Tuesday, February 1, 2022

How Money Spends

As I type this, I am waiting for a dude to show up to my house to fix my artificial fireplace. The bill for this repair will probably be in excess of $500, but having suffered through the entire month of January with cold tile floors, I'm ready to spend...after all, what good is a fireplace that doesn't work? Decoration?

Some time in the next ten days I will need to make a deposit of about $600 for tuition for the kids' school next year. Next month, my family is planning a ten-ish day vacation that will include hotel fees of hundreds per night (we won't discuss airfare). In March will come due the bill for the premier (year round) soccer team my son is on...don't know when my daughter's comes due (different team) though hers is substantially less. Then, of course there are her piano lessons ($30 a week), softball fees, flag-football for the boy next month (he wants to give it a try and has a cannon arm so...okay)...that last one is going to be $135, perhaps because it has Russell Wilson's name on it.

I need a haircut. I need a dentist appointment. Just had the car in the shop for two days but (fortunately) everything was under warranty, so no cost there...although the car won't be paid off for another year or so of monthly payments. And gas is more than $50 a tank right now, which sucks unimaginably. Phone, internet, streaming services, cable bill, insurance, mortgage, utilities, etc...it all adds up. Buying the stuff I needed for doing laundry cost me $25, but should last a couple weeks.

Gross sales for books in January (print and pdf)) was a bit more than $300. Good thing the fam doesn't rely on me for income. I just do the grocery shopping.

Over a hastily swallowed breakfast this morning, I explained to the kids how credit cards work. That's a good conversation to have (had to disabuse the 7 year old of some strange notions) and one I expect to have multiple times over the next couple years. Conversations about borrowing and debt and interest and predatory lending practices are not really the kind of thing my parents talked about with me as a child...which is too bad, as I ended up finding out about some of it the hard way. But educating 'em, hopefully, will insulate them from at least some bad decisions in their future. After all, in real life you don't get to roll up a new character just because you screwed up with choices you made.

The burden of living in a world of money concerns is a great reason/excuse/justification for escaping into the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons (or ANY role-playing game), where players are directed to magic holes in the ground over-flowing with treasure, ripe for the taking (and armed with the skills and equipment needed to take that treasure). Given the needs of LIVING (even fantasy living) is there really an obligation to include an alignment axis in the game? Characters have to EAT, after all...given that little factoid, does it matter whether my character is good or evil and that a monstrous being holds to any particular faction?

I know, I know...I said I wanted to start a series of posts about "world building" and here I am talking about money/treasure (again!). But the thing is this concept of money is of critical importance to D&D...I daresay that along with 100% commitment/investment, it's a foundational concept that has to be nailed down in your head/heart for any world building to be successful. 

Otherwise, you end up with faulty thinking along the line of this recent post from Noisms

And lest anyone think I'm throwing Noisms under a bus here, I wrote a very similar post waaaay back in 2010; it did not offer his "solutions," but the "problem" raised was (more-or-less) the same: too much treasure enters the game as a necessity of character advancement. And, after reading through the comments, I can see I was still thinking along these lines as late as 2017 and had not for sure changed my opinion till 2020 or thereabouts. That's a long time to be laboring under a misconception.

The issue is not one of too much money in a campaign. The issue is one of not enough things to SPEND that money on. And that, my friends, is a world building issue.

As I mentioned (briefly) in this old post, the AD&D reward system is tied tightly to the game's fantasy economy, especially with training costs and living expenses, two things not present in the the various editions of "basic" D&D. OD&D has living expenses (p. 24 of Book 3) equivalent to 1% of a character's XP for players who've yet to establish a stronghold/barony, but no training costs...I suspect that "training" was implemented by Gygax as a direct method of curbing PC wealth because the costs involved are exorbitant; so much so that the training section may be the most house-ruled part of any AD&D campaign I've seen, being discarded or heavily modified in every group I've witnessed.

