It is hard to avoid allowing treasure to become just a means to an end - namely, of course, advancement. I have experimented in the past with having antiques, objets de vertu, incense, clothing, honey and the like as treasure, and the logistics of trying to get these objects out of a dungeon can be an interesting little challenge in itself. But what I'd really like to do is to try to get away from coinage (not entirely, of course) and towards an understanding of 'treasure' as more frequently comprising unique or near-unique objects which are often only really recognisable to particular types of collector, and which it takes something of an effort to sell.
Put more simply, I like the idea of PCs finding (say) a rare vase by a known designer or from a known tradition of pottery, and getting a comparatively large sum for it if they can succeed in what I will call 'The Quest to Sell' - that is, the mission of finding one of the eccentric and possibly secretive collectors of the type of treasure in question.
Jack Vance is the master at suggesting the existence of these large, dispersed, and largely unknown networks of collectors and connoisseurs operating in the background of his imaginary worlds. Take this passage from Ecce and Old Earth:
The Way of the Ten Pentalogues ran beside the Bartolo Seppi Canal, and was lined with bistros, cafes, flower stalls, booths selling fried clams and potatoes in paper packets. Along the sidestreets dim little shops dealt in specialty merchandise: curios, off-world artifacts, incunabula; rare weapons and musical instruments pitched in every key imaginable. Certain shops specialised in puzzles, cryptography, inscriptions in unknown languages; others sold coins, glass insects, autographs, minerals mined from the substance of dead stars. Still other shops purveyed softer stuff: dolls costumed in the styles of many times and places, also dolls cleverly programmed to perform acts which were polite and acts not at all polite. Spice shops vended condiments and scents, oils and esters, of an interesting sort; confectionaries sold cakes and bonbons available nowhere else on Earth, as well as dried fruits, syrops and glazes. A variety of shops displayed models of ships, ancient trains and automobiles; while others specialised in models of spaceships.
The idea of the PCs coming back from an adventure laden with rare puzzles, dolls, glass insects and a rare weapon and having to go in search of a buyer is a delightful one, not least because it opens up an underlying world of additional adventure hooks. Vance goes on a few pages later, after his main character, Wayness, has entered a shop selling 'tanglets':
Wayness turned to look at the glowing green buckles, or clasps - whatever they were - on display in the window, each on a small pedestal covered with black velvet. Each was similar but notably different from all the rest.
"They are beautiful little things; jade, I suppose?"
"Nephrite, to be exact. Jadeite gives a different feel: somewhat more coarse. These are cold and unctuous, like green butter."
"What are they used for?"
"I use them to sell to collectors," said Alvina. "All authentic tanglets are antiques, and very valuable, since the only new tanglets are counterfeit."
"What were they originally?"
"At first they were hairclasps, worn by the warriors of a far world. When a warrior killed an enemy he took the clasp and wore it on the scalp rope of his hair. In this way tanglets became trophies. The tanglets of a hero are even more; they are talismans. There are hundreds of distinctions and qualities and special terms, which make the subject rather fascinating, when you acquire some of the lore. Only a finite number are authentic tanglets, despite the efforts of counterfeiters, and each one is annotated and named and attributed. All are valuable, but the great ones are literally priceless. A hero's rope of six tanglets is so full of mana it almost sparkles. I must take extraordinary care; a single touch sours the sheen and curdles the mana."
"Poof!" said Wayness. "Who would know the difference?"
"An expert: that's who, and on the instant. I could tell you stories for hours on end." Alvina looked toward the ceiling. "I'll tell you just one, about a famous tanglet: Twelve Kanaw. A collector named Jadoukh Ibrasil had coveted Twelve Kanaw for many years, and finally, after complicated negotiations, took possession of Twelve Kanaw. On the same night, his beautiful spouse Dilre Lagoum saw the tanglet and innocently wore it in her hair to a fete. Jadoukh Ibrasil joined his wife, complimented her upon her beauty, then noticed the tanglet in her hair. Witnesses say that he turned white as a sheet. He knew at once what he must do. Courteously he took Dilre Lagoum's arm and led her into the garden and cut her throat among the hydrangeas. Then he stabbed himself. The story is usually heard only among collectors. The general feeling is that Jadoukh Ibrasil did what he had to do, and at this point the talk becomes metaphysical. What do you think?"
"I don't know," said Wayness cautiously. "It may be that all collectors are mad."
Apart from the charm of this story and the sense it communicates of a deeply layered and inhabited universe in which there are far more things than it is possible for one mind to contemplate, let alone catalogue, it also fills one's head with ideas - the PCs as tanglet thieves, the PCs as tanglet counterfeiters, the PCs digging for tanglets, the PCs searching for Twelve Kanaw. The act, in other words, of looking for somebody to sell treasure too itself becomes a rich vein of potential further adventure. This is the kind of thing that makes a campaign run itself: PCs find tanglet; PCs search for somebody to sell it to; PCs eventually discover that there are tanglet collectors; PCs sell tanglet; PCs go looking for more; NPCs try to steal tanglets from the PCs...and so on and so on for session after session after session.
Another writer expert in this kind of thing, these dark hints of hidden webs of collectors, traders, counterfeiters, burglars and fraudsters operating beneath the surface of polite society and occasionally glimpsed by those in the 'surface world' is William Gibson: I'm thinking in particular here of the subplot of Pattern Recognition suggesting a global network of people who collect Curta calculators, of course. I'm sure such people exist. I doubt many of them are eccentric billionaires engaged in a complex cold war of assassinations, burglaries and heists against one another, but it is nice to imagine that they are.
