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There's this adventurer who died in the dungeon some years ago. Nobody took their equipment (maybe they died of poison, hunger, whatever). The PCs encounter the body years later. Naturally, they want to use the equipment.

Let's say the dungeon is moldy and wet.

Would boiled leather (i.e. leather armor) still be of any use? What about normal leather (backpack, etc)? Steel weapons? Wooden weapons?

Would it be different if the dungeon was dry and vented?

I'm running a survival-themed campaign using D&D 5e, so these kinds of things worry me these days.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Current consensus seems to be that this is perfectly answerable, and looking at the three answers so far I'm inclined to agree. pgedm, as a general rule it is always better to ask for the system you're playing. If you still want to ask about how real world leather degradation, that would be better done elsewhere (I don't know if there'd be a better place than worldbuilding, but it might be easier to help with that in Role-playing Games Chat). \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Feb 6 at 18:06
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Adventuring equipment requires maintenance to remain usable.

D&D's rules don't really cover the rate at which things decay. The Player's Handbook p.157-158, "Lifestyle Expenses" does note that equipment is expected to be maintained:

Furthermore, expenses cover the cost of maintaining your equipment so that you can be ready when the adventure next calls.

You need a modest income (1 gp/day) to reliably maintain your equipment, and a comfortable income (2 gp/day) to ensure that you can "easily" maintain your equipment. It's thus established that adventuring equipment needs to be actively maintained to remain reliably usable.

There aren't any specific rules on how long something can survive without being damaged, which traditionally means it's up to the DM. If you are the DM, you may be aided in your judgement by researching the age and condition of various real-world archaelogical finds. It's likely to vary considerably depending on the type of item.

Precious metals survive well. To this day, people in Britain dig up coins from the Roman era, and in good condition. Some silver coins are more tarnished than this and may be damaged. Copper tarnishes easily, and gold less so.

Organic materials survive less well, particularly when exposed to damp, mold, and so on. This article describes wooden chests surviving from the Middle Ages in Europe which have survived reasonably intact for hundreds of years, and some from the much drier climate of Egypt surviving thousands. Paint, varnish and such are able to improve the longevity of wooden objects.

Iron and steel sometimes survive. YouTube historian Lindybeige owns a mail shirt dating back to 1688 and captured at a battle in what is now India. When he acquired it, it was extremely rusted and needed a certain amount of cleaning and restoration, but he was able to make it wearable again.

Leather or boiled leather might be eaten by hungry rats or other creatures. I've heard it said that during the Siege of Jerusalem (or one of them, at any rate), some of the defenders resorted to eating their hardened leather shields as they contained some nutrition.

If the DM doesn't know how long something would realistically survive in a dungeon, they can always make it up, based what seems reasonable. D&D tends to assume that however old the dungeon's contents are, things like wooden doors, chests, treasure and so on have survived. Books, scrolls and other seemingly very biodegradable things have canonically survived upwards of a century in D&D adventure modules. Fictional materials may also exist which survive the elements much better than real-world counterparts, such as hardy types of wood, alchemical treatments, or dwarven metallurgy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, and think it could be combined with something homebrewed (like a roll table for item condition based on rough composition) to produce effects like the OP might be looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Feb 6 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the environment makes a very big difference. Dry dungeon, I would think most things would survive decades or centuries. A sufficiently wet dungeon and I would expect only those things immune to moisture would survive (coins, gems, anything mithril.) Glass would survive but generally the seals would not. Dry dungeon below freezing, I'd say anything other than food would probably be fine after a century or more. (Fats still oxidize slowly even below freezing, food will go rancid.) \$\endgroup\$ – Loren Pechtel Feb 7 at 4:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Most equipment decays only because of use. Swords need sharpening, orbs need polishing, armor needs to be patched and replaced. But left in a dungeon, the only concern is iron weapons rusting (and other oxidation). \$\endgroup\$ – Beefster Feb 8 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ And also in one of the comments in the DMG under the rewards section, it is inferred that non magical equipment recovered from defeated oppoenent are beaten up and worth fraction of their original cost and most are pretty unusable. \$\endgroup\$ – KilrathiSly Feb 9 at 20:56
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It's up to you, and ultimately shouldn't matter mechanically

In narrative terms, it's whatever you'd prefer. Would your survival theme fit better if PCs encounter useable equipment like this? This is far and away the biggest issue-- D&D is riddled with magical effects and just-so situations. It doesn't really matter if conditions in a dungeon would promote rust, mold, or decay that degrades equipment (especially if you're indicating the amount of time the equipment has been in the dungeon with an X; there likely exists an X that will produce the equipment condition you want).

