Treasure – realistically, it’s messy

One of the things I remember when I first acquired the Dungeons and Dragons basic set was spending hours poring over the treasure tables in the Dungeon Masters Rulebook – in particular row H, the row of the dragons. For each type of treasure, it lists the chance of it being present as a percentage, and the dice to roll to see how much.

A BECMI D&D dragon’s hoard

For example, row H gives a dragon’s treasure hoard as:

  • 25% chance of 3000-24,000 copper pieces (3d8 x 1000)
  • 50% chance of 1000-100,000 silver pieces (d% x 1000)
  • 50% chance of 10,000-40,000 electrum pieces (10d4 x 1000 or d4 x 10,000)
  • 50% chance of 10,000-60,000 gold pieces (10d6 x 1000 or d6 x 10,000)
  • 25% chance of 5000-20,000 platinum pieces (5d4 x 1000)
  • 50% chance of 1-100 gems (d%)
  • 50% chance of 10-40 items of jewellery (10d4)
  • 15% chance of any 4 magic items + 1 potion + 1 scroll

A treasure hoard indeed! Unless all the percentage chances indicate no treasure, but there’s a less than 2% chance of that. I remember thinking that the 15% chance of magic items was stingy, though.

Gem values are determined on a separate table with d%:

  • 01-20 = 10gp value
  • 21-45 = 50gp value
  • 46-75 = 100gp value
  • 76-95 = 500gp value
  • 96-00 = 1000gp value

Jewellery values are determined as 3d6 x 100gp.

Just for fun, I decided to roll a hoard right now using this table, and for added nostalgia I even used the original dice which came in the box. Here’s what I got:

  • copper pieces: d% = 68 = none
  • silver pieces: d% = 86 = none
  • electrum pieces: d% = 99 = none
  • gold pieces: d% = 02, 10d6 = 34 => 34,000gp
  • platinum pieces: d% = 09, 5d4 = 17 => 17,000pp = 85,000gp value (in this edition 1pp = 5gp)
  • gems: d% = 31, d% = 80. 80 gems! I’m switching to my all-in-one d% dice for this… I get:
    • 19 x 10gp value = 190gp value
    • 23 x 50gp value = 1150gp value
    • 27 x 100gp value = 2700gp value
    • 8 x 500gp value = 4000gp value
    • 3 x 1000gp value = 3000gp value
    • total = 11,040gp value
  • jewellery: d% = 43, 10d4 = 29 items of jewellery
    • 5 x 500gp value = 2500gp value
    • 3 x 700gp value = 2100gp value
    • 2 x 800gp value = 1600gp value
    • 4 x 900gp value = 3600gp value
    • 5 x 1000gp value = 5000gp value
    • 2 x 1200gp value = 2400gp value
    • 3 x 1300gp value = 3900gp value
    • 1 x 1400gp value = 1400gp value
    • 2 x 1500gp value = 3000gp value
    • 2 x 1600gp value = 3200gp value
    • total = 28,700gp value
  • magic items: d% = 64 = none

So we have 34,000gp in gp, 85,000gp in pp, 11,040gp in gems and 28,700gp in jewellery, totalling 158,740gp value! 51,000 coins, 80 gems and 29 items of jewellery.

A Fifth Edition D&D dragon’s hoard

What would it be in 5th edition? I was hoping to refer to the basic rules, but strangely the only mention they have of treasure is some of the magic items, so this is from the DMG. Here the tables are based on the monster challenge rating, so I need to pick a specific dragon. Let’s take an adult white dragon – CR13.

For coins, we have 4d6x1000gp + 5d6x100pp (no copper, silver or electrum). For gems, art objects (which replaces jewellery) and magic items, there’s a large table where I roll d% and look up the appropriate row. So:

  • gold pieces: 4d6 = 19 => 19,000gp
  • platinum pieces: 5d6 = 19 => 1900pp = 19,000gp value (in 5e, 1pp = 10gp)
  • other treasure: d% = 21 = 2d4 750gp art objects + 1d4 magic items from table A and 1d6 magic items from table B
    • 2d4 = 5 x 750gp art objects = 3750gp value
    • 1d4 = 3 magic items from table A:
      • d% = 30 => potion of healing
      • d% = 44 => potion of healing
      • d% = 06 => potion of healing
      • d% = 18 => potion of healing
      • d% = 62 => potion of climbing
    • 1d6 = 1 magic item from table B:
      • d% = 80 => Elemental gem

So we have 19,000gp, 1900pp, five 750gp art objects, four potions of healing, one potion of climbing and an Elemental gem. Total value 41,750gp plus the magic items. 20,900 coins, five art objects and six magic items.

Enter Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons

Trying to loot a dragon’s hoard – from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. Used with permission under the WOTC fan policy.

