Nothing Here But Worthless Gold!

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I try not to rant here. Shut up. I’m serious. See, a rant is a thing that is doesn’t have a lot of value. Yes, this is ME talking. The Angry GM. No, haven’t been hacked. I’m don’t have a brain slug on my head. I’m not a doppelganger. And yes, I realize the hypocrisy in what I’m starting to say. But it’s important to remember that hypocrisy has nothing to do with the value of good advice. Calling someone a hypocrite is an ad hominem argument. It is the dismissal of an argument based on your perception of the person giving the advice, not on the actual worth of the advice. Lots of older smokers tell people they should never smoke. They may be hypocrites, but the advice is good. My advice is fan-f$&%ing-tastic, regardless of whether I personally follow it.

Now, if I may continue? Thanks.

I try not to rant here. A rant isn’t worth a whole lot. All a rant does is call out a problem and then scream about it. Now, sure, I do that. But I don’t stop there. I usually call out a problem, scream about it, and then I fix it. And, frankly, most of the time I spend screaming about the problem is just angry analysis of the underlying causes of the problem which then both helps find a solution and justifies said solution. Basically, the rant part of every one of my posts is the equivalent of me showing my work. It just involves a lot of swearing.

That isn’t to say a rant is wholly without any value at all. Just because you can’t solve the problem yourself doesn’t mean there’s no value in identifying a problem. And just because you can’t find a perfect solution doesn’t mean there’s no value in analyzing the problem. And a rant, at its core, is just identifying and analyzing a problem in an extremely screamy way. The thing is, a good rant is less valuable than a good solution, but it can still help spur other people to find solutions. Or, at least, it can help people avoid an otherwise unsolvable problem. So, a rant isn’t wholly without value.

Here’s the thing: I’ve gotten into a few fights lately. I know, I know. How could I, someone so even tempered and rational and calm and objective, get into FIGHTS?! Especially about something as trivial as D&D, a subject that no one ever gets into fights over because a healthy dose of perspective is all it takes to realize that you’re arguing about a worthless diversion that involves pretending to be an elf for four hours a week. But, yes, I’ve said something controversial and people have gotten mad at me.

But what spurred the controversial statements is even more troubling. It’s that several people have, through social media and through my semi-occasionally irregular feature Ask Angry, several people have posed a question to me that I can’t usefully answer. My answer involved making a statement that I thought was pretty obvious and self-evident. But, it turned out, a few people lost their collective s$&% about it.

And so, here we are. You get a rant. Basically, I want to look at a problem in D&D that has been growing through various editions and has finally hit its zenith. A problem that is causing problems for some of my correspondents. And it’s a problem that can’t easily be fixed without a hell of a lot of hard work. And I’m not sure it’s worth fixing if you want to play D&D. It is my hope that, at the very least, I can spare some people the hearbreak of worrying over all of this. And also that I can convince a few shrieking nerds to chill the f$&% out because I’m right. And maybe, just maybe, I can encourage other people to find ways to work around or fix the problem in other games that aren’t D&D.

Here’s the problem: treasure is worthless in D&D.

The Questions I Couldn’t Answer (Well)

I have received A LOT of questions about treasure in D&D. And, specifically, they revolve around two different topics. First, people want to know how to fairly distribute treasure when they write their own adventures. And second, people want to know just what use treasure actually is in the game. And, the thing is, I answered honestly. It barely matters how you hand out monetary treasure because treasure has no value in D&D. And that’s because there’s really nothing to do with treasure other than pile it up and sleep on it.

Before we dive in, it’s time for a few ground rules. These are my standard ground rules for analyzing a game system. But people seem to forget them every f$&%ing time. So I always have to restate them. Analyzing a system must happen without regard to what a savvy person COULD do with the system. To analyze a system, you have to consider only what is built into the system itself without any regard for skill, cleverness, or creativity on the part of a particular user.

What do I mean? Well, first of all, in an RPG, a GM can do all sorts of things. They can fudge rules, change rules, add systems, add story elements, remove things, modify things, and make rulings. But none of that matters. I can use a microwave to remove fleas from my cat, but no one tries to argue that a microwave is a pest control device. See, lots of people try to argue that the GM can do all sorts of things to give money a value in D&D. The GM can give the PCs the opportunity to buy a house, fund a business, build an airship, and so on. But the GM can also add laser guns to the game. That doesn’t mean D&D is a sci-fi game.

And that brings me to second of all. Second of all, if the game presents optional rules, those options should only be considered as part of the system if the system presents those options well and explains why you might or might not want to use them. So, for example, the DMG does present some optional ways to make treasure more useful in a particular game, but these are presented as options of minor importance. It is never stated, for example, that if you don’t do SOMETHING, monetary treasure is f$&%ing worthless in your game. That’s kind of like going to bakery and ordering a cake and having them offer the option of adding flour to the recipe. Yes, technically, you can try to make the batter without flour. But what you get out of it won’t be a cake. It’ll be crap.

It all comes down to the idea that the system should work reasonably well for someone with ZERO knowledge or experience. I shouldn’t have to understand why flour is important to order a cake. A GM should not have to understand anything about game design to run a halfway decent game.

The reason these rules apply in this case is because D&D – in the DMG – is pretty specific about handing out treasure and all published adventures dole out treasure. During their adventures, the heroes find gold. That’s just a basic assumption of the game. That’s part of the system. And it’s spelled out pretty explicitly. But, when it comes to that treasure having any use at all, you get a few options offered with pretty weak language. And THAT is why I keep getting confused GMs who understand that it’s important to hand out treasure and important to hand out the right amount of treasure, but then can’t quite figure out WHY they are handing out the treasure.

In short, the reason I keep getting these e-mails is because the system is f$&%ed up.

The Value of Gold

Let’s take it as read that the DMG wants you – the GM – to give out treasure and it provides guidelines for how much to hand out. I mean, we COULD argue about how clearly the advice to hand out treasure is presented and whether it’s guidelines are useful and understandable. But, let’s not get wrapped up in that. I think we can all agree that you, as the GM, are supposed to hand out a certain amount of treasure in your adventures.

Moreover, most of that treasure is what we in the financial world call “cash and cash equivalents.” A lot of the treasure is actually just the game equivalent of money. Copper, silver, gold, platinum, and f$&%ing electrum too. But on top of the cashy money, you also get gems and objet d’art. Gems come in a wide variety of types all lifted directly from a first year geology textbook. And the art objects are random items with one sentence descriptions that manage to be both uselessly specific and ludicrously vague given their purpose. Because what is the purpose of gems and trinkets? Well, they are useful only for converting into cash. Sure, every so often you have some obnoxious junior thespian who insists on keeping every second art object as a trophy instead of selling it because that’s ROLEPLAYING apparently. But, the game expects most players to just take all the gems and trinkets down to the local equivalent of the Pawn Stars and hoc it for cash. That’s why the gem list has been reduced to a pile of names broken down by price and why the art objects have the briefest of descriptions.

Thus, cash and cash equivalents.

So, let’s say you are a hero, flush with cash and cash equivalents from your latest adventure. You head back to town and spend your money on… what exactly?

At this point, I should bring up that I have been replaying a bunch of console RPGs. Specifically, I’ve been replaying the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior series. Now, there are other similar series, such as the inferior Final Fantasy series for people who don’t know there gaming history. In THOSE games, you get money from fighting monsters and then you use the money to upgrade your equipment. My Hero in Dragon Quest VIII, for example, just dropped 2,000 GP in the Kingdom of Ascantha upgrading from a copper sword to a broadsword. Well, okay, technically, I was using a spear at that point, but you get my drift.

The point is, the game is full of weapons, armor, and accessories with a range of stats and it expects you to use your money to upgrade your equipment. Now, to some, that sounds like a dreadful treadmill. Grind out gold, buy the best gear, lather, rinse, repeat. But, the thing is, most modern RPGs with such an upgrade path actually add some interesting choices to the upgrade paths. For example, if you can’t afford to buy all of the best upgrades for everything, you have to choose whether to prioritize offense or defense. And if you have multiple characters in your party, you have to decide who needs what upgrades more. And, if you add in a host of weapon types and special skills, sometimes you find yourself choosing a cheaper weapon that you can use better skills with to save money for more expensive armor. Or ignoring an upgrade to save money for a different later upgrade that synergizes better with your skills.

Of course, if you’re a grindy completionist like me, you grind out enough gold to eventually buy the best of everything. But you don’t HAVE to. And besides, this is just an example.

What the games actually do is offer two different tracks for advancing your character. First, you gain basic skills and stats by leveling up. Second, you supplement your skills and stats by spending money on gear. Thus, money is, in a way, just another type of XP with another advancement path.

But, D&D never really had that. I mean, it did to some extent. But not much. And now that’s almost gone. Most PCs begin the game by selecting the armor, weapon, and magical implements they want for their character and choose those. If you wanted to be a sword fighter, you just started the game with the sword you wanted. You could afford it. Or you were just given it. End of story. If you want your ranger to specialize in longbows, you started with a longbow.

Now, 3rd Edition and Pathfinder and 5th Edition do have ONE exception. A small handful of the very best armors are beyond the reach of most first level characters. They do have to earn enough money to get the best. So, if you’re a fighter or a paladin, you’re going to save your money until about 3rd level. And then you will have the best mundane armor you want.

Want me to prove it? First of all, ask yourself how often the players actually open the PHB to the equipment tables and buy ANYTHING they didn’t start the game with? Apart from restocking expendable commodities like food rations and ammunition, they pretty much don’t. Players don’t go shopping after they spend their starting gold or record their starting equipment. And that’s because there’s no reason to. There is almost nothing IMPORTANT to save for.

Second of all, if you really want to see this in action, have your players play Hackmaster by KenzerCo. I mean, don’t really. It’s the most awesome game I’ve ever had no desire at all to run. It really is a great game unless you’re running or playing it. The books are gorgeous and they are fun to read, the rules are extremely unique and well-designed, and the designers had a very clear sense of good design. It’s just that the game is un-f$&%ing-playable. You can check out the free Basic Game if you don’t believe me. It’s worth trying exactly once.

One of the many things that shocked the f$&% out of my D&D players was the fact that NO ONE could afford to start with anything better than leather armor and a simple club. Or a mace if you came from a very wealthy background. You had to work to afford gear that would be considered entry level in D&D. And they were not having any of that s$&%. Because, in D&D, the expectation is that you start with the gear that you will use forever and then wait to find magical versions of it.

D&D doesn’t have any sort of upgrade path for gear. At least, not one that you can purchase. See, D&D DOES have a rigorous upgrade path for gear, it turns out. It’s just that it’s one of those things money just can’t buy. It comes in the form of magical items. The game is chock-a-block FULL of magical weapons and armors and cloaks and rings and bracers and belts and bucklers and boots and hats and helms and girdles and gloves. All of the games. 3rd, 4th, Pathfinder, and 5th. But, except for 4th Edition, there is a MASSIVE taboo against allowing PCs to just BUY magical items. It’s weird. GMs HATE letting players buy and sell magical items. And, honestly, given the way the older editions handled it, that attitude probably comes from D&D. You can’t just let players BUY a flaming sword! Or else it will be chaos! I guess. I don’t know.

So, the weird thing is, the only upgrade path for gear is the one that is handed out BY THE GRACE OF THE GM. If you want a flaming sword, you sure as hell had better hope the GM decides to grant you one and hide it in a dungeon somewhere. Because, otherwise, you ain’t seeing that s$&%.

So, there is no upgrade path to buy with cash. But, while upgrade paths are the biggest thing to spend money on in RPGs, they aren’t the only thing. There’s also utility items.

Utility items ate the things like healing potions and antidotes and scrolls of identify and all the other crap that you end up dumping money into in video games after your gear is upgraded. In Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, you had to keep yourself stocked with healing potions and herbs and ethers and cures for paralysis and antidotes to poison and items that can reverse your transformation into a pig or into stone or whatever. As the games go on, better utility items become available to solve more and more exotic problems. Or just to let you heal more because your hit points are so much higher.

But, again, in D&D these are magical items and the buying and selling of magical items is verboten. Sure, in Pathfinder and 3E, you can technically buy magical items, it’s actually kind of hard to get the GM to ALLOW YOU TO BUY THEM and you need the GM’S PERMISSION and, in 3rd Edition, the DMG actually advises the GM NOT TO SELL MAGIC ITEMS TOO FREELY. In 5E, the best you can do is buy basic healing potions. That’s all. Anything else? You’d better find that s$&% in some cave somewhere.

Now, in many online multiplayer RPGs, we do see another way that players can spend their money. There are big-ticket items like hideouts and home bases or mounts and travel options. These items are so ridiculously expensive that you have to save for them over many, many levels. And player-run organizations often pool their resources for certain group resources, like storage vaults and mansions and lairs and things. D&D technically has those, but in 5E, they are hidden away in the DMG and discussed as “strictly optional.” And they are usually chosen BY THE GM because of the direction the GM wants the campaign to go. For example, the GM might declare that the point of the campaign is to raise enough money for a ship or an airship or whatever. Or a player might work with the GM to decide to someday buy a castle or tower or mansion.

The only thing D&D has is a very basic nod to day-to-day living and adventuring costs. That is to say, you do have to spend money for food and to buy arrows and stuff. Unless your GM doesn’t bother with tracking that crap. And you can spend money to maintain a lifestyle. If your GM is bothering to use that semi-optional rule. And sometimes, you might have to spend money on an inn room for the night. But, the thing is, those costs are so trivial compared to the wealth the PCs are expected to gain that they are utterly meaningless after about second level.

There’s Nothing Wrong with No Money

Now, here’s the thing. Personally, I find money – when implemented properly in a video game – to be interesting. When the player has to choose between day to day living costs, upgrades, necessary utility items, and saving for big ticket items, that creates an interesting game. And when the upgrades further have to be allocated between offense, defense, and whatever, that makes it even more interesting. The decision about how to spend or save your money in such a system IS interesting. Watching different players solve the problem in different ways and set priorities would be interesting. And it would give players the ability to express themselves in the game in more ways. And personally, I would love to see a well-implemented system like that in D&D.

BUT…

There’s nothing wrong with NOT having that. Seriously. I don’t want to sound down on it. It’s perfectly fine that D&D doesn’t really care what you do with your money. It’s okay if the game doesn’t want to have an upgrade path that turns currency into a resource for growth and enhancement. A money system that adds depth to the game is perfectly fine, but the game isn’t bad for not having it.

