The Economic Climate of Dungeons & Dragons
It's a well-demonstrated idea that the "expected wealth level" of a party of PCs makes for some strange interactions with the story. As a player, at 1st level, your characters might be scrounging for boat fare, but at 11th level, you could have fed a small village for a month with the cash you just dropped for that snazzy pair of bracers. Furthermore, if you intend to do something extraneous with your cash, like starting a trade, building a lair, funding a guild, or any number of narrative-related endeavors, you either need to handicap your advancement or acquire special treatment from the DM -- and I suspect that's the way many tables go about it.
As a DM you are more or less tethered to the expected wealth level if you intend to keep making level appropriate challenges. And the more sandboxy your game is, the more handwavium you must liberally apply to keep your players from breaking the bank, as it were. There are moments where the realistic course of action or consequences would result in the players coming into large sums of money outside the scope of the parcels or treasure system. Alternatively, your players may exist in a setting where the presence and acquisition of mundane gear is vital to the immersion, such as Athas, but starting in late heroic, becomes trivial for the amount of loose change the party has laying around.
What follows is a system I put together to free up the DM's narrative choices without affecting the party's progression, for good or for ill. There are many, many ways to handle the issues listed in the intro paragraphs, but this one is a complete package, hopefully providing solutions for many, many different types of games.
The Basic Formula
There is a ton of variation in this method, but here's the simplest, most straightforward method:
- Magic items and residuum cannot be purchased with or sold for gold. All mundane gear, property, and services must be purchased with or sold for gold.
- Replace all monetary rewards (gold, gems, art objects) in treasure parcels with another, non-monetary "currency."
- Produce an alternative parcel system for actual wealth items OR simply hand out wealth (gold, gems, art objects) whenever and wherever you see fit, without being artificially constrained by player level.
If the degree of change here disturbs you, let's look at our steps a little closer and dive into the available options and how they open up narrative choices for both the DM and players.
Magic items and residuum cannot be purchased with or sold for gold. All mundane gear, property, and services must be purchased with or sold for gold.
The purpose of these houserules is to separate wealth and gear progression as two parallel, independent frameworks. To this end, magic items and residuum cannot interact with gold, except in specific instances. One question left to address on a campaign-by-campaign basis is whether or not consumables, potions, ammunition, rituals, and ritual components qualify as magic items or mundane gear. I prefer to keep them as mundane gear to better encourage their acquisition and use, which is typically limited when players have to sideline their progression to do so. Better yet, I sometimes set up a third framework explicitly for rituals, components, and consumables. This allows for slight overlap as well.
This system, as written, works best in a world where magic items have an inherent rarity, age, or general lack of availability (such as Athas). Barring those options, it can simply be assumed that the actual monetary price of such items is so exorbitant as to make their acquisition virtually impossible. The exact details are setting- and group-specific, but in any case, magic items are promoted to plot and narrative tools, which is good for the game anyhow.
With that in mind, this option is also tailor-fit for games that include the inherent bonuses system and boons and/or grandmaster training, all of which are originally printed in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 and refined in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. I also heartily recommend the item components rules that same DMG2 section, but they don't necessarily apply to this system and are admittedly less useful in inherent bonuses games.
Replace all monetary rewards (gold, gems, art objects) in treasure parcels with another, non-monetary "currency."
The basic purpose of this step is to create the parallel framework by which players acquire magical stuff. The game assumes that players have a certain amount of wealth, based on the parcels or treasures they ought to have received by their level. To do this, we need to step into the realm of metagame mechanics, but really no moreso than existing mechanics, e.g. XP.
One of the least metagame-y solutions is simply to replace gold with residuum, gems with residuum crystals (alternatively, it could be that all gems actually are residuum), and art objects with enchanted objects (in a nutshell: art objects that can be disenchanted for residuum, like an enchanted necklace that projects a small illusion of someone close to the owner, or a tapestry depicting a battle scene that animates).
On the other side of the metagame-y spectrum: gold, gems, and art objects are replaced directly with "gear points." Gear points are cashed in at appropriate intervals to acquire magic items. They may either be tracked secretly by the DM and used as an additional, character-specific item budget, or given directly to the player to spend as they see fit. The benefit of gear points being a completely dissociated mechanic is that players can participate in their own narrative, crafting their story with the DM's assistance but without the character simply strolling down to the item shop.
My absolute favorite replacement is Favor, detailed in the DSCS. For those familiar with the MMO genre, it's functionally very similar to reputation. Favor is tied to a faction or power, and then exchanged for magic items, services, rituals, or anything else the player would normally buy. This can be tracked secretly by the DM or left open to the player. The greatest benefit of this method, though, is the built-in plot hooks. By attaching favor to factions, DMs can enhance PC-NPC connections, setting lore, and character theme to a much greater degree than might be the case with a traditional item shop scenario. Military campaigns can use favor as a means of "requisition," while a divine campaign might receive blessings in the form of boons by cultivating favor with their god(s). Favor also allows certain types of PCs to play the field, if political intrigue and faction rivalries are their cup of tea. Keeping a running tally of total faction gained also might dictate a PC's overall standing within a faction and is a useful mechanic for conferring titles or other narrative benefits.
Produce an alternative parcel system for actual wealth items OR simply hand out wealth (gold, gems, art objects) whenever and wherever you see fit, without being artificially constrained by player level.
Now you can either create a new parcel system based on the old framework OR simply allow the gold to flow as befits the situations your players run into and the consequences of their actions. The benefits are pretty substantial! Consider any of the following scenarios:
- In a resource poor setting like Dark Sun, the characters enter Paragon Tier, but that doesn't mean they can simply buy up all the weapons or supplies they want. They still have to make provisions for survival days, replacement weapons, and traveling gear, all without being robbed of effectiveness.
- The players decide to rob a merchant they were intended to save, or want to strip a dungeon they've conquered of all its furnishings for hawking. Now there's no impetus to deny them these requests simply because they're level 3. In fact, now that the players have money they can affect real narrative change, such as working to acquire a home base or restoring a small town decimated by orc raiders, all without destroying their progression.
- You want to run a mercenary or pirate game, in which the players would feasibly have access to a lot of resources -- now they can bask in the awesome without wrecking your encounters.
Your GP or your HP!
I'm hoping that this system is of use to someone, beyond my personal games. If you like it, dislike it, have suggestions, or have hateful rhetoric, just leave me a comment!