Monster & Treasure Assessment

The goal of the D&D game is, in some sense, revolves around the monsters and treasure. We defeat monsters, and accumulate their treasure. These are precisely the two things that generate XP in classic D&D.

The goal of this blog, as is perhaps obvious, is generally to analyze the system present in Original D&D. However, at its essential root, we are forced to admit the following (despite what appears to be a system of well-defined tables and the like): the quantification of both monsters and treasure in Original D&D is ultimately by DM fiat. In some sense, there is really no well-defined system for either of these subjects in the books. Let’s take a closer look.

Monster Numbers

The guidance on populating dungeons is in OD&D Vol-3, “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”. The subsection, “Distribution of Monsters and Treasure” is near the start of the book. For the moment, let’s just focus on its advice regarding monster quantity. It says (p. 6):

The monster(s) can be selected by use of the Monster Determination & Level of Monster Matrix which is given later in this booklet. The number of monsters is best determined by the level being considered and the kind of monster inhabiting the room or space. The Monster Table from Volume II can be most helpful here.

Note the second sentence here: it is essentially just a call for DM’s to make a subjective judgment call (no real system quantification). We might then look to the third sentence and direction to the Vol-2 “Number Appearing” statistics, but Vol-2 itself contraindicates such usage for dungeon encounters; the footnote there says, “Referee's option: Increase or decrease according to party concerned (used primarily only for out-door encounters)” (p. 4). So then we might attempt to follow the first sentence above, and refer to the Vol-3 random monster determination section (p. 11):

Number of Wandering Monsters Appearing: If the level beneath the surface roughly corresponds with the level of the monster then the number of monsters will be based on a single creature, modified by type (that is Orcs and the like will be in groups) and the number of adventurers in the party. A party of from 1-3 would draw the basic number of monsters, 4-6 would bring about twice as many, and so on. The referee is advised to exercise his discretion in regard to exact determinations, for the number of variables is too great to make a hard and fast rule.

Now the advice in the first sentence here fundamentally makes no sense as a balancing principle. If Orcs are the same individual strength as some other 1st-level monster – Spiders, for one example – then you simply cannot have the former appear in large numbers, and the latter in isolation, and have them both represent the same level of danger. But the rest of the advice here does synchronize and basically repeat comments elsewhere in important ways (ways which one might not expect, judging from later published adventures). To wit: (1) The number of monsters should be scaled to however many PC adventurers show up (as in the footnote in Vol-2, p. 4). (2) The number of monsters is ultimately up to the DM’s discretion, with no “hard and fast rule” one way or the other (echoing Vol-3, p. 6).

Treasure Value

Now we turn to the other half of the adventuring and XP equation: treasure. First of all we must dissect the fact that OD&D has two competing treasure tables: one in Vol-2, p. 22 (the “Treasure Types” table), and the second in Vol-3, p. 7 (no title, but the first column is denoted “Level Beneath Surface”). To cut to the heart of the matter: all evidence is that the former is for wilderness adventures, and the latter for dungeon adventures (that being in the “THE UNDERWORLD”, subsection “Distribution of Monsters and Treasure”). The clearest statement comes from the AD&D Monster Manual, which we consider to be continuous and a clarification of OD&D rules (p. 5):

TREASURE TYPE... it must be stated that treasure types are based upon the occurrence of a mean number of monsters as indicated by the number appearing and adjustments detailed in the explanatory material particular to the monster in question. Adjustment downwards should always be made for instances where a few monsters are encountered. Similarly, a minor adjustment upwards might be called for if the actual number of monsters encountered is greatly in excess of the mean. The use of treasure type to determine the treasure guarded by a creature in a dungeon is not generally recommended.

This specification is in line with the somewhat more cryptic advice on monster “Number Appearing”  in Vol-2, above (“used primarily only for out-door encounters”). We conclude that the entire Vol-2 system of monster numbers, in-lair %, and treasure types, is for use only in the outdoor wilderness setting. Another point of evidence comes from the D&D Monster & Treasure Assortment product, for use in keying dungeons only (introduction, 1st paragraph), which was produced by a school-aged Ernie Gygax rolling on that Underworld treasure table in Vol-3, and not by monster Treasure Types (Ernie remembers it was in the LBBs, per message on Facebook 2/19/18, but not the exact table – although we can logically deduce it was from Vol-3, because that’s the only one keyed to dungeon level as is M&TA). A third point of evidence is in Strategic Review #1 (1975), p. 4: the solo-dungeon system specifies treasure with monsters as "According to the type indicated in D&D, Vol. III for 'Outdoor Adventures' with pro rata adjustment for relative numbers." (A little scrambled, because treasure types are in Vol-2, and here they are in fact being used in the dungeon; but the intent seems clear that by design treasure types are for outdoor adventures, and also scaled by monster numbers, as in the later MM.) In AD&D, the dungeon treasure table is missing from the core DMG text (excepting perhaps one in Appendix A), so a pure AD&D player can be forgiven for not knowing where there was any positive rule for dungeon treasure.

