Continuing from part 2, I'm exploring some alternatives to the traditional role that money and economics plays in D&D, inspired by real-life situations found in history, with the occasional creative liberty taken here or there to make things more gameable. It's fantasy after all, we're not going to stress about accuracy here. Last time I just talked about small-to-medium adjustments to the existing economic situations your players engage in. This time I want to think bigger picture. In traditional, OSR, "XP for Gold" schemes, dungeoneering is a path that leads to domains being built up for each individual player. But what other campaign arcs shaped by treasure can we imagine?
An important caveat for this: all specific numbers and variables are intentionally left ambiguous. I wouldn't know the optimal figures or ratios for these ideas to work, especially with the pricing schemes written into your RPG of choice. All of these are simply described in the abstract. What I will say is that most of these schemes work better if you simplify capital into large blocks rather than penny-pinching. When you're a pirate crew raiding a merchant vessel, you'll win enough treasure to buy whatever mundane equipment you want. So the real measure of wealth is in big abstracted chunks that you can use to buy ships and fortresses whole.
All of the following ideas would almost certainly need to be implemented and communicated to the players from the very beginning, as they're all meant to shape the entire campaign for everyone. In fact, I would encourage anyone out there to design a whole RPG or adventure scenario after your favorite examples here, since that's what these really are. The caravan-XP system from Ultraviolet Grasslands I described last time is a really good example of the sort of thing I'm here to offer you.
Table of contents for this post
- The True "Adventurers' Guild"
- Pirate Campaign
- Viking Campaign
- Vassal Duties
- Meritocratic Domain Play
- War Campaign
The True "Adventurers' Guild," AKA Monopoly on Adventuring
|I drew this once because I have bad taste|
Of course, the way most DMs incorporate their "adventuring guild" is to either use it as a way to simply assign the "quest of the week" to the PCs without them having an input, or perhaps offer them a "quest board" if they're feeling spicy. To me, this always feels very artificial and trope-y (in a bad way).
In the last article I talked a bit about the PCs simply being members of guilds in general, but I think there are unique possibilities presented by the concept of an "adventuring guild" specifically. For example: real-life guild artisans operate out of stationary workshops, whereas adventurers are often characterized by their habit of traveling. That's not a huge problem though. Just give them a HQ and have NPC customers come to them offering money for their service, and then the PCs go out and kill the monster before returning. Each town in the campaign can have an adventurer's guild hall with the trophies of all the greatest quests accomplished. Maybe you can even make it a campaign goal for PCs to upgrade from mere apprentices to journeymen to masters.
You can also reinforce real-world guild dynamics by identifying which regions/communities have an exclusive guild charter and which don't. In the places that don't, all quests are downright buck wild with competing adventurers getting in your way and sabotaging you. They're a reckless clusterfuck of greedy knaves all gunning for the same reward, which is a hilarious and awesome dimension to add on top of a decent adventure (speaking from experience). When the PCs do quests in a guild-chartered region, things are much less chaotic. They are, however, much more restrained. You can add special requirements and rules to the PCs on an adventure that make it harder, such as, "no destruction of infrastructure" or "you can only kill the main target" or "must be complete within 24 hours or the NPC's money back guaranteed." These reflect the way guilds would enforce certain standards in their craft, except this is a standard of adventuring that PCs uphold.
And of course, then there's the occasional quest of, "go take down these non-member imposter adventurers who have been caught taking on quests in our local region." Gotta maintain the guild's monopoly, after all. PCs getting to hunt down rival adventuring parties is always fun.
In fact, the NPCs in the guild should be a resource for the players. Free supplies, shelter, and healing all make sense, but the most interesting to me is information. It's implied that whatever quests the PCs don't pursue must instead be taken up by NPC members in the guild. Assuming they're successful, they must always come home with information about how things went down. Therefore, the PCs can learn more about the world before jumping into a quest by contacting their fellow guild members and asking them if they've learned anything relevant in their own adventures. This is a simple way to streamline the "pre-quest research" process into one source of helpful information the PCs can tap into. The guild has an expert on undead, an expert on dragons, an expert on the lost ancient civilization, and an expert on the dark elf empire, and the players just ask each one questions as needed.
