The Dungeon Master says “treasure,” and everyone’s got roughly the same image in their head: a heaping helping of easily-spendable coins and gems. If you’re getting wild, maybe there’s a crown somewhere in the mix. That’s fine—that’s better than fine, that’s useful, because in most games (especially those tracing their lineage from Dungeons & Dragons), treasure is a game mechanic, a stat that goes up and down and helps players get the things they really want. The treasure is just a shorthand for new plate armor, or a valet, or a cozy little fortress out in the country with a moat full of beholders. The players don’t actually want the treasure—just what the treasure will get them.
But sometimes you want them to want the treasure, to think about it as something more than a boost to a number on their character sheet. Even a single piece of specific, evocative loot can transform a routine encounter into a memorable one—not just the time that they fought a swamp hag, but the time they fought the swamp hag with the carved jade cauldron, or the haunting porcelain figurines of weeping children, or the golden music box that never played the same song twice…
The first element of good loot is to remember that everything’s made out of something. It’s easy to reach for the old standards: gold, silver, emerald, ruby. But if you want something to stand out, it has to be more than just a shorthand for “valuable.” It has to be sensuous, evocative, and interesting. What materials are available in a given region? If a material isn’t available in the area, what cultures do have access to it, and how do they interact? Trade? Warfare? The balance here is between something fresh and exotic and actually familiar; your players might not even tune in for gold anymore, but see how they do with electrum, onyx, or lapis lazuli.
Museums are probably the biggest and most important resource for this. First and foremost, you can get exposure to real, ancient treasures–to the kind of things that kings and princes and popes commissioned for themselves. The British Museum has a useful online catalog that allows users to browse highlighted items or search a more comprehensive (and overwhelming) list of more than 2 million objects.
A flesh-and-blood visit can do even more, though. When we try to describe things we’ve never actually seen, we reach for clichés. It’s a gem the size of a fist, clear and shiny. Most of us will never actually have the opportunity to own a diamond the size of a human eyeball, but seeing one in person can help you to find new and fresh words, the kind of things that get the player involved—words that excite that little, greedy corner in the brain. It’s not just a shiny stone, it’s cut like an insect’s eye, each facet blazing with a pale rainbow.
EVERYTHING HAS A STORY
Every weapon has a smith, every house has an architect, and it’s only reasonable that every treasure has a story. Uncut gems are beautiful in their own way, but they’re not stunning—at least, not in the same way as a faceted sapphire. Someone has to carve the statues and make the pottery, and when it comes to masterpieces, they’re usually made with someone in mind.
Who created this treasure, and under whose patronage? Sometimes, attaching a history to an object is enough to make it more valuable and memorable to the players, even if that history doesn’t give them much in-game leverage. The cloak they find deep in the hobgoblin cave–pristine white muslin–belonged to a local holy woman, and has survived the intervening centuries without blemish. The oil-colored locket set with bright garnets was a pledge of love between the late king and his favored mistress. Anything that gets the players invested in your setting—or even better, remembering the names of NPC’s—can only be a good thing.
A BRISK TRADE
Finally, consider trade goods as another source of treasure, especially when dealing with pirates, brigands, and thieves. Merchants didn’t travel around with their fortunes in neat little chests—they travelled with a caravan stuffed with merchandise: spices, silks, porcelain, tapestries, iron, oil, wax, ink, wine, and perfume.
The fear is that players will balk at taking charge of such unwieldy currency—you can’t really stand the inn to a flagon of mead with a damask tapestry of Ulther the First–but at their core, role playing games are about solving problems, and your players–properly incentivized—will usually rise to the challenge. They may even get creative, finding ways to leverage their new goods beyond their expected value–this behavior is to be encouraged! If they want to dedicate a session to muscling down the lamp oil industry in Baldur’s Gate in order to fetch a higher price for their own…well, they’ve got a plan, they’re being proactive, and your dungeon, I promise, can wait.
But then again, the lamp-oil industry can always fight back…