Monday, November 1, 2021

Classic Vs. Treasure, Part 1

All Illustrations are
Howard Pyle's from 1883 - 1921

TREASURE TROUBLE
One aspect of Dungeon Crawl play that All Dead Generations hasn’t covered in any detail is treasure. This is an oversight, because treasure, like exploration, like encounters, and like combat is an important element of fantasy RPGs and especially important to the older style of play that All Dead Generations discusses. When we consider how treasure works in fantasy RPGs it usually seems fairly simple, even in Classic games - pick up the treasure and bring it back to civilization for experience and leveling. It is this simple, this is the gist of treasure in Classic fantasy RPGs -- pure reward ... but like everything else in the interconnected edifice of Classic play treasure presents its own complexities that interact with various important procedures and mechanics. Unfortunately the way treasure is structured in most classic systems makes it less of a reward and more of a chore, eating up play time with logistics and calculation.

The Function of Treasure
First, recovered treasure is the Classic player’s metric of success. Even in Classic rule sets that provide experience for defeating or killing monsters (something I dislike as it sends confusing messages about the goals of exploration), the majority of characters’ experience will come from the treasure recovered in the dungeon. Random treasure generation has been a mainstay of Referee preparation since the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons however, and it has an enduring appeal because imagining treasure is delightful - it’s a space where wonder can enter RPGs, this alone makes it valuable. Yet, these formative random treasure systems, as found in all early Dungeons & Dragons, reject wonder. Despite the gambling style fun of rolling up random hoards, random treasure has been largely unvariegated mass of coinage.

There are mechanical reasons for these coin hoards, coins are far easier to generate randomly and far easier to track encumbrance for. Dungeons & Dragons has also long used coin based encumbrance, with characters able to carry a few thousand coin weight (it varies by edition and represents a failure point for early dungeon crawl mechanics - see below). This ease couples well with the gambling appeal of random treasure generation, and the random “treasure types” that appeared in the 1970’s white box have endured appeal, despite most older editions cautioning against coin hoards for various reasons. However, even when a designer or referee doesn’t use random generation or design advice cautions against it the treasure tables set the standard and expectation of what treasure looks like in Dungeons & Dragons, and from there fantasy adventure as a genre.

More influentially random treasure generation in early editions of Dungeons & Dragons provide guidance about the expected speed of character advancement. For example, if the party defeats a dragon in 1981 Basic D&D and takes its hoard they will find the glorious Treasure Type H, worth an average of 50,000 GP. This of course isn’t really a linear challenge system as even the relatively weak six Hit Die White Dragon has such a hoard, while the much more dangerous saber tooth tiger (big cats are absolute terror beasts in Basic) they will get only a few hundred gold from its paltry Treasure Type V (or more likely nothing - the chances of having even d100 GP is 10%). Still, Treasure Types and random coin hoards are the main way that early editions offer referees and home designers a means of visualizing the rewards of successful adventuring and so provides clear metrics for pacing and level advancement.

Yet, treasure should be more than coins. Coins are a simple game currency that characters can exchange on a 1 of 1 basis for experience points, but “treasure” is, like fantastic locations and strange creatures, a concept that offers up the excitement of fantasy. Yet I won’t suggest abandoning random treasure generation in favor of inventing unique treasure caches as part of adventure preparation, perhaps lovingly describing each valuable object after reviewing the online collection of the British Museum for inspiration. This is time consuming fun, but it neglects an important element that makes coin hoards useful -- coin hoards work perfectly with early Dungeons & Dragons coin based encumbrance system to create complications and allow players to make informed judgments about the relative value of specific treasures.

The coin system is still of course dull, but it need not be as it’s easy to expand and cover a wider variety of treasure with minimal change, once one recognizes its mechanical basis and if one is willing to set aside some of the implied setting it creates.

The Mechanics of Treasure
While I may emphasize “wonder” as an aspect of treasure, that part of the delight in recovering it for Referees is the chance to describe luxurious and glorious riches and part of the delight of players is hearing such items described and imagining owning them, the mechanics of treasure are far more prosaic. Treasure is a reward allowing character advancement in Classic systems and it impacts the game mechanically via two properties: Value and Weight. The major difficulty with bespoke lists of treasure is that they don’t interact with this second property smoothly.

