Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Price?

I have had issues with the Equipment List since the very beginning, issues which annoyed me twice as much as a DM. The first would be that the prices are too low. In order for my party to have a chance at turning 5th level, I have to give them, on average, about 8 to 10 thousand gold pieces each (half the experience they need to accumulate). Some of this can be in the form of gold, some in gems and jewelry, some of it as magic…but however you cut it, if I have five party members, the total accumulated cash that the party will acquire during that time is going to be around 45,000 g.p.

What’s more, about one game year will probably pass while they are acquiring these four levels (they start with one), which is a total of 252 weeks. The game tells me to charge 5 g.p. a week for food (hard rations), which is 760 g.p. Even if everyone in the party buys chain mail four times (my parties don’t wear plate unless they want to be Joe-the-Slow, last to see combat), each, that’s 1,800 g.p. Charge them another 1,800 for weapons and 2,000 for horses (two each). And just for shits and giggles, let’s charge them the farcical 100 g.p. per month per level (an average of 250 g.p. each per month). Total: 21,360. By the time they’re fifth, they still have more than 23,000 g.p., or 4,728 each.

It takes about the same amount of time to go from fifth level to sixth as it takes to go from fourth to fifth, because the X.P. and the treasures gets bigger (even though twice the X.P. is needed). So sixth level comes just three months game time later and now their coin has doubled. And doubled again at 7th level.

Yes, that’s right, at 7th they’re hauling around 20,000 g.p. each and they’re still not allowed to buy a castle, because they’re not “name” level. Even though the five of them could easily go in together and buy a fortress.

The only time I’ve ever had a party short on cash happened when I’ve been able to catch them doing something stupid, letting me seize a few thousand g.p. from each. But one moderate first level dungeon treasure is enough for everyone to get weaponed up, buy leather or scale, and horses, and flee town.

Things should cost, and it should be HARD for the party to pay for them. That’s one issue.

The next is that there is just nothing to buy. Beyond weapons and armor and horses and jewelry, just where exactly does one spend their money? I’ve had to step in and stop parties from buying 150 vials of holy water…which they can afford and which they can carry in the 600 pound pack capacity of their pet donkey, towed behind their horse. My only argument has been that there aren’t 150 vials available at the local church—but the real problem is that there is nothing else for them to spend their money on.

Perhaps this is something you have experience with? Knights of the Dinner table did an excellent bit with Bob and Dave buying hundreds of untrained pit bulls. If a war dog is 20 g.p., why can’t the party buy fifty or sixty that are trained?

It comes to the point that the party just ditches the gold because it’s a) inconvenient; b) useless; and c) easily replaced. Once it has given them their experience, who cares?

As an aside—recent systems have tried to provide parties with something to buy by selling magic items. This baffles the shit out of me. I’ve had many players ask, when first beginning to play, if they can “buy” a +1 sword; my answer has been a perfunctory NO. Who the hell would go through the trouble of making one only to sell it at the local market? (I did go through a period where I sold really adamant players “magic” swords for immense amounts of money, only to have them turn out to be just an ordinary weapon—I’m nicer now). What mage making swords wouldn’t have a guardsman to give it to? Or a relative? Or a KING? Sell it to some piker who just blew into town? Are you kidding me?

These are the people who accuse me of being unromantic. I can see it now. “Arthur…Arthur…I am the Lady of the Lake. I bring you Excalibur.”

“No thanks. I picked up this little beauty here for 79.95 at Morgana’s hardware shop.”

Among video games, my particular favorites over the years have been those which involved “gathering” as part of the program, particular war games: VGA planets, Age of Empires, Civilization. You must first gather your shit, build an army, and then fight. In all of those games, at the beginning it costs a substantial amount of food and materials to make a single unit. One is always scrambling for more, or even just enough to sustain what one already has.

D&D is the one game where sustenance is a joke. And it should not be that way.

Finally, costs do not logically relate to one another. This, in particular, is the fundamental issue that can be and should be addressed.

Let’s consider something simple: the cost of a horse.

Let’s take the stabling of an animal for one day, typically placed in the 1 s.p. range. A newborn horse requires three years to mature to the point where it can be saddled and ridden for long periods. 3 years = 1,095 days. If we assume the stabling fee is a suggestion for how much money it costs to support a horse for a 24 hour period, and 20 s.p. = 1 g.p., it will have cost our owners more than 50 g.p. to raise the horse. Which sells for 25 g.p., according to the Player’s Handbook.

But, but, but, say the critics. The horse could have been wild. And it costs less to keep a horse in the open country than it does in a stable in town!

Well, first of all, until the North American experiment with a group of escaped Spanish horses breeding in predator-less country perfectly designed for them, it had been 4,000 years since wild horses had been available in Europe or the Middle East. Also, it was expensive for ranches to pay men to watch free range horses…it cost wages that enabled those men to eat up to six pounds of beef a day and up to 11 pounds of food. If this is what I can get for less than a silver piece, why does it cost me 60 silver pieces to buy a week’s food for sedentary activity (non-iron rations)?

