Monday, April 7, 2014

The Vast Wealth of Dungeons

Four Million Reasons to Embrace Campaign Style Play

There are a number of inter-related factors in old school D&D that work together to support the megadungeon as a campaign centerpiece.  Dungeon level equaling monster level and difficulty provides the players the most direct control over danger versus reward during their planning.   XP for Gold means that creative problem solving and ingenuity is more important than combat - avoiding fights and still making it out with the money is the best path to victory.

One thing you're going to have to face in a dungeon-oriented campaign is the phenomenal amount of wealth that adventurers are going to draw out of the dungeon.  The ratio of experience from gold versus monsters is somewhere near 4 or 5 to 1.  A first level party, needing 10,000+ experience points to move everyone up to level 2, is going to need at least 8,000gp from the first dungeon level alone!

I posted a chart in one of the "scoreboard" posts the other day on how much wealth a party will have retrieved from the dungeon in order to gain a certain level.  It becomes astronomical.  A 10-level megadungeon needs to have something like four million cumulative gold pieces to get to level 10.  If the dungeon is large enough to support multiple adventuring parties, you can double or triple that amount.  What's that mean for your campaign?

Party Level / Wealth Gained
1  10,000
2  10,000
3  20,000
4  40,000
5  80,000
6  160,000
7  320,000
8  640,000
9  1,280,000
10 1,280,000
*Sum is 3.8 million gold to get to level 10...

There seem to be a few schools of thought.  One school of thought attempts to perpetuate, for as long as possible, the experience of scraping coppers, collecting old dented helmets for scrap metal, and really making the adventurers work for every last gold piece.  The idea seems to keep the adventurers poor so they have a natural motivation to take whatever crappy plot hook the DM throws in front of them - or risk getting thrown out on the street as paupers.  It's adversarial and risks making the campaign about defeating the DM's attempts to strip wealth, versus letting the players find fun things to do with the money.  Even Conan got to be king eventually.

I prefer a different approach, which is to continue to ramp up the campaign challenges and provide natural outlets for spending the money.  Adventurers don't follow the same rules as everyone else in the campaign world.    They are the proverbial sports heroes and rock stars of the campaign world.  Their extravagant income is matched only by extravagant needs and expenses.  Giving the players the chance to actually spend the money they've earned is an opportunity to let them make interesting decisions and exercise choice and resource planning.

One of the largest potential expenses is new magic items, especially the expendables and charged items.  I'm going to assume that if ancient dungeons filled with magic and treasures are a real thing in your campaign world, and the adventurers aren't unique, that there are places in the world where magic items are bought and sold, and places where adventurers with way too much cash can go and get their own bespoke magic items made to order.  The meager sword +1 is 5,000gp new, and that high level suit of leather +3 the thief really needs is going to set him back 35,000gp.  Engaging in the magic economy is going to drain money quickly.

Providing campaign incentives for the characters to invest in strongholds, churches, wizard laboratories, and hiring large staffs of NPC's is another natural outgrowth of mid-level play, which progresses into the need to outfit armies and conquer domains in high level play.

The tricks of the "gotcha" style of DM are still fair in small doses - taxes and salvage fees from local rulers skims money off the top, as does a little bit of protection money paid to the thieves' guild.  In fact, one reason mid-level characters need to look at strongholds and lots of retainers is because their own hoards can be targeted by lower level adventurers and thieves while they're in the dungeon deeps!

Embrace the power fantasy aspect of the old school gaming style.  I don't know about you, I'm not fantastically wealthy, and I have to 'punch a clock' Monday through Friday just like everyone else.  Part of the escape of this style of gaming is getting to play a character where money stops being a problem.  When the characters decide to go on an ocean voyage, they go and buy a ship and crew - because they can.  Fantastic wealth doesn't stop sports stars from suiting up to play the next game, and it's not going to stop your players from tackling their next challenge either.  Money is a powerful resource.  The players are going to earn a ton of money in a long term dungeon campaign.  Embrace the challenge of providing creative reasons to spend it and keep the game about player choice and resource management.


  1. I agree, BUT I like treasure to be seen as more valuable than it is in standard inflation-crazy D&D. Gold in any amount should inspire at least a twinge of avarice. That's one reason I base experience points on silver. Gold is worth the same number of experience points as its value in silver, so in Basic/Expert D&D, 1 sp. = 1 x.p.; 1 g.p. = 10 x.p (or even 1 g.p. = 20 x.p.). That way I can reduce treasure amounts without reducing their value. (My equipment cost chart is less California Gold Rush and more Middle Ages.)

  2. Remember when the PCs sell magic items they get enormous amounts of wealth for these easy-to-carry items, and they get xp too. The other great equalizer is gems and jewelry. Large cash value for low encumbrance, and they add flavor to the treasure.

    I can't imagine a magic shop though. I would think every NPC would be too awestruck by magic to refuse to sell anything, just like NPC mages won't share spells. Just my take.

  3. It's a shame if this thread breaks down into a discussion about whether or not magic is something that should be sold or bought.

