There seems to be a grand misunderstanding about wealth and what to do with it in 4th edition D&D. Actually, you could extend this back to all editions pretty easily but it’s especially applicable to 4E and we’ll come back to why that is in a little bit.
First, let’s define a couple terms. For the purposes of this disucssion, “wealth” includes both money and goods – anything your characters own. “Goods” covers weapons, armor, magic items, residuum, spell components, mundane gear and rituals. Anything that has weight (even if you ignore encumbrance rules) and you stow it somewhere on your person or in a backpack is considered “goods.” “Money” covers all forms of minted currency (gold, silver, platinum, etc), precious metals, gems, art objects and astral diamonds.
Now if your games are anything like the hundreds I’ve played in my life, the wealth cycle is very limited. PCs go into stores, buy equipment with gold they “earned” from adventuring and that’s the end of it. Maybe you sell old equipment for gold and use that gold to buy better equipment, but that’s not really very different. Is there really any other use for money besides equipment upgrades? Alright, maybe you drop a few silver at the inn for dinner and pleasure from time to time. If your DM is a big stickler for trail provisions, maybe you buy rations every couple weeks. You might even pass the town guard a couple gold to look ‘over there’ while you do something slightly illegal. Fine. Do you actually keep track of those expenditures, though? Do they have any appreciable effect on your overall wealth gain? If you didn’t have the money, wouldn’t you just find another way to get the job done? By the end of Level 3, your party has earned over 3,000 gold pieces (outside of magic items!) and your party skill monkey can probably hit a DC 25 check to forage for food and water just fine, maybe with a little help. My point is, the answer to those three questions are probably No, No and Yes. That means unless your party is at very low levels and the simulation factor in the game is very high, the overwhelming majority of your money is likely going to equipment. This leads us to an important conclusion:
Point No. 1: Money is just Goods waiting to come into existence.
Need more proof? Go open your DMG – page 126 – and look at the party wealth per level tables. Those gold piece values aren’t arbitrary, you know. The amount of money you are supposed to gain each level is EXACTLY equal to two magic items (weapons or armor, not consumables) of your level. That is to say that every table in that book for party wealth boils down to 6 magic items; one Lv+4, one Lv+3, one Lv+2, one Lv+1 and two Lv+0. That’s it. You could toss money out of the game completely and as long as you have items, it will work. Furthermore, if you use the inherent enhancement bonuses as described in DMG2, you don’t even necessarily need magic equipment to keep up with the power curve of the game. Dark Sun has shown us that just fine. With the bonuses in place, you don’t need constant equipment upgrades and since you don’t need Goods, you don’t need Money.
Congratulations, you’ve just created a transhumanistic utopia. But wait, we still use both money AND goods in our game. Why? We do it because players love options. We love the ability to customize our characters. Whether that’s the ability to resist 15 damage for one round per encounter or send a message to a friend halfway around the world, we want to be able to do interesting and unique things. This is the next important conclusion:
Point No. 2: Goods are just the ability to customize our characters and affect the game world.
Combine Points 1 and 2 and you come up with an INCREDIBLE understanding:
Money is the potential to change the game world and effect the players’ will upon it. Goods are the changes made.
That’s HUGE and yet we just skim over it like it’s no big deal. Other games use Aspects or roleplaying currencies or ‘pass-the-stick’ mechanics (all of which are perfectly fine, mind you) to bring player narration and input to the table. Many of the players of these games scoff at D&D for failing to do so. To some extent, they’re right. The problem is not that the ability isn’t there, however; it’s just grossly underutilized. So if buying and selling goods for gold in shops is all you do in your game regarding wealth, then let me tell you that you’re keeping an INCREDIBLE amount of potential locked in a very small space where it’s not working NEARLY the full breadth of its magic for you.
Let me say in closing that I don’t like 4E’s base economy at all and I know many would agree with me. From a simulationist standpoint, do YOU go around carrying thousands of dollars in cash in your wallet? Does it make sense to have a less technologically advanced society than us minting vast quantities of standardized coinage? And seriously, what’s up with this 20% return rate? I understand why it’s done the way it is, but it’s just so… contrived. Then there’s the narrative problems – I go around the world slaughtering monsters and righting wrongs (probably), but no one’s heard of me? The gods don’t owe me one for being such an awesome guy? Where’s the feedback?
What happens if we dissociate the actual power from the ‘skin’, which is little pieces of metal and odd arcane gadgetry? Answer: The game changes – forever and for the awesome. Come back on Monday and bring your favorite Hanzel und Gretyl album, ’cause I’m about to rock your world.
- Penniless but not Powerless, Part 2
- Penniless but not Powerless, Part 4
- WoAdWriMo: Flamewrack Valley