Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Worrying About The Economy

That is to say, the fantasy economy.

I mean, I could share my opinions on what I think of the price of RPGs and the pay rate of game designers. I could just as easily talk about Argentina, whose economy (to me) feels like its on the brink of collapse. Have you ever been to Buenos Aires? To me, it's kind of the Paris of South America (especially considering the size and beauty of its boulevards and the presence of dog shit that no one bothers to clean up). But when you ask a hotel concierge where you can exchange some money, and he says "Oh, yeah...there's a guy on the street corner about 20 meters down the block who seems pretty legit" there's a whole new type of surreality you've entered as a world traveler.

Seriously. Shady dudes propositioning you "Change money?" as you walk down the street, with the same frequency as I used to hear "Buy some acid?" in the University District back home. And then there's the whole counterfeit money thing going on (where even the black-market dealers warn you about trying to give 100 peso notes to taxi drivers, 'cause they'll flip it on you, and the tourist warnings that you're slightly less likely to get counterfeit cash at the bank). For a city that's so big and hip and educated (you can't throw a rock without hitting a couple book stores)...maybe it's just me, but it sure seems to be teetering on the edge of (economic) destruction.

Anyway, NO...that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the economy of the fantasy campaign setting I'm working on. Worrying about the real world economy is waste of my sweet, precious time, considering all the power and control I have over it (i.e. "not much"). The new fantasy world, though...well, there I have a chance to make a difference. Maybe. If I can get it straight.

There's a lot of stuff that's gone into my mind to make this mess of soup that's currently driving me crazy. I mean, so many that, well... *sigh* Let me post a few just so you can get where I'm coming from:

- There's this recent post from Peter Schwieghofer. A lot of my recent game designs have included rules for choosing equipment without going shopping. This is a practice that I first started when I began rebooting Cry Dark Future in an attempt to cut down the absolute torture of chargen from scratch when you have an equipment list roughly the size of Shadowrun (the same issue holds true with actual Shadowrun, which is why they give you a robust list of "archetypes" choose from). The thing is, choosing equipment for one's character is one of the very fun and captivating things about D&D. It puts you in the mindset of your character, it helps you feel the character, selecting your long as the list isn't overwhelmingly long, of course. For a D&D-style game, I want that feeling of "equipping oneself for an expedition." It's damn necessary to the feel of the game.

- Then there's this article from Mr. Lizard regarding the various coinage of Arduin which (like Mr. Lizard) I find incredibly inspirational and suggestive of the scope and possibility of a fantasy campaign. Of course, it helps (or doesn't help) that I've had this other post from Tim Shorts saved on my laptop since March, because I've been wanting to talk about it and the possibilities it suggests. Not just the different cultural currencies, but as a medium of different coins are worth different values to different peoples. Maybe the "10 gp = 1 pound" measurement makes a bit of sense...if you consider that (due to the exchange rate) you need a pound of coins to get 10gp worth of value.

- There's my own recent work on a B/X supplement in which I finally managed to hash out a cosmology that (for me) justifies the way magic works vis-a-vis the B/X rules/systems. And how, if the DM plays RAW and doesn't give away spells for free, the acquisition of spells for magic-users and elves can be a good train of excess party gold. It's got me thinking of all sorts of ways to balance the fantasy economy. This recent post by Alexis regarding henchmen is also excellent food for thought...even PCs who steadfastly refuse to "settle down" and buy castles should have things to spend cash on. There's no reason for PCs to be hauling "useless" hoards of treasure at the mid-to-high levels.

- Then there's Alexis again. Damn it, Alexis. If you're a regular reader of his blog you've been subjected to all manners of posts on the fantasy economy via the man's extensive and elaborate trade tables (here's an example). The point often missed by folks, including me when I first started looking at them (*cue eyes glazing over*) is that they're NOT about modeling "reality" or a "realistic" economy. They're just about modeling an economy...period. In aid of making his campaign setting a more immersive experience for his players. Mr Smolensk doesn't want a world where every town carries an identical "adventurer store" stocking the same inventory found on page XX of whatever edition you happen to be playing. Likewise, the inclusion of such a system creates ideas for adventures based on its very system, as the players (via their characters) interact with a world with an uncaring, driving, elemental (economic) force. I don't want to create (or recreate) a system or world like that of Alexis, but its worth noting the power that having such a system...such to one's game. Now that I've seen that, I can't "un-see" it, you know? The idea is there.

