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.

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

  1. Alphastream

    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.

    Reply
    1. B.A.M.F.Ranter

      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!”

      Reply
      1. B.A.M.F.Ranter

        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.

        Reply
  2. Jeroen

    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…

    Reply
    1. DM David Post author

      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

      Reply
  3. S'mon

    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.

    Reply
  4. justingiver

    all this time spent worrying about gold, magic, items they find.. and then they finish the adventuer and have no need for anyof it. ITs exhausting as a DM finding things and I tend to just give them gold.. and then I wonder for what? Why give them gold when they buy a beer for 1gp and why 1gp.. because who carries nickles and dimes whenthey just looted another dungeon and have 50k in gp, and then where do they put this gold.. the modest little shack on the road they started in or do they buy something bigger..and then you have world economy to figure out.. This aspect of D&D has never been fully worked out. Buying xp with gold.. meh.. I guess. but, who are you paying the gold too. maybe use it to level up. 2k per level or something so a 19th level character needs 40k to go to 20th.. again sure.. but, its pretty weak..just a treasure sink.. buy magic, buy cool looking stuff to wear.. sure.. if your theater of the mind is super amazing.. otherwise, does it matter if my chain mail costs 100 or 10,000,000 if the thing does its job, why spend money on ornate anything.

    This has bothered me for years and years. The only solution ?I have foudn that may be ok.. simply do away with most gold and give players things they find.. if they keep it, that can be a direct hook to a new storyline. If they don’t keep it.. you don’t need to flesh anything more out. trinkets can be anything. everything, found items.. but, its not easy and why would they care if they found a toy soldier that looks like the city guard? well.. they might not, but, if they do, it could be the head of the city guard that has been miniturized and turned to stone etc.. new story right there.. if not.. they toss it.. step on it and you move on to the next item.. Gold is just for inns, and other mundane issues.. rarely necessary that the players have more than a handful. But, what about needing say 2k gold for ransom or 5k for this thing you need to get to take to X to exchange for that thing to save the world… the economy blows and the situations to spend money are left up to the DM with very little guidance.

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