This was originally written by J of Statbonus.com and re-posted here for posterity. I’ll also include a few endorsements at the end based on my experience with his loot system.
Check back next Monday for an all new article.
Let’s face it: your players are thieves. Sure, they may wait until after they murder someone to take their shit, but take their shit they will, and afterwards they’ll complain that the shit they took was barely worth the effort to commit those murders. Worse yet, players have a tendency to view any loot they acquire like prepaid debit cards. Each with it’s own gp value and easily stored in a backpack or bag of holding for its inevitable sale at the nearest village general store. Tell the players “the bandit leader’s corpse is wearing a tarnished hack silver bracelet coiled like snake around his left forearm worth about 12 sp” and your players hear “loot = 12 sp”.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if you encourage bad behavior, bad behavior is what you shall get. If you want good behavior then you must both reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior. If this sounds like I’m treating players like kindergartners, it’s because I am. By the way, it also works on world leaders. Just saying.
So while you’re discretely handing out little inducements to reward good behavior, here’s a way to subtlety discourage the bad behavior of murder-hobo looting at your table: make your players feel like scum. “And just how do I do that?” you may ask. By carefully preparing the loot your players will have their PCs picking over.
As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, in my experience players generally view their campaign setting with modern eyes. They expect people to carry currency with them. They expect that currency to be accepted everywhere unquestionably. And they expect that currency will be based on a decimal system of values.
Though all of these are unquestionably convenient, not one of them are historically true. Furthermore, inconvenience begets opportunity for conflict and adversity, the bread and butter of RPG adventures. This is why you shouldn’t have the victims of your players’ greed walking around like medieval ATMs–that is, don’t have them carry coinage. And don’t put an upfront cash value on the loot you’ve taken the time to painstakingly describe in detail.
Remember: “Don’t Tell, Show”.
But beyond that, make the loot that is available something other than desirable. Make them feel like the petty thieving low-lives they’re behaving like, by offering their murder-hobo characters less liquid and less valuable kinds of loot than straight up gold coins and gemstones. Speaking of which, here come some examples now:
The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt because Rome sometimes payed its legionnaires with it. At times it has been worth it’s weight in gold. That’s because setting aside its value as a seasoning, salt is one of the world’s oldest forms of food preservation. And for a world without refrigeration food preservation is a priority!
This one is a good introductory commodity because it’s likely to be overlooked the first time or two as actual loot. You might have to hike up the price of salted meat at the next village to drive home the importance of salt to pre-modern economies. Furthermore salt, like hack silver, is a medium of exchange that can easily be portioned. Making change in a world that is cash-poor can be a bitch. Ever try to buy 2 1/3rd apples? Salt, like silver, can be measured by weight, doesn’t spoil, and has inherent utility value. But while almost everybody wants gold, not everyone wants to trade for a handful of salt.
Soap production was important enough by the 6th century that virtually the whole industry was controlled by a Soapmakers Guild. By the 8th century it was profitable enough to draw the eye of Charlemagne, who commanded the royal stewards to keep a tally of it. Even the famous pirates of the Caribbean Sea made a priority of stealing the soap from their captured prizes.
Soap is one of those things that players don’t usually realize is missing. Even if they remember to schedule a weekly routine of personal hygiene for their PCs they’re more likely than not to assume soap is a readily available material provided gratis to customers of the inn or boarding house they’ve just fronted coin for. And as a rule, they’re wrong. Make sure of it.
Your players are likely to view a necklace of colored glass beads sans precious metals or actual jewels to be worthless. And the old yarn of the evil white man swindling New York from the noble first nations with beads and whiskey would reinforce that notion. (By the way, that’s the white guilt version of the story which leaves out the attempts by the natives to swindle the evil white men out of their beads and whiskey– I’ll leave the research to you) However, such pretty bead jewelry was actually quite valuable in Norse lands throughout the middle ages. This “cheap stage jewelry” was prized enough to be stored with solid gold cups and gemstones.
Like chain-mail, glass bead jewelry was a labor intensive product. Every hour spent fashioning glass beads was an hour not cutting wood, fishing, or doing anything else that would actually help pre-modern people survive the winter. Of course this is an eye-of-the-beholder kind of treasure. Some frontier folks may pay hefty sums for such a piece, while the nobility at the royal court may view it the same as your players no doubt will: cheap bobbles.
Mead may very well be the oldest fermented beverage in the world. The earliest evidence of mead production comes from Africa some 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. To put that into perspective, even from a conservative estimate, that’s more than twice as old as the earliest sword (3,300 BC), the earliest wheel (3,500 BC), or even agriculture (9,500 BC).