Mechanically, this tends to come down to a wealth-pacing issue. There isn't a whole lot of variation in weapon quality (mechanically) in the game, so a character that already has a mundane longsword won't have much reason to switch to a different mundane longsword. If it's in useable condition then its main value will be equipping other characters or selling it for half its listed price. So your decision about whether or not the equipment is useable will largely affect whether or not you should adjust the treasure PCs find up or down to include or exclude the sale value of the equipment.

Finally, if your PCs don't have any combat equipment when they come across useable weapons and armor they are very likely to want it-- D&D is much easier with weapons in hand! So if you want your players to have equipment then it might be good to decide that what they find is serviceable. If not, then it's not.


Ultimately this is not a decision that needs much mechanical guidance. D&D doesn't simulate item degradation (Rust Monsters aside), nor is condition much of a consideration with loot recovered from adventuring. Loot has a cash value and guidance for how much PCs should receive. If the treasure value you want to disburse is enough for a sword and armor, then the bigger game-mechanical decision is whether or not the gear is usable immediately (loot obtained!) or if it is unusable but has other treasure which adds up to the sale price of the sword and armor.

Arms, Armor, and Other Equipment

As a general rule, undamaged weapons, armor, and other equipment fetch half their cost when sold in a market. Weapons and armor used by monsters are rarely in good enough condition to sell. (PHB, Chapter 5, Selling Treasure).

tl;dr: For the rules as written, decisions about what treasure is available is not based on simulationist concerns like environmental degradation but is instead based on adventuring rewards and narrative goals in the story.

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Thinking as a DM, I would consider three different things.

  1. What kind of effects, if any would reasonably affect these items?

  2. To what extent would the items be effected?

  3. How to modify/describe the items.

Because the items are not magic, they will not be magically guarded from natural effects like rust, rot, rain, or rodents. If you want to keep some level of realism, then the main factors I would take into account are time, conditions, and material. For example, if the room is dry and dark, most materials would not experience particularly harmful negative effects. Leather might be a bit stiff, but metal should be mostly unaffected. If the wood is treated (it probably would be for a nice axe), it should be fine, but if it isn’t (perhaps on a spear), then it may have decayed somewhat. Once you introduce water (or even a lot of humidity) metal rust, wood rots, and leather shrivels.

The extent of the decay would largely depend on the amount of time. If a sword has been in a damp cave for a year, it might have some spots on it but otherwise be unaffected. If it has been there for thirty years, then it would have extensive rust. If it’s been two hundred years, it might be nearly entirely destroyed. Even in good conditions, if it’s been a very long time then dust and cobwebs would build up on them. Of course when determining conditions and time you can always roll some dice if you want to introduce randomness (say a d100 to determine the number of years the corpse has been there).

The fun part is deciding how the effects can be worked into the story and game mechanics. This would be a great opportunity for a colorful description of the items and their state. “You see the reddish brown color of leather once you brush away some cobwebs and dust. The armor is stiff and some straps are broken, but it seems like the leather is still strong and could still turn a blade.” Finally, you might make some adjustments to the items to reflect their worn and aged state. For example it might take a mending spell or a few hours oiling and cleaning to make them functional. If they’ve been structurally compromised, then you might introduce some mechanical disadvantages. For example the armor is squeaky giving disadvantage to stealth, or it has weak points giving -1 AC. A sword might do -1 damage or a spear might break if you roll less than five on an attack.

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There's an interesting thing with metals. Iron and steel need fairly constant attention to deal with rust. Swords and other equipment recovered from burial sites are basically chunks of rust which would only be useable as clubs. Just in a normal damp environment, they need oil or something to keep them OK.

