Friday, 5 July 2013

Gygax's Treasure Obsession and Mistake

Brendan's comment on my previous post had me going back to the first AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide trying to pinpoint exactly how the game progressed from the monster-related random treasure types in the Monster Manual and OD&D, to the "place what you will" philosophy that has ruled the game ever since.

Arguably, this hurt the game, as DMs became personally responsible for handing out treasure. Eventually the official advice for this became as structured as an office Christmas party gift exchange, with treasures carefully rationed out in a challenge- and level-appropriate manner. Gone from this approach, as from the DM-controlled approach to encounters, is the feeling of discovery for the DM that lets him or her participate in the players' exploration, when preparing an adventure from random elements or from a published module - both of which, of course, still allow for sensible adjustments.

I hardly need to point out that the first edition DMG is organizationally a mess. In this case information about generating treasure is scattered in three different parts - the section on gems and valuable items, tables in the back for generating random maps, hoards and magic items, and a fateful section on pp. 91-92 which gives Gygaxian advice on treasure.

The tables seem entirely compatible with the OD&D/Monster Manual approach, expanding on the OD&D magic item tables and providing random determination for hoards that might be guarded by traps, locks or puzzles rather than monsters. Trouble starts with the valuable items section; while eye-opening, it's hardly clear how furs, ivory, perfume and other luxury goods  fit into the random treasure system. And then in "Placement of Monetary Treasure" ...

"This is not a contradiction in the rules!"

This statement is the tip of a toxic iceberg that lurks hidden throughout the DMG. Gary has been burnt by high-treasure campaigns, and now it has become his white whale. Restrict acquisition of treasure - a party of 5 would have to defeat 333 orcs and pick up 333 of these exemplary 11-20 gp value troves to get the 10,000 xp required for most of them to make it to 2nd level! And wrest it out of players' hands wherever possible - through student-debt-sized training costs, taxes and levies, spell material costs! If by-the-book OD&D can be impossible to figure out, by-the-book AD&D is impossible to play and enjoy.

A bit later, Gygax gets more sensible with the example of two tough ogres guarding 2000 gp, and downright poetic in detailing the use of valuable items and equipment to compose the trove. However, this is still only a tiny fraction of the xp a 3rd-level party would need to make 4th level, the ogres themselves being worth at most 250 xp each. Clearly, AD&D was a game made to be played several times a week, with 40-50 encounters fueling advancement in each level.

A much healthier approach in the DMG, though presented as an afterthought without the authority of Gygax's ex cathedra rumblings, comes from the Appendix A random dungeon generation tables. There, 60% of monsters will have treasure and an average monster-guarded hoard works out to about 600 g.p. per dungeon level.

What has always been lacking, until about 3rd edition, was a comprehensive treasure table that would include all kinds of interesting and surprising finds, scaling well with the experience charts. This would let the DM be objective in placing treasure, while making the generation of adventures more of a surprise and less of a chore for him or her. The droughts or excesses of treasure that would worry some people can, of course, be dealt with intelligently - either allowing such variance as part of  the realism and excitement of the world, or filing off the rougher edges to give a steadier experience.


  1. I allways interpreted the thing about "not all monsters have full treasure" to refer to the chances (e.g. 20% 1-4 gems) in the random treasure tables without giving it a second thought back in the day... :)

  2. One of the advantages of using Basic D&D is that you have multiple magic item tables (one for each set of levels) so that magic items will scale up in power as the players level up.

    I wonder how AD&D would have been different if Gary had a blog where he could vent his frustrations instead of writing them into the rules. The section on Monsters as PCs is another example of him reversing a previous stance. What is strange about the whole restrictions on treasure is that Gary was the one who changed OD&D original XP system which was 100 XP per HD down to 5 xp per HD thus making the XP from treasure much more important.

    1. "I wonder how AD&D would have been different if Gary had a blog where he could vent his frustrations instead of writing them into the rules."
      That's an interesting insight. From what I've read about the very early history of the hobby, while GG was trying to turn his hobby into a living (good for him btw) between the release of the original game and AD&D there arose a style of play amongst the first (or second) wave of players, the Monty Haul campaigns, that was threatening to turn the whole enterprise into a farce. If he had had the kind of instant feedback and input that we have on todays internet he may have avoided a lot of missteps.

  3. Things like this are the reason I dislike identifying myself with AD&D. The assumption too often is that if you play 1st edition you automatically also play with according to all the nonsense you've quoted above, as though human beings playing a game feel duty bound to Gygax's ghost not to alter any of the dogmatic, bible-like rules so incorporated ... which in turn leads to non-1st editioners feeling superior and self-congratulatory that they did not allow themselves to play such a clearly 'stupid' system.