The latest publication from Wizards of the Coast in the D&D 5e line is Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. My copy came through the letterbox today, and it has an alternative, and much more appropriate method of generating dragons’ hoards. So let’s add it to the comparison. This is an adult dragon hoard I just generated:

  • copper pieces: 12d6 = 46 => 4600cp = 46gp value
  • silver pieces: 4d6 = 14 => 14,000sp = 1400gp value
  • gold pieces: 8d6 = 32 => 32,000gp
  • platinum pieces: 10d6 = 33 => 3300pp = 33,000gp value
  • mundane objects: 2d6 = 7:
    • d% = 77 => scroll with a long epic poem in praise of the dragon
    • d% = 99 =>  an extensive historical record in the form of carefully knotted strings
    • d% = 10 => several embroidered throw pillows depicting wyrmlings
    • d% = 78 => another scroll with a long epic poem in praise of the dragon
    • d% = 46 => a crude flute with a pleasing sound
    • d% = 67 => a set of irregular polyhedral dice with 9, 13, 25 and 34 sides
    • d% = 76 => a kneeling bench, which anyone addressing the dragon is required to use
  • gems: 6d6 = 27:
    • 8 x 10gp value = 80gp value
    • 3 x 50gp value = 150gp value
    • 4 x 100gp value = 400gp value
    • 6 x 500gp value = 3000gp value
    • 6 x 1000gp value = 6000gp value
    • total = 9630gp value
  • art objects: 3d6 = 15:
    • 9 x 25gp value = 225gp value
    • 3 x 250gp value = 750gp value
    • 3 x 750gp value = 2250gp value
    • total = 3225gp value
  • magic items: 1d8 = 6:
    • d% = 12 => uncommon minor item: d% = 57 => 2nd level spell scroll
    • d% = 69 => rare major item: d% = 31 => chain mail armour of resistance
    • d% = 37 => rare minor item: d% = 89 => bag of beans
    • d% = 39 => rare minor item: d% = 21 => 4th level spell scroll
    • d% = 28 => rare minor item: d% = 18 => 4th level spell scroll
    • d% = 82 => very rare major item: d% = 00 => tome of understanding

So we have 4600cp, 14,000sp, 32,000gp and 3300pp, plus 9630gp in 27 gems and 3225gp in 15 art objects, totalling 79,301gp value, plus seven mundane objects and six magic items. 53,900 coins. That feels more like a fabled dragon hoard!

Comparing BECMI versus 5e hoards

One thing which immediately jumps out is how much less the fifth edition hoard is worth.

  • Gold is only 4d6 x 1000 instead of 10d6 x 1000
  • Platinum uses 5d6 instead of 5d4 but is only multiplied by 100 instead of 1000
Photo by János Venczák on Unsplash

There are far fewer art objects (only 2d4 or 3d6 depending on percentile roll) and no gems (although it might have been the other way round if I had rolled differently).

The new Fizban dragon hoard falls between the two, with total value 79,301gp including 27 gems and 15 art objects.

In BECMI, a large part of experience came from treasure – I think the rule of thumb was 80% from treasure, 20% from monsters, so that white dragon was worth 750XP from defeating it + 158,740XP from the treasure (if the heroes could get it home…), whereas in 5e, the white dragon, CR13, is worth 10,000XP regardless of how much treasure it has. So this is probably at least partly why the treasure values are less. (This may also be why I still struggle to get a handle on money values in 5e, even after five years of playing it – my instincts are still from BECMI).

Another thing which jumps out is the lack of variety in the 5e hoard:

  • there is no chance of copper, silver or electrum in a CR11-16 hoard
  • each line in the non-coin section only has one type of gem or art object with one value – a mixture would be more realistic

On the other hand, magic items are much more likely – 85% chance compared to the 15% chance for BECMI.

This is corrected in Fizban: there are coins of all sorts (except electrum), gems, art objects and 100% chance of magic items – the question is just how many there are. There is also the mundane items which have little value but lots of character.

So in many ways the BECMI version feels more realistic, apart from the magic items which I would expect to be more common at this level of play (as in the 5e tables), and the Fizban version feels even better.

But how realistic are they really?

Realistic treasure

Let’s start with the coins. 34,000gp and 17,000pp in BECMI, 19,000gp and 1900pp in 5e, 4600cp, 14,000sp, 32,000gp and 3300pp in Fizban. Sounds all right?

Well, not really to me. It feels artificial, not something you might actually come across in real life. In a real hoard, you might find 33,792gp and 17,213pp, or 19,083gp and 1879pp. You’d be unlikely to hit such a round number.

The gems and jewellery collection feels better in BECMI – there’s a variety of different items at different values, it’s not uniform. A uniform selection feels more like a shop than someone’s collection. The 5e version is too simplistic for my taste. Fizban is better but the art objects are much too lumpy – the gems have the same value options as BECMI, but the art objects can (according to the table) only have values of 25gp, 250gp, 750gp, 2500gp and (for ancient dragons only) 7500gp – I’d rather see a more granular set with options in between.

Does this matter?

In many ways, no. The adventure is about overcoming the challenges and gaining the rewards, and the round numbers keep the maths easy.

On the other hand, if you want the players to feel they are in a real world, these round numbers will jar them out of the illusion. Roughening up the numbers makes it feel more real and sucks them in.

But don’t take my word for it. I have been approaching treasure this way for a while, but I felt validated by a recent blog post by The Angry GM – How I Handle Treasure, which not only goes through the same sort of arguments (in more detail) but also talks about how he chooses treasure items, including trade goods (which don’t get a mention in the DMG, but are probably the most likely sort of valuable item to be found outside of a mansion.

