Sunday, March 13, 2022

Alternative Economics (Part 3: Treasure-Driven Adventure)

Return to part 1

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
  1. The True "Adventurers' Guild"
  2. Pirate Campaign
  3. Viking Campaign
  4. Vassal Duties
  5. Meritocratic Domain Play
  6. War Campaign

The True "Adventurers' Guild," AKA Monopoly on Adventuring

I drew this once because I have bad taste
I left you waiting for this one in the last post so here it is. One of my least favorite D&D cliches, but one that I do believe has potential to be done well. Of course, "adventure as a service industry" has been done a million times. Whether it's "monster hunters" or "Ghostbusters," they're both basically just ways of playing as fantasy exterminators. And that's definitely workable for an RPG. But the more specific the service being offered, the easier it is to describe under the guild format and to shape the campaign. Mercenary companies and magic guilds cover the two main skills the PCs tend to have. But "problems solved by violence/magic" is still a fairly broad craft for a guild artisan to specialize in. One of the best ideas is a "bounty hunter's guild," like the one depicted in The Mandalorian. That's similar to a monster hunting guild but it will always involve people, and usually has the added challenge of needing to bring back the target alive. Or even juicier, the dare to bring them back alive if the players want a bigger reward than they'd otherwise get.

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.

The last thing to address would be the biggest subcategory of "adventure guild" I anticipate people suggesting: a thieves' guild. Some kind of criminal organization that uses the guild format is a popular idea. I believe it was Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that first used the idea of a "thieves' guild" in which members carry an official "license to steal" with the exclusive privilege of... committing crimes with impunity? And while this is a hilarious and cool idea that shows up in a lot of fantasy works, boy is it fucking weird when you think
about it. Like, why on earth would any ruler grant a charter for such a "craft" as this? What utility does it have to society? What is the purpose that thieves play which is so important that they get protected status?? Well, one could argue that a wise ruler might recognize the basic truth that theft is inevitable anyway, so maybe the best course of action is to simply accept it and regulate it. Y'know, kind of like what smart leaders figure out with drugs and prostitution. If you say, "theft is allowed if you get a license" then you have the
dual-benefit of 1) not having to focus so much energy and resources on combatting theft (since a bunch of the people you'd normally be prosecuting are now in the clear) and are free to address other problems, and 2) you have an entire organization of people who have a vested interest in combatting the non-licensed thieves for you without needing to commit state resources towards doing so. The thieves' guild wants to maintain its monopoly, right? And hey, having regulations and standards can reduce the harm of this harmful activity. If the thieves' guild makes it a rule that "you aren't allowed to hurt anyone you steal from" or "you aren't allowed to steal from the sick or poor" then maybe... maybe this is a good thing?

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.

Here's how I envision a solid, treasure-driven pirate campaign reward system: treasure is abstracted into big chunks. Let's call it "capital." It represents a fat stack of gold, enough to split between many folks. It makes it easier for players to engage in domain-level play without feeling like they have to do accounting homework. It makes the prices and payments much less intimidating. So each quest hook advertises a certain number of capital points it's worth. The world map might show:

