Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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