The tradeoff is the added tension of navigating the politics within your guild. You gotta keep the right people happy or else you might get blacklisted from adventuring. There are rivalries and people seeking to bring you down. You have to maintain the whole guild's reputation and some people might not like the way you conduct your work even if you get results.
So if I made a campaign about "the adventurer's guild!" as the centerpiece, then I'd split it into three phases: apprentice, journeymen, master. In the first phase, the PCs are just a group of apprentices operating out of the workshop of a single master NPC adventurer who's pretty high level. There's a list of quests to take on each week that each have certain rules to complete them successfully, and the players choose which ones they tackle (with the other apprentice parties in that workshop presumably taking the others). Each quest may even result in you slowly building up character traits like skill proficiencies, weapon proficiencies, languages known, and more. Remember: the apprentice phase of a guild member's career is when they're learning the craft, so the act of character creation instead being stretched across gameplay is appropriate.
In the journeymen phase, they'd continue this structure but are instead traveling from one town to the next in between each adventure or maybe each handful of adventures. You get to open up the world and introduce them to a greater diversity of NPCs and threats and world elements. This is a really convenient justification for the classic DMing advice of "start small and local, then flesh out the world one piece at a time as the campaign takes you to different places."
When the players finish as journeymen, they have the open-ended problem of figuring out how they'll secure their title as guild masters. Just as in real life, they need to create a "masterpiece" of their craft. They have an entire campaign world they've experienced at this point with a big collection of NPCs, threats, and world elements to consider. They get to choose how they'll make their mark. Or maybe they just need to thwart a great evil or avert a terrible threat. If they pull this off, then you get to spend the last third of the campaign with them operating their own guild workshop in a settlement of their choice (wherever their favorite location was in the campaign, I assume). Unless you want to turn the game into more of a business-management simulator with distributing quests to henchmen and whatnot (which is valid and cool!), I would recommend you still have all adventures from this point involve the PCs at the front lines. But now they have a lot more credibility and prestige and permissions within the guild. They can run for office or petition the king for an expanded charter or whatever.
Since I'm now at risk of making this sound a little bit like it may even make sense somehow, we have to ask: is there actually any real-world precedent for this? Well, no, but not really because it's somehow ridiculous. It's moreso because guild work is, kind of by definition, lawful activity. In fact, the sorts of activity we categorize today as being criminal is largely influenced by the interests of the guilds who originally shaped commercial law to their own benefits. To put it another way: if there were a real-life thieves' guild, it wouldn't be called that. It'd be called a "tax collectors' guild."
I can't believe I just wrote that.
But of course, as in all things, it's a bit more complicated than that. See here if you're interested in learning more.
Pirate Campaign, AKA Stealing as a Service Industry
Let's try something a little bit more plausible than the "thieves' guild" by rethinking the nature of the activity and the organization built to perform it. In the previous post, I described the two most common money-making adventures as 1) go on an adventure where treasure is found, or 2) get paid treasure to go on an adventure. The former is self-directed, the latter is NPC-directed. "Adventurer guilds" fit into the latter, which is one reason why so many people instinctively run them as NPC-directed enterprises with "quest assignments" and barely anything more. But if this is about the "thieves' guild" campaign, then the guild craft is the acquisition of treasure.
Like I said before, I always envision a guild, even a thieves' guild, as being fairly stationary. It runs like an institution of a city, with each thief being like a licensed freelancer. But I would argue that another interesting, perhaps more interesting option, is to use something more like a band of brigands. Or better yet, pirates. Unlike members of a shared guild, a pirate crew is more of a tight-knit group who are ride-or-die. They're always moving around and they all work together. They're also trying to build something together. You always can give a thieves' guild a headquarters that can be customized and upgraded and all that, but you have to give that to a pirate crew. It's not up for debate.
