For a while now I have been wrestling with the problem of what to do about money. Economics is as profound a force on the world of Iourn as magic. Goods and services cost gold. Characters acquire gold and spend it on said goods and services. It’s not a difficult relationship to grasp, and it’s one that’s been at the heart of every published edition of D&D. Unfortunately, it’s also very dull.
As Neil recently commented, none of us play role-playing games to balance a budget. We get enough of that in the real world. While I am sure there are GMs and players who delight in the minutiae of the game, and feel a deep sense of joy when they spend 2 copper pieces on a bowl of watery soup. That degree of bean-counting has never really appealed to me. I think it’s time that could be better spent role-playing or moving the story along.
But goods still exist, and PCs will still want to buy them. Also, we should not understimate the value of a working economy. It adds depth and verisimilitude to a campaign if commerce actually makes logical sense. HD&D therefore needs a system that allows for the existence of a wider economy and that limits a character’s acquisition of items based on cost, but also a system that also does away with all this tiresome penny pinching.
Options for HD&D
Various different systems have been published to handle money in D&D. I’ll have a look at a few of them, and then give you details of my preferred solution. Before I begin, a quick aside on earnings. The average unskilled labourer earns the equivalent of 1 sp per day. Labourers don’t earn enough to live. They probably have to grow their own food to supplement their income.
The third edition DMG gives details of income for various types of hirelings. I have used this as a guide to find the average daily wage a character with the Craft or the Profession skill can hope to make. You’ll see details of those when the Skill System is finished. These details are largely designed to flesh out the world, and provide context for a character’s own wealth. Basically, they’re for NPCs, but there’s no reason why certain campaigns couldn’t see PC characters having to subsist on their basket weaving skill between adventures.
Now let’s have a look at the some of the options open to us:
The Mercantile System
This is the default system published in the second, third and fourth edition PHBs. The PC has a pot of money from which he buys things. Goods cost their listed value, and buying an item diminishes the money the PC can spend on other items. The PC replenishes their fortune by the usual means (working, stealing or good fortune). It’s a perfectly acceptable system, but it becomes rather a chore to record every little purchase.
An option from p130 of the 3.5 DMG, rules for Upkeep appear in various forms across a number of roleplaying games. You pick a social standing : Self Sufficient, Meager, Poor, Common, Good or Extravagant. Then, every month, you pay a certain amount of gold to maintain that standard of living. Being Extravagant costs you 200 gp per month, under the third edition rules. Upkeep pays for food, lodgings, taxes, clothing and so on. It doesn’t pay for anything that you would need to outfit an adventurer with. You would still pay for that as you would in the Mercantile system.
The problem with Upkeep is that it doesn’t work well for adventurers. “We’ve been crossing the endless desert for the last seventeen weeks! Why am I still paying 200 gp per month for my ‘lavish meals’?”
The Abstract System
Abstract systems don’t bother to assign prices to items. Your character has a credit rating (or similar mechanic) that allows him to buy some items, and denies him access to others. The d20 Modern game has an abstract system. You can appreciate why: set in the modern day the PCs have resourses such as overdrafts, loans, mortgages and credit cards that aren’t available in a medieaval setting. Only the most insane GM would want to get involved in calculating the compound interest on a PC’s loans between sessions, so an abstract system is a welcome alternative.
You can read the d20 Modern Wealth System over at the System Reference Documents website. It makes for interesting reading. In short: all goods have a Purchase DC. The player makes a Wealth Check against that DC, if it succeeds then he buys the item, if it fails then he doesn’t have the cash. As I said: abstract.
None of the three options above really work for me. They are either too exacting, inappropriate or too woolly for my taste. My solution (as always) is to plough the middle ground.
The HD&D Wealth System
I don’t pretend that the following is an original idea. It came to me fully formed, which probably means I read it somewhere and cannot remember the source. The Wealth System seeks to strike a balance between a fully mercantile system, and something entirely abstract, such as the offering from d20 Modern.
