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(We've been playing D&D, but for this answer I'm looking for a system-agnostic answer that works for a premodern setting. Let's say 1500 AD or earlier.)

Most of the treasure the party gets from encounters tends to be easy to put a price on -- like a pile of coins, or a +1 sword, or something like that. This leads to the players just saying "ho hum, it's another longsword +2 and a dagger of stabbing -- those are worth 42gp, according to the standard tables of stuff".

What do you do to give the party treasure (or even intangible benefits) that they can't easily put a value on?

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Keep in mind the note at the beginning of the magic items section: the gold piece value is only for comparing relative value of magic items, and for calculating enchanting expenses. It's not market price, which may be 10 to 1000 times the "standard" value, depending on buyers, or may be unsalable for being beyond price. Never let players use the book price for anything! –  SevenSidedDie Oct 17 '11 at 17:27
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@SevenSidedDie, you're absolutely right. My concern is less with the players buying and selling their goods, but with the attitude they have towards treasure. –  Joe Oct 17 '11 at 20:40
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8 Answers 8

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There are a few types of hard to price treasures. Often, these are more story related and where the party is in the story is what places the value on the treasure.

Example 1: A boon. Someone owes the party a favor. Maybe this person doesn't have much $$$ but has skills, knowledge or the ability to get knowledge that PCs might want down the line. Like he could be a guard at the evil Queen's palace who would let the PCs through the outer perimeter unmolested. A boon can also take the form of a land-grant, essentially giving the PCs a base of operation and a safe place to stash their stuff (it's also how Queens/Kings keep useful/powerful allies stuck in their kingdom).

Example 2: Trophies. Trophies are a fun way for your PCs to remember what they have done in adventures past. This is a point where you may want to bust out some props, even if they are just pics you printed out. I had one group that spent more time arranging their trophy room than they did adventuring! :P

Example 3: Pets. These can be a little annoying in the wrong hands. The idea is a to have a simplified NPC in the form of a pet. It gives some minor benefits and may even fight if push comes to shove, but, similarly to the trophy, it's meant to be a reminder of adventures past. It can also help you out when the party does something really dumb and gets themselves locked up or pinned down some where. The pet can go find some help and tell them that Little Timmy and his adventuring party have fallen down a well.

Example 4: Mystery. Don't tell your party what things do in terms of magical items. Force the party to figure it out. You are the GM so you can just remove the Identify spell from the books altogether if you want.

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I rarely hand out magic items as part of defeating encounters/winning battles. I make it easy for characters to get level-appropriate magic item according to the player's choice in town.

So what do they get instead?

Political Power

Political influence in a 'the' city. In my Dark Sun campaign, there are a lot of intrigues in the newly freed Tyr. Most encounters within the city put them closer to a faction or further away from another one, gain them a favor or help repay a debt to an NPC. I (the) DM track favors/influence anyway, so they don't have to write down/memorize this stuff, and I can remind them (or ask for insight checks to remember) if they could use up an owed favor.

In the form of items, these might be letters of reference, letters of credit, a membership dagger,

Larger prizes might be a deed to a village (which they can tax) or an appointment into the governing council.

Knowledge

What's more important than knowledge? You can give them plot details, reveal a secret, give them a map to a new locations, help them see another side / gain more information on an NPC...Especially beneficial if they have opportunities to use the new knowledge, e.g. blackmailing a mayor, unmask the traitor, or teach a friendly NPC something that he can use to help them in the future.

In the form of items, these might be maps, books and scrolls, secret love (affair) letters, contracts between NPCs...

Change the world

Related to the two points above, let them influence the fate of the places they visit. If they solve the murder of the head of the guard, let them advise the baron who to replace him with. Let them decide if the village near the orcish border should be evacuated into safer territory or if they should spend large efforts to fortify the place.

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"My concern is less with the players buying and selling their goods, but with the attitude they have towards treasure."

Sounds like treasure has become boring. Or, more specifically, the group is approaching treasure in a methodical, detail-oriented way, which leaves little room for actually having fun with said treasures.

 

Adding more work isn't the answer

Here are some things that have never worked for me:

  • Obstructions to treating items as commodities -- making them rarer, harder to sell, difficult to properly identify, &c. They're still commodities, just annoying commodities.
  • Unique descriptions. In my experience, a cool description for a treasure object or a quirky backstory for a magic sword might be entertaining in the moment, but they seldom have lasting impact on how players perceive the item. They'll still just go sell that jewel-encrusted silver dragon goblet for 900 gp at the the first opportunity.