But let’s go at this from the other end. What should the price for stabling be? Get ready for a flurry of statistics…here it comes.

A carthorse eats 19 lbs. of feed per day. A heavy Percheron or Belgian eats much, much more. A bushel of oats is 27.52 pounds, or enough feed for a day and a half. The oats are grown on a farm which—in the Medieval world—is typically 20 to 30 acres in area. The yield of that farm was 36 bushels of oats per acre, a total of 1,080 bushels. However 5 bushels per acre are needed to replant the following year, so the actual net yield is 1,030.

If you want the farmer to do any planting next year, along with his wife and average 3 children, you’re going to have to feed them some of the oats they’ve grown. 1,500 calories a day on average works out to 4.32 lbs. of oats for the whole family, or 1 bushel every 6.37 days. Each year, the family eats a little more than 57 bushels.

Well, that still leaves 973 bushels. And the good news is that it’s only taken the farmers 3 days a week to work their own land, and they’ve worked the lord’s land for the other three days. So the farmers have succeeded in adding 2,003 bushels to the lord’s land. Of which the lord only needs 252 bushels to feed his horse.

There’s the argument that the horse could pick its meal from the field, but if the lord’s horse is a warhorse, that’s not going to be enough. It’s going to be fed oats, every day.

Lets say the lord has a manse which includes a little hamlet of about 150 people. Averaging 5 persons per family, and assuming all 150 are farmers (let’s say the miller, carpenter, mason, bakers, chandlers, chaplain, reeve, hayward and vintners, not to mention the men-at-arms, with their families, are dwelling in the manor house), and each has a farm averaging 30 acres, AND the lord has land of the same breadth and size (which would be unusual, but it’s a round number, lets go with it), the total surplus after farmers and before other household members would be 60,090 bushels—in a good year.

Now, the lord has to determine what would be the best way to use those bushels. Every 250 bushels he sends to town means one less horse he can support; not to mention the ducks, geese, pigs, sheep or goats he might have to vary his meals a bit. If he IS going to send a cart load of oats to town, he’s going to have to pay a teamster, cover the cost of maintenance for the cart and risk the goods themselves…but chances are he’s going to have surplus and he’s going to send it to town.

The oats will go into the hands of a wholesaler, who will certainly double the price for the oats—already nominally placed at the cost of 1 horse = 250 bushels (horse, 25 g.p., equals 10 bushels per g.p.). The wholesaler makes it 5 bushels per g.p.; he will sell the oats to the innkeeper, who will again raise the price (lets say a typical sixty per cent), so that now its 2 bushels per g.p. Which the horse will eat 3/4 of in one day. So for food alone (not the bother of having deal with the horse) we are in the ballpark of 15 s.p. stabling per day.

Ah…but the 25 g.p. total cost of the horse may not be fairly juxtaposed with the cost to feed that horse each year. A horse can live for 40 years…should the total value of the horse be divided into the total number of years it lives?

No. It has to eat every one of those years and the total value of the horse is dependent on what it needs to eat before it dies. Moreover, the first two years the horse produces NOTHING for the trouble of keeping it alive and its third year it is able to do only so much marginal work. If it is a trained warhorse, most of its productive life it stands at its ease and produces no value at all, except in the eyes of its lord.

The problem with trying to make any predictions on the cost of the horse or its oats or its stabling, based on the figures in the books, is that you just wind up running around and around in circles. Now the horse requires 15 s.p. per day to keep it fed, meaning that overall it costs 750 g.p. over the first three years of its life (well, less, the horse was a pony first…lets say 500 g.p.)…which means that the oats ought to be worth more, making the stabling cost more, making the horse cost more and so on and so on. How does one make a rational guess at the cost of anything?

The general D&D community’s answer: who gives a shit?

I do. There’s no basis for any of these prices…which means that it is impossible to do the gathering necessary to run the sort of campaign that one could run with rational prices. How am I supposed to figure out how much material it will take to conquer Poland if I can’t get a straight price on the cost of a horse?

Oh, and by the way. How many manor farms does your world have? Exact number, please. I’d like to know how big an army I’m going to need.


  1. So, do you have the answers to these economic questions? The D&D economy has always bugged me too.

  2. I guess the problem is illustrated succinctly by your last couple of paragraphs. Every game world will have (at least) slightly different economics based on producers, consumers, tech level, locations and costs of materials, labor and taxation. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk may be roughly similar, but Dark Sun would be wildly divergant, and buying wooden items in the Underdark might be quite different than buying them in a village up top.

    Ideally, there would be some sort of spreadsheet, program or script that you can plug certain values in and it can magically compute a price list for you to work with. Barring that, I guess the best we can do is to adjust prices manually based on gut feelings or just handwave the whole thing.