So, then how does all this stuff combine to cause me worry? Let me give you an example from this morning:

I was taking a break from my analysis of clerical spells (that's a subject for a different post) and thinking about armor in general. This may have been due in part to some recent thoughts about two-weapon fighting (another subject for a different post), and considering whether or not I wanted to have an actual list of armors in this fantasy world I was building, or just go with something abstract ("light armor" versus "heavy armor," for example). Going back to that idea of "the fun" and potential immersion of actually buying something for your character, I started considering what specific armor would I like on a list, were I to do that.

From there I started thinking about there really not be something called leather armor, but if we were to say a gambeson, or thick furs, or other type of "padding" and then add the armor value of a simple helm (not a fully enclosed, visored thing), we might be able to get to the light armor category B/X calls "leather armor." That would be AC 7, two points better than the unarmored AC 9, and we could even go so far as to break that down into:

Gambeson: 1 point of armor (+1 to AC), and
Simple helm: 1 point of armor (+1 to AC)

From that little idea, it was short trip to breaking down all the standard B/X armors (chain mail and "plate mail") into their component parts. For example:

"Half" chain mail (short hauberk) (+1 to AC),
Full chain mail (+1 to AC)

This guy? AC 4.
Which, when added to the gambeson and helm gives one the AC 5, right? Once you start breaking things down, you can do all sorts of fun things, like add greaves and vambraces to a cuirass without the benefit of mail in order to model some ancient soldiers, or add little bonuses like AC +2 for a great helm (instead of the standard +1). You can even list full suits on your "shopping list" for people who don't want to bother mixing-and-matching various armor pieces.

Anyway, I thought it was a neat, rather simple way to add a little detail, a little extra "player choice" to the game, or even to spice up NPC encounters with component bits of armor.

[hmmm...note to self: need to review the partial armor system in BECMI's Orcs of Thar]

*ahem* I was saying, it was a neat little idea, but then I started thinking:

How much should I charge for a gambeson?

And it all went to hell. Because the implication...of doing the research and getting consistent values for something based not only on game considerations but also a modeled (fantasy) economy, just made me want to throw up my hands and quit.

Because even though it's possible to do some research on what things really cost 5-600 years ago and then transcribe those costs onto the currency/value of an Arabian world that had a similar level of technology (as I did with Five Ancient Kingdoms)...or even to look at current, real world costs and extrapolate them into the future using a fantasy currency (as I did with Cry Dark Future), what do you do when you're making a gonzo culture that mixes medieval tech with super science and magic in a post-apocalyptic landscape? Especially one set on a different planet with (presumably) different levels of resources, not to mention and ecologic and geographic features that may make trade of some goods more or less valuable? Even if take some arbitrary number or coin or measure to start, I've got to balance it against everything else.

I spent a lot of time reading through the Song of Ice and Fire Wiki, looking at that particular fantasy world and it's currency and trade info. While there's neat stuff there, it's ill-defined because it only gets brought up in relation to the plot at hand (i.e. as Martin requires for his fiction). We learn that 100-300 gold dragons is a reasonable ransom for a captured knight, and that a complete set of good steel armor costs 800 silver stags (a bit less than four dragons), but these are subject to wild fluctuation based on the state of the fantasy economy (things like war causing rapid and incredible inflation of prices)...which means "these things can change at any time," right? How do you build that into a game?

The end result of all this? Probably just spinning my wheels again. That's really the sad truth of the matter. I will probably, probably just throw up a bunch of arbitrary numbers on a sheet of paper (or spreadsheet), most likely arbitrary numbers based in whole or part on B/X or Holmes. Because it's expedient. Because there are other aspects of game play and world building that requires attention. Because it's just a game.

BUT...but, I'm not sure that's really good enough for me. I've got too many ideas crammed into my skull. If my posting seems slow this week, it's because that's what's occupying my focus.


  1. Figure out what 1 AC costs, and work from there. I'd do either linear or with diminishing returns, whichever is closest to B/X.

    1. @ Josh:

      That very easy in B/X: 10gp per point of AC. This holds true for both armor worn and shields.

      However, I hate to say it, but I think I want something a little less mechanical in feel.
      ; )

  2. How about gambeson or helm 10gp, scale/chain hauberk 30gp, vambraces 50gp, greaves 80gp, breastplate 120gp?

    _Oriental Adventures_ did piecemeal armor as setting builder pretty well.