I just bought Luke Gearing's new release, Wolves Upon The Coast, which includes his supplement &&&&& Treasure, and that also includes this idea of finding specific collectors for rare items. It also has an interesting take on coinage (about which I have a blog post brewing - I'm sure I've mentioned to you before my dissatisfaction with the way money is handled in D&D and other OSR games). As well as "modern" currencies, which are more-or-less interchangeable, he includes 12 more exotic forms of currency. Most of these can be used as though they were modern coins, but can also be sold for more than their face value to the right sort of collector.ReplyDelete
See here: https://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2020/08/random-coinage-generator.htmlDelete
Ha, perfect! Actually, I remember this table... was trying to figure out whether I found it while spelunking your blog, or whether you'd published it elsewhere, but then I realised that August 2020 is actually after I started reading your blog - I MUST HAVE READ IT HOT OFF THE PRESS.Delete
Odd that I recognised your table, but immediately afterwards I noticed a post on my own blog, published just a month ago, but which I have absolutely zero recollection of writing. Senior moments combined with manic episodes - a great recipe for a memorable yet misremembered life.
That table is great, but quite different from the &&&&& Treasure one. It has less variety, but each currency is more like a specific artifact: it has a history and qualities which are bound up with the way it emerged, the people who created it, and how they used it.
I will check it out. Luke used to be in a campaign I was running back in 2016/2017.Delete
I'm reading Martha Wells's City of Bones, and that book is predicated in part on a shadow economy powered by artifacts and artifact collectors (with many of said artifacts being nothing more than bits and pieces of objects from the period before the setting-defining apocalypse).ReplyDelete
There was an Alistair Reynolds book that was a bit like that - with time travellers going back to some pre-apocalypse in order to get artifacts to bring back to the present.Delete
I completely agree that questing to sell opens up entirely new opportunities for adventure and supports a truly fantastic setting. However the concept of collectors (as well as archaeologists) is a decidedly modern conceit. For example, a points of light / post-apocalyptic / Dark Ages / Heroic Age campaign doesn't have the kind of educated populace or wealth to support such conceits, with the possible exception of the capitol of a far-off empire, e.g. Constantinople.ReplyDelete
This is another good example of tension that has been with us since the very beginning, namely balancing the creative gravity of various yet conflicting genres. We want shining knights in armour, venial picaros, swashbuckling pirates on tall ships, robust barbarians decrying the decadence of dying civilisations, cobblestone streets, archaeologists, antiquarians, and gentlemen-led expeditions. Those examples represent four distinct historical time periods and cultures. And that's not even including the pull of mythical Asia (West, Central, South, & East). Are we doomed to forever have hodge-podge campaigns with cosplaying PCs?
I think the answer perhaps is to think through the implications and trade-offs of "cool ideas." For example, having collectors and antiquarians neccesitate having an significant portion of the populace educated, a good deal of urbanisation, and a robust economy built on trade. Possible models include late Antiquity and Enlightedment era Western Europe. However this means that the wilderness is very far away, probably on an entirely different continent. That the PCs have to travel a great deal between the collectors and the source of the artefacts. And that any barbarian, fedual, and/or 'points of light' locales are likewise a great distance away from the collectors. Likewise, any demi-humans and humanoids to be found will be in these faraway places and not in the civilised lands where collectors are to be found. I'm sure that there are even more implications and trade-offs derived from this cool idea.
So yes, this is a cool idea but it is (in my opinion) a half-baked idea that contributes to the Tatooine Cantina style campaigns & worlds that have only grown more prevalent in the past 47 years.
I can see the virtues both of taking the setting seriously, as you suggest, and also of a more fantastical/expressionistic approach. I agree that the Tatooine Cantina style thing is irritating.Delete
I think Arnold K was the person who first introduced me to "Treasure with a capital T." I think that counting coins is pretty fun in D&D games, but I also have been playing with putting in priceless treasure. All magic items are priceless in my game as they're not forged or made, but pulled out of the Underworld.ReplyDelete
Could you sell them for coins? I guess so. Although most people would never have that much liquid capital in one place. What's more important is every priceless item you have allows you to interface with the elite of the world. Can you offer it in dowry for the princess? Can you gift it to the anti-pope to curry his favor? Can you donate it directly to a god? How will they reward you for this priceless gift?
Good ideas. On the point of not having liquid capital, this is something that I again have thought about exploring but never quite have - if the PCs bring back a gold bracelet worth 5,000gp, I tend to just assume they can sell it, but of course that could give rise to its own 'Quest to Sell'; where can you find somebody who has 5,000gp lying around?Delete
For my games of the past few months I've been using the standard treasure tables for the values(xp and gp) of items, and then using a custom table to determine what the individual unique items are. Maybe 1/4 is you traditional coins, gems, jewelry. The problem I've had is the players just haven't bothered to try to sell a lot of the stuff, maybe it's because it's an open table, and so the players from one week may not realize they have treasure left from the previous week, maybe they just don't want to bother with that kind of play(kinda disappointing)ReplyDelete
Yes, I think the open table thing makes that kind of thing a lot more difficult.Delete