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.
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$&%ing game. That’s how.
The issue is big. It’s f$%&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.