Friday, July 23, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 90

On page 90 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a brief section that sheds much light on how Gary Gygax viewed the game's economic system. He begins:

There is no question that the prices and costs of the game are based on inflationary economy, one where a sudden influx of silver and gold has driven everything well beyond its normal value.

This is a widespread interpretation of AD&D's equipment prices, so it's fascinating to see that Gygax outright confirms this in this passage. He even gives the rationale behind this approach.

The reasoning behind this is simple. An active campaign will almost certainly bring a steady flow of wealth into the base area, as adventurers come from successful trips into dungeon and wilderness. 

This is an important section, because it suggests that the activities of the player characters are not exceptional. The exploration – and looting – of dungeons is, if not commonplace, not unusual and, therefore, has lasting economic consequences. It also suggests to me that the game's economic assumptions are more akin to, say, 16th or 17th century Spain than the earlier medieval period. Gygax seems to have anticipated criticisms of this approach.

If the economy of the area is one which more accurately reflects that of medieval England, let us say, where coppers and silver coins are usual and a gold piece remarkable, such an influx of new money, even in copper and silver, would cause an inflationary spiral. This would necessitate adjusting costs accordingly and then upping dungeon treasures somewhat to keep pace. If a near-maximum is assumed, then the economics of the area can remain relatively constant, and the DM will have to adjust costs only for things in demand or short supply – weapons, oil, holy water, mean-at-arms, whatever.

In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, a regular subject was the "gold piece economy" of Dungeons & Dragons and how "unrealistic" it was. Many a blog post was written on the subject and a fad of substituting silver pieces for gold pieces in one's campaign arose. Games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess even incorporated it into their rules. I don't feel strongly about this subject, but, unless my – and Gygax's – understanding of economics is mistaken, the matters he raises in the preceding paragraph strike me as reasons not to abandon gold pieces as the standard coinage in AD&D.

The economic systems of areas beyond the more active campaign areas can be viably based on lesser wealth only until the stream of loot begins to pour outwards into them. While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of a dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers.

Gygax here says two notable things. The first is his usage of the adjective "heroic," which he will soon elaborate upon. The second is his assertion that he expects player characters in AD&D to have "pouches full of gems" and lots of gold coins. The latter is especially notable, for it gives us some insight into how he saw the "world" of Dungeons & Dragons.

Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means – thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The "reality" AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!

We can see here that "heroic" in the previous section was in reference to the genre of "heroic fantasy," what I usually call "pulp fantasy." His references to the protagonists of such tales is telling and a further buttress of my longstanding contention that Dungeons & Dragons is ill suited to epic or high fantasy of the sort exemplified by The Lord of the Rings or even Dragonlance. With one agrees with that thesis or not, one should also take note of the means Gygax enumerates by which loot may be "lost in a twinkling." We see here is that even AD&D's economic assumptions support the idea that player characters are meant to be rascals and rogues.

You may, of course, adjust any prices and costs as you see fit for your own milieu. Be careful to observe the effects of such changes on both play balance and player involvement. If any adverse effects are noted, it is better to return to the true and true. It is fantastic and of heroic proportions so to match its game vehicle.

This is typically Gygaxian in its approach: feel free to change whatever you like but don't surprised if your changes make the game worse. Take note, too, that he reiterates that the game is "fantastic and of heroic proportions." This is another instance where Gygax shows his hand somewhat, revealing his own preferences and vision for the game. Agree or disagree with that vision, there can be little question that it exists and draws strongly on a very particular strain of fantasy literature, one he calls "heroic fantasy" and that I call "pulp fantasy."


  1. James, you stopped before you reached the section on taxation. Do younger players still haggle with town guards at the gate about the entrance tax while trying to conceal wonderous or valuable loot?
    (Ha, my brother and his "What is the 'no questions asked' fee?")
    This was always a pain in the butt, especially when a party of adventurers had to tightly parse out funds for training after a tough expedition. However, once we had strongholds of our own we sure saw the need for raising our own taxes.

    1. The taxation section is worthy of a separate post.

  2. I use silver as the base coinage for a couple of reasons. First it gives copper a use (making change and small purchases. Secondly it keeps gold "heroic" (to use Gygax's term). Gold suddenly serves as a useful store of value and a way of reducing the encumbrance of large amounts of money. And let's face it, players are going to be running around flashing large amounts of gold as they go up in level anyway.