    My fear is that more realistic pricing of swords, armor and all the other accoutrements adventurers need would make first level characters head out to the local dungeon armed with pitchforks and tree branches, and returning with weapons and armor from slain adversaries would end up making them very rich, indeed.

  3. Ideally, there would be some sort of spreadsheet, program or script that you can plug certain values in and it can magically compute a price list for you to work with.

    Well, in fact, I have just such a spreadsheet. Magic was not involved in its creation.

    It is 1.4 megabytes in size. It generates prices for 1,170 items based upon 279 commodities and services; it is fully updatable and designed so that new products can be devised and added quite easily.

    Moreover, with someone willing to do a little gruntwork, it could be tailored to any campaign: desert, iceworld, europe, asia, sea or subterranean.

    I do my homework.

  4. My fear is that more realistic pricing of swords, armor and all the other accoutrements adventurers need would make first level characters head out to the local dungeon armed with pitchforks and tree branches, and returning with weapons and armor from slain adversaries would end up making them very rich, indeed.

    There are two things that make this unnecessary:

    The first is that, in fact, iron is cheaper than people generally realize (or imagine in their minds). The reason everyone thinks "steel" weapons are incredibly expensive is because they think everyone uses weapons like those found in the movie Highlander. Casual weapons, like those the party would buy or generally find, must roll a saving throw upon being dropped and generally break on a 1 in 6. Old weapons procured from mountain goblins (1st level adventure) would break on a 1 in 4.

    Second, when anyone sells weapons to a dealer, they don't get full price. Dealers would not make money if they were buying items full price from random hicks roaming about the community. You'll take your 10 per cent and you'll like it.

  5. Oh, for training rules suck.

    They are as farcical as the pay 100 g.p. per level for monthly costs. And, as you clearly indicate, they are nothing but an invented sop to clean the player out of his justly earned income.

    I realize you're making a point that many would agree with, Greyhawk. But I just see it as a "you have succeeded as a player" tax. I would rather provide the players with something tangible to spend their money on, so that they're able to look at what they've built and be proud of it.

    Final point. Who are the mystical, magical people who do this training? In light of my already-made article, what justifies the insane cost they are charging 1st levels to become 2nd? Why not 500 g.p. per level? Why not 10,000? How does that example differ from the problem on how to set a price for horses? It's just another number pulled out of someone's gut instinct.

  6. Arbitrary is fine for some folks. For me personally, however, I don’t believe that god should play dice with the universe.

    I’ve always felt there should be as logical a reason for possible for everything that happens in my world. That is why no alignments. That is why no training to gain levels. While some embrace the abstract, I find myself questioning it’s legitamacy at every turn. And I encourage my players to do the same. This, to me, is one of the strengths of D&D: that the game is fluid, that there is room to question. If my players ask me, “Why the crap are we paying for this?”, I feel there should be a better answer than, “It’s the game.”

    It is my game, not Gygax’s. I’m not a big fan of the quote-Gygax-as-saint argument. I’ve met three people who have claimed to have known him (they did not know each other), and they individually described him as an asshole. He didn’t invent the game alone. And he isn’t responsible for the changes I’ve made to fix the flaws I found in the system.

    Grognard— Play the game anyway you want. But you don’t have to come here and represent the point of view that I already admitted was out there. You don’t give a shit about the verisimilitude of economics? How nice for you. You have been acknowledged. Can the rest of us get on with it now?

  7. To those of you who do not know our host here and do not know me...

    I started as a programmer in 1984. I worked on my first database (aka spreadsheet) in 1988. Today I work on programming interfaces for databases professionally.

    I have seen this spreadsheet and awesome does not even begin to describe its size or level of detail. Saying that it is 1.4 MB in size is a disservice to anyone who can not place that in its proper context. If I may suggest - in this instance 1.4 MB is massive. (In fact, I am doubtful that it isn't 1.4 GB)


  8. I guess to deal with this problem I've always considered the area around the town or city that the players are buying items. Is it farming country? Then fruit and foods are more plentiful. Mining town in the mountains? Weapons and armor cost less because Blacksmiths have moved in with the miners. Wooded areas? Wagons, Bows, arrows, will all cost less here but be prepared to pay for a sword or metal armor. I count gold as $1, Platinum as $5, Silver as $0.10, and Copper as a penny, and use close to real world prices on stuff. A riding horse? Maybe around $3,000 or so. Seems like a lot? Ah, but considering what the players get from a decent adventure it's not too bad. It might be more than a single adventurer makes in one game, but then I think they shouldn't be able to buy a horse right away anyways. It causes them to think harder on upgrading their equipment too, do you spend the money on armor or weapons? Or maybe after dealing with bad thirst last game you should spring a little for a water skin?

  9. Wow, where can we get this spreadsheet?


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