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Rewarding "treasure" instead of gold

At the start of a new campaign, I always ask the party if they want to find random treasure (art, relics, heirlooms etc.) or just basic gold. It's funny - even though we're usually a pretty min/maxing group, we tend to prefer the varied treasure items, even though it's disadvantageous in every way:
• More bookkeeping for the players
• More pre-emptive work for the DM
• Actually results in less wealth for the party, since sometimes we keep sentimental or strange treasure instead of selling it

But it's just so much more interesting and fun to find ruby-eyed dragon chalices or ancient paintings of floating castles, not to mention they spark countless roleplaying opportunities. Players tend to remember treasure items they become emotionally attached to, and usually try to use them or bring them up later in the campaign. It's quite fun to see treasure you gave out many levels ago resurface, sometimes at critical moments.

Also, if the players have any sort of "home base" to actually display these treasures, they'll probably keep most of the random junk they find as mementos of their adventures. And even if they don't have a base of operations, I've seen players willingly give up the monetary value of treasure just for fun, such as keeping (and wearing) a fancy platinum belt buckle instead of selling it.

As a DM, this is one of the planning steps I enjoy most. I love coming up with weird, unexpected treasure items that the players would never expect, but still "fit" in the fantasy world. One of the stranger things they found lately was a shag rug carpet in a dragon's den, woven of lustrous "lunar silk" (whatever that is) and aurumvorax fur. One of the players IMMEDIATELY claimed it for his house. They've also kept a set of inscribed ceremonial swords which they later gave to a standoffish noble to win him over to their side.

I haven't purchased this book, but I've heard great things about the mundane treasure found in The Mother of All Treasure Tables.

Here's some quick tips for fast treasure items:
• Take a regular item and make it plated/lined with a valuable metal, or made out of exotic material. A bowl becomes gold-plated, or made out of ironwood, felwood, the remains of an ancient treant, etc.
• Flavor treasure for where the players found it. A kuo-toa temple my party recently infiltrated had decorative wall frescos and murals, so the party found a large set of glowing, luminous paints which were quite valuable due to their unusual nature & rarity.
• Idols, statues, and paintings depicting plot hooks are a great way to give treasure AND hints at the same time. Finding a small idol of Bane in a bandit's pack? Nothing noteworthy. But when they find a duplicate idol weeks later in an old merchant's bedroom? Suddenly relevant!
• Add minor magical properties. A mug that cleans itself, a tablecloth that never wrinkles, a bottle that cools its contents. Nothing that would count as a magic item, but would make a mundane item worth much more expensive/valuable. Plus, it's more creative opportunities for the players! Chances are, they'll find some fiendishly clever (or just weird) uses for such items.
• Magical/rare parts, metals or ingredients make nice treasure finds too. A block of pure mithril can be sold to the blacksmith, or maybe the party's fighter will run with it and see what can be made from it.

Healbot: what to do when the healer can't make it

In my campaign we have seven players, only one of which is a class with any sort of healing whatsoever, a warforged cleric. No paladin, shaman, bard, etc. This makes things tough when that player can't make it. So what we do instead is have his character go into "automatic mode" and become Healbot.

Our rules for Healbot are as follows:
• Acts in initiative round 0.
• Never deals damage or attacks, and cannot be targeted/damaged by an attack. Essentially invisible to enemies.
• Moves around the battlefield to stay in range of as many allies as possible.
• Cast Healing Word (with his normal modifiers) on bloodied allies.
• Will make Heal checks to grant allies saving throws or to let them use their second wind.

Granted, this only works flavor-wise because he's a warforged, and even then only by embracing the warforged = robots theme, works! Without a healer, we find that EL+0 or even EL-1 encounters are almost impossibly hard. With Healbot, they are tolerable, while still being quite challenging.

Monday Music: Scene Soundtracks

Recently I've started experimenting with building mini-soundtracks for scenes. My group has actually asked for more musical cues, so I've started making small groups of songs to accompany certain events as they unfold. It takes some micro-management on the DM's part but the extra impact is worth it.

(The following contains spoilers for the Shackled City campaign)

Here's an example of a scene that will occur the next time I run my campaign. In this scene, the city's merchants and businessfolk are fed up with increasing tax rates, and one merchant named Maavu is leading a vocal protest/demonstration outside City Hall. Many disgruntled and even hostile merchants show up, as well as many other civilians, and a large mob forms. One of the issues they have is that the tax money is being used to hire half-orc mercenaries to supplement the regular guard force.

Maavu's passionate speech has a huge effect on the gathered crowd, and they start cheering and encouraging him. His words are inspiring and stir up those in attendance...maybe too much. Encouragement starts turning into hostility towards the city government - perhaps Maavu's true goal all along. The next song will play once the party realizes things are starting to turn ugly, but Maavu continues orating and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

The foreboding, ominous next song will start as a guard captain and 4 mercenaries arrive on the scene. As they make their way through the crowd they receive jeers, angry glares, and thinly-veiled threats. Upon arriving at Maavu's dais, the captain announces that Maavu is under arrest for, essentially, treason. The crowd, openly hostile towards the newcomers, is on the verge of erupting.

At that moment, members of the local thieves guild hiding in the crowd brutally ambush and murder the mercenaries in an attempt to throw things into anarchy. The last song starts at this point. The crowd starts rioting and destroying buildings, lighting things on fire, and trying to kill the guard captain. Meanwhile, a mage working for the city government in the upper level of City Hall summons some invisible air elementals to assassinate Maavu. The party has to try to disperse the crowd without killing everyone, save Maavu, save the guard captain, and deal with the air elementals. Needless to say, it's utter chaos.


I find that having scene-specific music really livens the game session up and keeps the players interested, involved and really immersed in what's happening. It does take some time to trawl through the hundreds of mp3s you've got stored up (if you're like me) but I keep them organized by theme - creepy, caves, fighting, etc - to help streamline the process. What would really make it more efficient would be a tag system, so I could tag a single song with multiple attributes. Something for me to work on, I guess.

The Trouble With Trolls

On the weekend my D&D group encountered 4E trolls for the first time, and it was an ugly experience. At first glance I was impressed with how Wizards adapted the classic troll regeneration to 4E - taking fire damage would "shut off" a troll's regeneration until the end of its next turn. Made sense.

However, we ran into some interesting problems during the fight. First of all, it was absurdly easy for the party to shut off a troll's regeneration, and this was without an actual fire-using character (monk, barbarian, sorcerer, swordmage, fighter, cleric). A simple low-level alchemist's fire did the job, with 100% success rate. Since even the cheapest alchemist's fire still does fire damage on a miss, the person using it didn't even have to hit the troll, just chuck it around and lightly singe it.

Ironically, this made the troll minions (Troll Runts, level 12 minions) almost impossible to kill, since minions take no damage on a miss. They dropped the minions to 0 hp dozens of times, but kept missing with the measly +4 bonus to hit from the alchemist's fires. Eventually they just ignored the runts (which is hard to do when they were dealing 10 dmg per hit) and took down all the "real" trolls, at which point I had the minions flee - a clumsy solution at best.

For a party without a fire-user, alchemist's fires really are the only solution to trolls. But using/relying on them makes regular trolls a joke, and minion trolls virtually invincible. Neither feels right.