Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

In “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it,” I showed why Dungeons & Dragons player characters get tons of gold through their career:

  1. Originally, D&D awarded experience points for gold to motivate players to act like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the other picaresque heroes of Appendix N.
  2. D&D lured players to more challenging dungeon levels by roughly doubling the treasure and experience available for each level deeper.
  3. The riches of the dungeon gave PCs enough wealth to become leaders who raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Swords Against WizardryThis plan unraveled when nobody chose to abandon the dungeon-crawling fun of their D&D game to put their characters in a different, miniature-battle game. Characters never spent their wealth on armies, fleets, and castles.

In the pulp-fantasy adventures that inspired Gary Gygax, heroes who came upon a windfall tended to spend it on debauchery or lose it to “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar.” This put the heroes back on the road to adventure, chasing their next score.

When Gary saw no players retire to stronghold building, he sought to restore D&D worlds to match Appendix N—and to economic sense. In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), he wrote, “It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters,” AD&D’s XP-for-gold system meant Gary couldn’t just impose the obvious solution: Stop giving characters so much loot.

Stronghold Builders GuidebookSo Gary found ways to take gold away. For characters ready to level, AD&D requires weeks for training accompanied by massive expenses. A master thief must spend 2,000 gold per level per week on training, just for tools and equipment. Master thieves demand pearl-encrusted crowbars. If these expenses fail to take enough, Gary suggests taxes. Remember that Conan yarn where the Cimmerian paid taxes? Nope. Few dungeon masters levied taxes because the punishing tedium of tax payments sucks the fun out of the game more quickly than it drains PCs of excess monies. Gary spent a page arguing that taxes add realism, forgetting that no sensible tax collector targets a powerful band of killers, especially if they sometimes prove useful finding missing heirs, thwarting attempts to summon demon gods, and whatnot.

Ultimately, none of the revenue-draining schemes lasted, because D&D players hate losing cash with nearly as much venom as they hate losing magical gear.

Richie Rich DiamondsBy third edition, the game had lost all the original reasons for awarding PCs tons of gold. Nonetheless, the designers followed tradition, so the game still awarded players enough loot to pile Richie Rich-style mountains of diamonds. The Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook tried to raise enthusiasm for the end game, but even the authors write, “Lounging about the stronghold day and night, engaging in the domestic dramas of daily life isn’t the sort of thing that stirs the blood of great heroes.” At least the heroes enjoy pampered luxury; players just experience hiring, expenses, and building management. A few players liked it, but I prefer not to work that hard without a dental benefit plan.

The fourth edition designers decided to deal with the problem of wealth by letting characters spend freely on magic items. Instead of hiring caravans of armored wagons, epic-level players could spend gold on a +6 sword. In this new spirit of player empowerment, magical gear appeared in the Player’s Handbook. Now when an epic-level adventurer wanted to upgrade from a +5 weapon to a +6, she could trade in her old blade and an extra 125 tons of gold for the new item. Call ahead. Ye Olde Magick Shoppe might need to special order some less popular weapons. In fourth edition, a single level-30 weapon matches the value of a fleet of 312 ships or 41,660 horses, a quantity typically referred to as “all of them.” And epic-level characters need more than a single weapon; they require protective gear and other magic with a value comparable to 1,000 ships.

The prices may seem silly, but they worked in play. Epic-level items are best described as priceless, because no one in a game world could pay cash for them. The prices just exist as a game measure for exchange.

Most players ignored the mind-bending economics, but a magic-item trade creates other problems:

Loss of wonder. In the original D&D, Gary meant to restrict descriptions of magic items to dungeon masters so their players could enjoy the thrill of discovery as they found items and learned their powers. Of course, players read all the rules, making this plan untenable. As magic items moved from being secret, to items awarded by the DM, to commodities in the Player’s Handbook, magic items changed from sources of wonder to appliances.

Power creep. When more and more fourth-edition books saw print and PCs gained options and access to more combinations, the game’s balance of power tilted to the players. When one appliance—or combination—proves best, everyone buys it. Soon, dungeon masters yearned for the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.

