Tuesday 1 February 2022

The Problem of PC Spending Power

One of the biggest problems with old school D&D (Ron Edwards would probably accuse it of 'incoherence') is that, while it envisions PCs slowly evolving into powerful landowners at higher levels, the truth is that by the time any PC has got to, say, 5th level, he will have so much money that most costs have become trivial and he is able to make huge investments in property and retainers already.

This is not necessarily a problem, of course. But there are ways of limiting the phenomenon - and of making the game world feel richer as a consequence.

1. Thieves

As soon as the PCs become property-owners, they should attract burglars. Perhaps very powerful ones. They will, indeed, become a target for fellow adventurers; you can think of their holdings (inn, holdfast, etc.) as being in a sense like an adventure site for NPCs to potentially plunder. YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF RANDOM BURGLAR TABLES ARE NOT MADE.

2. Inflation

I am not an economist. But I do know that inflation is always and everywhere a gold piece phenomenon.

Imagine you have a village of 1000 souls. According to the Rules Cyclopedia, this will generate 10,000gp worth of GDP (though it doesn't use the term) per month. 

Now imagine a bunch of adventurers arrive after a raid on a nearby megadungeon, with 20,000gp worth of treasure to spend. They will overnight triple the size of the economy. Should all costs therefore not triple in value? In real life inflation is more complicated. But at the level of principle, this simple back-of-the-envelope approach is sufficient.

3. Liquidity

How do the PCs find buyers for non-cash items? Some random pieces of jewellery will cost tens of thousands of gp. Is it likely that our 1000 soul village will have anybody willing or able to buy such an item? The sale of big ticket treasure items should really be an adventure in itself - a search for probably very powerful, very secretive, and very eccentric buyers who might try to trick the PCs, or employ them to acquire more.

4. Scarcity

OK, so the PCs have enough money to hire 500 mercenaries. That's no good to them if there are only 1d6 mercenaries available in town each month, because it's the middle of nowhere. It's very important to establish before the campaign begins what these limitations of scarcity are (how many hirelings are available each month; how much equipment of various kinds is available for purchase each month, etc.), so they exist as a known framework of constraints that you're not introducing just to put the kibosh on the PCs' plans out of spite. 

Add your own!


  1. I'm glad I contributed to this post! Now I know that I need a Random Burglar Table

  2. I'm a little surprised you didn't mention one of the classics: rather than "Gold for XP" you use "Gold SPENT for XP." Every piece of treasure brought home has to go towards either equipment/material investments OR leveling up, so it becomes a tradeoff.

    Another idea: taxes. Probably not an income tax or real estate tax because those are quite un-medieval (except for land gelds, perhaps), but sales taxes at market and poll taxes because the kingdom is at war can be useful (if annoying) drains on PC wealth.

    1. I like this and I suspect it would sit better with players than the other options, as it is much more of an exchange than a direct loss (as theft, taxes and inflation seem to be). I tend to think of the money as being spent on training and exercising. Perhaps it is 2gp:1xp if self-taught but 1gp:1xp if training with someone of the same class but 2 or more levels higher than your PCs (who also has the time and inclination to train colleagues).

    2. Gold spent for XP works really well. I introduced it midway through our current campaign, with the blow softened through by removing the need for players to track petty cash (board and lodging, replacement weapons and armour, etc.).

      It also forces players to decide when they will keep treasure for big expenses (buying a ship or a castle, say, or creating a magical item) and when they will simply cash it in for XP.

      Runequest formalised this sort of thing from the start, as learning spells and weapons training were regular and costly expenses.

    3. I've been using it and I've loved how it works. However, I don't use it as a strict tradeoff: the PCs can get XP by spending on donating to organizations or building up infrastructure, or carousing, or going on extravagant living large binges. Every other kind of spending doesn't get XP. This way they build up the setting to get XP.

