Behind the Screen: Matters of finance…

2008 January 29
by Dante

As a function of getting older, I have recently taken an interest in personal finance. I was pouring over some finance websites tonight and it got me to thinking about in-campaign money matters. It strikes me that dealing with game economics, treasure, and money are often glossed over.

Do Epic Level Adventurers have a 401k?

Historically, our characters have tended to keep what they need to live on them. They inevitably come across a Bag of Holding or some other mechanism to haul their booty around with them, in some other cases where they have acquired a homestead they tend to keep a certain amount of their adventuring loot there.

It strikes me that in standard D&D terms, there isn’t much in the way of financial establishments. I think this is due to the fact that these things are only really interesting to me and maybe one or two other people in the world, so there’s no Citizens National Bank of Greyhawk that manages platinum and gold as commodities.

In one campaign, we instituted a bank system because our characters came across a fairly sizable horde and wanted a way to keep it safe since they could not come up with giant wagons to carry their booty. Inevitably, though, the bank was viewed as a plot point. I don’t recall that there was ever a heist, but there was always that expectation and the whole thing didn’t ever go over like the service that it was intended to be.

Speaking of the Mighty Treasurepile…

This may be one area that I tend to fail as a DM: it seems that if my characters are adventuring across the world, invariably they will want to shop in the cities that they come across. They will ask whether or not Magic Item A is available in this town and usually it spawns a random roll to tell. If it doesn’t show up, they’ll just wait it out until they get to a major metropolis where there chances are better and eventually I relent and let them find their item of desire (at a much higher price than book value).

I always struggle with the centralization of magic items and how the Greater World generates cash to support a magic item trade, because it stands to logic that as you get nearer to the major population centers the chance to randomly find magical items in random encounters should increase. This does not gel with the treasure tables that exist in the DMG, rolling randomly on that chart can produce a magic item pretty much anywhere and given enough encounters the players will amass a disproportionate amount of money compared to the environment that they are adventuring in.

Barring any amount of just plain ignoring the charts, I never have gotten the balance of treasure distribution correct in my campaigns. I err on the side of more good stuff for my players because it is fun, but I often wonder if this isn’t just superpowering the entire campaign setting.

Thoughts, please!

I would love to hear creative ideas, thoughts, and responses on how to handle matters of money and treasure in your campaign setting. The obvious “well Dante, you control the entire world you can do what you want” mindset hasn’t worked out so well for me, so how do you balance these factors in your campaigns?

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Erekibeon permalink
    January 30, 2008

    First of all, let me say that I love this blog and the flow of ideas you keep coming to it. Please, go on! 😉

    Regarding the matter of your post, you could always encourage the PCs to constitute the First National Bank of the country with all that money, lending money to merchants, ship captains or even the crown itself, so they can truly impact the region where they are based.

    This could lead to interesting roleplaying situations where the sword and the offensive spells are not the answer. Imagine your PCs having to collect interests from some reluctant nobles. Depending on how well they resolve the situation they could end as the historical templars (accused of witchcraft and prosecuted so the king could get his hands on their gold) or having even more political power.

    And what happens when the local guilds associate to demand better deals to their associates? How high is the Negotiating skill on your group?

    But if the Warrior is feeling like being out of play, you could always launch on them the vary first bank robbery of the history of your world…

    The PCs could run the bank for themselves, designing products, determining interest rates, opening new business in different villages, developing the “bank papers” system… or you could let it be run by trusted NPCs who could report these advancements to the PCs.

    Of course, all of this depends on the interest of your players in the matter, but even if they are not very interested you can have good material to make filler adventures in your usual campaign.

    Hope to have been of help!

  2. Doug Hagler permalink
    January 30, 2008

    I’m actually not a huge fan of what 3rd Ed did with magic items overall. I think its a cool idea to let PCs create magic items, but in actual games this has rarely been fun, at least in my experience.

    In a game like D&D, I like for there to be two kinds of magic items (I’m thinking of the Eberron setting here, since that’s what I mostly run). The first kind is the equivalent of elite equipment – +1 weapons and armor, and other basic items that you’d imagine that elite military units might have in a D&D style world. These get trotted out early in the game, if nothing else then because when the PCs fight a sentient being, it often has some of its own. This makes sense in Eberron more than any other setting because you have things like Magewrights and Artificers and House Cannith cranking out items for the Last War.

