Perhaps it is the Warhammer GM in me, but some of the best fun I’ve had at the table has not been watching the players’ travails in search of treasure, but in watching the players plot and scheme once they have obtained said ‘treasure’. How do they get the treasure back to civilisation? How do they elude or defeat rival claimants? How do they convert the treasure into wealth or influence? In standard D&D-esque games, the adventure precedes the PCs getting the treasure. But if the treasure is, let’s say, awkward, the obstacles to reaching the treasure can be surprisingly, disarmingly easily overcome. Getting the treasure is a prelude to adventure, a pre-credits sequence so to speak. The real adventure begins once the PCs have the treasure, perhaps only tenuously, in their possession.
With this in mind, I will present six ‘awkward’ treasures, with some notes on turning possession of the adventure into an adventure in itself. Naturally, most of these have the tone of a low-fantasy 'caper', though some have a more magical character. I haven’t given these treasures a GP value, not only because most of these things are priceless, but because if you actually want to use any of these in your game you’ll have to fit them into the economy of your campaign. Obviously the reward must have the potential to compensate for the inconvenience of transforming these ‘treasures’ into wealth, but if the players are making real risk/reward decisions, there must be the potential for them to make a loss - though this need not be financial.
#1 The Ornamental Birds
Rainbow Fantails are beautiful, bad tempered, high-maintenance pets, about the size of a peacock, only both more spectacular and much more vicious. If you didn’t know that these were dumb, pea-brained birds, you might get it into your head that Rainbow Fantails were haughty, snobbish aristocrats, such is the attitude they present. Their highly territorial nature means that they are most often kept in large gardens, where they shelter in miniature mansions and are served on by their own staff. As most Rainbow Fantails that are found in the city states of the Ebon Sea were imported as eggs from Bactaraya, a breeding pair is extremely valuable. And that is what the PCs have in their possession.
The PCs might come into the possession of these birds in a relatively mundane manner, as the loot from an urban heist or a caravan raid. More adventurously, they might find a lost, abandoned garden as they explore a ruined villa and its grounds. They may spot the birds in the wild and, softly, softly, catchee birdy. Or they might be gifted the birds by a grateful, if mischievous, Raja.
Turning a pair of Rainbow Fantails into wealth or power is complicated. Obviously, the birds could well be highly distinctive stolen goods with only a small, specialist market of buyers. But it is transport will be the key issue – if the birds are subject to stress their plumage fades extremely rapidly, turning a dull brown and coming to resemble to entirely unremarkable Dun Hen.
Transporting a Rainbow Fantail is best done at night, in a sealed wagon, when the birds are sleeping. During the day, they must be allowed to roam, but being stupid, domesticated animals, they must be vigilantly protected from predators. They demand luxury, and time and skill must be spent preparing their food each day, and their wagon must be appointed with silks and shiny baubles. Naturally, they ruin their quarters in short order, clawing the fabrics and swallowing the baubles.
[Each day, count up the number of sub-optimal conditions - food, accommodation, freedom, threat, noise, weather - 'suffered' by the birds and roll 1d12. If the roll equals of exceeds the number of sub-optimal conditions, the bird is content. If the roll is less than the number of sub-optimal conditions, the stress might have triggered the fading of the bird's plumage. Toss a coin - tails and the bird loses it's beautiful tail. Terrible conditions might count double, and if the bird is exposed to extreme stress - if it for example, attacked - skip straight to the coin toss. On the other hand, if the roll is a 12 for two consecutive days the female has laid an egg!]
If the PCs bore of this, the birds can be killed and their plumage sold for a fraction of the birds’ value, so long as their death is quick, painless, and unsuspected.
In game terms, handing the PCs a pair of Rainbow Fantails can be used to produce an overland journey during which the players must make a number of risk/reward decisions, deciding which route is best for travel at night, which terrain is safest for the birds to roam during the day, which settlements to make their waypoints for resupply, perhaps with a mind ensuring the information does not reach any potential pursuers. Such a route might well lead the PCs into more adventure, and both the acquisition and 'disposal' of the birds ought give the PCs enemies/contacts/friends among the local elite.
Of course, you could add a bit more magic to this treasure, but this suits my low-magic world. It was inspired by the real world trade instolen pedigree dogs and the international smuggling of endangered creatures.