Today’s guest article was written by our most prolific guest author, Tom Puketza. If you run a game that features loot — which is most of them! — then read on. Thanks, Tom! –Martin

My group defends a city from a goblin horde, fights off undead, kills a teleporting monster wizard thing. Understandably, they decide to kick back at their inn to celebrate and order “the finest bottle of X.” And this, of all places, is where I get stumped. “How much WOULD that bottle of X really cost???”

Economics might be a strange issue in gaming, but the well known flaws in the pricing for goods and services create a lot of headaches. Likewise, income from loot and cash rewards can be hideously out of whack with “average” salaries, which can lead to balancing issues.

None of this is news. Functional economies in games like Dungeons and Dragons have turned into a quest for a better mouse trap. Plenty of people have plenty of good ideas. (Actually, the amount of thought put into this issue is a little disconcerting. A quick Google search of “D&D Economics” reveals a disturbing amount of thought and research.) My personal problem with most of the solutions I’ve seen is that, quite simply, they’re almost too intelligent. You can also read this as “I’m too lazy to follow these rules,” or “UGH! I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS.” Nothing against these systems, they’re just not serving my purposes.

And yet, I’m just picky enough to want something that does in fact make sense. For this reason, the quick fixes also espoused (like for example tying price to the number of syllables in the item) also don’t quite work for me.

Oddly enough, a solution that worked for me was right there in the rule books the whole time. Well, part of the solution. Or rules in one part, but not the other. (Just keep reading…)

According to the crafting and profession rules in D20/Pathfinder, an average laborer makes roughly 7 silver pieces per day, or (rounding up) 5 gold per week. Not everyone arrives at exactly this number, and different systems may have their own measurements, but the main point is that, according to the rules provided, you should be able to arrive at a baseline salary. This salary gives you an idea of what to pay your player characters.

Payment, rewards, and loot also used to stump me. History tells us that medieval mercenaries were paid fairly high wages, but high in the way a doctor is highly paid today. A problem I have always had is that player characters across games, genres, and systems tend to accumulate fortunes that rival celebrities and the proverbial 1%. This is not just a GM’s fault. This is often the fault of many systems, and a way of thinking. Monsters that have no business carrying coin purses somehow have hundreds of gold pieces in their possession. Difficulty is linked with wealth. In the end, it often makes no real world sense, but the logic is so ingrained people get upset if they can’t grab cash from a dead body.

Two thoughts changed this for me:

  1. The player party are hirelings. Why not pay them accordingly? (See baseline salary mentioned above.)
  2. Unless it has a reason to carry a wallet, don’t drop cash. (Also known as IGNORE TREASURE TABLES ALMOST ENTIRELY. Just ask what possessions are valuable and why creatures have them.)

This is not to say that players won’t loot valuables. It just changes what the loot is, and most importantly how much they come home with. People carry some money, but mostly tools, weapons, and gizmos. Wildlife is valuable for its carcass, or for parts of its anatomy. In either case, treasure needs a good reason to exist, and this scales it in a much more manageable way.

In the end, the big idea here is to think of everything in terms of that baseline salary. How much would this person/thing really have on them? What can be sold? How much, exactly, should a player expect per day on the job? Just like that, RPG economics start to make functional sense using the price lists as written. Better, more “realistic” or “accurate” economic models may exist, but a solution like this emphasizes functionality, simplicity, and keeps one from having to import or create an entirely new economy (which must then be taught to players). In all storytelling, internal consistency is often more important than accuracy and realism. Fantasy economics don’t need to reflect history, they just need to make internal sense.

It should also be noted that a nice side effect (to me, at least) of all this is that cost of living becomes a legitimate issue. Mercenaries (aka adventurers) never did know where the next meal or bed would come from. Food and shelter is a powerful motivator, and good for cutting munchkins down to size.