I think these don't address the fundamental things that can make treasure boring in the first place. If you add more hoops to jump through to "cash in" treasure objects and magic swag, but the players' goals remain unchanged, all you've really done is make the boring part of the game take up more of each session. The real challenge is to change the players' priorities, which I think involves some degree of changing the system.

 

Bookkeeping makes treasure boring

Fafrd and the Gray Mouser don't sit around enumerating all of their expenses and profits down to the silver piece. So, why do I as the player need to know that the sack of treasure I just hauled back from the dungeon was worth 962 gp?

You don't really need detailed resource tracking in a fantasy adventure game. What's the value of that sack of treasure? Maybe it's "a sack full of gold"; write that down on your character sheet. If you want to get more mechanical, maybe it's "4 dice to use on a Resource check" (even that's kinda pushing it, I think).

The goal here is to create the freedom to spend your treasure without worrying about optimal allocation. Ideally, players should have a reason to spend their money on things other than personal gear. Whether that means building their own stronghold or just throwing a huge party really depends on the kind of stories you're doing. Either way, you have to make those "money sinks" a part of the game rather than a sideline -- perhaps your political fortunes are directly tied into the state of your holdings, for example; otherwise the PCs will just focus their money on improving their gear.

 

"Wealth by level" is your worst enemy (but you can beat it)

Sometimes the system creates a strong motivation to pinch your pennies and spend all your money on personal equipment; you need to break that.

A trend in D&D has been to assume a certain gear level at a certain character level, and build combat math around that, from the ground up. An unfortunate consequence of this approach is that getting magic gear really feels more like a necessity rather than a reward. Also, this tends to create significant pressure to exchange all your found items for whatever will most benefit your character's core shtick, which seems to be a principal component of the "magic items as commodities" attitude you dislike.

Incremental advantage is rather boring. A +1 sword is a significant game-mechanical benefit, but going from +7 to hit to +8 to hit is about as exciting as optimizing the route you use to commute to work. Gear that offers incremental improvements to what you can already do is, inherently, kinda mundane. Ideally, your magical gear should be flashier than that: generally, a good way to achieve this without much "power creep" is to emphasize magical gear that enables new and novel actions over gear that just improves what you can already do -- a magic cloak that will let you make a Stealth check in circumstances where you otherwise wouldn't be allowed to rather than one that just gives you +4 Stealth, for instance. Moreover, consider how much more impact a mask that lets you see ghosts and speak with the dead has on the narrative than one that gives you the ability to cast a powerful combat spell once per day. The problem is that, from a purely strategic viewpoint, those "boring" items are often more desirable than the "quirky" ones.

4th Edition D&D had this rather elegant fix for this (self-created) problem: replace magic items with innate bonuses in order to bring the character's unequipped stats up to the expected values for fully-magic-kitted characters.

At your option, you can further retrofit a magic-item-based system by taking the quirkier powers associated with magic items and attaching them to less tangible (and, thereby, less transferable) rewards. Some examples of how to skin this:

  • The mechanical bonus represents a reputation or title (Greg Stolze's Reign had a number of good examples).
  • Characters learn special tricks in the heat of heroic struggle that no mere training or even battlefield experience can replicate.
  • The act of completing the quest imbues the character with some mystical power related to their recent actions.

These rewards should be more focused and generally less powerful than the game's normal feats, skills, class powers, &c.; the big idea is to be cool window-dressing with just enough of a mechanical edge that it won't be forgotten, rather than key components of a character's central shtick. When doing so, it's good to offer the players choices in what "boons" they get; most players like to have some degree of control over the more "permanent" parts of their character. For example, maybe a dryad's blessing can take the form of any of three different on-theme spell-like abilities.

The overall effect is that a character will have a variety of little bonuses and special abilities (a lot like another layer of feats, in D&D3 terms), but these abilities will be directly related to his or her previous accomplishments. Some niche ability like +4 to damage vs. giants is much niftier when it's because your character sheet says "Slew the Fire Giant King" rather "sword +2, +4 vs. giants".

These kinds of small mechanics attached to intangible rewards work reasonably well in systems that aren't designed around pervasive magic items, too. You just have to be careful not to overload with too many excess bits and bobs. Also, remember that your emphasis is on past heroic actions, not overall 'experience' -- that's handled by other mechanics already. Games like Burning Wheel have built-in systems that work similarly, with characters gaining abilities based on their past heroic actions.

