Tabletop RPGs are not realistic, and this is a good thing. On one extreme we don’t really want to simulate the hygiene of our fantasy worlds, and on the other we don’t really want to play Apartment: The Playstationing. What RPGs should and do have, though, is verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the appearance of being real, and in RPGs this means that the characters exist in a world which behaves in a way the players expect. One place where games fall down in this respect is in having a world that changes around the characters, one that might even be responsive to their actions. That is why I’m returning to my old stomping ground, the field of economics.
Economics is about how goods and services are produced and consumed, and as such it has a place in any discussion of fictional worlds. As I implied in the opener, though, the reason we consider the economics of our worlds for RPGs is not to make them “realistic”, it’s to make them more interesting, to make them feel more alive. The best campaigns take place in worlds which are dynamic, and economic principles provide us a shorthand that can make the sorts of cause/effect relationships and feedback loops which are all around us in the real world easier to track and understand.
The degree to which any campaign will be impacted by game world economics depends on its genre and its scale. I’m going to be discussing a fantasy world, but these principles work for many settings. As far as scale goes, I’m going to start at a broadly applicable scale, the characters, and work up to the world at large. When it comes to the economics of RPG characters, it’s all about velocity of money.
Personal Finance for Adventurers
Not all role-playing games need money. When Seamus ran the High-Impact Heroics campaign, we did just fine without currency rules of any sort. It stands to reason, then, that if you include rules for money in your game or campaign, they should serve the purpose of making the game more interesting. Treasure mechanics in D&D used to do that. Gold-for-XP, measuring your encumbrance in ‘coins’, these rules helped focus older editions of D&D around the concept of being treasure hunters in dungeons. Nowadays, Fifth Edition characters accumulate money so quickly that gold can’t even pretend to be a motivator for more than the first few sessions, and there really isn’t anything to spend that money on. The game would be better served by a mechanic like that in Fate, where the Resources skill represents personal wealth and money becomes merely another abstracted ability that characters can use to solve problems.
Let’s say you do want money to be important, though. If money is to be part of the resource management that so many traditional RPGs base their mechanical cadence off of, the GM can’t be afraid to make the characters spend it. Money has to flow out of the coffers roughly as quickly as it flows in, otherwise it quickly ceases to be an obstacle (like in modern D&D). Cyberpunk games were trying to do this from the start, but it turns out that tracking monthly expenses in a game is roughly as fun as it is in real life (i.e. not). Two significantly better examples of money in an RPG are Torchbearer and Red Markets. Both of them center around similar conceits: your party is out adventuring not because they want to, but because they have to, and the constant drain on resources to keep yourself well and your equipment maintained is what sets the pace and tone in both of those games. These games also end up being grim because ultimately they’re both allegories for capitalism and grinding poverty. If you want to use the teachings of a game like Torchbearer but keep it more in the power fantasy realm, you still need to keep players from hoarding money by providing ways to spend it. This could be leaning into domain-style play akin to something like Reign or older D&D, or you could be going the direction of a robust (and expensive) crafting or research system, like something you’d find in Ars Magica. Whatever you choose, make sure that if money is a motivation within the game it remains a challenge over the course of that whole game.
Will Dungeon Crawling Wreck the Local Economy?
Many games have text somewhere in them about prices of items changing to reflect external conditions. This is one place where you need rules backing the statement up, because so many players treat gear lists as gospel and expect to pay exactly the amount listed in the book. Games have been putting more interesting rules around the shopping trip; D&D 5e scored a hit here with the “finding a magic item” downtime activity from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The key here is that not everything is easy to find and indeed finding the thing you want to buy should be an adventure in and of itself. When talking about magic items specifically, imagine that there are only half a dozen people wealthy enough to actively trade in magic artifacts in your world. That means that every big artifact to buy or sell has half a dozen adventure seeds.
Of course, the trade of rare and valuable goods is one place where having a better handle on the broader economy could make things much, much more interesting. How rare or common are magical artifacts in your setting? One big place where D&D fails in its worldbuilding is answering this question in a consistent manner, and indeed the entire treasure mechanic for the game seems to exist in a vacuum. This is what has created the internet discussion of “if a D&D adventuring party returns to a village and spends their gold, they could wreck the local economy”. The basic idea is that adventurers will trek up from a dungeon and wander into a village where the currency of note is a copper piece. They, laden down with gold pieces (which are worth 100 copper pieces each) will throw down so much money that the village can’t absorb it, causing localized hyperinflation. There is some logic to this, but it’s addressing a medieval problem with a modern answer. There are two potential answers that make more sense and both provide some interesting adventure threads. The first, more permissive one is that the villagers take their newfound gold and immediately head for the nearest market town and buy livestock. By the time the adventurers return to the village a season or two later, the entire village is more prosperous because they converted the adventuring gold into durable goods. The gold, meanwhile, gets absorbed back into the kingdom’s treasury, and the relative velocity of money is maintained, preventing any undue or noticeable inflation. The second answer is a bit more mean but a bit more realistic: who in the kingdom is going to take these ancient coins as legal tender?
