Lately, I've discovered a new little semi-obsession, a show on A&E called Storage Wars. If you haven't seen it, it follows a selected group of buyers as they participate in auctions of abandoned storage lockers, and try to turn a profit from the contents. There's a lot that I like about the show - the varied personalities and motivations of the cast and their (sometimes not so friendly) competition to get the best lockers are pretty entertaining. But this is a D&D blog, so what's the connection?
Imagine how boring such a show would be if they were just bidding on boxes of unknown quantities of currency. They'd bid, and the winner would open the box to see how many dollars are in it. That'd have me reaching for the remote. A great part of the show's appeal is the thrill of the unknown, the discovery of all the strange, wonderful, and valuable things that people have abandoned in those storage units, mingled with all their mundane and worthless stuff. The most exciting segments of the show have nothing to do with the cast trying to outbid each other, but when they're digging through their purchases and spot something unexpected. Then it's off to a specialist to find out what it's worth, and in some of the stranger cases, what the hell it actually is. Although it's rarely explicitly explored on the show, I think another huge part of the appeal is wondering how some of that stuff ended up there and who it once belonged to. Why, exactly, is there a WWII era tank periscope packed among someone's worthless cast-offs? What happened to cause someone to abandon a box of insanely valuable superhero action figures? Who might have once rented that unit with the authentic "Revenge of the Jedi" jacket which only a few people close to the production of the movie received prior to the title change?
Here's where it comes back around to D&D. What's more interesting, finding chest after chest full of gold and silver coins, or finding something new and different and mysterious? The first is mostly an exercise in accounting, the other an adventure of discovery. The first makes things easy for the PCs - everybody knows that silver coins are valuable, and gold ones are more valuable. The second makes them hone their powers of discernment and make interesting choices. Do we take the keg of spices or the big spool of silk thread or that ugly abstract painting? It's not always an obvious choice. (One SW buyer made something like 14 grand on a locker stuffed full of ordinary, non-collectible books, which utterly failed to excite or intrigue anyone else.)
Non-monetary treasures tell stories, just like the weird stuff in those storage units. Who have those orcs been raiding to acquire dozens of bottles of herbal tinctures? How did that ship's figurehead come to be on the fifth level of a dungeon in a landlocked kingdom? What about that smith's hammer with the mark of a legendary dwarf craftsman stamped in the side of its head that the ogre is using to crack walnuts? How did that forest goblin shaman come to wear the feathered headdress of a chieftain of the plains? What was that leather funnel with the engraved brass rim used for, anyway? What culture decorates its silver tea sets with stylized aardvarks?
Non-monetary treasure can lead to more adventures, just as it does for the SW buyers when they go in search of appraisers and buyers for their obscure items. No, the villagers don't need that box of silk hat bands, but hats are still fashionable in the next barony. Why don't you try there? No, I have no idea what a copper-bound magnifying lens with the monogram of that famous alchemist is worth, but the guildmaster of mages in the city might know more. Why, that looks like ancient Sylotian script on that sundial. Only the monks in the Monastery of Thunder Mountain still study that old tongue.
(I wouldn't make them get appraisals for every ordinary trade good they find, of course. Only the really fun stuff, and only if the players decide to investigate further instead of taking whatever price they can get immediately.)
I could fill some more space providing a list of non-monetary treasures to spark the imagination, but such a list would be but a pale, pale shadow of the document that -C over at Hack and Slash has apparently done yeoman's work putting together and making available for download. This thing covers just about every category of non-monetary valuables you'd ever want to place or find in a fantasy treasure trove. It's free, no bidding necessary. Should you get it? YUUUUP!