Thursday, May 19, 2011

Economics in Pathfinder and D&D

I was recently browsing through the Paizo.com message boards and stumbled across a thread asking about economics in Pathfinder/D&D games. The general consensus is that economics in games like D&D is pretty screwy, and to a point, that's entirely true. However, I'm not sure they're as screwy as people seem to think. Most of us who would have a problem with the thought of economics in our RPGs tend to approach the game from a simulationist viewpoint. I myself really appreciate simulationist mechanics in RPGs, because I feel it improves the verisimilitude of the world, which in turn makes roleplaying in that world more enjoyable.

So I figured I'd take a crack at exploring the economics of D&D, and share some insights into how I've looked at economics and world building in my own games. A lot of this will be reflected in my campaign setting which I will be publishing as a pdf in near-ish future, so it might give you a jumpstart on the kind of thinking I used while working on my own world. So let's get started.

Economic Conundrums In D&D
There are a few major hangups that people have with economics in Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 3E. Let's explore a few of them.
  1. Commoners are so poor that they cannot afford anything.
  2. How currency and items work in the world.
  3. Magic's effects on the economy.
  4. Magic items and their prices.
So we have an idea of what we're going to be looking at, so let's get started.

Poor Affluent Peasants
One of the main concerns with the economy is the idea that the cost of living is way to expensive for normal people in D&D (and Pathfinder), and that normal non-adventuring people can't exist and thrive. From what I can tell, most of this seems to stem from misconceptions within the rules and guidelines that the games present (likely due to different writers working on different portions of the game). The 3E Player's Handbook suggests that common laborers earn about 3 gold pieces per week, and if memory serves, the DMG has the amount set to something like 1 silver piece per day (which doesn't add up to 3 gp, since 10 silver = 1 gold).

We jingle because we're poor.
However, both of these sources ignore what they game actually says about it in the game's mechanics. The game provides two skills which are used to determine how much money a character makes doing whatever they do, in the line of Craft (Intelligence based) or Profession (Wisdom based). By examining the way the game actually handles stats, modifiers, and so forth, the average gold per week for an untrained laborer is actually about 5 gold pieces worth of income (notice I don't say coins, which is something I'll get to a bit later). This measurement assumes an average human with a 10-11 in either Intelligence or Wisdom, and no skill points or training invested into their profession (an untrained laborer). By taking 10 (an option you are allowed for doing normal tasks) our check result is simply 10. The result of the check is divided by 2 to determine the amount of income in gold pieces.

So we have a new baseline that is actually based on the game. We can also see that those who are well trained, smarter, or more observant can generate additional income (a blacksmith with a +4 skill modifier will pull 7 gold per week, which is quite a bit more money, which you'll see shortly).

Now Pathfinder has given us another benchmark, which is the cost of living rules found in the Gamemastering rules. We can see what the typical costs of living for someone in your generic Pathfinder game is, and what that living entails. Specifically, let's have a look at the average living.

Average (10 gp/month): The PC lives in his own apartment, small house, or similar location—this is the lifestyle of most trained or skilled experts or warriors. He can secure any nonmagical item worth 1 gp or less from his home in 1d10 minutes, and need not track purchases of common meals or taxes that cost 1 gp or less.
 So let's do some simple math. The average income of a person, as defined by the rules of the game is about 5 gp per week, and the cost of an average life is about 10 gp per month, so we can see that even untrained laborers can afford to live in an apartment, small house, or similar location, and this apparently counts towards minor common taxes as well. The next step up from here is wealthy.
Wealthy (100 gp/month): The PC has a sizable home or a nice suite of rooms in a fine inn. He can secure any nonmagical item worth 5 gp or less from his belongings in his home in 1d10 minutes, and need only track purchases of meals or taxes in excess of 10 gp.
 Holy cow, that's a big jump. Literally, to be considered wealthy, you have to to have an income that is roughly five times the amount of money that an average laborer makes. That's pretty huge and above the ability of most people. Just for giggles, let's have a look at the next highest bracket. This seems to be the kind of life that nobility could afford, as they likely get a lot of their income by taxing those beneath them, acquiring a large amount of income.
Extravagant (1,000 gp/month): The PC lives in a mansion, castle, or other extravagant home—he might even own the building in question. This is the lifestyle of most aristocrats. He can secure any nonmagical item worth 25 gp or less from his belongings in his home in 1d10 minutes. He need only track purchases of meals or taxes in excess of 100 gp.
 Ok, so the last one is Extravagant. This is apparently the cost of living for royalty. The character lives in a mansion, castle, or other extravagant home, or may be its owner. It describes this as the lifestyle of most aristocrats, which seems pretty likely if you've got a lot of peasants making about 20 gold per month, and you're getting 25-50% of that. If you're a landlord in your favorite fantasy setting, and you've got a village of only 200 people, and you were making a mere 5 gp off each every month (50% of the average cost of living), you'd be able to live extravagantly.