Value: Treasure has a Gold Piece value that translates directly into Experience Point Value. The Gold Piece value need not represent a gold piece or even a coin, but really it’s a point of experience and an in-game currency that the character can trade for various benefits. This concept I’ll describe as “Value”, so it doesn’t get confused with fictional Gold Pieces (GP).

Weight: Unrelated to Value, but may greatly impact the amount of interest or value players place on a specific treasure -- if one is using encumbrance rules. Encumbrance rules are close to necessary for Classic Dungeon Crawl play, because they control player access to supplies, and also determine how much treasure they party can obtain in a single expedition. A treasure with low value for its weight (traditionally copper or silver coins) is one that players may be reluctant to collect or happy to discard for something of a greater Value to Weight ratio (gold or copper coins).

Looking at the treasure tables and encumbrance rules in the 1981 Moldvay Basic book we can figure out the value to weight ratio for various types of coins very easily. Let’s assume that each character or retainer can carry 1,000 coins in treasure in addition to their 600 coins of equipment. Obviously this amount may vary based on edition or character loadout and loading oneself up completely is always risky -- encumbered characters have trouble fleeing and will face a greater number of random encounter checks due to sluggish movement. At 1,000 coins each type of treasure (conveniently coins appear in 1,000’s on the Treasure Type Tables) has a very specific value to weight ratio.


Coin Type                 Value per 1,000             Weight Value/Weight
Copper Pieces                    10                                  1/100
Silver Pieces                       100                                1/10
Electrum Pieces                 500                                1/2
Gold Pieces                        1,000                              1/1
Platinum Pieces                5,000                              5/1


Coin hoards and weight tie treasure and its recovery directly into the core risk v. reward calculations of exploration. The need to move large amounts of treasure out of the dungeon environment and to make decisions about when to retreat and with what are meaningful and impact play - determining session length and offering the greater tension/risk of retreating encumbered through the dungeon to bring out more treasure -- a test of navigation, luck and resource management.

Coins serve to make this sort of risk easier to adjudicate and often immediately evident to the players. A cache of silverware is a different proposition then 1,000 silver pieces. While both are easily divided and easy to visualize the coins still offer players instant information about weight and value -- this is a treasure that will encumber one party member for the reward of 100 XP. The silverware is easier to translate into these terms, but it requires the referee or designer to specifically remember to add weight and the players to guess the value (though most Referees will offer it, and it certainly seems like something thieves should know.

Coin hoards can be simplified even more as a game element. Rather than thinking of these ‘pieces’ as coins or even noble metal, one can look at them purely from a mechanical perspective. A load of 1,000 GP is worth 1,000 XP, or approximately ½ a level to a first level character. The load of CP, all that the character is likely to carry out, is worth 10 XP.

A Return to Wonder
Obviously in a game where there are constraints on carrying capacity and where traversing the dungeon is itself dangerous gold is a much more tempting treasure then copper. These considerations aren’t very wondrous, but in this bland arithmetic one has the calculations that make treasure discovery more than just an accounting of rewards, and also open up the possibility of reinserting more exciting treasure into the treasure table.

Heavy and low value treasure (or encumbering high value treasure at mid and high levels) is interesting even as a hoard of coins because it places demands on the players - how to transport it from the dungeon environment back to civilization. 100,000 silver pieces is worth 10,000 XP, but it’s 100 loads and so trips to and from the hoard to civilization. If the dungeon holding this silver cache is still inhabited the party will need to figure out how to protect their treasure and either themselves or hired porters, or perhaps a mule train while they remove it.

Since each type of coinage has the secondary element of weight, and with it a relative value based around the ease of recovery, the coin classifications are already varied, and each type can stand for a variety of valuables with different individual weights, but a rough collective value. Low value coins can stand for lower value treasure such as grain or heavy unwieldy items such as furniture and raw metals. Higher value coins in turn can be replaced by luxuries and art work. Obviously not all decor is worth much, and a ratty old carpet may be worthless, but many items that fit more naturalistically into an adventure location can become treasures worthy of a half line of description.

