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The root of all evil: This is part of series of five posts concerning how we handle rewards, wealth, money and equipment in the game. The other posts are on Making Magic Items, Treasure, the Cost of Living and Experience. You can read them in any order, but you might want to read them all before commenting.
Iourn is a low-magic setting. There is no trade in magical items. This makes perfect economic sense, but flies in the face of the official rules that expect PCs to be able to trade, buy and make magical items and mundane gear to augment their characters. Let’s be clear: this augmentation isn’t optional. If you don’t have the right bonuses in the right areas you won’t be able to punch your weight in combat. Encounters will be too hard. You’ll die more often. Dogs and cats will start living together. Bad times.
There are many things I can do to alleviate the pressure on PCs caused by the low-magic economy. Very few changes to the published rules are required. But I’m not going to talk about my intentions, or the rules, in this post. Instead I wanted to take a little time to justify why a trade in magical items doesn’t make any sense for Iourn and why we need to address this.
The Money Supply
Everything in the Pathfinder game has a gold piece value. As characters adventure, they earn gold pieces (or items of equivalent gold piece value). They need to have earned a certain amount of wealth at any given experience level or they won’t have the items, or the purchasing power to gain items, necessary to enable them to succeed in level-appropriate adventures. The amount of wealth is shown on the Character Wealth by Level table. Have a good look at that, we’ll be coming back to that table in successive posts.
Those of you who are tempted to point out that this whole system is a jolly silly way of doing things should stay your typing finger. I agree with you. This wasn’t the approach in 1st or 2nd edition. It won’t be the approach in 5th. But in 3rd edition and in Pathfinder it is the way things work. Our Pact of Minimal Tinkering does not allow for wholesale jiggery-pokery of the wealth system. We’re just going to have to suck it up, and learn to live with it.
So: back to character wealth by level. Now, I don’t doubt that PCs need access to magical equipment that has a listed market price in line with the gold piece values in that table. The power of magic items is measured in gold pieces, and therefore more expensive items are more appropriate for high-level characters. I don’t have a problem with PCs finding items of that power. However, when it comes to buying items (or even making them) we run into problems. In those situations you have to envisage the PC as having that much gold in his pocket, and merchants to have sufficient gold in their tills to pay the correct rate for items that are for sale.
That’s never going to be case because, frankly, there just aren’t enough gold pieces in existence to allow for this happen.
Let’s look at the wider economy. What’s the most expensive mundane thing you think a stupidly affluent mediaeval bod would want to purchase? Is it warship? A castle? In the Pathfinder rules a fully equipped warship costs 25,000 gp. I can’t find any prices for a castle, but if we refer back to the Stronghold Builders Guidebook (2002) then a normal keep will set you back about 70,000 gp.
Compare those prices to the cost of magic items. Setting aside potions and scrolls, the prices of magic items are astronomical. A lowly +1 longsword costs 2315 gp according to the rules. You could buy eleven of them, or your could buy a warship! A +5 holy avenger has a market price of 120,630 gp. A ring of regeneration costs 90,000 gp. A staff of power is 235,000 gp. Seriously… you could buy a staff of power or build three castles and still have enough money left over for a nice little hunting lodge with mountain views.
Let’s step out of the game and look at this with our real-world eyes. Our own history is replete with kings and rulers desperate to try and raise money for what they wanted to do – be it defend their country from attack, or raise an army to wage war. Those rulers couldn’t raise enough in tribute and taxes to maintain a standing army, to have the freedom to build a navy, or to build defensive castles. They needed to beg, borrow and compromise to raise the cash. This is not your common man on the street having these cash-flow issues: this is the king!
If kings need to go to such lengths to raise money for all their mundane expenses, then they certainly don’t have the cash to fritter it away on high-priced magic items. A ring of regeneration is handy to have, but if there’s a choice between making that and outfitting a battalion then a wise monarch only has one choice. And if kings don’t have enough disposable cash, what would be the effect of a PC having it? What happens when the PC with 300,000 gp in his pocket rides into town? Economic chaos, that’s what!
The Trade in Magic Items
This is why a trade in magic items, as detailed in the Pathfinder rulebooks, simply doesn’t work. You can’t introduce that many gold pieces into a mediaeval economy. There probably aren’t enough coins in existence to allow for this sort of trade to exist. Logically, you can’t have a shop in a town that sells items for hundreds of thousands of gp, while the king in the palace down the road finds it hard to raise tens of thousands of gp.
Who exactly is going to buy these items? And how would you make a living from selling them? Think about it: you run a magic item shop. You have a holy avenger in the window that you know is work 120,000 gp. No-one in the kingdom, not even the king, has that kind of money. If you sold it you would be made for life, but no-one can afford it. So you sell cheap items (potions and scrolls) in the hope of one day shifting the high-ticket item… and in the meantime you hope no-one steals it.
But what about the wizard who makes magic items and then sells them on at a profit? The rules say that a holy avenger costs 60,000 gp to make and sells for 120,000 gp. Instant profit, right? Well, no. Instant bankruptcy and probably starvation. How do you raise 60,000 gp? That’s two and a half of the finest warships artisan shipwrights can produce. A monarch would probably have to increase taxes or marry off a daughter in order to raise that money, so how’s Elminster going to do it? The answer is that he’s not. He would never be able to raise the money to make the sword in the first place – and even if he did, no-one would be able to afford to buy it.
What does this mean for the game?
The game assumes that PCs find an unending amount of wealth in the form of gold, artefacts and magic items in dungeons. It also assumes that they spend the gold, and cash in the magic items for more gold so they can spend that as well. I think it’s plain that in any economy that bears even a passing ressemblance to reality that is never going to happen.
PCs cannot, therefore, have the spending power the rules suggest. However, as a GM I have a responsibilty to make sure that the party is sufficiently tooled up to face the challenges I set them. Therefore, the way I handle and place treasure has to evolve; and the rules for creating magic items need to be tweaked to allow that practice to even exist in a moderately believable economy.
Aside from adjusting the amount of wealth that I hand out to PCs (which is an optional rule anyway), these aren’t things that really affect the mechanics of the game. But they are still an important element, and I want to share how I intend to implement them.