- Crab fortress: 1 capital point
- English port: 4 capital points
- Spanish merchant ship: 3 capital points
- Lost treasure of One-Eyed Willie: 6 capital points
The next thing I was ready to suggest is that capital points could be gambled as a downtime activity. There's gotta be a limit so that the act of gambling never becomes a superior substitute for the act of piracy, but it can be a fun swashbuckler-y hobby for someone looking to do between adventures. But then I had the idea that "capital points" could instead be "capital dice." If any usage we've come up for them involved a die roll, then we can simplify things and make it the capital point itself be the die that gets rolled. In fact, we can look at things which don't imply dice rolling and add it in as a dose of uncertainty and variability. Maybe when I said "a capital point might be roughly 1000 gp" it was really rough. It's more like, "it could represent anywhere from 500 gp to 3000 gp" or something like that. I think carousing always deserves a random carousing result table, so maybe each die you spend on that could be rolled on the corresponding table. Maybe a bribe isn't actually guaranteed by spending 1 die, but rather by rolling a 5 or 6 on a capital die. That would mean that you might have to keep spending more and more dice until you roll high enough to sufficiently bribe the fucker.
Don't get carried away though. There's already an elegance in a resource that's spent with no uncertainty involved. Not only that, but you never want the players to feel like they really wasted a reward they worked hard for. If, for example, when you spend dice to level up, you had to also roll them to be successful... well, I would hate for a player to roll low and get absolutely nothing for the dice they just chose to spend on that. The gambling minigame, sure. More respectable purchases? Don't stiff them. As a rule of thumb, a spent die should always get you something even if you roll low, I think.
Viking Campaign, AKA Stealing an Entire Economy
Vassal Duties, AKA Treasure-for-XP rather than XP-for-Treasure
So in old school D&D, you get rewarded one XP for each piece of gold you bring home/spend. In modern D&D, you get rewarded XP for either fighting or "story milestones" (which we'll simplify to "completing quests" for convenience) and money only enters the equation if you happen to come across some along the way. In this version: you have a patron who commands you to go do quests and then they reward you with capital when you come home.
Okay, that just sounds like, "Adventurers get hired to do jobs and collect a reward on completion." Big deal, so what? We've covered that thoroughly enough, haven't we? And everyone's done that one. But the difference here is that this isn't a gig job. Rather, the players are vassals to a lord. 1) they live in his stronghold (to start), 2) they can't pick and choose their quests, and 3) there's no cash or money. Rather, all material rewards in the game are unlocked as Knightly luxuries you gain permanent access to.
- “You live on my land, so go clear out this monster den to make the region safe.”
- “Go to these ruins and secure them from hostiles so we can haul the treasure out for our fief.”
- “My eldest child and their retinue are going on a pilgrimage. Protect them.”
- “There’s a jousting tourney this season. Represent my house.”
- “We have a plague, research a spell to cure it or seek out the holy man who can.”
- “That bastard over there is attacking us. Go assassinate him.”
- “Deus vult. Lead my army.”
Something else convenient about fealty is that you don’t have to include treasure in every adventure to make it worth the PCs’ attention or for them to be able to buy new things after it. The fact that dragons hoard gold is a convenient trope for the genre, but honestly most monsters wouldn’t have valuables on them.
So in this case, as far as gameplay goes, the PCs' macro-scale freedom is more in the direction they take their advancement and station rather than the choice of quests which earn them that. So here's the dumb gimmick to make that work: when designing adventures, the DM still assigns XP values to each challenge and rewards that accordingly like in modern D&D. But the XP earned also acts as a budget of material boons the players can be "rewarded" with by their lord when they get home. Instead of spending treasure to purchase XP, they spend their XP to purchase treasure! And much like with "carousing for XP," you could even make it a tradeoff. Do you want to spend your XP on material rewards or do you want to spend it on leveling up your character directly?
I figure that common adventuring gear can be requisitioned at no cost. Yeah yeah I was poo-pooing this a bit with the pirate stuff, but the PCs are knights in this campaign, after all. When your players pick their supplies before a quest, handwave all the money and just ask them to make a list of what they bring. But like with the pirate one, a big part of this campaign is the usage of big, expensive assets. And in this case, big, expensive assets are "bought" with the XP you've gained. There would be a menu of things like weapons, armor, mounts, some magic items the lord has in their collection, spells, some loyal henchmen (rather than fickle hirelings), and eventually your own plot of land and (upgradable) stronghold.
