Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dungeon Logic & Getting Rich

Yesterday, Doug made a salient point: ". . . compared to the relative wealth of an adventurer, the profit from a sawmill seems like small potatoes."

This is an argument I've heard many times, even from my players.  Why go through all the trouble of establishing a business concern when adventuring is more lucrative?  Not to mention a more direct action for my character.

In the past, I've made the argument that there are more benefits from establishing a business than money, but even I can admit that's a weak argument.  Let's say, then, instead of arguing, we try to understand why dungeons are so lucrative and why the process of building a business usually ends in a gaming failure.

I think it has everything to do with the thinking process applied to each pursuit.

Right off, we have a much clearer understanding of why a sawmill makes money - wood is cut, shoved in one side of the mill, processed and loaded from the other side into carts that then have to be driven to market and sold.  If I sit in the reader's world and propose this as something my character wants to do, immediately we begin doing calculations:  this many men can cut down this much wood that can be loaded at this speed and brought to the mill in this time frame.  The wood can be cut by this many men working this many hours in this amount of space, then we will need this many wagons to travel this distance to a town of this size that has this many potential customers and so on. Virtually every detail of the venture can be measured - and if a measurement is lacking, there are online places to dig up a little research to make reasonable guesses at what the measurement should be.

Now consider the treasure associated with 18 giant spiders.  How much should there be?

Aha.  Here we have no calculators, no measurement, no online research.  What we DO have are players that need this much treasure to go up to the next level or this much treasure to buy the sword of their dreams.  We have want as the measure, not the physical limitations of the world.  Treasure is all DM fiat, and even the stupidest DM in the world knows that the players know that the DM's word on the matter is a measure of how much of a jerk the DM is willing to be.  Everyone knows that the DM can add an extra zero any time the DM wants - and hell, why shouldn't he or she?  We're all going to be much happier if we upgrade, aren't we?

I don't see how this is any different for the folks who don't give experience for treasure.  Surely, someone who will have missed this sentence in their scanning of this post will write in the comments, "Well, I don't give experience for treasure, so there's no problem."  This might be true - IF the DM doesn't allow the treasure to be used for other upgrades, such as purchasing magic over the counter, and IF the DM in turn hardly gives any treasure when parties kill monsters.  I wonder, O DM that gives no experience for treasure, is it practical to start a sawmill in your world?  Will it give me status that killing something won't give?  Or does my status automatically come from my level?

That, to me, is the largest part of the problem - that status is inexorably connected to level.  When the fighter reaches a certain level, an army just shows up, begging to serve.  One day the thief is 9th level; he is short 35 x.p. of 10th.  He meets a mangy dog in an alley and kills it, gaining 36 x.p.  All of the sudden, 4-24 thieves step into the alley and declare, "We are yours!"

Well, you all know I play an AD&D hybrid.  I have no idea if anyone from 3e on ever gets any followers from achieving a certain level.  I suspect some sort of automatic authority is conferred.

Since virtually the beginning of my world I have discarded the idea that a character has to be a certain level before they can build something or gather hirelings.  If a 2nd level cleric wants to build a church, all power to that character.  I do insist that the cleric be a priest before giving services (in the Player's Handbook, a 'priest' is 3rd level while a 'curate' is 4th - Gygax and crew were clearly NOT catholic), but that doesn't stop the adept from paying for and doing the actual building.

Why shouldn't an army serve a 7th level fighter, if he offers pay, provides the necessary organization and makes good decisions?  Hell, why not a 1st level, the circumstances being right?  Did Joan of Arc adventure in the dungeons of French Lorraine, killing demons and dragons, before leading the French army at Orleans?  Funny how those adventures have never made it to print.

Thus, part of the problem assumes that if I make a sawmill, I will get no status from that unless I also reach a certain level.

In turn, having reached a certain level, having done nothing but plumb the depths of dungeons and tombs, I'm obviously now an instant local lord with an army at my disposal, the darling of the kingdom and certainly entitled to my position.  So far, my entire contribution has been pouring money into the coffers of merchants - and not necessarily in the kingdom where I am not that given level - but naturally my army, my steward and all my peasants can't wait to serve me and pay me taxes.

Fuck Harvard.  We ought to train would-be lawyers in the caves of Sima de la Cornisa.  All the education anyone could ever want.

But I digress.

Where we have a situation in which the DM 'makes up' the amount of coin and status gained from plundering dungeons, but incrementally reviews every copper piece where it comes to creating a business, then YES, dungeons will always be more lucrative.  Dungeon logic circumvents limitations. Actual development of the world embraces limitations.  The one is obviously operating according to different rules from the other.

Establish in your world a rule that the players can drop 15,000 gold pieces on a working sawmill and expect a 98% likely return of 1,500 g.p. a month, without having to do anything else that pay the money and write on their character sheets, "sawmill, Pontdeuf valley," then I absolutely guarantee you that players will buy as many freaking sawmills for which they can find the money.

And why not?  If your players have a 98% likely chance of killing 18 giant spiders and being given 1,500 gold in treasure, what is the difference?  If it makes you feel any better, have the players roll 20 dice in the space of 15 minutes (to 'run' the business the same way combat is run).  Then they will have 'earned' the profit, right?  The same way they 'earn' the coin they get in treasure.  If you really want to go all out, they could lose 'profit points' if they roll badly - and if they reach zero profit points, the sawmill burns down, they fall into the machinery and die or the entire kingdom's army shows up and puts them in prison for life.

What could be simpler for you?  What could be simpler for the players?  All that's required is the elimination of logic!

Unless, of course, you'd consider inserting a little logic into your dungeons.

That's asking a bit much, I suppose.


