Real Treasure as a Real Reward

Disillusioned by the Parcel System

Treasure is something players want, and want lots of it. It never gets old. But if you over analyze the game like I constantly do, you can often get disillusioned by understanding too well the treasure parcel system. The treasure parcel system in D&D 4e is a nice step up from the old days of randomly rolling and randomly placing items and coins in the players’ hands. I fully recognize that there are folks out there who appreciate the randomness of treasure, and hopefully you’re satiated by the new DM Kit version that provides tables for semi-random treasure parcels and rarity installed with items. That’s a conversation for another time, but the topic today is tangential.

The disillusion I speak comes from the knowledge that no matter what you and your characters do, you’ll receive the allotted amount of coins and magic items indicated in the DMG. No matter if it is a dragon who is renowned for hoarding massive amounts of coins and art and magic, or a wasteland of zombified peasants plagued by necromancy who may not have a single copper piece among them, the treasure will equal out. There are ways to bend it of course so there is the illusion of verisimilitude (the zombies are controlled by a wizard who has every coin and magic itemin the parcels in his locked tower, or the reason the dragon is so upset is because thieves came in and stole all the coins of all the parcels that you have to collect along the way…) but what about the instances when your players do some extraordinary things or invest some real time and focus on their characters? How do you give back to the players without making the scenario high in expectation for the next adventure? How can you reward your players for good game play without straying too far from the rules?

Do They Deserve It?

The first thing you should ask is if your players deserve any extra earnings. I know that sounds harsh, but this needs to be put out there. If you’re running a game where the players are happy and the parcel system is normal, kudos, keep doing what you’re doing. If you feel like you’d like to amp up the game by making particularly dangerous and insidious traps and scenarios, or the players are making serious investments in their characters, then perhaps they deserve a bit more than the standard payload.

Another thing to consider, if it isn’t clear by some of the recent posts here at Rules As UNWritten, is that some characters may be investing in an aspect of the game that is actually rather sapping to the funds. Two big examples in that department are Rituals and Alchemy. Those things often require a collection of expensive materials that sometimes do not pay off in the same way the Vorpal Sword does with every swing. They are beneficial, but not a fundamental improvement to the players’ power. I may even go so far as to say that often they end up completely fruitless, and their costs should be waved. The outcome of investments like, for instance, bribing a noble lord with a bit of coin to add flavor, shouldn’t be considered a tax, it should be rewarded. Funding a stronghold for a defenseless village after saving them from a gnoll bandit lord shouldn’t tap into the funds that are dolled out in the parcel system.

"I am an exceptional thief!"

But how can the players be sure they’re getting what’s due to them? Some players are of the mind that their treasure is meant to be spent, and some even wish to play altruistic characters that spend their earnings on others and not themselves purely for role playing value. This is some of my favorite kind of player investment, and I want to encourage it whenever possible. I don’t want those characters to feel as if they are behind the power curve because they’ve chosen to do a good deed, or work hard on collecting rituals, or maintain a mount, or are particularly adept or have a penchant for picking pockets. How can you explain to the person playing a cutpurse that no matter how many pockets they pick they’ll eventually hit a maximum amount of treasure you can gain because that’s what the book says? Now, that little thief has to understand the risks she’s taking by doing those petty thefts, just as the do-gooder should know the responsibilities required of building and maintaining a stronghold for that defenseless village, but that is the source of fun, the tension and the tactics, not the result of the system. They should be able to play these characters without breaking the system of the game—no, they should be rewarded for the kind of energy they put into their characters. They shouldn’t have to feel guilty because they know every coin they spend makes their character just a little less optimized. They shouldn’t have to believe picking pockets is fruitless because those coins would be found in a parcel after their next encounter anyway.

For the record, I fully realize there are a multitude of ways to reward characters without touching treasure. That is a fundamental quality of the 4e system I believe and those kinds of rewards are also great things to keep in mind for your players. When it comes to money though, consider some alternate rules like these below.

Easter Eggs

I like to implement a strategy similar to those in video games: Easter Eggs. If you go hunting for something unique, you should have the opportunity to find it. How does this not break the system? Well, every character still has a level, so keeping the rewards within their range is key. They shouldn’t be picking astral diamonds off passers-by at 4th level, and they shouldn’t be building Helm’s Deep when they’re at that level either. So I’ve devised a scaling system that can provide players the opportunities to push their characters in these ways without straying so far outside the realm of the rules that it warps the character’s power.

1/ Take the last parcel listed for the characters’ level and divide it by two.
2/ Keep that number in your back pocket and award to the characters when:

  • they go above or beyond with the investment of their role playing
  • they take an unexpected risk and succeed with a particularly high skill check
  • they charm, delight or impress an NPC with an exceptional in-character performance

3/ Keep track of the Easter Eggs provided, and award no more than 3 per level to the group

There are a few alterations you can make to this method for a more tailored approach to your party’s way of playing. For instance, in the case of the cutpurse, take the value of the Easter Egg and divide it by 3, awarding that divided amount for every successful pocket picked. Remember that these are still Thievery checks, and some form of risk should be involved with getting the reward, so the player will need to weigh those outcomes. You can easily communicate to the player that they know their abilities and going after the pocket of a djinn being carried by a palanquin and surrounded by ten brutish slaves is beyond their skill level, and that’s why they’re coming up with pocket change. Another alteration is giving more or giving less depending on the investments that your group makes; certainly if a player takes a vow of poverty you may have to rethink the system, but if a player has a true devotion to a church and always pays a tithe to his temple with every passing, keep a quick note of what the player is putting in, and pay him back, not only with good story, but with the gold he’s spending on the upkeep of his character.

There are a few more instances that I would find appropriate for dolling out Easter Eggs. If your players are the type that are indeed putting forth extra funds strictly for role playing value, find ways to pay them back for that when they make particularly heroic successes. Nailing all successes with no failures in a skill challenge is a great example. A player who’s character has a quirk of collecting the teeth of his victims could find a witch one day who is in need of a behir’s canine, and lo that character has such a thing. The witch pays a pretty penny for that tooth, and although the player has a bit of a demented character trait, their devotion to that personality should be rewarded.

Do remember to consider if this method is even important to the players. If they don’t wish to invest the extra time or effort with building homeless shelters, bribing their way out of a sticky wicket, or having the internal struggle of abstaining from their addiction to gambling, then don’t give them any more than they deserve. If you do however, see that your players are putting forth great efforts and coin to paint a more enjoyable picture of their characters and the world you’re running, don’t be afraid to award them, and even tell them that they feel like they’re making headway on the system. Players will often need to know that they’re not dipping into their Vorpal Sword fund before they start getting entrepreneurial. A quick mention or note to them that indicates they got a bit of an Easter Egg out of their action is something that’s going to bring a smile to their face and keep the game on its intended power level.

As always, we welcome feedback on this house rule crunch and anything you read on Rules As UNWritten. How do you deal with monetary ups and downs in your party? Do you believe that adding coins to the system for role playing purposes is prudent? Game changing? Or insignificant?

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