Copper: hides (untanned), raw textiles (carded wool, baled cotton, combed linen), ingots/bars (copper, iron, tin, lead), lumber, furniture, simple tools (axes, shovels etc), provisions (grain, fresh food), housewares/utensils (pots and pans), simple drink (ale, cider, rough wine), building stone statuary (basalt idols, select shattered statue parts), decayed or antique armaments,

Silver: leather, clothing/cloth (wool, cotton, or linen), ingots/bars (silver, steel), exotic wood, fancy furniture, craftsman’s tools/instruments, preserved food (fruits, dried or potted meat, iron rations, cooking oils), drink (wine, mead), decorative stone/metal statuary (marble busts, bronze figurines), common arms and armaments (rather then calculating the value of each weapon or piece of equipment),

Electrum: furs (wolf, bear, fox, otter), fine clothing/cloth (silk, velvet, embroidered or brocaded), carved wooden artifacts, inlaid and carved furniture, delicacies (jellies, jams, candies, honey), spirits, decorative carving (bone inlays, raw ivory), quality paintings and frescoes on wood panel, quality carpets and tapestries, Common books/scroll/texts (unless printing is common in your setting).

Gold: fine furs (beaver, lynx, mink, lion), ingots/bars (gold), fine instruments (lens, fine machinery, medical/magical instruments, musical instruments), fine drink (fancy spirits, fine wine), fine decorative carvings (alabaster and obsidian carvings, silver idols), rare or illuminated texts, decorated or fine mundane armaments, painting and engravings.

Platinum: exotic or monstrous furs and hides, regal clothing/cloth (cloth of gold, beaded, pearled), ingots (magical metals), exotic intoxicants (poppy tar, colored lotus, vampire dust etc.), masterful decorative carving (gem studded thrones, golden figurines, crystal orbs), masterful paintings.


These lists are not exhaustive, and require more specific description then a coin hoard. Others have or will do this work, this is a theory blog, and there are already tables on old blogs to help you figure out what sort of laboratory glass and alabastrons full of exotic perfume your characters have discovered. These sorts of treasures are also likely to be far more setting and location specific. Regardless, to make a hoard using these lists, the Referee will likely need to do a bit more work, either in designing each hoard or perhaps a location based sub-table. This is always the case when adding more detail however, and with treasure a bit more time and detail is warranted to help your players enjoy their victories.

 Wonder, Weight, and Problems

Despite its importance and utility, there are difficulties with how treasure is presented in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons. They aren't immediately obvious, but I suspect they have exerted a steady, subtle influence on treasure recovery that sidelines it and ultimately led to the near abandonment first of encumbrance, then of treasure based experience, and ultimately in 5th edition treasure as a meaningful part of play (though heroic, novelistic narratives push for this as well.)

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax agrees with the idea that treasure is best as a wondrous and naturalistic part of setting. In B/X it's also mentioned that treasure should vary beyond coin hoards, but Gygax's example is quite illustrative. He presents an example of treasure that is both more varied than simple coins, but also flavorful and appropriate to the scenario her creates to justify it:

“A pair of exceedingly large, powerful and ferocious ogres has taken up abode in a chamber at the base of a shaft which gives to the land above. From here they raid both the upper lands and the dungeons roundabout. These creatures have accumulated over 2,000 g.p. in wealth, but it is obviously not in a pair of 1 ,000 g.p. gems. Rather, they have gathered an assortment of goods whose combined value is well in excess of two thousand gold nobles (the coin of the realm). Rather than stocking a treasure which the victorious player characters can easily gather and carry to the surface, you maximize the challenge by making it one which ogres would naturally accrue in the process of their raiding. There are many copper and silver coins in a large, locked iron chest. There are pewter vessels worth a fair number of silver pieces. An inlaid wooden coffer, worth 100 gold pieces alone, holds a finely wrought silver necklace worth an incredible 350 gold pieces! Food and other provisions scattered about amount to another hundred or so gold nobles' value, and one of the ogres wears a badly tanned fur cape which will fetch 50 gold pieces nonetheless. Finally, there are several good helmets (used as drinking cups), a bardiche, and a two-handed sword (with silver wire wrapped about its hilt and a lapis lazuli pommel to make it worth three times its normal value) which complete the treasure. If the adventurers overcome the ogres, they must still recognize all of the items of value and transport them to the surface.” --  Dungeon Masters Guide pg. 92

