Wealth and Economics

Go to the Pathfinder: The New Deal index

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.

Go to the Pathfinder: The New Deal index

4 thoughts on “Wealth and Economics

  1. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I like a believable economic system. I also want more magic toys. So if you can hand out more magic gizmo’s without increasing the monetary treasure, while allowing us to distill the GP value of unwanted magic items, that sounds ideal.

  2. Neil says:

    Dull! Dull! Dull! Dull! Dull! Dull! Dull! To be a bit more useful, the worth of something is usually linked to how difficult it is to make or otherwise obtain. If you have a lot of wizards who are capable of creating Holy Avengers then their price will be less than if there was only one. Similarly, how hard is it to get the sword made in the first place? If any old smith could make the necessary artefact then why would it cost so much for the wizard to enchant it? I realise that the enchanting process probably involves other, more exotic, ingredients but you see my point I’m sure. Personally I’m of the opinion that magic items should be very special, have a history and a reason to have been made. Perhaps a gift, perhaps an item made by slaves a king has conquered etc. They should never be simply given out as rote; I hate the whole “+1 magic weapon” rubbish.

    You say you are going to give out the required money but I bet you don’t keep it up! If you simply dole it out as party treasure what stops one character from nicking it all, or at least the majority? Unless you really do want the characters to “fight it out” you have a problem. I hate it, it doesn’t fit the generally epic nature of your adventures at all. How completely ridiculous is it that you must make sure that we all have a certain amount of potion, scrolls, gems etc.?

  3. Completely agree with you.

    Unfortunately, these are the tools we have to work with in Pathfinder. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been trying to get away from third edition for the last five years. D&D Next makes none of these assumptions about wealth and magic, which is one of the main reasons why (if they iron the bugs out and sort out skills) it could become my go-to system for D&D.

    To quickly put one point aside: it is considered hard to make magic items, or even the raw material for magic items. Not just any sword can be enchanted. It needs to be a masterwork item which costs an extra 300gp and can only be made by a true master craftsman.

    As for the other points:

    The rules are silly, yes. But whether they work or not is dependent on how they are implemented. In a world of Vancian-esque spellcasting, faceless utilitarian items like scrolls or potions are going to be more common as they are often the only way to get immediate access to certain spells. And you’d be able to buy them. That makes sense to me.

    As for the other items… well, it’s up to the GM to follow the rules while still making it appear as though magical items are turning up organically and in an appropriate place. Every item you’ve picked up in the Prophet and Loss game has a history and a purpose. It’s just a question of making sure that such items land within the right power level (measured in gold pieces) for the party at a given level. Sure a +1 sword taken on surface value is boring, but it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it has historical significance, maybe its the key to ancient tomb, maybe the hilt is hollow and the previous owner left his will rolled up inside it. Maybe it glows in the presence of virgins. Making items interesting and meaningful falls on my shoulders.

    Getting the right magic item to the right player is always going to be difficult – and that’s been true in every edition of D&D. You drop items in a horde and players may have frank and forthright discussions over who gets what. It reaches the point where knowing when to introduce an item becomes a bit of an art.

    If all that still doesn’t convince then look at this way: the rules for magic item placement are there to help the GM balance the game, they’re not designed to inform the ‘story’ of the campaign world. The hope is that they can be implemented, and the players won’t see the join.

  4. Of course you can argue that an abundance of valuable items has some logical impact on a society’s economics, but I don’t see how the fact that these prices are seemingly high for some items (which you deem them to be) does in any way imply that someone must have enough cash ready to be able to pay for it.

    I’ve always used low-magic settings as well, and my world does not contain magic items stores (“yeah I’d like that Flying Carpet over there, can you wrap it up for me please?”), and I really don’t see the problem. I think the examples of prices of the powerful items you mentioned actually quite adequate as a guideline. Any of these items can easily be more valuable to someone than a castle or a warship. Actually, castles rather cost money to maintain and only have countable value in a certain context, and therefore castles were rarely sold for cash – and the same goes for magic items. They are more often conquered/looted instead of traded in some kind of open market.

    So I would suggest you simply do not think of magic items as another form of currency but only for what they are and what use they would be for someone in a given context.

    The fact that 3.5 gives definite prices for all magic items (and does it quite well, I think) is a considerable benefit of that edition and it is in itself not at all related to the believability of the economic system. Instead, it merely gives you numbers you can put into relation if you want to, and it depends very much on how many items you throw into the world.

    The assumed value of items that characters of a certain level have is simply a matter of balance, and if you use fewer magic items, then almost automatically this will mean you take them away from NPCs as well (because otherwise they will likely end up in the PC’s hands), thus balancing it.

    And while we’re at it, I must say I find the imprecise magic items price system of 5E ridiculous and extremely annoying.

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