The Root of Some Evil

I don’t much like the economy in 4e.

Now, it’s important to note that the 4e economy does -exactly- what it’s supposed to. Money (treasure in general) is an alternate reward system which, unlike XP, is fairly fungible but is still bounded by the general progression of things. That is to say, money is really just a system for maintaining gear, and gear is an essential part of a 4e character, so money is really ust another stat. As an abstraction, it works very well for 4e’s purposes. It’s neat, tidy and very efficient.

The problem is that, like my history, I like my economics to be kind of sloppy. It’s very much a subjective thing, but to me it’s an essential part of a living-breathing world. But doing that in games is tricky.

The first complication is that there are really two problems, and they need to be handled differently. The first is, curiously, too much money. 4e keeps this in check by keeping money fairly regimented and by guaranteeing that the increase in costs as you level up (as well as a few intentionally inefficient transactions hardcoded into the system) keeps you from stockpiling cash to get vastly superior gear, and that’s kind of a shame because it removes a lot of other options. Older versions of D&D had very specific (and to my mind, quite fun) rules for what you could do with that money, the big one being to build strongholds, forts and such. While it might be a little silly to get excited about buying imaginary real estate, I have to admit that I spent a lot of time pricing out castles in the old DMG, and it was a lot of fun.

The specifics of how the money gets spent aren’t hugely important – castle rules are neat, but they’re chrome – but the underlying idea is an important one: large amounts of money impact could be used to impact the setting. Maybe the impact was that you bought a town, maybe it was that Danny ocean was coming after your million GP hoard, maybe it was a big tax bill. Money was part of the world, and 4e’s tidy solution removes that, and you really don’t want to mess with it. Money is balanced as tightly as XP in 4e, and letting players save up to buy castles can wreak havoc when they decide to spend the money on gear.

The second complication is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s hard for 4e characters to be convincingly broke, because “broke” and “Encased in arcane armor of mithril and cold iron” don’t really go hand in hand. Now, while the too much money issue is something of a setting concern, too little money is a flavor one. I admit that I come from a school of Rolemaster and Fritz Leiber, where fighting dangerous things for questionable rewards is something people do because they can’t pay a bar tab, or because the alternative is getting a real job. Desperation is easy to achieve with a tight-fisted GM and a greedy world, but it’s a tonal shift that not every table is going to enjoy.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. 4e’s system also saves us all from adventuring parties who go through dungeons like locusts, looking to steal every piece of furniture and wall fixture because there’s money to be made. You laugh, but to every DM who’s ever had to calculate the value of 76 torch brackets, this change is a genuine relief. Just feel obliged to mention the upside there. It’s also possible to capture a lot of what I’m talking about by bypassing the economy entirely – strongholds can be won through play rather than bought, treasures can be intrinsically valuable rather than valuable for their cash, and desperation is easy to achieve when no one is particularly interested in buying your fancy pants armor and you only have a few days of food left.

That is to say, each specific issue can be addressed in turn, but the net result always leaves me cold. I like money to be meaningful, if only so that the greed of NPCs feels like something reasonable. This does not mean every game needs to be about scraping together a few copper to eat. Rather, it means that even in games of kings and princes, Shakespeare gotta get paid.

Bottom line, there’s no right answer to this. 4e’s system works, and I pick it out only because it’s economy is vastly better thought through than most other games. But I wonder what the role of money is in your game: Is it part of the world, part of your character, or just a means of keeping score?

10 thoughts on “The Root of Some Evil

  1. Brad Murray

    Certainly in Diaspora money is a driver for adventure — you gotta make those maintenance payments on your ship. It’s weakly tied to gear, but gearing up enough to get an advantage isn’t really a matter of cash in the end, so that’s an illusory nod to earlier systems that it sort of emulates.

    If you don’t have a space ship, then the driver kind of collapses and failing to call that out explicitly (or even notice it, frankly) is probably the chief problem with Diaspora at the moment.

  2. Cam_Banks

    I’m reminded of how deeply I find my apathy for money and gear extends, into the uttermost roots of the earth. When I ran D&D in its last edition, I routinely handwaved a lot of this and had to learn how to gauge the effectiveness of equipment not in terms of its cost but its impact and utility. Even then, I’m sure sometimes my players’ characters were underequipped, but it never seemed to harsh their abilities.

    Dragonlance adventures were interesting to write in that era, and would be even more interesting now, because the underlying premise of treasure in DL is “hand out big widgets once in a while, otherwise make the players broke.” I had some complaints from GMs who said my adventures didn’t give the PCs nearly enough steel pieces (aka gold) even though some of the PCs were hauling around ancient dragonlances and powerful staffs of power.

  3. RLW

    Money is a parallel experience system. In some games, like say Shadowrun, I would even go so far to argue that buying new toys is the main experience system and character improvement is the secondary one.

    It is a way to balance out the short term rewards versus the long term. You may still be 3 or 4 sessions away from levelling up but you can drop cash on that +2 stick of beating now.

  4. Tequila Sunrise

    Money’s just a way of keeping score in my game. In the Dark Sun game I play in, it’s also a way to stay fed.