    I think what may be missing from here is the potential to increase, or at least in some way modify, the amount of experience that is not coming from coin. If 70% of the experience that the party gains in the dungeon comes from the damage they cause, of the damage they take, or x.p. bonuses for successfully clearing out regions and making them 'safe,' you drastically reduce the need for as much gold as you're describing here, enabling the party to adjust a little more slowly to the overflow of coin (the party isn't spending their huge income until they're 9th level, as opposed to 7th.

    I think with some thought there are other means by which experience can be rewarded, or money spent, without having to march down the path to magic shops. In the real world we always seem to have something to spend money on, particularly in that we have to buy the same things over and over again because they wear out, we outgrow them or something goes drastically wrong, like the 3-story merchant house the player just spend 35,000 g.p. is unfortunately burns down because the cook that was hired was very clumsy with the cooking oil. I'm not saying this sort of thing HAS to happen, but it could just as easily be that something keeps coming up. Remember the beginning of the film Up and the way that ordinary life saps our income.

    What is needed is more imagination, not just more kinds of shops to go to.

  4. XP for gold is elegant in its simplicity and abstraction - it's fairly objective, transparent to the players, and it covers the gamut of adventurer activities by rewarding the end state and not the process. I realize you're not advocating a full-on alternative XP system for D&D, which would normally trigger me to climb on the soap box and warn about the impending apocalypse.

    I do agree that the campaign itself should encourage players to spend money creatively - and none of the ideas require rules or systems, just 'natural consquences'. There's a reason normal people that win the lottery hire bodyguards, leave their neighborhoods, and change their identities. In game terms, everyone else - who is too afraid to enter the dungeon themselves and face the wights and the wraiths and the dopplegangers and the medusas - is going to be just fine with trying to rob the player characters every chance they get back in town. Never mind the thieves and cut throats, there are plenty of monarchical betrayals to model after- the overthrow of the Templars in France, or the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England. I still like the idea of encouraging the exorbitant rock star lifestyle for wealthy adventurers, but having them learn to live like paranoid rich people in an age when civilization was only a veneer is pretty funny, too.

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  6. Jesus and Joseph were betrayed for 30 pieces of silver...
    Gold should be more valuable..
    I agree with Mr. Coopers take on wealth
    (money should be more valuable)
    I also use a different currency weight than standard OD&D
    8 silver pieces = 1 Doubloon or troy ounce of silver OR
    8 gold pieces = 1 Royal or one troy ounce of gold;
    96 pieces = 12 coins = 12 troy ounces;
    100 pieces is approximately 1 pound (#) of encumbrance

  7. "Engaging in the magic economy is going to drain money quickly."

    This is why the delvers in my GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game are eternally cash-poor even though they walk around with huge amounts of wealth in the form of magical gear and superior mundane gear. And why they always seek as much money as they can possibly find, at all opportunities - spending that money in the "magical economy" makes it go away fast, but makes you better equipped to find more.

    One of my players commented that adventurers basically play the lottery for a living. Every day they see if they hit the jackpot, and even if they win, if it's not big enough, they sink it into the game-world equivalent of more lottery tickets . . .that is, better magical gear.

  8. I start my players off with basically nothing, depending on what random past career they had, and maybe 2d6 gp or so. It makes them really have to scrape to equip themselves and really learn the value of a dollar. Also my coins are closely tied to the social classes "Larks"(copper) are used by the peasants, "Guilders"(silver) are used by the emerging merchant middle class, and "Crowns" (gold) are used by the nobility.

  9. If you want to keep your adventurers poor, you could require gold to be sacrificed for XP. Buy nice stuff or level up, your choice.

  10. That comment about lesser adventurer's raiding the PC's strongholds just itched my lizard brain. You could spin a whole random encounter "while you were in the dungeon" list off of that.

    1. On the G+ thread, C Huth suggested this:

      How are the adventurers going to spend all that money?

      Build a dungeon to hide their wealth in?


      That made me laugh out loud - the vision of increasingly paranoid adventurers, tired of getting robbed while they were off exploring the dungeon, ultimately deciding to build their lair right in the dungeon itself.

      And then they start defending the dungeon against other adventurers...

    2. And now we know why there's so many dungeons around. It's all so obvious!

      All these dark lords and evil wizards are just retired adventurers hanging out at home on a fixed income. Dunno what happened to all the retired thief/rogue/specialists though.

    3. I've had similar thoughts.

      Do the young orc men in an orc kingdom slip out to the borderlands to plunder a dungeon, finding it occupied by men with hordes of gold?

  11. ACKS' reserve XP rule seems to be the largest cash sink for my players at lowish levels. Once they hit sixth or seventh, lethality drops off a little and they start saving for the stronghold or spending on labs and libraries.

  12. Actually, if the characters are required to pay gold for XP, they will need more gold to reach level X than usual for they most certainly will spend some of their cash on new gear, henchmen, etc.

    Also, most higher level characters are assumed to spend their gold on building and upkeeping castles, armies, etc. - domain management. If they do, wouldn't they be more concerned about that than exploring the megadungeon? If so, that possibly changes the focus of the campaign quite radically. If not, then does it really matter what they spend their money on?