Monday, July 8, 2013

Some thoughts on gold in D&D

The thing is, there is too much gold in D&D. When we started to use the Rules Cyclopedia for our game again, it soon became obvious that one group of adventurers is able to flood a towns economy up to a point were gold becomes rendered useless. There was just to much of it! How one is to solve that strongly depends on the setting you're playing in, I think. Here are some ideas about it.

Letting them kill a dragon could do this to a DM. It's just not fair.

Here is what happened and how I tried to deal with it

At first, we didn't give it much thought. I used the Random Treasure Tables provided by the Rules Cyclopedia. If it's in The Rules, they must have had a plan about stuff like that. Maybe it was partly my fault. Mortality is high in my games, but I had a few house rules in effect, that made it a bit less possible, so the characters survived most important encounters and had a chance to loot. It's how we saw the game: kill all the monsters and take their stuff. Like God Gygax had intended it to be.

First attempt: Make looting harder

Soon the characters had all the equipment they could need (and some more...) and too much gold to buy anything but a town. Admittedly, it was already to late. To make things worse, a Bag of Holding was part of the random loot once. So there is that. At first they got picky and later they just didn't care. I tried to counter react by making looting harder (with random encounters at least), letting them search for the lair (with the potential of another encounter) and all that. As I wrote above: not enough and too late. But I kept doing that in later games, because doing that from the start is still a good idea.

Carousing for the win!

I don't know if Jeff Rients was the first to have this idea, but his Carousing Mishap Table was the one that stuck with me. Let the characters party for xp and blow lots of gold in the process (in my opinion far superior to gold = xp). After I had the house rule in effect, where the damage a group dealt and received was the main source of xp, it was a very welcome addition. But the next problem followed in it's wake. It didn't take much time for the characters to flood the towns economy with gold. I mean, tens of thousands of gold pieces! The town didn't need that much money and  to make things worse, it grew suspicious of the characters having that much gold in the first place. Politicians wanted their share of it, decadence became a problem, envy and greed, too.

Again there was a need to change the game a bit. And not because that wouldn't have worked to solve the problem with the huge piles of gold, but it shifted the game from having a lucrative adventure location to harvest with an opportunity to blow money in the next town, to looking for the next big town (and they were scarce) and adventure from there (making the dungeon they were at the time a loose thread in the process).

A town in quarantine

The next shift in the campaign was locating the characters in a town under imperial quarantine. Gold was more or less useless here, the people had other problems (starvation and death, to name but two). The group had to improvise and trade to get what they need. Lifting the quarantine was paramount, the town was the adventure location (and a sandbox, at that). For a short time it was a good solution. The adventure was the main focus and equipment was important again. As a nice side effect, social interaction became important, too. It was a nice change of pace.

They would have been able to either lift the quarantine or destroy the town in the process. So sooner or later, I'd have had the same problems as before. This was just before I started to think about building an effective world engine and DMing the game as a sandbox. So again play shifted and only a few months ago we rebooted the campaign. New beginnings and all that. With a chance to do things right from the start, some concepts regarding gold in the game needed to be challenged.

Looting solutions

It's not a new problem and the OSR produced a lot of ideas about this. I know that. Chief among them is the idea to change the gold standard to silver. Well, chief among them is change. And that is not a bad thing, in doses. But what makes a good house rule? What not only changes the game to solve a problem, but changes the game for the better? What changes if they have 300.00 silver pieces instead of gold? Is it useful to make equipment more expensive or render it even more useless by giving it for free?

It is a matter of taste, of course. So here is what I'm about. We still use the Rules Cyclopedia. Level limit for humans is, as most of you are fully aware, 36 (with an option to go for immortality). It's the prime assumption and a big one, too. Even if the characters never reach that high, it is still part of the game and shapes the world. The game is also about civilizations fighting for survival* and that alone should be hard on a worlds economy. Of course there is a lot to loot in the ruins and that's just because of the scale and the the fact that it's in the aftermath of a huge cataclysm.