So let's go back to the average guy a minute, and get away from the nobles that are bleedin' our poor guy dry. Our commoner is pulling about 10 gold pieces in income every month that's not accounted for. So what would our typical commoner do with this sort of monthly income? Well by looking at the Equipment section in the Pathfinder rules, we can find a list of goods and services, as well as trade goods. Most mundane things, such as livestock are well within his means (a goat is 1 gold, a cow is 10 gold, but I must admit the cost of chickens is stupidly low, at 50 chickens per gold piece). Likewise, he could purchase no less than a hundred outfits of peasant clothing (cheap, non-fancy clothing). Or he could could spend five nights at a fancy inn (2 gold per night). Or he could act like a normal person, enjoy some drinks at the tavern in the evening, put his money up for a rainy day, and to purchase magic when needed.

But wait, why would a commoner be interested in buying magic? Well because it exists. Let's be reasonable here. Our commoner makes about 10 gold to the good every month. That's one person, not a household, just one untrained guy living on his own. After a while, he'll have enough money stored away that he could afford to have spells cast for him, or even afford potions, or an elixer of love.

So what about a family of commoners? Say a pair of adults, and three children, in a rural area? Well one of the adults might be working a normal job in town, pulling about 50 silver (5 gold) in pay each week for his or her work. Meanwhile, the other adult might be watching their home, as well as growing their own food, chopping their own wood, and producing a certain amount of gold pieces worth of work or gain, allowing them to live comfortably. Excess food or work they have done can be traded for hard currency or services.
In short, we have two adults and three children taking 10 of profession or craft checks (we'll assume the children have a -1 penalty for being young an inexperienced), which would produce about 88 gold pieces of wealth per month. Even counting the -50 gold pieces for living an average life for each member of the family, that's 38 gold pieces to the good. Not quite the complete destitution that most would think.

Saving for a rainy day.
Now, those of us who are avid simulationists will agree that popping 38 gold pieces out of your butt every month is a good trick, but doesn't make a lot of sense. However, keep in mind that the rules are an abstraction. This gold can come in the form of trade goods (such as grown tobacco), and it would be fair to assume that it could be calculated over longer periods rather than by the day. For example, a farming family might not produce 38 gold pieces worth of goods every single month, but it might be the average that they make per month over, say, a 4th month period. By accepting this, you could see that the family might make 152 gold pieces in profits every 4 months, and the 38 gold per month is the average. That means that they can even afford to purchase an antitoxin (50 gold) for the odd chance that someone is bitten by a viper, without breaking the bank.

Suddenly, the idea of a community pooling their money to pay brave adventurers to save their village makes a lot of sense. If you had four hundred people in a village, and just 75% of them were actually doing their part, that would be 300 villagers who were producing at least an average of 10 gold each per month, or 3,000 gold pieces between all of them. If the lord of the land was making 50% of their cost of living each month (5 gold per villager), that would be 1,500 gp in his pocket every month. In a single year, the lord would acquire 18,000 gold pieces worth of wealth from his people.


Items, Currency, and Trade Goods
Ok, so we've determined that commoners aren't as dirt poor as expected, and as a result nobility is about as wealthy as expected (maybe a bit more). So let's have a look at the goods and services a bit closer. We can see that a lot of pretty mundane things are fairly expensive, while others are trivial. Let's begin with trade goods.

Trade goods are pretty cool. They're essentially items that are traded as if they were money. Things like crops, precious metals, cloths (such as silk), spices, and livestock. Our hypothetical farming family above might have been producing Tobacco as their primary source of income. Tobacco is 5 silver per pound, which would mean that their 152 gold pieces every four months would have been equivalent to producing about 3,040 pounds of Tobacco, which they could then trade for goods and services, or for raw currency.

Trade goods are important to D&D economies. They show that money is being produced and passed around, even if it's not in the form of coins. Art objects and gems are also considered trade goods, and can be traded in the same way. In many cases, these trade goods can equate to raw materials to produce other products, such as tobacco to cigars, to continue using tobacco as an example trade material.