In HD&D characters obtain, accrue and spend money just as they would in a standard mercantile system. However, items under a certain price are considered too insignificant to bother worrying about. A character’s Wealth is defined as all the money that he is currently carrying on his person. We divide Wealth by 100 to find a character’s Credit Rating. A character can automatically buy any item that is valued at his Credit Rating or less without diminishing his wealth. If he wants to buy something that is worth more than his Credit Rating, then the cost of the item comes from his Wealth total. The Credit Rating would then be recalculated at a lower value.
For example: Nicos has plundered the horde of the green dragon, Vaprissar, and currently has 11,000 gp on his person. His Wealth is therefore 11,000 gp. This means that he can pick up any item that costs 110 gp (11,000 ÷ 100 = 110) from the various equipment lists without diminishing his total wealth. Nicos could go and buy eight riding horses, each costing 75 gp, and his Wealth would still be 11,000 gp.
Unfortunately, in gaining this treasure Nicos has flash-fried his good buddy Arvan. Feeling guilty, Nicos decides what he really needs to do is buy a scroll of <i>reincarnation</i>. Such a scroll costs 1700 gp, which is obviously more than Nicos’s Credit Rating. The cost of the scroll comes from Nicos’s Wealth (11,000 – 1700 = 9300 gp). Because Nicos’s Wealth is now 9300 his credit rating is recalculated, and it is now 93 gp (9300 ÷ 100 = 93).
It is possible for a character to have a vast fortune, but not be able to access all of it. For example, by all accounts Elias is very wealthy. He has his own kingdom (it’s a pretty crappy kingdom, but it’s a kingdom nonetheless). However, he doesn’t have his nation’s wealth in his personal pocket book. Wealth is the amount of gold that is currently on your person, not all the money sitting in your treasure horde ten thousand miles away.
Just as items valued your Credit Rating or less don’t decrease your Wealth when they are purchased; if you sell any items valued your Credit Rating or less, your Wealth does not increase. So Nicos could sell 75 gp riding horses until the sun grew cold, but it wouldn’t increase his 11,000 gp fortune.
The main check on the wealth system is the availability of items. A potion of cure light wounds costs 50 gp, which is less than Nicos’s Credit Rating. However, this is not to say that Nicos could simply stock up on an infinite number of potions. There’s no guarantee that all these items are going to be available. Ideally, all items on the equipment list should have an “availabilty %” that the GM could modify to take account of circumstances. This seems rather formal, but otherwise it’s up to the GM to say: “No, they only have six potions: that’s all you can have” – which seems a bit arbitrary and open to disagreement.
Critique of the Wealth System
The Wealth system is a cheat: it’s a short-cut and a convenience. It also relies on players following the spirit of the rules. There are ways to break the system, and gain an unfair game advantage. A character could amass a number of items of equal value to his Credit Rating, then make a large purchase so his Wealth fell. The purchased items are now worth more than the character’s new credit rating, so they can be sold and the proceeds added to a character’s Wealth. I’m sure that cunning players can think of many other ways around the rules.
But that’s not really the point. If we’re in a campaign where the buying and selling of goods become the focus of the party’s activities then we’re better off using the Mercantile system. In fact, there’s no reason why we can’t swap between a Wealth system and a Mercantile system within the same campaign if the need arises.
The Wealth system formalises what I’ve always done in the game, which is generally ignore minor purchases but make the character’s pay for expensive investments. However, without formal mechanics I always felt that I was being rather arbitrary when I demanded a character pony up the cash. After all, I have never made a big deal of handing out money or treasure, so it seems a bit unfair to demand characters to buy anything.
The Wealth system also makes it easier to manage spell components. Most components – bat guano, gum arabic, iron filings – are cheap enough to be under a wizard’s Credit Rating. This means that wizards only have to worry about being able to afford the expensive spell components.
I do foresee that the Wealth system may not be entirely appropriate for the obscenely wealthy. A character with a wealth of 100,000 gp would have a Credit Rating of 1000 gp, which would effectively allow him to buy more or less anything in the game. Maybe a ceiling on the Credit Rating of about 500 gp might be appropriate. Equally, this system is dependent upon me actually handing out cash to the party: something I have not been particularly assiduous about in the past.