Monday, January 20, 2014

The Player Character Economy and the obfuscation it causes

The economy of the game world and the player character in that economy causes bizarre distortions and distractions. Campaign worlds and rule books are written to a Player Character Economy not an economy the rest of the campaign world actually operates within. The lack of awareness of this player character economy causes situations where people treat magic items as just another commodity and normal folks couldn’t afford a pint or two after work at the local.

Many folks have noticed the prices in rulebooks are out of whack with seeming reality. Gygax noted the prices in D&D were those of a boom-town economy similar to a gold-rush and yet folks act like the prices are constant and true across kingdoms, on the other side of the world, and on other planes. Wages for low ranking hirelings and many men-at-arms sure aren’t boom-town priced they are wargame overlord end game priced (an abstraction all of their own). The prices in most rulebooks couldn’t hold with the wages listed, they’d be a starting point that would most certainly be going up. Prices are written for an environment where the gold disappears after the players spend it, because it’s fake gold (of course) used as  lever to move things along no one worries where the money goes and what it’s spent on after a sword is bought, ship is built, or 200 crossbowmen are hire. It doesn’t matter where the gold goes in a Player Character Economy until the players start leveraging their wealth and changing the campaign with that wealth.

One area where the Player Character Economy wracks havoc with campaigns is in the buying, selling, and manufacture of magic items. Many a rule set breaks things down into a simple equation with a coast in gp which implies everyone anywhere can have any magical item they want if only they had enough gold pieces. This is because the costs are written for the Player Character Economy where gold is a product of risky action and it disappears after it’s spent. Folks don’t realize the prices for magical item creation are an abstraction for the resources of the player character, as long as only one band of player characters is buying and selling magical items a campaign world may not be undone but expand thast past the special focus of the player character economy and things get whacky.

Special ingredients are the limiting factor on magical item production not gold pieces. When a game doesn’t brign these ingredients into play for expedience (or laziness) everyone is being cheated. How special are +1 swords when you can go buy one when you want? Why would anyone be crazy enough to go to the most dangerous place in the world to earn the funds to get one? If it isn’t special well it isn’t magical.

In the player character economy anyone has the funds to train to be who they want to be, this causes the illusion that the frequency of spell-casters seen among player characters will be seen in any fashion in the population at large. Folks disregard there are 20 or more people working in the fields for every man with a weapon in his hand. Every parish can only have so many priests, every town will only support so many actors or doctors. In the real world everyone can’t afford to be who they want to be all the time, that’s the same fate for 99% or more of the NPCs in the campaign.

Rulebooks gloss over or grossly distort how long it takes to become trained in a field and become really good at a particular skill set. In the real world it takes 8 to 10 years to become a doctor (and they aren’t bending the laws of reality), in some martial societies it takes a decade or longer to become a recognized professional warrior, all it takes for a PC to be the class they want in a lot of rules is a simple act of selection. Perception of player reality and the player character economy has a distorting impact on what is possible for the campaign at large.  Player characters and those able to do as they do are an extreme minority.

Aw come one the rules say a 6th level Mage and 9,000 g.p. is all it take to manufacture the Arcane Doodad of Reality Bending. Really juts a 6th level mage? How does one become a 6th level mage in this game where the Arcane Doodad of Reality Bending costs “only” 9,000 gp? They do so by earning experience points and these experience points are generally earned by going to the most dangerous place in the world possible, surviving and profiting 20 or 30 times (at least). How many characters can pull this off in a campaign and why don’t they feed on each other for the experience points?

If your rulebook Says it takes a 6th level mage and 9,000 gp to make that doodad and 30,000 exp to be 6th level (as an example) it actually costs as much as it does to make that character 6th level plus the manufacture of the item for the economy at large. One must consider what the mage isn’t manufacturing when not fashioning the doodad, why isn’t the mage producing the geegaw instead?

Here and there in rulebooks you’ll see things like: the material component for this spell is a 2500 gp diamond. Really a 2500 gp diamond? How is this diamond different from a 500 gp diamond or a 50 gp diamond? It doesn’t really matter in the Player Character Economy where there are only so many diamonds that will be needed but when one thinks about it would make more sense for that to be a large flawless diamond instead of a 2500 gp diamond. The world has as many 2500 gp gems as customers willing to buy them at that price but there is a limit to how many large flawless diamonds there are. Scarcity drives the value and how special a given spell (or item) is.

Therein lays a big issue with a Player Character Economy the obfuscation of scarcity. The rulebook makes the assumption there will only be so many gp in the coffers of the player characters and this is a valid assumption given how dangerous getting gp typically is. Special goods priced in gp assume the scarcity exists universally but this doesn’t hold up as across a campaign there is no real scarcity of gp in a typical fantasy campaign.

So where’s all this going? It’s really coming down to the recommendation to campaign builders, DMs, and inventive speculators out there to recognize there is a player character economy and a wider campaign economy. What works for a small number of player characters will not work for a wider world. It may cost $600.00 to fill your home oil tank but it isn’t filled with abstract dollar bills but by gallons of oil, if the oil isn’t there no amount of dollars will fill the tank. Keep in mind the relative scarcity of goods and the materials used in manufacture of those goods and going beyond abstract gp of the player character economy will benefit the campaign


  1. I think that's exactly right.

    Sometimes I wonder whether when the player characters are sighted trooping towards town with their sacks of loot there isn't a messenger running from store to store crying, "they're coming! they're coming!" and everyone marks up their prices 1,000%. Though, you're right that that doesn't explain why the typical hireling is willing to sell his services so cheaply. And it's especially odd considering that in order to earn that 1 gold piece (or whatever), the poor fellow has to survive a month of tramping through damp dungeons holding a torch or pole, walking IN FRONT of his employers. "Yay, I've survived, now I can finally afford to buy a small sack!" Perhaps the hirelings need a union, or should at least attend a seminar or two on self-esteem or marketing. :)

    On a serious note, you might want to check out Orbis Mundi (if you haven't already) at, a useful little volume describing medieval life and economics for use in gaming. The prices actually track OD&D and AD&D prices somewhat closely, at least if you upgrade food, wages and a few other things.

    1. Orbis Mundi is a decent book it's a must read for anyone working on an economy and prices for their campaign.

      Maye hirelings are picked up outside the "boom town" market area.

  2. Replies
    1. You have to wonder where all the diamonds are coming from and where all the coins go after they are bought. With the types I play with I'm actually surprised when they don't rob a merchant.

  3. >and yet folks act like the prices are constant and true across kingdoms, on the other side of the world, and on other planes

    Probably because that's how they're presented in every rulebook I've ever seen.

    There's no rules for modifying the list based on this, that, or the other thing. It's just presented as an immutable part of the rules.

    Gygax's tossed off line about boom-town economy smacks of carelessness and looking for a quick explanation for why nothing makes any sense. He just didn't want to take the time to make it make sense, or to design a system to control it.

    A glaring oversight, in my opinion.