Morrowind and gold limits

But it also means, gold doesn't have the value it used to have in the days of yore. One way to solve this without recalculating the whole system would be to give shops limits, like Morrowind does. The ratio to do this could be something like, a level 1 merchant (using the system for indications) would have a gold limit of 500 gp, with at least a weak 1d3 weeks, if it's remote) time needed to get a new delivery of stuff (level 2 would be 1.000 gp, level 3 2.000, etc.). The settlement level I wrote about in my last post could give indications of number and level of merchants in any given town. NPC Reaction Tables would show if the merchant is ripping the players of or if he's giving them fair prices.

Regarding Magic items, I'd say those are special interest articles. A merchant (or the players) would need to find an interested party (for a fee, of course) and I as a DM should go the extra mile to see what people of note (politicians/criminals, high level magic users, etc.) would see an opportunity in characters getting too rich too fast.

I won't change equipment prices yet, but I did change the prices of armor (my reasoning may be found here). I believe it helped giving the armor characters wear a bit more attention. Being more expensive is just one aspect of making it more relevant in the game, I have to admit, but an important one.


There is a lot more to this. Bribes could be a more important part of the game. Big treasures always come with appendages or reprisals (Noircana and my last couple of posts go in that direction). If the characters have too much gold and don't know what to do with it, there's always someone in need of an army. They have a lot of magic items? Lot's of main players in the setting might want a piece of that action, not all of them willing to pay. The economic structure of a setting, at least in a sandbox, is always important and needs to be considered. And in the end it's vital that the changes to regulate that for a system are in-game changes, if possible without altering the main focus of going on adventure.

That's a lot of text again and I'm (a bit) sorry about that. But if some of you really took the time to read all that, I'd be interested in your opinions and experiences with gold in the game. What do you think is the best solution for this inflation? How did you solve it in your games?

*In striving civilizations adventurers would have a hard time going around, looting ruins. Every kingdom with the resources would have it's own crews of professionals doing that. I'd compare it with "hunting in the king's forest". Which leads to a whole new set of questions about how to structure a game. More bureaucracy, crime and taxes, so to say.


  1. Here's my preferred solution:

    - Players start the game with 1/10th as much gold.
    - The world is seeded with 1/10th as much treasure.
    - 1 gold piece is worth 10 XP.
    - Prices stay the same.

    I've only tried this in one game so far, which unfortunately broke apart before any players made it past 3rd level, but I liked the outcome a lot:

    - Starting equipment selection becomes a big deal. You've got 11 gold, what do you spend it on? The players have to make meaningful choices, not just tick off a shopping list.
    - The players start as hungry, broke desperadoes, exactly the sort of people you'd expect to go adventuring. Treasure had a real sense of value. Their first big score was a cause for genuine celebration.
    - By 2nd level, everyone was well-equipped, had some spare cash, and feeling pretty good about themselves, but there was still mundane equipment that was out of their reach. Warhorses cost 200+ gp apiece. Plate mail is 400 gp. You want a full knightly kit? Save wisely, and you can expect to afford it at 4th level.

    I was running a fairly lethal, high-treasure game, so the players leveled quite quickly. If it had been a slower game, it might have been frustrating in the beginning - in future I'll probably tweak the gold:XP ratio to suit whatever style we happen to be playing.

  2. Thanks, John! That sounds like a good solution to me. In our game this broke down with the group being around level 4 and I'd really like to know how far you could have pushed it with your idea! The only problem I can see with it, is that the players could switch from treasure hunting to collecting expensive mundane items to circumvent the 10%. But I really like the effects your describing (and maybe it's not that big a problem, because they level so fast and there is still enough treasure around...)!

    What I'd like to see more in my games, other than the effects you are describing, is that they value their possessions or have a personal connection to them. Especially with the more expensive items. For instance, if a horse dies, they should have a sense for what they lost and maybe thinking "I'll never get a horse like that again...". And not only because of the price. But if it's to easy to get stuff (even "only" at the higher levels), it's as easy to replace them. That's what I was talking about, when I mentioned "in-game solutions". Maybe it should be a choice of style, too? Like, those swords, they bought, are made by a very famous local smith and they had problems getting them, because that smith is picky and doesn't work for everyone?

