As much as I love old-school D&D, the thing that pisses me off the most is treasure. There are no specific guidelines for treasure distribution, not in the original materials or the retroclones based on them. Whenever I’d look through forums for some guidance, the answer was always something like “just do what feels good, man,” or an off-hand reference to the Treasure Type tables which have been just about as helpful to me as a fortune cookie. It’s almost like handing out loot is just instinctual to every gamer in the OSR but me. This wouldn’t irk me so much if it weren’t for the fact that treasure and experience points are intrinsically tied (and for the fact that I love gold-for-XP and how it functions in the gamespace so much that I don’t want to use an alternative advancement method).
Well, it took a lot of reading between the lines, but I think I finally get what you all are talking about. And I’m putting it to ink here so that anyone else who has the same trouble can just read it and get on with their game.
Over and over again, I kept coming back to the concept of dungeon levels. That if an adventuring party clears the first floor, then and only then would they be strong enough to attempt the second level. This was the clearest parameter of “who should get what experience when” that I could find. I interpret this to mean that a party of four 1st level Fighting Men should more-or-less reach 2nd level by the time they clear the first floor. You can pepper monsters and treasure throughout the floor however you want – hidden, lumped in big piles, in the form of gold-plated statues, or otherwise – as long as the total experience points for completing that floor advances the party to 2nd level (with the Fighting Man progression being the golden standard). That’s where the “intuition” and the Treasure Tables come in: useful methods for spreading that treasure out. Everything in a dungeon floor is balanced against that floor’s budget, and it’s often randomized so you don’t get the same thing every time.
What really made this revelation slow-coming was that I never made the leap between dungeon levels and adventures of other types. So a 3rd-level adventure would contain enough treasure to get a party of four 3rd-level Fighting Men to 4th level. The increased challenge is reflected in the sheer enormity of the treasure (as opposed to the pocket change and rotting wooden chests of 1st level), which requires either a shitload of low-level monsters or much higher level monsters in order to distribute efficiently, and much nastier traps to protect it.
Since most of the people designing roleplaying games aren’t technical writers – especially Gary Gygax – this concept of a “floor budget” never had more mention than a sentence or two, lost in a sea of graphs and tables. So I passed over that nugget countless times, and I’m sure many of the retroclone writers who had internalized this information over decades of play never saw need to emphasize it. Now that a lot of people from my generation are getting into the OSR – a generation that cut their teeth on Pathfinder and 4th edition – it would be helpful to restructure how that information is presented in future releases. Maybe then I wouldn’t be confused for years on end how an old-school adventure could be rated for “four 3rd-level characters” without discrete encounter building guidelines.
The beauty of gold-for-XP is that there’s no guarantee that the party will get that amount of treasure. They could get less or more, depending on the accessibility and randomness of the treasure, as well as the experience values of the monsters they’re able to kill. This gives adventures like those published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess that much more potency, because you have to overcome various cosmic horrors and grotesqueries in addition to the typical dungeoneering obstacles in order to make the excursion worth it. It’s not a reliable formula the party follows like a trail of breadcrumbs, the burden is on their shoulders to eke out that next level.
I’m honestly sort of embarrassed it took this long for me to figure this out. I plunged headlong into old-school gaming right before I went to university. I feel like I’m knocking off the few remaining rust-knots of modern gaming sensibility that prevented me from fully embracing the OSR. At this rate, I’ll be a grizzled grognard just as I’m getting kicked off my parents’ health insurance.