Design limitations. In an Escapist interview, Mike Mearls explained D&D Essentials’ magic-item rarities. “If players can buy anything, it really limits the design space you can put out there.” Fourth-edition designers avoided creating magic items that would change the style of the game by, for example, allowing every character to fly or teleport. “If the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures.” Players empowered to buy any item can transform the game. “It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.”

Mike notes that limiting items can put PCs in more interesting predicaments. “If one character can fly, you’re more likely to get in more trouble that you can’t get out of when you can fly ahead of the rest of the party and get surrounded by ogres or something.”

In light of these problems, fifth edition abandoned the magic-item trade. The rules explain, “Aside from a few common magic items, you won’t normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such.”

Still, D&D’s tradition led players to expect mountains of gold. These riches originally lured players deeper into multi-level dungeons that few ran anymore. These riches built to an end game that no one ever played.

The fifth-edition game holds to the tradition of making PCs rich, so DMs running campaigns and organizers of public play face the challenge of making gold good for something—or breaking tradition.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Choosing a campaign style

This entry was posted in Role-playing game design, Role-playing game history and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

  1. Davout says:

    I’ve just started my D&D 5e campaign. This is something I’ve been thinking about. I’m very interested in your next post in the series.


  2. Alphastream says:

    I agree with your top-level analysis. Interestingly, the original vision for 4E was said to be for magic to be extremely rare, on the order of a single item that might level with you and the rest being unimportant or even just a background benefit similar to 4E’s Inherent Magic Item rules. There was, so it is said, a last minute change that backed away from that. Even then, the 4E PH isn’t that bad. The killer is really freelancer-written Adventurer’s Vault, which transformed the game with a deluge of items – many poorly balanced.

    A key part is that 4E had very strict limits. Flying is a good example. It was meant to be something you could perhaps do as a daily or encounter power at Paragon level, or even a bit more often at Epic. The right items changed that. Distances, speeds, number of attacks, all of those controls could be broken through magic. Class powers and features could be extended. Because of that, any serious 4E build will almost certainly hinge upon the magic items that enable the PC to do its schtick. This had many negative implications for the game. (The positive being that it was fun to build).

    Interestingly, 4E works fine without that. The original vision could have worked. The Dark Sun campaign often used the Inherent Magic system, as did many people in home campaigns. We ran an organized play campaign for three years were very little magic was given out, no one could buy magic, and the magic was not of your choosing. Players had no problems with that.

    That’s why I don’t think 5E went far enough. While the 5E system works fine and makes some great changes (such as rekindling the DM’s role and the wonder of magic items), there are problems. Items can be insanely powerful and can enable problems in play. Stat boost items are a good example. Importantly, DMs don’t have a good feel for how often they should give out magic, and while the wonder is there, it isn’t clear how to make magic items feel special to a player. I still like that “signature item that grows with you” idea from 4E – to create an iconic relationship between one item and a character. And I still want to see the game hinge less on stat boosts and instead on fun tools that trigger imaginative play.

    • Greatzoopa says:

      When deciding what sort of magic items I wanted in my game, I skipped right past the stat boost items. They don’t break the game or anything, but I found it weird that the person most in need of the Headband of Intelligence was the rogue or the fighter, rather than the wizard.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,

      I always love reading about the hard-won experience you bring from organized play.

      To keep pace of the math, 4E doled out so much magic that the interesting items tended to get lost in the clutter. When Ashes of Athas handled the math with intrinsic bonuses, and then granted just a few items, those few items really felt extraordinary. Nicely done!

      I liked the way 4E attempted to isolate abilities such as flying to certain tiers of play. Clearly, DMs can accomplish the same thing on their own, but I wish more guidelines had appeared in the DMG. Most of us DMs have been surprised by some item that changed the game.

      Good point about stat boost items and the like. These items combine a lack of flavor and few interesting capabilities with a surprising amount of power—a bad combination.

      The idea of items that grow in power keeps appearing in the game. I think DMs and character actors enjoy such items because they mirror fictional characters with signature weapons and let a character cement an item to his or her identity. Designers get an extra kick because when they design such an item, the capability amplifies its importance and extends its life in the game. However, these sort of items never seem to gain a bigger place in the game because, for many players, nothing matches the excitement of finding new gear.

      Thanks for commenting!


      • Alphastream says:

        Thanks, Dave!