“Yeah, we get it. Mead is old. So what?”
Oh, well, nothing. I just thought that was interesting.
But mead isn’t just old. Mead, when properly made, is a refined and expensive beverage. A golden sweet liquid to fill the cups of kings. There was such demand for it in northern Europe that citizens could (and were sometimes required) to pay taxes in honey, just so the king and his guests could drink more of it. And though honey makes a fine brew, a top notch sweetener, and has medicinal benefits to boot, its use as a preservative is where it truly shines. Honeyed foodstuffs have literally been preserved for centuries. And unlike food immersed in salt or brine, food submerged in honey doesn’t require soaking to draw out the excess salt. It’s ready to eat straight from storage.
You’re probably thinking I’m referring to silk, but you’re only half right. Medieval textile fabrication was a labor intensive process. It took 35 hours of labor to produce enough thread for a single day’s weaving. A single day’s weaving would produce a bolt of linen only half a yard long. To give you an idea of just how valuable cloth was, consider the fact that a sail for a Norse longship cost almost as much as the rest of the ship!
In some areas quality cloth was so prized that it could be used in place of silver for payment of taxes or debt. In 11th century Iceland 1 oz of gold was worth 8 oz (1 mark) of silver. A mark could buy you 4 milk cows, 24 sheep, or 72 yards of homespun cloth– that would take a person 3 YEARS of full time labor doing nothing but making thread and weaving!
Furs / Hides
I’ll let you in on a secret. The French trappers didn’t canoe across half a continent to properly redistribute firewater to the natives. They were there for the lucrative fur trade.
Before super models started doing nude advertising to shame the practice, quality furs were a highly prized commodity. The nobles and monarchs of England wore robes featuring the fine fur of the ermine. The demand for European mink pelts among the wealthy was so great that the species was nearly hunted to extinction. Even the poor-folk prized furs for their warmth. Ask anyone who has wintered over in Antarctica. Modern high-tech synthetic fibers can’t compare to the insulation of natural furs.
The modern aluminum-coated glass mirror didn’t arrive on the scene until the 19th century. But mirrors have been a treasure for at least 8,000 years. Polished copper, brass, silver, gold (and obsidian if you’re going way back) mirrors represent a significant amount of manual labor for pre-industrial societies. It is telling that Yata no Kagami, one of the three sacred treasures of the Japanese imperial regalia, is a mirror. Is it any wonder that Snow White’s nemesis possessed a magic mirror?
So the next time you sit down to write up your NPCs for the week, maybe leave their purse empty and their saddlebags full of soap.
J wrote this for Statbonus a little more than a year ago. Since then I have implemented his historically accurate, yet unconventional loot to the D&D 5e games I run on the weekends. Some of those games he was able to observe over Skype. Here is roughly how each of them were received by a party of 6 players;
Upon finding pouches of salt on every guard they killed in the starting town, the players came to the conclusion that all the guards were part-time torturers for the duke (using the salt to rub into wounds, etc.) All told they lost out on apx. 400 gold pieces worth of salt–a fortune for level 1 adventurers.
One of the players kept a pound of soap for fun, and discovered that if he cleaned the gore and dried blood from his clothes and face the NPCs were less likely to mistrust him. After this the rest of the party started keeping soap in their packs. They have yet to attempt to sell any.
The party has continued to ignore any glass baubles I place in the game–to the point of dumping a strongbox on the floor to see if there is any gold hidden under the colorful beads. Apx. loss to the party so far; 1,100 gold coins worth of glass.
My attempts to give the party pots of honey have been met with curiosity and wanton wastage. Early in our games one of the players used it to sweeten hardtack, which would count as a step in the right direction (using it as a preservative) except hardtack takes years to spoil.
I have counted three separate occasions where I have offered the party bolts of cloth as payment or loot. Without exception they inquire if it is silk, and when told no, abandon it.
Yes! Finally! During our Gauntfield module one of the players stole and re-sold a bundle of furs.
DM (me): “…on the vanity is a collection of hand-mirrors, with ivory and bone handles and–”
Tylorius (player-character): “I break them.”
DM: “Some of them aren’t glass. Egyptians sometimes used copper or bronze–”
Tylorius: “So, a blacksmithing check?”
There we have it. My players are so averse to money they’re willing to roll skill checks to demolish good loot. The day they read this blog is the day their characters become filthy rich.