This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Seven on 20th November 2019.
Lennon: And here I was so holding out hope that my day wasn’t going completely downhill.
Killer DM: Awww does someone need a hug?
Lennon: I will pay you money if you never ever say that again.
ROSTRO: Probability analysis suggests you possess insufficient physical currency to facilitate that transaction.
Lennon: Yeah, because I’m pretty sure Ryu stole it!
Killer DM: Don’t look at me, she was doing that long before my favorite accessory settled upon her brow.
ROSTRO: Your current predicament would quite easily be remedied by engaging in a quest or adventuring excursion.
Killer DM: Oh yes darling there’s gold practically littering the ground out there.
Gold has been the primary currency of fantasy settings almost as long as they’ve been around. In D&D, most of the items that can be purchased are priced based on gold, and the greedy ingrates who control the characters at the table are usually ready to start strip mining a mountain if the kobold caves they just crawled through don’t have an absolute vault of of it in the last chamber.
To be fair, there’s a lot of precedent for that. The idea of characters finding gold, or at least monetary rewards, for accomplishing quests and killing monsters is another trope that’s been around for most of RPG history. Asking a D&D party to adventure just for the thrill of the hunt is sort of like asking an artist to draw you a picture “for the exposure”; even if the party isn’t full of neutral evil rogues, they’re going to want some sort of useful reward at the end. Usually that was gold.
Fifth edition has presented a slight problem in the case of gold remaining a “useful reward,” however. Understanding the root causes requires the discourse to briefly rise beyond the level of game mechanics and venture into the realm of economic theory.
Lennon: I was wondering why the machine was on.
Killer DM: Really? Do you often spend time wondering about what I turn on and why?
Lennon: No! yes? no! I’m going with no!… Please keep analyzing economics!
Full explanation of the processes behind a successful economy within the context of a game would require more temporal investment than is feasible at this juncture, so a summary will be employed.
Creating an interesting risk/reward cycle involving money in a gaming environment generally requires three elements. A stated currency that maintains stable value, purchasable goods that directly affect players’ ability to perform within the game, and money sinks with unavoidable requirement to offset penalties.
To make this painfully simple, let’s say you have a character in a game that’s in an area where they might freeze to death. They have 50 gold on them, but they have to pay 1 gold per day to stay in a house that keeps them from freezing to death. That house is the money sink; if the character doesn’t pay, they freeze. However, the owner of the house also has a brand new hoppity-bunny fur coat that means the character can go out exploring longer, that costs 40 gold. That’s the purchasable good.
Lennon: Did you really have to say hoppity-bunny?
Killer DM: I’m sorry, you wanted me to read “Treated lagomorph [LAY-go-morph] pelt” verbatim?
Lennon: Just…never mind.
First we’ll deal with money sinks in D&D.
For many campaigns, they don’t exist, despite a number of them being listed in different resources. The Player’s Handbook, for example, cites costs for maintaining daily lifestyles, purchasing meals of varying quality, and staying at inns from luxurious to squalid. However, using or requiring those services is something that’s entirely up to the DM; the rules don’t specify anything like characters being required to find lodging to enjoy a full rest. On top of that a lot of adventuring groups barely remain in towns or villages for more than a couple of hours, much less the full day that the lifestyle expenses dictate.
Also, the introduction of magic effectively eliminates most of those requirements after a few levels. As soon as a character has access to Leomund’s Tiny Hut, any need to purchase lodging disappears, and any class that gets access to “create food and drink” immediately solves the problem of buying food.
However, even without the introduction of magical methods for eliminating the existing money sinks, the income levels stipulated by the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master’s guide effectively render most currency sinks superfluous in short order.
Mundane expenses as laid out in D&D are based on the premise that 1 silver (ten of which constitute a gold) represents pay for an average commoner’s day’s work. Compare that with the recommended income amount dictated by the Dungeon Master’s guide and the invariable conclusion is that a successful adventuring lifestyle skyrockets the net worth of adventurers to the point where mundane expenses are of little concern.
My over designed calculating friend here ran the numbers of course. The DM’s guide tables boil down to even level 1 characters receiving an average of 5 gold per monster, and finding about 380 gold in any treasure hoards they get to loot. That means the ranger in your party who doesn’t even bother to stand up before shooting a kobold dead apparently did the equivalent of seven weeks’ work. And that hoard of treasure the bugbear had? That’s worth 10 years of the poor village cobbler’s work. And you didn’t even lose a hit point to get it. For shame!
When the characters start fighting tougher baddies the income levels get laughable. ROSTRO says the income recommendations almost exactly follow what it calls a “geometric progression curve”. For the smaller minded among you who just pictured a bunch of circles and trapezoids rolling down a hill, basically it means the characters start making stupid amounts of cash really quickly. By the time they’re fighting tier 3 enemies, with CRs between 11 and 16, each monster is carrying a wallet with an average of 840 gold in it, and their boss has a room with 36,500. So next time your paladin goes on about the plight of the poor people and you need to take them down a peg, remind them they’re essentially Bill Gates claiming they understand the lives of poor migrant workers.