    4. I should say one sort of versimullitude breaking effect of spending gold for xp is that it creates two tiers of gold -- players want to hoard gold that gets them XP and only spend it on certain kinds of activities, but other kinds of gold (gained through business, not dungeoneering that normally wouldn't give XP) becomes a secondary currency of sorts that gets spent on equipment and other things since nobody wants to give up the XP they would get.

  3. Hands-down my favourite campaign story is Tales of an Industrious Rogue, where a party start out by mining salt from a planar portal and end up filthy rich, primarily because problems really start to pile up at domain-level play--all the stuff you mentioned, plus major political groups getting annoyed these yahoos fell ass-first into economic power.

    1. Thank you for introducing me to this.

  4. >>It's very important to establish before the campaign begins what these limitations of scarcity are (how many hirelings are available each month; how much equipment of various kinds is available for purchase each month, etc.), so they exist as a known framework of constraints that you're not introducing just to put the kibosh on the PCs' plans out of spite. <<

    I don't think my players expect there to be infinite mercenaries in every village, or think I'm being spiteful when I generate some reasonable numbers.

    Apart from using Gygaxian training costs, the obvious way to solve this issue is to give out more XP and less gp. If the typical Fighter-5 is not supposed to be wealthy, well you could give out 1/10 the gp, but give 10 XP per gp. Or you could give more XP for other stuff.

    Personally when running BECMI D&D, what I did:
    1. Keep 1 XP = 1GP
    2. Keep generated coin amounts the same
    3. Reduce the value of gems, jewelry and magic items to something that looked reasonable
    4. Increase monster XP, basing awards off OD&D's 1 hd = 100 XP, then more of a 3e style XPV progression.
    5. Give XP for quests etc, basing off 1/20 of a Fighter's level-up requirement - so eg 100 XP each for a 1st level quest.

    The PCs still got filthy rich eventually, but not really until the teen levels, which fits BECMI progression well.

  5. 1. b) The con job - There's a super adversarial version of this that will probably just upset players if they feel ripped off. But I think it is totally legit for paid-for stuff to sometimes "go missing" during delivery, or for goods to be spoiled/under-weight/counterfeit etc.
    Also, 3. Liquidity is probably by far the most impactful in game terms. Most villages and small towns won't have anyone willing to buy anything even remotely expensive. Why would they? Even in cities, specialist merchants are unlikely to have the gold to hand to simply buy high-value gear, or part with the coin without a buyer lined up (depending on the setting).

  6. A note on inflation - The influx of liquid capital is an issue, but it's important to consider both the fact that you're dealing with a much larger economy besides just the immediate area, that most of the actual exchange of wealth wouldn't be with coin (ACKS shows this pretty well and also helps with getting an idea about the scale - and most OSR economics problems), and that a lot of the real value is in the form of land or other assets. Just that influx alone shouldn't be enough to spark troublesome inflation - though an area with a lot of adventurers staying around over an extended period may see "boom town" price gouging, and anyone who looks like they have the money to spend would certainly be charged like it!

  7. Mmm.

    I dislike and/or disagree with most everything in this post. Though ten years ago (probably fewer) I might have been more-or-less lockstep with your thoughts.

    [except, perhaps, regarding the Edwards comment. That’s not using “incoherence” in the manner he intended]

    Most of these issues regarding player characters’ wealth are solved as a matter of world building. Choice of D&D edition matters somewhat in this regard (the problem is worse for basic games) but the “problem” of PCs having “too much money” is really one of perception, easily corrected.

