The easiest outlet for wealth comes from trade in magic items. However, for reasons that I spelled out in “Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains,” fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons lacks the free magic economy of fourth edition.
Even without an open market, your campaign can still allow some trade. A limited, magical marketplace empowers players to purchase magic you select, so the market avoids the drawbacks of granting total access. This campaign style keeps magic items rare and extraordinary, like works of fine art. A market for magic exists, but buyers and sellers connect by rumor, personal connections, and agents.
In most campaigns, D&D players seek rumors and patrons for the jobs that lead to adventure. In a limited-market campaign, PCs extend their network to find contacts with magic for sale. Perhaps a merchant knows a noble family on hard times, or a temple gained a magic sword from a benefactor. In this model, some items still come from monsters in the cellar, but as many come from willing sellers.
Creating the market campaign
In the market campaign, you, as DM, reduce the number of permanent magic items available in treasure hoards, and then enable players to purchase a similar number of items.
What items become available for sale? Unlike fourth edition, which encouraged players to shop for items in the Player’s Handbook, characters shop in the game world. Contacts offer selections of items for sale. This gives DMs the authority to choose which items enter their game. Players gain a choice over the magic they buy. In a baseline 5E game, unless you take player requests for the items that might coincidentally appear in a horde, players have no choice in the magic their characters get. In a market campaign, you can gather magic want lists from the players in game. Just have a dealer in magical curiosities ask the PCs what sort of items might interest them.
The reduction in magic available in hoards means that adventuring parties may need to divide treasure differently. Players who do not claim magical treasure should get a bigger share of the gold. They will need the cash to buy their own magic.
If you prefer not to spend game sessions letting PCs ask NPCs about magic for sale, you can allow PCs to spend downtime locating items for sale. Let the players spend 10 days of downtime and then make an Intelligence (Investigation) check to give a sense of the number and rarity of items available for sale. The player can suggest the sorts of items they want, but you decide exactly what items become available and at what price.
Regardless of the way the PCs locate magic for sale, some of the items should cost more than they can pay right away.
You can add some adventure to the magic-item market by creating transactions more colorful than a simple sale. For example, PCs could spend gold to pay craftsmen or enchanters to repair a broken item, or they could be contacted be thieves offering to steal an item from someone who the players cannot rob themselves. Perhaps the most interesting transactions double as adventure hooks. For example, players could discover chances to make these deals:
- Buy a map showing the location of an item.
- Pay sages or diviners to find the location of a lost, legendary item that the players can retrieve.
- Pay miners or laborers to excavate the buried entrance of a site housing a legendary item.
All of these lead PCs to more adventure while giving players interesting ways to spend. Especially with deals that include hooks, dangle the opportunity well before the players have enough gold, so you can weigh interest and prepare as needed. The players must feel free to pass on any deal.
How much do the items cost?
When game designers price magic items, they need to consider relative power and the game’s economy. That’s hard. As a DM, when you price magic items, it is easy. Remember that you ordinarily give players magic for free.
To price magic items, use your position as DM to keep track of how much gold the players have. Estimate the amount of gold the PCs could win in their next adventures. Then set prices for the items you’re willing to allow based on the PCs’ wealth. If you want to gain a better sense of the relative value of items, check some of your old, third-edition books containing lists and prices of magic items. New copies of the Premium 3.5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons Magic Item Compendium remain available for about $30. The exact 3E prices do not apply to 5E, but the values give a sense of the relative prices of similar gear.
The magical economy adds fun because every player happily spends gold on magic. Castles and titles and ships only appeal to a few, but everyone loves a new magic item. Dungeon masters can use the economy to lure players to adventure.
Creating a magical economy demands creativity and preparation that you might want to devote to other aspects of the game. Some players may see commerce as an unwelcome distraction from dispensing justice and such.