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  4. You're starting at the wrong end. You are looking at things that are important to adventurers, and that's important for the game. However, to come to the value of those things in the setting, you need to start with how people eat and survive. There's a supplement on DTRPG that might help you out, or at least give you some ideas on how to approach things, called Grain Into Gold. There are also Orbis Mundi and Farm, Forge, and Steam that might come in handy, but Grain Into Gold is the most useful of those for what you're talking about here.

    1. Yep. I read that document. Awfully stale, large amounts of it pulled right out of the author's **, a thoroughly impractical system for prices based on travel (sounds reasonable but just try it on a big scale) and limited to what the author remembered to include.

      Mostly, just a stunt with what seems like a lot of work behind it. But if it works for a reader, well enough. Any kind of economy in an RPG is a good thing - and people who try it and grow unsatisfied with it might come knock at my door.

  5. Economic Stuff:
    Firewood & Timber
    -An acre of light forest represents 20,000lb timber.
    -light forest regenerates in twenty years.
    -An individual requires 10,000lb of firewood per year.
    -It takes a day for one woodsman to chop down an acre of light forest.
    -It takes one person a week to process that acre of forest to firewood.
    -It takes nine wagon load trips to move the wood of the acre to a destination (forest to village).

    Mining & Quarrying
    -The mineability of anything is considered to be one ounce of gold per ton.
    -One thousand cubic feet of stone is about seventy six tons. This means a 10'x10'x10' volume of stone costs seventy six ounces of gold (475sp per 10'x10'x10' building stone).
    -It takes five stone cutters to quarry cut and rough one thousand cubic feet of stone in one week.
    -seventy six heavy cart trips to move one thousand cubic feet of stone to its destination.

    That gives you the basics. Once you factor in distance it becomes multiples of the quarry/logging cost. A well managed estate might maintain a thousand carts and the drivers who move them. An isolated village not so much.

    Starting Economy categories:
    Dirt Poor (club, staff, fire hardened spear; no armour)

    Poor (daggers, bows, fire hardened arrows; leather armor, coined armour, )

    Comfortable (hand axes, smithed arrow/spear heads, sword, short sword; shields)

    Wealthy (battle axes, pole arms, two handed swords, crossbows; chain mail)

    Very wealthy (magic weapons; plate mail, magic armour)

    1. The problem with that simple answer, Sean, is that it only makes ONE economy - whereas we know from our experience that the world is made of hundreds of economies, with different places basing their sense of poor, comfortable and wealthy on completely different things. What is the difference in wealth between Lapland and Ghana, for interest. What makes a wealthy man in Samoa? Are the rules for armor and wealth the same in Japan as they are for England?

      Moreover, how exactly does the difference in your standards of wealth help me price a bottle of something distilled next door versus something bottled three hundred miles away? How does it help me price the bottle? If the bottle is broken, how is the value of the glass (completely reusable) calculated? What is the difference in price between a 'fire hardened' spear or an ordinary spear? How much does the fire-hardening cost if I want it for some other object? How does the fire-hardening cost apply to the flask I'm carrying or the piece of pottery I want to give to my girlfriend?

      See, the problem is that although you've offered a framework, that framework is inflexible where it comes to details: and details are what the players care about. After all, we don't go to the phone store to get a "phone." We go to get a specific type of phone that we've spent hours considering and that afterwards we'll spend hundreds of hours fiddling with. How does your economic proposal address THAT problem in a way that will make the players care?

      Because if the players don't care, there's no solution at all.

    2. Call the gp cost a comparative trade value. Ten daggers is equal in cost to a leather armour and a shield but you are not going to get leather and shield in this village and the next village will gouge you on the exchange offering a shield for ten you need to travel there.

      You are looking for information theory as an economic solution. Availabilty of high end goods is like information. It flows from high populations to low populations and source population and distance of that source are determining factors.

      Basic formula:

      Information accuracy%=0.24x((population^0.87)/(distance^0.4))

      So if you call that information value: 'goods entering local economy' you get the village just a few miles outside the city might get a lot of stuff that a village eighty miles away doesnt. Call the information% the chance of a source produced item being available in the destination. Your town of five thousand might have several hundred percent of having goods manufactured in the city of fifty thousand some eighty miles away...but that city has around thirty percent chance of goods produced by your town available. Information is considered to be the singularly common tradegood it could even be the dungeon masters currency of your setting. It means if your armed and armoured and horsed up adventurers ride into a village in ghana they might find themselves set on by starving pesants who cook their horses and rob and kill them. The likely hood that this incident gets back to the city with fifty thousand people is low. A tenth of the likelyhood that the village heard that the wealthy ride horses and feed them a family portion of grain rather than eat them.

