?) I can put to use, other magic items (such as the bag of holding and the rope of climbing) are useful, but monetary treasure itself? I find I don’t seem to have much to do with it, except buying the occasional potion of healing or lending it to Joe so he can scribe more spells into his spell book.

In newer editions of D&D monetary treasure can be rather more important because, thanks to the MagicMart-style market rules, it maps directly to personal power. Accumulate enough gold and you can buy your way to increased personal power. In old school games I have the impression that many of the uses of money are to take care of things present to bleed off money (training, I’m looking at you, but spell transcription and some other activities certainly count too).

I think perhaps in this sandbox many rewards will be less tangible, but perhaps more useful. Knowledge that helps you work toward your goals, favors from powerful entities, tools that help you achieve your goals. Even magic items, at least in some cases — consumables are basic resources and I think should be readily available, but more profound items should probably be more significant, such as the treasures of the Donnerkonig. The simple accumulation of gold can have some utility, but maybe these other things will have more appeal.

Am I off track? What do you think? Does monetary treasure have more utility and value to old school play than I think it does? Does it serve greater purpose than giving experience points and taking care of things whose primary purpose is bleeding off money?

Or is it better to link rewards to goals more directly? Is it likely to encourage players to become more engaged because they seek out specific rewards to help them achieve their goals?


  1. Frendle

    With my gaming group we use monetary treasure in much the same way you describe as a general rule, however at least one of us will get it in our heads that we want to set up house somewhere, someday.

    (I think this comes of a desire to be the next Most Worshipful Mage of )

    We have also used the gold on rare occasions to buy mercenary armies or pay others to do some dirty work we wanted to keep at arms length etc.

    So they will save their gold, in a sense deferring the increase in personal power, to gain a greater influence in the game world later.

    So money can become a means to accomplishing goals the players initiate. Which really only works in campaigns which are not linear.

    I might add at this point that castles are NPC group and or army magnets….

    • I think perhaps the reason I haven’t had much to do with my money is not because we are linear, but because we are discontinuous.

      Honestly, to a large degree our games are an excuse for the guys to get together online and socialize, while killing monsters and taking their stuff. We really have no overarching goals, so we don’t need to reserve resources for them. If one of us got a castle we’d probably end up abandoning it to go kill monsters and take their stuff in another adventure (and possibly in another game system).

      • Frendle

        The group I play with most often is a sit on the couch and think of how to piss off the DM by messing with his world kind of group :)

        But yeah, it’s better said that the campaign setting would have to be on-going rather than non-linear.

        Actually one of our DM’s was quite linear in his design style which is what made it so fun to keep the keep after we cleared it.

  2. What about building strongholds, paying bribes, hiring mercenary companies, outfitting retainers, and so forth?

    I do agree with you to some extent though that it often seems like there is not enough to spend recovered treasure on, and suspect that this is an element of game texts that could be improved for games that really embrace the GP = XP paradigm.

    I have had good experiences in my Vaults of Pahvelorn game making the occasional more substantive magic item (randomly determined) available for purchase as well. This seems to maintain more of a sense of wonder than the approach of letting any item in the game manual be purchased at any time while also providing objects of aspiration for players.

    • I think Frendle had the right of it when he pointed out that continuity is probably the main element we’re missing. We can’t often buy significant magic items because that doesn’t suit the style of play (I did find a sword +2 defender last session, though, sweet!), but the lack of continuity means there’s not much I can spend money on that will do me any good.

      Building strongholds? Not so useful if I have to walk away from them. Paying bribes doesn’t come up much because we’re mostly paid to go away :)

      We haven’t reached the point of hiring mercenary companies, we don’t often have retainers to outfit, and so on. If we were more tightly integrated into the world we play in these things might happen, but it hasn’t proven to be an important thing to us, so we really haven’t pursued it.

  3. tussock

    Money as XP works to give you rewards for quest completion, only without needing quest givers. So you can trivially self-motivate, go out and do your murder-hobo day job, and still go up levels. That’s a good thing, especially in a sandbox where you can miss even the most obvious quests, or simply not be interested in them. Works even if you don’t kill all the monsters.

    The question of what to do with the money afterward is simple to answer. Think in character. Why is Baldur the axedwarf risking his neck in the first place? Information? Invest in a spy network. Adoration? Purchase yourself a bard, have paintings and statues placed around, have the theatre run plays in your honour. Pleasure? Buy an alehouse (of ill repute). Reclaiming family honour? Buy back that land, or pave over it’s unlawful acquisition with bribes. Helping the poor? Give it to the poor. Getting rich? Buy a ship, or a caravan if you can’t afford one.

    A lot of that can trigger further roleplay and adventure, but that’s not the point. You’ve already got the XP for it, so get rid of it in some way that would make your character feel good about themselves, satisfied with all the risks they’ve taken. You’ve already had your game fun in earning it. If spending it gets some more, it’s a bonus, not a requirement.

    • I hadn’t considered it that way. I’ve been holding onto the treasure on the assumption it would be useful, but you’re right — I’ve got the XP for it already, and it’s not really serving any other purpose for me. Why not blow it on whores and ale?

  4. Pingback: XP and Rewards in the Sandbox | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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