Where D&D does f$&% up is in presenting money treasure as important. Because that’s an outright f$&%ing lie. And it confuses the hell out of poor GMs. And, worse, it forces GMs to do unnecessary work. The thing is, many GMs crack open that DMG and find the chapter on treasure and they try to hand out treasure according to the rules and keep everything balanced because the game seems to suggest they have to. But that’s wasted work because the treasure itself has no value. It isn’t important. It’s paperwork for the sake of paperwork.

Worse yet, it also confuses the players. The players keep finding all of this gold and all of these gems and things. They sell the gems and things and track the gold and divide the treasure up. They write down every last coin they have. They mark off every silver they spend on drinks at the inn. Because, again, it seems like they have to. Everything has a price, after all. And there’s a space on the character sheet for money. And the GM sure seems to make a big deal about it. So it must be important. But when the time comes to spend that money, the players can’t find anything to actually do with it.

Tracking wealth is a lot of work and, in D&D, it has no payoff.

Shut Up About Economies, Shut Up About Money Sinks, Just Shut Up

While we’re talking about this, let me take just a moment to address two stupid things that people always bring up when you start talking about money in RPGs. First of all, lets address the idea of an economy in RPGs.

There is NO economy in RPGs. NONE. Not even in the ones where money matters. An economy is a system by which a society allocates resources and produces goods. In the real world, for example, when you go into a store and buy a sword for a certain amount of gold, that sword maker now has the money you just spent. The sword maker will spend part of that money to buy more iron to make more swords. Part of that money will be spent on coal for the furnace and oil and other basic supplies. Some will spent repairing the forge. Some of the money will be used to buy food and clothing for the sword maker and his family. And the sword maker might start hiding some of the money away in a strong box so he can afford to build a bigger forge someday. And when the sword maker buys more iron, the miner has that gold to spend on tools and lantern oil and food and tools and so on. THAT’S an economy.

But, in a RPG, when a PC spends money on a sword, that money is just gone. Pft. Gone. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t keep the world turning and keep the iron miner mining iron and it doesn’t buy tuberculosis medicine for the sword maker’s daughter. It just evaporates. And THAT is why it’s more appropriate to see gold in the abstract, to see it as basically another form of “points” with which to acquire upgrades or abilities or tools or resources or whatever.

And, also, that brings us around to the concept of money sinks. A lot of GMs, when they are troubled over how little money matters in an RPG, they go off looking for money sinks. A money sink is something the players can pour their money into. But the implication in a money sink is that the thing itself is worthless. That attitude is a terrible attitude. The things I discussed above, upgrades, utility items, and living expenses? Those things have value in the game. They represent increased abilities or options. And, if the player has to choose how to allocate the money, they also represent a choice the player made. Another form of expression that the game allows. Offense or defense, save or spend, comfort or practicality, unique item or useful mundane tool, extra healing or extra defense, and so on. And even big ticket items represent something. Especially if they have game effects. Buying a house means never paying for an inn again. Having a ship means being able to travel at will without having to hire passage. But a lot of those items also have some prestige associated with them. Many players like the idea of owning something big and fancy and special and giving it a name and having a map of it and knowing it is theirs and they earned it. Big-ticket items are intrinsically valuable because of what they represent to the player.

See, most GMs with the money sink attitude recognize that there’s nothing for the players to spend their money on and so they know they have to provide something to swallow up the money. But that’s as far as they get in their reasoning. They stop at “get rid of the money” somehow. They don’t realize that if the money is destroyed in meaningless ways, it’s not satisfying.

And, sure, you can argue that a big-ticket item that has only intrinsic value, like a castle, is a money sink. But it only becomes a money sink if the players didn’t have to give anything up for it. Saving up for a castle when it’s the only thing to spend money on anyway is not an achievement. When you have to choose between upgrades and utility items and living costs and saving for a big item, the big item isn’t a money sink. It’s an accomplishment.

In short, money sinks can’t fix the fact that treasure has no value because all they do is exchange one thing with no value for another.

The Quick Fix

Okay, so how do you fix the problem? I mean, assuming you agree that it is a problem. And you should. Because I explained WHY it’s a problem. And I’m right. So what do you do?

Well, the easy way to fix it is to just dump money from the game. Don’t sweat doling out treasure beyond simple pocket change. And don’t sweat tracking nickles and dimes spent on rations and rooms at the inn. Seriously. Just don’t bother with money. Assume the PCs can just restock their basic supplies and pay for their costs of living without any problems. I know that sounds crazy, but I’ll take crazy over hours of needless paperwork.

And honestly, most GMs are halfway there anyway. Most GMs don’t track ammo, rations, or encumbrance. If you’re not tracking any of that crap, you pretty much don’t care about money anyway. Might as well go all the way.

But that probably seems unsatisfying. Doesn’t it. It certainly does to me.

The Big Fix

So, how can you REALLY fix the problem? Instead of eliminating cashy money, how can you give money some actual value.

Well, you can rewrite the entire f$&%ing game. That’s how.

Seriously.

The issue is big. It’s f$%&ing BIG. And as you start to address it, the issue keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s like trying to hold a balloon underwater while someone keeps blowing it up bigger and bigger. Let me give you a seemingly simple example.

Let’s say you want to add a simple upgrade path by allowing the buying and selling of magical items. In 5E, it shouldn’t be that hard right? Every magic item has a rarity and a GP value. You can just make them available for sale, right?

First of all, let me ask you if you make ALL magical items available for purchase or sale or just some of them? Which ones? If you open the floodgate, you can very quickly create plot holes in your game wherein villains COULD actually buy very simple solutions to their problems just by taking the treasure in their lairs down to the magic item store. So, maybe you limit yourself to certain things like potions and weapons and armor. And maybe you even hold back some of the magical weapons and armor. You can buy a +1 or +2 or +3 sword or a flaming sword, but you can’t find a vorpal sword for sale anywhere. They are too complicated to make. And even if you explain that every magic item that anyone purchases is actually a commission and they aren’t just buying it off a store shelf, you can still assume some items just require skills that are very rare and special. That’s why any first year artificer can make a flaming mace or chain mail of sneaking, but you can’t get invisibility rings or vorpal swords anywhere.

However you do it, you’ve got to go through the list of all the magic items and decide what is and is not for sale. And then you’ve got to make that list available to the players, right? After all, they can’t buy stuff or save for stuff if they don’t know what’s for sale. And that means they will need descriptions of every item that is available for sale. Otherwise, they don’t know what they are buying. They can’t go shopping if you don’t give them the catalog.

But now, you also have to adjust the treasure you hand out. If players can freely buy and sell magical items, what is the value of the items they find? Are you still going to scatter magical swords and suits of armor around the world? Potions? Scrolls? Do they still have the same value? How will that effect the feel of the upgrade paths? And if the PCs can sell those items, are they now getting too much gold and buying too many items they want?

And, the thing is, if magic items truly are freely buyable, shouldn’t NPCs be armed with them? They really should. And that means magic items should be more common as treasure. But if they become more common as treasure and the PCs can sell them, does that f$&% up the item values? Not to mention how it changes challenge ratings and monster abilities and encounter balance.

See, the problem is that the value of magic items wasn’t set based on the idea that they were freely available. It was set based on the idea that the GM can carefully control the doling out of magical items. And that everyone in the world doesn’t have them. I’m honestly not sure how an active trade in magical items might f$&% up the game.

And THAT is just making magical items available for sale. If you also want to add more utility items, living costs, and big ticket items, you’ll need to design all of those options AND redesign the treasure system to take it all into consideration.

And you HAVE TO do all of that. See, what makes the money system feel good to players and not just like an upgrade treadmill or chore is that they have to make choices. Armor OR weapon OR potion OR food OR ammunition OR saving for the airship. Without several options and scarcity to drive difficult choices, there’s nothing remotely interesting about money. It’s just paperwork and money sinks.

Now, when you consider all of that and also consider the fact that the game functions just fine with useless money, you can’t help but reach the conclusion that trying to retrofit a use for money into D&D is just not worth the effort.

That said, there’s a part of me that is tempted to try for the same reason there’s a part of some people that are tempted to climb Mount Everest or try to reach an actual human being at Valve customer service. Sure, only one person in a million can pull it off. Sure, it will probably be extremely painful. Sure, there’s almost nothing to be gained other than being able to say “I did it.” But still, the challenge IS there.

But probably, the time would be better spent just using these lessons to design The Angry RPG.

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124 thoughts on “Nothing Here But Worthless Gold!

  1. Angry, I’m surprised you didn’t mentioned the Old D&D approach to treasure: 1 gp = 1xp.

    In my table, I just ignore the treasure tables, and use the XP Threshold by level for a Hard encounter x the number of PCs, and scatter the treasure in the adventure. I only roll for magical itens.

    Of course, this solution only fix part of the problem: to have treasure as a motivation. It does not give any use to the money AFTER you have it. But to me, the main problem with treasure in 5ed is that players have NO motive to WANT the treasure, not that they have nothing to spend on.

    • Those are the SAME problem. Money has no intrinsic value. It’s value is entirely extrinsic. It is only useful as a motive insofar as there is something to exchange for it. If there are things to spend it on, they WANT the treasure. PCs aren’t dragons. They don’t sleep on the stuff.

      • Kind of. If geting money makes you level up, you will want it. But as I said, it only works as a (poor) motivation, and does not fix the problem of WHAT to do with the money once you get it

          • Not too sure if this addresses the issue, but with 1st edition (AD&D) you actually had to pay serious gold just to level up (1500 gp/level). The concept was that once you had enough experience points, you would then need to go off for weeks or months to train and study with some master (and pay him) in order to get to the next level (not like we actually ever did that). In this respect, gold does actually translate into directly improving your abilities.

            Also, identification of found magic items required the use of the “Identify” spell, which had a 100 gp pearl as a spell component that was used up when the spell was cast.

      • The better way I’ve seen of doing it is to give the XP for SPENDING the money. This allows the player to benefit (more powerful character) at the same time that the character uses money for things they want (tithing, buying land, gambling it all away, whatever).

    • Your comment gave me an idea which reflects what Angry said about having to make a difficult choice. Instead of having money automatically grant xp, how about adding the ability to spend money for xp or on magical items. Maybe you could do this in lore by having the characters donate to the temple of a god and gain the god’s favour as xp, but the important point is that it makes buying the best magical item less of a no-brainer. The only challenge would be to balance it so that you could gain comparable benefits either way. That way players who wanted could save up for the sweet magical item they have their eye on, while players who don’t want to think about it could just periodically dump their money for xp.

      • That’s basically the system 3e used, in which you can spend xp to make magic items. They also had big-ticket items in the Stronghold Builder’s Guide. That seems, however, to be one of the things the “purists” complained about.

  2. This. This is exactly the problem I’ve been grappling with for a while now.
    I really want to have a decent money system in my games, but the system as written just doesn’t provide one.
    I even considered abstracting the money away entirely in frustration, but exactly as you said it just didn’t feel satisfying.

    I will actually try to tackle the Everest, as it were, and continue my attempts to design a cohesive system for acquiring and spending money in D&D.
    Unfortunately, attempting does not equal succeeding, and I wouldn’t count on anything useful coming out of me in this regard.

    Still, this article has inspired me to press on.
    And I do thank you for that.

    • Incidentally, I do believe that this money issue is deeply connected to why a decent Crafting system is also so difficult to implement in D&D (which happens to also be something I’ve been trying to design).

      • Yeah. Character advancement by crafting and by equips have similar problems.

        Its funny because when I read the first draft of the 5ed playtest, I tought “Hey, they are making the damage type matter again. Mabybe we will have armors that are stronger Vs some type of damage, but weaker to other. Maybe a full plate is strong against piercing & slashing, but bludgeoning damage is normal, and its vulnerable against fire. Nice!”
        But no, they took the easy way.

        As Angry said, you do not need money for anything above level 4 (and only if you’re looking for a plate – monks don’t need money at all!). The DM can create some “magic market” or some “special itens” (I´ve created a table of drugs for a more mature game), but the system does not have an answer for it.

        So, it does not matter if you’re buying or crafting, you do not need any mundane equipment, because they where designed to fufill your needs at the lower levels. Hell, at first level, you have mostly anything you’ll need, and mundane equippment will not do much. Most players will chose some build and stick to it, since there is not much need for versatility or planning to face most of the perils of the game, as designed. And will keet swinging their swords and firing arrows at the skeletons, even if does not make any sense.

  3. What about just drastically reducing the amount of money PCs get and reducing the stuff they start with?

    If PCs have to risk their lives for a handful of silver pieces, not being able to buy food or lodging becomes a real possibility. It might give the game a grindier kind of feel like with Hackmaster (which I think is totally fun to play!) or Torchbearer.

    This could work especially well if you use options like slower rest variants and healing kit dependency. Though that really depends on you liking that kind of game.

    Though maybe there is also some game design facet I’m missing here.

    • You’d probably have to think about how this integrates with non-gear based classes or everyone would be a spellcaster and cast free spells instead of swinging their dagger as a Fighter.

      • A valid remark. Most books with this concept imply that wizards are actual glass cannons: they can display a lot of power but are mostly useless beyond that, what could solve the problem. But that doesn’t seem much fun to play, and it doesn’t work well in 5e with cantrips and everything.

        So, maybe every focci could cost a really large sum of money, and different focci are needed for different spells. And, the spells only function partially if you use a cheaper substitute (half duration, half damage, requires a concentration save every round…). That would actually bring interesting options when choosing what focci to buy and what spells to learn.

        But this would also mean rewriting a whole bunch of the game. Probably is not worth it for most people.

        • Yeah. that sounds like a really interesting system. It also sounds like if not done properly it could be an absolute nightmare to keep track of and run. And at that point, you’re definitely not playing D&D any more.

          Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely think it sounds interesting. It’s just a long way from being D&D at that point.

        • These are still basically money sinks. “Pay to use your abilities” is an ammo cost, an upkeep cost. And by itself, it is not inherently interesting. Instead, if you can spend your gold ENHANCING your abilities, that’s something.

          I mean, a fighter can spend money to enhance his combat abilities by upgrading his gear or setting his sword on fire or whatever. How is it an equal option that a wizard can spend money to remove penalties from his abilities. Why not let the wizard also enhance their spells with objects and materials that increase attack rolls, damage, DCs, or whatever or change the way spells function?

          • I agree when you say it isn’t interesting Angry, but it isn’t very different from saying to the fighter “sorry, you can only have a dagger as your initial weapon”. If you can give him a weapon with a d4 for damage until he saves enough to buy his longsword, why can’t you give the wizard a focus that limits the damage die to d4 until he gets a proper one?

            If the idea is to “fix” the money issue by limiting the starting gear, limiting the spells is just logical. And only meant to keep some degree of balance.