 

Distilled recommendations

  1. Don't track wealth and resources in minute detail unless you want players to obsess over it.
  2. Remove "required" gear advancement.
  3. Avoid magical gear that just gives incremental bonuses.
  4. Give characters some reason to spend their (physical) treasure on something other than personal equipment.
  5. You can attach direct mechanical impact to intangible rewards like titles or magical boons.
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This is a great answer! I agree with you about the "required" gear advancement -- it's a terrible idea. –  Joe May 17 '12 at 4:27
    
@Joe Thanks! I think "wealth by level" can be fine in a game focused around tactical challenges, it's just hard to reconcile with story-logic and setting-logic at times. I certainly enjoy incrementally finding better and better gear in dungeon-combat video games, for instance, even if I do just think of the individual items as disposable commodities! But, for me at least, it's liberating not to have to worry about that stuff in a tabletop game. –  Alex P May 18 '12 at 19:22
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Any economist will tell you that a lot of factors can control the market price of an item. Here're a few that are easily applied to treasure:

1) Artistic merit

An elegantly shaped leaf blade, inlaid with fine etching in an ancient script, the scabbard carefully wrapped in red silk? Or a straight, boring but functional, enchanted longsword? The latter will sell for 'book' price... to a warrior who knows his swords. The former goes for a much greater - but much less predictable - price, to a collector.

2) Creator fame

Even a ten-minute doodle by Picasso is extremely valuable - if he signed it. A Masamune katana is not just a masterwork but a legend, with a value vastly exceeding the apparent value of the blade. Social cachet or reputation can change the value out of all proportion to the 'book' value.

3) Knowledge value

Books are obvious, but tend to be treated too casually in a D&D setting. In a pre-printing-press economy, a book represents months of years of labour, initially from a scholar and then from copyists. A book doesn't just represent knowledge, but exclusive control of that knowledge. (This is why the church kept the bible in latin for so long...) In a world with wizards, the value of a tome of magic depends greatly on the skills of the reader.

But books aren't the only paper treasure. Next time, instead of giving out 1000gp, how about a letter of credit for 1000gp from a major merchant house? In some ways it's more valuable (easy to carry, less obvious to thieves). But it's only as good as currency in areas where that house is known and respected. If you can't get to a factor of the house to redeem it, it can be traded to others who can - but what you'll get on the deal depends on how convenient it is for them to redeem it. And on how much that group's credit is trusted. (And maybe it's a forgery.)

That's an early-renaissance mindset. If you prefer a more medieval approach, maps, letters from the king and correspondence can all have high values to the right buyer. (For a real world example, in medieval France the bastard son of a noble isn't noble unless confirmed legitimate, such as with a letter from the sovereign accepting the evidence. That letter is priceless... to its legitimate owner, or to his enemies.)

4) Market size

Nothing is worth any money unless you have a buyer, and the size of the market restricts the value. In a remotely medieval world, the market is intensely restricted anyway... to nobles, and their closest and richest retainers. (Peasants don't have cash money; they can't afford it.) But some things have a more restricted market - which means the value depends on your interactions with the one or two people in an area who might actually want it. Otherwise it can only be sold to a merchant who can ship it long-distance to a buyer elsewhere.

Magical books are valuable, but only to wizards. (Or to people who want to see them destroyed.) An beautifully carved longbow with a 200lb draw weight is of enormous value... but only to the insanely rare man with the muscle to actually draw the thing. It's useless to anyone else. A detailed map of a key territory has great, but unpredictable, value to the landlord, to a tax collector, or to an invader - but nobody else. An ancient smith's notes are invaluable, but only to student smiths. A suit of armour is worth a lot less to someone who isn't the right size to fit it.

5) Goodwill

The favour of a king is a boon beyond price to his subjects. But it won't pay your rent - unless you ask for money, and therefore use up your favour. And how much money you get will depend greatly on the king's mood, and the state of his finances, at the time you ask. There's no reliable way to predict the results in advance, either.

In D&D, knowledge is power in a very real, fireball-throwing kind of way. Instead of a fireball scroll, give out a favour from a powerful but busy wizard. Or from a servant who can grant access to a powerful lord. (Bribing the staff in return for access was even more a feature of medieval politics than it is now...)

And in a fantasy world, favours owed by gods, demons or elementals are often payable on-demand in very convenient ways, assuming you have some means to contact them (which could be given to the party as part of the favour).

6) Lastability

Fresh fruit is a staple of trade across time, but you have to sell it fast. Strange magical components may deteriorate just as quickly. The same applies to a lot of information. Political or commercial information is worth more the more recent it is. An old and broken-down warhorse is worth a fraction of the price of a younger one with the same training. (And either of them is worth many times more than an equivalent horse without battle training.)

