I need to talk about treasure. I’m reversing my opinion.

As a game designer, I look at more than just the games I make — tabletop roleplaying games, primarily — because there are more kinds of games out there. I look at board games, card games, and video games. Also party games.

I’d been working on this theory about incremental treasure. It’s borrowed from video games, especially 2- and 3-D platformers. I think they took level design to a new level (pardon the pun), that D&D was kind of missing. I still think so.

But — and this is where I’ve changed my mind — one of the features that a lot of video games use to guide and reward players is with incremental treasures.

Whether it’s bananas in Donkey Kong, rings in Sonic, or rupees in Zelda, video games make effective use of little treasures to keep players going.

I thought a similar method would be super-useful in tabletop roleplaying because it’s a game too, right? I’m really not so sure anymore, and I’ll tell you why.

In a game like Mario or Zelda (particularly the older titles, where these methods were at their peak), visuals weren’t great. It was easy to get lost in a level, like exploring in Zelda, without some kind of visual cue.

Think about it. If you enter a room in a video game, and you aren’t sure you’ve already explored it — barring a minimap to provide guidance, and even sometimes with a minimap — how are you going to tell if you’ve been there before?

Collectibles aren’t just a reward or an incentive, they’re also a workaround. In video games, multiple rooms can kind of blend together. It’s easier to tell if you’ve been there before by what’s missing — whether it’s coins, jewels, or pieces of fruit — even in games that scroll only from left to right.

In D&D, navigation is part of the challenge.

Incremental treasures can cheapen the experience of finding a big treasure. How awful does it feel to find a fat pile of coins, only to be like, “meh, I got a magic sword from that monster in the previous room.”

This experience isn’t limited to D&D either, you can get this feeling in computer RPGs all the time. Getting treasure from monsters can be a real letdown. You have to be careful how and when you award treasure.

It seems like one of the most surefire ways to ruin the experience is with the use of incremental treasure. It takes the “risk” out of “risk versus reward.” Players know they’ll advance if they kill X number of beasties.

And while that might keep pulling in subscriptions in an MMO, that isn’t what you play a tabletop RPG for — you play an RPG like D&D so your choices can matter.

For your choices to matter, there has to be something on the line.

That means you have to gamble on a particular dungeon crawl knowing there’s a chance you might come back without treasure. Or that you might lose some people. As soon as things become a “done deal,” it’s time to reevaluate.

Now this is not to say you need to subvert people’s expectations. Not too often, and certainly not every time. Most of the time, an orc is just an orc.

Likewise, a pile of money in the corner should be a reward.

Putting treasure in big piles for players to find doesn’t reward them for slogging through encounters, but incremental treasure does. Nobody wants a slog, but when that’s where you get your XP and treasure, that’s what you do.

Adventuring is a chore. It’s work. That isn’t the game we came to play.

Putting treasure in a big pile in a corner for the players to find rewards their cunning. Their creativity. You might want them to slog through encounters, and let’s face it — if everyone rolls up a fighter maybe that’s exactly what they want to do.

But how often does everyone in the party roll up a fighter?

No, no. I’ve seen parties full of rogues, and rangers — but never fighters. I have never seen more than one fighter in a group at a time. That isn’t where people want to go. They want to be sneaky. They want to be smart.

And big piles of money are how you reward that kind of play.

Also, let’s face it. When you roll up a big pile of money, you do it once. You don’t have to roll for individual monsters, you just need that one pile of money.