When your players sack an ancient temple or clear a crumbling dungeon they expect to find some loot. But an often overlooked feature of these older dungeons is spoilage and decay. Most DMs do a good job accounting for age and make sure there aren’t fresh rations in a 1000 year old crypt. But what about that healing potion? It could be past its use by date.
The Antiques Roadshow of DnD
Old treasure is still treasure, on this we want to be clear. But when your players are expecting to find functional items to add to their arsenal the dungeon master has more to consider. The main thing you should be thinking about every time you place loot in these old and dusty places is the effect that time would have on an object.
Consumables and Use by Dates
Plain consumables like rations should be considered to be spoiled if they are over a year old, which most will be. The odd exception may occur with things like salt or sugar that has been keep in a dry sealed barrel; these are natural preservatives after all. Most food stuffs outside of that just don’t stand up to the test of time.
Because of this, your group should never feel food is assured when raiding older dungeons. A big expedition deep into a multilayer dungeon might prove more dangerous from the perspective of starvation than by any of the traps or creatures within.
Sure, your players might have some rations. But when those run out they might start to eye the rotten storerooms a little differently. Perhaps they would be willing to try some of the dubious foods they find…
This leads us to an interesting idea about dungeons and loot all on its own. If the dungeon was once populated, where do they keep their food? What kind of food did they keep? Did they bring food in from somewhere else or what food was raised and produced within the dungeon itself?
While finding an active food source might be reasonable based on the age of the dungeon, what if they had a room where they were aging cheese? This cheese might be untrustworthy, but it will likely be one of the safer things that the players could find to eat.
In subterranean dungeons they might have cultivated mushrooms. And while the creatures who tended these mushrooms might be long gone, it’s possible the spores have spread to various parts of the dungeon. Life uh… finds a way.
Outside of food there is another category of consumable that needs a bit more thought: potions. Potions have a magical effect applied to them, but do they go bad? Presumably they would last longer than normal food, but over a long enough time anything is possible.
You have the opportunity to have some fun if your players find potions in a dungeon. It’s quite easy to whip up a little table and have them roll for how the potion aged and see if that impacts the effects. A sample table for what we’ve used in past games is listed below:
Potion Stability/Age Table (1d20)
- 1-5 Nauseating – the potion has gone bad and the drinker is nauseous for 1d4 hours
- 6-8 Side Effects – the potion does not work as intended and produces a random status effect for 1d4 hours
- 9-12 Weakened – the potion works, but only provides half benefits
- 13-19 Normal – the potion works as intended
- 20 Better with Age – the effects of the potion are doubled
This table is a little silly, but it sends an important message to your players to consider their surroundings. You can’t expect to live a long life as an adventurer if you randomly quaff mysterious liquids you find laying around in ancient tombs.
Our example table is pretty tame when it comes to side effects but it can easily be modified to be more lenient or way harsher depending on what your group likes. We don’t advise potions causing damage when they spoil, but if they do, the damage should never exceed setback levels as provided by the improvised damage table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Swords, armor, and other adventuring gear is not as immune to the passage of time as one might think. Unless the weapons are made out of rust-resistant steel, iron items will become brittle and useless over time. Leather straps may deteriorate, latches may stop latching, and once well-oiled mechanisms bind into place with disuse.
As opposed to younger or active dungeons, ancient fortresses may have very little usable gear. This is not to say that these items should all be worthless or destroyed, but what the players find might need to be repaired or tended to before use.
A superior steel weapon might be found on a rack next to crumbled, rusting iron swords. While the blade might have held up over time, the hilt and grip might have turned to dust in the same amount of time.
With these considerations in mind you also have an amazing chance for a new set piece. The party stumbles into a forgotten armory deep within the dungeon’s labyrinthine structures. The age and decay is seen in the piles of rust as time has brought low this once mighty arsenal.
But, wait, what’s this? Amidst the ruined gear stands several pristine items that look as if they were forged only yesterday. Not a scratch on them, they stand amidst the chaos of age set upon the room. Your players just found the magical items inherent to the dungeon.