It’s entirely possible to take Gygax’s advice, to invent varied hoards that fit organically with their location and the rationale for their presence. It’s a great example even. The hoard includes a believable assortment: a few choice items, and some coinage, but also furs, equipment, household goods and foodstuffs. Yet it also loses a couple of important elements to a randomly generated coin hoard: the excitement and ease of random generation and an easy way to determine the encumbrance value of the items it contains. Yes, Gygax mentions that by making the treasure more difficult to move it will “maximize the challenge”, but he fails to provide instructions on how to reasonably do that. There are no weights listed for the coffers and goods, silver vessels, and fur capes. No hint to the players and Referee, beyond intuition that gems and jewelry are worth more than slabs of salt pork, as to what treasure to grab immediately and what treasure to recover only if it's easy.

Complicated by wondrous treasure, or brought to the fore with a coin hoard, encumbrance itself is a well defined set of mechanics, linked to coinage. In both Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, coins are themselves the primary measure of weight. Weight limits by coin weight for three early editions - including an estimated weight remaining after equipment: “Treasure Weight” - are as follows:

1970’s “White Box”
Max Weight: 3,000 Coins
Average Treasure Weight: 2,000 Coins

1979 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Max Weight: 1,050 or 1,500 Coins
Average Treasure Weight 450 or 1,000 Coins*

1981 Moldvay Basic

Max Weight: 1,600 Coins
Average Treasure Weight: 1,000 Coins

*[Note: As with all things in AD&D, the Encumbrance system is unwieldy, confusing, split between multiple tomes and badly referenced. Character encumbrance has a base maximum of either #105 in the Player’s Handbook, which converts per the DMG to 1,050 coins, for a STR of 8-10 -- as described in the Player’s Handbook where a minimum is listed as 750 coins and maximum (STR 18/00) is 4,050. Alternatively there’s a small note in the Dungeon Master’s guide that says average encumbrance is 1,500 coins (though it’s confusing because none of the STR calculations in the PHB reach this number - closest is for STR 16 or 17). Use whichever you like - because if you’re playing AD&D RAW you’ll clearly be too busy to worry about exploration because you'll be trying to judge which other varied contradictory rules to use and deciding on which polearm to carry.]

What does this mean though?

Beside noting that the amount of treasure a character (or henchman) can carry goes down fairly dramatically between the Original Dungeons & Dragons and later editions, exacerbating the problem of treasure recovery, it's worth thinking through the implications of these encumbrance limits.

In the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules characters are capable of carrying a maximum of 1,600 coins worth of weight, and usually far less because they will be toting around 400 - 800 coins worth of equipment. A simple calculation indicates that even in the best of circumstances, 2,000 coins of treasure represents a significant logistical difficulty for a small party, and as Gygax suggests, treasure should rarely be found in rolled gold coins. 1,000 Gold Pieces equals 1,000 XP, but in lesser coins the weight is far greater, 2,000 coin weight in electrum, 10,000 is silver and 100,000 Copper Pieces.

Random treasure hoards of early editions often contain thousands of coins -- huge ungainly mounds of low value metal. For example, Basic Dungeons & Dragons' goblin lairs, a mainstay of low level play, will contain Treasure Type C or around 1,000 GP worth of treasure on average. Coins will be copper or silver, up to 12,000 in copper (a whole 120 GP/XP). This goblin hoard will take several mules to carry - which is perhaps the most important aspect of this sort of treasure -- it’s incredibly inconvenient for the party to remove. If one is playing with encumbrance, and it’s almost necessary for a solid dungeon crawl experience, moving 12,000 copper pieces is unlikely to be worth the risk and the coin hoard makes it very clear in a way that a more varied and interesting collection of treasure wouldn’t.

In play this means that randomly rolled treasure often is often a logistical problem, and with the exception of gems and jewelry, become an impediment to continued adventuring when discovered in amounts that provide meaningful experience. When played using the "Rules as Written" for treasure and encumbrance leveling is slow, being that it takes approximately 10,000 XP to raise a five member party to level two. That's ten average goblin lairs, each filled with dozens of goblins, and assumes the party takes the time to move huge piles of copper.

