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:
- 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.
- D&D lured players to more challenging dungeon levels by roughly doubling the treasure and experience available for each level deeper.
- The riches of the dungeon gave PCs enough wealth to become leaders who raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.
This 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.
So 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.
By 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.