7) Local conditions

Swords are worth more in war zones. A good bow is worth more in a desert than in a welsh forest. Embargoed goods can fetch more... if you're willing to risk trouble with the law in return for the extra money. A valuable bolt of silk or decorative plate might fetch half its "normal" price, if a merchant ship with similar cargo has just arrived in town.

8) Magic

In standard D&D, magic is a fairly typical commodity. But unidentified magic still has a greatly unpredictable value. And in a low-magic world, not just the value but the uncertainty of price in a magical item can be a lot greater. (How much is a +1 longsword worth if it's the only one in the country?)

That can also change the value of otherwise mundane items, if a wizard needs them. (In Niven's Warlock's World, for example, raw gold stores magical power until a wizard uses it up; gold only has value to anyone else because possessing it indicates that a wizard owes you a favour.)

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My favorite is food or herbs. Food, especially if it's exotic or not native to the area, can be very valuable to someone with money to spend and a yearning to impress (or just a jones for something tasty and hard to find!!!). A barrel of oranges, a crate of bananas, or a sack full of coconuts may be worth thousands of gold pieces to some northern lord who wants to make an impression at a special gathering. Herbs, spices and rarities like cinnamon, nutmeg, chocolate or coffee beans will likewise be highly coveted in areas that don't produce these items. Remember, even in "real" history, before trade was easy these very items brought great wealth to those that traded them to European nations from the southern isles or faraway nations like Africa.

Think of the adventures that could develop. A group of adventurers finds a sack of coconuts washed up on shore of a local beach. Not knowing what the strange hard, hairy items are, they take them into town, and an aged sailor tells them that the interior is sweet and edible, a true luxury item that hasn't been seen around these parts in years! Word gets around, and the adventurers find themselves torn between two local lords who both wish to purchase the hard to find fruit, with a group of bandits trying to steal the nuts for another buyer, and perhaps a local wizard wishes to take them to assist him in penning a spell scroll. Lots of possible conflicts, and maybe the adventurers get so exasperated they just decide to crack open the coconuts and eat the fruit themselves!

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+1 for excellent adventure seed idea. Clearly, a third lord must enter the fight wanting the coconut shells to mimic horses... –  Sardathrion Oct 17 '11 at 8:30
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Washed up on shore? Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate? –  Dave DuPlantis Oct 17 '11 at 18:51
    
Well, a "sack" of coconuts might well wash up on shore if they were lost during sea combat or a storm from a trader. I wasn't suggesting the little critters started swimming north from warmer shores!!! –  Badmike Oct 18 '11 at 3:38
    
@Badmike, sorry, that wasn't a literal question ... I was just playing off Sardathrion's reference to an alternate use for coconuts. –  Dave DuPlantis Oct 18 '11 at 18:28
    
Ooops, missed the Monty Python reference, in that case LOL! –  Badmike Oct 19 '11 at 2:16
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Change the value

A sword +2 is worth 45 gold? Says who? Supply and demand will dictate what the sword is worth, with a base price of 45 gold maybe. Say the current social situation is tense (war, brigands, and civil unrest) then the price of weapons could be higher. If the PCs just defeated the great evil, who would want to pay for a +2 sword? Now, all your magic items are no longer worth X. Same thing is true of jewels, precious stones, and anything of value.

Even gold will create inflation. Say, your village has 200 gold in it, now the PCs arrive with their 4000 gold. What do you think that the prices are going to do? Everyone is going to want a large share of the gold. Suddenly it is the same thing that happened to Spain due to the Indies gold: mega inflation.

How do they know the value?

The characters do not a copy of the game at hand. If anyone wanted to know the value of something, I would have them evaluate the item. Maybe that +2 sword has the mark of $EvilLord on it and no one would wants it. Or maybe its an old sword, one that no person of standing and good breeding would be seen stabbed with much less seen with it. Now, that NPC merchant character is looking like a good one to hire to join the party, does he not? And of course, he would never rip the party off.

Story idea

Oh, did I mention someone paying the characters for good with counterfeit money?

