The release of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, as fun as it is, should be seen in the context of the Plane Shift documents that provide more Magic the Gathering settings for Dungeons and Dragons. This also included a free adventure “X Marks the Spot” for the Ixalan campaign. Among other cool things ported from MtG into D&D, it uses the concept of treasure tokens in the random encounters.
How it works
This design has two key elements: awarding treasure tokens for some sort of milestone (large or small), then having one “treasure cache” entry on each random encounter table that allows players to redeem a token. The adventure here has six items, based on Magic cards, so you can either draw from a small deck of items or roll 1d6 on a table.
The items are not completely locked down to a particular class or role, and none of them are completely vanilla – no plain +1 warhammer here! One example is a +1 dagger that can detect fresh water within 200 feet.
Importantly, in this specific adventure, the player characters are allies of the moment: not a band of friends, brothers-in-arms, or anything like that. The adventure begins with a bunch of prisoners breaking out of an execution. Almost none of them have any gear, although they can recover it quickly after the escape.
When to use tokens
In close-knit, static groups (like those in traditional campaigns), this system would not work very well. Those groups tend to treat everything as party loot in an “all for one, one for all” mindset. At most, they’ll split mundane treasure evenly, but magic items get allocated based on who could make best use of something.
Open table games, though, don’t have this sort of dynamic. In a West Marches game, or a megadungeon, or anything else where the group composition changes between sessions, the bonds between characters will not feel as strong. Individual treasure works very well there, and this system still rewards players for contributing to the progress of the game (as well as for entertaining others at the table).
By doing it this way, you reward players for doing cool stuff during the adventure while still introducing a level of randomness that still allows the players to feel excited about the new cool thing. The idea reminds me a bit of the treasure point system from the new Adventurers League rule set (about which I have little good to say in general), but without the weird “everyone buys a copy of the same item”.
More broadly, I like random encounters quite a bit. While I don’t let the dice rule me completely, allowing stochastic direction in the game forces me not to just continue down a linear narrative. If the randomness gets too out of hand, I always have the option of using it simply as inspiration, but usually it can be worked in. With random treasure, you’re selecting the pot, but you don’t know what they’ll pull out of it, or even when they will get a treasure cache. Maybe my next megadungeon campaign should use this as part of a larger strategy of procedural generation…