One of the challenges I’ve been encountering in my D&D game is the placement of treasure. Even in 5th edition, D&D still thrives on a steady drip of gold, gems, artwork and magical or semi-magical items. And placing those items in a natural-feeling way is hard.
Sure, you could just roll on the treasure tables for every enemy the PCs search but that will quickly get weird. As an experiment, I rolled on that table for every feasible encounter in my game so far. (That is: I didn’t roll for creatures like wolves or rats, but I did roll for everything that was at least smart enough to recognize that gold = value).
Had I used those results, the PCs would’ve entered an abandoned mine and gotten out with a magical scale mail (resists fire damage), 6 paintings, each worth a good chunk of cash, a small pile of gens, a few hundred gold pieces along with whatever weapons and armor they stole from their enemies. That would be for first level adventurers.
As you can see, the random tables given can be a useful aid but are in no way representative of a natural environment. So manual placement is probably the better option here.
However, this leads us to another issue. If you’re going to be manually placing your treasure, you’re naturally going to want to place it in places that make sense. Weapons in the armory, spell scrolls in the library, jewelry and gems hidden away where they are safe and so on. So how do you combine that with the idea that this treasure you’ve placed all around should be found by the PCs. After all, a small chest filled with gems is an excellent retirement plan for a dark elf but for your game it’s pointless unless the PCs actually get to it.
Well, the short answer to that question is: “I don’t know”.
The longer answer involves a lot of meandering and theorizing on player behaviors in a dungeon environment, so buckle up.
The first step in getting treasure to feel realistic is to place it in realistic places and training your players to expect treasure in reasonable locations. Start small with less valuable items (that can be missed without too much issue) and placing them in logical places. Give them the first few ‘for free’. That is, you’re free to hide them but make the DC sufficiently low that the players learn both lessons: “There’s treasure here” and “Treasure is usually hidden”
In my dungeon, I started planting the seed in my first two rooms. One room was a storage closet and clearly marked as such. It had mundane equipment in it that the PCs could discover. They left that room with 6 oil lamps and 12 pints of oil for said lamps.
Room two was an overseer’s office and naturally contained said overseer’s journal (in his desk drawer), some coin they forgot (1d6 gp) and a hidden room. The DC for the hidden room was fairly low, ensuring the PCs would find it and learn the second lesson of this particular dungeon: there are hidden rooms and objects and you may find treasure there.
This particular hidden room was a small cave behind a bookcase and contained unrefined silver ore the overseer had been skimming off of shipments.
Cool, so my players have learned their lesson and returned home with almost 40 kilos of silver ore, netting them a nice sum on the market.
So lesson learned: teach the players early, teach them often and they’ll figure out the rules of the underground ecosystem.
Except when it’s out of their hands. A few sessions in, my players got into a scrap with a small band of elves and their undead bodyguards. The fight didn’t go well for either side and the elves retreated, leaving their undead minions to deal with the PCs. Although they (barely) managed to deal with the skeletons, the PCs didn’t feel confident exploring further and retreated for a long rest followed by a resupply in town.
In the mean time, as dictated by the principles I stick to for this game, the dungeon evolved.
Side note: I often borrow ideas from different systems to make my running of games easier or to give me structure when preparing. In the case if this particular game, I’ve borrowed from the apocalypse world lineage of games and hold myself to a set of reasonably strict rules to guide me.
So the elves went back to the outpost the PCs so rudely invaded, took everything of value and left a few traps to discourage the surface dwellers. The result is, of course, that some of the treasure the PCs were ‘meant’ to get has moved.
And that issue is part of the same issue with consumable treasures. Let’s say you put a health potion in a treasure hoard for an orc warboss somewhere. Why wouldn’t he use it in a fight and if he does, was it treasure or was it a buff to the orc’s abilities? This is a tricky question to answer and I don’t know what that answer would be.
So I’ll leave you with this question: When is treasure not treasure but a tool? And should you leave a sword as treasure even if it makes more sense to behead the party’s cleric with it? Probably not, but I’ll happily read your thoughts.