            The same way, if the fighter is able to buy a flaming sword the wizard can buy a pair of boots of flying, a fire ring that enhances his fire spells and so on.

          • Perhaps some kind of special spell components that the caster can consume to give his spells extra power? These “power components” might be found only in exotic markets or dangerous locations, like the 3e Book of Vile Darkness .

      • You can maybe mitigate that by imposing expenses on the spellcasters. E.g., it costs X gold a week to keep your component pouch stocked, which can scale as they get access to higher level spells. Or your arcane/divine foci need to be “re-calibrated” every so often to stay functional, or they need to pay guild fees or church tithes to remind in good standing with their larger institutions (which isn’t necessarily directly tied to spellcasting, but maybe no one will sell you components or give you access to your god’s temples if you’ve been stingy).

        • That’s a really cool idea. Basically taking the ‘lifestyle expenses’ table and expanding it, going in to a lot more detail with regard to different classes and backgrounds. That would be an interesting way to make money feel a little bit more real – and if you tailored it to your setting, you could do a lot of background world-building with it too.

      • In 5e at least, wizards (and other people that can learn spells) end up spending the most money after plate. My player wizard spends every last penny on spells and spell research-related accessories (for instance, I don’t let him conjure elementals he doesn’t know, requiring him to spend money to expand his roster of available creatures). I don’t make all spells available and they require a lengthy (and somewhat costly) trip to a place where spells are sold, then require a lot of cash to purchase. He ends up with some of the spells he wants, and a lot poorer.

        The bard mostly uses his cash on bribery/solving problems. the barbarian and monk basically only buy consumables; potions and ammo.

  4. Hi Angry,

    Very interesting read. There is just one thing you said here that I don’t really follow. If you make magic items available for purchase, and you know how much money NPCs have (in their treasure room, etc.) then it’s just a matter of purchasing the magic item using the treasure in their treasure room.

    For example – In ‘Princes of the Apocalypse’ campaign book, my players are about to attack a bandit camp. Specifially, the ‘Bears and Bows’ encounter on page 149. In that encounter the notes say that the bandits have accumulated plunder worth 100gp. Well I can just exchange that for magical items worth 200gp and arm the bandits with said magic items (because when the players sell the items, they only get half the value – this maintains the same ‘balance’ as before my change.).
    The math here seems to work out (assuming I wanted to increase the challenge level of the encounter), though I would set a rule that enemies still require gold & etc to make normal purchases, so they will only ever spend up to half the value of their treasure pile.
    As for how common/easy the magic items are to purchase, they have a rarity rating tied to the supposed power level of the magic item. The rarer the item, the harder it is to find.

    Besides going ‘shopping’ for the NPCs, the only extra work involved is making sure the added magic items make sense in the world and the problem facing the BBEG. If he wins because he can just buy X artifact, make the campaign about stopping him from getting his hands on it.

  5. It might not be the best of solution but here is what I do, in my setting I allow the players to upgrade their magic item by use of ”rituals”. They can’t buy magical item unless I allow a specific magical item to be availale at a specific shop but once they have that +1 sword, they can upgrade it to +2 +3 etc. Same goes with armor, belt and some trinkets. That way they have to make choices, upgrade the weapon or the armor first ?

    The other thing I do is that I give out alot of ”rechargable” items. The most famous one in my current setting is the ”shroud of resurection” it basically allow the players to have a True ressurection spell stored in an items, the cost to reload the item is high (14k gp including 4k worth of diamond dust) when they choose (it happened twice) to reload the shroud it’s always a hard choice and the first time they did it I became a side quest about finding the diamond dust … they actually got around 15k worth of diamond dust guess what .. they are not spending any of the extra diamond dust, they are keeping it in case they need to recharge de shroud again… this also places an additionnal ”price” on death but that is another topic. Other example of ”rechargeable” magical item includes stuff that gives bonus that basically last for one encounter, such has attributes bonus, save bonuses, AC bonuses and other stuff … even healing, recharging magical item can only be done at specific places using specific equipement, this create even more choices has they have to chose when to use the item knowing they might need it more later…

    Some time the items goes forgotten a while then get used if the situation requires it. Recently they had to face a red Dragon, knowing there would be firebreaths, they recharged a ring of fire resistance I gave em for a quest that was inside a volcanoe, they had wanted to sell it but decided to keep it ”just in case” they were pretty happy they kept it … it’s all about giving player choices and rewarding some of those choices…

    Any thought on this ?

  6. This is one of the problems that i encountered VERY early on into my DMing career. I was passing out WAY too much gold at first, and i focused way too heavily on tracking the most minor purchases.

    In skimming through the PHB way back, I couldn’t justify certain gold costs. For example, a simple dagger is a single gold piece. Which makes sense if a beer is 5 coppers. But the coppers and silvers were getting out of hand. Coppers were pennies and silvers were dimes. So why not just use “dollars” only? In order to make that make sense, everything had to be multiplied in cost. We essentially use the “copper price” but call it gold. While simple decimal math is well…simple….it still took certain players a bit of time to do their conversions when necessary.

    And yes, I’ve basically had to overhaul the price of every single item. But it only needs to occur when players are buying something. All our potions are homebrew, so I have them listed. If someone is interested in getting something specific (armor, weapon, whatever) I’ve got to make it up on the spot, but it’s forever added to the list. New players, new characters, or whatever, and I’ll always have my list.

    It is a lot of work, but I enjoy the bookkeeping side of magical items, weapons, armors, and the lot. It’s something I’m good at, so I don’t mind. Sure, it’s an extra step for me as GM, but I know my players actually appreciate it.

  7. But try taking money away from PCs and boy do they panic. In my current intrigue-focused game, I’m giving out very little treasure and at least one player is completely flustered. He’s so convinced he needs more gold that he tries to force NPCs into gambling with him all the time, because it’s the only way he sees to make more money. When he finally gets some, what does he do? He gives it to his church, because that’s “roleplaying” his cleric, or he tries to bribe other NPCs with it. Pretty sure he thinks money is the only way to bribe people. But now he gets upset every time an NPC is uninterested in gambling or unwilling to accept gold as a bribe. On the other hand, he’s done zero saving of money towards either of his personal goals: buy an airship and pay off the debt to his family.

    I’m starting to feel trapped because this player is so inside-the-box and limited in his attitude towards money. I keep trying to signal that “I’m not giving it to you because you don’t need it,” but making no headway. I think I’ve just got a brute-force player in a finesse campaign. Of course, he’s also been trained by D&D through the years to think that he should have tons of gold by now (level 3) and that NPCs should exist to indulge his whims and goals. Frustrating for everyone.

      • Oh yeah. It’s planned. Need to discuss a number of assumptions that he brought from previous campaigns/editions. For instance: just because a god here has the same name as a god you’ve encountered elsewhere, the deity and followers are not going to act exactly the same. I think this may be the first time he’s ever been in a custom campaign rather than a published adventure/module.

        • It looks like the real issue here is that you let him make a character who has a goal that is diametrically opposed to the way you’re running this campaign. His goals require a lot of gold, and you’re not handing it out. So there’s frustration.

          • But he’s not spending the gold he does have on those goals, as I said. He has two big things he can clearly *could* buy, but he isn’t working towards them. Instead, he spends what gold he does have trying to bribe people, which isn’t working. I can’t figure him out.

        • Or better yet, stop inviting him to play… Sometimes that’s not a good option if it’s your little brother or spouse.

          I’ve had players who bring false meta-knowledge-based expectations before. I make it clear to them when they say something along those lines that “This is my own home-brew setting and any preconceived notions you might have about deities, monsters, mythologies, etc, are not going to be correct here.” Then right away, take a common monster with well-known special abilities, tweak it for your campaign just enough that whatever he’d try to do “in the old way” actually helps the monster.

          For example, your trolls become “Fire Trolls” and fire damage not only heals them, but makes them stronger. If he gets so upset that his traditional method of defeating trolls (i.e. burning them) won’t work, you can suggest he find a GM whose trolls behave the way he expects or perhaps, he can spend the time and effort, put in the work, be a GM himself, and run his own game where everything works and behaves the way he wants them to. (Good luck to him finding players, but, hey, you never know. He might get turned on to this site and not suck.)

    • It sounds to me like you forget to let the player know of a service the NPC needs doing while refusing the money (“You think I`m some common gigalow, scraping for meager gold? I need the Duke of Wassiz Place to allow me to build another bank in the market there. Can you do that for me or are you useless?”)

      I could be horribly wrong, but you train your players how to play your game with every interACTION (Copyrighted by Angry of course) you do with them. If you just shut them down, they don’t restart with a different tactic and it becomes a game of “what is the GM’s answer to this problem?”.

  8. Same problem, which I call ‘Endgame Currency Problem’, shows up in most video games. Either you have no money, or too much money so that any reasonable expense is neglible.

    Handling money in terms of ‘Source of income vs Upkeep cost’, rater than ‘change of cash in hand’, seem to solve some of the problem(and easier to handle in tabletop RPGs). Japanese tabletop RPG use such mechanic(although its explanation is a bit different).

    Down to essentials, characters have ‘wealth’ value and items have ‘cost’. Cost represents the expense and effort to MAINTAIN an item. Wealth is a person’s capacity to do so. The sum of the cost of one’s items cannot exceed their wealth.
    Even if an item is lost(or consumed) during an adventure, the owner have it when the next adventure begins. If you decide to throw an item away, you no longer pay for it and your wealth can be directed to other things.
    You roll to see if you have enough cash to buy something in-session, and when the adventure ends, you get to decide to keep it(write it up on the character sheet) or lose it.

    The advantage is that 1)no in-session money tracking is required, and 2)less workload for GMs(except for initial step of determining the cost of items, which actually can be a huge work).

    • It won’t let me edit the comment so I’ll have to do this:

      “Japanese tabletop RPG” mentioned above should be “Japanese tabletop RPG ‘Double Cross'”. The name somehow disappeared.

  9. I’ve read that Dave Arneson not only had gold=XP, you had to spend the gold before it would count, the apparent logic being “we want the game to feel like Conan, Conan is terrible at saving money and always broke, let’s make everybody broke all the time!” Apparently this meant that on top of theoretically useful things, like gear, henchmen and mercenaries, and castles, characters would buy a lot of statues of themselves, drink extremely expensive booze, and other random, ridiculously expensive garbage.

    And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Adventurer, Conqueror King System, which is basically one big economic simulator (not an economy, mind, just the simulator) with old school D&D wrapped around it, plus an excessively amusing pair of death tables. And giant sharkipedes.

    ACKS keeps money interesting by having two chapters devoted to all the stuff you can do with it, plus another chapter in the players supplement. It’s gloriously silly.

    But that system was built from the ground up around it’s fake economy, so to fix 5e using something similar would, as Angry points out, be a ton of work.

    In order to contribute just a little to the conversation, I’ll say that any attempt to make money worthwhile should be presented to players, not GMs. Take things like building costs, magic item and spell creation etc. Out of the DMG and put it in the player’s handbook, with associated costs calculated and shown. If you’re going to try anything in your home game, including money sinks, print it out for your players. If nothing else it adds the illusion of depth to the system and gives meaning to their money.

    • Thanks for that Arneson anecdote: it makes early D&D’s approach to treasure make so much more sense. I’m not saying that it’s a workable system–it sounds like Brewster’s Millions, spending money just to spend it–but at least it feels like an attempt to invoke the “freebooter adventurer always looking for the next big score” trope of Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Dying Earth and other core inspirations of the game. (I never played “Basic” D&D back in the day, only “Advanced”, so my experience with the old rules is pure Gygax.)

  10. Nice topic, it’s a very hardwork to balance gold gain, magic items, item powers, CR and so on. Some classes could be different with the opportune item. The real thing could be a system that consider all this variables and implication, and it’s so hard. JRPG rarely balance it properly, and they are made by professional game designers. Maybe the Angry RPG could be the only solution, go angry, only you can do it!!

  11. Would it be better if we just gave everyone a rusty dagger and the crappest armour and say you have to buy everything you want? that might help. Or would players just not even accept this and if a GM suggested it they woul be noped so fast?

    • One of the biggest issues with that is that certain classes would be impacted much more than others. Fighters, Paladins and Rangers with little to no starting gear would not be happy, and would be under performing from the system assumptions.

      • I feared that would be the case. But unfortunately it does seem to be the only method I can think of that would go,with the Final Fantasy way of using money and that choice angry was talking about.

        Because in game terms if you start with a sword there is not really any better sword then that, and really same with Armour. So your only waiting for plate and yeah thats it.

        It truly is a bit frustrating.

  12. Hmm, I just had my players go shopping for magic items in waterdeep. I used the Sane Magic Item Pricelist I found on Reddit and it went very well. The players had a budget and they asked the proprietor what options they had for that price, say wands for 5,000 Gp. It was like the wand shop in Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. There was no catalogue, just a knowledgeable shopkeeper wanting to help some adventurers. It was actually very entertaining 🙂 we’ll see how badly it breaks things down the road…

  13. The primary value of gold in the Adventurer’s League at least is for extra lives, as spellcasting services offer a Raise Dead for 1250gp, or you can get the bargain deal of 300gp for a Revivify if someone in the party can cast it. Resurrection and True Resurrection have higher costs, never quite becoming a trivial expenditure. It’s basically a score total. Basic healing potions are also great to have in bulk for out-of-combat healing or picking up party members from 0, even when the per-action healing is quite small.

    I personally found shopping for magic items the least pleasant part of character creation in 3.5 and 4e (though 4e at least streamlined it a lot with the level+1, level=, level-1, gold of level-1 items, except when my group wanted to convert those all to cash totals and freely spend) precisely because of that balancing act of splitting money among a massive list even when only a few were actually necessary. I also dislike point-buy systems for that same reason, as unless you’re very familiar with what you’re supposed to get then it’s difficult to split your resources in a way that doesn’t either trivialize the game or leave you incapable of basic play (or both).

    As for meaningless decisions, when getting shoes once I was asked whether I wanted them to be waterproofed. I asked what the cost was, and they said it was free. I asked why they were asking me, since a free service which purely contributes to the value of the good should just be added in; it would be good to mention what they were doing when spraying my new shoes with a can behind the counter, but assuming my default desire was to value non-waterproofed shoes seemed a bit silly. They said that they asked in case I already had the equipment to do it on my own, but they had to think a bit to come up with that excuse. In the end I got waterproofed shoes.

  14. As some one who has been running Hackmaster 5e for over two years for the same group of people and playing in another game, give it a shot. It’s really amazing and a lot easier to play than it may at first seem.

