World Building 6 – Economics and You(r World)

Let’s step back from the heavy topics like race, culture, and sex/gender for a bit and talk about the always exciting world of economics! I’m not going to get into the sexy topics of trade wars among nations or rival guilds assassinating each other’s leaders to gain control of a particular region’s apple production (though those can certainly happen!). No, I’m going to talk about a few issues that need consideration when designing worlds and rewarding player characters: availability, reselling options, and rewards.

These don’t sound like super fascinating topics, but they can arise and become contentious. I’ve had players, frequently those who came to tabletop RPGs from video games, who assumed that every town had a magical item/potion shop, that vendors had endless supplies of gold to purchase older items, and that they could easily get 50% of an item’s “list price” at any vendor. Ever had any of these discussions? After I had three of them, I realized that I needed to seriously consider the economic impacts of adventuring – it can also provide ideas for story arcs!

Availability: From what I’ve been able to gather, Dungeons & Dragons, 5e is designed for worlds that are on the lower end of the magic scale than some other systems and other editions. That’s important to recognize, as this design choice carries with it a few implications: (1) Magical items are going to be pretty rare and valuable; (2) “Magical Item Shoppes” will not be located in every town; and (3) Any magical items that individuals or shopkeepers possess will be expensive and, likely, heavily guarded.

I’ve focused on magical items in the previous set of assumptions, so let’s broaden the topic to what “availability” can entail for normal items in the world. The blacksmith in a small farming village (say, population 100-200) might not have swords and metal armor for sale when s/he has axes, hammers, knives, and sickles. Why is that? Well, the weapons available represent things that villagers might actually need to purchase. Most villagers will have little to no need of a sword or metal armor.  Think about it: axes: chopping wood; hammers: building things; knives: cutting food/meat/skinning animals; sickles: harvesting plants. Even a village militia might only be equipped with studded leather armor and spears. Could the blacksmith make swords and metal armor? Most likely, but such a task would take 3-5 days depending on complexity, availability of materials, and workload. Similarly a “general store” does not always currently have every item in their inventory in stock. Some things are seasonal needs. Sometimes, situations can cause them to run out of a product.

Example with Adventure Hook: “Sorry, we’re out of rope at the moment, sold our last one two days ago. A hunter [Name Goes Here] came across an old cave housing a temple that has a really deep pit. Since then, some of the men who’ve been a bit down on their luck have gone off exploring in the hopes of treasure. Haven’t seen any of them in about a week.”

So, how can we, as DMs/GMs handle availability in our homebrew worlds? First, we need to think about what types of shops will populate our towns. What are the villagers likely to need? That will be readily available – in most circumstances. What happens when the players ask for an item that might not be in stock? Well, the easy/lazy way is to just shut down the discussion. Sometimes, that is appropriate – No, a small village’s blacksmith is unlikely to stock +5 Holy Avenger longswords. Ever.  For other instances, this is my solution:

Item Availability: DM Rolls 1d20 against an “Availability DC10”. The results are as follows:

  • 1: Never stocked that item/Haven’t stocked that item in long time/Supplier hasn’t sent product in 1d4 weeks and we’ve received no word (adventure hook!)
  • 2-6: We’re out, but we should have more in stock in about a week.
  • 7-9: We’re out, but we’ll have more in, barring unforeseen events, in a day or two.
  • 10-12: We have a small stock (amount players request plus 1d4) and will sell at 110% standard price. Haggling requires Persuasion, DC15, +1 for every 5% reduction below standard price.
  • 13-17: We have a decent stock (amount the players request multiplied by 1.5) and will sell at standard price. Haggling requires Persuasion, DC12, +1 for every 5% reduction below 90% of standard price.
  • 18-19: We have a good stock at the moment (amount the players request multiplied by 2) and will sell at standard price but if asked will reduce price to 90% of standard. Further haggling requires Persuasion, DC10, +1 for every 5% reduction below 80% of standard price.
  • 20: You’re in luck! We’re having a sale on that due to an unexpected surplus (amount players requested multiplied by 4) and will sell at 80% of standard price. Further haggling requires a Persuasion, DC10, +1 for every further reduction below 70% of standard price. This could also be an adventure hook!

Reselling Options: I admit, this is something I didn’t think about when I started homebrewing back in the 90s, because, as a teenager, I just assumed that shops had the money to purchase things. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve sold items to pawn shops and learned that some items don’t fetch much for the seller, because pawn shops have an overstock on those items (such as musical instruments). So, it’s something I started thinking about when trying to add a realistic feel to my fantasy worlds. And, again, I’ve had to create rules and systems for these things, because some players have assumed the same things I did as a teenager. The Final Fantasy series really set this assumption in my head, just saying.

Think about it: not all shopkeepers will (a) want/need to purchase every item a player wants to sell and/or (b) have the money to give the player a “fair price” – often assumed to be 50% of the base value.  However, let’s assume that the player is selling starting equipment after finding some shiny magical gear on his or her adventures. Well, the Player’s Handbook (pg. 144) states that arms, armor, and other equipment “fetch half their cost when sold at market” if they are undamaged. To be fair, I assume that normal wear-and-tear, reduces the base resale value by 2% per player level. And I communicate this to my players so that they know what to expect.

