DM of the Rings Remaster XIX: A Pinata of Stone

By Bay Posted Sunday May 14, 2023

Filed under: DM of the Rings Remaster 32 comments

Never provide a dungeon without treasure. The longer they search and find nothing, the more your players will be convinced that the treasure is bountiful and exceptionally well-hidden. If left unchecked, they will eventually dismantle and excavate the entire site in their search for loot.

–  Shamus, Friday Oct 20, 2006

My DM conquers this by having us do quests as some kingdoms’ ‘official quest doers’. We do the puzzles and get through the challenges, and always make gold no matter what we find in the dungeon/house/inn/abandoned village/whale’s stomach. We just report back and get paid for our time, and sent off to the official magic item store to pick out our own loot. We get paid enough we don’t feel the need to rip apart the map (although we’re still D&D players, we still take the loot offered along the way).

So…I guess what I’m saying is, let your players unionize?


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32 thoughts on “DM of the Rings Remaster XIX: A Pinata of Stone

  1. hewhosaysfish says:

    I remember my DnD group getting very… enthusiatic about looting when playing the 4e Keep on the Shadowfell.
    Every simple spear and suit of poor-quality leather armour that the hobgoblins dropped went onto our Floating Disk.

    The part which sticks in nmy mind years later is the way that when we started running out of room on the Floating Disk, we started discussing how to use the loot pile itself “build out” the Floating disk:
    Spears used as spars that extended out over the edge of the Disk in a radial pattern; leather armour layered over the butts of the spears to create more surface area; dense items like chainmail and swords piled on top of the spearheads in the centre to weigh them down…

    We were very determined that we were going to sell absolutely all of this heavy crap.

    1. MrGuy says:

      If I were your GM, I’d wait until you were climbing a slope (preferably leading up from a deep crevice) and find some excuse (combat? Rock fall? Birds landing on the pile? Vermin?) to burst one of the suits of leather armor, causing the whole pile to overturn and spill. The heavy/valuable stuff being most likely to roll down and be lost…

      1. Mattias42 says:

        IMHO, waiting for the players to do all~ that junk stacking, drag it around for a day or two of travel, and THEN have ’em find a 500 pound platinum statue in a ‘random’ encounter in a random glade or something would be a lot more memorable and funny.

        Bonus points if the statue is cursed, but only in the sense that it will ONLY appear before a group that is already heavily over-encumbered. As a trial of greed from some trade god, or something. So if they try to leave, they’ll never find it again.

    2. Syal says:

      Good thing kobolds regularly drop shrinkwrap.

    3. Zaxares says:

      I once had a party determined to take everything in the dungeon that wasn’t nailed down too (and some that were! Think like decorative gargoyles on the crype and such). The way I went about curing them of it was by rolling for injury checks when they tried moving/lifting stuff that was too heavy, and by having no available NPCs around interested in buying all of that junk. :P

  2. MrGuy says:

    I…guess that would work, depending on the group. It’s sort of a metagame-y solution. The amount of treasure an ancient tomb contains shouldn’t really depend on whether someone’s paying me to be there. So it seems like this boils down to the GM telling the players “I won’t waste your time searching – the reward I intend you to have is back at base.”

    Whether that’s considered a relief from endless tedium or the nerfing of a core part of the experience depends very much on who you play with.

    1. evileeyore says:

      “I…guess that would work, depending on the group.”

      I enjoy the search and the “reward” of maximizing everything is that found. Killed an invisible tiger? That invisible tiger skin, bones, teeth, claws, meat, fat, offal, etc has to valuable to someone, it’s magical! And don;t even joke that dead kobolds might be valuable to someone, we’ll zombify them and march them right into the market…

      Adamant door hinge, lock, and door banding? Valuable. Broken mithril sword? Valuable. Candles? Probably valuable. Everything is valuable to someone, just don’t let me even think my PC might know who that someone is or we’re hauling all that garbage out…

    2. beleester says:

      Wealth is part of the game’s progression track, just like XP is. If you’re a high-level fighter, but you don’t have access to magical equipment, then you’ll have trouble dealing with high-level enemies.

      Even with a more traditional looting system, there’s no logical reason why the amount of treasure in a location should correlate with how dangerous it is – why would a monster be guarding a magic sword that it can’t use? – but the assumption is baked into the game’s design and messing with that can give odd results.

      1. MrGuy says:

        You could imagine a meritocracy of treasure, where the best treasure is held by the baddest dudes, because if it were not, the baddest dudes would steal it from the less bad dudes, and so on down the chain.