Most magical gear resists degradation in DnD. This is not to say it is immune to it, but it could be and it lets you cut through the 30 minutes of your players rummaging through garbage you didn’t intend for them to take anyway. Although you do need to be careful of any player who greedily hoards the broken items as well… they’re up to something.
As long as you keep age in mind here, you’ll place better loot than you normally would have, which is more impactful for your group anyway. But what about treasure?
My Fortune for a Coin Changer
Gold, luckily, does not rust. However, gold is not always of a spendable mint. We’ve talked about coinage before when going over the hateful relationship most have with electrum pieces. Not every coin you find will be something that you can spend, especially if it has the face of an evil overlord stamped on it.
When placing coins think about how long it would have been there. If it’s been hundreds or even thousands of years then it likely needs to be converted to the present currency of the realm. Worse still is if your players find copper; they’re not likely to be able to salvage a whole lot due to corrosion.
While gold, platinum, and electrum don’t rust (oxidize), silver and copper do. Silver tarnishes very slowly, but in the presence of sulfur, like one might find in a volcanic lair, silver will blacken and become soft. Copper oxidation happens much faster until it becomes the lovely green color of the Statue of Liberty.
This green tarnish of copper forms in moist environments in 5-7 years, but in dry environments will still occur within 14 years if left alone. In particularly bad cases a collection of pure copper coins might fuse into a solid green mound that would have to be carried out of a dungeon to be salvaged for a meager sum.
Because of these effects, platinum and gold treasure will be the most valuable things your players can find. Moreover, treasure that is not out of date currency will likely be worth more since they can sell it directly without losing value to a coin changer or blacksmith.
Evil Books Last Longer
Paper doesn’t last too long really. Good paper, the kind in real life that we spend a lot of time perfecting for use in things like tabletop role playing games, only keeps for about 500 years in normal conditions. Paper will degrade even faster in poor conditions. But even with the best preservation techniques the material becomes brittle over time.
However, there is another type of paper that can last, some say, for thousands of years in even the poorest conditions. That’s velum.
For those of you who don’t know, premium velum is a paper made from the skin of animals. Young animals work best and the finest velum in the real world is made from calf skin. When your party is scrounging about, the wizard is likely to find a bookshelf full of crumbling covers that turn to dust in their hands, except for the ones written on skin.
While I’m not presuming that all velum has evil writings on it, the beings that are evil likely prefer to write on paper made out of skin. It can be assumed that the remaining books in any ancient magical archive are typically not the nicest types of magic.
Outside of paper there are other materials that will last a bit longer. Tablets obviously won’t crumble like paper, woven tapestries might get a few more years than a well preserved book if they’re thick enough, and some magical writing might decide to hang around long after what it was written on falls apart. Magic is weird like that.
The Rarest of the Rare
The theme that evolves from all of these examples is that rare or magical items don’t break down the same way as everything else does. While we always recommend you put in some trace of the mundane along with your treasure for storytelling purposes, the older the dungeon is, the fewer mundane items remain.
This is precisely the problem with archeology today. When ancient ruins are found, very little is left to examine. Did they have paper? Maybe, but if that paper is more than 500 years old there’s little chance you can find anything written on it.
When placing loot in your dungeon remember that pretty much the only things that survive long term are the things that have a reason to have survived. This reason could be in their very nature, like gold and platinum coins.
This reason could also be forged into the item, like magical weapons or quality steel. Similarly to well-forged gear, books can survive as a side effect of their creation, like when a necromancer thinks it would be rad to write their spell book on skin instead of standard paper.
While your players may end up sifting through a lot of dust and spoiled things to get to the best loot, the items that remain are what is truly valuable.
Better Loot Comes From Thinking About it
We hope this article has kickstarted some ideas for your next ancient dungeon. While grabbing any old loot table can be time saver, really thinking about the age of your dungeon can help you build a better narrative and highlight the best items for your players to find. Try letting the age of your dungeon show in your next session and see if you can express the feel of ancient ruins to your players through what is left behind.