Come in son, take a seat. Lets talk about money. “Money” is an incredibly complex idea, one that permeates our society and influences many aspects of our life. Its roles are many, its mechanics are arcane, its biases are poorly understood by most of us. Generally, we accept that the more of it you have the better, and stop there. Its no wonder money and wealth in our games, being simplified representations of some aspects of real world money, are complex matters as well.
Let us look at the roles money play in roleplaying games. Just as with its real-world counterpart, we tend to accept it at face value in whatever system we use, which means we accept whatever the game designers assumed its purpose would be – not necessarily something we want to do! This is particularly true of go-to systems like D&D, which suffer a bit from being “generic” (not to mention a certain Generic system here): they have a particular purpose behind them, yet they get used for all sorts of applications, to which they may not be well suited. So, what is money? What are the categories of its usage in games?
1. Money as motivation
“Money, that’s what I want”
A generic motivation, perfect for one-shots. Why did the adventurer cross the road? There was a treasure chest on the other end. While it is possible for a character to be driven by boundless greed, it’s not the most interesting of motivations. Besides, in most games after a few successful adventures a character would acquire enough gold to retire – not necessarily what you want if you’re running a campaign. Still, its nice to have a generic reason for your PCs to do something, as not every quest will have personal hooks for every character, and this gives the ones left out a reason to tag along. Note that money as motivation hold a promise of being able to spend it on something – but what you can actually spend it on is a different point. Again, we operate under the general assumption that money is good for you.
2. Money as personal power.
“I have the greatest power of all, Mister Miracle. I’m so rich, I can do anything.”
Most Excellent Superbat
An actual use for money: to buy something that has a direct mechanical effect, changing your character sheet. A +5 sword, or a suit of power armour. This is the primary usage of money in D&D, and this has a serious impact on the game. The system doesn’t want the players to become too strong, nor does it want them to lag behind the projected average, hence exponential growth of item cost and strict guidelines on wealth gained per level, but more on that later. In many other games, there’s little you can actually buy to make yourself stronger mechanically, and such purchases are typically hard to accomplish and harder to put to use. Even if you were to buy a tank in Dresden Files, you wouldn’t get to use it much (or keep it for long).
3. Money as interaction with the world
“I can make more generals, but horses cost money.”
Money can be used to exert influence over the world. Want to hire bodyguards? To buy a (space)ship? To found a city? Money will likely play a part. Many games come up short here. Some of 4e’s rituals fit this category, and they have a cost attached to them. There has been an article in Dragon on building a keep, but that’s about it. Previous edition, being a simulationist game, described how much money a person earns based on their class and level, profession skill ranks, etc. It didn’t work or make much sense, but it was there if you were interested. This category is fundamentally different from “price to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B”, which can generally be handwaived. Rather, it represents the ability of players to introduce their own solution to a problem (or to introduce their own problem).
4. Money as part of economy
Linked to the previous usage of money, yet quite distinct as it removes the focus from the PCs and looks at the broader picture. Does your setting have an economy, and does it actually use money? Historically, that’s not at all a clear answer. Homogeneous ”gold piece” along with Common language are assumptions of convenience, robbing game settings of flavour they could have had.
Having discussed what money is used for, lets talk about the mechanics that facilitate these usages. There are two major approaches that I’m aware of. The first is to count every copper piece. Wealth acquisition and expenditure are treated as mathematical operations. You have X gold, it costs Y to buy an item, you have X-Y left, have a nice day. The other way is to abstract money into a trait. Typically, you can “just get” items or services which are significantly below your wealth, have to roll (and may lose some of) your wealth to check if you can afford something in the same category, and can’t buy things beyond it. Let us call these ‘specific’ and ‘abstract’ approaches.
Following is a brief analysis of a few game systems I’m familiar with. Not an exhaustive list of money implementations, obviously.
In D&D 4e money is specific, and is mostly used as source of personal power, though with advent of the rarity system even this has been severely limited. Money-as-motivation is nominally there, but the meticulous mathematics of 4e mean that no matter what players do, they won’t get too far – or the game will suffer if they do. And the players soon learn this fact. As mentioned previously, money-as-world-interaction is barely represented in rituals, and economy doesn’t exist.
Ars Magica 5e also has specific money (and material form of magic energy, vim, as another form of wealth), but its role is quite different. Being a game where building things (usually magic laboratories) is a major component, money is primarily used to influence the world and as a part of a functioning economy – there is a sourcebook on economy and running cities and covenants of mages. To do anything of permanence, you need vim – or mythic pound, as mundane means of accomplishing goals tend to be much easier. Pursuit of necessary wealth serves as motivation. Money-as-personal-power, while present, is not in focus, as the game tends not to be about personal power measured in enemies killed, but rather world-changing power of spells researched and rituals cast – influence over the world.
Rogue Trader has abstract wealth, and assumes wealth acquisition is the core reason of any adventure. This may seem like too strong an assumption to force on players, yet D&D assumes just as much, and we disregard these assumptions to our peril. In RT, you can buy some of the best equipment with your starting funds. Outfitting your spaceship is a more exacting task, yet I feel that money-as-power don’t apply as much – you operate on a different scale. Money-as-influence is what the game is about: there are detailed rules for buying things in bulk – you always wanted to outfit your private army, haven’t you? Interestingly, any semblance of economy is absent – the game assumes the many worlds of the Imperium operate somehow behind the curtain, and leaves it there. Economy is purely plot-driven.
