No matter what TTRPG you’re running, players love finding loot. Whether it’s gold, shiny rocks, or seashells, human beings have been hoarding treasure since before we invented language. Even the imaginary plunder we can never hold but eagerly write down on our inventory sheets sends a jolt of excitement through our primitive lizard brain. I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting paper on why and how a +2 magic sword creates the same sense of excitement as in unexpected bonus on a real-life paycheck.
This need for collecting gives the DM/GM an excellent tool. Being a good DM/GM is like being a good writer. You want your players to feel immersed in magical world you’re creating. You describe the settings, townspeople, puzzles, and dungeons, and of course the treasure. Since players are already hardwired to be excited about that hard-won loot, we should spend a little extra time on the details of their horde.
Gold, silver, copper can get a little boring.
Most game systems have a straightforward and basic method for doling out loot, and at lower levels, it can get predictable. A few coins, maybe a gemstone, just isn’t enough to capture the imagination. You have a real opportunity to bring the immersive experience to a higher level. Tap into that primitive side of your players nature. Why not leverage the instinctive love for new or collectible items and further your player’s immersive experience? You can do this by replacing your games money with valuable trinkets and items.
Sure, you need a consistent currency for your game to function. What’s the point of treasure if money doesn’t make any sense? But that doesn’t mean that you are restricted to coin and gemstones. After all, wouldn’t the bandits your players defeat also want to buy things? Don’t they have their own desires in life? Maybe they collected buttons or owned a strange family heirloom. If properly used, replacing a bag of silver with a silver belt buckle can add a sense of texture to your world.
With just a little bit of work in the beginning, you can create an easily customizable system for replacing currency with interesting and valuable trinkets.
The first thing you need to consider when replacing boring old coin with an item is your games loot and currency system. You probably already have a good handle on this since you’re the GM, but it is not a bad idea to give it a quick look over. When your adventurers defeat low level opponents, they pick up a few copper coins. Of course, when they fight something with a little muscle, they end up with silver and gold. Make sure you have a solid understanding of the relationship between encounter level and loot or treasure before you start swapping out money for items.
You need to figure out a consistent value system for trinkets.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Your game already has a broad system that you can repurpose specifically for trinkets. Common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and legendary or some variation of this 5-tier system can be found in most TTRPG. Whether you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Star Wars the enemies your players defeat will fall into a reward system. Low-level monsters carry common low-level treasure, so you don’t need to create an elaborate system. The game designers have already done that. All you need to do is figure out what makes a “common trinket” and what makes a “very rare trinket”.
If you enjoy homebrewing, you’re going to love creating some memorable trinkets.
Let’s start at the bottom. A “common” trinket worth very little money should be a mundane item in your world. At this level, your description is the most interesting facet about this item. A silver belt buckle with a unicorn fighting a griffin depicted on its surface, for example. Anyone in the world could find something like this. Any bazaar or marketplace carries common little items for sale. They’re fun, easy to write, and adds detail to your world.
Just don’t forget that it’s a valuable!
When the players write the trinket details into their inventory, be sure they include the item’s value level in parentheses next to its name; “Silver belt buckle with a unicorn fighting a griffin (common)”. When they go to trade or sell their trinkets for useful items like gear or weapons, having a reminder of its value will be useful.
When your players have earned a little “uncommon” loot, the trinket might stay mundane but be of a higher quality than the common objects. Perhaps they found a velvet coat with a satin liner and brass buttons, or an electrum broach encrusted with jade and sapphire gemstones. The point is that these items are unusual and valuable but not impossible to find. Within the context of your world, the affluent citizens could find these trinkets within a large city.
The real fun begins when we start dropping “rare” items. If your adventurers are finding these, they’ve cleared out a dungeon or dropped a boss. When deciding what a rare item should be, consider an element of your world that really separates your world from ours.
Magic is why we play fantasy games.
Obviously, magic is a defining characteristic of a fantasy world. The adventurers may have discovered an enchanted toy top that never stops spinning, or maybe they found a coin that produces a musical note when held. Science fiction can get a little trickier. It would be easier to look at the context of the story. A rare item could be an ancient relic from a long-forgotten civilization or the seeds of a flower that only blooms once every 1000 years.
Another defining difference between a “uncommon” item and a “rare” item is that these trinkets can’t simply be found in a shop. A rare trinket should not have much if any actual use in terms of gameplay. The adventurer should want to trade or sell these treasures because it’s purpose within gameplay is essentially the same as currency. The player can trade this for something they really want.
Once we start getting into “very rare” items, things start to get a little challenging for the DM/GM. Up to this point, writing up a trinket just took a little imagination. Very rare trinkets require a little extra work because they offer a minor but practical function. Writing something with some usefulness but not impactful on gameplay is hard. An enchanted goblet that transmutes any liquid into wine is a good example. This item could be used to impress villagers or make friends. Who wouldn’t be interested in drinking wine made by magic? But this thing isn’t going to help anyone slay a dragon.
Finally, we come to the rarest of the rare, the “legendary” trinkets. These things only turn up once a major plot point and boss fight has concluded. You’ll only drop a handful of these trinkets throughout the game. We, of course, continue making the defining characteristic of the world the backbone of this item. In high-magic settings, this is a high-magic item. In sci-fi settings, it’s a piece of rare tech. Legendary trinkets most likely have a real intrinsic value to the game itself. Your characters can sell it, but they might not want to, that’s okay. The point of this thing is that it has value. Whether the player values the legendary trinket more than healing potions or ammunition for a laser gun is up to them.
A word of warning, be careful your legendary trinkets don’t break the game, but still have some function and application. Speaking stones that allow players to communicate across great distances or telepathically can be useful and impactful, but not devastating. Creating strange but functional loot is guaranteed to excite your players. Writing legendary trinkets is a balancing act, but you won’t have to do it often. Legendary trinkets are legendary for a reason, after all.
Remember, the real point of dropping trinkets instead of currency is that it adds texture to the world. It’s up to the player whether or not they keep the item. That’s not your problem as a DM/GM. You are worried about making a complex and interesting story. Imagining a believable but fantastic setting isn’t easy, but it is fun. Any place you can slide in a little detail helps flesh out the background. These special trinkets immerse your players in the world you spent so much time imagining and writing, and that immersion produces a sense of connection. Your players are going to get attached to your fantastic tale.
A special little trinket is another detail, a memory they can hold onto and cherish long after the adventure has concluded.