And you know what? Going through this exercise makes me realise I have never actually used the treasure tables in 5e before, and I don’t remember using the BECMI table in that detail, with the possible exception of when I was just starting with the rules and exploring them. I’ve just gone on gut feel and picked items that seem right for the situation (or been running a pre-published adventure, and even then I’ve been known to tweak the values found).

Delivering the treasure

There’s one other big mistake which can break the illusion, even with messy numbers. Think back to that dragon hoard.

Five bolts of fire streak through the freezing fog, searing the blue-white ribs of the dragon at the same time as the paladin, hoar frost inch-thick on his metal armour, swings his shining broadsword twice, slicing gouges out of the neck. With a bubbling groan, the creature collapses into the snow, gushes of blue-white ichor pooling around it as its final breath blows ice crystals across the cave.

The fog starts to dissipate and the characters come together by the side of their fallen foe, creaking with the cold, rents in their armour and robes and notches in their weapons testament to the fierceness of the battle. They start to look around, looking for the fabled treasure of the beast.

“You find nineteen thousand and eighty three gold pieces, one thousand, eight hundred and seventy nine platinum pieces, five art objects worth 750gp, four potions of healing, one potion of climbing and one elemental gem.”

The players nod and add the totals to their group treasure tally.

Is there anything wrong with this? You’ve probably done things this way. I certainly have in the past. It certainly keeps things simple. But I changed my approach for the same reason I prefer the BECMI approach to gems and jewellery. Now I’m more likely to say something like:

“You find a huge pile of coins with a mixture of gold and platinum, a silver cup with set with gemstones, a small gold figurine, a gold dragon comb with jewels for its eyes, a silver and gold brooch in the shape of a dragon, another with an intricate knotwork pattern, several potions and a yellow gem with a spark flickering inside it.”

Why? Well, think about it. These are people whose speciality is adventuring, fighting battles, outwitting tricky traps and handling negotiations. They’re not specialist jewellers, and almost certainly not the kind of savant who can take one look at a pile of coins and work out exactly how many there are. If they want to know how many coins there are, they’re going to have to stop and count them…and think how long it will take to count 21,000 coins. They also won’t know how much those art objects are worth. I suppose as experienced adventurers they would probably recognise healing potions by now (assuming all healing potions look the same in your world), but have they seen a potion of climbing before? How do they know the (single) gem is a magic gem rather than just a gemstone?

Oh yes, and how are they going to get this all home? Fifty coins weigh one pound (110 coins per kilo), so those 21,000 coins weighs 420lbs (roughly 200kg). Once they’ve chipped it out from under the ice, do they have a cart/sledge to load it onto?

Or are they going to split that weight between them (on top of the other equipment they’re carrying) and stagger home? Remember, even by the simple rules, maximum carrying capacity is 15lb x Strength, and by the slightly more complex rules, they’re encumbered at 5 x Strength and heavily encumbered at 10 x Strength. Also, how are they going to carry it? Do they have enough sacks to hold the coins? Or are they going to keep them frozen into blocks? In which case, do they have enough cloths to avoid frostbite while carrying those lumps of ice? And how are they going to keep them frozen once they reach warmer climes?

See what I mean when I say realistic treasure is messy?

Oh, and that’s before they try to realise the value in it.

Realising the treasure value

What do I mean by realising the treasure value? I mean turning it into something usable. Those 21,000 coins? That’s going to be a magnet for all sorts of bandits and thieves, and they’ll need to find a place to stash it safely. They certainly won’t be able to carry it about with them. Are there banks? (And if so, are there money-laundering rules? Will they get asked awkward questions about where this sudden pile of cash comes from?)

Also, a shopkeeper is unlikely to take a silver chalice in payment for their restocking of rations, ammunition and adventuring kit, so to be able to spend the value they need to find a buyer. Different buyers will have different ideas of how much the item is worth, and the market will also affect it. A small farming village is unlikely to have buyers even for low-value trinkets and they won’t have the sort of money on hand anyway. A populous city is likely to have multiple buyers for most things.

This is an area I’m not so good at, so I was delighted to see The Angry GM’s follow-up treasure blog post How You Should Handle Treasure at the Table, which describes appraising and selling valuables and gives three different relatively simple methods for this (depending on your tolerance for maths). I have to say that to me, his option 3 Dicey Treasure Valuation is much the way to go. The first two are just too simplistic and feel like they still fall into the traps above.

Conclusions

If it’s just a way of keeping score, the simple rules work fine. But if you want to play in a world, and have the players feel immersed in the world, you need to think about all this.

Generating these hoards and talking through the implications has been an interesting exercise for me, and will probably affect how I place treasure in future. I definitely prefer the BECMI level of variety, but I need to get more of a handle on the 5e levels of value, so I’m likely to use the tables from the 5e DMG to give a sense of total value, and then just pick items that feel thematically right (or which I fancy), using the DMG tables and the BECMI tables as sources of inspiration.

I will also definitely start using The Angry GM’s Dicey Valuation approach for appraising and selling valuables.

References

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