Finally, DeathWatch, a sister game to Rogue Trader, has an entirely different approach. There isn’t any money as such, as the game is about space marines going on combat missions. Each such mission offers a number of Requisition points players can spend to outfit their characters, with no way to save them up between missions. There’s also the squad’s Renown rating which unlocks rarer items for requisition as it rises.
Root of All Evil
Money is a map to the territory that is value, a symbolic representation. Moreover, it’s a map we interpret differently. Money in our head are a map to the territory of the money in our pocket. Likewise, worlds of roleplaying games are a map of the real world. It is created by the game designer based on the map of the real world they have in their heads, and interpreted by players based on the map of the real world they have in theirs. Therefore, game money is a map of a map on a map of a map (plus maybe a couple more steps) drawn by game designers, and each of those maps are different for each person. And unlike many other elements of RPGs, just what money is in a game is never explained explicitly. You’ll find detailed explanations and examples of what every character attribute does, how they are used and what they represent. This helps to keep everyone on the same page and mitigates some of the mapping issues. But the role of money has to be inferred or assumed. It is no wonder out expectations of in-game money so often diverge from their reality.
Let us consider D&D 4e in greater detail. In it, money has a very specific purpose: to enable customization of character’s capabilities while ensuring they remain within certain bounds – a limited version of money-as-power. Strictly by the rules, PCs can’t experience any kind of significant windfall: if they break into a king’s treasury, they’ll simply find all of the treasure parcles they were due for their current level there – something they would have gained over a commensurate period of time even if they went fighting goblins in a forest. Even if a DM bends the rules a little and lets the PCs have a couple levels’ worth of treasure in advance, it just means they won’t get any more for a while: otherwise, their power will get ahead of the projected power curve. The game is so focused on providing a balanced experience, it struggles any time players display ingenuity – something I’ve covered before.
Following the same logic it’s obvious why an humble level 30 thunderstone (+33 vs Fort, whole 3d4 damage and push 1), fit to frighten goblins, costs 125,000 gold pieces. A certain percentage of money per level goes to consumable items (and rituals), and there is nothing else to be done with them. If these money could be used for anything other than personal power, no one in their right mind would spend 125k gp on a thunderstone. And this is why so few people actually do. We have an expectation of that much money being able to build a small city. Our map differs from the map of the game, causing frustration. And if the DM were to ad-hoc a way to spend these money on other categories of usage, it would actually harm the game by putting the PCs below the dreaded expected power curve. This is precisely why many players think rituals cost too much – they offer a different usage for money, and even if it has been factored into how much characters are expected to spend on ongoing adventuring costs, players get conditioned to only spend money on power very quickly.
Two changes to the rules have been introduced after the release of the game which affect the way money operates. First, item rarity system limits the customization options of players to prevent them from acquiring too many powerful combinations of items too easily. And the optional rule for inherent bonuses reduces reliance of PCs on gear. However, this leads to further confusion: if you can’t buy character options you want, and what few items you can purchase serve to fix up system’s ever-scaling math, while inherent bonuses make sure you won’t fall too far behind anyway, what is money even for?
The game creaks and groans under different expectations of how money is supposed to function. It punishes players for buying anything other than personal power, yet severely limits what personal power they can actually buy. It causes cognitive dissonance with its prices and raises a thousand questions on how the world actually functions if the players think about it for a moment. In short, it’s a mess, a victim of divergent maps not only of players but also of its designers.
The Iron Price or the Gold Price?
What can we do? The first and easiest way is to acknowledge its limitations. If everyone accepts the game and its implementation of money for what it is, not for what they expect it should be, they can have a good dungeon crawling time – what the system was designed for. If, however, you wish money to be something more, to use them for something other than personal power of characters, I would suggest doing the following. Again, acknowledge the money-as-written as special, magical adventurer money. Rename it as residuum to avoid confusion. A magical substance, rarely if ever sold on the market, used only to create items of personal power and cast adventuring rituals. It is acquired from adventures – all those ancient magic items and hearts of dragons ground down. Personal power has iron price.
And then re-introduce actual in-world money measured in copper and gold, money that can influence the world and be a part of economy, be used to pay for a room in a tavern or a passage on a ship – or the ship itself. Story rituals such as Speak with Dead are also paid for with this type of money. Abstract wealth would work better here, and can be integrated into the power vs level concept – either as separate tiers of worldly-influence-through-wealth power, or as a part of power as such. I’d suggest using an existing ruleset, such as company rules from Reign, or something more detailed. This is, by definition, the gold price.
If you’re so inclined, you could consider how having such dangerous commodity as residium affects the world and the economy it suddenly has. Most likely, it is tightly regulated anywhere there is a rule of law, as its primary purpose is to empower individuals to achieve great disruption. Official adventuring guilds sanctioned by the crown are tasked with governing magic items and residuum, which leads to black market thriving. And so on, towards a more interesting setting.
Naturally, these wealth sub-systems intersect. An adventure could promise one or both as its reward – each can serve as motivation. What can be accomplished with bribery can be accomplished with force. Every now and then an opportunity arises to trade one for another. But they should be distinct and separate so as not to confuse the fundamentally different concepts. By separating money from residuum, we allow the system to do what it was designed to do with residuum, while allowing players to do what they expect to be able to do with money. We can also mess with these expectations, e.g. by introducing various denominations of coins specific to particular countries – something we normally avoid for fear of disrupting the game balance.