Bronze, on the other hand... The Iron Age kicked out the Bronze Age, because iron and steel are simply stronger than bronze. However bronze has one advantage - it's highly resistant to corrosion. Bronze Age weapons have been dug out of the ground, and apart from needing sharpening and a new handle they're basically useable as found.

If the Big Bad is something that's been around for a really long time, it's not at all impossible that some of the weapons down there would be historical. Of course it depends on the setting.

Buckles and fastenings are typically made out of brass too, which is a similar alloy and also survives well. If the adventurers need to improvise weapons or tools, these could be useful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But how much equipment is bronze? \$\endgroup\$ – Loren Pechtel Feb 7 at 4:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LorenPechtel That's up to the DM. :) But if they want a justification for some gear surviving after steel has rusted to uselessness, this would be an option. \$\endgroup\$ – Graham Feb 7 at 10:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LorenPechtel Bronze spear points were effective in killing for many centuries ...and versus unarmored targets, such as for hunting, would probably be useful. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 8 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Bronze was used for a long time but was pretty much replaced by iron because it's stronger. Only when you need the environmental resistance and don't need the hardness is bronze used. \$\endgroup\$ – Loren Pechtel Feb 8 at 20:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LorenPechtel I am aware of that, but if you had a bronze spear it still worked. As in, my rip saw still works, and I use it for some jobs, but most of the time I use the electrical rotary saw ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 8 at 22:01
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As others have commented, this really is up to the DM, as RAW doesn't provide much in the way of simulating degradation.

Others have answered directly how items degrade. Building on that, here are a few humble suggestions you might could use. Largely, though, these depend on whether your players care enough about tiny details to bother with them. Generally, mundane equipment is taken for granted to be cheap enough to buy outright, and not worth salvaging unless you're very low level or in dire need.

  • If you want scavenging to be a useful and/or necessary option, create the opportunity. Did they loose some gear because of an environmental hazard? Perhaps they escaped temporary imprisonment, but their gear was taken elsewhere
  • Rusty does not mean unusable for slashing/piercing. Maybe give a dull weapon -1 to damage rolls for being dull, -2 if they're exceptionally rusty. AC reduction for armor, a 10% chance that the backpack rips and spills an item when a player dashes.
  • Gear in bad-but-redeemable shape could be a creative way for players to use their resources. Consider allowing them to sharpen dull weapons if they brought along a whetstone, repair minor damage with smith's tools or tinker's tools, or fix cracks and chips with the Mending cantrip. Maybe alchemy supplies can restore old leather? Get creative!
  • Valuable items that can't be repaired in-situ may be worth bringing along for salvaging later. That rusty chain/plate mail might have -2 to AC now, but having the bad rings/plates replaced or repaired later could be cheaper than buying it outright
  • Items don't have to be usable to be useful- they can give information. The backpack is charred? There could be fire-breathing enemies ahead. Helmet is crushed like a soup can? Something big and strong did that. Applies for traps and environmental hazards as well
  • In particularly memorable events or places, a party member might take that tarnished locket as a souvenir. Providing flavorful opportunities for RP and social interaction is just as important as mechanical parts of the game.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used/tried/seen these things in use? Can you add some support and explanation as to how they went, what worked well and what didn't? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 8 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I haven't used these directly- that's why they're humble suggestions ;) But I do draw from similar experiences. I've seen that removing normally relied-upon resources puts pressure on and forces the party to think creatively (bullet 1). I've lost part of my inventory to environmental hazards (like the ripped backpack), which made things tense in the dungeon until I could restock. My party likes when PCs shine and contribute with their skills and tools, even in small ways (bullet 3), though usually this enriches the RP and social interaction more than providing mechanical benefit \$\endgroup\$ – automaton Feb 8 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, and I just remembered how my party enjoys taking souvenirs from particularly memorable places or interactions, such as that rusty sickle from a recurring NPC baddie. Adding a bullet for that. \$\endgroup\$ – automaton Feb 8 at 20:35

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