In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

empty_chestGary Gygax devised Dungeons & Dragons to motivate player characters to chase treasure, but the game matured in 40 years. Now player characters adventure to smite evil, to redeem their name, to recover lost knowledge, to reach endless other goals. This development makes obsolete the game’s old practice of motivating PCs by handing out gold hoards that double every few levels.

So why not stop?

The pulp-fantasy heroes than inspired Gary Gygax rarely strike it rich. Even when they scored big, they lost their gains before they retired from adventure and deprived readers of another yarn. If you, as a dungeon master, rob or tax gold away, players will howl. If you never give PCs more gold than they need, few players will care.

In the cash-poor campaign, you avoid awarding more gold than the PCs can spend on mundane expenses and consumables. PCs gain as much magic treasure as ever. Those few PCs still motivated by treasure can still chase the big score—just like the pulp heroes, but that score comes at the end of the campaign. When PCs chasing wealth get rich, they retire, realistically. These PCs don’t risk their lives to fill a second Scrooge-McDuck-style pool of loot.

Advantage

The cash-poor campaign keeps gold meaningful by never awarding much. The game’s economy matches the pulp-fantasy settings that inspired it. If players score big at the end of a campaign, it feels like a climax—and a reason for a character to retire.

The cash-poor campaign lets the dungeon master focus on other aspects of play. DMs can avoid contriving a magical market. The can worry less about awarding gold, which no one spends anyway.

Disadvantage

The gold that accumulates on D&D character sheets, unspent, still feels like an achievement. The Forbes 400 teems with real-world billionaires with more money than they can ever spend, still chasing a higher score. (How much gold do you need to win D&D?) For some players, a cash-poor campaign may feel like a game without enough rewards. You will need to calibrate expectations and be sure players feel comfortable with it.

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7 Responses to In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

  1. Alphastream says:

    Hillariously, when I last ran Temple of Elemental Evil as part of a playtest, one of the players decided after the first visit to the moathouse that their PC should, logically, retire. He walked up to the town blacksmith and bought out his business. Done.

    • DM David says:

      Perfect. I love it!

      Dave

    • This is great! I’m always tempted and several times have done the same. As a DM I’ve definitely had NPCs who get a share of loot be like “a thousand gold! that’s like 2 years pay. I’m gonna open a bar and retire!”

      • Also, in my campaign setting, my players are part of a sort of foreign legion/benevolent freestanding military force (kinda like the watch in GOT). they get free training, food, lodging, and civilians are often willing to help them, but they are supposed to give most of their money back to The Company.

  2. Jeroen says:

    We started our campaign with establishing our base, hiring an old tower, buying tables and chairs and beds at the local carpenter, promising to pay him at the end of the month, all on credit.
    The campaign now has an extra minigame where we need enough loot at the end of the month to pay rent and cover all expenses.
    I will see how this plays out once we start going to higher levels and would game-wise get more gold…

    • DM David says:

      Hi Jeroen,
      Thanks for commenting! The magic of stating your campaign with a base and expenses is how strongly that ties to to the world. As you say, I wonder if adventuring to pay the bills remains compelling as the PCs get richer.

      Tangentially, I wonder how you would feel if the villains threatened or destroyed your base. In fiction, stories often begin a conflict by taking something from the characters that they cannot bear to lose. If D&D, players cannot lose their characters hard-earned stuff without risking hard feelings. That’s not wrong, but its different from ordinary storytelling.

      Dave

  3. S'mon says:

    Looking at my 5e game, I think my group are getting roughly one ‘hoard’ per level, so about 1/5 what you say is the standard rate. The 7th-8th level PCs just found a hoard worth 4200gp plus a magic sword, at the bottom of a dungeon that took four sessions to explore; they tend to level up every five sessions or so, and locate a hoard about that often. It feels about right for a swords & sorcery themed campaign.

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