Regardless, in a well-run campaign, excessive treasure accumulation shouldn't be an issue because PCs should be spending cash almost as quickly as they earn it. Almost...a constant state of being flat-broke is generally disheartening to a group of players, discouraging them from playing at all. The balancing act that all DMs must walk is allowing them to accumulate while still keeping the players hungry.  And THAT is not a matter of being stingy with treasure...it's about giving them things to spend that treasure on.

You want examples? Okay.

First: consider the kinds of things YOU spend money on...things like food, shelter, travel, vehicles, etc. Now consider what you might purchase if you HAD more money: better food, better shelter, better vehicles, nicer tools, etc. Now consider the fantasy world you live in and what the fantasy equivalents of these things are: do you want to sleep in a ditch, a hovel, a roadside inn, a manor house, a castle? Do you want to eat gruel or something a little fancier? Do you want to have bargain bin adventuring equipment or stuff that's going to function better and more reliably and is sturdier / less prone to breakage? 

Do you want to be a lone traveler on roads rife with orcs and bandits, or an armed caravan that discourages interlopers on your way from town to town. Do you have enough animals that you can ensure your mounts stay fresh? Do you have a wagon for carrying goods, including provisions for the entire outfit (animals included! working horses need grain, not just grazing!)? You definitely don't want to be slowing down for forage. How about spare parts for those wagons/carts...how good are the roads? Are there roads where you're going? If not, you'll probably need a mule train (with drivers) to pack all your gear. 

Do the characters dress like peasants? Do they hang out in tiny farm villages, trading jewels for food and homespun? Or do they make for the larger towns and cities looking to bedeck themselves in silks and furs and filigreed armor? Ermine capes and jeweled pedants and giant, fancy hats that display their ostentation should be the goal of successful adventurers.

Let's talk about "fencing goods" for a moment...the practice of turning loot in easily spent coin. Coins, as I pointed out in this recent post (and others) are simply a medium of exchange, for goods and services. You change the ancient crown of Rodrick the Fifth for 50,000 g.p. because you don't want to wear it and it's easier to split the take among party members. But once you receive your share...say, 10,000 gold pieces...what do you plan on doing with your half-ton of coins? Put it in sacks and pull it in a cart? No: you exchange it for portable valuables, like jewelry your character WILL wear: bracelets, broaches, necklaces, rings (finger and other), etc. Or you buy expensive gifts for local nobles, trusted retainers, guild masters, and such. Not only does one's possessions (and generosity) signify the character's growing status/prestige, but it should be worth bonuses to reaction rolls, morale and loyalty of retainers, etc. as detailed in the rule books!

Are your characters high enough level to cast raise the dead? Cure disease? Remove curse? Turn stone back to flesh? Everyone bitches and moans about level drain...did you know there's a restoration spell in AD&D? The sample price (on page 104 of the DMG) suggests a cost of 10,000 g.p. "plus a like amount per level of the recipient." That's pretty steep, but since the party probably doesn't have a 16th level cleric, it may be the price they have to pay after an extremely brutal encounter with wights or wraiths. The local patriarch is probably okay casting the spell on credit (which the party will need to pay back after several ventures)...and so long as they have similar alignment, the church may be willing to forgo interest on the the balance.

And speaking of those cash-gaining adventures...just how exactly do your players discover the next lucrative dungeon to plumb? Are they hearing rumors of long forgotten shrines and lost cities? Okay...so how are they finding them? Are they paying sages (2,000 g.p. per month in B/X and OD&D) to research locations and maps? Are they paying "finders fees" to unsavory and untrustworthy types for "authentic" maps to these places? Assuming they are out-of-the-way adventure sites (that haven't already been looted) do they need to hire ships to take them (and their retainers and their provisions and their gear) to far off islands, inaccessible coastlines, etc. Ships cost money, too...so does their crew, captain, navigator, provisions, etc. But with the heady prospect of making MORE money...well, it's an investment in hopes of a return.