Of course, doing a 1-for-1 with XP and gold pieces might not work with the prices and XP in your game of choice. In B/X D&D, a red dragon is worth 2,300 XP, which isn't even enough to buy a stone wall, let alone a keep within it. And besides, if it were just "spend XP as though it were gold in order to get your stronghold" then how is that really all that different from the classic D&D we're trying to subvert?
Alright, let's pivot. I say let's return to an idea similar to "capital points," except in this case it's probably your total character level. There's no tradeoff, XP earned translates to leveling up, full stop. But every time you level up, you get to buy more stuff as well. Your total capacity for knightly assets is equal to your level, and every knightly asset takes up a certain number of slots. Maybe you can expand your slots further if you manage to get vassals of your own!
That being said, a separate, related idea I've always been drawn to is the concept of "wealth checks." This is a gameplay mechanic I first encountered when playing the superhero RPG, Mutants & Masterminds 2E. In it, you don't track the exact amount of money your character has. It's rarely an equipment-focused game, as you can imagine. Rather, you have an idea of your character's social class and standard of living, and that translates into a "wealth bonus." If you ever need to make a substantial purchase in the course of an adventure, you roll a wealth check and add your bonus to see if you can afford that specific purchase at that specific moment without going broke. It's meant to reflect the fact that a person with an otherwise-steady income and a bit of savings should think of their wealth more as an ongoing metric, as their total "buying power" rather than the exact amount they have in the bank at any given time. That said, because more expensive purchases have higher DCs, you can actually lower your overall Wealth bonus if you successfully buy something that had a higher DC than your total bonus. Sometimes you can afford something... but it will set you back.
The reason I relate this to the entry on knighthood is that I think of an established knight serving a lord as being the kind of adventurer who could conceivably make plenty of purchases in the course of their quest but who really shouldn't be worrying about keeping track of coins. It could be more interesting if you just had an overall "buying power" associated with your level (i.e. rank in the feudal hierarchy). Then, you roll a die every time you need a material good, maybe not because you're literally paying for it but because you're finding out if you have the necessary amount of lordly prestige to be granted such a reward as needed. Even better, maybe your buying power can go up or down depending on where you're located, based on how your authority is perceived in the political landscape. You are literally "poorer" in enemy lands and "richer" in allied lands!
The last thing I'll say in this section is a brief bit about the reality of feudalism, since I committed so much of Parts 1 and 2 to providing some real-world education on historical economies. In short, the modern consensus among historians is that feudalism is an incredibly flawed model for understanding medieval life. It originated as a retroactive interpretation from early modern sources rather than being some kind of system knowingly used and endorsed by the peoples at the time. It implies a much greater degree of uniformity across the continent and the time range than we have evidence to believe. And it's also just kind of nebulous. Is it an economic system? Is it a form of government? Is it a culture and set of values? Or is it something that exists at the intersection of all three? Many definitions make it sound so specific that some question whether such a specific phenomenon even warrants having a name at all! But when others point out that the same specific structure has existed in many other times and places throughout history (e.g. 12th century Japan, Zhou China, pre-Mughal medieval India, 19th century Ethiopia, etc.), this gets dismissed as "not being real feudalism, because it doesn't fit all the hyper-specific traits characteristic of European feudalism! Which still doesn't exist by the way!"
It's a messy debate. Personally, while I am happy to concede to the experts that the traditional narrative is full of misinformation and bad assumptions, I also feel like many, possibly most, of the arguments I've heard from anti-feudalism historians are just as bad and fucking dumb. Like, criticisms that don't make any sense and shouldn't be taken seriously, even if they're coming from someone with "PhD" next to their name. But I am not a brave enough person to attempt that argument, and this is not the post or even the blog for it. So here's the relevant bits that tie into today's topic:
But like I said, this is not nearly as grounded in historical evidence as you'd hope. There are probably some history enthusiasts reading this right now who are pissed at me for embedding that pyramid diagram. But it's the idea that inspired this suggestion of a campaign all about a vassal performing their duties in place of a money system in your game. I find it fascinating.
