What kind of treasure?

The module I’m writing is called “Treasure of the Satrap’s Army,” which implies the question … what exactly is the treasure and how much of it? More generally you can use these thoughts in your own game for whenever you want to make transporting the treasure as much of or more than a challenge than seizing it in the first place.

But first, a digression. One of the first questions is what level to write the module for but that wouldn’t be interesting to read about so TL;DR, low level is more challenging resource management and I can just write my own encounter tables if the default ones are too harsh. So that being said, the big question is how much treasure should the characters get anyway? Remember, the premise of the adventure is they start by looting the army camp and then the bulk of the adventure is they need to get the treasure to a safe haven.

How much treasure is really two questions, the monetary value and the bulk. Let’s do value first.

Treasure by value

This adventure assumes experience points for treasure (the GP=XP rule). So when I talk about how much treasure, really I’m placing XP pellets. GP=XP is not a great fit for every play style and I’m a big fan of Hyperborea‘s “all of the above” model for experience points, but GP=XP is a great fit with this adventure’s intended play style.

I know I want this to be a one or two session adventure, so how much XP is reasonable for a one or two session adventure?

Old School Essentials suggests 3/4 XP is from treasure, so take monster XP and multiply by 3 to get GP value of treasure. Similarly, ACKS gives a 4:1 ratio. But the problem with that is ideally the PCs will avoid all combat so that rule of thumb doesn’t really work.

There’s also a general rule of thumb you hear around the OSR that a megadungeon should have enough treasure to level up once per level of the dungeon plus a healthy margin for treasure they miss. But how many sessions is that?

If we look at the 5e DMG, page 261 gives the expectation that with the exception of the first few levels (which have trivial XP requirements in 5e), that further levels should take about 2 to 3 sessions per level. So if we assume this adventure will take one session, that implies 1/3 to 1/2 the XP you need. That’s a bit generous by OSR standards, but Lamentations of the Flame Princess (which has a strict silver = XP rule) suggests each session should provide 1/4 to 1/3 of the treasure needed to level, but with the expectation that they won’t get or keep all of it. That seems about right, so let’s go with the LotFP guideline of around 1/4 to 1/3 of the needed treasure to level on a GP=XP standard.

If we assume the adventure is targeted for 3rd level characters and we take the fighter table as typical, that’s 4000 XP needed to advance from 3rd (4000) to 4th (8000). Let’s assume the typical party is 4 PCs. So that’s 16,000 XP for them all to level up. If we assume the adventure should provide 1/4 of that, that’s 4000 GP.

By encumbrance

So we have the total value of our treasure, now we need to figure out the form. It’s one thing to say the wealth is a sapphire called the Star of Eskiloth which is worth 4000 GP (and which in an emergency the thief can coat in lamp oil and, ahem, conceal). It’s yet another thing to say that the 4000 GP of treasure is a herd of 400 cattle or a thousand poorly sealed amphorae of kimchi or garum.

I want to create a trade-off for how much wealth the characters can recover and how much risk they incur by doing so. I envision the PCs facing three options:

  1. stuff your pockets with liquid wealth. This will make it easy to hide from random encounters, take shortcuts that only work for humans (eg, climbing a rope up a steep hill), etc.
  2. load up pack animals with a moderate amount of wealth, but not so much that they can’t move at full speed or go off road.
  3. load up pack animals or vehicles with everything you can find, to the extent that the animals are slowed considerably or the vehicles can only travel on roads.

The first time I ran a play test, I found my players could fit all their loot on the pack animals and still have the pack animals move at full speed. So not really much of a trade-off.

Let’s say the fill your pockets option should be 1/8 a level’s worth of XP (2000 GP), the low-risk pack animal option 1/4 a level (4000 GP), and the high-risk pack animal option 1/2 a level (8000 GP). I’d say make the high risk option 1/3 a level, but nobody would sensibly choose much added risk for a small increment in reward, so let’s round it up to 1/2 and see if the player characters get greedy enough to overload the party’s mule with silver plated airhorns. Remember, part of the inspiration for this adventure is movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Triple Frontier, or A Simple Plan where the characters get essentially infinite wealth with minimal effort but they get greedy and that’s their downfall.

