Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

The original Dungeons & Dragons game awarded characters an experience point for each gold piece they claimed from the dungeon. See “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.” This provided a simple method of awarding non-combat experience and motivating players to loot dungeons—the activity that made the game fun. The success of awarding XP for gold rested on three premises of the early D&D game.

  • Adventures always occur within the dungeon or wilderness.
  • Players choose the difficulty of the challenges they dared to face.
  • Characters will find ways to spend their riches.

By the time second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, none of these premises remained true.

Premise: Adventures stick to the dungeon. When D&D adventure expanded beyond the dungeon into civilization, players felt tempted to treat towns and cities as massive gold and experience farms. Why bother facing terrors and traps underground when the local townsfolk offer sources of wealth, and the XP it brings? For more, see “Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

This problem invites an easy solution: By the 1981 Basic Set, characters needed to recover gold from a dungeon or similar adventuring location to gain experience for it.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a recent game with an old-school XP-for-gold system, lists many sources of gold that do not count for XP.

The following may gain the characters wealth, but they do not count for XP purposes:

    • Coins looted from bodies outside of adventure locations
    • Rewards
    • Selling equipment stripped from foes
    • Selling magical items that have been used by a PC or retainer
    • Tax income
    • Theft of wealth from mundane merchants, rulers, and citizens
    • Trade, commerce, and other business activity (including selling of mundane items stripped from foes)

If you want XP, you must earn it.

Premise: Players set the challenge. In most modern D&D campaigns, dungeon masters devise adventures that will challenge their players without proving too difficult. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes pages of budgets and formulas aimed providing just enough challenge.

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

This system gives players a choice that they lack now, and it added a element of strategy.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To lure characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: First-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave new players a boost, and made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made level draining a bit less punishing.

Premise: Players have meaningful ways to spend their riches.

Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold.

In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #254Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, players could spend their riches in an end game. In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds.

Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

This scheme suffered one problem: Almost no one went on to the stronghold-building, army-raising part of the game. That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit.

So D&D characters gained riches fit for kings, but they kept returning to the dungeons for another score.

Next: D&D stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains.

15 thoughts on “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

  1. Netzilla

    One other drain on gold in 1E AD&D were training costs. In order to advance a level, you not only needed enough XPs, you also had to spend a certain amount of time and money getting training for the new level. It was an oft-ignored rule (at least in my groups), but at 1,500gp x level it was pretty expensive to train.

    I don’t know if this rule existed in OD&D, but as I recall, it didn’t in B/X.

  2. Alphastream

    Some great thoughts here. I especially like your second and third points. I saw those factors very often.

    I think that first point can be argued. Even very early adventures have towns with plenty of wealth in them and many stories of parties that cleaned them out. The Keep on the Borderlands, Hommlet, and others all saw many raids as new groups figured out the right balance between exciting fantasy play and going for easy riches. 2E made various changes, but very often DMs were still using classic 1E adventures or Basic adventures. We didn’t have the edition separation back then, so what we used and how we behaved all blurred together.

    3E was really where the designers tried to balance things out. Books that covered stronghold building were actually pretty good, mathematically, and did see some use. I used those rules in creating an official set of building rules for the Geoff region during the Living Greyhawk organized play campaign. We saw many players who were very happy to sink in tons of gold to own a tavern, book shop, adventuring company guildhall, or other building.

    Magic items were another big part of this strange math. 1E and many 2E adventures could offer an insane multitude of magic items. Classics like the G-series gave us cartloads of them. DMs and players had to deal with that, because ultimately that excess would get sold as well. Each edition tried to change the equation (especially with 3E’s crafting rules), but none seemed to achieve actual balance.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Alphastream,

      Thanks for commenting.

      Your examples make a good case. D&D probably reached in-game civilization by the time the little brown books reached print.

      At that moment, the XP-for-gold system that Gary devised to make the PCs act like Conan, Faferd, the Gray Mouser, and so on, turned into a mechanic that encouraged some players to act like the villains those heroes killed. Curiously, the folks at TSR needed years to adjust the incentives.

      In my next post, I will have some fun discussing the play value of books like the Stronghold Builder’s Guide. Nonetheless, I love players who enjoy investing their money in the game world and on an imaginary second life that doesn’t increase their DPS. Such activities only appeal to a few. I had no idea that Living Grayhawk players could build things in the campaign. That’s wonderful!

      In researching this post, I looked at lists compiling the vast amounts of magic available in those early adventures. Clearly, no method, only mad generosity. Gary struck back with rust monsters, disenchanters, and rules for damage to magic items. Of course, only players delighted to be in a game with *GARY GYGAX* would tolerate such measures.