        It makes more sense in that form for humanoid enemies than it does for beast enemies, but even here, not entirely implausible. The best treasure must be in the hardest dungeons because otherwise they’d have been cleaned out long ago.

        Let’s say that adventurer Fodder values his life such that he will accept a 10% chance of death if the reward is at least 1,000 gp. If a dungeon is believed to contain exactly 1,000 gp of treasure, he’ll attempt it if he thinks his odds of dying are less than 10%. If you plot the “expected treasure” vs the “chance of death” there will be some “high-reward low-risk” dungeons that will be priority targets for Fodder (and everyone else who knows where they are). There will be some “low-reward high-risk” dungeons that no one would ever set foot in, because why would you?

        As the low hanging fruit of the high-reward low-risk dungeons are taken off by adventurers, you can plot a line of “marginal” dungeons that are just about rewarding enough to raid, but not compelling, for an “average” adventurer – our reference 1,000 gp/10% chance of death dungeon, as well as dungeons with proportionally similar reward vs. risk profiles. Eventually, this will leave the set of the best dungeons available to raid such that the hardest dungeons have the best rewards, and the easiest dungeons have the smallest.

        Of course, the party is “special” and we either fear death less than the “average” adventurer, or are more capable than the “average” adventurer, and so there’s a set of dungeons we would raid (“above the line” for us) that other adventurers would not, which in general would all have conform to “harder = better loot”

        1. beleester says:

          >There will be some “low-reward high-risk” dungeons that no one would ever set foot in, because why would you?

          Because you don’t know what the reward is until you explore the dungeon. “The adventuring party coincidentally only ever sets foot in the dungeons that have level-appropriate hoards” is just as artificial as “The quest-giver is coincidentally offering just enough money to raise the party to the appropriate wealth by level.”

          1. Moridin says:

            You can make a pretty good guess, and so can the quest giver. If there’s a dragon to be fought, you can bet there’s going to be a lot of treasure to be had (assuming you can loot its lair, at the very least, which might be an adventure itself if you fight the dragon somewhere else) and so you might be offered less than generous rewards (apart from the local lord graciously agreeing not to tax any loot you might find on your quest). On the other hand, if you’re tasked with hunting down some bulettes, you might need some serious incentive because they’re unlikely to have a lot of treasure laying around.

            Obviously things don’t always line up that nicely, and so unlucky adventurers might end up getting less than expected – or clever adventurers might make off like bandits: perhaps bulettes don’t have any treasure, but they know of a certain alchemist who might pay very generously if they bring him some bulette hides.

            1. MrGuy says:

              Right. My very precise mathematical analysis of dungeons naturally assumes a class of quest givers that know what loot is in which dungeon and have readily discernible !’s over their heads.

              1. Moridin says:

                As opposed to them being surprised that a dragon might actually have a hoard or that a bulette might not have any treasure at all?

      2. Sartharina says:

        “Why would a monster be guarding a magic sword it can’t use?” – because someone with that sword ventured into its lair and didn’t make it out.

        A lot of treasure in dungeons is the stuff less-fortunate adventurers brought with them.

  3. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    One of the many advantages of playing urban fantasy games is that weirdly players aren’t loot obsessed. They’ll pick up the shotgun of a fall foe if they need a weapon, but I’ve never seen a player say “Ok I riffle through his wallet, and pick up his gun to sell it later”. I mean, it would make just as much sense as in a medieval fantasy setting, but they never do it.

    1. Chad Miller says:

      I always loved that Shadowrun had pretty good built-in excuses for not too much tedious loot hunting. For instance, you may not want to steal easily-traceable things if you don’t already have a buyer lined up, and every minute you spend in a run once it’s gone hot is that much more time for a response team to show up and take you out.

    2. LizTheWhiz says:

      Exactly this happened during my second session of the Dresden Files. Our gadgets type tazed a mobster and started rifling through his pockets, causing the werewolf to say “If we’re gonna *rob* the man, we’re gonna *rob* the man.”

  4. Philadelphus says:

    Never provide a dungeon without treasure. The longer they search and find nothing, the more your players will be convinced that the treasure is bountiful and exceptionally well-hidden. If left unchecked, they will eventually dismantle and excavate the entire site in their search for loot.

    In a case of Older Than They Think, this applies in the real world too. If you visit Petra, the carving of a large urn above the famous “Treasury” burial façade (the one seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is pockmarked with bullet holes, because the local people living there in the past were convinced that a place this grand must have treasure, we just have to keep taking things apart until we find it!

