The Temptation of Treasure
Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell ©2002
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
In a fantasy role-playing game, one important task of the GM is to select the treasure, mundane and magical, which my be found or obtained by the PCs. Similarly in science-fictional settings, the GM might have to select items of exotic alien equipment to bewilder and enrich the PCs.
Poor choices can unbalance the game by making the PCs too wealthy (and hence able to buy their way out of challenges) or too powerful (because their abilities have been enhanced by an overly potent magical item). Particularly in fantasy RPGs, it is easy for a GM to be carried away by the multitude of treasure tables and start handing out gold, gems and magical equipment willy-nilly. Some games, such as Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, even have tables indicating how much treasure should be earned by a group of PCs for defeating an opponent of a certain level and how much "cash" should be possessed by PCs at particular levels.
Keeping the Balance
The best advice for choosing treasures to reward deserving PCs is to select, rather than randomly generate them. Even if expediency dictates "random" generation, disregard results that seem too powerful. It is far better to be err on the side of prudence than to be too generous. Players are clever and will find ways of maximizing the benefits of any loot their characters do obtain.
This leads to the Cardinal Rule of Treasure Placement:
If you do not want PCs to acquire a powerful item, do not write it into the scenario!
The ultimate artifact of cosmic power may be secreted in the deepest and deadliest level of your dungeon, but its very existence on paper in that location means there is a chance that a group of avaricious and daring adventurers will stumble across it. If you don't want this to happen or you don't need to have an NPC use the ultimate artifact, don't write it into the adventure.
What happens if you do need a powerful item in the scenario?
Well, don't just leave it lying around. Hide it so that thieves and rogues will have to search for it. Ward the surrounding area with magic and traps of an appropriate deadliness. Protect it with a guardian monster (or a group of monsters). In some cases, the item will be usable by its guardian(s) - in which case, let it be wielded against the PCs. If the adventurers can overcome all these challenges, then they'll have earned their reward.
Naturally the challenges should be appropriate to the potency of the item - protecting a simple potion of healing with a fully-grown fire-breathing dragon is more than excessive; entrusting the Philosopher's Stone to its care might not be.
(Alternatively you could leave a large treasure hoard just lying around. Slay the handful of orcs guarding it, bundle the loot into bags, and stroll off home. What could be easier for bold heroes? Well, there's the little matter of the rest of the orc tribe meeting the now heavily encumbered adventurers on their way home ... )
Knowing The Balance
It's important to know what the abilities of a magic item actually are. In my current d20 System campaign, my PCs have acquired a pair of spectacles which provide a +5 bonus to both Spot and Search skills. This is more of a boost to the party's capabilities than I had intended. And it's all my fault. I had missed the key caveat on the lenses' powers, namely that the bonus is only applicable for spotting and searching at a distance of six inches from the wearer. Unsurprisingly my PCs won't find another pair with unlimited range nor will they be able to buy a similar pair.
Tilting the Balance
PCs accumulate treasure in both coin and items. NPCs do the same. The amount (usually) increases at higher levels. However the destiny of many NPCs is to die confronting the PCs, whereupon their possessions are acquired by the victorious heroes.
The easiest way of appropriately equipping NPCs without too much risk of greatly raising the PCs' effective power after the battle is to think in terms of one-shot and charged items - scrolls, potions, wands and the like. (Of course, in Dungeons & Dragons, wizards will be able to transfer some spells from scrolls into their spellbooks permanently increasing their range of spells, so more care is needed here than in other RPGs.) In Rolemaster, daily items (which can only be used a specific number of times per day) are also a safe bet. Making an item powerful but specific works well - a weapon can be modestly magical under ordinary circumstances but provide a greater bonus against undead or demons, say. Unless every encounter in the campaign features undead or demons, this won't unbalance the game. (However, it is unfair to never pit undead or demons against the party; the players will feel disgruntled if they don't get a chance to use their shiny sword once in a while.)
Occasionally a NPC needs a really powerful item.
We noted that enemies of the PCs have a tendency to die. Sometimes their deaths can be spectacular - the victim of a maxed-out fireball or lightning bolt may provide an impromptu fireworks display. There is no guarantee that the equipment will be quietly deposited in the ashes for later collection; realism requires that GMs check to see if the possessions are also destroyed. (Seeing a chain reaction of exploding magical items might even frighten some characters who tend to wander around with the equivalent of an alchemist's shop in their backpacks ...)
In Rolemaster, items can be keyed to work only for specific races, professions, or circumstances. Occasionally using this feature can keep potent items effectively out of the hands of greedy adventurers, who will usually want nothing to do with determinedly evil items - other than to figure out how best to destroy them. Overuse can backfire, of course, as noted in Treasure Companion - "The armor's abilities can only be triggered by Dwarves. Fine, let's sell it to a rich Dwarf-lord."
Magical items can also be defective (only working some of the time) or cursed, dogging their possessors with bad luck. (The previous owner did die after all ...) Really nasty curses are unlikely to be operational on items actually used by NPCs as the disadvantages would outweigh the items' powers and most NPCs are not stupid.
Some artifacts are potent but transient. In the excellent, though exceedingly out-of-print, Dragon Warriors RPG, the Casket of Fays was one such item. When opened, the effect on the local area was determined by a dice roll on a table. If a 13 was rolled, a faerie fog surrounded the casket and it vanished.
Restoring the Balance
Despite your best efforts, a time may come when you realize that the party has obtained an artifact which is so potent that it is trivializing the challenges faced by the adventurers.
In some circumstances, the loot may have been acquired through deception or violence on the part of the NPC villain - the original owner may want it back (and have a very good in-game reason for needing it), and be prepared to pay a monetary reward or owe the adventurers a favor. The authorities may need the items as evidence - this is especially true in worlds where there is a highly developed tradition of using seers to probe the auras of items to reveal past events (see Mentalism Companion for a complete treatment of "retrocognition" and psychometry talents in Rolemaster). PCs, who display their new-found wealth too readily, may attract unwelcome attention from other rogues and find themselves parted from their precious amulet at knifepoint.
In other situations, it may be possible to work around the item's abilities, setting challenges where its powers cannot assist its possessors. This will reduce its effective value to the PCs - they might even "trade" it in for more apparently useful equipment and be less upset if it gets lost, stolen, or destroyed in a future encounter. Be prepared, however, to let them obtain a lesser version of the item - this will soften the blow of the loss. Make sure it is a lesser version.
In extremis, you may have to simply admit to the players that you made a mistake in allowing them to acquire it in the first place, and ask them nicely if you can remove it from their equipment lists. Most players will understand when an honest mistake has been made and be willing to come up with an in-game solution to get the campaign back on track.