    One games approach to money that i really liked was Conan D20. First off equipment was secondary to your characters base abilities. You’d have barely any magic items in a party, even at level 20 and they would mostly be in the hands of a Sorcerer. Second feature was the rule of high living. Walk into any town or city with more than 50 silver(silver standard game) and after weak you’ve spent half of it automatically on extravagant living; booze, whores, food etc.

  15. Huh. Well this explains some of the stupid crap I see when people talk about Automatic Stat Progression and just eliminating half the party’s wealth. I’ve never had this problem at all though. I just sort of naturally fell into a solution. (Pathfinder, by the way)

    Step 1: make everything for sale up to a certain price based on location. Tiny little hamlet can’t afford 100,000g stuff, but the legendary City of Brass sure can. This puts a (generous) cap on progression in case the PCs go fucking nuts in their home town, and also blocks theft. Any place you can reasonably steal from won’t have stuff that’s a big upgrade to you. Otherwise, go ahead and buy things.

    Step 2: Give the enemies magical gear as relevant to their interests INSTEAD of dropping art. (Holy shit some GMs drop fucking art for the PCs? Why would they want that?) So enemies are using their full means to accomplish what they want, so no plot hole there. They no longer have a stupid pile of loot behind them because who does that (dragons excepted)? And the PCs get actually useful stuff as loot, which they can sell for half price or adapt to use themselves to save some money, adding a neat new way to interact with money. Use what you’ve got, or dissolve it to go for that perfect upgrade at reduced efficiency? And if the BBEG’s sword is still useless to them, then what you’ve got is a cash equivalent that’s still more interesting than a pile of gems or whatever.

    The catalog of what’s available? d20pfsrd.com (or whatever system you’re playing) has the goods. Utility items too. Unless it’s immediately important, shopping happens between sessions, so they have plenty of time to find what they want.

    My way is minimal on work too. I don’t have to come up with what’s for sale where, care what the PCs want in their builds, or come up with contrivances to drop it. I just outfit my NPCs with what they need and the PCs handle their sheets. No need to redesign treasure, because all of the choices between offense, defense, utility, consumables, and etc are already baked into the game.

    To be honest, I thought this was more or less how everyone did it.

    • 3.5 and Pathfinder systems assume that the party have more magical itens, and also every Magic item Has a price. 5ed treats Magic itens as “especial snowflakes”, without a base price (there is an optional rule, and it is garbage), so players can’t do much with their Gold.

      Also, artworks are nice, man! Why the hate? ^.^

      • I had thought Angry only meant 5e until he started mentioning Pathfinder too. It’s hard to continue that train of thought without going into an edition war against 5e. Moving on…

        I didn’t even realize that my way wasn’t basically the norm until I had a new (to me) player act surprised that I didn’t care that he was buying a harmonica or a harpoon or whatever, I wasn’t listening. Apparently a lot of GMs make you come to them for every little thing, and don’t let you buy what you want because… reasons. No wonder gold feels useless.

        • What you described is completely normal to me as well. Having played 5th ed. as well I was able to understand this issue in terms of it, but the buy what you want within reason and sell for half price system works perfectly fine for making money very very valuable in 3.5 and pathfinder.
          Of course, if players start doing that and using item creation feats efficiently it utterly breaks the power curve of the game. My pathfinder party just hit 20th level and anything in any of the bestiaries has been laughable as a threat since probably like 15th level. Have to basically double every stat a monster has to make it usable for the few fights we actually play out at this point.

    • I usually include artwork for one reason: is much easier to carry a few pieces of jewellery worth 300g than it is to carry 300 gold coins

      Though to be fair I use a crafting system to upgrade their gear

      • My players joke about how many crystals n gems I give them, but they’ve slowly been realizing they can use them for more than just money. Certain rituals require a gem to be powdered or need a gem to act as a permanent item; like creating a floating seeing-eye out of a carved ruby or something. There’s all sorts of fun things you can do.

        There’s more bookkeeping on my end, but it’s fun to say “you find a medium-sized chunk of emerald” (to which i have to write down which player, what size, what worth) and have the player go get all their gems appraised, deciding whether or not it’s worth it to sell, have cut and sell, or save for something cool. Again, not a route for everyone, but it works for us.

    • Here are three reasons you might want to give art:

      1. Getting it out of the dungeon can be an adventure. There is a 2 ton statue that is worth a fortune. What goofy plan do your players concoct to get it out of the dungeon?

      2. Selling it can be an adventure. That bracelet you picked up is obviously worth a lot, but it is worth more to the right collector. Rival collectors may try to steal it, and if you flash it around in the wrong places, that Cult of Belashyrra might realize that you have one of their most sacred objects.

      3. The art may be just plain cool. Cool stuff can be memorable. Cool stuff can add flavour. Cool stuff can tell your players something about your world. Some players really dig on getting cool stuff and will actually keep, display or wear cool things just cause they’re cool. Especially if NPCs react to the cool stuff. If a PC finds a deep green glamerweave cloak and decides to wear it, and suddenly the town guards treats him with a little more respect, and a barmaid flirts with him and plays with the clasp of the cloak, he is going to want to keep that cloak. And will be incredibly pissed off when he gets bloodstains on it after a tavern brawl. Likewise if he gets a sword marked with the insignia of the guard of the lost Ivocarian Empire, and decorated with gold filigree indicating it was granted by the Emperor to a guardsman for acts of valour, he might just want to keep that sword around – especially in a low magic campaign.

      • 1. Oh. Yeah. Every party loves the “narrate multiple trips, and make sure you cover all your corners or the GM will take his chance to screw you over!” adventure. Angry talks about pretty much exactly this method of punching players in the throat in his Encumbrance article. http://www.madadventurers.com/angry-rants-encumbrance/

        3. Maybe there was a misunderstanding on my part then. When I hear “art”, I think of paintings, sculptures, and such. Bling is acceptable, though the PCs usually just end up blinging themselves out since nonmagical bling is worth roughly as much as their starting gear, so totally trivial by level 3.

        • 1. Yeah, there is a big difference between giving large amounts of copper pieces, which is an encumbrance issue, and giving a single, overlarge or heavy item, which is a creative engineering issue. This grants the players a choice; spend time/resources/creativity recovering the item, or leave it there. If gold is basically worthless anyway, the players will decide if this is the sort of adventure they want to engage in, or if they would rather leave it and kill more stuff.

          • Here’s the point: that’s the kind of trick that only works ONCE.

            I loved it when my group found a big pile of money, said they were carrying it away, and I asked “How?”… They made up a way to turn some item they found into extra bags and carried it away; from that moment on, some player always made sure to have some extra empty bags with them. That’s a good moment when your group does that.

            But if you also give them the giant statue later? They will think that you will just screw them over randomly at any point when handling loot from a dungeon. The moment when the party finds the treasure should feel like a satisfying ending to the dungeon, right after their most dangerous fight. Do that, and your players will start being nervous about it: “OK, we made it! Now… oh, s**t, let’s go see the treasure… please, PLEASE make it so that there is no random bulls**t in there, I don’t feel like dealing with that all over again!”

            Also, another reason why this would be a problem is because it’s very complicated: how do you make it a “creative engineering issue” to recover that item? You either have someone who comes up with a smart and quick idea immediately, or it’s just wasting time describing the height of every doorway in the dungeon (which nobody in their right mind would care about in any other case, so it becomes a “screw the players” kind of detail, that you write in only to be an annoying 10 minutes intermission in your gaming night).

            If you can find a way to actually make an engineering analysis of bearing walls and archways actually fun for a typical group of players, go for it. But it looks to me like it’s actually harder than expected, and most of the time it’s not really worth the effort.

        • 3. In this context I believe “art” is any valuable object that is not cash, gems, or magic items.

          Why do you assume wearable art is worth less than other art? Do you have any idea how much high end clothing and accessories can cost? Or how much high end armor used to cost?

          I just googled a suit of armor commissioned in 1546 that took a year to produce and cost 1200 gold coins – that’s real world gold coins, not D&D gold pieces – which was equivalent to 12 years salary for a senior court official. What would be 12x the annual salary of a senior civil servant today? That’s a helluva piece of wearable art!

        • The 1) kind of thing is fun if you don’t count the object as treasure, but an optional adventure. Let the players decide if they want to have an adventure trying to sell a 2 ton statue of an evil overlord, or if they want to just smash it, but at least give them the reward for completing the previous adventure in a more manageable way.

          • Exactly. Back in the day, that statue would not just have been worth gold, it would also have been worth experience, because 1 GP = 1 XP. IMO, nowadays it should be treated as an optional side quest, and should also be worth some experience if the PCs go through the trouble of removing the thing and selling it.

        • I’m going to disagree with Angry here. It’s not that “how-much-loot-can-we-safely-escape-with” adventures are intrinsically a punch in the throat: the real problem is that there are a billion gotchas that can trivialize the tradeoffs at the heart of them. If you don’t quietly engineer the scenario to prevent it – correctly, ahead of time, and on the first try – the players can usually find some workaround to turn the challenge into a perfectly safe exercise in repetitive tedium and walk off with everything. The throat-punching comes in if the DM misses an angle and suddenly has to invent a flood of inconsistent reasons why the tedious bullshit solutions still won’t work.

          To make it come off, you pretty much need to have ALL of the following circumstances working for you in advance:

          1) You must be running a dungeon too big for any party to actually clear.

          2) There must be enough encounters on the way back that a party at maximum encumbrance would be in extreme danger.

          3) Those encounters must also be easy enough that an unencumbered party could reliably handle or avoid them and get back home safe, even if they started out pretty badly injured.

          4) Making extra trips must be completely off the table, for some reason. Anything works: collapsing rooms, scavengers waiting to steal anything you leave behind, the treasure is too deep to safely return to without resting, you’re robbing the hoard of a dragon without actually killing it. You just have to make sure the PCs are aware that anything they leave behind is gone.

          5) The party must not have enough bags of holding, portable holes, floating disks, or other encumbrance aids to carry the whole treasure at full speed. Porters and pack animals that inexplicably tolerate dungeons are less of a big deal because the extra carry weight comes at the cost of adding vulnerable members to the party.

          6) The PCs must have absolutely no means to teleport large amounts of stuff into or out of the dungeon. People overlook this one surprisingly often.

          7) You must be using an encumbrance system simple enough to not make everyone want to slam their foreheads through a wall. For most groups I’ve met, the standard one in D&D does not qualify.

          If you meet every single one of those conditions, you can turn the escape-while-encumbered-with-loot game into an interesting tradeoff between risk and reward. But that’s pretty much the only time it actually works.

          • I’m gonna have to disagree with your disagreeing. You’ve presented all of these ways that players can sneak getting gold more easily, but still missed the main point: Once they’ve gotten ANY gold, what’s it really worth? You may have made it harder for them to get gold, but you didn’t add any options to what can be done with that gold.

            1) Why? If the party can find a way to continue, they will. That’s also just not how you plan a dungeon.

            2) Most people ignore encumbrance through the stuff in #5 and #6

            3) Again, why? Encumbrance should rarely come up, unless you’re physically carrying out the Titan of Rhodes or something ridiculous. If players suddenly decide the particular treasure isn’t worth it, you’ll need to change the scenarios anyway as far as battling goes.

            4) Yet still, why? If the party can steal from a dragon and actually wants to go back (say even at a higher level, when they feel more confident), why not let them? That’s a whole other adventure right there, one you don’t have to do any map-planning for, because it’s already done. It also makes the players feel smart. “Good thing we took notes. We know to go left instead of right” etc.

            5) Those were put in the game for a reason. Going back to the whole spending gold problem, all those items offer up a way for someone to obtain more gold. Why put treasure in a dungeon and NOT expect the players to try to take it all? They’re players. They’ll want it all.

            6) I only partially agree with this one. There are plenty of large teleport rituals (again, they were put in-game for a reason). But most of them take a couple of in-game hours to cast. I’m speaking for 4e, but I know most of that stuff doesn’t change TOO much between editions. So, if the players can justify spending that much time, let them. If a band of Kobolds happened by, the goal is now to protect the wizard while he casts his spell.

            7) As mentioned before, most people aren’t paying attention to encumbrance. For starters, I reduced the size and weight of gold coins to a fairly small amount. Second, early on I gave them access to bags of holding and Leomund’s chest (If no one’s familiar, the ritual allows you to have a chest you can summon, store things in, and de-summon). So if I give them a big pile of gold, I ask them “How are you splitting this up? How are you getting it home?” and I usually get the same answers: Portable holes, “I’m Leomund-ing it between three chests” etc. etc.

            I believe Angry once said something to the effect of “Railroading isn’t forcing options on the players; railroading is taking options away.” Point is, you can’t just nix every little thing and expect the problem to be solved. Especially since the problem here isn’t one of “how often can they get gold?” it’s one of “why gold?”

            Cheers.

  16. This doesn’t solve the whole problem but a simple solution to allowing NPCs to carry magic items without exploding the economy is to make magic items imprint on the user. Like how in Metal Gear games the guards have magic DNA sniffing guns. If you’re not the guy who got the weapon then its magic doesn’t magic for you. And then you could say after hundreds of years underground or not being handled that some magic items lose the imprinting. They forget who they’re imprinted to so they can be reliably looted.

    • Maybe a tweak to the attunement system could work with this idea. Once you’re attuned to a magic item, only you can use its magic. So if the players find a dropped magic item that is attuned to something else, they need to bring it to a magic shop and pay a sum to make it unattuned again. Kinda like bringing your phone to a store to unlock it from your carrier, hah.

  17. How about mundane upgrades that players can purchase, instead of magic items. For example, a fighter could upgrade her weapons to get a +1 (non-magical) bonus to damage. You could make the availability and cost of these upgrades dependent on their strength, so finding a smith that could give your sword a +3 damage would be much more difficult (and expensive) than a +1. Since these are mundane improvements you could also have them degrade over time so that players would have to purchase them again as they level up and gain more wealth. These could also be applied to skills so a bard could purchase a set of expensive clothes that would give him a bump in diplomacy checks, but may also attract the attention of thieves when walking around in shadier neighbourhoods. It could also provide a use for all of those gems that adventures come across (barbarians with diamond false teeth maybe). If you wanted to be really evil you could price these improvements so that players would not be able to afford upgrades to everything, especially if you use the living expenses rules (live indoors this month, or buy a shiny new shield that can be used to temporarily blind opponents until it gets too banged up or dirty).

      • That sort of depends on whether the objection to buying and selling magic is because magic items are rare and special, or because the effects of readily available magic items break the game.