    3. Yes, Sean.

      If you had followed the link that JB included in his post, you'd have discovered that I've been doing your suggestion for about 15 years now. But thanks anyway.

    4. Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed; the ability to model a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Game.

      You have a world, a greatly detailed one. There are infinite worlds, none alike. The Game is not the world. The world can fall away and the Game persists. How can this be? The Game only requires the imagination be engaged, and shared.

      Understanding that there are differences between locations and cultures and economies and expressing these in palpable ways absolutely does not require formulae. Engaging a player in a rich and varied Game absolutely does not require trade tables. Some people do some weird things for kicks. I'm not the kind of person who'll say that they can't have their fun.

      When was the last time you were a player in a game that lasted at least 5 sessions? When was the last time that game was not an edition of D&D? And when was the last time you enjoyed yourself in such a game?

    5. "Technological terror."

      Ooo, I like that.

  6. On the subject of fantasy economics, I cannot recommend the work of Critical Hits's "multiplexer" highly enough. She's a historian and economist and her analyses of fantasy tropes through that lens are phenomenal.

  7. @ Everyone:

    See why this all makes my head spin?

  8. JB: "all this makes my head spin..."

    I've gone a few rounds with one of your sources on this topic; I have a slightly radical view for someone who appreciates detail as much as I do.

    It's much more important to have a feeling for what the local/regional/world economy is like than to have exhaustive charts & numbers for same.

    It's a simple matter of economy; the real one this time: your personal labour and the labour of those at your table. You run for people at a table, not for ideological purity, and I for one would rather spend my prep-time wrapping my head around the personalities of the NPCs within likely travelling distance of the PCs than determining the expense of applying imported sealing rosins to a scabbard.

    When is the *specific* detail like this going to matter? Only during Town Exploration. How many towns can your party shop in during a single night of gaming? Oh you have a long-running campaign? Use the prices to tell a story ("Hm, last month when we passed through, weren't the beers half as much?").

    The price of something ONLY matters if it matters. That isn't guru obfuscation; it's a statement designed to get GMs to focus on what matters to their game. And not the idea of the game, not how it looks on paper, the actual play at the table. I don't know what matters to your players during your sessions, but I bet you have some ideas. Let those make your head spin.

    Faking it with a price list you found anywhere is good enough if you have something else to prep. If these details matter to you, to your enjoyment of your own sessions, then I wouldn't presume to stop you. When you nab a chart or a price list, YOU own the way you import it into your game, so you get to decide if it's wrong or not. If a price bothers you, change it. If the economy of why you changed it matters, come up with a reason, write it down, and move on. If the party travels to a different kingdom, figure out the difference in a few important products, and apply a multiplier.

    It's a game, guys. You're supposed to play it. If you're abandoning "simulating a real" economy from the start, why torture yourself over it? If I'm at your table and in a "gonzo culture that mixes medieval tech with super science and magic in a post-apocalyptic landscape" and I have time to head down to the market to get a new helmet, I will be much more concerned with the hover-chair-mounted carnivorous apes shooting red and green lightning at me than whether the price of said helm is 'accurate' to the planetary economic conditions.

    Your players shouldn't have time to care. Care enough to get in the ballpark of prices, then pitch the ball.

    1. I finally see the weakness in this argument. There are simply those who don't understand that the mechanical parts of the game really MATTER. If you break it down, Mujadaddy's whole argument is, "Monopoly should take much less time dealing with the exhaustive, tiresome process of moving around on a board where the dice are rolled again and again, and just concern themselves with playing the game!"

      This is the game. It is a shame that many can't see it.

    2. The name of the game is Dungeons and Dragons, not Markets and Accountants. The effort to verisimilitude ratio of figuring out 'realistic' economic values is nearly nil.

      Simulating the economy beyond 'You guys have pumped a bunch of gold into an economy based on silver - here's what's happened to the village you started in' is really not that important.

      There are far better ways to show that the characters are having an effect on the world than trying to 'simulate' an inevitably inaccurate economy.

      Adventuring is the game, and hours and hours of prep that the players aren't going to see much of isn't part of it for people who put any sort of value on their time.

