top of page
  • Writer's pictureMark S. Cookman

13 Things You'll Find on a Pirate's Treasure Map

>Treasure Map created by freepik -

Today we go back to the sea to search for fabulous treasures. This list is a bit different than most that appear on this blog. Instead of being adventure seeds, items, or npc's that you could directly use in your game, this list is more of a guideline for running a one-shot pirate adventure using one of the oldest tropes there is: the treasure map.

No matter what the setting or style, whether it's steampunk air pirates, high-tech space pirates, or traditional ship-bourne pirates, many of the elements for a treasure map adventure remain the same. We're going to exam 13 common elements that treasure maps and the adventures they can generate typically share. The goal is to provide some "food for thought" so that you can more easily craft your own pirate treasure map adventures. We'll get to the list in just a bit, but first a little common background.

The life of a pirate, no matter the setting, is often a hard one. Pirates live and travel in remote places where the authorities that chase after them either cannot find them or wouldn't dare go looking because of the dangers that abound there. Most pirates live hand-to-mouth because the average amount taken in a raid minus ammunition, ship repairs, medical bills, and general lifestyle costs usually doesn't leave much, if any, for savings. Sometimes you don't break even and the raid or boarding party costs more than you plundered. There's always rumors and tales of this ship or that captain who managed to score a great haul, but while you'll hear about them in the tavern, you won't ever really meet them. It's mostly all talk with little truth behind it. Understand therefore, that a legitimate treasure map is nearly identical to a winning mega-millions lottery ticket. With this common background in mind, let's examine the 13 Things You'll Find on a Pirate's Treasure Map.

The General Location - Duh. It's a map. Of course it has a location. Yet, pirate treasure maps have a unique quality. They often require that you KNOW where you are going, before you get there. For example, it may be common knowledge that Eldorado is the lost city of golden treasure, but very few know that the local natives called the place Tenochtitlana. So a hand-drawn explorers map from 150 years ago of a section of coastline with a few named native settlements is not interesting to anyone who doesn't already know what they're looking for, savvy? Thus, a proper pirate treasure map is a map that's only useful to those who already have some idea where they're going, but need specific instructions once they get there.

A Compass Rose - The map should someway to mark North (or some other cardinal direction) in order for it to be useful on the small scale, once you've found the general location. In the case of air pirates, this might be a 3 digit compass heading and altitude. In the case of space pirates, it could  be a four dimensional marker including time/planetary position in relation to a certain star.

Geographic Features with Ominous Names - Clearly, the place that the pirates must search to find the treasure isn't going to be the world's happiest place with soft, sandy beaches and manicured gardens. Additionally, if the map is to the location of some previously plundered lair, where even more treasure awaits because there was SO MUCH that the first group couldn't take it all; it behooves those who create the map to make the place as scary-sounding as possible, to discourage other potential treasure-seekers.

Warnings of Monstrous Denezins - As with the geographic features above, of course there are monsters there. If there were no monsters and no difficult terrain, then there would be NO treasure because some halfling  bird-watcher would have carried it off long before. The monsters may be specific guards of the treasure or just happen to live in the area. They could be animals, humanoids, undead, mythical creatures, or a combination. The most important thing is that they be VASTLY different than the beasts, humanoids, or creatures that people from safe, civilized areas have experience with. This is the place to pull out your strange and unique monsters.

Terrible Terrain that must be Traversed - You can't just sail your ship to the island, tie up at the end of the pier, and walk down the dock to the treasure vault. Once again, that would make the loot too easy for others to find and steal. Treasure hunts involve travelling, usually on foot, through dangerous terrain requiring multiple feats of athletics and skill in order to get where you need to go. Don't forget inclimate weather, destroyed bridges, overgrown trail markers, and terrain changes such as dried-up rivers or rock slides that now hide an important trail marker that's recorded on the map. Remember that the map is like a picture of the of the place at the time that it was made. Conditions may have changed so much that the map seems of little use once the treasure-seekers are onsite.

A Puzzling Poem with Directions to Follow - Nearly always there is some puzzle that requires solving in order to find the proper path to the treasure. A devious map-maker, intent upon making certain that she, and she alone, be the person able to find the treasure again might put in false, or misleading, clues on the map. She would, of course, be able to ignore or interpret these clues correctly, as required, but others, lacking her knowledge, would fail to do so. The puzzles usually deal with two important elements: the location of the trail markers and the distance between them. Traditionally, the distance is marked in paces. However, the distance could instead be marked off by leagues, the amount of time it takes to play a particular song once or more, or perhaps something truly obscure like spars. Requiring the specialized knowledge of the length of the Sea Raven's main mast top spar was 18 feet and that equals 1 spar.