Looks like money to me!
It's highly likely that a lot of trading is done in these unusual currencies. This would likely be similar to the Texas cattle hands who were paid in meat as much or more than they were paid in hard cash. Likewise, in small villages or areas where hard currency may be in short supply, many adventurers (this is an RPG after all) might come to a bit of surprise when their efforts are rewarded with several yards of silk cloth, valued spices, and bags of quartz gems instead of gold pieces. Even coins are only based on the weight of the material they are made from (50 gold coins weighs one pound. Can you guess how much a pound of gold is worth?).
Sixty square yards of silk.
This is what it looks like.

Meanwhile, you also have a lot of normal items which aren't trade goods. Weapons, armor, and most adventuring equipment. This is stuff that's needed, used, but more specialized and has a bit more room for haggling. In short, these are the items that everything else pays for.

Magical Trade
Ok, so now we're getting to the crux of the "problem" for most people when they're looking at D&D economies. Magic and magic items are things that people can and will pay for in such games. Everyone can find a use for magic, from the most common man to the richest king, magic will affect the way trade is conducted and priced.

The magic in D&D is something our world had never been able to experience or have to deal with. Because of this, we can never look back on our history and draw an exact parallel with our favorite fantasy RPGs. While our games likely have knights, swords, longbows, lords, and so forth, they never had things like fireballs and the ability to produce energy and motion from nothing.

A world with magic, where one can learn to harness a power that lets you twist reality to your desires, would definitely have a demand for that power. And with demand, someone would of course begin to supply, and then it all takes off. So virtually everyone can learn to desire the benefits of magic. You might want to buy some potions in case little Timmy falls down a well and gets hurt (a potion of stabilize is only 25 gold), or you might wand to cure that case of herpes that you contracted that one time at that party (a healer can cast remove disease on you for 150 gold), and so on. Meanwhile, a +1 longsword costs a whopping 2,300 gp and some change. Who has that kind of money?

Well going back to our commoners, it would seem their nobles do. Our hypothetical ruler of a small village (with 300 taxpayers) was collecting some 1,500 gold per month. Now even paying soldiers and such, he probably has a pretty solid amount of cash floating around in his coffers, and he's just governing a tiny community. Likewise, if you recall, I mentioned the commoners paying adventurers for stuff, and since a lot of stories suggest that townsfolk pool their spare cash to pay parties of adventurers to protect or aid them, that can lead to a lot of money too. That's not even getting to the ancient dungeons full of long forgotten treasures themes that are prevalent in such stories.

So what kinds of things might you see nobles or adventurers doing with this wealth? Well adventurers would probably convert it into more equipment to continue adventuring for whatever reason drives them (if they want to retire in style, it'll take a lot more than clearing out a few goblin dens). Well nobles could create grander, more robust places for their people, or they might horde it. But just to give an idea of what a noble could do with that kind of money...

We're so awesome.
Well our noble who governs the 300 people has 1,500 gold per month. With that kind of money, you could add 10 continual flame street lights every month, illuminating your town during the night. Our noble could also commission a druid to cast plant growth to increase crop yields by about 33% over a span of 5 miles of land for the next year. He might save the money and in about 6 months, commission a decanter of endless water to give his people running water through the village with. Or he might just build statues of his family to mark how awesome they are for having a bunch of peasants making them rich.

The possibilities are endless.

3 comments:

  1. I've always been rather uncomfortable with the economy in D&D (and now in Pathfinder, which I'm starting to play). After reading the article, I think I'm going to give it a chance, since it seems to work much better than I thought it would. Thanks! I still don't like the ridiculous amounts of gold required. A chain shirt costs two pounds of gold? A plate mail 30 pounds?

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  2. Just found your article, and i must say this is the best review i have ever seen on the D20 / Fantasy economics. Thank you so much for putting all of this together!

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  3. So basically, what you're saying is that all we need to do is ignore the listed untrained/trained laborer wages of 1sp/day and 3sp/day (which ISN'T livable and always bothered me), and everything pops into focus.

    Note that the Stronghold Builder's Guide also lists unlivable wages, and will also need adjusting. Halve the prices for wall materials to keep that in concordance with a 1000gold 1-3 room house and such, adjust further for district standards...

    Really interesting concept. I'm going to make some models off of this. 1sp/day turns into beggars' and childrens' earnings, and the cost of renting or buying a home is no longer unthinkable.

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