Thursday, May 30, 2024


So many times these days, my blog posts feel like deja vu: that I am simply harping on the same issues, or trying to find different tacks to explain the same concepts that I've already written about ad nauseum. Of course, sometimes it's probably appropriate and useful to explain hard-to-grasp concepts multiple times in different, variant fashions.  

Heck, The Bible uses four Gospels to get the same point across, right?

ANYway, it probably doesn't help I pen my thoughts on discord channels, forums, and other folks' blog comments...sometimes I forget what I've written here versus what I've scribbled elsewhere. I'm not quite the internet rash I was ten years ago, but I'm still spread around a bit.

Here's a recent one from the CAG ("Classic Adventure Gaming") discord: a guy (let's call him "Joe") penned this the other day:
I'm, of course, breaking one of the great taboos by giving my 1E AD&D players XP just for showing up and making an effort, but after 30 sessions they still don't seem to grasp that the motherload is when they engage in combat and get loot. A session of exploration typically nets them 500XP, but the week they beat up the tomb guardian and nabbed its goodies, they must have come out at nearly 1500. After they cleared the tomb I dropped HEAY hints that there was more to explore in the immediate area, but they scurried back to base without so much as a backward glance. Leaving all that sweet, sweet gold (and XP) behind.
To which I replied (in part):
...I totally understand the frustration of slow advancement, but you don't want to train players that they're going to be rewarded for "showing up." 

...if (as I infer) you're running a long-form campaign, don't the PCs run out of money due to their lack of treasure acquisition? Are they constantly starving, running out of resources, etc.? How do they pay for mounts, henchfolk, mercs, arrows, expenses, etc.? Are they not incentivized to pull themselves out of poverty?
Because, you know, treasure...the acquisition of wealth..should be THE incentive in any AD&D game. Here was Joe's response:
Money not been an issue so far. They scraped by in the first adventure, then as a reward for resolving the situation the Paladin's PC was asked to continue to follow the clues they had uncovered and given a bag of gold by his Church superiors to buy him and his associates mounts and enough food to get to the next site. As they get into so little combat the attrition on their gear is minimal and I allowed the Ranger to craft more arrows in downtime. TBH, as only one of them had played AD&D before I wanted to keep the bean counting to a manageable level in case it put them off. I am tracking time (loosely, so I know where we are on the campaign calendar and generally have been reinforcing that if they want to fine-tooth-comb any place then any spells will have worn off by the time they are finished) but no training costs, their only henchman willingly joined them because they'd saved and taken care of the rest of his gang, and I also assume that when travelling across country (which I'm not doing as a hexcrawl) then the Ranger and Druid between them can keep them in game, roots, berries and water. Handwaving a few other things, but I am enforcing consumables for the wizard, and the cost of ink to write new spells (as well as the time it takes so they're having to make decisions about how long they can afford to sit around while he does it).

SO...this post is not intended to 'throw Joe under the bus' (for the record,  I feel I tried to give some helpful, compassionate advice on the discord channel), but I want to use this post to illustrate some bad DMing habits, and how they wreck your game.  Joe's not the only DM out there who has gone all loosey-goosey when running his/her campaign, worrying that "bean counting" is going to ruin the fun and enjoyment of the game. It's a common occurrence. And it ends up causing all sorts of issues as the DM has to patch one leak and then another and then another until the campaign is finally sunk.

Here's "absolute truth #1:" AD&D runs on treasure. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Treasure acquisition drives the game; it is the objective goal that focuses the players, encourages cooperation, rewards ingenuity, and makes for exciting game play. It is the main road to advancement, which results in greater character effectiveness, which opens more content for exploration. It is objective and concrete: a solid, non-arbitrary, non-subjective goal. It starts and spurs action.

Your players should ALWAYS be interested in, and looking for, treasure.

If they're not, then there is something wrong with your campaign setting, pal. There is a distinct lack of attention being paid to the world building. Different players have different amounts of ambition; different players have different amounts of caution. Relative ambition and relative caution are the two "dials" that determine how fast advancement occurs...the drive to pursue treasure. But the desire for treasure should be a constant imperative of AD&D game play. If it's NOT, then some examination is probably necessary.