    3. Roger, I have your answer here:

    4. A strawman of Bolgerian proportion, that.

      I'm not sure you appreciate that I've already dealt with this comment: IF (and that's a big 'if') this level of detail matters to you and to your players, I will not stand against your efforts. No one wants to confront a player's good question about their own game world with a blank expression.

      My commentary on this post has been to bring up the approach contrary to the direction JB seemed to be heading. "Don't focus on the cost of braces and buckles, JB," I said. "You have other things to concentrate upon before any of that will matter."

      The mechanical parts of a game do not matter; they are pure contrivance which exist solely to relate character interaction with the game world to the players. The game is not rolling dice and tracking data; the game is making the players understand where, and who and how they are.

      Detail is good, but being able to use detail at the table is a higher good. It does not matter to the players if your details are rigorous, as long as they are consistent. Verbal Kent tells a story from disconnected details; the details are woven together in a consistent way, and Agent Couvillon is satisfied. THIS is How To Run.

    5. Take note of the black-and-white dilemma that's consistently presented. We're told to pay attention to things that "matter" without any clear definition of what those things are. Then we're told - with no room for nuance - that something "doesn't matter." Black. White.

      Details are divided into only two categories: "good" and "higher good." There's no validation for this measurement and no effort to offer one.

      The whole linked post (we must assume the whole post because there is no attempt whatsoever to separate out the thirty or forty points the post makes) is described as a "straw man argument" - but in no way does it say what the "straw man" is. Again, black and white logic: it is this, therefore it is not that.

      Yet Mujadaddy has read much of my blog, has read literally hundreds of posts that I've written on every conceivable part of the game - much of it esoteric, artistic, ephemeral - but this is all instantly dismissed because it is necessary to carefully stress that I've written none of that, but that I'm a very narrow minded black and white writer that only writes about "mechanical parts of the game." Take note of the failure of the false dilemma. Believe me! Do this! Do not do that! THERE ARE NO OTHER CHOICES.

      This sort of black and white thinking has polluted the subject material long enough.

    6. (Hm, because of the way nested replies work in this blogger template, you can't actually tell that I was responding to your reply to me, rather than to the reply to RBurgess. Please make a note of this; I was well into my direct reply before I saw your specific response to RBurgess, and I didn't address that post.)

      In the comments on this post, I've attempted to state my case: when collecting or creating detail for a game, there is a point of diminished return where this detail simply will not be raised at the table.

      This is not up for debate; it is a fact. We must account for this fact to prioritize our effort, because no one has unlimited time to concentrate on everything they might want to include; not while preparing to run and especially not during a session.

      Beyond restating my case plainly, there's not much for me to gnaw here. You claim that my position lacks nuance, when sober analysis of the continuum of hidden effort v. expressable detail is my entire position. Rather than reflecting on this idea, you quibble about measurement when it is axiomatic that if it's not expressed at the table, it's not in the game. "When in doubt, deny all terms & definitions" is a scoundrel's debating tactic.

      At no point have I told anyone what they should or should not do. "What does not matter" has always been declared in terms of what can be expressed at the table, with the specific exception that the participants define what does and does not matter to them.

      Please consider addressing the point I'm making, rather than obliterating points which I've not. Meanwhile, I'll see if there's anything made of stronger stuff than straw in your reply to RBurgess.


    If you want actual agriculture yields for produce you can use this. I used it to determine produce yields for several estates in the mystaran karameikos setting and found the 'nice places' were half starved and the 'bad places' were ideal and well fed.

  10. Base the economy on quality, utility, and demand not GP (or SP) and you could get it right. Quantifying those things in the real world is barkingly mad but in a fanatsy campaign the DM actually has the authority and capability to quantify those things.
    D&D actually screws this up all over the place by having some spells tied to GP cost such as a Raise Dead spell requiring a 5000 gp diamond to which one must wonder if how would that not make all diamonds cost at least 5000 GP? It would make more sense to require a specific cut and clarity of diamond.
    What should a gambeson cost compare to a helment f they both improvE ac by 1 ? What factors define it's uility,quality, and demand compared to that helm Is it more or less durable? Can anyone wear it, is the helet a prestige item or limited by class, how should that impact cost? Is it more or less encumbering than other options, what is that price difference worth? In real life it's material cost, cost of production, cost of inventory,cost to ship, and demand but the fantasy reality of a game where some of what we think of as solid reality becomes fluid we can see what becomes economically important changes.

  11. If you need to do something like this, steal Traveller's system and reskin it as necessary.

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