    I guess in a game context it helps to talk it out and manage expectations: are you playing a gritty simulationist game where if the players miss all the treasure in the dungeon behind clever traps, they get nothing and the GM won’t do anything to help them solve the puzzles? Or do you want a lighthearted dungeon romp where everyone gets something at the end of the day no matter if they were able to figure out the tricky puzzle the GM spent three hours devising? Both completely valid playstyles, but it helps if everyone’s on the same page.

  5. Joshua says:

    From the “Large Chamber” joke, I’m running one of my groups through Ghosts of Saltmarsh now, and OMG are the room descriptions repetitive. They’re going through a Sahuaghin fortress, and virtually EVERY room of the 40+ rooms talks about the blue tile patterns and coffers the Sahuaghin have installed in each room.

  6. Scott's Folly says:

    I tend towards a similar workaround. Not as “the kingdom’s official quest doers”, the characters aren’t that notable in level, but as trainees/members of a local Adventurers’ Agency. The Agency provides a respectable basic level of pay per mission, somewhere to spend it, and the training to advance in levels; the characters therefore don’t need to loot everything when they’re dispatched on a mission, and may indeed be penalised for doing so inappropriately. And there’s no need to write ‘sufficient loot/items to make it worth their interest’ into the scenario itself if there’s no plausible reason for them to be there, nor to semi-guess at what items they’d want to use.

  7. Abnaxis says:

    It’s funny, I first found this comic from a PbP site, and hadn’t ever had a (successful) IRL PnP gaming experience.

    Reading the notations, and the comments on the notations, it’s striking how… non-standard? my gaming group was and how lucky a fit they were.

    The whole process of searching under every nook and cranny, explicitly trying to find the particular area the GM placed the level-appropriate tchotchke behind an obligatory Search skill check sounds about as tedious as hunting for pixels in a poorly designed 90s puzzle game–very not fun. At the same time, just getting a windfall of gold when you get back to town that you’re then expected to sift through source books until you spend it all sounds like willingly subjecting yourself to communal tax filing for fun.

    The way it worked at our table, is you generally declare your desire to look for loot, roll a die and if you pass the GM tells you there was loot, with some flavor text in where it was found and why it was there, if you fail we move on to the next activity, no backsies. The whole reason why things like Search and Spot are abstracted out with skill checks is exactly do you don’t have to spend minutes describing exactly where your characters’ eyes are pointing.

    By the same token, if you’re in a town and you want to have something that isn’t too crazy, just write it on your sheet. There’s 5 other players at the table and 1-2 books, who the hell wants to wait around for everyone to pass the book around and do the arithmetic after the marathon that was day 1 of everyone making characters?

    If you run into a critical use for some commonplace adventuring item like flint and steel, flip a coin–heads means you’ve got it in your pack, tails means you do without. Who the hell wants track that crap individually?

    I keep wanting to jump into the comments here and say something like “LOL, remember when we were new at games and messed with all that un-fun bookkeeping?” Then I see all the other people posting in here about how they, indeed, still muss around with all that bookkeeping.

    A lot of my PnP outlook came from this comic, because i read it back when i knew the ins and outs of the rules but had no experience with RL people. Comics like this taught me that there’s a lot of rules that are a problem as much for the mindset they encourage as for how easy or difficult they are to use. Nobody in DMotR seems like they’re having fun even though they’re playing by the RAW, and I took that as a cautionary tale for how I play and run my own games.

    But there are like, what, 8 chapters and 20k words dedicated to all those same bookkeeping instructions in your average DnD edition core source book? It’s very humbling.

    1. Philadelphus says:

      Nobody in DMotR seems like they’re having fun even though they’re playing by the RAW, and I took that as a cautionary tale for how I play and run my own games.

      My takeaway was that no one is having fun because the players all just want to “play by the RAW,” but the DM keeps inserting all this unwanted verbose “story” and “fluff” and “lore” (and has an overbearing all-powerful player-agency-negating wizard DMPC, to boot). The DM wants them to care about his epic tragic tale in this room. The players just want to loot the place and move on. If the DM was rewarding them for all their creative search ideas (or at the very least letting them roll for it rather than instantly shutting them down), they’d probably find it much more enjoyable.

      Of course, the comic is a satire of dysfunctional gaming groups in general, so it’s not saying that either extreme is the “right” way to play. If your gaming group is happy to abstract things away and play looser with the rules-as-written, then as long as everyone’s on board with it, great. If your group likes itemizing every copper piece they own against the possibility of a fantasy tax audit – again, great, as long as everyone’s on the same page about it.

      I have very little role-playing experience, but if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from all my exposure to it online, it’s the importance of establishing up front what a campaign’s going to be like and how tight or loose the group sticks to the rules (and whether it’s “players vs. GM” or a more collaborative story-making exercise).