OK, so now that we have our wealth totals, we need to figure out what goods.

The 2000 GP of liquid wealth is easy as that’s what the treasure table default to. The most obvious thing is to let the PCs discover one of the army treasurer’s chests with 2000 GP in it. Given D&D’s ridiculous assumption that gold pieces are 1.6oz each (about 10x the weight of a Roman solidus or Islamic dinar), that works out to 200lb or about 50lb each spread across 4 PCs. If the PCs carried nothing else — no armor, no weapons, no food, no water, no spellbooks, no ten foot poles, etc — that’s still enough to slow their movement a bit. So if we really want to give them the option to travel light, we need to take some of that cash and convert it into jewelry or gems. The median value for a gem in the OSE treasure table is 100gp and the mean value for jewelry is 1050gp. Jewelry is more fun, so let’s say the most high value treasure they can find is 1000gp cash plus a necklace with five rubies that is worth 1000gp. That works out to about 25lb each for four players.

The medium and high difficulty treasure involves more creativity. There are really two questions: how many pack animals do we provide and what kind of wealth is available for those animals to carry. Let’s bracket the pack animals question for now. Both medium and high difficulty should involve something that’s less valuable than gold coins on a per pound basis. We could just say silver pieces, but that’s no fun.

As described above, when I first thought about it, the high risk/ high reward treasure was just “overload the mules so they go slower so you hit more random encounters, find it harder to evade pursuit, etc.” But at the abstract level it doesn’t have to be heavy, it just has to be inconvenient to transport in a way that exposes the party to risk. Here are some possibilities:

  • The treasure could be so noisy (eg, a bunch of rare parrots), shiny (a highly polished bronze statue), or odorous (eg, spices or perfumes) that it attracts more random encounters. After writing the first draft of this post, I passed a basset hound on the street and there’s something hilarious to me about player characters herding a kennel of outlandish-looking but valuable rare breed dogs who attract extra random encounter rolls by their frequent barking or howling.
  • The treasure could make negative reaction rolls when dealing with human beings (eg, items that are strictly forbidden to lowly murder hobos under the kingdom’s sumptuary laws).
  • The PCs may have to choose between carrying treasure and carrying essential but economically worthless supplies, especially water (8lb/gallon, in the unlikely event the player characters are carrying it in plastic milk jugs). Economics talks about the diamond/water paradox. You can make that an actual gameplay choice.
  • High ransom hostages must be fed and can try to escape, scream for help, etc. Historically this was a huge source of wealth from the aftermath of battles, but I prefer to avoid this one as it creates a lot of not fun ethical issues as well as imposes a duty on the DM to role-play the NPC hostage.

One advantage of cargo problems other than “high encumbrance means slower movement and hence more random encounters per mile” is that only works with hexcrawl, not pointcrwal. Another is that difficulties other than encumbrance will scale better to different party sizes. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that some forms of treasure may make some routes relatively appealing.

  • The satrap’s monogrammed silk bedsheets might incur shock in one cultural zone and indifference in another, so head through the territory where people either don’t care or think it’s hilarious to imagine how infuriated the foreigners over the ridge would be to learn that you stole that.
  • Maybe you’d have to prioritize water over treasure if you want to take the quick route through the desert but it’s ok to load up the mules with treasure and count on finding streams if you take the longer or more heavily patrolled route through the forest.
  • Maybe the treasure is so bulky that the only way to transport it is by wagon or barge so you have to stick to the road or the navigable river, which means facing a lot of army traffic, customs inspection points, etc.
  • Maybe some treasure is simply worth more at certain destinations because it’s less risky to fence, there’s more demand for it, or it’s harder to obtain there. Maybe basset hounds are ubiquitous in the satrapy but extremely rare and prestigious on Pirate Island.