      I’m planning some recommendations for treasure in 5E, but my method always finds me starting with journeys though D&D history and design.


      1. Alphastream

        I look forward to seeing that!

        Another thing that struck me just now: all that emphasis on dungeon level, with all those charts in monster manuals and DMG… but the published adventures didn’t ever(?) use that! Why was that?

  3. Don Holt

    I have to wonder, do modern players even know what they are missing? Granted in today’s media driven society, the lack of attention span on the part of players, and the lack of patience in achieving goals, perhaps these other opportunities aren’t missed.

    I guess the real question is: Should they be? I’d be asking myself what did these guys know and why were the original expectations of the authors for a completely different game.

    I’m pretty sure what changed their minds. I guess gold did confer experience points. I just have to ask: experience in what?

    Popularity does not infer good, but merely acceptable at a price. McDonald’s is popular, but it is not fine dining.

  4. Sean Robert Meaney

    Actually I remember going through a bunch of dungeons and dragons adventures in which the players acquired four bags of holding only to hit the hill where kobolds had amassed an armoury of crossbows and leather armor and they strolled into specularum with them only to hand them out to peasants in a market place uprising. Their involvement got them deported to the isle of dread.

    Real wealth on the other hand is why estates are of value. An acre of light forest is worth 20,000lb of firewood. At a copper piece per 20lb thats ten gold pieces an acre or 6400gp a square mile or over a quarter of a million gold pieces for a fifty six square mile d&d hex of light forest. See the value in focusing all your adventuring attention on a single map hex while your peasants chop down trees?

  5. Timothy Park

    There were a great many bits of weirdness in the rules back then but back then no one really took the rules as that strict and hard core. Folks forget two things. First, the original beige book edition was a nightmare to make sense of. Most of the folks I played with back then, myself included, got the books for the charts and what amounted to essential rules, reference, and ideas. I know of no one who started out by just reading the books and putting the game into practice with no other influence. You’d play with folks and after awhile if you got hooked you bought the rules so you could referee. The game *as played* (not RAW, there was no RAW) was more custom and oral tradition. Much of what we did was not in the books.

    Second, the wargamer culture the game started in was rather used to that kind of rule set and felt very free to use such publications as a *basis* not as “law”. What didn’t work we didn’t use, what did, we did. And where we thought we had a better way we’d kick it around a bit and give it a go.

    That kind of outlook doesn’t seem to be around so much anymore. Sure there might be a ton of treasure and magic items in a published module. When GG said the rules were guidelines he was rather preaching to the choir (we were going to use them as guidelines anyway and he knew it), and we approached the modules similarly. Just because it was printed on the page didn’t mean a referee had to grant it to the party. It also overlooks the fact that a great number of items and treasure were rather obscurely hidden. Making a clean sweep of what was around was rare because the really good stuff was rarely lying around in plain sight.

    Also, while I don’t think it was ever spelled out in the early days, monsters didn’t just sit on piles of magic items. An intelligent monster would make use of what it had and intelligent referees made sure that they did. An older dragon with a bit of smarts and perhaps some spell capabilities would reasonably know what goodies it had in its trove and if they were usable it would use them. If it couldn’t use them and they were powerful they would be well concealed and secured. So some of that booty were resources to be used against the characters.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not sitting here going “ah, for the good old days! You won’t see me playing anything beyond the purity of 1st Edition. *That* was classic stuff and nothing better since.” I rather like a good many of the things that have come about for the game in particular and the hobby in general.

    There were a good many really crazy things back when coming out of Lake Geneva. What many don’t recall either was the common gripe of “Would that TSR would invest a little money in hiring a *real* editor, and maybe putting a decent index in some of their stuff.” But they didn’t in good measure because no one else was, and while we might wish for it we didn’t expect it.

    Among the crazy things that went along with the gold converting into experience points was one you overlooked which was that while the difficulty of monsters was tied to the dungeon level, so was the amount of experience points. The dungeon level number and your character’s level number was supposed to be used as a fraction so if you were a higher level character than the dungeon level you only got a portion of the experience. A 2nd level character passing through the first level of the dungeon only got half the experience. A 10th level character 1/10th. That, I believe, was RAW back when and there was some sense to it because it encouraged taking on challenges appropriate to the ability of your character.

    Our home rule for quite awhile also reversed that. If you were first level and found yourself on the 2nd level we’d let the character collect double experience. This served to bring new characters up to the party level rapidly if they survived.