  1. Crab fortress: 1 capital point
  2. English port: 4 capital points
  3. Spanish merchant ship: 3 capital points
  4. Lost treasure of One-Eyed Willie: 6 capital points
Feel free to trick them with some false advertising every now and then. But the exact size of the treasure hoard doesn't matter. Instead, when you get back to port and do some downtime, the party decides how they want to spend their capital points. Most things just cost one point, such as repairing your ship. Maybe upgrading your ship costs 1 point, then 2, then 3. But any other thing that you imagine costs “a lot of money” will just be worth “X capital points.” For example, a standard bribe for an Imperial governor is 1 point, a new ship costs 3 points, and every PC starts the campaign 4 or 5 capital points in debt. But what if the players just want to buy basic supplies with their treasure? Well you could handwave it and just assume that even 1 capital point represents enough expendable money for them to buy whatever they need. But don't underestimate how carried away players will get with those "minor purchases." If a single spell scroll costs 100 gp and you've defined 1 capital point as roughly 1000 gp (just as an example), then we have a tricky problem. The spell scroll is well below the price range of things that are typically paid for in whole capital points... but it's also not an insignificant, handwave-able fraction of a capital point. If you just let them buy as many 100 gp items as they want then they will load up on that shit. So maybe at the start of each downtime session, the party can optionally convert 1 capital point into liquid currency and spend it more strictly. Your call on if that's necessary.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, points are traded in for levels. As I said in my post on pirate games, some variation on "XP for Treasure" is crucial to the spirit of the pirate campaigns. And as always, I advocate the specific variation of "XP for carousing" because that's exactly the kind of thing that pirates will blow their treasure on as they get more and more experienced. How many capital points does it cost to level up? I'm not sure. That depends on how you want to pace advancement in your game, especially weighing the cost of a new level against the cost of all those other things I mentioned you could spend your capital points on. I'm inclined to say that you only have to pay for the party’s collective XP, so don’t worry about needing to spend points for each PC to level. For example, maybe levels 2-4 cost 1 point, 5-7 cost 2 points, and 8-10 cost 3 points. Or something.

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

So any fan of Game of Thrones knows that House Greyjoy of the Iron Isles is inspired by the vikings, which makes them one of the coolest houses (despite their relatively pathetic stature in the political landscape). Famously, their motto is "We Do Not Sow" because they acquire everything they need from raiding and trading. However, this has had the strange consequence of bleeding into many people's conception of real vikings. So let me be clear: vikings totally did their own farming, just like nearly all historical peoples. They had lots of production and services and all kinds of industries in their economy.

What was economically distinct about them, however, is their acquisition of silver. At the beginning of the Scandinavian Iron Age, there wasn't much of a coinage market, so commercial activity was pretty much at the bare minimum for local communities to function. But then, silver coinage became adopted by neighboring lands. Around the same time that Charlemagne began issuing the "silver penny" as the main currency of his entire empire (the use of which persisted in Western Europe for about 400 years), there was a massive economic boom in the Abbasid Caliphate partially due to the openings of silver mines in the Hindu Kush, where silver production reached 30 tons annually. The Norse were surrounded by the stuff.

So when silver coinage began showing up in Norse economies, the chieftains discovered the same utility that had led to the invention of money in other societies to begin with: having a stable and transportable material reward allows you to maintain big, loyal armies, and individuals with loyal armies can become powerful. Authority may be derived from violence, but violence-by-underlings must be derived from rewards. So... Step 1) acquire a fuck ton of silver. Step 2) distribute that silver to your most powerful "Big Men" in order to build social ties with them. You intentionally create a highly-active commercial market with socioeconomic hierarchy included. A warrior aristocracy isn't an accidental consequence like we often see in other societies. It's the whole point.

The big difference from other empires? You don't actually do imperialism.

That's going to be a controversial way of framing things, but I'd like to argue for it. True imperialism, in its purest form, is about expanding your borders. You take territory with the intention of holding it, likely re-settling some of your own population there. If not, you at least send a small number of people with weapons there to enforce your laws and collect your taxes and maybe disseminate your culture, even if the bulk of the population is to remain "native." Either way, the newly-gained land is a part of your existing kingdom. Sound like a reasonable definition?

Now, the Norse used vikings to acquire silver by means of plundering, extortion ("Danegeld" is often generously described as a "gift" in historical texts), or trade, but they didn't practice nearly as much colonizing or conquest as the empires which originated coinage economies that we discussed in Part 1. On a seasonal basis, they sent their hordes of vikings out into the world, had them raid for silver, and then brought them home. Or at least, the "core vikings" did. The overall trend of the invasions was silver-wealth being funneled back to Scandinavia. Ah, but some of them go on to found settlements, right? Like those of the Faroe Islands and in North America, and others broke off to start their own kingdoms like Dublin and Kyiv and Normandy (which itself later led to England). But the key is that these new settlements were the start of new kingdoms. They weren't expanding their homeland's borders, they were just making new rival states entirely. Vikings more often sold their services as mercenaries than grew their territory with settlements beyond their homelands.

