Disclaimer: This question is tagged dnd-5e, since consideration of the value of money or the magic item system might be relevant. I do, however, doubt that an answer based primarily on these would provide a satisfying solution to the problem at hand.
Clarification in magic items: I do not consider it necessary to use problematic amounts of magic items. While there might be a few, my concerns are about monetary value of money and nonmagic objects.
1. Situation and context
In the adventure I am currently running, the party sets out to kill a dragon. For a proper dragon hunt an impressive hoard is in order. It does not have to be a hoard like in The Hobbit, but it needs to be significant.
Now, the problem is that this amount of money owned by the players will have consequences, even if money in 5e is arguably not inherently valuable, as discussed before. I do have a character that can use heavy armor and is keen on a plate armor. I do not mind them getting one, but that is 1,500 gp, so even with this and a good stockpile of potions we are looking at a couple thousand gp that can be easily used. The simple fact of the players having money is not the main problem, however, I think that I and the players can come up with interesting uses and that it will not run over my encounter balance since there is no buying magic items. I am way more concerned about creep: If I have myself a nice dragon hoard, the next quest reward will be quite stale unless it is also really impressive which would create a vicious cycle.
It was already discussed here how to resolve the problem after the fact (see 17 million gp and The magic arsenal) but I want to avoid it proactively.
2. Solutions considered
There are a few putative solutions that immediately come to mind:
- Use a small amount of money: However, if I make sure that the amount of money will not cause problems, it does not make for a nice dragon hoard any more.
- Use worthless or disappearing money: This is quite easily done (The Hobbit already provides dragon sickness), but it will rob the players of a reward which I would like to avoid. My players are usually quite understanding when I express concerns of balance and similar, so I suppose I could get away with it, but this does rub me the wrong way. Making it so that the characters cannot carry away the money would fall in this realm.
- Complications that eat away money: I can introduce any number of complications that eat away money after, such as taxes, old currency (exchange comes at a loss), goblins who will raid the place as soon as the dragon is dead… However these would have to walk a very fine line between two potential issues. On the one side they might not resolve anything because they are not efficient enough. One the other hand , they might be too efficient and rob the players. All in all, not very satisfactory even if the players are given opportunity to take countermeasures. If I make 100% sure they work, I still robbed the players. Anything less and it will probably end like the in the questions cited above.
3. The Question
How can I make an impressive dragon hoard given that a) a small amount of money will make it seem like it’s not a real hoard, b) large amounts of money will probably overshadow future rewards, and c) any measures I came up with until now, that take away money later will either fail or rob the players of their reward?
Appendix: Further considerations
What I am looking for: Since any solution based on setting the amount of money and / or changing it later will probably create at least one of the three problems named, I suppose that a valid solution will probably discuss how to shift focus concerning the reward away from the money. However, if the solution came easy to me, I would not be asking. I do suspect that official 5e material does not offer a solution, and that a solution would be applicable to other systems, so solutions from earlier editions, other games, or homebrew are welcome so long as they take into account the basic assumptions of my question.
What I am not looking for: Any of the following does not – on its own – make for a complete answer:
- “There is no problem because money in 5e is not worth anything, really.”
- “Just give them lots of money. It will probably not create problems and if it does you already found suggestions for fixing it.”
- “I have x random idea on how to make all the money be fake or unusable.”
- “I have y random idea on reducing the final amount of money.” So have I, vide infra.
- “Just do another adventure or use a dragon without a hoard1.”
Of course, if you have a valid answer, I’m happy to read the frame challenge or x random idea you included with it.
Assorted information: This is the first adventure in an assorted-adventures style campaign that I run simultaneously for two groups of four and five players, respectively. The characters are currently level 5. The campaign is located in my homebrew 5e setting. I do not allow purchasing magic items.
1: Imagine killing a broke dragon with, let’s say, 16 gp. This would be a lot like the situation from Stephen King’s It (p. 306) where a mother has her missing son declared dead to access his savings of 16 $ .