Read Joe's response again, and let's take this point by point:
  • Paladins aren't getting gold from their Church; they are GIVING gold to their Church. The tenets of the paladin class are pretty clear: they are required to donate the bulk of their wealth to charitable institutions. These characters are MONEY-MAKERS for their religion; certainly, the Church will send them on missions, but with the expectation that they will be returning with vast amounts of loot to fill the clergy's coffers. Hell, they should be positively TASKED with this expectation.
  • Crafting arrows (or any kind of weapon or armor) is not the purview of a character class; unless a character possesses a secondary skill of bowyer/fletcher the making of arrows should be far more mysterious than the using of said arrows. And making arrows isn't as simple as whittling some tree branches...arrows suitable for penetrating armor (whether that of orcs or bandits or dragonhide) are going to need metal tipped heads, specially forged. And where is the ranger getting feathers for fletching? And are they taking the time to steam and straighten and lacquer the shafts? Have they paid for the equipment they need to craft the arrows? Unlikely, since they don't have the money to purchase a quiver themselves.
  • I don't do "training costs" myself, but I DO charge monthly character expenses (DMG p.25) to take into account (in an abstract fashion) all those other sundry costs that come from BEING A LIVE FUNCTIONING PERSON. And henchfolk need those 'cost of living' expenses met, too! Sure, the player characters can choose to be unbathed, unshaved, dressed in filthy, patched rags, and sleep in the dirt outside of town...but after a month or two of that, even the most grateful "found" henchperson is going to walk away. Who wants to live like that? After braving hardship and danger, risking life and limb, you can't even get a bath or a change of clothes? Are you kidding me? Those henchmen are going to walk!
  • Leaving aside how difficult "foraging" enough food for a half dozen people might be, leaving aside how time intensive hunting can be (i.e. how many days it might take to even locate game), just how much energy is a group of adventurers going to need for hiking through the wilderness and battling monsters? After a couple weeks of subsisting on "roots and berries" are they going to be in any condition to fight?  ALSO, working animals (horses, mules, etc.) do not subsist on "game, roots, and berries." Nor do they simply "graze." They need animal feed...and lots of it!...especially if they are carrying burdens or riders. Any steeds are going to die of starvation and overwork if chained to an impoverished adventuring party.
Players these days seem not to grasp the logistics of "adventure" these days. It's not their fault, of course: they've been weened on really sub-par fantasy literature, video games, and films that focus on spectacle over substance. Sign of the times. I was somewhat the same as a youth, though at least I'd done SOME camping as a Boy Scout, and could extrapolate a bit. But reading good adventure fiction also helps immensely. I've been doing some of that lately...checking out old Tarzan novels, H. Rider Haggard, Harold Lamb, etc. Books that deal with provisioning, overland travel, and exploration. The COST of expeditions in these books make it clear to the undertakers that they must have success in their ventures (i.e. they must reap some sort of monetary/financial reward). It is an absolute imperative...otherwise, they might as well not bother trying to get back to civilization.

This is The Way of adventure gaming: adventure gaming of the sort AD&D provides can sustain long-term, engaging play when run in this fashion. "Oh, how boring. Where's the story?" cry some. Look: I enjoy a good escapist novel or popcorn film as much as anyone...but the thing about such stories is 1) they tell the story, and then 2) they're done. Move on to the next distraction. Adventure gaming provides long-term, sustained doesn't end. There's no "beginning, middle, climax" of a story. We are playing (imaginary) people's LIVES. We are creating/exploring a fantastical (imaginary) WORLD. It is the highest form of imaginary gameplay...why would you want to shrink it to a simple "story?"

So you need costs. Because you need incentives. Because that is the gameplay loop that gets you to adventure gaming. The fewer the costs, the less incentive. And, thus, the less adventure.

My players are currently running through my rewrite of I3. It's not has different maps, different encounters, different background. It's actually pretty much nothing like I3, except that it features a pyramid in a desert wasteland. Oh, and there's an exterior temple with some fanatics. Yeah, that's about where the similarities end (except that there will be two additional sections of "desert wasteland," featuring a shifty "nomad town" and a "lost wizard tomb" a la I4 and I5). 

Why are the players heading out into the rugged wasteland that is southern Idaho? Because they've heard of this pyramid that might have left over loot in it. This is pretty crazy for 1st level characters (the adventure is geared to levels 3rd - 5th) but they are a determined, ambitious (crazy) bunch. Still, they had to use all their coin just to buy a mule and provisions for a three day journey from the last civilized outpost (Rattlesnake Station), choosing the roughest, most direct route to their destination to save on expenses. They have to succeed in finding treasure...failure is no longer an option. They have pushed all their chips into the pile: they'll either come away with fabulous wealth, or they'll be rolling up six new PCs. 