At any rate, the dungeon treasure concepts are in that critical OD&D Vol-3 subsection. The “Level Beneath the Surface” table provides a way to randomize silver, gold, gems/jewelry, and magic based on the dungeon level – but this is indicated only for secondary, random fill-ins. The main advice comes a few paragraphs before that (p. 6):

The determination of just where monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can become burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time. It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monsterous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level. Naturally, the more important treasures will consist of various magical items and large amounts of wealth in the form of gems and jewelry. Once these have been secreted in out-of-the-way locations, a random distribution using a six-sided die can be made...

So the foundational process is really this stage in which the DM must “thoughtfully place” the most important (largest?) treasures... and apparently this could be anything, as no further quantification of this advice is given. In fact, consider the following: in the random determination method, the vast majority of the treasure value is in the very rare, very high-value gems and jewelry. Compared to the overall “average” treasure there, any treasure with gems has double the expected value; and any treasure with jewelry has about ×20 the expected value. So if we take the quoted advice above in the most literal sense, then Gygax is recommending that the foundational DM-placed treasures represent anywhere between ×2 and ×20, or more, in gold value compared to the treasure that appear in the random table. It could legitimately be almost anything and still be in line with the rules-as-written.

What are some of your rules-of-thumb for quantifying the “most important treasures” and monsters in an OD&D dungeon?


  1. Some thoughts
    Monsters: the most important are going to be the biggest/baddest or the intelligent ones. Who do the players need to be most worried about, a big old monsters that can pop up and end them, or those who can plan and mount a defense/counter attack.
    Related to the above, most monsters will have a hoard, while intelligent ones may have some "pocket money" as well as a stockpile. Some monsters/lairs may just have a discard pile or random treasure spilled about their "kill areas"

    Whats the most important treasure? depends on what we roll. Useful/magic items first, especially if it is useful/usable by the monsters. Failing magic/usable items it is going to be treasure with the best value to encumbrance ratio, gems, platinum, idols,etc.

    1. Follow Up: As someone who has been running an AD&D game and trying to let the dice fall where they may, random encounter and treasure tables are GD insane sometimes. There has to be a happy medium between 3rd editions "A squirrel should have 1d4 cp in treasure" and old school "This Orc Chieftain has a flametounge of 3 wishes in his hoard"

    2. Re: "Whats the most important treasure? depends on what we roll."

      The thing is, in the OD&D text, "most important treasure" is explicitly by DM fiat and placed before consulting any random tables.

      Perhaps I garbled that point in the post. This was not my clearest piece of writing ever.

    3. It almost reads like "Our treasure and monster tables don't really makes sense, so do what feels good" (The text, not the blog post)
      I kinda wish we had treasure tables broken up by the type of opponent (Dumb Beasts, Mooks, Big Bads, Hoarders, etc.) then modified by HD rather than a bunch of letter types where is is not readily apparent what or why they are organized that way.

      I am going to chalk this up to "Half the fun of D&D is not knowing what your are supposed it be doing" :)

    4. There is this attraction to the alphabetic Treasure Types, in that they are cued to the monster theme in some way. But trying to use them in the dungeon immediately gets stuck in a morass of their being designed for huge numbers in the wilderness, the fact that pro-rated they're actually very small valuations, etc. Your idea of better explaining them would have been a good one.

  2. It strikes me that the basic question is how fast do you want your players to advance. As far as I can tell, OD&D never really answers that question, nor does it even frame it as central to how much treasure you should place. I find that odd.

    It's especially odd in that OD&D combat and monster placement appears so deadly, what with those incredibly harsh monster tables for dungeon levels. If you have a 50% chance of, say, losing a battle - or even a 10% chance - then if you have to go through 50 monsters (in order to gain the experience from their treasure) to get to the next level, then the odds of advancing would seem to be low.