Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League

Dungeons & Dragons started as a game about treasure hunting. The rules awarded as much of 80% of total experience points for finding gold, so no one missed the point. Co-creator Gary Gygax knew a thirst for gold resonated with players. “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more than the lure of riches?” (See The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.)

D&D no longer awards experience points for gold, but for all the game’s storytelling and heroics, treasure hunting remains the game’s core motivation.

Treasure drives characters to take risks. Safe characters leave the sarcophagus alone and the chest unopened. Safe choices make D&D boring. A treasure hunter risks undead and traps for a chance at riches, which makes the game fun. But players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

In D&D, parties of characters join together in a group venture. Players can come up with endless characters, but for the game to work, they must invent characters able to cooperate to reach a shared goal. That’s the magic of treasure hunting. Whether characters aim to feed the orphans or to swim in coins like Scrooge McDuck, they can all quest for gold. (See A Role-Playing Game Player’s Obligation.)

Treasure hunting resonates. When our characters strike it rich, we all feel a vicarious thrill.

In a global campaign like the D&D Adventurers League, treasure becomes a vital, universal aim. In a home game, the players can agree to create characters who only dream of defending the trees. But in a game where players join strangers in an undertaking set by whatever adventure the dungeon master prepared, treasure hunting gives everyone a goal we can share.

For the D&D Adventurers League’s eighth season, the campaign’s new rules stop characters from keeping the gold and magic they find in an adventure. Instead, for each hour of play, characters gain a treasure point spendable on magic items. When characters level, they get an allowance of gold. (See My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet for a compact introduction to the new rules.) When I counted four ways the new rules reshape the campaign, I felt optimistic about the changes. I knew the bar on keeping treasure defied D&D’s original nature, but perhaps the game had outgrown base motivations. Players could still roleplay a hunger for gold. Now, after seeing the rules for six months of play, I’m ready to rate the revised campaign.

The new rules reached their goals of opening adventures to more styles of play and reducing the exploits players used to claim the best magic items. (See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win..) However, one change in particular hurt the league.

Preventing characters from keeping the gold they find damages D&D’s foundation.

Ironically, the new rules arrived with two hardcover adventures that showcase D&D’s classic aim of treasure hunting. In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the characters race to claim a hoard of 500,000 gp—except league characters can’t keep any of it. In Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, characters risk the perils of a massive dungeon for riches, which league characters can’t keep. The safe play sees characters working to monetize Trollskull Manor. Why brave dungeons when you can reach franchise agreements? “Our group isn’t so much an adventuring party as an adventuring sub-committee.”

Because my players left home to play D&D, their characters ventured into Undermountain. But they kept asking why, and a little enthusiasm died. Players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

Season eight’s gold allowances brought one positive change: Characters gain far less gold than they used to. For the league’s first seven seasons, players gained tons of gold, but found nowhere to spend it—except on healing potions. Before season 8, characters had access to effectively unlimited healing potions. (See D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.) Also before season 8, the cost of magic such as Heroes Feast and Simulacrum hardly dented the wealth of characters able to cast the spells. If a tier 3 party brought a cleric, they routinely ignored fear and poison and laughed at yuan-ti and green dragons. If they brought a level-13 wizard, they gained a spare and the pair won D&D for everyone. Before, gold served as a motivation that players roleplayed. Now, gold becomes a motivation they value for spells, healing, and armor. The smaller gold supply forces players into spending choices, and choices make games fun.

A simple fix could solve the trouble. Make gold a reward that characters keep, and then write adventures that award less gold. The league could gain the benefits of limited wealth, without ripping the treasure hunting from the heart of D&D.

Of course, such a change leaves years of league and hardcover adventures that award way too much gold.

Prolific league DM Tom Christy created a set of Adventurers League Recommendations that offers a solution: Limit the gold awards to a set amount per advancement checkpoint earned. Alternately, the league’s content catalog could list updated treasure amounts for each hoard awarded in an adventure. The league administrators could avoid this job by giving volunteers a budget based on each adventure’s expected play time, and letting them crunch the numbers. The hardcovers lack play times, but the league boasts many members who recorded the times they spend playing each chapter in character logs. Surely someone could collect the data.

As much as players seem to dislike the level-based gold allowances, they favor using treasure checkpoints to buy unlocked magic items. To players, finding and unlocking a useful magic item feels rewarding, especially now that another player can’t snatch the item away for “trade bait.” Plus, the system frees adventure designers from having to stock most scenarios with bland items like +1 weapons just so every character can find usable items.

