Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Gold Problem: Big Purchases in 5th Edition D&D

Normal PC behavior
In last week's post, I started to talk about my solution to the "Gold Problem" in D&D. Essentially, there's not too much to actually spend gold on once players accumulate a high enough amount. And just hoarding the gold doesn't present any interesting choices while simultaneously creating more bookkeeping problems for the players.

Now, I have played in games where we didn't receive gold. The organizations we worked for (guilds, crusades, etc) paid for our expenses, or the good we did for others was enough to make sure we always had enough favors to call on that we could use to stay alive. But that also isn't an interesting choice. Besides, adventuring for gold is so ingrained in modern players, from video games, novels, and even RPG experience. Players expect cool treasure.

As I laid out last week, the allure of cool magic items at high costs can certainly give a player something to save up for, to forego their usual routine of hoarding gold or just buying health potions and ten-foot-poles until their backpacks explode.

But what if you have a low-magic campaign setting?

Goals for Gold

It's accountancy that makes the world go 'round
As I started to discuss last week, for a player to make a conscious choice about their gold, they need access to something that they can save up for. They need to see the mountain on the horizon before they know they can climb it. This means you should have a list of items a character can buy. And don't just put the things they can afford on there. Make it a long list. Show off the big-ticket items. Have the captain of the King's Guard use a sword of sharpness so the players can start drooling over it.

But in a low-magic campaign, you can still use the idea of a distant goal to encourage long-term planning. This should be a similar mindset to how players look forward to gaining new abilities and deciding if they should multiclass. If they know about how much gold they can squeeze out of a dungeon, that gives them a timeline before they have their own sword of sharpness. That makes them want to keep playing.

So even if magic items and wizards everywhere isn't your bag, you can still create a world that asks characters to engage with the economy and make big choices.

Living Expenses

The only thing he can afford is a generic surly Scottish accent
Living expenses are one of the first things that get lost in the paperwork of keeping track of characters, but I think they are important for a few reasons.

First, living expenses as a low-level character suck. If every weekend you go out dungeon-hunting and earn 100GP, then 10 GP of living expenses is the difference between an extra healing potion and nothing. It can be difficult to track, but we're setting up a bigger picture here: that gold is necessary in the world, and that at higher levels players might be able to break out of that cycle.

Second, living expenses can represent much, much more that a paltry 1GP per day. Perhaps the cleric in the party is required to tithe 10% of his share to his temple, or the place will fall into ruin and he will be ousted from the church. Perhaps the fighter has a family back home that he sends care packages and gold to. Even the classic "orphan urchin" adventurer has to have a bond to something or someone. Fellow urchins, people who helped them (such as an orphanage), or even charities could be linked to the character and require occasional monetary support.
Is 10% too much? 5 out of 5 greedy players say yes
Finally, not all living expenses are day-to-day. Fines to pay off prison time, new taxes, gambling and carousing, and crafting are all downtime activities that could use up gold on a regular basis.

The point of all this is to give players a regular way to interact with their gold, and set up challenges when it comes to saving up for the bigger items.

Home Sweet Home
Not pictured: your players
Of all the cost-related tables listed in the DMG, perhaps none is so highly priced yet so boring as the table for Building a Stronghold (DMG pg. 128). The table lists the cost of building structures without conferring a single benefit as to why a character would ever want to build one. There are even upkeep costs (in addition to living expenses) listed for each one. Why? The book gives absolutely no reason to pursue such an endeavor.