        Stat boost items further drain the game by lacking flavor. Always on, no downside, no color. If they had a risk, if they were intelligent and required negotiation, if they created an interaction element with NPCs (Int boost also comes with a terrible ego boost), then it would be interesting.

        3E brought in the era of magic items as build components. In 3E organized play (and many home campaigns), the vast majority of players would prefer to have a PC die (lose a level, pay gold to raise dead) than lose their stuff. That’s really problematic at various subtle and not-so-subtle levels of play. Our goal should be that the character’s essence is the character. Magic items should complement that and play off of that – even enhance it. I think 13th Age is a good model to study for that potential: http://www.13thagesrd.com/magic-items

  3. Ameron says:

    Great article. I’m really finding it challenging to balance wealth in my 5e game. What’s happened is that uber-rich PCs are buy Healing Potions literally by the dozen (at 50gp each) because they can’t think of anything more useful to spend their money on. I can’t think of a good reason to say no and it’s making it much more difficult to challenge the party when they have a bottomless bag of healing to offset all damage. I almost wish they could purchase items because it would give them a reason to save their money. But I realize how slippery that slope is.

    • Alphastream says:

      In organized play, there isn’t much that can be done under the current system. The campaign would have to lean toward what those few Living Greyhawk regions did, and even then it wouldn’t have an effect: why build in Mulmaster if you will soon move again?

      In a home campaign, give the PCs a stake in larger goals. To take examples from current/recent adventures: money can restore and grow Red Larch, giving them an active hand in its politics. Waterdeep might invite one to become a Masked Lord, if they will support a few causes… and very quickly they are asked to support more. In Tyranny of Dragons, those council meetings can have monetary angles: leaders who won’t commit without the party providing money for weapons and armor. Or, negotiations might require building defensive walls in some places to hold back the cultists’ army long enough for the heroes to succeed.

      At a smaller scale, that caravan in HotDQ… it can show up again and this time the cavern master has been down on her/his luck – for an investment up front the party could receive trade goods and get cool stuff over time, as well as news. Factions can have monetary needs and provide similar returns on the investment in both information and goods.

      I actually like rewarding in goods more than cash because it pushes the PCs more directly towards trading wealth for story benefits. A hoard containing priceless books can lead to a visit from a wizard who claims to maintain a library they can visit any time. They become permanent members and the wizards acts as a sage for future needs… and there could be adventure hooks behind that wizard, their allies, and their foes.

      • DM David says:

        Hi Alphastream,

        Thanks for sharing great ideas for giving players satisfying ways to spend their money. I’ve been giving D&D economies a lot of thought, and I see how strategies like yours would improve home campaigns. As you suggest, the solutions that work in a home campaign do not scale to organized play. I think a better economy for organized play would need to differ from the baseline in the DMG and start with from the campaign’s inception.


    • Davout says:

      Alphastream makes some good points.

      In my campaign I’ve significantly

    • DM David says:

      Hi Ameron,
      I’m so pleased to see a comment from a blogger whose work I enjoy.

      When the game came out and I spotted healing potions among the mundane equipment, at a price that would eventually become negligible, I was surprised. In combat, the action to drink eventually stops justifying the proportionally smaller gains in HP. But after every fight, players gain a bottomless bag of healing. I suppose the cheap potions enable parties to operate without a cleric, or allows the cleric to save spells for the battle.


      • Alphastream says:

        It’s always possible to limit the number of potions of healing they can carry (assuming they don’t have extradimensional storage). I hate to go the encumbrance route, but you don’t want the game to have that 3E “endless wand of cure light wounds” effect. The social contract may need to be invoked here. “Friends, the adventure isn’t meant to have completely healed characters at the start of every fight. Do you want to try to play it as intended, with the challenge of normal healing reserves and without all those potions?”

        For me as a DM, I defer to the players. I can have fun either way. I just think they are cheating themselves of the intention of the adventure.

        (This was one advantage of healing surges)

        • Davout says:

          You could also limit healing potions by saying they can only buy so many at time. After all there probably isn’t an assembly line for healing potions and I would think in most campaigns there would be fewer people who could make a healing potion than who could make a suit of armor or a weapon.

  4. Pingback: Legacy Weapons in 5E: Brigid’s Hammer | dungeonhacking

Leave a Reply