Things get lost. Sometimes, they are valuable or important enough that someone goes and looks for them. This sort of treasure hunt makes for a good adventure, especially if you run an investigative RPG like Call of Cthulhu, but even for a D&D camopaign it could be a welcome change of pace.
However, a pirate’s treasure is a little stereotypical. So, what other things could get lost that are valuable enough that players could start looking for them?
As it turns out, there are many, many things:
- Keys or clues that lead to something else. (Bait and switch approach.)
- Coins – many of them are collectors’ items and thus are worth much more than their face or material value.
- Art objects, in the real world these are usually paintings.
- Music instruments. Think Stradivarius.
- Gems. Keep in mind that some valuable, named gems have not only elaborate histories, they are also sometimes said to be “cursed”, “unlucky”, “haunted”, or even to possess magic properties. For our purposes, such rumors could literally be true.
- First (or early) editions of famous classical works.
- Code ciphers needed to decrypt a secret message.
- Items of historic significance. The declaration of independence. The original draft constitution of your conrepublic. The banner of the king’s grandfather that was flown for 180 days while his castle held against overwhelming odds. Lead miniatures with which a famous conqueror planned his military campaigns. Some of these could have great practical significance in your constructed world, too. “Whoever holds the scepter of the seven kings shall rule over the kingdom. So it is written in the book of laws, and so it must be.”
- Illuminated religious tomes. Either for their historic or artistic value, or because they contain evidence that some people might want to keep hidden. In the Nine Gates, pages from a book are even used to open the gates to hell and summon Satan into the world. The Necronomicon is another classic example.
- Expensive wine
- Beer for which the recipe has been lost.
- Teddy Bears. I kid you not.
- Shipwrecks. These usually carry valuable cargo – and some have cultural significance. The search for the Titanic is a prime example.
- Crashed airplanes, as a modern variation of the above. The hunt could be for survivors if it’s a recent crash.
- Secret documents are an obvious item to look for – works in any setting, really, but it’s classic Cyberpunk or James-Bond-Spy-Adventure stuff.
- Lost nuclear warheads (Broken Arrow).
- Spaceships. This includes historic spacecraft (Liberty Bell 7), modern space ships for any reason (their cargo, the value they represent themselves, a rescue mission is a kind of treasure hunt too, or even alien technology if it’s a UFO). Alternatively, a space station or base. Such an object could be hidden in space, too, depending on your setting.
- In a post-apocalyptic world, the PCs could be searching for a lost seed vault.
- Every-day objects can be used as items the characters need to search. The treasure map in Tintin’s “Secret of the Unicorn” is hidden in the mast of a model ship. Hiding something in a hollowed-out book is already a trope. The British secret service once built a (working!) pipe that had hidden paper documents hidden inside it, and they also had a golf ball (that could be used) that had a compass inside it. The point is, you can hide important documents (magical gems, a dinosaur tooth, a piece of alien alloy) pretty much anywhere. And if one of these objects go missing, the PCs will have to retrieve it. Who else?
- Human remains. Imposters have a harder time nowadays, especially if someone still has living relatives, because of DNA testing. Back in the days – or in less advanced settings – finding the actual human remains of the prince / wealthy industrialist may be the only way to prove that this guy who suddenly showed up is not who he claims to be. Alternatively, the PCs could be sent on a search for the remains of someone important. To illustrate, Hitler’s remains were scattered to prevent that they could become a reliquary for Neo-Nazis. Now imagine you have a Weird World War II setting, or post-WW2, where magic actually works – some of said Neo-Nazis might hunt for some small remains of Hitler in the hopes of being able to summon his ghost – maybe even bind his spirit into the body of a living “volunteer”, suited to be a best match by whatever twisted criteria that might entail.
- Lost mines. The challenge here is that the object of the search is stationary and cannot be moved; the protagonists may find that it is on private land they need to secretly purchase, it may be in a national park where mining is now illegal, and/or they could get involved in a race against time to file a claim for the area.
- Famous memorabilia – Elvis’ wig, that sort of item.
- Watches. Some of these are valuable in and of themselves; in addition, they could also be custom-designed in that their mechanism triggers special events at a preset time and date that unlock clues to finding a greater treasure or secret.
Unsurprisingly, treasures and treasure hunting is also covered by many sites:
- Wikipedia has a short list of Lost Treasure.
- Lost Gold is another site which could provide good material for treasure hunting games.
- Geocaching is a modern type of treasure-hunting game that is played via GPS positioning. You might wish to read up on this for modern settings – plus, a harmless Geocaching game could turn into something lethally serious in your story when the protagonists discover something they were not meant to find.