    The other kind of magic item is an epic, scalable item that will stay with the PC as they develop. As their skills improve, they will unlock new abilities in the item. Or possibly they will find its greater capacities through certain quests they undertake, and so on.

    To fill in the middle area between the two, and to prevent the PCs from becoming too unbalanced as far as the system is concerned, I just give an Attribute point every even numbered level rather than every four. This tends to balance things out somewhat.

    I just don’t like making magic items into commodities. Think of how Arthur gets Excalibur and then compare that to how the average D&D PC gets a +3 Longsword. There’s no comparison. Could you imagine Arthur going to the “magic item shop” to sell Excalibur, or even to have someone add +1d6 fire damage to it or something? That kills whatever is actually interesting about Excalibur in the first place.

    Anyway, just another of my periodic $.02

  3. Charles permalink
    January 30, 2008

    I’m currently running a game where the characters are working for the Navy in a homebrewed world. Basically they fight the pirates and the near-blatant undermining of and ancient rival country, but when it comes to loot time, policy states that the Navy gets all items (the party can keep any loose change they find). There are exceptions – if the party thinks they need an item a baddie has while out ‘in the field’ they can take it (no one has identify, so it’s a guessing/comparison game) but if a baddie was using it, its not likely to be cursed, right? 🙂 At the end of the day/week/month/whatever – they get paid their ‘wages and bounties’ (bounties from captured -usually only live captures are allowed- pirates/enemies) —- basically, when they’ve leveled and are back in port – they get paid a rough equivalent to what the DMG recommends as ‘average monetary gain per level’ – from that chart that’s somewhere in the book.
    To be honest though – they haven’t always been paid what they should have gotten – but I make it up to them by offering a 15% discount when they purchase from the Navy Quartermaster. It seems to have balanced out pretty well – they’re 14th level now and I haven’t had any complaints..

  4. Vanir permalink
    January 30, 2008

    I HATE HATE HATE HATE how they did magic item creation in 3e. I can see paying gold. I can see it taking a long time. Hell, I can even see temporary CON damage.

    But are you seriously going to stand there and tell me the more +1 swords I make, the less experienced I get? Is the work THAT mind-numblingly boring?

    And how would a shop that enchants magic items operate? I imagine they would have a very high turnover rate.

    3e magic item creation is like having a pet wight that poops +1 swords.

  5. Sandrinnad permalink
    January 30, 2008

    well, adventuring by its very nature is pretty much a young’uns game, and young’uns tend not to think about death/maiming/old age/the future too much (unless that’s part of their backstory 🙂 ). They get it, spend it, and assume there will be more when they need it.

    This can mean that they can’t retire (think Cohen the Barbarian from Discworld – he’s acquired more fortunes than you can count and lost them all because he’s just _no good_ with money. He has to keep barbarianing because it’s all he knows how to do, and he’s pretty darn good at it).

    You could probably be justified in having merchant banks in various large cities – maybe just starting up in their usual area which is why they haven’t heard of them before, or maybe previously only a family affair that they are now opening up to the public (because they have some sort of opportunity on the horizon and need extra capital perhaps). There are, of course, risks to dealing with a merchant bank….ships sink, wars start, monsters rampage, and so forth 😀

    Starting a bank could be an option too, but only if the characters are the sort who would really enjoy that sort of thing….and I don’t think most adventurers are or they wouldn’t be out adventuring (again, depending on backstory 🙂 )

    Storing treasure that you can’t stuff into your Bags of Holding….well, if you’ve got banks you’ve potentially got vaults, and if not there may be a company or family that specializes in storing and guarding things….for a fee of course 😀 (A scaled fee maybe depending on what is to be stored, who might be looking for it, the length of time it’s to be stored, and how dangerous the items are)

    If you want to keep the bank a background thing and not a plot-point….what we’ve done in the past is just have a DM-guaranteed bank. It’s sort of an out-of-game thing in-game then, but it’s _really_ handy and it pretty quickly became a non-issue.