Tim said...

Moving forward from this, then, it seems to me that we have a "separation of powers" (in an analogy to the separation of executive, judicial and legislative authority) where players have combat prowess (experience & level), wealth (gold earned from adventure or venture) and status (their influence), which can interact with one another but can separately increase or decrease.

Depending on where you are, combat prowess or wealth may have a stronger effect on your status, and in all cases you won't have the same status if you're away from home (if you're the Saviour of the Dwarf Hills but you're all the way over in the Valley of the Elves, your title may not carry the same weight).

Once we relegate experience to just combat prowess (I believe you argued this in the many posts on why you give experience for damage done/taken), it becomes obvious that unless you're looking to be sung about by the bards for fighting off a hundred orcs, your combat prowess should not directly affect your status. How does killing a thousand orcs on your own make you the right man to own a castle? Maybe if you killed the thousand orcs who took the castle of the king's heirless brother and slew said brother, THEN you can have a castle and some troops, but that's interacting with the world and hence benefiting from the influence you gained in the world.

I've been awarding small doses of experience for players trying new things with their characters outside of combat (practising knife-throwing, successfully stealing goods...) but I think I will remove this as, ultimately, experience should be about combat and status should be distinct (following this chain of logic).

That said, perhaps one should construct a separate status chart to free the DM of some of the handwaving inherent in bestowing fiefs versus titles versus the child's hand in marriage. Then again, I suppose status, like social interactions, is a fuzzy concept: how much is building a church worth compared to building a mine? It's all relative to the value of your actions for those around you - and specifically how those around you benefit (a mine may benefit people with jobs and boost the economy to the benefit of the nobles, while a church earns brownie points with the local religious authorities while also providing a communal space for meetings and events). Therefore, a status chart would need to take into account these effects and perhaps assign weights to them based on the benefit to different people, in addition to pointing out who benefits. Woah.

Either way, I think it's definitely healthier to create a clear divide here: surviving a war, starting a business or becoming a community's religious leader are all very different things, even though they may interconnect in some form (all of them provide status in some way, while one provides experience and two provide wealth).

Then, ultimately, what matters the most to the players? I know my players are not necessarily looking to become strong enough to kill armies single-handedly: they are more interested in renown, which can be acquired in so many more ways than genocide.

Other players, of course, may wish to pursue business or war. In real life, people can value these differently: war may be the only way to protect your way of life, or it may only get you killed -- business may be the secret to prosperity and happiness, or it may be a damning sin. Money is, true to its nature, a middleman in the process -- you plunder or trade, get money, buy things, achieve renown. Whichever one is more lucrative seems to me to be a question for the world-building process, no? Whereas stealing and pillaging is frowned on in modern warfare (soldiers coming back from Afghanistan usually don't have much stolen Afghani wealth to flaunt), that may not be so in a particular fantasy world. Conversely, while medieval Europe may have had a very complicated relationship with usury, that may not be so in a particular fantasy world either.


Tim said...

(continued from above...)

Addendum: I use the term "war" a lot here, because in the real world there are no caves with treasure-hoarding monsters and hence the best way to acquire wealth through combat is by taking it from someone else, which usually happens in wars. Whether the monsters in D&D should be treasure hoarders themselves is another matter... one might wonder what a hydra is planning on doing with 50,000 gold coins (pay off the mortgage on his cave?), or a troglodyte with a beautiful golden helmet... made for an elf's head (kneepads?).

Tim said...

Reading over again, I've noticed I hadn't really then touched on the question of the post: what should the reward be for plundered treasure?

It reminds me of the great post about dungeon loot, and having fountains of gold coins on every floor of the dungeon (http://tao-dnd.blogspot.ca/2013/01/fridge-logic.html).

If we can safely assume that monsters keeping coins in dungeons is usually absurd (assuming there is no active market economy in said dungeon and that the monster is not some insane chrysophiliac), then it comes to treasure, which is a frustratingly fuzzy area. Treasure can be all kinds of things and some things are just plain better than others. It's the same as superheroes: Aquaman just doesn't stack up compared to Superman.

Then what does the DM give? I dislike the idea of player-written shopping lists of goodies (I think this was suggested in the 4e manual) as it seems more like children giving Santa a wishlist then going out and finding something amazing and valuable. What makes things amazing and valuable? Scarcity. If you have the only Belt of Whale Speech in the world, it would be pretty amazing, but if everyone on the block straps on their Belt of Whale Speech and goes down to the Cetacean University each morning, the belt isn't all that special, and an adventurer who found one in a cave might even throw it away if she couldn't hand it off to someone. Obviously, the more powerful the rare item is, the better - if you found the Hat of Leprous Complexion, which only made you look leprous, it probably would not be as useful as the Sword of Fireballs or a Scroll of Polymorph.

I think this should mean that most dungeons must have little to gain within them. That makes sense: depending on the intelligence of the being inhabiting the dungeon, adventuring within may be the equivalent of your medieval fantasy characters raiding a family of Neanderthals. Dungeons are homes to strange creatures and occasionally strange ruins or artifacts (again, depending on how much of the world is ruins and artifacts - remembering supply and demand). As far as homes go, a cave or a ruin isn't as luxurious as a palace, so why should it have more treasure?

Then what is the point of going into a monster's cave and killing it? Let me ask, what is the point of going into a dangerous person's house and killing them?

In the real world, most people who do that sort of thing do it for the status. Make the community safer. Remove a threat to the people. Prove your worth to your superiors.

Why settle for something lame like Scrooge McGoblin's vault of greatswords and heavy crossbows when you can instead have the promise of a county and the armaments of a count if you clear out the goblin tribes destroying the king's lands?