Years ago, in a great solo Forgotten Realms campaign (I was the player), my character found a football-sized ruby in a treasure hoard. I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread — I mean, come on: Football. Sized Ruby. What’s not to love?
But I also remember it being a trickier prospect than I bargained on. How do you spend a ruby that big? Who could possibly afford to buy it from you? How carefully can you guard it?
My friend was an excellent GM, and I never felt cheated by the outcome (which, I think, was selling it for a lot less than it was worth — but still a lot of gold). With a different GM, though, I might have felt cheated — and that’s no fun.
So when is loot satisfying? When a) the PCs earn it, b) it’s got a high cool factor, c) it’s worth what it should be, and d) when the party can spend or use it easily. There are exceptions, of course, but if you line up those four factors when handing out goodies, you’ll be off to a good start.
I think one more thing should be added to the list. The occasional specifically tailored item. This might merge in with the “cool factor” point. But it also shows a special touch from the GM. I think it means a bit more. My current character still has almost every specially tailored item I’ve recieved as loot. (fess up time, yes I’m a packrat.) I’ve had fun trying to use each thing in unexpected ways.
I suspect relatively rare or unique to your game is another important factor.
It’s hard if every encounter comes with detailed loot– eventually, you tune out the description and just try to get a breakdown of what it all means to you. In one treasure horde, I wouldn’t try to have more than 2 or 3 unique pieces… and I’d probably lean towards “generic loot” and one unique item most of the time. There are times when an exception makes sense, and many games where loot is rare enough that detailing it all doesn’t get overwhelming. In a D&D game loot flows so constantly that trying to distinguish each cache of treasure just makes for a long loot list… that still gets converted to GP two steps into town.
Sometimes, standard loot in an interesting container is enough to make it fun. For a low-level adventure in a D&D campaign, I gave out a cloth-lined wooden box with a clasp–nothing fancy, merely practical. It had 4 vials of alchemist fire in it. At the time the party got the treasure, the 4 vials were worth a lot more. As the party gained power, the vials got replaced with various potions that the party wanted to protect a bit, but wouldn’t need in a hurry. So the alchemical fire is long gone, but the box remains.
Whenever I give out loot that is merely for the sake of being sold at the next town, I make sure it is in the form of items. A small golden statue of a chinese-esque goddess, 4 gems of shimmering colors in a cloth bag. the players scramble to write all this down, and then in town they go to sell it, make rolls for bartering with the shopkeepers, etc, and get money for it, often haggling and trying to up the value of the items.
When I give loot that is cool stuff like magical or special weapons, it is usually geared toward specific players, or I draw their attention to it out of the vast multitudes of other stuff. I.e. the cutlass wielding goblin sees a shiny cutlass sticking out of the gold.
Where this gets fun is when they hang onto completely unnecessary items, thinking they are important to story, plot, or to their characters. I’ve had characters carry items so long, and finally realizing they aren’t specific to them, that the items became antiques, and tripled in price to collectors in the world.
Ah, John’s got the trick. Make some of the loot important to the plot. Then the players will pay more attention to it as a whole.
Maybe I just have more action-oriented gamers, but I’ve never run a game where the PCs felt that haggling was anytihng but wasting time — and being in a game right now where everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) is RPed, I agree personally with the sentiment.
Hence, all loot is in the form of easily transportable gold pieces.
Balancing generic “sell-me” loot with cool tailored loot that has a backstory is a very good point. On either side of the screen, if a game is loot-heavy I don’t want to have to keep track of every little thing.
For me, stuff to sell doesn’t need a backstory, or need to be tailored for the PCs — and that means anything with a backstory is all the more nifty. (Stuff to sell that has a short, interesting description, however, is just dandy with me. The best of both worlds. ;))
It’s a fine line, but I see a difference between “interesting” and “satisfying” (in terms of loot) in some situations. They don’t always overlap. For example, a piece of loot could be incredibly interesting while failing to be satisfying (great backstory, but really hard to sell would be one example of that).
(Heather: Shameless links to relevant material are always welcome — Burning Void is a great site. :))
One of the coolest treasures I recieved as a player was this black goo that was in a sewer. My PC, having a few ranks in craft (alchemy) scooped it up and saved it.
It was eventually ID’d as an acid that only works on soft metals, like gold and silver! Anti-treasure!
Galaga, receiving that as treasure — rather than as a random item, which it sounds like was the case for you — could actually be pretty wicked. “Do you store it with your other treasure?” 😉