  3. I think it's more evidence in support of the idea, discussed here previously, that D&D's setting is much closer to a sort of mythical "Wild West" than to any plausible medieval history. The "Gold Rush" economy, the presence of taverns/saloons where independent bands of adventurers congregate, the cowboys-and-Indians feel of being in a dangerous, hostile wilderness. Even the trusty dungeoneering lantern feels more like a 19th century kerosene mining lamp than any kind of medieval oil lamp. (And when computer games like Adventure and Zork took inspiration from D&D, they went even further with the anachronism and made it a battery-powered brass lantern.)

  4. Of course, Tolkien's The Hobbit has the exact sort of dragon hoard Gygax mentions, a stirring treasure of gold and gems. :)

    In Offutt's forward to Swords Against Darkness 1 in 1977, he also names the genre Heroic Fantasy and claims it started with Homer. To him, it's anything with a fantasy element and a hero, thus Heroic Fantasy. The Hobbit and LOTR are great examples of Heroic Fantasy.

    I guess I'd see Pulp Fantasy to be the kind of Heroic Fantasy stories printed in pulp fiction magazines.

  5. "In the early days of the Old School Renaissance, a regular subject was the "gold piece economy" of Dungeons & Dragons and how "unrealistic" it was."
    The OSR don't know the DMG.

  6. Your understanding is correct, an increase in the supply of specie should increase prices. There are a few corollaries to this though.
    1. The increase should be greatest for goods in demand by adventurers or that on the production side use the same inputs as those demanded by adventurers. For instance, plate mail should become more expensive, but so should plows because the rising price of plate mail drives up the price of iron. (Think of how BTC mining contributes to the chip drought).
    2. Inflation assumes that the main thing being driven out of the dungeon is specie. Any other loot would drive down prices of that type of loot. If the lost treasury of the mad emperor is full of gold and silver and nothing else then sacking it will drive up the price of +1 swords. If the adventurers then sack the lost magic armory of the mad emperor, this will drive down the price of +1 swords. A financial speculator on the +1 swords derivatives market could make a killing by buying call options before the first adventure and put options before the second. If the hidden grove of the druid with a mood disorder has a torque of plant growth that could raise the price of land and lower the price of grain and either lead to a population increase or a shift from bread and porridge consumption to beer and meat consumption.

    Of course I don't think any of that is much fun and it makes for a more fun game if you by default assume that the players are price takers who don't have enough volume to move the market, just as it's a good baseline assumption that it never occurred to military engineers to make short sprawling Vauban style fortresses instead of tall square castles in a world with dragons and rock to mud spells.

  7. a lot of DMs aren't content to put first things first; i.e., playing a fun game. They desire their game world to be an expression and reflection of:

    1) their accumulated knowledge, and/or;
    2) how they think the world should work

    Fun comes in somewhere behind those, to be had only in such amount as can be when those other two are first-honored.

  8. I ran a by-the-book (as best I could) 5e campaign, using the Adventurers League scenarios, at a FLGS. personally, hated it. Hate Hate HATE 5e. and the players were meh. then I whipped out an old dragon mag, and a battle vs a troll for dinner and gold, and the players had a great time. THEY LOVE GETTING TREASURE! even if they just spend it right away. no one want to roleplay Ragnar the Accountant, who totally needs receipts for this, and ooo crapola, I did not calculate my taxes right on that one trip. that is going to blow the party's budget to hell....

  9. My feeling is simply that a chest full of gold should be fabulous wealth, worth risking horrible death for, not a month's living expenses at a moderately nice inn. In the fiction tossing a purse full of gold on the table commands attention, and brings the ship captain around to taking you on your crazy expedition rather than the barmaid asking if you're picking up the next round then?

  10. If one was very concerned about inflation (or stagflation) in one's campaign, one could go the "Midnight" route (the d20 3e D&D OGL setting by Fantasy Flight Games in which food was the coinage and survival was the treasure). ;)

  11. The 'sleeping' dragon has a vast horde of wealth making it the target for cunning robbers who know how to use their strength. The robbers who now have a vast horde of wealth suddenly become the target for other cunning robbers.

  12. Although I've never used it, there is something to the game mechainc that you don't gain xp for bringing back gold, but for SPENDING it. That rewards characters for the behavior you want to emulate, while allowing them freedom to choose.

    Whether on fancy armor, wine, women/men, or song, it is the excess that makes you and adventurer. My PCs have always needed more cash, saving for their eventual castles, paying for increasingly higher level (and thus more expensive) henchmen, buying potions (when in the big city), etc. Even though I have a similar mechanic, (spending money on fluff goes into an xp bank for your next character if you die), I would add the spend to get xp requirement if I didn't have several groups running in my campaign.