Here you can see the biggest category is the green, AKA "lands only raided, never settled/colonized" and those areas typically got hit again and again and again. The first two red categories in the 8th and 9th century aren't so much "foreign expansion" as they are "consolidation of the core viking homelands with the incoming wealth from the green areas." And like I said before, the colonies that were settled in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries still always, always broke off from their original Norse societies and culture and became their own entities entirely." Quite different from Roman, Persian, or Chinese Imperialism, wouldn't you say?

With the notable exception of the Danelaw, to the extent that the Norse could be said to have "done an imperialism," we might say that the viking invasions were moreso just a form of ethnic diaspora. But that was neither their aim nor their primary economic consequence. The viking invasions were, from an economic standpoint, a means of taking a society that had no commodity money and then just, like, stealing a ton from other societies until they could become one. It's kind of like cheating at social development. Other aspiring empires throughout history would struggle with having enough gold or silver or shell production to have the capital they needed to fund their expansions and authority. Spoils of war from defeating an enemy were often huge boosts, but were very risky. But for the vikings? Fuckit, apparently they weren't that risky. Why struggle with silver mining when you can just steal an entire economy instead

Another reason I assert that it isn't true imperialism is becaues the age of vikings ended once the purpose of the invasions had been fulfilled: enough money was accumulated in Scandinavia and enough social ties were built between leaders and their military forces that they had fast-tracked themselves into a handful of solid, centralized medieval states. They stopped pillaging because they were... finished. And I find that incredible.

I see this as a beautiful microcosm of both the popular understanding of "basic feudalism" as well as "XP-for-Gold"-driven murderhoboism on a massively successful scale. This specific arc is something I fondly picture an entire kingdom-building D&D campaign being based around.

Imagine: the PCs come from a backwater, simple, communal-heavy agrarian society. They are surrounded by wealthy, decadent empires. Someone somewhere is ambitious and decides that they want in on that. But they don't have money, nor the means to create money. So they get a bunch of hot-headed guys together and say, "what if we just went to our neighboring communities and stole all their money?" No, not to steal their food or their goods. Not to steal their people and enslave them, as was the most common way of "aggressively expanding your economy" by other powers (although I should note that the real vikings totally did kidnap women and make them into their sex slaves. History is ugly, kids). Just steal their money and start using it at home. The progress of the campaign is measured in how many home settlements you can introduce a monetary economy into, which unlocks a small "tech tree" of potential investments you can spec into for each one. "Iron equipment," "gunpowder," "fortifications," "collected lore" (maybe for spell research), etc. are all things you can unlock for each settlement you introduce more and more money into. Hell, you could even just expand the equipment list for each town every time you introduced more money into it. With each new injection of treasure boosting their economy, smiths can make better armor and weapons while alchemists can make more powerful potions.

The price: you have to target one surrounding kingdom at a time, conducting a successful raid on each one to bring home the silver, and you have to carefully manage the political explosion that your sudden raids are going to cause in a landscape of already-competitive and entrenched kingdoms and empires. Every raid has consequences, and the players' motherland is outnumbered. It won't be long before it becomes more valuable to invest in those home settlements getting fortifications to fend off counter-invaders than it is to invest in personal goodies.

This has a very similar quality to "XP for Gold" that's convenient for mainstream RPG audiences: progress corresponds with linear acquisition of raw treasure pretty nicely. Go out, acquire booty, bring it home, level up your shit, repeat. Instead of doing it as individuals plundering dungeons, however, you're doing it as raiding parties plundering settlements.

Or you could still do it with dungeons! It doesn't have to be just like the viking invasions! You could recreate the same basic dynamic that characterized the viking invasions but tweak it a bit. You still start with simple agrarian communities without money and then incrementally introduce money to them one by one as a metric of progress. But instead of raiding neighbors to acquire that money, it's instead acquired from ancient ruins of the "old empire." That way there aren't really any victims like in real life, which is nice because asking your players to reenact plundering is pretty definitively casting them as capital-E fucking Evil. And not everyone wants that in their gaming.

