Friday, May 13, 2016

What Matters

"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.


LTW said...

I am doing exactly this, I am working on a crop/livestock yield system for a fief my players have in their possession. I have even used the source you quoted, Grain to Gold. I've done some research on the area to try to avoid making a generic price list.

My players want to add peasants to the fief in order to build an army. They also want to try to takeover some land from the adjacent fief to expand yields. So I am trying to build a system that will accommodate changes like these for my players. My players have suggested I fudge a number for the yield, but I want to do better than that.

It is true that there isn't a lot that I have seen on your blog about creating a micro system like this. You have good resources on macro economics and market systems. I wonder how you would go about this Alexis?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I did do something like the grain for gold thing, back in the '90s. I posted that work on my blog, taking note that it is a fragment of my original work, long since lost.

I only need micro-economics for the party and what the party does. For everything else, it has to be macro. And this makes sense. The party buys a piece of land, they try to grow food on it, I have endless figures from historical documents on what the yield ought to be (not just for Europe but for every food everywhere in the world) - and the players have to apply that effort to succeeding against the macrosystem. This makes tension, as no one knows for sure if the yield will mean they make a profit or not.

If the player's efforts and the rules for effort, period, line up exactly, where's the tension? We already know in advance what yield we'll get and if it is worth it . . . after that it is just math.

I advise you to give it up trying to make that kind of system apply for everyone, everywhere. I don't believe it will ultimately yield the results you're hoping for.

On the other hand, you WILL learn a lot. I sure did.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I owe you an apology, LTW. I did not see the words, "for a fief my players have in their possession."

I am sorry. I am very sorry. Just read your comment too fast and did not see it until the second reading, after posting. That was wrong of me and I apologize.

You have the link. I hope it helps.

LTW said...

No apologies necessary. I doubt I will ultimately come up with something that I'm very pleased with anyhow.

"the players have to apply that effort to succeeding against the macrosystem. This makes tension, as no one knows for sure if the yield will mean they make a profit or not.

If the player's efforts and the rules for effort, period, line up exactly, where's the tension? We already know in advance what yield we'll get and if it is worth it . . . after that it is just math."

Creating tensions...maybe I haven't gotten this far. My idea about tension is to try to create scarcity in that each peasant, or potential spearman, added to the manse will cost this many acres in crop yields. And yes the spearman comes with a family.

-Or maybe the 10 mercenaries that have been staying on your land have consumed x out of the granary.

-The 50 does and 1 buck (goats) that you have acquired by killing Baron Badwell will sell for x at the market, or could feed these many peasants per year with mutton and capretto, milk, and cheese and take up these many acres for grazing if you want to incorporate them into your herd.

Also I was anticipating tension when rolling to see whether a yields are good, bad, or somewhere in between. You seem to be on to something I haven't thought of yet. Care to elaborate?

Alexis Smolensk said...


It is only that I have to read more carefully.

We can safely assume that the players will have reasons for keeping ten mercenaries beyond merely sitting on the land and consuming food. Because dungeons tend to offer bigger payoffs than an estate could, we have to look very carefully at a party's motivation for keeping a farm.

Succeeding against the macrosystem cannot mean, "The wheat on our farm costed us 10% less than it would have if we'd bought the wheat outright." A party faced with that sort of math will quit farming. There isn't enough profit there to make it matter to them. This means that we have to either a) make it really more profitable; or b) bestow something in possessing the farm beyond that mere quantity the farm provides.

The link I posted doesn't show up with a different color on my feed, so just to be sure you see it:

Thinking on the map on the link, those mercenaries should be farmers, not layabouts: each mercenary should be MORE land used, and as such MORE food. Farmer mercenaries are then patrons to the party, who regardless of the value of the food gain a profit in that the mercenaries are now fighting for the same thing the party is fighting for: their homes. This beats the macrosystem, where the mercenary is just a price that's paid; on their own land, the mercenary farmer is an ally, ready to fight for free if need be.

So there is tension is sorting out the good mercenaries from the bad; in continually expanding, as you suggested, in order to provide more farmland so that you can have a larger population that are not farmers but artisans.

The money is in candle-making, brewing, tanning and so on. These are ready things that the party can make big money on against the macroeconomic prices (where 10% will make a much bigger difference).

The tension of the yield being bad or good only applies to how much it will cost the players to buy food for four hundred farmers, family and artisans; but it won't make a lot of difference as far as how much coin the players will make at the market (in fact, they should be warehousing abundance for those years when famine hits).

I feel like I'm all over the place with this reply - but this is a real rabbit hole and it can go in all kinds of ways. I hope I can get across that there are lots of ways to build tension.

LTW said...

Yes, there are a lot of ways to build tension. I anticipate the fief being a good place for low-level henchmen to get some experience. The system absolutely needs to be more than a discount system.

JB said...

: D

Alexis Smolensk said...

You realize, JB, that my reasons for not attempting a "realistic" economy was simply because I could see from the beginning that it was never going to be possible; right off, I accepted that about the problem and simply moved forward, creating AN economy as noted.

It is a testament to your awareness that you can see this where a great many others cannot (even when told it is so).

James said...

I spent two months on attempting to create a "realistic economy." Eventually tossed it aside as too immense and difficult a project.

I did eventually create an economic system, one that they players and myself agreed would work. Since the game is effectively about them becoming the rulers of a district in a city, it was important to get something working. The work has led to some interesting revelations, especially in terms of how taxes work, as I created an entire tax code just for the economy.

The taxes, in a lot of ways, made the game work. The players want to create an army (get a stronghold, hire workers and soldiers, the whole thing) to act as police force for the district, so they can obtain the police's share of taxes. Of course, there is the small matter of the current police force.