"Then there's Alexis again. Damn it, Alexis. If you're a regular reader of his blog you've been subjected to all manners of posts on the fantasy economy via the man's extensive and elaborate trade tables (here's an example). The point often missed by folks, including me when I first started looking at them (*cue eyes glazing over*) is that they're NOT about modeling 'reality' or a 'realistic' economy. They're just about modeling an economy . . . period."
And imagine - some people don't like being talked about. This is from JB's B/X Blackrazor post from Wednesday. I think it is an accurate description of what I'm trying to do. To accomplish the goal takes exhaustive charts and number crunching; it does take tremendous amounts of work on my part. I am well aware that the value of doing this escapes others. Surely, it would be better to apply that effort to the development of the adventure or to non-player character creation. Why waste time with a bunch of figures that only translate to numbers that can be generated on the fly?
That perception is understandable. Certainly the makers of the game saw the world in exactly those terms. Certainly the time that has been spent by the makers of games has concentrated far more on "what" to buy rather than how much that thing should cost. Moreover, we as a society have very, very little understanding of how the economy works in the world we actually live in.
For example, take this document that was offered by one of the commenters on JB's blogpost, called Grain Into Gold. It is a very rational document. It attempts to establish a basis for the production, distribution and consumption of goods by starting with grain production, in order to give the user a handle on how an economy is 'grown.'
Quite rationally, he begins thusly:
"At an overly simplified level, farming requires two bushels of seed sown to produce eight bushels of seed harvested on an acre of land. This varies by crop types, but is often true. It is likely that the farmer will lose a like amount (around 25%) to taxes and spoilage together. The result is that assuming a farmer brings in a yield of eight bushels of seed per acre, after preparation for the next year's planting and taxes are taken into account, he will only have half his harvest to feed his family."
Unfortunately, while the proposals made are 'simple,' they are also presumptive. I would be the first to argue that this is necessary - my own system, for example, specifies a presumptive total for the amount of grain that applies to a set number of references. Thus when I say that one reference = 6800 tons of grain, I'm saying the same that the designers are saying above (I presume, since I could not find the name of an author attached to the document). One farm produces eight bushes of seed per acre.
Except it doesn't - at least, not in a fantasy world. Most sources that can be found on grain production prior to 1400 will argue 1.5 bushels per acre; 3 was possible but tended to apply only in unusual places. This was due in part to the means we had of tilling the land, the lack of horses to do very heavy labor (oxen cannot plow as much land as horses nor as efficiently), lack of crop rotation, lack of fertilizers, poor seed to start with and dozens of other factors that were slowly overcome. Eight bushels per acre describes a period well after 1700, after changes in the Earth's weather affected by the Little Ice Age and discoveries in the New World, as well as the onset of science.
Moreover, the example applies in no way to rice culture in Asia nor to the comparable abundance of food in West Africa and the New World, where 'cultivation' applied almost wholly to how much effort one chose to give in gathering food that wasn't sown and yet existed in profound abundance (ever looked at how many actual tons of bananas that an acre in Rwanda will produce?).
Let's put aside those problems, however, and simply accept that the designers are accurate for the world being represented. I want to point out how much wasted effort is applied to the calculation being asked: Once we've created a number for how much is produced, we then create other numbers which are as ad hoc as the first: taxes are such-and-such, spoilage is such-and-such, such-and-such is needed to feed the farmer's family.
Why go through this calculation? The only real number that matters - as the document itself declares - is the excess. In determining the yield per acre, why not simply discount everything else? If the spoilage depletes the yield by 1/4th, then isn't the yield 6 bushels an acre? If the family eats half of what they produce, can't we say that the farm yields 2 bushels an acre?
The way it is written, we're to presume there is no excess: except that there IS. The farmer "loses" the 25% of the grain to taxes but the economy doesn't. That remaining 2 bushels of grain will still be used or sold somewhere - so the relevant data we need is how much of that grain is consumed by the lord and his household? The document doesn't tell us. The government appears to take their cut of grain ("Boooo!" says the designers) and then we continue to look at the economy from the farmer's perspective, as though the economy of a nation is based upon what the farmer can get at the market or what the farmer's troubles are with the millwright.