If rewards come at the end of the session the planning for treasure recovery becomes even less sustainable, but treasure weight always threatens to make rewards into burdens for the players, taking up a larger and larger share of play as the piles of heavy coins and experience point needs grow into the 10’s and 100’s of thousands. Playing with these older rules, forced to constantly abandon coin hoards or repeat elaborate logistical efforts, then managing the deflating arithmetic to convert your 20,000 copper and 4,000 silver coins into 100 XP per party member (or 66 after each of the 5 henchman who helped carry it get a ½ share), is discouraging. Doing this each time treasure is discovered makes treasure uninteresting, a chore, and one suspects it leads to reliance on other XP systems (combat or milestone) and/or the abandonment of encumbrance rules.

Much of the problem with treasure recovery is tuning and complexity. Older systems are designed with longer (8-10 hour) sessions and longer campaigns as an ideal, but early Dungeons & Dragons also often seems to rely on its players sharing a love of logistics and the war game like tracking of distance and time. I don't think either of these are necessary to make treasure and encumbrance matter, but I also know that many players don't have even the minimal love of logistics and supply that I do.

Fixing the Weight and Value Issue

Some of the issues involved in treasure weight and recovery can be managed by abandoning the random treasure table and rethinking treasure placement.  If you want players to advance at a faster or slower pace, manage the amount and type of treasure provided.  Likewise, if a difficult treasure recovery is a scenario that one only wants to play on occasion, include most treasure in portable forms. These are table by table, and dungeon design solutions however.  Changes to mechanics can also help.

As an alternative to the complexity of coin/lb based encumbrance slot based encumbrance is always a viable option. There’s several way to determine how many slots one has, but I assume that using most slot systems the average equipped adventurer has 10 slots remaining for treasure.  How much value each of these slots can hold is the biggest factor in how treasure recovery will effect play.

To help use slots it’s also worth noting that randomly generated coin hoards don’t really exist as individual coins but come in 1,000 coin bundles, each roughly akin to a full load (though they shouldn’t be) for an equipped adventurer. These treasure bundles in turn have values of a fraction of an experience level. If one considers the copper and silver hoard above - 500 GP/XP and 24 loads - it’s not a very good ratio if characters are meant to level from recovering such hoards.

Slots aren't the only way to do this, what's important is breaking the 1 to 1 to 1 relationship between coin weight, coin value and experience. Another solution is to simply increase the value to weight ratio by replacing coins as a measure of weight. Pounds or kilograms can be used instead, and a pound of copper coins given a value of 10 GP and silver 100 GP. With the ability to carry an extra 50 lbs the adventurers could easily cart out the copper hoard described above. Using slots it’s similar, simply define a slot as holding a “purse” of up to 1,000 coins. I also allow characters an encumbrance free “purse” for the first 1,000 coins.

I prefer slot encumbrance for other reasons as well, it's simplified nature makes encumbrance more likely to be used in play, and when it comes to treasure remove the burden of having to determine variable weights for each non-coin treasure discovered.  Of course the coin value and weight substitutions for various commodities described above remain useful for collections of similar treasure, but slots remove much of the fussy book keeping aspect of encumbrance while retaining most of its impact.

With the value and weight issues discussed, Part 2 of this post will be able to focus on the theoretical underpinning of treasure as well as how the process of recovering it can be facilitated in play and made a more fulfilling part of the game.

5 comments:

  1. Ha! I was just settling down to write a blog post about treasure (well, "consumption" really) when I read this. Good stuff.

    Your re-skinning of coin hoards ("Return to Wonder") is good stuff, and a logical extrapolation of Gygax's advice in the DMG. Lots of precious objects are possible "treasure" in D&D, and yet the only things found on the treasure tables are coins, magic, and occasional "jackpot" items (gems & jewelry). I drew the conclusion some time ago that DMs should simply use these coin piles as GP Value-to-Weight ratios (GPV=XP) and treat them as such. Your lists are rather nice and succinct.

