The early play style of Dungeons and Dragons led to a tradition of awarding player characters more treasure than they could spend. This tradition carries into fifth edition.
In 5E, what can high-level player-characters spend their wealth on? Mundane gear? After a few levels, PCs can afford all that they can carry. Permanent magic items? This edition lacks a magic-item economy. Healing potions? PCs can stock up on healing potions, but as PCs rise in level, the action to drink stops justifying the proportionally smaller gains in HP. (Healing potions could break the game if gnome tinkers simply invented the CamelBak pack. I think gnomes want to thin the ranks of adventurers to create a fitter breed.)
In most fifth-edition campaigns, the PCs’ wealth will probably remain on character sheets, an unspent score of success. However, campaigns grow better when players eagerly hunt for gold that they can spend enriching their characters or advancing their goals.
To make gold awards enhance your game, I recommend awarding treasure in accord with three principles:
Players should be able to anticipate exciting ways to spend their gold. Countless video games, from Diablo to Plants Vs. Zombies give players a way to spend coins on enhancements and buffs. Typically, these games offer items for sale before you can afford them. These rewards lure you to keep playing to gain that next prize, even when you should be eating or sleeping. Likewise, in a D&D campaign, players need to see things they could purchase before they can afford them.
Treasure, and the pursuit of treasure, should lead players to make choices. Compared to books and movies, role-playing games hold one big advantage: game players can make decisions. At a minimum, players choose how to spend their loot. In some games, the pursuit of treasure can factor into strategy. When early dungeon crawlers found a way to a lower level, they could choose that path to more treasure and more danger.
Players should understand how their choices will affect the game. For a choice to be interesting, players must expect the options to lead to different outcomes. Interesting decisions demand more than guesswork, so players must see how their options lead in different directions. When players choose to buy magic items, their choices bring clear differences. Other expenditures could affect a game within the game, as when the Blackmoor players spent treasure to fund armies.
In my next few posts, I will suggest ways to put these principles into play with a few campaign styles: the limited magic-market campaign, the cash-poor, big-score campaign, and the game within the game. Although I’ll explore the styles separately, you can combine strategies from all three in your game.