December 8, 2009

RPG Wealth, Let's Not Be Vague


I've been hearing alot about the abstraction of wealth in rpg games lately (http://chattydm.net/2009/11/09/turning-dd-4es-economy-on-its-head/). About how no one likes to count their character's money down to the copper piece. About how GMs don't want to waste valuable game time letting a character go shopping. About how there are wonderful systems that can be used to abstract wealth issues to speed up play and remove irrelevant (to the adventure) money details (http://www.critical-hits.com/2009/11/23/4th-power-project-playtest-recap-wealth/#more-5247).

I say NO to those ideas.

Wealth within an RPG campaign revolves around 3 facets; Acquisistion, Retention, Spending. I will discuss each facet and how the various concepts apply.
Acquisition
The "standard" method of gaining money consists of entering something's room, killing it and taking anything of value. Thereafter items are liquidated to their cash equivalents. There are, of course, alternate ways of gaining money; ripping apart the tomb of someone's loved one, as payment for killing things, etc. In the typical adventure there will be several opportunities to gain money.
For alot of players the accumulation of this money is a positive feeling. They feel as if they are accomplishing something. They may not be leveling tonight, but they are still gaining something of value to their character, money. It is also a reward for actions their characters have taken.

Alot of newer systems change the acquisition portion. Sometimes they allow die rolls vs. a skill or wealth stat. If an item you desire falls within the wealth stat range, you can roll a die and if succesful you gain the item. There is no sense of reward. A simple die roll is an out-of-character mechanic. The character has not done anything to warrant the "reward" of the item. All that happened was the player made a die roll vs an arbitrary target number.

Consider these two scenarios:
-The characters kick in the door and find themselves outnumbered by orcs, one of which is a spellcaster! After a hectic fight, the characters ransack the place and gain 540gold and a piece of jewelry worth 120gold.
-The characters kick in the door and find themselves outnumbered by orcs, one of which is a spellcaster! After a hectic fight, the characters ransack the place and gain a +2 to their next wealth roll.
One is tangible, there are details of what was gained, and one is vague. The end result is the same; characters are able to gain an item next time they are in town. However, the problem with the vague one is the feeling of accomplishment and reward is also vague. Players get more excited over a sum of gold than a bonus to a die roll. It is easier to relate to.

I believe Acquisition is the most important part of a money system. Retention and Spending can be more of a chore than it need be, but I believe its the Acquisistion of money that is the most fun for players.

Retention
Most players do not have the equivalent of $100,000 in their bank account or on their person; characters do. There is a strange feeling having vaste amounts of money. For some players their goal is to acquire a large sum; spending it not their real goal. Other players carefully watch their money rise in amount as they get near how much they need to buy an item they have desired for some time. The anticipation can be just as enjoyable as when the money was gained.

By having vast amounts of cash in game, it allows a player to do things he can not do in real life. 'Rich' may be your characters value within a game but it is a vague translation that is hard for a player to connect with. Most players makes a mental money exchange between the currency in a game setting (gold, credits, etc) with modern day currency. They know 10 gold will buy $50 worth of items. They have an approximate value between their fantasy cash to a real-life value. They then know what cars/toys they can buy if the money was real, and that form of fantasy can be enjoyable.

Spending
RPG games are designed to allow a player to do things he can not do in real-life. It is a form of escapism. A player's character often is better than the player.

This is especially true in modern day games. You'll see characters buying superfulous things, a swank house, expensive clothes or a sports car. They do this because they can not do such things in real life. They can own a new Maserati in-character and that carrys a thrill all its own.

By spending, the player gets a joy out of doing something he can not normally.  Unlike the real world, he knows an easy and fun way to replenish his money, by kicking in some more doors and taking gold from the monsters. Simplifying money into simple die rolls negates the concept of spending money on an item. It is all a bit unreal.

How to Streamline Wealth
There are some easy methods for speed up a monetary system. Don't haggle; don't role-play the encounter. Someplayers like to grab the spotlight or self-indulge in some role-playing and haggling is a natural outlet for them. Haggling takes alot of time. Don't do it.
[Caveat: Go ahead and role-play the purchase of a large ticket item or one a player has desired for a long time. Make sure to throw in such words as "You must be a big man to be able to buy that!", "Not alot of people in the world own such an item!" Again, this makes a player feel special.]

When my players go shopping I hand them the appropriate book with the item lists and let them pick and choose. This also plays off a tendency alot of people have. Who hasn't looked in a catalog, in bookform or on-line, and done some wishful shopping? Letting the players indulge this side of themselvs can be alot of fun for them and it speeds everything along.

When to Use an Alternate System
There are times when using a "vague" system for wealth can be a good idea.
-Money or the things money can buy is trivial. For example, if the characters are in the military and everything is provided for them, then money has no meaning so there is no need to include it.
-The players do not wish to deal with the minutia of money. If the players do not care about purchasing items or the accumulation of wealth then money is again trivialized and thus only a hinderance. Just beware that in some cases this is an attempt to exploit the system. If the characters can gain objects by simply making a die roll, one they can attempt without severe restriction, this is a shortcut to gaining anything they want.
-The GM doesn't want to deal with the hassle of money. Actually, this is a horrible reason. The GM is there to provide entertainment for the players. If they gain some sense of accomplishment or enjoyment out of including the intricacies of money in a game then you should include it.

There are alot of intelligently written and balanced systems for making money abstract. However, I think the desire for such systems needs to be weighed against the enjoyment a coin based system can bring.
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