Shopkeepers not accepting weird ancient coins as legal tender is realistic, but is it fun? The honest answer is that it depends on the group, but there’s a lot of interesting nuance around money that can pose interesting challenges to a group on micro and macro scales. D&D liked using copper, silver, and gold not only as flavor but also because it made weight management more important; higher level adventurers might leave a chest full of copper behind if they could grab something more interesting. But knowing that gold is the currency of the nobility, silver the merchants and copper the commoners also gives you some flavor around the role currency plays in daily life. Sure, those might be ancient coins, but if they are in fact pure gold, there are many people (possibly less savory people) who will accept them. Where there are less savory people there are often mercenaries, and where there are mercenaries is a GM who’s raring to go with a domain-based campaign.
The degree to which you must pay attention to your greater economy depends on what you aim to get out of it. Leaning into domain-based play at least requires something like Reign, where each entity tracks their resources and the impact that the actions of others have on said resources. If that’s not the focus, you may not need many rules, but you will need some notes. The less abstracted the currency system the more bookkeeping you’ll have to do, so if you think this is going to play a big role in your game going for something with existing rules or some modularity might be good. One easy way to do this, for example, is to use Fate Core and write each city-state or fiefdom as if it were a character. Using stress tracks to represent a city’s coffers and food stores isn’t exactly an economics simulation, but it’s easy to keep track of and the rules already support writing some easy mechanics that describe how one might attack one of these stress tracks.
Money doesn’t have to be a central part of a role-playing game, even D&D as it currently exists would benefit from rethinking the role treasure plays in the rules as written. If you want money to be important, though, lean in. Make character finances a dynamic force that can’t be ignored, and make money something that affects the world. There are games out there that effectively keep characters from getting rich, and while they’re good games, we must acknowledge the power fantasy element inherent in a stereotypical RPG. Any game that has made money so boring that players ignore it, and many RPGs do, has failed to truly capture the fantasy and story potential of piles of gold.
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3 thoughts on “Level One Wonk: Fantasy Economics”
Awesome thoughts in this article. Especially Gold=nobles, silver=merchants and copper=commoners! Thanks! That’s why I’ve invested in getting a whole bunch of coins from Campaign Coins.
I encourage everyone to check them out. Totally leans into the verisimilitude and immersion of D&D!
Honest questions, since I’m not an expert about the subject:
Would ancient coins really be rejected though?
Wouldn’t a gold coin retain its intrinsic value? Weren’t coins issued by a central authority mostly as a way to “certify” the amount and quality of gold/silver/bronze in them? And didn’t they (at least most of the time, in pre-modern Europe) have a face value corresponding the raw metal value?
Weren’t a wide variety of coins from different places circulating in Medieval Europe? Weren’t touchstones used exactly for the purpose of testing the pureness of – possibly unfamiliar – coins?
On a more RPG-related note:
A Land of Ice and Blades (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product_info.php?products_id=202880) has a clever and relatively simple trading system: there are the usual three kinds of coins (copper/silver/gold), but you track the exact numbers only for the most valuable “tier” you can afford to spend. That is, if you’re capable of spending silver you keep track of your silver coins, but you just assume that you can afford whatever “copper level” commodity you need.
With this system, you don’t even need to define exchange rates (in fact, the rules say that you can’t exchange coins at all): all you need to know is what kind of goods and living standard you can buy with each type of coins.
Add in the mix social status, domain play, and debts and you have a driving motor for your personal economy forcing the PCs to seek ways to earn money no matter how rich or noble they are.
No expert myself, but to my thinking you standardize money so you don’t have to spend a lot of time converting things, especially if it comes down to the weight and purity of a metal coin. If the ancient minter’s standards are too far off from ‘modern’ ones, or aren’t consistent enough, you might not be able to find someone willing to exchange money with you because of the sheer hassle caused by the difference. Of course if the standards are close enough, especially if it is ‘here’s a solid gold coin’, well, nobody’s going to turn that down just ’cause they don’t want to break out the scales.
Even the chance of converting ancient money goes out the window, though, if the currency isn’t a ‘valuable’ material and was instead just backed by the government of whoever made it; without that government around, *fart noises*. Dark Sun’s ceramic pieces wouldn’t be worth anything without Sorcerer Kings telling everyone otherwise. Same goes for current but foreign money, really, if there’s something off about where it comes from (cruddy economy, ongoing civil war, zombie plague) then things tank.
Also, considering these are fantasy economics, ancient empires have a nasty tendency to have fallen in some kind of cataclysm or to otherwise have a bad rep; there’s a decent chance the innkeeper sees coins marked with the visage of the Last Emperor of Bael Turath and promptly considers your money cursed.
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