Anyway, the point is that most of the living expenses mentioned very quickly stop being an amount of money the characters would care about or even notice spending. There are some higher level expenses, like owning a business or a small castle, where the operating expenses can rise to up to hundreds of gold a day, but again many groups won’t bother. As evidenced by Matt Colville’s Strongholds and Followers supplement, there are no rules in the basic D&D system that give characters a benefit to owning a keep or castle, and they’d have little reason to start a business; any money their tavern could bring in would be far outstripped by the cash they can apparently make by walking out to the nearest cave and fireballing it until the goblins are dead.
With the absence of money sinks, the only other outlet for use of currency is purchase of items for use in assisting or enhancing the abilities of the characters. At this point, the enterprise is hampered by the introduction of bounded accuracy.
In previous editions, a steady increase in statistics of enemies and characters usually necessitated the purchase of newer armaments and equipment to avoid being overwhelmed by opponents. A sword conferring a single point of increase to an attack would be effective in early levels, but the bonus would become mathematically insignificant five to six levels later.
With bounded accuracy locking in defensive and offensive stats within a static range, a single item providing a relatively small numerical increase remains effective regardless of level. As mentioned in previous analyses, a character acquiring a weapon that does nothing other than provide a +3 bonus to their attack would give them a better than 75% chance of overcoming the AC of the majority of creatures recommended for the character’s level, and any weapons providing a bonus of 4 or higher would constitute a nearly insurmountable advantage in succeeding at offensive action against any opponents.
So this becomes a problem in two ways. First of all, the characters can’t be iPhoned, where you’ll be able to provide them with a new shiny toy they simply have to get every other level or so; all the magic items are pet parrots; you’re doing to die before they do, and they’ll be just as effective at that point as they were when you first got them.
The other problem is the rules as written say magic items aren’t generally laid out in a shop in 5th edition, with the possible exception of low-level potions. They’re more like pieces of fine art; there’s a limited number of people who even buy and sell them, and there are very few magic items even for sale. Also, the pricing on them follows the same rhombus arc thingy that the character’s income does. As soon as you’re trying to purchase a rare item, which most of the weapons and armor are, by the way, you’re looking at items priced at thousands a pop, and very rare ones can easily be a five digit purchase. Not to mention both the DM’s and Xanathar’s guides suggest you’re forking over up to a thousand gold to even find someone who sells these things.
However, again, adventuring to save the day. There’s something like a 75% chance a magic item is going to end up in a treasure hoarde, so rather than spending all that gold, just track down the poor owlbear who probably has the magic +2 sword stuck in it’s pawsie-wasies, you mean mean murderers. I mean, there’s a decent chance it won’t be a magic weapon or armor at all and it’ll be something like an immovable rod, but still, magic item.
Lennon: Are you going to make some sort of comment about immovable rods now?
Killer DM: Why would I bother doing that Lennon?
Anyway, the practical result of all of this is that characters have very few things they need to spend money on, and even the things they want to spend money on are hard to find and they may not want to bother because there’s a good chance they’ll get something just as good or better by waiting.
Healing potions are the exception; while they aren’t easy to find, they’re easier, and they cost enough that the characters may have to actually check their wallets before cleaning out the potion-maker of their entire stock. But the DM also has to consider how access to that many potions is going to effect encounters.
The general conclusion is that the economy in D&D is almost entirely optional. Unless the Dungeon Master devotes design and resources to establishing extra money sinks and possible sources of equipment that can be purchased and used to effect by the characters, it is theoretically possible for a party to acquire a significant amount of gold and subsequently encounter no practical need or avenue to leverage their wealth.
Some newer adventure modules are altering the paradigm somewhat in terms of the need for and use of gold. Ghosts of Saltmarsh, for example, presents an opportunity for characters to employ a seagoing vessel. Larger examples of such have purchase prices comparable to the aforementioned defensive fortresses, and they must be crewed by hirelings commanding salaries of 2 gold per day.
Descent into Avernus also altered the base mechanics by replacing the gold economy with that of soul coins and directing all commerce to occur in that arena, while simultaneously establishing new money sinks and items of practical use.
However, if you aren’t involved with either of those adventures and you’re sitting around with a pile of gold wondering “what do I do with this,” and your DM comes back with a blank stare, you may as well start melting it down and fashioning it into a throne.
Lennon: I’m kind of surprised you haven’t done that yet, actually.
Killer DM (annoyed): Ryu and I have a…difference of opinion when it comes to her money.
Lennon: Yeah, I have disagreements with her and *my* money, actually. The part where she keeps taking it.
ROSTRO: Would the use of an extraplanar location to store your wealth be beneficial?
Lennon: Definitely could be.
ROSTRO: It could be arranged. Access would involve some amount of discomfort.
Lennon: Can you…maybe spell that out for me?
ROSTRO: Measurably worrying levels of extraplanar stress would be applied to most of your physical, mental, and psychic processes on each interaction with the demiplane, whereupon I would be your only reliable method of returning to this mode of existence.
Killer DM: Lennon, I know how much fun it is to play with ROSTRO but you should probably come with me to the scrying pool now.
Lennon: I…oh very cute. No, I will head over to the scrying pool, and I expect Ryu and Ostron to join me there shortly. Okay?
Killer DM: Well you can’t blame a girl for trying.