Still, the treasure-point system would benefit from a couple of tweaks:

  • Unlock superior items in adventures, while limiting the evergreen and seasonal unlock items to broadly-useful but less extraordinary items. At Winter Fantasy, players joked about all the adventures that unlocked drift globes and rings of warmth—great for cozy nights scribing franchise agreements. Some epic adventures failed to unlock anything at all. Remember when epics promised special rewards? Meanwhile, even for level-appropriate characters who play safe, the season unlocks some of the game’s most powerful items. Who cares what an adventure brings when anyone can claim a cloak of invisibility or staff of the magi?

  • When characters unlock magic items during the course of an adventure, let them borrow treasure points to claim the item immediately. No one enjoys waiting to play with new toys. The need to bank treasure points particularly frustrates new and lapsed players returning to D&D. New players find a toy they can’t use because of legalese that makes no sense in the game world. Returning players just think D&D no longer resembles the game they used to love. (Credit Tom Christy’s proposals for this idea too.)

For almost 50 years, the vicarious joy of finding treasure brought players to D&D. To thrive, the Adventurers League must recapture some of that thrill.

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3 Responses to Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League

  1. Mark Merrell says:

    Well said! I stopped playing AL for the above reasons, plus the fact that advancement became predictable and structured. I hope they can recover/address these issues.

  2. Ilbranteloth says:

    An interesting post, and I’m not sure what the real answer is. There are a lot of problems inherent in trying to run an organized public league that doesn’t exist in home games.

    I understand what they are going for the old “treasure for xp” think was old even with the publication of the DMG. (Why else would Gygax have had to make an aside to explain why treasure = XP?)

    Treasure as XP had all the same issues as today, UNLESS you had the same goals as Gygax and Arneson – gaining stronghold, etc. That was the main reason to SAVE gold.

    And that’s what’s always been lacking. Players often question (even outside of AL), “what do you spend your gold on in 5e?” Usually it’s in relation to “if I can’t buy magic items…”

    I do think that awarding a small amount of gold when you gain a level seems like a poor choice. Especially since they find treasure during the course of the adventure. It’s like the old Eddie Murphy routine, “Want a lick?” “Psych!”

    Lowering the amount of gold as treasure seems like a potential step in the right direction, but it doesn’t solve the ultimate problem. What does a PC in AL spend their gold on?

    It seems to me that the solution is similar to what they’ve come up with – don’t let them keep all the gold. But work it into the game as lifestyle expenses, equipment maintenance and repair, taxes, and savings. They are required to dispose of the gold, but they can choose what they want to gain for it.

    The savings one is easy – you can start building a stronghold. What’s the benefit? Nothing early on, but in the long run, as the stronghold is built and expanded, it gives them access to things. Perhaps a discount on spellcasting, a discount on purchasing items from the standard PHB, a stable of PCs that work like sidekicks. This could be the default option.

    But you could also design others for different goals. Masterwork items can be cool, and limited, items that don’t necessarily have significant, or any, game benefits, but have a history, unique look and design, and custom art available to those that purchase it.

    Most of these rules were created for the same reason as so many other organized play rules, to keep the “optimizers” from gaming the system at other’s expense. (And no, it’s not really optimizers that are the problem, it’s a particular gamer that is playing for themselves, and using optimization as a tool).

    This is the current iteration, and it will be changed again. But in the end I think that the best approach would be to develop a system that doesn’t only reward them for spending their gold, but requires it. So when you reach level 2, you end up with around the same amount of gold that you do in the current system.

    With a system like that, you can have as much treasure as you want in the adventure. Because the system is going to remove most of it anyway, but the key is that they will have a choice as to what they want to use it for, and they gain something from spending it. And it could be combined with the magic item system, and others could be added (like finding new spells for wizards).

  3. Eric Bohm says:

    I heartily endorse the spirit of this post.

    Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.

    What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue with earthly rewards, when none are actually possible? In season 8, the adventure literally *cannot* provide any additional earthly rewards to those who fall prey to temptation. Best case scenario, a player could saddle their character with a negative story reward while the character has *nothing* to show for it as a balance.

    Beyond that highly incomplete list of stories that play badly under these rules, we have the general issue of mundane treasure being entirely meaningless. That results in immersion breaking behaviors that seriously reduce the amount of fun that the game can deliver. The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep Dragonheist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted, therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was *pointless* for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?

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