The flipside, though, is that it's arguably dishonest to represent the rise of a centralized state derived from the integration of money as a process that ever, ever happens without any victims. Maybe you should run games where PCs reenact evil processes as an artistic way to illustrate the reality of evil, much like how we often play Monopoly specifically for the purpose of roleplaying evil capitalists destroying an economy. Your call.

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.

Wasn't I just complaining about how player freedom is so valuable? Well, fuckit, sometimes giving the PCs a boss they're loyal to can be juicy too, if handled right. One of the most interesting things about chivalric romance is all the ways in which knights are defined by the freedoms they lack. Rarely do players ever get asked to try swearing their loyalty to an NPC and really committing to it as the highest priority in the campaign. Rather, we usually either give them a distant god who'll grant them miracles without much in return or we get them to listen to an authority at the end of a sword, bound by debt or the threat of imprisonment or something. But for those kinds of gamers who like a little bit of emergent social drama in their game, ask yourself if it would really be so bad if your PC had the kind of motivation you see Brienne of Tarth have when she swears an oath of fealty to Lady Stark. That shit's awesome. And having prescribed quests allows the DM to exert a strong chivalric flavor.

  • “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:

The idea we have of a feudal system is one in which the main unit of power is land and the main mechanism of creating, securing, and trading power is the oath of fealty. The notion is that the king owns everything and merely rents out bits of what he owns to vassals who've sworn fealty to him, who may sub-let their bits to their own vassals, who may sub-let more, and so on. The king owns all the land, and because all material resources ultimately derive from the land, we're going to attach all pieces of wealth back to the land on which they originate. Laborers (serfs) are legally a part of the land on which they live. To grant your vassal access to your coinage is to say, "you can tax the market exchanges happening on the land I'm renting you." To grant your vassal access to food is to say, "you can take the food produced from the land I'm renting you." To grant your vassal security is to say, "you can build a castle on the land I'm renting you and you can raise an army from the people on that land." Of course, the hypothetical exchange is that vassals provide their lords with military service, the most common thing sworn in an oath of fealty. The people rewarded with land are the people who'll answer the call to battle when the kingdom is under attack and/or wants to expand further. This is meant to include the higher lords like dukes and marquesses. But it even goes all the way down to the knight, the lowest rank of "lord" that isn't even really considered a lord in most contexts. If you imagine the feudal hierarchy of constant sub-letting as being like a pyramid of ever-multiplying branches of vassals going downwards, you'd have to think that there must be quite a lot of knights along the bottom. And it's that special placement of knights that I think makes for such an interesting gameplay opportunity. Participants in the "meritocratic" hierarchy but still weak enough that they have to adventure themselves rather than leisure in their castles and send vassals to do their bidding.

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

This is similar to the Vassal Duties idea but less rigid and knight-based and allowing for a bit more player-freedom. Instead, this was inspired by me trying to come up with some way to incorporate "credit scores" into D&D while I was still writing Part 1 of this series. Money, gold, and markets matter as in traditional D&D, but it isn't quite as "anything goes" Wild West as OD&D or early Greyhawk.

Remember in Part 1 when I was talking about credit economies? Alright, imagine a campaign with the following traits:
  1. XP-for-Gold (in this case, XP-for-profit, as I'll clarify below)
  2. 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)
  3. A committed home economy (e.g. a nearby home city-state where you're building a rep)
  4. A credit economy where all debts are accounted for at a yearly "communal reckoning"
  5. Pendragon-style "1 session = 1 year" timeline for adventures
  6. 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.
Alright, putting it all together: as in the credit system, players start each session by choosing an adventure and then picking out all the equipment they think they'll need. They don't have to pay for it yet, but they do add up the full price of everything they buy and write down the total. They just go on the adventure, grab their treasure, and bring it home. Then, during session wrap-up, there's a ritual of the yearly "communal reckoning" that gets played out. Not the actual full ritual of everyone's debts in the community getting individually cleared like in real life. Rather, the DM just calls out each PC's debt total for the session and the player must account for how they've paid it off. If they fail to pay it all, their credit score lowers. If they succeed, then their credit score either stays the same or it goes up. It can go up either if they've maintained, say, 3 sessions in a row of successfully paying or if they pay off a huge debt (possibly even intentionally taking on a bigger debt of equipment than necessary just so they can pay it all off and get this benefit). Then, either at year's end or between sessions or whatever, the players can access the domain-level assets market. These are not purchased with gold, but with your credit score. Your current credit score acts as a budget for what sorts of things you can acquire, presumably by the same rationale it works in real life: the bank is willing to give you a loan to buy a house (castle) or a car (merchant ship) if you're more credible, and you ain't buying houses or cars without the bank. So it's like the knightly vassal advancement system, but instead of your buying power being tied to level, it's tied to how consistently profitable your adventures have been.