    Hm. Another idea is to do it like in Cyberpunk. There beginning characters have only access to very crappy items. But if they borrow money by a corporation, they might have enough to get somewhere. They wouldn't be free to do what they want after that, of course. In a D&D game it could mean, beginning characters would have the option to seek for a sponsor. From that guy they could get equipment and weapons, but they are in debt and have to follow his suggestions what they had to achieve with this equipment. After 2 levels or so they should be able to clear the debt and buy their own equipment and do what they want...

  3. Interesting, I've never had this problem.

    Admittedly, I am a bit stingy about giving out actual GP. Usually I give out smaller coins(like you mentioned) or even better valuable items.

    Anyway, my advice: If your players have too much money, give them something to spend it on--the poor kids earned it!

    When I was running an OSRIC game the PCs spent a good deal of cash on custom-made silver equipment(and the smith demands a lot for custom jobs). In the WFRP game I'm currently running, extra cash was spent on explosives.

    Warhorses, fancy clothes, buy a house, build a castle, +1 equipment from a master swordsmith. Want to enter the joust--registration fee is 50GP, to keep the rabble out. Donating 1000GP to the royal treasury gets you a Duchy. The local wizard will take time out of his research to make you potions...for a hefty price.

    Admittedly, it's hard to do this in the scope of a single town. You probably want to build something like WFRP's Border princes where you create different settlements on the map and assign different artisans/markets to different locations. Then they have to travel to spend that hard-earned cash.

    1. Are you using some other system than XP for GP? Because in order to reach 4th level, the average party has to accumulate something like 40,000 gp, enough to enter 800 jousts, or buy 8 duchies apiece. Trying to bleed it off with fees and sales feels like fighting the tide with a bucket sometimes.

      Construction is expensive. Using the guidelines in the DMG, even a basic castle costs 30-35,000 gp. Using my system of 1 GP:10 XP each player should have about that much somewhere in their 9th level, which fits nicely, but you could always start domain building earlier. If you present the rules to the players, they'll probably make use of them. I can imagine a party gradually civilising the wilderness as they built roads and watchtowers and walled trading posts for their own benefit. Or maybe there's an incursive threat, and if the players want all their handy NPC contacts to stay alive, they'd better start building defences.

  4. @Billy - Of course I could just make things more expensive and I plan to make the characters pay more fees like you describe it, but, like John, I think it wouldn't help in the long run. The Random Treasure Tables need to be reworked, I guess. It would regulate things from one end. But my main problem with the arguments you're making, is that they don't fit (sound as they are) with a world after a major cataclysm, a civilization fighting for survival, threatened at every corner. Jousting as a sport isn't part of this, the high arts are lost knowledge and the economy is in ruins. At least that's what I'm aiming for. What you describe might well work for a setting with striving or even decadent cultures (with combat as sport and all that) and is a canonical version of D&D (Baldur's Gate comes to mind), but to work them into my setting would change it a great deal. Still have to get my hands on the Border Princes, though...

    So far - and thanks to the comments - I'd give more power to the Big Players and less power to the rest. Those making quality items are either working for the mighty or stuff of legend. In the beginnings players might have to choose their alliances very carefully, working their way up from there. Gold and Equipment will have other factors. A bit like Cyberpunk, a bit like Morrowind.

    @John - Making the domain game an important part of the experience is something I work on for my players and, of course, a good way to burn some treasure. And I agree, players should start working on that very early. Say, level 4 or 5.

    How did you handle Magic Items? If they pile up, it produces another problem of value vs. market...

    1. @JD: I've always been stingy with magic items. I seed a lot of one-shot charms and potions, but permanent items are pretty rare, powerful, and usually come with some significant drawback or curse, which would have made it difficult to find a buyer if they'd tried to sell them (which they never did). Also the players were kind of unlucky when it came to magic treasures. I think they ended up with a magic sword, a "chicken foot of fear", a semi-cursed luckstone, and a gem of seeing that could make you insane, plus a bunch of minor stuff.

    2. Ha! I'm starting to believe I've spoiled my players! Again, thanks for the comments, John. I really appreciate the perspective.