      1. Joshua says:

        What’s really weird to me is that Shamus (either directly or through the characters IIRC) kept calling the DM in Chainmail Bikini a Railroader*, but IMO DMotR is way worse in that regard.

        *For things as innocuous as running into NPCs who had quests planned for the group?

        1. Abnaxis says:

          I’m pretty sure they’re the same people? There are a few characters in chainmail bikini that are crossovers from DMotR (the guy who plays the barbarian in CB is the same one who plays Gimli in DMotR for example) and I think the GM is one of them

          1. Lino says:

            Yes, but in CB I didn’t really get the idea that Casey was a railroad-y DM. Bad at improvising, yes, but not railroad-y. Because in CB he is against the players’ solutions, but he still allows them to do what they want. E.g. he allowed their dumb solution to the goblin cave dungeon, even though he was horrible to adapting to it.

            Meanwhile, in DMotR, the DM is an irreparable railroader:
            1. He constantly shoots down the players’ ideas until they agree to do exactly what he tells them
            2. He has an invincible GM PC who has a copy of the script and makes absolutely sure the players stay on the rails.

            Really, I think this is what CB was missing for readers like me who didn’t enjoy it as much as DMotR – an obnoxious GM PC that never let the players do what they wanted.

            But then again, CB was a much more challenging project than DMotR ever was – there was so much Shamus had to balance that it’s amazing him and the artist managed to do as much as they did…

            1. Joshua says:

              For me, the difference was that in DMotR the players generally seem to like each other despite their different play styles, but in CB they are a lot more toxic to each other. DMotR is literally about the Players (more or less united) vs. the DM.

      2. Storm says:

        I’ve had enough experience that either extreme of playing can be perfectly fun for people, as long as everyone is on the same page. Like thr players want an old style kick down the door, stab the monsters, loot the room, find the next door game. And for some folks, that’s a fantastic way to play – I can especially imagine for the folks who are using it to chill out on a Friday night, unwinding from the week and not looking to create a grand sprawling narrative or anything.

        By the same token, the DM would probably have a great time with a group more interested in improv and storytelling. His main failing here is probably that he thinks his players are playing the game “wrong,” and it’s his job to “fix” their gameplay habits by making them take part in a story, with helpful GMPC wizard to keep them on track.

        It’s the players insisting on playing the game together despite wildly mismatched expectations, and refusing to address that mismatch, that really makes them dysfunctional.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          While I agree somewhat that it is crucial for everyone at the table to align in their expectations for the game (to a point at least, I don’t think fulfilling everyone’s desires is as mutually exclusive as is being characterized in the comments) that’s not really what I’m talking about.

          The interaction in the comic above–where the players are painstakingly listing out every nook and cranny all the way down to checking the tapestries–is not fun regardless of whether you’re more interested in narrative storytelling or Big Dam Hero empowerment or high-fidelity simulationism. However, if we’re talking DnD both the RAW and your average pre-built adventure module assume players are going to have to do exactly that. If those tapestries are worth anything players will have to explicitly state their intent to peel them off the walls and put them in the bag of holding to see the reward, that every hallway and room needs an explicit declaration from the party rogue to search for traps and hidden doors, and that every room description needs to be carefully dissected for any relevant “gotcha” details lest you miss out on sweet loot because you forgot to explicitly mention you’re searching a particular pile of detritus. The rules require and incentivize players to play like they are in the comic, even though it’s not really to anyone’s benefit.

          This is probably my PbP lineage showing, but if it takes five different interactions for the DM to inform the players there’s no loot in the room, that isn’t playing a game it’s grinding. Like I said, it’s the RAW way of doing things but it doesn’t serve a purpose other than padding play time no matter what your preferred pay style is.

          1. Philadelphus says:

            Yeah, I agree that the DM is handling this about as poorly as possible. The players (per their stated desires) want to loot the room and move on. The DM could:

            1. Let them find some loot.
            2. Inform them flat-out that there’s nothing of value in the room. (Both cases could involve dice rolls, of course.)
            3. Waste everyone’s time by only explicitly negating the exact thing mentioned, raising the player’s hopes that if they can just hit upon the exact magic word there’s a great loot piñata awaiting them (remember how that was needed to get in here in the first place, after all!).

  8. EmotingSloth says:

    I did exactly this after reading it for the first time. My players kept returning because they were utterly convinced something amazing was hiding there. In the end I didn’t have the heart to ruin their dreams and put in a second hidden dungeon with loot in it.

  9. Narratorway says:

    “I’m more than an adventurer, I’m a Union Man!”

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