"Meritocratic Domain Play" AKA Credit Scores
- XP-for-Gold (in this case, XP-for-profit, as I'll clarify below)
- A resource-draining source of adventure that also has lots of treasure rewards (e.g. a megadungeon where you'll need plenty of light, ammo, tools, hirelings, potions, explosives, etc. but which gives more and more treasure the deeper you go, with increasing difficulty)
- A committed home economy (e.g. a nearby home city-state where you're building a rep)
- A credit economy where all debts are accounted for at a yearly "communal reckoning"
- A Pendragon-style "1 session = 1 year" timeline for adventures
- Domain-level play in the lategame, where players are both interested in and have a use for things like castles, mage towers, mounts, ships, mercenaries, siege weapons, personal businesses, etc.
- All non-unique equipment resets each session. You won't be holding onto the same leftover rations and candles and ten-foot-poles as you had last year. Start with a clean slate when you do the initial equipment-prepping phase of an adventure.
- All surplus treasure after the reckoning is then converted to XP. This is the "XP-for-Gold" part where you have an incentive to bring home more treasure than just what you need to cover your debt. And of course,
- Consequently from both of the previous notes, all debt is cleared each session. Each year is a new adventure and a new opportunity to maybe make a little profit, or maybe not.
- Credit scores are ongoing though, and if a player's credit scores tanks then there's gotta be a consequence. Honestly, spending the year in prison for debt is fairly historically accurate and maybe imposing a purchasing limit on that player for the next session would be reasonable. Of course, being trapped in debt isn't fun, so don't go overboard. The player is already suffering because they must not be keeping up in XP if their credit score has gotten this low.
This one is inspired by a recurring problem that keeps catching my eye when I read about medieval warfare. The burden of funding wars back then was much more complicated and tricky and seemed to be the biggest factor of success during and after the conflict. And since many people already like war games and D&D games where the plot is about warfare, why not incorporate this part in?
The basic idea is that the war must be divided into ventures that each need their own source of funding. If you run out of money, you can't do no more conquering. But while every new conquest brings many benefits, every petition for funding also causes political complications. It shouldn't take long before a dynamic conflict emerges out of the interactions of these pieces.
From what I can tell, these are the primary sources for royal funding in a typical medieval European kingdom:
- Exchange taxes, e.g. market sales taxes, tributes, tariffs. Imposing these pisses off the merchant class.
- Land geld. In England, people were taxed on the number of hides of land they owned and a percentage of the assessed value of their movable goods. That percentage varied from year to year and place to place, and which goods could be taxed differed between urban and rural locations. Imposing these pisses off the gentry, knights, and lower lords.
- Special taxes (might need legal permission granted from parliament), often called a poll tax or “the X tax” where X is the war needing funding. Imposing these pisses off the peasantry.
- Borrowing from a bank house, often foreign. This puts you in debt and is limited by how good your credit is. Either the PCs start a credit line with the bank when they first borrow money, or the bank calculates their credit based on how profitable their conquests have been so far compared to the amount of money they raised to complete that conquest. You could have different banks with different loyalties as well.
- Pillaging enemy lands + ransoms on captured nobles. This is a source of funding you get during the conquests that should give you a big boost on your next conquest. You got to be thinking about profit even while you're fighting.
- Gifts from the rich to the Crown in exchange for titles and lands and knighthood. This is done by the mid-to-high lords and will create and break internal loyalties.
Of course, you can always mitigate the complications by creating exceptions or sweetening the deal somehow. For example, when it came to gelds and special taxes, in medieval England the standard was that churchmen were exempt, as were the poor, workers in the Royal Mint, inhabitants of the Cinque Ports, tin workers in Cornwall and Devon, and those who lived in the Palatinate counties of Cheshire and Durham. How did each of them get that status? One political manuever at a time.
When we consider economic gameplay at this scale, money becomes a means of how much action you can perform. It allows us to stagger the campaign into level ranges that are each characterized by "how much action can you perform with the budget of this size?"
Of course, this is strictly a macro-level gameplay procedure. I imagine you could fit it on top of fairly conventional D&D gameplay where players still control their PC adventurers in moment-to-moment challenge and drama. But if you want to create a politics-heavy campaign, then you need to follow the money.
I should probably just design board games, honestly.