Aug 25, 2011

Adventure Gravy and Cornbread (A Gamer's Receipe for Success)

It seems inevitable in my games that when the PCs finish up the meat of an adventure--when the princess has been rescued, or the one ring destroyed--they start acting like a piece of cornbread at the end of a meal, sopping up the last bits of gravy from the adventure.

In almost every game, there seems to be rooms the PCs skipped, or failed Search checks that leave them thinking they've missed something useful. In these cases, when the bulk of the adventure is over, my players at least, start retracing every step, rechecking every room, and researching every scrap of paper they can find. In times like this, part of me wants to call a time out and move on to the next story point in the campaign. At the same time, I understand as a player wanting to find all the loot, defeat all the creatures, or learn all the secrets.

In trying to understand why my players behave like this (and why I behave like this sometimes as a player), I think part of this stems from the reward system built into D&D.

Dungeons and Dragons rewards players in two ways. On one hand there's level advancement, including all the benefits that confers such as increases to hit points, ability scores, as well as additional feats, new powers, spells, etc. On the other hand there's the reward system composed of treasure. By treasure I'm referring to coins, valuable non-magic items (gems, jewelry, art), and magic items.

Unlike level advancement, which is strictly a function of game mechanics, and typically handled outside of the game proper (often occurring between sessions), treasure provides both a meta game reward system and an in-game one.

In the game world, treasure sometimes provides the incentive and usually part of the reward for completing the various dangerous labors player characters undertake. In-game there is sometimes a patron sponsoring the party ("Here's 500 gold if you clear this dungeon") and always a dead body to search ("Do the dead kobolds have any coins on them?"). These rewards can provide a lot of role playing material for the characters, money can help pay off an old debt, an old brooch can be the starting point for the next adventure, and an ancient book of spells can give the caster new power.

But unlike level advancement where all the benefits of an advancement are clearly spelled out (at X level you get get Y hps, the following increases to saves, 1 new feat, etc), treasure acquisition isn't just handed out between sessions, it's provided in game, and the players have to find it, not have it thrust upon them. Certainly, that is as it should be. Finding the false floor board and uncovering hidden gems is a fun aspect of the game.

Unfortunately, older versions of the game took the "treasure hunt" aspect a little too far, with gems hidden is monster's stomachs or in the hollowed leg of a table/desk. With that kind of history, and the limitless creativity of DMs, it makes sense for players, through their characters to start tearing up every inch of storytelling scenery looking for those last coins.

While I don't think it can be, or should be, completely prevented, there are certainly ways to curtail or control it in your game.

One thing, I've done in the past was to set up an adventure where there were time constraints on the party, so after finishing up one chapter, they needed to rush off to the next location and didn't have time to search every sofa cushion. Unfortunately, that little trick can't be employed every time.

The other way is to lessen the influence of money in your game. In older editions money was required to train for a new level, monthly upkeep between adventures, purchasing new armor, potions, and spells.

Regardless of what edition you're running, there's a lot of helpful advice you can get from the new Rules Compendium book. You can start off by not requiring PCs to train for a new level (unlike earlier editions), or allow them to train for free (I've discussed character training before).

Additionally, make treasure relevant to PCs, don't have a short sword treasure when no one uses it. I've never read a story where the hero finds a magic weapon, only to sell it for cash to buy one he CAN use.

Lastly, reduce the PCs ability to sell items. Once again, the Rules Compendium has an interesting new rule on mundane items, which is simply, PCs can't sell them, or if they can, the PCs can only get 1/5th their value (Rules Compendium, pg 265). This alone should go a long way to preventing PCs from wandering in to town with every battered (and bloodied) suit of leather armor that could be stripped off a goblin, or every blade pried from the dead hand of a defeated orc.

A certain amount of treasure hunting is too be expected in your game, no matter what, but with a bit of work and some planning, you can keep the players focused on the meat of your stories, and less time on the gravy.