From Treasure Island to The Hobbit, maps leading the way to treasure have long been a staple of adventure tales. They were also a staple of first edition (1e) Dungeons & Dragons, where treasure maps were the very first item discussed under the topic of treasure in the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide.
In the game’s second edition, such maps appeared under the less-than-tantalizing heading of “Map” in the table governing random determination of scrolls, but TSR did produce an appropriately-titled supplement, Treasure Maps (TSR AD&D Accessory GR3, No. 9377), which included of several maps dungeon masters could insert into ongoing campaigns. While some of the map images in the product were admittedly “B” movie grade – note the colored glass beads and intimidating rodent skull in the image at right – Treasure Maps did include a range of maps well outside of the standard ancient parchment, including maps made from pictograph clues on pottery shards, carvings in weathered wood, and even tattooed on a dwarf’s back.
This writer was unable to find a direct reference to these maps as treasure in later editions.
Of course, nothing in subsequent editions prevented dungeon masters from deliberately placing such maps for heroes to find, but without a “reminder entry” in the treasure tables for dungeon masters browsing for ways to reward heroes, the option of including treasure maps may be overlooked.
The treasure map’s apparent fade from prominence is unfortunate, as these maps represent one of the few treasure items that, by definition, lead to more adventure.
The use of treasure maps provide several role-playing and campaign benefits, including:
- If they are legitimate, they bear cash value. There is a pronounced difference between possessing a treasure map and having the ability to journey forth and claim the treasure; less adventurous treasure map owners might decide to sell their maps to eager heroes for a fraction of the treasure’s reported worth.
- If a charlatan sells a false map to the heroes, they will certainly want to hunt down the miscreant, creating a recurring adversary in the game and adding continuity to the campaign.
- If it becomes public knowledge that the heroes have a treasure map, bandits in the area may decide to ambush the party to take the map or, if they are particularly patient, follow the party until the heroes recover the treasure – then attack the heroes when they are weakened from overcoming any guardians the treasure had.
- Treasure maps allow the dungeon master to gently induce heroes to travel to specific areas (for treasure recovery purposes), without making the players feel “railroaded” into conforming with the dungeon master’s plot concept.
Sometimes, treasure maps can be deliberately employed by villainous adversaries. I once ran a campaign in which a dragon wanted to expand its hoard, but didn’t want to expose its young to the dangers of heroic intrusion. To remedy the situation, the dragon located a largely abandoned cave complex and set up a temporary lair. The dragon assumed human form (something they could easily do in the days of 1e and 2e) and fabricated several copies of a “treasure map” leading to this location, with notes indicating that the treasure could only be accessed when a magical portal was opened. The portal, which didn’t really exist, was reportedly active only during the period of the waning moon. After circulating copies of the map in locations frequented by adventurers, the dragon returned home to her family. During the appropriate lunar phase, the dragon went to the temporary lair, carrying an old boat (which is important later), and waited for treasure-seeking heroes. The heroes were summarily killed and tossed into the boat, along with their valuables. When the lunar phase ended, the dragon assumed human form, circulated a few more maps, went back to the temporary lair, picked up the boat and flew home until the next month.
Villains may also produce false treasure maps to bait heroes into recovering items they cannot themselves reach. Perhaps a vampire needs to obtain an unholy relic from an ancient ruin, but the consecrated ground prevents him from entering the area. Creating and circulating a legitimate treasure map leading to the place might entice heroes to explore the site and recover the item. The moment the heroes bring the item out of the consecrated area, the vampire and his minions can attack.
In some situations, determining the authenticity of a map and defining the exact geographic area it depicts can be the focus of an entire adventure, as a party tries to locate various historical and linguistic experts and conducts research at libraries. Players seem to enjoy preparing for treasure recovery expeditions as much as the expeditions themselves, especially when they keep their labors secret.
Have you employed treasure maps in your D&D game? If so, please consider sharing your experience in a comment to this post.