Sunday, March 8, 2009

Treasure Maps

In OD&D, one-quarter of all "magic items" consist of treasure maps. This percentage is reduced to one-tenth in AD&D, but that's still sizable. If you've ever wondered about the origin and purpose of the read languages spell, look no further than treasure maps: "the means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps."

I've always had a fondness for treasure maps, both in the abstract and in D&D. Perhaps I read Treasure Island one too many times, but I find maps of this sort to be very "magical." They're invitations to adventure, which strikes me as very old school. Characters who find a treasure map aren't required to follow it up; there's no guarantee that it leads to anything of value to them -- but it might. Weighing the risks of pursuing the directions of a map of unknown origin is another aspect of the strategy inherent in old school play. Maps are also an opportunity for the referee to expand the world beyond his immediate campaign area and indulge in that other pillar of D&D, the wilderness adventure.

I've used maps with a lot of success in the past. Morgan Just's quest for a pair of gauntlets of ogre power included at least one treasure map that ultimately proved to be of dubious value. Rory Barbossa's map to the Isle of Dread provided a lot of fun back in the day too. I've got some maps waiting to be found in Dwimmermount and the megadungeon beneath the ruined monastery will also include a number as well. When I was a teenager, I went through a phase where I was very keen on making props for use in my campaign. Treasure maps were among my favorites to make and I went to some great lengths to make them look "authentic." I used to bury them in the mud and dig them up after the soil had hardened. Sometimes I soaked them in tea for a while and then threw them in the dryer to give them a weathered look. I also discovered that a particular kind of aerosol air freshener, when applied directly to a piece of paper gave it a spotted, almost worn-eaten look. This also gave the paper a peculiar odor. Unfortunately, it also made the map quite flammable, as I discovered to my chagrin after applying a lighter to one in another experiment to give the map a "realistic" appearance.

Judges Guild produced at least one volume of treasure maps for use with D&D. I never owned it, so I can't speak to its virtues or flaws. I seem to recall that TSR produced something similar in the 2e era, but my memory may be playing tricks on me. So, the concept of the treasure map hasn't entirely faded from the hobby's memory, even if it is a lot less prominent than it used to be. OD&D "hardwires" the notion that at least some of the loot adventurers obtain from their expeditions is deferred and requires additional effort to claim. I rather like that and plan to do my part to promote the idea more widely.


  1. I have the old Judges Guild buried somewhere amidst my boxes of RPG stuff. Without excavating it, I recall that it had a rather geeky cover photo of what would now be called a group of LARPers (I remember the Monk girl was kind of cute though she had a really serious look on her face). Anway, the mini-dungeons were interesting enough as I remember, and I know one had an imprisoned demonlord that ended up as a recurring bad guy for a time in my old campaign.

  2. The 2e product Treasure Maps was a wonderful product! It contained something like 18 separate adventures. Each came with 2 maps, one for the players and one for the DM, also it came with a list of rumors about it which made talking about it all the more fun. A very good job by TSR.

  3. "Treasure Maps" is as good as Ripper X says and, even better, is free here (bottom of the page):

  4. I really enjoy making my own maps as props. I do have a map or two waiting for the party to find.

    Which aerosol product?

  5. One kind of treasure map that really interests me, but is probably not viable today, is the map made by another (real) party. This is mentioned more than once in various early White Dwarfs (Musson and Turnbull both mention it). And requires the kind of player base that probably was only available to a few, even 'in the day' (Castle Greyhawk would be an excellent example for the sort of campaign that would suit this type of map).

    Basically the DM 'procures' the map of a party he is running through his megadungeon. This can later be found by another group he is running - while not specifically a treasure map, it may or may not be useful to the party who finds it... after all it is not only a mapping of a part of the dungeon they are in, but may also mark traps, ungained treasures, or undefeated monsters...

  6. My friend Rob designed one of the most fiendish treasure/puzzle maps I've ever heard of.

    The 'map' was presented to the party as a long continuous squiggle. If you looked close at the squiggle, you could see that it was made of of a series of 121 line segments, each being either long or short.

    If you treated the short segments as a '0' and the long segments as a '1' and mapped the squiggle out onto an 11x11 grid, it formed a picture of an island with an 'x' off to the corner.

    Eventually the PCs found the right island and got the (immense) treasure from the marked spot, though it had to be split 50/50 with an NPC who had some of the keys needed to open it (itself another mini-puzzle).

    Elapsed real world time from receiving puzzle to getting the treasure: about 10 years.

  7. I really like the idea of having the party find a map done by another party. (Our games never had anything so cool)

    But it makes sense that one could always find a corpse of some recently-departed adventurer in the dungeon with map still clutched in cold dead fist... unless of course the galatinous cube has already passed through.

  8. @KBailey - The geek in me loves your story -- if it had been in hex or oct format, I would have probably had to squee. :)

    The fact that it took 10 years... that's great! Did they get clues to diciphering it along the way?

    (To think that in some games, this would have been reduced to a few dice rolls...)

  9. chgowiz: That one, I believe a lot of progress was made early. When they counted the line segments and found there were 121 someone instantly suggested it was for an 11x11 grid. It languished for years probably because no one knew what island was depicted. One of the players was just sure one day, and we had a PC who was an expert diver (the x mark was in the water). For all I know, the player just decided to go for it and count on the DM to make sure he guessed right, just to get this puzzle finally over.

  10. And of course, your treasure map doesn't have to be an actual map. I've used personal journals, "lost" historical texts, and even an old mosaic portraying the unruined city as treasure maps.

    And there are also the maps that are valuable in and of themselves, not just what they reveal. Such as the traditional portfolio of navigation instructions for ship's pilots. And I've had books and documents that are treasure in and of themselves.

    My first megadungeon ended up having a mapmaker (ex PC) set up a booth in the fair outside the main entrance. Turned quite a tidy profit buying and selling maps from adventuring parties.

  11. Tea is a good "discolorant" for prop maps.

    - Grim

  12. even an old mosaic portraying the unruined city as treasure maps.

    Now that's beautiful: I can see the players comparing a higgledy-piggeldy mosaicked skyline with the ruin plan they've assembled, and going "hang on a minute: there's a huge tower shown here, but no sign of its foundations on the ground. What happened to it?"

  13. Re the Judges Guild Book of Treasure Maps mentioned in the article and column 1: those who frequent this blog will be interested to know that it was written by Paul Jaquays. 6 mini-scenarios, iirc, some more complex than others -- the scenario Welleran mentions, is hardly more than one room.

    JG also did Books of Treasure Maps II and III, the last using their "pretending-this-isn't-AD&D" notation.


    Oh, nifty!

    Thanks for the link.

  15. Which aerosol product?

    I don't recall anymore. It was some kind of potpourri-scented thing. I don't think they make that particular kind anymore.

  16. I loved those JG map books. The adventures weren't always great without some modification, but we were going to be modifying them anyway, now weren't we? One of the Jaquays maps was actually on a shield; I think it was only visible under a certain kind of moonlight, and led to the castle of a lycanthrope..?