      • From a purely mechanical perspective I would agree with you, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s magical or not +1 to hit is just the player adding 1 to whatever they roll on a d20. Maybe mundane isn’t the best term to use to identify what I was describing, I just wanted to differentiate these upgrades from magical ones in the following ways:

        – They could be purchased
        – They would have smaller mechanical effects (e.g. only increase damage)
        – They would degrade over time

        The end result is that you could have a system in place that would give the players something to spend treasure on, and it should be relatively easy for the GM to implement. Magic items would still be special, since the players can only get them by adventuring and they would be more powerful (as Beoric pointed out below).

      • I do a thing wherin mundane items with a plus (a masterwork I chose to call them) still have a couple of minor differences from truly magical items. They still carry full encumberance values, unlike magic items which weigh half; and they don’t count as being magical for purposes of hitting creatures which are only vulnerable to magical weapons. I also have my PCs break their weapons or items now and then (based on an old item saving throw table), and magic items are extremely durable compared to mundane ones, surviving things like a characters failed save vs dragon breath for instance, when mundane items hit with the full blast would likely be destroyed. But this all really only applies if your micro-managing character encumberance and potential damage to their important items I suppose.

  18. I actually think it sounds pretty fun to come up with a whole new currency system. In my current campaign, my players are level 11, which is the highest we’ve ever achieved and I’m running out of cool shit to throw at them. Gold is pretty much meaningless at this point, and even a lot of the lower magic items have lost their shiny appeal. The thought of starting a new campaign at level one, with nothing but the clothes on their backs sounds more and more appealing to me. Giving gold more value is appealing. Like finding one gold piece should be exciting. I dunno, I might sit down at take a stab at a currency/magic item buying system to test out in a new Darksun campaign I’m working on.

  19. In my opinion, this is a problem that GURPS’ Dungeon Fantasy line has solved for the most part. Magical items are generally considered available (including a wide array of potions), though they are very expensive and can take a long time to make to order, depending on if the GM cares about gating access or not.

    Adventurers get enough money at chargen to buy some of the things they want, but not for everything. Then, once your knight finally has saved up enough to upgrade to plate armour and a greatsword, he can upgrade them both magically and mundanely, choosing between several options, such as damage or accuracy for weapons, or tougher (higher AC in D&D terms) or lighter armour (encumbrance is an important part of GURPS). There are also several more interesting materials, like weapons made of meteoric iron that can bypass magical defences but cannot be enchanted, or orichalcum weapons which can never be destroyed but cost far more.

  20. Another great article. I’ve come across this problem in previous campaigns and in my current one I’ve decided upon a three-part solution.

    First, magic items are optional and cannot be crafted. They’re special rewards, not part of a wealth by level treadmill. They’re like Angreal from the Wheel of Time, effectively priceless and irreplaceable.

    Second, basic equipment is not that expensive. Characters don’t have to save up for the best version of armour or weapons. A character’s skill at defence or offence comes mostly from their own talent and practice, not their gear.

    Third and most importantly, building and improving settlements is a large part of the game. Part Darkest Dungeon, part Settlers of Catan, characters clear out deserted ruins and drive out monsters so that people can build and settle in those areas. The fertile land, forests, quarries, and ore deposits they reclaim can be used to improve the services these settlements provide. It also improves these settlements themselves, and of course the people living there that the PCs care about.

    This probably only works because it’s an exploration-based campaign with lots of time spent in the wilderness, but it’s worked fairly well so far.

    • Here’s a few problems I have with that, and I would like to hear what solution you used:

      1) What happens if someone is seriously hurt? Healing time without magic in D&D (and many games like it) is quite long; is every party supposed to have some sort of magical healer?

      2) This one is a specific D&D problem, I don’t really know if that’s the system you use: many mechanics in D&D are based on magical items being available. Enemies have damage resistance that you overcome with certain magical items, the Challenge Rating is based around the assumption that PCs will be equipped with appropriate magical gear… Does the system require a complete rebalance then?

      • Thanks for the questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.

        1) My campaign makes a distinction between hit points (morale and fighting spirit similar to what The Angry GM presented in a past article) and serious physical injuries. Hit points recover between encounters but injuries persist until longer rests are taken. Injuries give cumulative penalties as they’re accrued, like reducing maximum hit points and giving disadvantage to certain rolls (mostly offensive actions, in the same vein as being Dispirited). Parties can benefit from having a healer, either magical or mundane, but they’re not required in order to go on adventures. It’s very much like the Leader role from 4th Edition D&D, handy to have around but not strictly required to have a functional party.

        2) I’m playing something similar to D&D 5th Edition and magic items aren’t factored into the monster math. The vast majority of monsters don’t have resistance to mundane weapons so there’s no prerequisite to have a +X magic weapon in order to fight them.
        In addition, my campaign world has two general kinds of magical items, Trinkets and Relics. Trinkets give the character something like a sum-zero; a -1 to armour class for a +1 to attack rolls, or a bonus to cantrip damage at the cost of one or more spell slots. Relics give characters a clear advantage; a sword that grants +1 to attack and damage, for example. Consumable items work much along the same lines. A Trinket healing potion might restore your hit points but could inflict an injury upon your character, essentially gaining a short-term benefit of survivability for a long-term cost in combat effectiveness. A Relic healing potion might restore hit points, remove injuries, or even both.
        What this means is that I (or any GM using the system) can hand out magical items over the course of the adventure while choosing whether or not to unbalance the combat math. Trinkets make the characters somewhat more versatile and flexible, but don’t make them stronger in any significant way. Relics give that character a definite, tangible power boost. What’s more, by presenting the Trinket and Relic versions of magic items, the GM can decide what flavour they want to use without needing twice as many items in the treasure section. He can also forego both Trinkets and Relics completely if he wants to.

        • Good job, it seems like you have a very good system for your game.

          The trinket idea in particular, it’s great (also, can players swap out/deactivate trinkets in the middle of an encounter, maybe every X turns to avoid exploits?). Having a big list of magical stuff that you can give out without worrying about the game math being unbalanced is quite a good addition.

          • Thank you, I made it myself 😛

            Passive Trinkets take one hour to attune to, and remain attuned until they’re deliberately un-attuned (or they’re out of the character’s possession) for one hour. The idea is shamelessly derived from Darkest Dungeon.

  21. I’m not sure how this would translate into 5e, but in my 4e game I give high ticket mundane items an in-game effect. Usually these are skill bonuses that follow the same progression and have the same cost as the equivalent magic items.

    So, for instance, having an extensive and expensive wardrobe could help with certain social checks in certain social situations – but you can’t wear armor with them. Having a palace could do the same in respect of interactions with your guests, but it isn’t portable. You can invest in a spy network that gives bonuses to insight checks against your enemies, or in a counterintelligence network that can, in appropriate circumstances, help you bluff against others with spy networks.

    You can raise armies (using 4e rules you can construct a swarm of low-level men-at-arms which, in aggregate, can be the same level as the high-level PC, making pitched battles possible) to wage war, protect your stuff, or raid your neighbor’s lands.

    There is also, from the 2nd edition sourcebook “A Mighty Fortress”, the concept that you can increase your social standing with a sufficient amount of conspicuous consumption. Which can grant you a diplomacy bonus in situations where social standing matters. Or you can get the same thing with a grant of nobility from the king.

    Of course, both keeping military units and keeping up with the Joneses requires resources (I use 10% of the value of the asset per level gained by the PC, which is a riff on the alternative reward rules), but it helps if you acquire an estate of arable land with tenants. The estate doesn’t produce much cash that you can spend on adventuring, but as luck would have it, it produces sufficient other resources to support a military unit, the lifestyle associated with your new social standing, and it if it large enough, the manned castle which you are going to build to protect the lands while you are away.

    This all works really nicely in a political intrigue based game, where you are competing with NPCs for influence, social standing, lands or military power. But it requires a game system where granting skill bonuses doesn’t break the game, and preferably where it is not too difficult to assess the value of the items.

  22. In my opinion, stats augments and/or feats are gained too easily. Why not make them pay for it? That would make gold more useful and slow the power curve. Reached that 4th level and want that +2 augment in your main stat? That’ll be 1000gp (or whatever the GM thinks it’s worth in his game). Thanks. You’re now 8th and want that juicy feat? Come back when you’re rich enough. GMs could even put an higher price on said “op” feats (Sharpshooter, GWM, etc.) to level it out…

      • It see it more like “another type of XP with another advancement path (Angry GM)”, which is what D&D doesn’t provide, according to the author.

        • You give up a system that is “Paperwork for the sake of paperwork” and you gain a system of “Some complex and arbitrary thing you need to keep track of; if you screw up the game sucks for everyone, and if you do it flawlessly the game feels exactly the same at the cost of a lot of calculations”.

          A GM writing encounters for D&D can count on the CR system; it’s NOT perfect, far from it; but it still gives a guideline that helps creating balanced encounters. If the party members are arbitrarily weaker at any moment in time, you lose a valuable tool that helps you writing encounters with less calculations. you can’t count on someone having a certain to-hit bonus or armor class, or a certain saving throw, because if your players decided to go in a completely different direction with their upgrades, you find yourself with an unbalanced encounter.

          Also, the players would feel like 99% of the times they are being f***ed with. This system only makes them WEAKER; never stronger; at best, they are at normal level. That’s not a good addition to the game, when you have people feeling like some random rule is holding them back while they should be at a certain level already. Unless you just give them enough money to actually get to the level they should be already, and if you do that, why even bother?

          It’s not “another type of XP with another advancement path”. It’s the SAME advancement path, except now you have to pay twice for something that you used to gain with level.

          • Actually, no, Dexter. This is entirely right. The key to designing an upgrade path into D&D is fractioning off the upgrades. Some are available for XP through level advancement, some are available through gold for training, and some are available through equipment. That’s exactly what NEEDS to happen.

            For example, in 5E, the amount of damage you do with basic spells or attacks basically increases as part of your class abilities. Fighters gain extra attacks, cantrip damage increases, etc. Every class has a way to double, triple, and quadruple it’s damage over the course of it’s level advancement. But there’s nothing that says that damage advancement can’t be a part of equipment advancement. Wizards can buy improved spells, fighters can upgrade their swords, and so on.

            The reason it would be so hard to implement this in D&D is because you need to break down ALL of the different ways characters advance and divvy them between levels and equipment. And that would take a f$&%ton of work.

          • I get that it would be a good solution, of course. In a different game it would be great, and it has probably been done already.

            But my point was that D&D or Pathfinder are not good for this kind of solution. If a game system that is always based around level up progression gets another progress bar, the result would inevitably make people angry. Especially because, to mean anything at all, the system MUST make the characters only weaker and less versatile at any given time If you can just get everything anyway, what’s the purpose of this system after all?

            Another detail that doesn’t sound quite good is “put an higher price on said “op” feats (Sharpshooter, GWM, etc.) to level it out”. Considering that the system would be entirely decided by the GM in this case, some players would be randomly screwed for picking a certain build over a different or “weaker” one.

            It all comes down to a single issue: this game is already used as it is, and people are used to it. This progress system adds a layer of complexity that, if played flawlessly in the most amazing way possible, just gives you the character that you were supposed to play already. I can’t really see a group of normal players finding this very exciting.

      • No, its spend gold to gain features. And if you are running an edition where not all options are of equal benefit, making PCs pay for training might be a way to make those choices interesting, if (a) it is harder to find masters to teach the better options, and/or (b) the cost of training for those better options is higher.

  23. I do make magic items for sale in my game, but having a market for them doesn’t mean they’re readily available. Every magic item is a commission. The players just use the magic item list from the book and my in game reasoning is that they’re asking for a commission for a magic item that does X, and they have to use a legal broker to buy or sell a magic item. They might walk into the broker and say “I need some sort of magic item that lets me see in the dark.” And I might ask temporarily or permanently? Etc. And I’d use Goggles of Darkvision or similar as the basis for the sale. I might even have the broker suggest spellcasting services like Darkvision and Permanency as an alternative option. In this way I also can tweak the final form of the item if needed, and I can work with the player in game to design new magic items if needed.

    The broker’s profession(merchant) skill check adjusts how good their sale or purchase price is, because I hate haggling. Sale price is a percent of item’s value equal to the merchant’s skill check plus 40. Purchase price is equal to item’s value minus the merchant’s skill check times 100, but cannot be reduced below the cost to create the item plus 10%. The merchant’s fee variable, but usually around 5% for a purchase or sale, sometimes more for a more skilled merchant. And yes, there is a black market, but there’s no guarantee you’re getting the item as requested from the black market, there’s a higher chance of cursed items, and selling on the black market yields much lower returns unless you can find a specific interested party (this is the only time I let haggling come into play).

    The availability and willingness of someone to make the item allows me to control the distribution on a case by case basis, just like dropping treasure in the dungeon, and I can create lots of useful conflicts out of the system if need be. For example, maybe the commissioned wizard made a better than expected item but now won’t sell for the agreed upon price. Maybe a lower level wizard bit off more than he can chew taking on the commission and needs experience or additional supplies or any number of questable things. Maybe a specific item or ingredient is needed and a discount is offered if it’s provided. Maybe some commisions take longer to make, and I always make them wait at least a week of in game time. Maybe their precious magic item was pilfered by bandits in transit, which is one of my favorite ones because it almost always makes the PCs care so much more when towns/merchants complain of bandits later. I use as many side quests as my players are interested in, and if they don’t seem interested, I use them as roadblocks for magic items I might be wary of letting them easily obtain. A lot of the time I offer them the choice of quest or money-quest for better price, or pay extra to have someone else solve the problem (usually means hiring some other adventuring group, all handled by the broker so they’re not bothered by the details).

    Most small towns don’t have brokers, but might have a black market, while most cities have brokers and a black market. Shipment times are shorter in cities. That forces them to make decisions like, do we wait around town or continue our adventure? Do we commission this now or wait until we return to the city? What if we’re late to pick up the item? I’ve had merchants sell a commissioned item because the PCs were so late to pick it up, forcing them to recommision it.

    I liken the whole system to sale of custom and luxury goods. There aren’t shopfronts for this. Brokers handle it, but it’s only one part of their business which also includes other luxury goods like art objects and furniture, etc. That’s usually how I force PCs into contact. Art objects have to be properly appraised or they sell for small change. I rarely hand out treasure in the form of cash, instead opting for items like art or niche magic items that have to interact with this system.

    It’s not a real way to make money useful, but it does give my players something to play around with, and we all seem to have fun with it. That’s basically all that matters.

    • I do something similar in my game; big cities have any magical item available, up to X gold coins, depending on the city; in smaller places, you have small shops: you just walk in and see what’s available to buy; either you are lucky and find what you are looking for, or you need to make a special order that costs you a bit more than the normal value of the item.

