‘X’ Marks the spot


The 2e Treasure Map Accessory had the right idea with regard to varying the size and type of maps one might see in a D&D campaign.

The 2e Treasure Map Accessory had the right idea with regard to varying the size and type of maps one might see in a D&D campaign.

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.


6 comments on “‘X’ Marks the spot

  1. Ameron says:

    Some may consider the use of treasure maps a little cliché, but the reason they’ve become cliché is that they’ve been used a lot and they work. Personally, I like using them in my games. I’ve recently developed a skill challenge around deciphering a treasure map called, coincidentally enough, “X” Marks the Spot. If DMs out there are looking for a way to use treasure maps, I encourage you to give this skill challenge a read.

    • Alric says:

      The skill challenge is well done, Ameron. Thank you for bringing it to the discussion.

      On an unrelated note, may I have permission to add your site to the Athenaeum’s blogroll?


  2. Ameron says:

    Absolutely. And I’d be happy to reciprocate the favour. You’re off to a great start here. I’ve already added you to my feed and check out every posting.

  3. Max.Elliott says:

    Also, a treasure ‘map’ might have nothing at all to do with ink on paper. It also might not be straightforward, it could be encoded in some way, either with cryptography or stenography. I’ll follow with a number of examples:

    — The map is a map, directly. But the names are all cyphered or replaced with, say, numbers.

    — The map isn’t a map until; The ink is magically activated, and until activated, resembles a grocery list for an insane mage. The conditions of activating a portion of the map can be just about anything, light, heat, breath, true love, time, location. Think Bilbo Baggins.

    — The map is a series of mental delusions, perhaps passed from mind to mind. You might also pick it up from a rock. I recall one story where the map was a physic construct that passed from host to host during … *cough* … ‘private moments’ … and each person to have it was tormented with visions until they either passed it along or (in the case of the last fellow) started following clues.

    — The map is a series of maps, all strung together, like in “National Treasure”. If you pull this one off, pat yourself on the back and buy yourself a beer from me.

    — The map is a SONG! I love this one. The map is an obscure and oddly worded nursery rhyme! Everyone in a village sings it, it’s damn catchy, and really guys, when was the last time you heard “round a ring of roses.” and realized that it was a song about the black plague? The PC’s might even get giggled at by everyone save for one old man who swears he lost his arm to that dragon once, down by the swamps… You know, like in the SONG.

    — The map is a book. Bear with me here, but I have come across two different books that were treasure puzzles. One was titled “The Secret” and I forget the other title. It works like this: The book is about “modern day fay” and it describes the habits and lifestyles of various modern fay. There’s even pictures. Embedded in each entry is a poem. Between the poem and the data about that creature, you could possibly come up with a clue or location. You started with the first creature, but then, once you had the clue you would go to the location to get a clue to the NEXT creature. So Creature #2 wasn’t the next creature in the order. Eventually you would have a bunch of data and clues about a special fay and THEN you could glean the location of a locked box with 10,000$ in it or something.

    –The map is a tattoo or birth mark, and could be on one of the characters, or someone they have to find.

    — The map is a magic stone. This stone (or kid, princess, pig, whatever) instinctively knows where the treasure is, but may not know it or need to be activated or possessed by someone special.

    — The treasure is a prize in a contest, the map the route for the race, the puzzle to solve , etc. It could be run like a national lottery, everyone wishing a shot would pay a coin and the total coins would be the reward.

    and it’s 4:30am and teh brain cells have all signed a petition to have me impeached if I stay up any later.

    • Alric says:

      The song idea is the best, Max. Imagine the heroes knowing a tune since childhood, and not realizing its relevance until level 25!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s