    Everything you've described above - everything - was ignored in its entirely by everyone I ever met or played with, in those heady days when you went to a university RPG club and there were fifty, sixty people in the room, or conventions where every room in the 26 floor hotel was full to the brim of players. No one I ever knew gave any credence to this nonsense ... and I find it odd that here we are, 30 years later, speaking as though these things in any way remotely reflected the actual gaming community that was then active.

    It is as similar to believing that because 1950s television did not portray sex, no middle class couple in America every had it.

    1. Well, maybe I got hung up on the "2000 cp" advice. My main point was that the DMG presents a bunch of different pieces of advice, which started the move away from dicing for the world's contents to more DM-determined systems.

  4. I don't find that excerpt as particularly damning as some might. If anything limiting the amount of treasure by common enemies is a good thing in my book, it makes the gigantic treasure horde of a mythical beast that much more magical and larger than life when people are used to fighting for copper and scraps.

    Likewise with the dungeon, turning it into a piggybank tends to rob it of some of its character. Have the valuables thematic with the environment, whether it be richly decorated paintings or the detailed lines in the cave actually being veins of ore entices one imagination a lot moreso than a sum of gold.

    Then again I have been burned by high treasure campaigns on both sides of the screen so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

  5. One of the advantages of the disorganisation of the books is that it encourages you to read the whole thing - which should then lead to considering the game as a whole. For example, we have to distinguish between wandering monsters, and monsters operating out of their lair.

    Looking at orcs, the MM tells us that they appear in bands of 30-300, and that individuals carry treasure type L, and in the lair will be found C, O, Qx10 and S.

    Individual orcs will have 2-12EP.

    In their lair will be,
    C - 20% chance of 1-12,000CP, 30% chance of 1-6,000SP, 10% chance of 1-4,000EP
    O - 25% chance of 1-4,000CP, 20% chance of 1-3,000SP
    Qx10 - 50% chance of 10-40 gems
    S - 40% chance of 2-8 potions

    We can take an average dice roll - eg 6,500 for "1-12,000" and multiply that by the percentage to get the sorts of amounts a typical orc band might have. This comes to,

    11 gems
    2 potions

    The coin amounts to 1,800cp/200 + 1,450SP/20 + 250EP/2 = 206.5GP.

    Gems vary hugely in value, see DMG25. The average value (given there are not equal chances of each value appearing) is 275GP. So that's 275x11 = 3,025GP in gems.

    Potions likewise vary hugely, but if the PCs consume the potion they can expect something around 200-500xp from it, if they sell it around 1,000GP - and thus 1,000xp, too.

    Altogether, the typical orcish band's hoard is going to be worth 4-5,000GP and thus the same amount of XP.

    Now, defeating an entire 30-300 strong band of orcs is no easy task - if you do it by butchering them one at a time. But that would be stupid on its face, and again looking at the books we can considering what it says at the end of the PHB - keep your eye on the goal, don't get distracted.

    So if your goal is getting the treasure, rather than killing the whole band, you sneak in, grab the gems and potions - 3,500 different coins with an encumbrance of 350lbs are not worth it if you're in a hurry - then run off.

    Thus, AD&D1e rewards smart play more than brute standup fights.

    Much the same goes for dealing with higher xp value monsters - ambush the fucker! Be smart!

    You do remember the bit about intelligent monsters stopping to pick up treasure, and dumb ones stopping to pick up food, don't you? In the ToEE, we collected the poisons lying around, then when we were faced with the pyrohydra, we killed and gutted a goat, filled it with poison, and tossed it to the hydra. Ten minutes later, we had only one head to deal with.

  6. I always found "Placement of Monetary Treasure" really inspiring, not limiting. I used it how I thought it was supposed to be used - perhaps I misread. I'll roll up random treasures, and then convert some of the value into the other items listed, and into non-listed valuables.

    My young teen mind saw no contradiction in this. :)

    The approach stuck, too - the system I use for my GURPS game is to generate a total hoard value, and then I use a mix of random tables and GM decision to fill out what it consists of.

  7. Roger:

    Unrelated to this post: I wasted some time today making a fillable version of the 52 Pages character sheet. It auto-calculates stat bonuses and available encumbrance lines based on STR.


    1. Sorry, had to update with a fix for the encumbrance auto-populate:

  8. I don't pick treasure and I don't roll it up either. After an encounter, if they have time to loot the bodies or scrounge around for a trove, I let the dice rule and I let the players roll it up.

    They love it, it adds to the fun.

  9. The DMG follows the structure of the PHB. Not that it makes it any less painful. One of my dreams is to spend a month tucked away from the world, re-editing the AD&D initial books eith modern tools.