So with all that in mind, let’s think of some treasure, along with possible inconveniences it may imply.

  • Silks and furs. May be readily recognizable as the satrap’s property and from your nation. Will be much heavier if they get wet. Carpets have all these properties but are also extremely bulky and larger carpets will require a cart, not just a mule.
  • Art. Readily identifiable as coming from the satrap’s household. The art may be less valuable in more distant cultures with different taste. Some art (eg, bronze sculptures, crystal, etc) may have highly polished reflective surfaces that will be visible at a great distance and attract more encounters. A lot of art is brittle, vulnerable to being punctured, etc. There could be both a high value, low convenience option and a low value, high convenience option in that the art is difficult to transport without breaking it or attracting attention, but it is worth a lot more intact than just prying the gems out of it.
  • Medicinal or psychoactive herbs. Sword and sorcery fiction often talks about the drug “lotus,” usually prefaced by a color to code different effects. In antiquity the wild fennel variety silphium was a valued contraceptive. These drugs could be subject to local taboos or laws. You could also have each player secretly roll for whether their character is an addict who must make a wisdom savings throw every night to avoid smoking the party’s profits and being catatonic or deranged the next day.
  • Amphorae of fine wine. Liquids are extremely heavy. Let’s say 10 lb/gallon between the wine itself and the vessel it’s stored in.
  • Animals. Maybe the satrap traveled with his hunting falcons or hounds. Or the harim insisted on bringing their lap dogs in the seraglio-on-the-go. Or maybe the satrap brought a small menagerie to impress his officers. The animals could be noisy, difficult to feed, uncooperative, or even dangerous. In the Neal Stephenson novel Quicksilver, in the chaos of the failure of the siege of Vienna, Half-Cock Jack Shaftoe beheads the sultan’s pet ostrich to take its tail feathers as a trade good. Nobody wants to buy a corgi pelt, but colorful birds or big cats could provide a low value, high convenience option (kill it and take its plumage or pelt) or a high value, low convenience option (keep it alive for the exotic pets market).

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  1. John

    Regarding a “hostage as treasure” – a variant that may resolve some of your issues is substituting for the hostage a rescued captive, with a large reward if they are brought home (to a neutral state, or an ally of the PC’s homeland). They could be elderly, sickly or injured, such that they are still “burdensome” despite not trying to escape. Alternatively, they could just be widely recognizable by sight, so they have to be hidden until you’ve reached friendlier lands.
    Role-playing them could be handed off to a player (much as can be done with hirelings) because their interests would not be directly opposed, and the moral quandary would be of a sort relatively ubiquitous in DND: how much should we risk our own necks to save this NPC? Greed and heroism align, with cowardice opposed.


    1. gabrielrossman

      Nice, idea. I really like it but can think of two downsides. 1) the rescued hostage may need to be delivered to a particular destination or 2) the players may feel it is morally obligatory to escort the hostage to safety and I want them to be able to ditch the hassle treasure with regret from greed, not shame. I guess there’s a version of this where the hostage can promise a small reward at easytown but a big reward at difficultburg. It’s a good idea though and whether or not it fits with this module it will with something.


      1. John

        Those are good points. I think my players would probably feel guiltier killing a rare animal for it’s pelt than sending an NPC on their way with a dagger, a wineskin and a “good luck”, but it definitely adds a moral dimension beyond greed vs fear.


      2. gabrielrossman

        Yeah, I agree that players won’t want to kill and skin an ocelot either. So probably want to avoid both wealth options.


  2. John

    I like magic being weird and rare (part of why I like DCC), but another option would be a magic item. Something big, bulky and whose magical effect is minor and apparently useless for adventuring. E.g., a large covered platter in which sweets appear, which taste great but provide no nourishment. Very valuable, sensible for a satrap to own, inconvenient to move, and provides the possibility of players coming up with a convoluted way of utilizing it, which players always enjoy.


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