      Nothing particularly “special” happened yet, but in the future players may try to ask for some very powerful item somewhere; that could be just the perfect opportunity for a small side-quest: that’s enough for players to feel like some magical items are actually rare and precious, while others are part of the expected adventuring gear after a certain level.

  24. I have a problem with players who refuse any quests if they feel that the gold isn’t sufficient enough, but when they complete a quest they hoard all their gold on the off chance they might need it later. They also complain when something is too expensive.

  25. I don’t think “Make magic items freely available for sale in big cities” is as big an issue as you make it sound. Your issues boild down to two major problems:

    1. Certain magic items can short-circuit the plot (i.e., Decanter of Endless Water in a desert setting). This is a worldbuilding flaw, and really all you can do is avoid plots that can be short-circuited by single magic items, or give a flimsy excuse like “The magic item store doesn’t serve orcs.” But then again, you already have to handle this sort of thing, because a high-level wizard or cleric can short-circuit the plot in the same way. If the desert town has even a 1st-level Cleric, he can dish out Create Water spells like there’s no tomorrow.

    The ability of magic to completely upend the Standard Fantasy Setting has been a recurring problem in D&D for as long as it’s existed, really. Just don’t draw attention to it, and your players probably won’t either. (Or *do* draw attention to it, and play Eberron).

    2. If enemies frequently carry magic items, then that effectively adds more treasure to their hoard. The solution here is simple – take the value of the item out of their hoard. Let them sell it for half value if they don’t want it. That way, they have the choice of whether they want an item that’s not exactly what they need, or a less valuable item that’s made to fit their build.

    Also, I’m pretty sure the 3E DMG explicitly said that a big city will have a thriving market for magic items, and that you can typically find a high-enough level spellcaster to cast spells that you need, besides. So yeah, just let them buy the items they want, and let the system serve its intended purpose of being an upgrade path.

    • I was thinking the same thing about 3E (or at least 3.5). The GP level of the settlement set the most expensive item value and a direct quote from DMG says
      “Anything having a price under that limit is most likely available, whether it be mundane or magical”

      Having played 5e I was quite surprised to see that this element of the game was completely removed. I am currently putting together a 5e campaign and was thinking of pasting the 3.5E purchasing system into the rules.

  26. “All of the games. 3rd, 4th, Pathfinder, and 5th. But, except for 4th Edition, there is a MASSIVE taboo against allowing PCs to just BUY magical items.”

    You’re wrong about Pathfinder in this case. Pathfinder is very explicit about a character’s “wealth by level” being built into the difficulty curve, provides prices for all of the items, provides very explicit rules for crafting said items, etc. I mostly play Pathfinder, and a little 5e, and I find the difference between the two very stark in this regard. In Pathfinder, it is common to get into trouble where you have too much loot of the wrong type (i.e. stuff the party can’t use), and don’t get an opportunity to get to a settlement to buy/sell/craft and hence end up underpowered relative to the encounters.

    GMs in Pathfinder still have the latitude to handle magic items as they see fit, but there’s nothing in the core rules to indicate that magic items should only be ‘found’ and not purchased. In fact, settlement stat blocks have a place to indicate which magic items are available in the settlement that week (depending on the size of the settlement you roll randomly for various numbers of minor, medium, and major magic items).

    Probably just best to exclude Pathfinder from this argument since it places clear value on magic items and money and how to move them through the economy.

  27. Don’t forget that in Ad&d one had to train to level up. There was a cost to that(I don’the remember what it was; something like 100gp per level plus time to train which would also incur more living expenses)

  28. In my game, I built a crafting system based on how the Dark Souls series handles upgrading weapons and armor, which I think addresses the problems of how to deal with buying and selling magic items as well as making money useful. I made it so the players had to find masterful weapon smiths first. These master smiths can make +1 non-magic weapons (that is, the damage does not count as magical) for 10x the price of the original item right when they find them. Then the players can collect different items (similar to embers in DS) that allow the smiths to upgrade to +2 non-magic weapons or +1 non-magic armor for a higher multiplier. Another item allows them to add magical properties to the weapons and armor but does not necessarily give it a +n bonus, for example chain mail of fire resistance which gives same AC bonus of chain but with fire resistance. If the players want to have +1 chain mail of fire resistance it cost the multiplier of the +1 non-magic chain x plus the multiplier of the magical property y so +1 magic chain is (price of chain mail)*(x+y).

  29. Not to my mind. In the first instance, acquisition of GP has effectively become the point of the game — XP can now be taken out the back and quietly strangled. In the second instance, players have a choice between levelling up and buying nice things (c.f Warhammer Quest).

  30. Heya, good thoughts, you touch on some of the most contentious issues and discussions i’ve had with my own GM.

    Thing is, in your article here, you lay out concrete and correct reasons why trying to think of all this in terms of an economy is a fool’s game, because it isn’t one. It’s a storytelling handwave. We don’t need to follow the gold from the smith to the miner because that isn’t part of the story. Only an economist is going to care.

    I feel like you’re ignoring as Gaping an issue when you bring up reasons why The World Would Fall Apart If Players Got To Spend Money On Magic Items. As a player, that’s honestly THE ONLY THING I REALLY WANT TO DO WITH THE GODDAMNED GOLD. It goes beyond words how frustrating its been for the last two editions of D&D to have their core philosophy be “Well there isn’t any chance of THAT happening now.”

    I’m honestly trying to see the problems here, with players having the opportunity to buy magic weapons, armor, items, etc, and having it get so way the hell out of hand like you describe.

    -With what money? The GM’s the one handing out the cash, you can’t buy a 50k gp Vorpal Hedgeclipper when the party between them has 2000g.
    -Where do they get it? Again, your assumption seems too binary: Magical Wal*Marts With Everything Always In STock in Every Other Village or No Magical stores Ever. The GM gets to decide what rarity, type, etc of items you might find, and where. Might need a small city to find somebody with +1 items and some other miscellany, but if you want BIG TICKET STUFF, that’s something to do in The Great Big City, because this cow town here is lucky to have one herbologist who can only make healing potions. I don’t get what part of that is hard. Think of it as Antique Hunting, you MIGHT find THE THING in a farmtown, but a City probably has them by the dozen
    -I have To Tell The Players What Equipment Is Available!!! They have the DMG, or a digital copy. Your players KNOW what items they want either for bonuses or effects, and where they would spend 2000, or 10,000 gold if given the chance, I PROMISE you.
    -The Bad Guys/NPC’s Would Have It Too! GOOD. makes for more interesting and satisfying loot to take away the mace of electricity that’s been zapping you the whole fight. Not Every Bad Guy is gonna have +2 platemail and vorpal swords, that’s just ridiculous. It’s like spices, you add a bit here and there, not dump in the entire spicerack and call it soup.
    -Accomplishment Matters. when the only feasible path to a specific item is to wheedle the GM pretty please and then later the item just SHOWS UP in a chest, randomly… look that’s unsatisfying in every way, and puts entirely the wrong dynamics into spin. I prefer earning something as a player, and if I can’t spend the money, why f’ing bother?

    Side issue you didn’t address, but is important to me: Enchanting Customization.

    3.5 and Pathfinder had their flaws, but if I wanted my rogue to have a +1 flaming club of Returning that he could use for both combat and, say, street jugging performances… I COULD DO IT. It’d be a +3 item and STUPIDLY prohibitively expensive, but the mechanism and price list were THERE. AT LEAST I HAD THE OPTION. My real gripe about 5e is enchanting/customization is that, basically, it’s GONE. +3 firebrand: YOU WILL NEVER FIND OR AFFORD THIS SWORD. Want to do it on a budget and add “flaming” to a +1 longsword you might find or afford? not in this edition, buddy, we got rid of that crap. Essentially, it’s back to “Beg the GM pretty please”, with no chart or list of “plus elemental damage or other effects”, let alone prices.

    My GM’s main argument is that the real currency at any gaming table is face time; As a Player, Getting to Do Something Cool. I happen to agree. It’s just that I’d LOVE the freedom within the system to explore more /different /customized magic items as both a use for my gold, and a means of being more effective/cooler in the facetime that’s mine at the table. Except I’m told that’s a horrible chore and would break the game and nobody except all the players wanted it and hey there’s no purpose for this money anyway. Well, there isn’t NOW…

    • tl:dr, after explaining a bunch of good reasons why pretending the Game Economy Matters is dumb, the arguments against players investing their loot in magic gear boil down to ‘but it’d break the game economy!’

    • Although I largely agree with you comments about buying magic items I think you are missing the point behind Angry’s comment “I have To Tell The Players What Equipment Is Available!!!”. The player may very well have a DMG that tells them the price of everything and what it does but the CHARACTERS do not. It is also very unlikely that there is a superstore that stocks all the equipment in the DMG.

      The way I tend to handle it is to get the CHARACTER (not the player) to tell the NPC (not me) in laymen terms what they would like. Simple stuff (a nice longsword that does more damage) might be available immediately or in a couple of hours, complicated stuff (a nice longsword that hurts with fire) needs to be crafted so “give me a deposit come back in a couple of days”. I also then throw some similar items in as immediately available now but not exactly what they want “I have a magic shortsword that freezes things”. I also never make things the same price as the DMG (sometimes more sometimes less) otherwise players cant help metagaming their ability to accurately appraise any magic item they like. All this mean they have a vague sense of how much things cost but always run the risk of not quite getting what they expect.

      I find if you just let them order off the list then it detracts from what is happening the game and just becomes paperwork and numbers. It also stops the characters from forging relationships that might be useful for me to use later.

      • I’m with you, and i totally agree that your solution is a good way to work through it. We’ve done some similar things in my groups, and it works well.

        It only requires a bit of communication, imagination, and flexibility. the REALITY is that every player has access to the DMG and assorted item lists in a meta sense, as a player they know what they want, or at least in what direction they want to go. When literally Every Other Aspect Of The Game is just an extension of the same communication: “what do you want to do? how would you like to try and do it?” for some reason, this particular issue pops up over and over to much wailing and gnashing of teeth, to the point where the last two editions of D&D have felt outright HOSTILE to a player who just wants to enchant a damned sword a particular way.

        I guess my central issue is: Why is Communicating on this One Aspect so hard that it’s now so proverbial that “GM’s hate the magic item shop” that it’s been essentially eliminated for two revisions of the official game?

        As noted, all the other arguments all boil down to “it would ruin an economy that we just all agreed doesn’t exist and isn’t worth fretting about for any GM worth his dice.”

  31. This is one of the main reasons why my group still runs D&D 3.5, because spending gold on Cool Things is directly baked into the game. And with books like the Magic Item Compendium, there are *tons* of options, like save for that really big flashy item down the road, or buy a bunch of low-powered but still interesting items now.

    Honestly, while I do understand the fear that if players get to choose their gear then they’ll break the game. I very quickly learned that, since the game is balanced around the players having a certain amount of gear and the GM is in charge of how much gold they get to spend, it’s next to impossible for the players to break the game. A dedicated player can certainly find some interesting and powerful exploits, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen any amount of item-based game breaking that couldn’t also be done with class-based min-maxing.

    Heck, if the campaign takes place in or near a big city, I just let my players buy whatever they want with the gold I give them. However, I *always* make sure they run their choices by me. I don’t think I’ve ever had to tell them no, and really, I do that more so that I’m not surprised by their abilities later on. And if the campaign doesn’t take place near someplace where gear is easily accessible, then I ask them to make wish lists of the items that they want to find later in the campaign.

    The way I see it, as the GM, my job is to make sure my players are having fun. Certainly, challenge is part of that fun, but so is rewarding them with cool stuff and letting them build characters that can do cool things. And magic items play an enormous part in doing all of those.

    Sidenote: I stopped giving my players treasure about a year into my GMing career, because treasure is pointless, useless, and (like Angry said) provides no meaningful choices. I do include treasure for flavor, however, but I always tell them how much its worth right up front. For example, “The chest contains 100 gold pieces, two sapphires worth 50 gold apiece, and a silver tiara worth 500.” Doing it this way makes the treasure pile feel more interesting, without requiring the party to make pointless Appraise rolls or to haggle with shopkeepers.

  32. What if players could pay an npc “enchanter” for temporary upgrades? These enchantments could work for exactly 1 game session (or a number of days in game, although then you need to keep track of them). Each player can only have 1 active enchantment at a time, and they can be dispelled just like any spell. It think it provides a way to spend gold on something useful (though temporary), and players need to choose between offensive, defensive or utility. They also need to decide how much they are willing to spend: a “+3” to attack and damage on there favourite longsword for one session, and then a long time of saving up before you have enough cash for another boost, or a lot more sessions with a “+1” to attack and damage. As the game pogresses and they gain more gold, they can spend it on better or more upgrades. For balance, I would suggest that the enchantments never stack with similar bonuses from magic items. Concerning the effects that players can buy: you could for example always allow the usual weapon and armor enhancements, and maybe sometimes throw in another magic item effect that can be duplicated. Before I try to determine a gp price for these enchantments and some good effects for spellcasters, I would first like to know if you think this system is a good idea. Feedback?

    • To clarify: i would aim at a gp price that enables the usage of an effect that is appropriate for the level of the player every other session. So at higher levels, players can choose to have an inferior effect every session, an appropriate effect every other session, or an “overpowered” effect once every x sessions.

  33. For spellcasters (and everyone else), a number of inspiration dice could be a nice effect (unused dice disappear at the end of the session though). The equivalent of a “+1” enchantment could be 1 die, 3 dice for a “+2” equivalent effect and 5 dice for a “+3” equivalent effect. Just brainstorming here.

  34. Just to provide an example of how removing treasure is entirely possible, I’ve been GM’ing with the same group of players for several years (started with 4e, have moved onto 5e). We’ve forgone giving out gold/treasure entirely since we started, and honestly (at least for us), this has improved our game.

    Now I still hand out magic items. The players just don’t happen upon massive heaps of gold and jewels. I mean, what idiot would keep their gold and jewels in a single massive heap somewhere? Most of the time, the players will happen upon the magic items over the course of clearing out dungeons/castles/what have you, and in locations that make sense. The villainous duke’s personal armory might have a single magic item hidden within, or the villainous duke might wield it himself. The goblins hoarded a pile of weapons, not realizing (or caring) that sitting in this pile of mostly useless weapons was a magic one or two. Stuff like that.

    Part of why this appeals to my group is that it removes another layer of math (a simple one, but a layer, nonetheless). Most of the members of my group (me being the exception) do not like doing math, and not having to worry about keeping track of treasure means less worrying about math, and more actually playing the game. We’re already dealing with XP; why make my players deal with more numbers, especially when none of us want to, and the numbers in question don’t add much depth?