What do we care? We want an economic system for our world, not a microeconomic lesson in a farmer's troubles. Here is where most ideal 'systems' fail: they reflect the perspective of ordinary people living ordinary lives who continue to think that money that is paid in taxes is "lost." Taxpayers chafe at the taxes, but they do understand on some level that money is needed to pay firefighters and policemen and to buy asphalt and equipment for road repairs.
Yet when people talk about these things and their cost, they use phrases and descriptions along the lines of money "wasted" on education, roads, infrastructure, bureaucrats and the like, because once money is taken out of our pockets it cannot be spent as wisely as we will spend it: as in, "If the government hadn't taken so much money in taxes, I would have enough to take a trip to Cancun; instead that money is going to go to some stupid pencil-pusher whose job it is to count wolves in fucking Alaska."
I am eternally amused by the money "wasted on pencil-pushers" argument. It is as though the pencil-pusher in Alaska, once he is paid, will take the money and burn it in his fireplace in order to keep himself warm. On the contrary, he will spend the money at grocery stores, car dealerships and liquor stores in Alaska, rather than allowing you to channel that same money into a foreign country, something you don't care about but which the government does. It has to care because if the Alaskan economy doesn't do a little bit better with the government wasting money there in paying pencil pushers (which keep the grocer and car dealerships on their feet in a place where no sane non-pencil pusher would live), then disaster happens.
This is why my trade system, such as it is, takes no account whatsoever of what one farmer on one piece of land produces or how much he keeps - because none of that matters. The farmer is a dupe, an instrument of labour that the government endures because it is easier to encourage him to spend his labour in making us 2 bushels per acre than to have him sitting around angry and starving. Who cares how much more than that he produces? No one else will see it. We only care about those two bushels. The farmer's angst (let him boo, so long as he keeps grinding his life into the soil to make us what we want) is the same angst you feel as you grow up and realize you don't have any power either. You may bitch and moan all you want about taxes but mostly you're just quibbling over a buck here and there. On the whole, you want the government to exist and keep taking taxes from people (preferably, other people) because the alternative would really, really, really, really suck. More than "Boooo."
It is this fundamental principle that goes far, far beyond arguments that an economic system only applies to "What the players do in town." Without a clear, solid understanding of what the government is doing around and in spite of the players, there is no framework. If it wasn't for all the boring, uninteresting details involved in funding the theatre, paying the rent or the mortgage, or the taxes, cleaning the carpets in the lobby, fixing the chairs, paying the heat and other utilities, paying staff to clean the fucking washrooms, the space for the players to act the play (the part you came to see) wouldn't be such a great time for the audience. For that matter, the actors like to be paid as well, as does the director, the stage manager, the gaffer and the grip, the costume designers and the make-up artists, so you're dinged as you even walk in the door. That's a tax, too.
Is it a lot of work? Fuck yes.
Those who say, however, that we need to spend more time concentrating on making better non-player characters or applying ourselves to making better adventures are completely missing the point. We're not talking just about the price of the local beer: we're talking about a beer-drinking culture versus a wine-drinking culture, a beef-eating culture vs. a fish-eating culture, a culture where everything is made out of wood and a culture where everything is made out of stone. When people dismiss such nuances in behaviour it is plain that they've had a very, very narrow experience with life, with the way people choose to live, with how they choose to spend their time and their effort, with their philosophy of life or with the way that human nature affects everything about a culture, from its daily grind to its government.
To some, if I say beer-culture versus wine-culture, all they hear and understand is that these people drink beer and these people drink wine. To others, that mere distinction is incomprehensible. Germany IS Germany because it drinks beer. Italy IS Italy because it drinks wine. No European is unclear about this.
But then, why not just designate this crowd in the world as wine drinkers and that crowd as beer drinkers?
If it were only that easy. Italy is divided between those people who eat tomatoes and those that don't. Germany is divided between hill people and river people. There are endless divisions, endless - and they're all based on what we grow, dig out of the earth, drink, smoke, wear and so on. There are a million distinctions and every one of them arises out of two things: what we can buy and what we want to buy.
Until a DM understands that, a DM might perhaps want to keep quiet about how the world works.