Well, let's fix that. Here are some ideas for the benefits granted by each of the Strongholds listed in the DMG. I've also included the businesses listed in the "Maintenance Costs" table (DMG pg. 127), since a business whose only purpose is to generate more gold is no better than the other strongholds listed.
  • Abbey: no longer must pay tithe, personal center for historical and magical research, open to many faiths, can house a brewery run by monks, can cast abjuration spells and divination spells at higher levels or as rituals
  • Farm: living expenses cut in half due to food provisions, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses and other mounts, pens can hold livestock for bonus on business rolls
  • Guildhall: living expenses cut in half once you gain 50 guild members, skilled hirelings available for small tasks at no cost or large endeavors at half cost, armory/arcane lab/poisoner's room available based on type of guild
  • Inn, rural: living expenses cut in half, starting rumors takes half regular time, small quests can be found immediately
  • Inn, town: living expenses covered, starting rumors takes half regular time, well-paying quests can be found immediately
  • Keep: living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks, renown increases, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Lodge: Living expenses halved, hunters and wilderness guides available for no cost, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Noble Estate: wealthy living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks, renown increases significantly, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses or other mounts, personal graveyard for fallen friends, noble cartographers can help map world/plan journeys, personal armory, free hirelings up to small squad
  • Outpost: living expenses cut in half, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, hunters and wilderness guides available for no cost, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Palace: requirement to rule a city/ country, aristocratic living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, includes library/smithy/docks, renown increases significantly, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses or other mounts, personal graveyard for fallen friends, noble cartographers can help map world/plan journeys, personal armory, starting rumors takes half regular time, well-paying quests can be found immediately, free hirelings up to small militia
  • Shop: items shop sells have price cut in half for personal use, starting rumors takes half regular
  • Temple: no longer must pay tithe, personal center for historical and magical research, open to one faith, can automatically gain inspiration from performing services, can cast divination/conjuration/necromancy spells at higher levels or as rituals 
  • Tower: half living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks
  • Trading Post: living expenses cut in half, items shop sells have price cut in half for personal use, starting rumors takes half regular
And still not enough room for the greedy characters...
Again, I would make this list available immediately to the players. Have them enter a palace and know exactly what a stronghold like that would cost. Make incentives for them. And you could also choose to make the benefits modular: perhaps starting rumors requires a stronghold or business to have a social common area, and that requires an expansion to the business.

Old School Cool

Finally, you might consider a classic method for using gold in very old-school D&D: Gold as experience.
 
Let's see if you survive this next one
Now, modern gamers might balk at the idea of only getting Gold or experience. but on a certain level, it makes sense. If you are becoming better as a fighter, part of your experience is dungeon delving, but another part is training, honing and maintaining your weapons and armor, paying your trainer or guild, or covering the cost of equipment broken while training. If you are a rogue, paying fines and bribes or tithing gold to a Thieves' Guild might be the only way you can hope to continue improving your skills. Even monks could have a requirement to donate to charities or beggars to advance in their order.

In that way, players are paying for their levels. The key here is making enough gold available. Use a creature's experience point value as a guide to how much gold they might have on their person. If it seems like a monster wouldn't carry that much gold (what would a ghost do with 1,100GP?) then redistribute the gold into quest rewards, treasure hoards of more appropriate monsters (the necromancer who raised the ghost might have a chest laden with gold), or simply have the players find the gold in chests or dusty corners over the course of the adventure.

If you decide to do this route, I would either give the players more gold than they need or have them only able to buy experience with it. Each of these options presents a different playstyle that could suit a group better.
  • If you give the players extra gold, they may resort to living a squalid lifestyle just to level up more efficiently. Remember to use real-world consequences for such actions. Nobles will not give them quests, guards who need bribes will not allow them to access certain places, and other adventurers may look down on them.
  • If you only allow players to use gold on experience, I would either set aside a list of magic items that each player receives upon leveling up (as part of the "cost" of leveling), or place more magic items in your dungeons to make sure the PCs can also have the gear they need at higher levels.
These methods will work better with certain group types, so if your players are prone to murderhobo-ism or if they like going shopping for more than just their next level, I would shy away from using gold as experience.
This picture is just too good. Is it going out or in? Does it matter?
So there we go. A system to allow players to make conscious choices about their gold and plan/look forward to things, rather than sitting on a horde of gold without anything to spend it on.

Thanks for reading!

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