    I have not encountered a single situation where treasure was necessary. Need passage on a ship? Odds are one of the PCs has the connections to secure that, or that the ship’s owner/captain has need of the services of a bunch of heavily armed and skilled combatants. Food/supplies are cheap enough (and starting gold plentiful enough) that we are comfortable saying, “You have more than enough money to be able to afford rations, don’t worry about it.” Really, it’s just been a matter of saying either they can acquire stuff for free due to their connections or by doing a favor for someone, or they can easily afford it and don’t have to worry about the exact amount of gold they have.

    As for those few mundane items that a player would normally buy (the best armors, potions, etc,), I usually just have the player find them after they reach the level where they would normally buy them, or just give it to them outright. Admittedly, this can be a bit hard to explain (how does one find plate armor that just happens to fit them?), but I’ve never had it be an issue with my group. Suspension of disbelief goes a long way in these cases. And trust me that when players want an item, they are more than able to come up with their own explanations of why they are able to use it.

    Admittedly, my sample size is small (one group of four players and one GM). For all I know, we may be an outlier. What I can say is that removing treasure works for us.

    Now, I could see implementing treasure in a game where in session zero players sit down and specifically say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to play a game where to our end goal is specifically something that requires a lot of money?” Then I would implement treasure, but only because the end goal of the campaign specifically requires it.

    I’m actually currently a player with another group where obtaining loot is a means to the end goal, and it works well there. This campaign is also radically different from most, being a friend’s attempt to make a roguelike campaign. We started with almost no equipment, in a sprawling complex with random loot and shops and crap like that, and he specifically balanced the game around this. The penalty for death is pretty low, so if he makes a mistake, it’s no big deal in the long run. It mostly works in this case. There has been one big problem, though. Let’s just say the fighter felt kinda useless when the druid, sorcerer, wizard, and even paladin (lay on hands and a summonable warhorse are a nasty combination) were still mostly effective due to being less equipment reliant. So there is that pitfall, and I am not sure how were are going to address it without banning less equipment reliant classes (which is dangerous territory, in my opinion). I suspect that as the campaign goes on and we gain more equipment, this will be less of an issue, but it is definitely an issue at the beginning.

    Aside, if the players and NPC’s both had ready access to buying magic weapons, I could see the game shifting towards extremes. For example, an already tanky paladin might invest in health and AC boosting gear. The rogue who focuses on killing things might pick up gear that gives bonuses to attack rolls and damage rolls and whatnot. If implemented well, it could help with players really differentiating their characters. That’s a big “if” though, and I do think that balancing this out would require a hell of a lot of work. This includes some poor GM probably fucking up a couple of sessions (if not campaigns) to iron out the problems that would inevitably arise; if there’s one thing that GM’ing and a career in engineering have taught me, it’s that there’s always something you forgot to take into account, and the only people who take these things into account are the people who at one point in time forgot to take that exact thing into account and had it bite them in the butt. At the very least, testing this out would not be a task for the risk averse, to say the least.

    I can already see problems with the NPC’s shifting towards extremes. It’s okay if the NPC good at killing attacks the extreme tanky character; they were built to survive big hits/tons of damage. If they attack the glass cannon wizard though, we could probably wave goodbye to that wizard relatively quickly. Admittedly, every class does come with defensive options, but those options were balanced to a game that assumed that the NPC’s the players end up in fights with don’t have magic items. While I can’t say for certain without doing the math (and holy crap is that a lot of math), I think it is safe to say those defensive options would definitely be less (if not at all) effective. I guess this could come down to (as the Angry GM likes to say) “not pointing your GM gun at anything you aren’t willing to shoot,” but if the squishy characters are never attacked, the players are eventually going to notice. And I’m fairly certain this will fuck with their suspension of disbelief, or lead to unintended consequences. If the GM never attacks a particular character, the player playing that character is definitely going to take a lot more risks.

    Now if you were to balance out these magic items so that players and NPC’s ended up balanced as they are in the base game, I think you’d be adding a layer of complexity without adding much depth. It’s just adding a layer of numbers on top to achieve the same balance you had before, in the name of making treasure useful. Personally, I don’t think it would be worth it-it would bog down the game with an extra layer of math, and players fretting over which items to buy and when. Though I suppose you could have players buy items between sessions to avoid that. But you’d also have the potential of players buying “incorrectly” and imbalancing their characters. It just adds another potential mode of failure to character building.

    TL;DR: My experience is that removing treasure removes a layer of complexity without having much (if any) impact on depth. Making treasure worth it with magic items would, if I had to make an educated guess, either push the game toward extremes, or add another layer of complexity without adding much depth. Some GM may find it worth it, but for the particular group I play with, I can say that it is not.

    That’s not saying that it shouldn’t be attempted; just that for me personally and the group I am playing with, it would not be worth the effort.

  35. I read the article and I’ve read through the comments. I think a huge point is being missed by most everyone, with the exception of Angry and Trevor Hirst (and maybe a couple others). That is, MONEY in RPGs has NO VALUE. Furthermore, dealing with RPG money is BORING.

    Think about real life, and I know Angry can attest to this considering his real-life vocation. Dealing with money, for the most part, is incredibly tedious. Among those that spend their life in this vocation, in whatever fashion, be it accounting, investing, actuary, etc., the fun parts we don’t find at all in RPG gaming systems. Why? First and foremost, economies are contrivances. They don’t exist. As Angry says, money spent it GONE. Money earned comes from nowhere. Tracking the movement of money, in pretty much every RPG setting imaginable, would be a monumental task and would require the use of some well-written computer programs.

    Consider, too, that in most RPG settings, the “fun stuff” concerning money probably doesn’t exist. I’ll bet there are no investment bankers, insurance actuaries, Certified Public Accountants, etc., in a fantasy setting. Thankfully, there’s no character class for them, and for that matter, there’s specific no NPC class them, either. Tax Collector is about the closest you get, and you know how most folk feel about these guys.

    So my point is, as an agreement to Angry, dealing with money isn’t fun. So why do we have it? Well, think about why we have money in the real world. Money, In God We Trust, is worthless. I actually learned that in an Econ Class in college. Money has no intrinsic value, unless you melt down the copper, nickel, iron, silver, and other base metals. Which of course is illegal in most jurisdictions. What has value? The one thing, in my opinion, that has more value than anything else is TIME.

    Think about it: most of us work for a living. I trade my hours for dollars so that I can use those dollars to buy the things I need and want. Money just makes the transaction easier, because instead of washing pots and pans for an hour at the local McDonalds so I can eat lunch, I can give them a few dollars that represent the work (time spent) I actually did somewhere else. Same concept: if I want the new Monster Manual book, I don’t call up WoTC and do work for them for a couple hours, in whatever fashion they deem useful, so I can get a copy. Instead, I have to work my job, trade my time for some virtual paper, which I can then trade to WoTC (or whomever) to get a copy of the new book.

    But this is all academic. You all know this, and if you don’t, either you live in a true socialist society or you don’t live in the real world (I’m really not sure there’s a difference, but I don’t want to step on any toes if I don’t have to.) Now think about the characters in a fantasy setting. They don’t work! They go adventuring. You might call this a form of self-employment, and I won’t argue that point, but I ask this question: why are they doing it?

    There are plenty of wrong answers to this question: To make life better for themselves; to rid the world of evil (or good, if that’s their motivation); to spread the word of their god(s) to the common people, etc… These answers are all wrong! The real answer is: Because it’s fun for us players! It’s an opportunity for us to escape the mediocrity of our real lives and play in a fantasy.

    So why in the friggin’ world do we want to tarnish that fantasy and deal with the minutiae of money, finance, accounting, and what-not?

    Last Friday I ran a one-off adventure with my brother (an experienced player) and my dad (who’d never played RPG before.) In the tavern, introducing the adventure, they all bought a drink, which cost them each one silver piece. My brother walked my dad through the process of marking off one gold piece and adding nine silver pieces. I immediately thought of this article, and though I didn’t say anything, I realized the meaninglessness of the exercise.

    So, with all this said, I completely agree with Angry, even though I come to the same conclusion from a different perspective. However, does my perspective give us any thought to solving it? I have a few ideas, which may or may not have been alluded to previously in the comments.

    1. Don’t use money as a reward or motivator for adventurers. Find other things.
    2. When doling out treasure, don’t give exact amounts for anything less than 100 gp (or so). Say, “You find a small sack of assorted coins which you add to your supply.”
    3. When giving larger amounts of treasure, give them rough amounts, not specific amounts. “A sack of gems worth around 1,000 gp.” They’ll add this to their party loot list and divide it later.
    4. Tell the players to not track minor expenses. Assume they always have spare change for things like tavern drinks, room and board, rations, and basic supplies. If these things are available in the village, the characters can get them without issue. No need to track. No need to role-play. No need to roll dice. Done and done.
    5. When characters want to sell loot that is worthless to them from an adventuring perspective, let them go to a marketplace where they can trade these items for the stuff they want that exceeds the value of trivial. They returned from the dungeon with a dozen orcish scimitars? That’s worth the value of a suit of scale mail. A handful of gems (that aren’t needed as spell components)? Plate armor or a +1 masterwork great sword.
    6. Always consider availability. If they country is at war, weapons and armor aren’t going to be available because the military will have all the smiths and armorers working for them. If the country is in peace-time, those same laborers will have the time and will be willing to work for a little less, but, generally speaking, anything that has to be made isn’t going to be “in stock.” Everything is made to order, and takes time.
    7. When it comes to consumable items like food and ammunition, don’t force tracking and assume that a good archer will know how to fletch his own arrows and replace bowstrings. Rangers, druids, and fighters know how to hunt. Most casters will know how to forage for common fruits and vegetables. This is stuff that is done during rests and downtime, so it doesn’t need to be tracked or role-played.

    While these simple suggestions don’t eliminate every aspect of money and economy, I think we can reduce a lot of it so that only the major stuff needs to be tracked. As a GM, we can contrive all number of money sinks for players to spend their excess funds. Give them choices, or, better yet, let them come up with their own ideas. If they want to open a brothel, let them. There’s a building for sale that costs 1,000 gp. Remodeling and decorating will cost another 5 grand and will take a couple months. Roll some dice for show and arbitrarily decide that the business will earn them about 200 gp per month, but only after the first year, during which time it will cost 100 gp per month. Use the business as a springboard for an adventure: One of the girls has gone missing!

    The main objective is to remove the part that isn’t fun, and that’s the detail. The macro-level stuff might be fun for some players – opening a business, buying land and title, etc. Let them do that if they want. But even with the big stuff, don’t sweat the details, because ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. Every minute spent tracking individual coins is a minute not spent in adventure encounters, where the real fun is.

    • I think the main thing I find appealing for a developed currency system is giving the players agency over their equipment/items and ultimately their character. I see the appeal of saving up your gold for a cool magic item, armor upgrade or maybe even training with an NPC to get a feat.

      As DM, I’ve largely ignored currency for the most part and it works out fine. My players end up hording a huge amount of gold and not really doing anything with it though.

      If I were to come up with my own currency system, I think it would work something like this:

      1. Only gold pieces, not silver or copper or anything else, just for simplicity’s sake.

      2. Cost of living (accommodations, meals, water, ammo, negligible magic components, etc.) would all be rolled into one simple amount. 1 gold per day for basic, 2 gold for luxurious, etc. No cost of living for camping outside but they’ll eventually need to return to town to restock supplies.

      3. Magic items shops are hard to find, but can be found in almost any city. Different magic shop owners might specialize in different things like potions, armors, weapons, etc. I’d hand out a handy dandy reference sheet to the players of what that particular shop offers along with base price (depending on how much the shopkeep likes you, you might get a discount). Players can also sell magic items they find there, or pay a fee to “unlock” a previous owner’s attunement to that magic item.

      4. Specialized blacksmiths can offer weapon/armour upgrades for a set price across the board.

      5. Specialized trainers can be found around town who can teach a particular feat for a hefty sum and amount of time in training.

      6. Like you said, buildings for sale are always fun.

      As a player, I really like the idea of saving up for something cool. As a DM, dishing out magic items at random has always felt kind of weird. Oh, you conveniently find that magic shield you’ve been nattering on about in a random dungeon! Good for you!

      The biggest hurdle is obviously balancing, but I think it could be a fun concept to play around with.

      • I suppose a lot of it depends upon your gaming group. Expectations are one thing, but for me, counting coins isn’t something I want to do in a role-playing game. Heck, I don’t even count my money when playing Monopoly unless I absolutely have to. But if your group likes that stuff, more power to them.

        Janna, you bring up a couple things that have been discussed in the previous comments at length – that is money sinks that the GM can use to siphon away character wealth. But to what end? You offer them the “choice” between basic and luxury accommodations, but what choice is that? If they can afford it, why would they ever choose anything less than luxury? This isn’t a choice, and there’s no game value to it either way.

        I know I’m going out of order, but the idea of unifying the monetary system to one coinage makes sense at first blush, but in the grander scheme of things, it still doesn’t matter. My logical brain suggests that if you condense the system to one single coinage, you have to go to the lowest common denominator, which is the copper piece. A copper will get you watered-down beer at the local tavern. By comparison, a glass of decent wine might cost 10 coppers (or a silver), and if you want top-of-line champagne, you need 100 coppers (or a gold.) If we unify the monetary system to a single coin, it means I’d need to carry and count out 100,000 copper pieces to afford that building I want to turn into a brothel. Do you know how long it takes to count that many coins? It would be a lot faster if there were larger denominations, like a 10-piece coin or a 100-piece coin. Oh wait. We’ve already got that. D&D gives us a couple more options, but I don’t use them and my players don’t miss them. Unless your exchange rate between copper, silver, and gold is different than 1-10-100, there’s no point. It’s simple enough that even dense players can figure it out.

        Back to your list… 3, 4 and 5 I’ll handle together. If a character can purchase advancements, be they in the form of magic items, equipment, or skills, then why bother adventuring? Okay. I get it. It’s nice to have some healing potions, especially if you have a party with no healers. Beyond that, let them earn it the hard way. If there’s some special item they want, make the character spend TIME to research where such an item can be found, or who might be able to make it, and ROLEPLAY the adventure for them to get it if it isn’t mundane. To my way of thinking, if the characters aren’t practicing their skills during their between-adventure down-time, they would regress. If anything, I’d allow a character to gain proficiency in a single weapon they don’t have it in presently, but at the cost of losing another.