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I believe oD&D actually assumed that there was hyperinflation due to adventurer's dropping gold on the local economy. –  Tynam Oct 17 '11 at 10:22
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@Tynam: It has been a long time since I looked at D&D rules in whatever incarnation. Quiet a lot of other games do have variable prices depending on settlement size, rarity of primal material, and so on. All in all, too complex and not a viable model so you may as well make it up on the fly. –  Sardathrion Oct 17 '11 at 10:28
    
Very true. (I don't claim that oD&D prices make any sense! Just pointing out that there's a good D&D precedent for your suggestion that adventurers can cause local inflation.) –  Tynam Oct 17 '11 at 18:31
    
@Tynam: cool! Thanks for the pointer. –  Sardathrion Oct 18 '11 at 7:33
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Think about what you want to accomplish by making the value uncertain.

Create treasures that are unique and interesting to the story. These need not be artifacts with special powers; a locket containing a portrait may have more significance to a person than a Mystical Rod of Smiting. Create clues that advance the story, and tell the players something about the character they got it from, or the setting in your game.

NPC journals, logbooks, and notes can also be good for delivering clues.

As a player, I don't like it when a DM lists off common items by description, or makes us roll Appraise for every single item after a large battle. A ruby isn't usually a story element; err on the side of minimizing book-keeping.

One DM whose storytelling style I really like will just give out a list of loot for someone to write down - but, when there's an interesting object, he'll describe it, rather than simply naming the item. For example, he might say +1 longsword, +2 heavy crossbow, etc... then describe a small, locked box that one of the villains was carrying, decorated with the pattern of a rose. We don't need to investigate the lineage of every +1 longsword, but we do investigate the box in more detail, picking it, searching for traps, etc.

NPCs offering favors as others mentioned are a good idea, but I wouldn't consider a favor to be treasure.

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If you are tired of the ho-hum attitude your party has with treasure, the first step is to not be ho-hum yourself. Which would you prefer to have, 100 Silver dollars (ok... 100 bucks in your pocket, gee-whiz), or 100 Roman Denarii? (full disclosure: I don't know anything about the relative silver value of a silver dollar vs. Denarii, but for the sake of argument, let's assume both have the same silver weight and purity)

If your players enjoy interesting thought-experiments/puzzles, put a treasure of coins from a country on the other side of the planet/continent, and watch the players try to figure out what plot-seed you are throwing them.

As others have said, you can also throw in things like boons, or artifacts that will disappear after they have been used for their purpose.

As for items, DON'T tell them exactly what they pick up. In a recent adventure, the players came across a treasure with a few coins and a few gems. They recognized the gold vs. copper pieces, but since no one took the appraise skill (D&D 3.5), they knew they had picked up a reddish gemstone, but was it a 1000 GP ruby, or a 100 gp garnet? Was that black stone Onyx, Jet, or some granite?

Same should go for Art objects, weapons, etc. Until you do some research, you don't know if it's a really nice, yet mundane sword worth 15GP, a Holy Avenger worth over 120,000GP?

Granted, most parties do this, but the ID spell will only say that a sword is +2, or that the command word of "boojee-buji" causes it to shoot a 5d6 fireball at your foes, but not that it should be sold for 10,000 GP (for example).

You can also throw in some "boring" stuff and give it really fancy descriptions. For example:

a bowl that was carved by a master. On the side is an intricate design showing a group of dwarves hunting a dragon. They appear to have the upper hand against the dragon, but the dragon has one of them in it's mouth. The wood appears to have been made from a positively luxurious ebony tree, and the hand-carving on the side makes you want to put it on display somewhere.

I doubt they will want to sell this "exquisite, hand-carved bowl" when they get to town, even though it's just a chunk of 100% mundane wood with some carving on the side... I'll be charitable and give it a value of 10 GP.

Finally, you can throw them the occasional curve-ball in sales value. Maybe they pick up a perfectly normal +2 sword worth about 8000GP, but maybe the owner of the weapon shop went into buying and selling weapons because he is looking for a lost family heirloom. Maybe he's willing to pay his last penny (about 30,000gp) to have it returned to him (and to keep it from the weapon shop on the other side of town) because his great-great-great grandfather defeated the big bad foe with it. Or maybe that +2 sword is the same sword that the warlord used to kill the shop owner's wife, and the shop owner won't pay a penny for it (but demand it as "payment" for the loss of his wife).

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Did that description come from Dwarf Fortress? –  DJClayworth Oct 16 '11 at 18:12
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@DJClayworth Couldn't have: not enough menacing spikes and carvings of cheese. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 16 '11 at 21:57
    
Nah. It's inspired by shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?cat=15. He did a post on treasure descriptions. I made it up based on some gaudy, fancy bowl of 0 magical power. –  Pulsehead Oct 17 '11 at 0:17
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