    On the Acquiring of Treasure:

    I like to be stingy 🙂

    I don’t have a 3rd ed. DMG so I’m not sure how the tables work, but would something along the lines of ‘biggest city has a chance at everything, next size down has 10% less’, and so on down to villages work? You could raise or lower a place or encounter’s grade based on proximity to trade routes or for any reason to change things around too – a large city in the desert may have little trade or access to certain resources so is downgraded a couple of levels while a border town may have extra trade.

    Of course, if no one’s complaining I’d say you’re doing pretty well as is 😀

  6. Sandrinnad permalink
    January 30, 2008

    3e magic item creation is like having a pet wight that poops +1 swords.

    pardon me a sec while I empty the tea out of my keyboard….

    (still chortling mind you 🙂 )

    ya, that sounds like a good rule to ignore….

  7. Saragon permalink
    January 30, 2008

    First, regarding financial institutions in D&D: Eberron actually did a very good job of this if you read through the House Kundarak “fluff.” Large vaults issuing magically-signed letters of credit, secure item storage, and the occasional pair of ring gates can manage large amounts of money quite effectively (and, excluding the obviously magical parts, are pretty close to Renaissance and late medieval moneylending practices. Note Erekibeon’s reference to the Knights Templar – very good comparison.) Money and items kept safely away from the PCs may earn interest, but it’s also not actively useful until someone goes to get it – not often practical in an emergency.

    One of the things a lot of DMs overlook are the relationships between treasure and spell components. Resurrection doesn’t need 10K worth of generic wealth – it explicitly requires 10,000gp worth of diamonds, forcing PCs to acquire or set aside those diamonds as an emergency fund. (That sort of wealth is hard to simply purchase outright, after all.) Your wizard likes forcecage? He’d better be hoarding every ruby the party finds and grinding them up during downtime. It feels nit-picky for a lot of DMs — and when I’m a player, I certainly feel that way — but it falls to the DM to emphasize that arcane magic requires these specific things. Gems feel relatively common for PCs because PCs are among the elite few in most D&D worlds that handle high-quality gems at all, much less encounter them regularly.

    And keeping 10K worth of diamonds “handy on your person” is just asking for trouble – that’s where financial institutions come in. To introduce them into an extant setting, I’d recommend that a moneylender’s organization or a bank remain a private organization – not just privately owned, but out of the public eye, relying on a few wealthy clients and a reputation for honesty. A quiet “word to the wise” from a similarly wealthy contact would give them something to do with their wealth and act as a nice social reward in and of itself.

  8. Katherine permalink
    January 30, 2008

    As an aside, one of the more interesting character shifts in this second act has been the addition of – shall we call them – proprietary feelings felt by most of the characters for the territory given as reward for the completion of act one. As the DMs placed in danger Bat Loaf’s college, Elwin’s town, Tiri’s academy the character’s feelings for these places provided context and emotional depth to this current save the world from destruction quest.

    If there hadn’t been encouragement to invest in landed property these neato things might well have been lost.

  9. thanuir permalink
    January 30, 2008

    I hate the Christmas Tree effect (characters carrying huge number of magical thingies) to the point of not playing D&D much. There are other reasons, but that one is the primary. It doesn’t correspond with any fantasy I read, nor any mythology.

    When running D&D, there will be house rules. Class defense bonus, maybe gestalt characters, but anything to get away from the boring magical loot and huge heaps of treasure.

  10. David Reese permalink
    February 7, 2008

    As far as how a magical item shop might function in a campaign setting (see the ‘huge turnover’ comment above):

    I actually used this as a plot point in a campaign I ran. The villain ran a magical items shop, and it was one of the only places to work in a small town. As the PC’s entered town, they were invited to work as mercenaries for the magic shop, (and given some free loot to encourage them) but as they poked around more, they discovered that the villain was actually hiring peasants in order to drain off their xp for magical item creation. I know the rules don’t allow for such a thing, but the way it played out was that everybody working at the “factory” was always really run-down, and could only work there for so long before getting sick. It was kind of a cool plot feature; maybe the entire magical economy of D&D relies on exploitation of the peasants.

    Ah, Marxist rpg’ing.

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