    Training costs cut two ways. They did seem a kind of artificial penalty sometimes especially when you went on a long delve or wilderness campaign and couldn’t get home to your mentor and were sitting on a couple levels worth of XP. The other oft forgotten bite that went with that was that your character could only advance a single level at a time unless there was some sort of magical intervention. So you might have the XP to advance 2 levels and some change, but once you got back to your mentor and paid for your training to get up a level you got just the one and in some campaigns your XP total would be set to the single level advance and you’d start over toward the next level. All these things chewed up treasure and throttled advancement intentionally.

    That said, I’m rather annoyed by the kind of progression I see in current games with 5th Edition. It breaks the verisimilitude for me when the DM announces an XP award and suddenly everyone has enough to break a level and there’s 15 minutes of chaos at the table as everyone seeks their new abilities and debates their options for advancement. And in game, with no more than a short rest, one character has found a new class, another picked up spells and features, another an additional attack and a Feat, etc. Yes, I know that “the character was working on developing all along” and the other arguments, but it also smacks of the “power up” of hitting the XP for a new level in a computer game in the middle of a fight and suddenly having *more*. Artificial.

    In a couple of campaigns now as I’m one to track time and keep notes (and I still map!) it dawned on me that weird things would happen from a more objective standpoint. In one our party went something like 5 weeks straight with some kind of serious combat daily. No breaks, no rest and refit, no chance to visit town to get supplies and gear. Yes, I know “it’s a game”. In another in something less than three months we advanced 7 levels. Think about the huge transformation that entails and yet we just kept rolling along like a video game.

    All this does influence my game as referee and player. I’m the annoying one who asks “Do you still have arrows after all this time?” I also track treasure acquired by the party when I’m referee and use that and the XP value of the creatures defeated as a *guide* to awarding XP. Note I said “defeated” not “killed”. Outwitting the evil slave trading merchants and freeing the slaves and making off with their strongbox without slaying all the merchants still gets a solid award of XP. I’m not fool enough to add everything together, but the party got at least as much as if they’d killed everyone and probably a chunk more for clever play. I also kick out bonuses to individual players for good roleplay, making use of in game information gathering to find clever solutions, and certain less tangible achievements. But all that, for me, works from the guideline of “this much XP for the opponents, this much for treasure and items acquired, additions for clever and quality play and creativity” and a few other “fudge factors” to give me the pool of potential XP to award. And some of that includes some metagaming like “How far is your character from the next level?” because it’s just annoying to head home after a session 23 XP short of a level: part of the fun is the plotting and planning for your advancement between sessions. Guidelines.

    I also remain a strong advocate for players having some choice, agency and influence on what they face. I still structure adventure settings by “dungeon level” in ways and make it plain that “this place is relatively safe/easy; this is dangerous; this is really dangerous, and that is *unknown*” so the players have some idea of the “level of risk” they’re taking on. I back that up with “For the most part I will not put anything between you and a major goal that will intentionally result in a TPK. I will also provide at least two alternate ‘routes’ in the ‘story arc’ from beginning to end.” They don’t know necessarily that one is optimal by some standard but they know that in my world unless they willfully head down a dead end into the jaws of death they’ve always got options.

    Finally, I don’t fret much on “balance”. My first several sessions refereeing 5th Edition (I jumped from 1st to 5th) I paid careful attention to the CR levels and “balance” math. The results were far too little of a challenge to my players. I gradually beefed up all my encounters to what the book would describe as “deadly”. Actually, usually about twice deadly to give this bunch a real challenge. Even with that and with all the other play in the last two years where I’ve been a player I’ve only seen a single character die. I was referee, it was in one my my earlier sessions with strict adherence to the balance and it was a fluke. After I upped the challenge that didn’t happen. I suspect some part of that was with the one death everyone sharpened their game and superior play dealt with greater challenges.

    It also improved the drama of the game because it was established that character death could happen, and in such a way that the various “game resets” of being “at zero” and resurrection couldn’t work.

    I’ve gone on way too long again, but I guess my point in all of this is that there are some concepts from the earlier editions that bear maintaining, and some of the traditions of us “grognards”. There should be some doubt about success and survival or there is no tension and no drama (in the best sense of the word). There should be XP rewards outside of slaughter. Inspiration is woefully underused. What’s printed shouldn’t become quite so holy. Referees should avoid being “slaves to the dice”. Meaningful options and agency for the players make for a better game.

    And, in the end, it’s what a friend said to a rules lawyer years back “It’s not like you’re going to win. We’re *playing* D&D. It’s the playing that counts: there is no “win”.”

    Thanks for good blogs!

    1. Sebastien Tides

      Long winded and appreciated. Its nice to see so much thoughtfulness and comparison about the old and new, the mash up of the two, and a some suggestions about the refinement of both with both in mind. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

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