  1. 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.
  2. 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, 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
So in this system, acquisition of domain-level assets is slightly independent from XP, but not entirely. Let's say you have a credit score of 5. Domain assets are on a menu, and between adventures you get to buy new assets that add up to a total of 5. You will, gradually, over the course of the campaign, probably gain access to more and more stuff as your utility to this community is more and more recognized. In fact, because credit scores require usually consistent success over time, it might take 5+ sessions of successfully paying off debts before your score is high enough to purchase even the cheapest domain asset.

But a "Conan the Barbarian" character who neither uses much equipment nor has much need for domain assets is in luck. They probably won't buy much at the beginning of each session, so the threshold to clear with treasure brought home is super low. That means they'll get almost all profit, and they'll level up fast. And while domain assets are helpful to politics and some large-scale adventure, it's typically character level that helps you delve deeper into the megadungeon and survive more dangerous fights. So neither form of advancement is better, necessarily. If you want to get into politics then you want your adventures to be profitable. If you'd rather just increase your HP, attack bonus, and weird class features then profit won't be a priority for you and you can be reckless in the dungeon.

War Campaign, AKA Fundraising Schemes

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:

  1. Exchange taxes, e.g. market sales taxes, tributes, tariffs. Imposing these pisses off the merchant class.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.



  1. I think you're mistaking the nature of thieves' guilds. The Thieves' Guild of Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar, and most of its imitators, are more gangs than guilds. They have no charter from the ruler, no official license to steal, no legal immunities, and their members are just as subject to criminal punishment if caught by the authorities. Their monopoly, instead, is enforced through violence - if a non-member steals on their "turf", they send some goons out to beat up the offenders and "invite" them to join the guild (and fork over most of the loot). Repeat offenders (like Fafhrd and the Mouser) get assassins sent after them.

    They're organized crime, not legally recognized guilds. Like the Triads, the Mafia, or the Yakuza in the real world, though with fewer family ties (and generally an entire city or region as their "turf").

    About the only "Thieves' Guild" with *official* status that I can remember is the one from Terry Pratchett's Ankh Morpork. Which is a parody.

    1. (Oh, one other difference from real-world organized crime is that the criminal "guilds" tend to specialize in particular types of crime - thieving, assassination, prostitution, and drug dealing are usually separate "guilds", for instance.)

    2. That's actually a very fair point. I'll admit my OSR sin of not having read Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but I *have* read some of the relevant Discworld books you allude to (which is, in fact, where I was really drawing that impression from.) Good detective skills on your part.

      And more to the point of the article: yeah, the actual topic of "thieves' GUILDS" as something fitting into the medieval guild system really has nothing to do with the classic trope of just "gangs and thugs," which is what Blades in the Dark and similar games are there for. And that's a perfectly fine thing to use in your gaming. As a noir fan, I find it very cool and would probably use that very discussion of "pirate campaigns" as a starting point if I were to try it myself.

      But as with so-called "adventuring guilds," my line of thought here was more driven by the pattern I see of people appropriating the word "guild" but not actually using its true definition, and how different things would be if we DID apply the true definition. Just to consider the logic of "what if there really WAS a 'thieves' guild' in the true sense of the word?"