    A couple-few thoughts:

    - huge investments in “property” are not really possible (if you’re talking about buying land) in ancient or pseudo-medieval settings. Land worth possessing usually belongs to someone (a noble, king, etc.) who isn’t just going to “sell it” to PCs.
    - cities that have an abundance of the kind of equipment and such that PCs would care to buy will have an abundance of wealth for the liquidation of assets.
    - retainers and mercenaries require food and upkeep (and training costs in advanced games). In both AD&D and OD&D cost-of-living needs to be paid for PCs and NPCs alike.
    - fees, taxes, levies, tolls and the cost of services can and should eat into party income in large cities. PCs that have acquired copious amounts of wealth should not be in podunk villages filled with farmers, yokels, and D6 mercenaries. What is there to spend coin on?!
    - while any incautious party with a wagon full of plundered treasure might be marked by bandits (maybe…doesn’t the party already look like a small army traveling down the road?) the prospects of being burgled…or using lone thieves as a method of relieving PCs of wealth is pretty ludicrous. Really? What thief is going to rob a group that has a fireball-slinging mage? Preposterous. And any thief who could do so and abscond clean (a high-level master thief, for example) is unlikely to trouble herself with small-fry characters yet to even teach the 6th level.

    I get it…thousands and thousands of coins (the treasure needed to level up a character to 4th or 5th or 7th level) looks like a tremendous amount of wealth. A B/X fighter that earned 80% of his XP in treasure (not unreasonable) should have more than 50K in gold after liquidation…more than 2.5 tons of coins using the 10 coins = 1# of encumbrance rule!

    Except they shouldn’t have. That money should have already been spent: on provisioning, training, outfitting expeditions, paying for healing, paying for rumors, hiring sages, equipping retainers, lavishing gifts on retainers, purchasing silks and furs and converting coin to rings and necklace (portable wealth and ostentatious displays), filigreed armaments, bribes to lords, rare books, perfumes, coaches, horses, horse feed, etc.

    Wealth should trickle out only slightly slower than it gushes in. If it’s not doing so, you need to build a stronger world for your players.

  8. For what it’s worth…I look at the silver piece as the fantasy equivalent of $1 (I am American, after all). A gold piece, then, is just a 20 dollar bill. A 5th level magic-user in B/X would only have expected to make (the equivalent of) $300K-$400K for he career up till that point…that’s GROSS income for a self-employed (small business) individual which is PEANUTS compared to what, say, the average pub does in sales for a year. At least, round these parts.

    Food for thought (maybe).

  9. Either use silver as the standard coinage with 1SP = 1XP (while keeping equipment costs as they are in GP), or divide the XP needed to level up by 10 and jeep the 1GP spent = 1XP rule.

  10. Excellent blog post and food for thought. I think it really points out that you can find an adventure anywhere and often in something that may be a problem. Number 3 really reminds me of this and it reminds me of the idea of bidding market for magical items, the creation of a ship company or stronghold as an adventure itself, or the hunt for spells for magic users.

  11. Also it reminds me of the great lesson of the original Dawn of the Dead. Half of the movie is just getting the zombies out of the mall and making that mall livable. It sounds tedious and boring but it's half the fun of the movie.

  12. My players have earned TONS of gold over the years of my campaigns, enough to reach 9th and 10th level. They also spend about 4K to 5K a month on henchmen, troops, buying potions or scrolls at the nearest big city, etc. This is in addition to what they are spending now building castles, guilds, etc.

    We even use an economic system where goods are limited by market class, i.e. the size of the town or city (Adventurer Conquerer King is great for that, BTW)

    If you give your players ways to engage in your game world, they'll find ways to spend the money, usually hairbrained to clever schemes to make more money. My players are almost always broke, despite having over 100K pass through their individual hands.

    (Another suggestion is an XP bank. If a player spends money just to be cool, say blows it on a party, or buys expensive equipment (gem encrusted staff, ivory carved breastplate, etc.), gives to the poor, or other ways of spending cash with limited game effects, it adds to an XP bank. If their character dies, the next character starts at the number of xp in the bank. I also allow it for alternate characters, so my players blow 5K to start any new characters at 3rd level. Since the new characters are usually henchmen of their main PC, I allow it)

    1. Ha, yes, my ACKS players were perpetually worried about making next month's payroll in the mid-levels.