    Not sure if you are familiar with my Arabian Nights heartbreaker, Five Ancient Kingdoms...I rewrote the treasure tables as "hoard types" that simply produce a value in gold dinars (5AK's equivalent of the GP). Each hoard is then divided into three categories of treasure:

    - Bulky (1# weight to 10gd value)
    - Portable (1# weight to 100gd value)
    - Precious (1# weight to 1000gd value)

    "Bulky" consists of commodities, trade goods, etc. "Portable" includes coins and items made of precious metals. "Precious" include gems, jewelry, rare and exotic spices, etc. Weight generally includes the weight of any containers as well (chests, casks, boxes, etc.).

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    1. I have heard of your Arabian Knights game - heard it was good, but never picked it up. I'll do so now for sure.

      I note that (assuming your PCs can lift more then 1 or 2#) your treasure categories also solve the inability to carry a meaningful amount of coinage/treasure unless it's jewelry. A good fix, well worth using instead of the old coin based weights.

      I remember long ago some blog had a whole series of posts on treasures of all kinds - carpets and vases, pottery and furniture that went pretty deep into detailing stuff. Counldn't find it for this post, but I think there's so much more to be done with setting defining treasure tables.

      Now I just have to write the next post about how to deal with players who constantly chisel art off the dungeon walls or steal copper pipes and the heads of monumental statuary like meth fiend squatters... I mean treasure placement. That's what I'll call it.

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    2. Right on. The print version is (I believe) sold out at the moment, but you can get PDFs of the volumes from DriveThru. Book 3 has the treasure charts, though actual encumbrance rules are, I believe found in Book 1 (at least, so far as it affects PC movement rates).

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  2. I was thinking that besides the coin/weight ratio logistics problem (e.g. focus on lighter, wondrous items instead of hordes of weighty copper coins), would you say that finding someone to buy all these wondrous/exclusive items off the players is also part of the Classic play? For instance, bringing back a small but luxurious figurine from the deepest depths of the dungeon to the small nearby town, only to find out that no one can afford it? (I.e. the player's are carrying delayed experience points in their inventory, so to say.)
    (It's quite possible you addressed this is in the text, English isn't my first language so I may very well have missed it! Maybe that's for part 2?)

    In any case, I very much enjoyed reading this.

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    1. I likely should touch on treasure usage in havens in the next post.

      I don't know how much any of this is part of the original early play style - modification and improvement of procedural dungeon crawling are something I'm more interested in then nostalgia or rediscovery. I touch on it a little bit in this post, but the way treasure is handled in early systems is somewhat unsatisfying forcing complex logistical scenarios more often then I'd like (and given the prevalence of bags of holding, perhaps more often then the players and designers in early games liked either), I think this also gets to your question about the sale of treasure.

      From a certain logical position it should be hard to sell treasure in the sorts of broken hamlets and tumbled down thorps that most D&D adventures use as starting towns (well most of mine at least)- gems and art objects require both capital and interest in luxury to sell that's going to be lacking in the beet farming center of Cessditch.

      Yet the aim of play that I support is dungeon adventure, making contact with gem markets and art collectors, managing letters of credit and deflation or the taxation rights of the various powers that want part of any "trove" you discover (the law of treasure troves goes back to classical times and it's pretty complex, varied and punitive). Like the logistics of removing 5 tons of copper coinage (1,000 GP worth of Gygax's CP)from a pit, I don't really want to spend much time on treasure sales in game. Most of the time treasure is going to be portable and I will allow players to easily convert it into what they want to do in the game world. After all, players that actually have ideas for spending their treasure once they get the best equipment they can find are a wonderful addition to a campaign.

      Yet, like logistics, the difficulties of finding a buyer for something might itself be a neat adventure hook. A special artifact might be worth 1,000 GP if sold to whoever it is that buys treasure, but 10,000 to the right collector and finding that collector could be reason to make a long journey if it's explicitly laid out as a way to gain extra XP. Plus variety and hooks are always good and "The cult of the golden emperor will pay 50,000 GP for Saint Scrill's hand returned to their shrine house in Distantburg" makes for a hell great a hook.

      So in moderation? With planning? Hells yeah. Day to Day it's not worth the extra effort.

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Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...