        I guarantee that no shop owner is going to have a +5 Sword of Dragon Slaying sitting on a shelf waiting for an adventurer to come and buy it. I challenge you to come up with a logical reason for this to ever happen. If you ask me, the most likely place to find such an item would be in a dragon’s hoard because he (the dragon) found a way to kill the stupid guy some other way, and there would be no way the wyrm would ever want that weapon in general circulation. And if there was someone able to make such a weapon, first of all, why did he (or she) make just one? And secondly, I think every dragon in the world, upon learning of this crafter, would make sure none were made after the first.

        But I digress. Maybe there is a reason I haven’t thought of (that isn’t contrived for the sake of the story).

        Circling back on the concept that Time is truly the only resource, I want to bring up a couple notions. In my campaign setting, where there are two separate adventurer groups, there has been no down-time between adventures. The world events in which they are part of are happening such that they move from one adventure to the next without the luxury of relaxation. Countries are at war, and the longer they remain in that state, the worse things will be around them. Can they do what it takes to stop the war? Can they find the truth and reveal it to the right people, to make them realize that why they are battling is all just a big misunderstanding?

        So one group took a caravel on a two-month voyage to an island in the middle of the ocean. Between the sea-faring encounters (some giant octopi, a sea hag and her minions, and a water elemental), they had some down-time on the ship where they spent the time learning about navigation (no skill in D&D 5e for this), seamanship (ditto), and practicing their fighting skills (good for passing time, but really not a huge benefit to the PCs, though the NPC first mate, who lost his legs in the 2nd battle, can now use a crossbow without disadvantage.) They also brought along with them supplies and made everyone who wanted it a set of studded leather armor. First battle – this armor wasn’t available. Second battle – two characters got to use their new armor. Third battle – it was done for everyone who wanted it. Time; not Money.

        The last point you make is about balancing. This is an entire discussion in and of itself, and Angry has written at least one column on it already, as well as referenced it in other places. From my perspective, as GM, there are only two things I need to balance:

        1. Character parity: This is to make sure the characters in the party are somewhat equal to each other in skills and abilities. You don’t want a first level noob running around with a team of sixth level dudes. The first level guy is likely to get waxed in the first combat. I’ve been in games where the GM has allowed this, and I frankly don’t like it, nor will I allow it to happen to my players.

        2. Encounter balance: This is up to you as the GM to make sure you create the right level of challenge for your players as they progress. From a logical world-view, it makes almost no sense. Why would the CR 20 dragon allow the adventurers the opportunity to level up and be a challenge for him? They taste the same whether they are 1st level or 10th level. However, we are playing a game that is meant to be fun for all participants (not the dragon). Part of that fun is creating encounters that are challenging, but not to the point where they are insurmountable. The players need to feel like their contributions are meaningful and help to progress their characters toward their goals.

        You’ll notice that in either of these points, the notion of money or treasure is not mentioned. You’re right that gifting the wrong treasure to the adventurers could unfairly benefit one player over the others. YOU can “balance” that by making sure that magic item isn’t too powerful, or has a knowable weakness that the enemy can exploit. Furthermore, when magic items are recovered, the players make the decision as to who gets to use it, which, to my way of thinking, is self-balancing.

  36. I feel blessed with my group of players, because as a long time GM of Rules Cyclopedia d&d, I just don’t encounter this problem. My PCs are levels 8-10 and sure they have lots of wealth, but they also have plans for that wealth, and nitpick every purchase. Admittedly, Rules Cyclopedia has a absolutely amazing item crafting system, with substantial cost in both wealth and time needed to find rare items for the rituals involved… And as far as listed costs go, always remember, almost any merchant, black market or otherwise, ALWAYS buys low and sells hi, so double the listed cost of items of your gonna let them buy them, and don’t let them sell items for full price, that just doesn’t happen in my experience of capitalism haha. In the end I feel the issue of rpg money is one of those in which the dm must exert absolute control, or just leave it alone. Half measures will not work. And don’t be afraid to be an ass, that’s your job as dm… The PCs take their wealth for granted and feel it’s worth nothing? Have someone steal or destroy all of it, that would at least get some reaction I would think haha. But really, as Angry said ,its all beside the point. Rpg monetary systems are meerly another tool to be used if one feels so implied.

  37. Angry, while you’ve correctly diagnosed the problems with cash-based treasure, I think you gave up a little too easily when it comes to solutions. We already select interesting loot for players via adventures, and it shouldn’t take much more work to add some interesting choices via currency.

    As you said, CRPGs present plenty of interesting choices for spending monetary resources. We just need to recreate those dynamics in small scale without a full system rewrite. Here are two possibilities that make currency interesting without rewriting the rules:

    1. Split the normal magical item allocation in half. Give the first half through adventures, and give gold in lieu of the rest, then create a *limited* and *interesting* inventory of items they can purchase. For example, if each player normally receives two items each worth 100 GP over the course of reaching level 2, instead select four interesting items per player. Grant one item normally, along with 100 GP in cash. Then, stock the store(s) with the remaining three items (per player), and let the player make the hard choice about which item they most desperately need. Rinse and repeat each time they level up.

    2. Use cash to “recharge” or “activate” items found via adventures. For example, borrow the idea of “soulbinding” from MMOs. If most items claimed from vanquished foes and treasure hoards are bound to their former owner until they’re “unbound” via an expensive ritual, you can freely hand out magical item “shells.” Players must then make hard (a.k.a. interesting) choices about how to spend their limited currency to unbind the items they *really* need.

    The rest of the arguments against buying and selling magical items seem to be about “realism.” If that’s important to you, I think you can justify it with some narrative about scarcity and low turnover?

  38. Good article, thanks.

    Aside from the option of simply making treasure far more scarce than the rules imply, I feel gold could be made more meaningful by adding a layer to the game where gold matters. A few people have mentioned kingdoms. I’d be interested in your thoughts about a Birthright or Kingmaker layer. The nice thing is it doesn’t take anything away from players. Because it’s a separate track from character combat skill advancement, it doesn’t require the pain of interleaving money and XP benefits.

    The extra layer need not be a kingdom. It would be a home base, the advancement of courtly power, restoring holy places, raising and equipping a mercenary army, or sponsoring a great expedition over the far ocean. My experience is this stuff doesn’t need a lot of book keeping, and players like it. It mainly requires that the DM is willing to allow and reasonably price these ambitions.

    The extra layer would benefit from its own set of challenges that can’t be overcome with combat skill to make it interesting, and of course it can be a source of investment from the players. To the extent it’s ‘played’, as much as a sword + 1 of level 3 is ‘played’, it would be played more away from the table than at it, but that wouldn’t stop it from serving a purpose well.

  39. Money can be used to help the party during an adventure, and does not have to always be about increasing your ability stats. Here are some uses for money that don’t require a complete rewrite of the system.

    1. Paying an insider of the evil demon cult for information so the party can prevent the town from being destroyed. In the movie Infiltrator, the informer wanted $250,000. In D&D, that could be like 25,000 gp if you wanted. Now the party gains prestige for saving the town, and has access to a town cleric that would have otherwise died during the attack.

    2. If you don’t want to sell magic items directly, how about buying a treasure map that leads to a magic item. Or how about a map of the dungeon layout from an old adventurer who knows where the spike traps are. It’s a risk. It might not be a very reliable map. Going price. 50,000 gp.

    3. Really fancy clothes needed to get advantage on rolls to infiltrate the evil noble man’s dinner party, so you can steal his secret diary, or steal one of his magic items. Or both. No rogue needed.

    4. The party could host their own grand party, luring the evil villain to attend so they can gain information. Price for catering, 20,000 gp.

    5. Give the bugbear commander 10,000 gp to ditch his evil boss and take his goblin horde with him.

    6. Bribe the dragon to not show up at the big showdown.

    In sum, let the party purchase their way through certain parts of an adventure. Maybe it gives them advantage on a roll, or prevents disadvantage. Or provides access to a special part of the lair that they’d otherwise not see. If they also have the option to buy or craft magic items, then there are real choices that need to be made. Just make the prices large enough that it matters.

    Just make these options clear to the players. Have NPCs routinely ask the rich adventurers for large sums of gold for favors, information, etc. And pretty soon, the players will start coming up with interesting ways to use their treasure.

  40. Money may be useless in D&D, but in my experience that hasn’t stopped players from trying to accumulate as much of it as they possibly can. I ran a B/X game a couple of years ago. The players had mountains of gold (thanks to 1 gp = 1 xp), and not much to spend it on. I wouldn’t let them buy magic items outright, but I offered to let them purchase potions. 500 gp for a potion of healing, taken straight from the book.

    They just about flipped their shit. Here they are complaining about having nothing to spend their gold on, but they won’t spend a measly 500gp of their vast fortune on an item that could save their character’s life. So in my estimation, it probably doesn’t really matter that gold isn’t worth much in D&D; it didn’t seem to matter to my players.

    • My players are sometimes the same way. Calculating what the best ‘bang for their buck’ is before finally deciding what it is they’re getting.

  41. I’ll admit to some distaste for the ‘Magic Shoppe’ concept, but this is just an implementation detail. An alternative implementation is to allow the PCs to give quests to NPC parties to retrieve the magic items they hanker after, in exchange for an appropriate reward (equal or proportional to the DMG cost of the item).

  42. After reading some of the comments, I believe a problem with gold being useless and, therefore, these upgrades being rather unnecessary money sinks or additional costs being simply ammunition, is that neither we, nor D&D, has really answered the question of why we even need upgrades–why we even need money for adventuring to begin with. You touch on it a bit, Angry DM, but I’d like to take a moment to discuss it further.

    In Pathfinder, this is a bit better dealt with, where enemies outlined by monster creation would, eventually, overpower PCs without magical items themselves. Regardless, everything is still expected to follow a curve; a PC can usually expect to find a level friendly encounter, also mitigating the risk factor of economics. Adventures are adventures because they are things that not many would do. If every encounter your PCs face is level friendly, then it is, by all means, safe and therefore not really an adventure. And if it’s safe, then there’s no need to invest in greater gear or magical items regardless of whether or not said gear is common or rare.

    While I have no properly thought out answer yet, one way to mitigate this issue is to make the world dangerous. If your PCs wander, there’s a chance that they might run into level appropriate rats. But there’s also the chance they might run into a very hungry magical bear. Only when the PCs are aware there is danger do they begin to properly explore upgrades as even a valid option.

    This can be translated into a whole host of other “time sinks” as well. Why create a fortress? Because they are needed to keep bandits, dangerous nations, and other magical beasties out of your pet town. Why create a magical workshop? Because, without membership to certain magical societies, upgrades and spells that you’re going to need to explore a dangerous plane are difficult to acquire because fewer people even reach level 12 or those spells are perhaps deemed dangerous.

    As a disclaimer, I’m not saying that you need actual dangers or any varying amount of realism to have fun with money in D&D. If you’d rather play D&D like a giant theme park, then that’s your prerogative. That’s what I’m currently doing for my Myth-Adventures setting where I mostly give them a bunch of random fun toys to play with, gold only being there if they wish to exchange one toy for another of equitable value. Fun is subjective. Regardless, if you want to incorporate money in a way that actually has an effect in the game, how your Players approach situations, and how they inherently understand money, then you would need to remember that adventuring, and acquiring money through adventuring, is a risk. In order to mitigate that risk, money will be needed and spent because those upgrades to keep you alive aren’t going to pay for themselves.

    As an extra note, thanks Angry DM for the great article. It has been a problem that I had yet to fully grasp until now, despite all the research I’ve been doing on economy in D&D as of late. Hopefully I can partake in the tackling of Everett in finding a system of economy that would make it fun for everyone here after college exams.

  43. Though I’ve talked to a couple players about it, I haven’t actually made any changes in my games yet. The other day, they found 14 gold pieces on someone they killed, and one of the players dutifully wrote it down. In fact, they’re keeping the loot list online in a thread on my forum. (Click my name and it will take you there if you’re interested in seeing it.)

    But discussing the value of money in an RPG setting is a window into a much greater discussion: world building. There are already articles here and many more all over the web, some of which I bookmarked for later reference. Those of us who choose to create our own settings would be wise to spend time reading these available resources. Even when you use canned, published adventures, information like this could be useful.

    One of the subtopics in world building is “economy.” As mentioned here, and in other places, when it pertains to player characters, economy is an artificial construct designed to make players think that what they do might have an impact. Does it? That’s up to us, the GMs. A lot of people suggest dealing with gold problem in two ways: 1. restrict the amount of gold reward, and 2. create vast money sinks for character to spend their gold.

    Both could have impacts on the setting, if you choose to follow through with it. But before you determine the consequences, first have a basic understanding of how things work. While a college-level course in Econ might be useful, there are a few basic things you can consider:

    1. The type of government has little impact on a free enterprise economy, unless that government exerts direct control over all commerce. Even if it does, there’s still going to be an underground economy or black market.

    2. Generally speaking, people will do what’s best for themselves and their families before anything else. If a peasant is given a choice between earning 1 gp per day and 2 gp per day, for doing basically the same thing, the choice is obvious…. However.

    3. People generally prefer to maintain their existing lifestyle rather than taking a risk to move upward in social status. This one is an odd one, but one I learned from the Insurance industry. A agent who makes 50k per year on commission will actually stop selling when he’s reached that amount, even if there’s still a month or two left in the year. To me, this makes no sense until you think about how quota systems typically work: if he does the extra and sells 60k, his boss will raise his quota to that new level, meaning the agent has to work about 20% harder the following year. He’d rather take it easy and keep the quota where it is. So when you couple this with statement 2 above (which is still valid), it just means your peasant only has to work half the time.

    4. The Laws of Supply and Demand are real. When supply is low and demand is high, prices go up. When supply is high and demand is low, prices go down. If PCs want things that are rare or hard to get, the supply is low and the price should be high. It doesn’t matter what those things are. If there’s been a drought for several years, food is going to be expensive. And vice versa.

    5. Economy relies on the movement of money, not the possession of it. PCs that hoard their cash like a dragon will never see the benefits of their fortunes. With that said, when money stagnates, it impacts other parts of the economy. The real question, though, is if the PCs choose to hoard, would it really be an impact? (Probably not.) Conversely, if the PCs instead go on great spending sprees building castles, having powerful magic items made, giving to the temples, etc., this would cause an impact, especially at the local level. Depending upon how much money is spent, the value of money could actually go down (i.e. the prices go up.)

    Now, I wouldn’t expect anyone to spend hours upon hours of research determining how money flows in their settings. In fact, most of this post should be meaningless because except for the rarest of players, this stuff is not fun. At all. However, a basic understand of how economy works can help you to decide how to deal with it when doling out monetary treasure what to do when they actually decide to spend it.

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