Blood, Rum, and Sweat Stains from Previous Owners - Pirate treasure maps are rarely new. If it's made of paper, cloth, leather, or some other stainable substance, then it has stains. Earlier, I compared the treasure map to a valuable lottery ticket. The big difference is that 1 person can easily turn in a lottery ticket by themselves, a treasure map requires recruiting "trustworthy" yet capable  people to join an expedition to find a dangerous place where the treasure can be found. Hence the blood stains, since some people are more capable than trustworthy.

Notes to Solve the Puzzle - These notes might be written on the back of the map or scribbled along the edges in the front. They may even have been concealed in the border decoration along the edge of the map when it was first created. The clues themselves might be constellations, tide charts, musical notes, local plants and animals, the names of gods, or anything else that you can imagine. If the notes are not concealed, then it is unlikely that they contain "red herrings". However, if the notes or clues are concealed on the map then it is more likely that some of the information is untrue or unnecessary.

X Marks the Spot - The place where the treasure is located is nearly always a sealed-off place. Whether it is protected by a magical lock, concealed by illusory terrain, located in a nearly impossible to reach place, or requires some special way to gain access, it should now seem to the group of treasure-hunters that they have come a long way and endured great hardships for nothing. Someone who has truly figured out the "key" to getting in, the spirit of a dead person who knows how to get in, or some top-end divination magic is going to be required to get past this hurdle. This is the likely place where betrayal will rear its ugly head, as those who know (or can figure out) how to get in will also realize that the smaller the company, the larger the shares.

A Way to Open the Sealed-Off Place - Just as the treasure will be in some obscure, difficult to reach, sealed-off place, there will be a way to open that place. Perhaps, it will be a key created from trinkets the seekers found along the path, a certain rhythm played on different sized tribal drums, or a certain number of gemstones placed into sockets in the door in a certain pattern. Maybe you just need to say "friend" or "open sesame" and the door will open wide. When the door does open, remember that the mechanism is likely old, so it might stop halfway or make a lot of terrible  grinding noises before it moves at all.

Here There Be Treasure - The goal of the treasure hunt should be worth the all of the pain and anguish to get there. Spare no detail in describing the VAST Treasure of Silver, Gold, Gems, Jewelry, Art, and Magic that could easily quench the greed of a hundred kings. The sheer amount of treasure should be staggering. It should make Scrooge McDuck's vault look like a street beggars cup in comparison. After diving in and swimming around in the rubies, sapphires, and emeralds for a while, the party should be thinking "How in the names of all the gods are we gonna get all of this out of here?" The answer to that question is, of course, they aren't.

Curse Your Sudden, but Inevitable, Betrayal - As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, "It's always something. . ." Whether it is the arrival of an overwhelming number of enemies, a sudden volcanic eruption and earthquake, or just an opening to the incoming tide created when the PC's first entered the room, something will force the group to abandon the treasure or lose their lives. They will, of course, grab as much as they can possibly carry on the way out. However, either the thing that forces them to flee the island or the monsters they will have to face in order to get back to their ship will make it necessary for them to abandon even more treasure as they flee to safety. In the end, they will probably only get to keep only a small fraction of the vast hoard that they worked so hard to find.

A Lead to an Even Greater Treasure - After the group has fled to safety and they have had time to examine their spoils in detail, they should discover something that promises to lead them to another, even greater, treasure. Perhaps it is a ship's log, the journal of plane-travelling mage, or a mysterious entity, trapped within an item. Perhaps they are just lucky or maybe a trickster god has decided to toy with them. Whatever the case is, the question remains. Will they chase this new treasure or will they retire, happy  with what they have?

I sincerely hope that you enjoyed this small guide to creating treasure map adventures. Next week, I hope to bring you even more treasures from the sea. If you have not done so already, please check out The Seas of Vodari Kickstarter , which I am a team member on. As of the writing of this blog, it was 248% funded with 14 days to go before it's done. There are some exciting new stretch goals that we're recently added, so be sure to check it out. I thank you for your time and support. Special thanks to those of you who have ALREADY backed the KS. We're all super excited to be able to bring you this book. As always, thank you for your time and happy gaming.

2,313 views0 comments
bottom of page