When it comes to the coinage of D&D, I take a page from the book of Anthony Huso (whose blog I find quite enlightening) and try to keep in mind that one silver piece can be considered to have the spending power of $1 (US). Viewed in this way, a gold piece is nothing more than a twenty dollar bill. 30-180 gold pieces to outfit a 1st level character in B/X means the neophyte adventurer has a maximum of $3600 to his or her name, and a average of $2000.

That's not a lot of money! How fast can YOU burn through $2000? The federal poverty line in the United States for a family of four is $26,500 per year...the fantasy equivalent of 1,325 gold pieces (about 110 per month). When the Rules Cyclopedia talks about "dominion income" of 10 g.p. per month per family, this is ruler income in services rendered by the peasants, not the actual amount of income (or "service equivalent") being generated/earned. Or, to put it another way: peasants don't work solely for the benefit of the ruler. That's what slaves do. MOST of the peasant family's work is going back into its own household (feeding, clothing, and sheltering itself) with part of the surplus being paid out as a form of "tribute" to the lord (and taxes are separate altogether). And when I say "most" I mean probably 90% or more.

SO... 100 gold per family per month...1,200 gold per year...still gives us "impoverished peasant" (or rural agrarian society) but with PLENTY of coin...or, rather, coin equivalent (keep saying to yourself medium of exchange). Just remember: it's not that the peasants (and bakers and butchers and candlemakers) have coffers overflowing with golden coins. They earn (or create) "stuff" and then they exchange that "stuff" for other "stuff" in a constant flow of distribution and redistribution, setting aside a portion to pay taxes and church tithes and/or (perhaps) aid their fellow humans.

And just as in real life, the dudes at the top skim a portion off the top of everything to stack in their vaults.

An adventurer coming to town with a boatload of cash doesn't suddenly change the economy. Economy's don't change over night.  And communities able to subsume large amounts of wealth (townships and cities) are even LESS amenable to change...all that treasure is just getting dispersed and distributed.

Look: how much experience does a magic-user need to earn to reach 7th level? 60,001 in AD&D (my edition of choice). Assuming 85% of that experience comes from treasure (not an unreasonable assumption) and perhaps 80% of that treasure is monetary (rather than magical), you're looking at a character that's accumulated somewhere around 40,000 gold pieces over the course of her career, the fantasy equivalent of some $800,000. Quite a chunk of change, right?

But this the equivalent of gross income...income not counting expenses (what the PC spends on outfitting ventures, fees, taxes, costs, retainers, etc.). You know what the average gross revenue for a bar in the United States is? $330,000. That's average. There are a lot of folks who'd call a 7th level adventurer pretty successful (among my current players, we've yet to see someone achieve 6th level). Just how much game time does it take for said magic-user to reach 7th level? I'd think that might be a more accurate measure of "success."

[and, hey, while some folks might say "just surviving is success," remember that this is a game where dead adventurers can be raised fairly easily]

In that previously cited post, one commenter stated it had taken two years for a character in his campaign to achieve 7th level. $400K per year? That's hardly more than one would earn running a pub...an average pub. Not even a high end one which might earn HUGE revenues in the right environment with the right clientele. Yet, even then, it doesn't mean the owner of the bar is FILTHY RICH, as most of those revenues go into the cost of running the bar...not just inventory, but staff salaries, cleaning costs, upkeep, lease, taxes, licenses, new equipment, repairs, insurance, etc. Of course, the owners have to pay themselves, too, right?

JB, JB...what the hell is all this? I don't care about this accounting BS! I just want to hunt trolls and fight owl bears, and explore the the halls of giants and the (treasure) vaults of the Drow! Why are you just going on and on and on! If I wanted to start a small business, I wouldn't be playing D&D!!

All right, man, I get it. You're looking at the game a certain way: as a chance to escape the "drudgery" of the real world and play the hero or the dastardly villain just like some movie you saw or book you read. Right? All this thinking of "adventuring" as an enterprise...as a venture business...is detracting from the fun of the thing. Too fiddly.