    I’m happy with it right now, but I do love the idea of building castles and ruling kingdoms. When my campaign gets to that point, I’m going to follow the DMG2 advice about separating “loot that makes the PCs more kickass or gives them buying power to make themselves more kickass” and “abstract loot for maintaining and upgrading domains.”

    I plan to have my cake and eat it too. 🙂

  5. Mike S

    The issue for 4e I’ve found is that in order for the money system to work, players have to pool their cash together, which goes against the implied bounty hunting/greedy treasure hunting concepts that inspire stories of 18 torch sconces. General expenditures such as Inn time, general NPC interaction, and survival gear cut into funds and to realistically split shares between characters leaves most characters only able to afford an item 5-6 ranks below their level.

    This is especially problematic for ritual/alchemy users who have to not only spend money to learn new formulas, but then also spend money to use said items, many of which do not have a guarantee upon working.

    This doesn’t help matters if the party decides to make these arrangements in character rather than the players coming to a simple deal on how to allocate funds for the group. There’s always “the selfish one who whines about spending ‘his’ cash on outfitting the team” in every group, which is just as bad in the long run as “the guy who hides in the wagon.”

  6. Goken

    In my game, the characters went through the entire heroic tier without ever setting foot in a shop. This was because they were too busy. The story pace I set was cinematic and urgent, and I think it was very successful.

    One escapade was at a coliseum with heavy betting, and the characters had to become high rollers to achieve their goals. They surpassed by every expectation and left with a ludicrous amount of currency, but have yet to take advantage of it. w00t 🙂

  7. Paul

    Just like XP, 4e’s cash is for pacing and convenience: how quickly the players gain new gear, and you might as well let them pick because it’s a lot of work to force the GM to track optimization of builds. So, to me, it’s not actually about a fictional economy. Economy is up to you.

    And that makes sense. So much is open to interpretation in 4e. Are the player characters among the few heroes in the entire world? Or is the world crawling with them? That alone makes a massive difference in how your heroic prowess could keep you well-fed or could even net you a kingdom. Two perfectly reasonable and interesting interpretations have sent the state of the players’ pocketbooks in opposing directions, and there are equally drastic implications about setting impact.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing is that no matter which interpretation you choose, this usually paints 4e as a world where power and reputation is the foundation of the economy. In a story in which the main characters are magical supermen, that’s vastly more interesting. Look at superhero comics. The most interesting villains are not just doing it for the scratch. And even when they are, it’s an intermediate step to do something far more nefarious.

    The Dresden Files series is a great example of how the flow of power and reputation alternately serves to push Harry under and pull his head above water. And the end result is that his ideals contrast heavily with those of the world around him. An economy of power and reputation serves to make him a stronger character. If you’re aware of it, this can be a key to making a game sing.

  8. Reverance Pavane

    In my old D&D campaign, silver* only gave you experience if it was actually spent on something that supports your class/status. The obvious example is building a stronghold, but it also extends to things like purchasing magical supplies and laboratories, libraries, maintaining troops, building schools and temples, or even something like paying for instruction at a school** (or building one).

    Which worked quite well, as the players came up with quite inventive ways to spend money in order to earn experience from it. Like commissioning a statue of themselves, saving the town.

    There were really no hard and fast rules about exactly what was bought, as it was just treated as a sort of investment. For example someone who had spent 1000sp on a library was more likely to find a useful tome than someone who had spent only 100sp. It gave a measure of the resources the character had available to them and stopped the campaign from becoming arbitrarily inflationary.

    [* An sp was approximately equivalent to the standard D&D gp. Gold was much more valuable.]

    [** Actually this was the reason this system developed, since it made sense to be able to get paid instruction at a school.]

    Nowadays I prefer economic systems that integrate economics, wealth, and social status all together, which generally means that actual monies aren’t used in the game mechanics. Instead your social status and wealth gives a measure of the resources available to you for obtaining personal items. Treasure can be used to buy wealth and status, or simply spent in it’s place. This tends to tie the characters a lot more into the structure of the society they belong to, rather than just having them pass through it.

  9. Marshall Smith

    I think I may steal this topic for my own post. I have many thoughts on money.

    One thing I’ve wrestled with for years is how to come up with a reasonable system of “monthly maintenance” that is not a (literal) bookkeeping chore. One of my relatively recent discoveries was a couple of systems that simply do not allow you to keep wealth. Whatever treasure you earn during an adventure is considered to be either re-invested in your character (new gear or training, for example), stashed in a secret place (and only accessible in the abstract), or blown on ale and whores. Each adventure you start with a few coins, and your gear, which is determined through other game stats. FantasyCraft has probably the best iteration of these rules that I’ve seen.

    I have run into huge problems with the economies in D&D 3.x. The whole system is designed to suck your cash away as fast as you earn it. We just recently folded a campaign in which we’d hit 14th level. And yet, I think only one character had more than 1,000gp to his name. All this adventuring, and we were nowhere near rich (unless, of course, we’d sold off our magic items). Even more than castles and whatnot, I want my character to become rich and covered in luxuries. It is staggering how hard that is.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *