The 5 Ws of Treasure Maps

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 10, 2012

“Among the loot is a treasure map.”

This statement never fails to get the players’ attention. Suddenly the magic sword and the rare gems are forgotten at the possibility of even greater riches. I’ve seen players expend more energy arguing over who gets the treasure map while other magical treasures on the floor right in front of them go unclaimed. The idea that someone hid something valuable and you could be the one to find it really hits a nerve with players. Why settle for this lame flaming sword +3 when I could have something even better? Ah, the insatiable greed of players.

Personally I love treasure maps. They’re one of the easiest and best adventure hooks in D&D (or just about any other RPG). The promise of something valuable, the excitement of following the map’s directions, and the thrill of acquiring treasure appeals to an overwhelming majority of players. Knowing this, it’s easy for the DM to lead the PCs anywhere he wants them to go, because who can resist a treasure map?

But a treasure map can and should be more than a map with a big X marked on it. It certainly can be this mundane and direct, but if it is then it’s a safe bet when the PCs get there they won’t find anything worthwhile. A good map has a story all its own, a history, a personality if you will. Someone went to a lot of trouble to hide their treasure and then write down the location. The last thing they wanted was for a bunch of idiots (the PCs) to easily find it and steal it just because they got their hands on his map.

Before throwing a treasure map haphazardly into your game you should answer the 5 Ws – who, what, when, where, why (although not necessarily in that order). It may seem like a lot of extra (and unnecessary) work, but believe me it’s time well spent.


This is the treasure itself. The loot. The swag. The MacGuffin. Whatever. This is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is the thing that the PCs are trying to locate. In many cases it will be something tangible and physical; something the PCs can hold and claim as their own. It might be the traditional buried treasure chest full of coins and gems, a weapon of power, or a lost spellbook. It might be something important but not valuable, like a body. Perhaps the treasure isn’t anything nearly so cliché. Maybe it’s a location – a Dragon’s lair, the fountain of youth, or the lost city of gold, for example. The important thing is that the DM have a clear idea of what the PCs will find when they get to the X on the map.

Sometimes the best treasure maps are ones that don’t give any indication of what they lead to. By providing other clues and details finding out what’s in the spot marked by the X can be an adventure in itself.


Once you’ve figured out what the map leads to the next step is to figure out where this treasure is located. But more importantly the DM needs to decide what the map actually depicts in regards to the location. Is it something as simple as a map of the world with a big X marking the spot of importance? Hopefully not because that would be incredibly boring. The location should be difficult to decipher, but not impossible to find.

Think of the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy’s dad pieced a map together from clues. The map had geographic landmarks but the origin city had no name. Without that critical piece of information the map was useless.

As the DM you need to figure out how much of your campaign will revolve around deciphering the map and how much will revolve around the journey itself. If you are just looking for an excuse to get the PCs on the road then clearly label the map so they know where to go. If you don’t want them to find the treasure immediately and would rather they work for it, make the maps details vague or transcribed in some kind of code. Either way there’s plenty of adventure to be had.


Someone drew this map. The cartographer can be an important detail in the treasure hunting process. Players are greedy and will likely go after any reasonable treasure dangled in front of them, but the map maker’s credibility can weigh heavily on their decisions to take action. A ranting mad man who produces a map he says he made himself is not likely to be given much value, but a retired adventure who produces a map he made that leads to the Druid’s hidden grove is likely to raise eyebrows.

Sometimes the PCs find a map and have no idea who created it. Determining who the cartographer was can be an important clue to unraveling the map’s mystery. Recognizing a signature or artist’s mark can reveal the map maker which can then lead to other clues about the map, the treasure and the locations depicted.

An important distinction when thinking about who is to know if the person who created the map is the same person that left the treasure behind. This is not a detail the PCs need know immediately, but the DM should figure it out. Doses the map lead to a place an explorer visited and wanted to get back to or was it transcribed by a member of a pirate crew present when the loot was buried? This distinction can go a long way to determining the map’s authenticity and more importantly the authenticity of the treasure.


As long as there have been treasure maps there have been treasure hunters. The older the map, the less likely the heroes will be the first to find the map or the treasure. This can be both a good and bad thing. PCs following an older map could find nothing more than an empty treasure chest when they get to the X, or they could learn from unsuccessful attempts made by older adventurers to improve their own odds of success.

Some treasures are so important that the map maker needs to ensure someone will be able to find the loot some day. In these cases they may take extreme steps to keep the map itself alive, no matter how much time passes. This could be the case if the map leads to a special item needed in the distant future – like a weapon that is only useful against the Ancient Dragon when he returns in a century. The map maker could have chiseled the map into a wall, hid it in the layout of an emerging city’s streets, or rearranged huge monoliths in seemingly random patterns (think Stonehenge).

For more mundane treasure the maps won’t likely have this kind of permanency so recording it on paper seems more likely. However, treasure maps could also be hidden in lines of hieroglyphics, the notes of a song, or tattooed on the back of an old pirate captain. Be creative when creating your map, but remember that some of these maps will eventually be lost or destroyed depending on how much time has passed.


This is probably the most important of the 5 Ws. Why did the map’s creator decided to make a record of this location. If it was something he intended to keep secret, then why write it down at all, why not just memorize the location? After all a treasure map could be lost, stolen, or copied. Obviously there was some reason to write it down.

If treasure was buried there must have been a reason? Maybe the mapmaker didn’t want to share his wealth with a legitimate partner? Maybe it was something he didn’t want to have stolen? Maybe he intended to give the map to another party whom could retrieve it at a later date? If the map leads to an important location, why is a map required? Is the location hidden from all or just some?

Discovering why a map was produced can often reveal important information that the PCs can use to help them identify what’s located at the X (if the PCs don’t already know).

Bringing it all together

Next time you’re assigning treasure to a monster’s horde, consider throwing in a treasure map. Be sure to have a basic understanding of the 5Ws so that you can answer initial questions about the map, but don’t bother going to much into details early on. Wait and see if the players take the bait. When they do, go through the whole exercise of answering the 5 Ws so that you’re prepared for whatever the PCs choose to do next.

Players love handouts. If you’re artistically inclined consider creating an actual treasure map for them. It doesn’t have to be perfect, most treasure maps aren’t. Once they have a map in hand they won’t be able to resist following it, no matter how obscure the directions, locations, or loot.

What are some of your favourite treasure map adventures? What kind of creative things has your DM included when your party found a treasure map? What’s the most original thing you’ve ever found at the end of a treasure map?

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1 BeanBag October 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Very nice! Yes, the treasure map is one of the best handouts for any tabletop game. As a DM, it is difficult to dangle “some of a carrot” in front of a PC and the nebulous nature of a map adds some intrigue, suspicion, and tension into a game where most details provided by the DM are considered “complete.”

2 Lokiare October 11, 2012 at 2:05 am

This is an awesome resource. I used to use maps in treasure or as adventure hooks, but I usually didn’t think about the 5 W’s. This really could be applied to any treasure found to give it a nice dose of flavor.

3 Jorgen October 12, 2012 at 12:21 am

Excellent article! Will definitely consider this for my current campaign!

4 Sunyaku October 12, 2012 at 12:40 am

A treasure map is an excellent idea for an adventure… and a potentially a powerful plot device to get players to return to a major campaign arc.

5 Cory Huff October 31, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Awesome stuff. BTW, you know Feedburner is shutting down right? They’re stopping feeds at the end of October, and closing for good in December. You might want to move to another feed delivery system…

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