Magic items are trickier, and the PHB reminds us of that. I let players know that selling such things requires finding specialized shops or buyers, which can be tricky and/or dangerous depending on the nature of the item. I also remind them, because I have had this interaction with a player trying to sell a +3 Flame Tongue Longsword to the blacksmith of a mining community. The player wanted 2500 gold for it and balked when the smith offered 8 gold. The smith said, “Look pal, it’s a nice sword, but we ain’t got much use for that here. This were a pick axe or a hammer, might be able to give you more. The biggest threats we have are rockslides and cave-ins, so its magic ain’t going to be that useful to us. If I buy it from you, I’ll break it down into scrap for other uses.” That horrified the player that a shop owner did not exist purely to sell to him/buy from him but thought about the needs of his/her community.

My Solution: I have the player make a Persuasion check, DC 12. If the player succeeds, I have a standard 1d20 roll that I have the shopkeeper make against an “Offer DC”. The base DCs are as follows:  Common Item in salable condition – 8; Uncommon – 10; Rare – 13; Very Rare – 15, Artifact – 18.  These DCs assume the player is seeking between 25 and 40% of the magical item’s base cost. For every 5% more the player seeks, I raise the DC by 1. N.B. I only use this if the shopkeeper has the gold to offer and is willing to buy.

  • Critical Failure: The shopkeeper won’t buy the item, and the attempt to sell it attacks attention of an undesirable interested party (adventure hook!)
  • Failure: The shopkeeper won’t buy the item at the player’s price. Will offer a price based upon 50% of the base item price (as in the previous example).
  • Success (DC met): The shopkeeper will haggle – starting at 10% of the player’s request and will go up to 30% (so, using the previous example, the shopkeeper would offer 250 gold and make 750 the final offer).
  • Success (exceeds DC): The shopkeeper seems interested and will haggle – starting at 30% of the player’s request and will go up to 60% (so, start at 750 and make 1500 the final offer)
  • Critical Success: The shopkeeper is very interested and will haggle – starting at 50% of the player’s request and will go up to 80% (so, start at 1250 and end at 2000)

There’s another aspect to consider when selling items both mundane and magical – store funds. I’ve started asking players how much gold they think an average, successful general store would have on hand. The results vary widely from “about 20 gold” to over 5000 gold coins on hand. Until recently, I honestly have not considered what an “average income” in D&D would be. Then I happened to really read the Lifestyle Expenses table on page 157 of the Player’s Handbook and consider how that relates to item prices and availability. The table lists the expenses of someone with a “Comfortable” lifestyle (middle class) as 2 gp/day. What does that mean? Well, that means, on average, this person needs 60 gp/month to maintain that lifestyle. The cheapest healing potion is 50 gp, so the lowest level healing potion that one can buy costs a middle class person nearly one month’s wages.

That hit me on two fronts. First, that means that asking for 50% of a magical item’s value could be asking a shopkeeper to fork over more gold than he or she makes in 3-5 years! And that would be for an item that might never sell. So, that would be a poor investment on the part of the shopkeeper. Second, if players walk into a shop to buy healing potions and don’t bat an eye at the price – especially if they buy 3 or more – that could get them noticed. Sure, they may be the gossip of the town, but there may be interested parties of less-than-honorable intent who take notice, depending on the amount purchased and the size/location of the town. That could lead to interesting encounters and possible adventures.

And that brings us to the final topic I want to talk about today.

Rewards: I’ve had players balk when, at level 1, a quest giver offered them 2 gp and one base healing potion each as a reward. I tend to give healing potions as low level rewards frequently, because for most characters, those basic potions equal 1-2 months’ pay from a “normal,” non-adventuring job. The balking, as I’ve learned, stems from players not understanding income levels and not knowing item prices, which is why I discuss these things in my Session Zeros now. During this discussion, I go over what it means to be in a certain “economic bracket” and how, this type of a reward is equivalent to giving the party 208 gp. Those funds aren’t fully liquid, but they now have the ability to heal themselves four times without expending a spell slot or taking a short rest. At low levels, that can be a lifesaver.

But how do I figure out the amount of actual gold a quest giver offers? I have a simple formula that takes into consideration the “economic class of the quest giver and the amount of time the quest giver thinks it should take a group of adventurers to complete the task.

GP Reward = (0.5(Quest Giver Lifestyle Daily Expense Value) x Number of Days) x Average Player Level

Danger Modifier: If the Quest Giver believes the task to be dangerous, they will increase the reward as follows. Final Encounter is “Hard” x1.5. Final Encounter is “Deadly” x3.

So, a middle class, or “Comfortable” quest giver would offer 1 gp/day per player for a “Medium” difficulty task, 1.5 gp/day per player for a “Hard” difficulty task, and 3 gp/day per player for a “Deadly” difficulty task for a party whose average level is 1. Again, note that this is per day, so when this NPC tells the players the reward, he or she would offer the total compensation for the party, so if the NPC believes this task to be “Hard” and take 3 days to complete, he or she will offer the party (assuming a party of four at level 1) 18 gp.

That is the official reward. The party may acquire gold and valuable items both mundane and magical in the course of completing the task. That’s something I decide on a quest-by-quest and adventure-by-adventure basis.

Concluding Thoughts: Most people do not have a great interest in economics. However, as DMs, we need to consider a few aspects of economic reality in our homebrew worlds and as we prepare adventure/session notes. Gold is not an unlimited resource – wars are fought over it and the resources people purchase with it.  Shopkeepers don’t exist to cater solely to the player characters – they exist in a community and stay in business by meeting its needs. Not all shopkeepers have the desire to buy magical items. Not all shopkeepers have the funds to purchase them. That said, these transactions can become fodder and hooks for adventure sessions.

Thoughts?