When you run a campaign that has adequate costs, "hooking" players into action becomes very, very easy. Treasure becomes the primary motivator, the number one incentive, and all the DM must do is dangle the idea of a payday in front of the players. They'll travel to ancient and hostile cities, deliver freight by ship through pirate & monster infested waters, brave scorching deserts, frozen tundras, primeval forests filled with inhuman faery creatures. No one in their right mind goes into some fortified tomb riddled with slimes, undead, and death traps...unless there's the opportunity for a huge score. But that huge score is only enticing if and when the players have needs

You, DM, must provide those needs.

I don't run my game in a strict 1:1 time fashion, except between adventures (i.e. outside the dungeon). I charge expenses every game month that passes, even if the PCs are "out on safari" (in the wilderness, in the dungeon) 20 days out of the is presumed, they'll have even more costs, once they finally reach the safety of town/civilization. Those expenses eat wealth at a high rate, even without training costs. If my players' 6th level parties go 4 months between adventures (because we can't get together, or because they're focusing on other characters), they'll each need to hand over 2,400 g.p. when we pull those characters out again, plus the costs for their henchfolk. That could easily add up to a bill of more than 10K. Even if they invest some of their loot in money-making ventures (a wise choice), I'm going to charge their liquid assets...and with a long enough period of inactivity, they may be left with nothing more than the income from their dry goods store (or whatever). And if that is how they want to live out their (imaginary) lives perhaps it's time to simply retire the character from play.  

Old TSR modules are littered with retired adventures running taverns and inns and shops. 

AD&D runs on treasure. It is the only incentive you really need, although players (when engaged with a campaign) always seem to find other motivations for action (revenge and charity are the two I most often see). But treasure should ALWAYS be there, as an incentive...for engagement, for action. And it always will be long as you, DM provide them with reasons to need the money.

; )


  1. I'm not nearly the stickler for tracking expenses that you are, but my players are always motivated by two things: curiosity and treasure acquisition. I just need to tell them so.e rumors about where treasure might be (and what might be guarding it), or even better, a treasure map, and they are proactive in seeking out these locations. They don't get treasure hauls every session, but that is actually a good thing. It gives them more incentive in the next session.

  2. The idea that players would allow the PC to live some spartan lifestyle always bothers me. Sure maybe the Paldadin saves every copper to donate, but the rest of the PC should be blowing through cash on the finner things.

    I have a bad week of work I want to run up a bar tab and have a great meal. I can't imagine spending a month tracking through the wilds and delving dangerous dungeons, watching a few friends get eaten and burned to death then making a bowl of ramen and sleeping in the stables to save a few silver. If im a henchman I'm putting in my two weeks or a knife in your back.

    When your most likley going to die young might as well dump wheelbarrows full of cash on hookers and blow.

    1. Except these players aren't watching friends get eaten and burned to death. They're not entering combat. They're not taking risks. So they have little to recover from. Which is worse.

  3. What do you think of XP for frivolously spent treasure and carousing?

    1. I do not (and never have) award x.p. for "spending money," only for acquiring it...and only for treasure acquired through adventure, i.e. when there is some associated risk/danger.

      The idea of "carousing tables" (which have been around for a decade or more...since the early OSR days) was a novel method some DMs liked for A) getting rid of PC excess wealth, and B) emulating the frivolous, profligate spending of pulp heroes. Eh. My game isn't about amusing die results on a random table...the "frivolous" spending is assumed in the cost-of-living expenses.

  4. Well put, JB. In my own campaign this year, I made the mistake of putting opportunities for treasure way too close to civilization. Stonehell is just a few hours away from the nearest hamlet! Nah, it gave the players (most first-timers to old-school play) the wrong impression. Questions of which route to take, how much to invest, and whether to get lots of hirelings never came up as a result!

    At the same time, rather short distances meant very few overland encounters and little attrition. Shame. On the bright side, it made the distinction between adventure gaming and the action-fantasy RPG very clear. Much to improve on next time!

  5. Absolutely. And, as you get to high levels, it doesn't get better. Our higher level party - basically all at name level, have a small chateau, a cleared out dungeon complex, a couple of towers and a bunch of followers. Their monthly expense bill is over 60K GP. Yes, they are sitting on 10 months of liquidity. With the taxes they can impose, they have some 15-18 months of time. But as soon as one PC wants to spend time on magical research, ouch. The cash flows out like the tide.
    It's quite funny seeing them rush around to find a dragon just to pay a month's bills.