Here's the thing: as I talked about in my last post, the ONLY thing that will satisfy me (with regard to D&D gaming) is to have full investment...which, to me, is a combo of engagement and commitment...from the folks at the table (myself included). And what once led to that investment has CHANGED for me over the years. Because I have changed.

I am not a kid anymore. I'm not as ignorant as I once was (that is a post all to itself). And while I don't (yet) mind the people in my world playing from an ignorant point of view, I'm not going to coddle them any more and...chances are...if they play ignorant, they will probably suffer. 

And if they suffer enough...well, they probably won't want to play in my world any more. And that's, you know, okay. I am going to try to make it as "fun" and "interesting" as possible. The work, the brow sweat being put into this is almost entirely my own, anyway. They (the players) just have to show up and play well. You know...like real people. Real adventurers.

Because I want a game that is immersive. I want a game that drags them in. I want a game that consumes them...as it once consumed me, long ago.

When I was a kid, I was less demanding. Now I am more demanding. I have to be. Because I have too much shit on my plate to run a D&D game as a "lark." Dude, I'd rather play Camel Up. Or Axis & Allies. Lot less brain power, and still quite a bit of excitement/laughs. 

All right, I'm digressing from the original point. Time to cut out. Hopefully world building will be next.


  1. 'And gas is more than $50 a tank right now, which sucks unimaginably.'

    Here in Spain this is the norm since... 2002 or so. Now it's even worse. But this is not a post to complain about the economy of my country, sorry!

    I was the person that asked in the Noism's Discord about the brutal fortunes that PC's need for leveling up, so I'm thankfull of this post! You reallu touched a couple of things that I did not think about, thanks. I still have the problem of my players being misers, but I need to think how to penalize it.

    Thanks for your post JB!

    1. You’re welcome! And, yeah, I know Americans have no right to complain about their cheap gas…I’ve driven in other countries. Got a speeding ticket in Spain once.
      ; )

      I think it’s less about penalizing the players and more about incentivizing them…making it worthy their while. Have NPCs treat them better if they’re dressed better. Subtly change their retainers’ attitudes (complaining about worn out gear, etc). Have a wainwright sell them an extra wheel “because the roads are really bad” and then have that spare come in handy. Make the weather miserable…heavy snow, driving rain storms…then offer them a chance to buy better apparel (heavy cloaks, otter skin capes, wool mittens/hats, etc.). Have a random pack of goblins ADMIRE their heavy cloaks and offer to trade them valuable information (and safe passage) in exchange for one or two.

      Get you players to have the mindset of a person in the game, and they’ll start looking for ways to invest all that capital they’ve acquired. And it’ll make for a richer game world and deeper play experience.

  2. Great post! Just finished one myself linking income in Stormbringer to social class, which is what all those jewels & clothes are for. Working on another about gear reliability & price, you've echoed lots of my thoughts, means I'm on the right track.

    1. Assuming, of course, that *I* am on the right track.
      ; )

      Yeah, I checked out a bit of your Stormbringer post (saw it on Old School Game Planet). Interesting…I played quite a bit of 1E Stormbringer (also some 3E/4E) and I don’t remember it being an issue. Of course, characters died so fast, you know…

      [but NO encumbrance system at all? I’ll have to go check my copy of the rule book. Aren’t demons of transport restricted by weight? I think you’re definitely right to use SIZ as a metric, by the way]

      Regardless, I think that MOST of the thoughts I’m penning here are applicable…it comes down to world building. You can certainly flesh out the Young Kingdoms with stuff PCs want to buy. Elric operates as a mercenary so often because he’s in NEED of coin in the YK (can’t get wire transfers from the Dreaming City). And Moonglum is always hustling and scrounging for cash. Totally fits the setting.


    Thank you for your time.

    1. I am a geezer. Also, it is bundled with my internet and phone.

    2. Freedom means nothing if you're a slave to regular programming.