On Treasure and the Economy

I like to call this, the problem that seems to be, but isn't.

Clearly "having too much treasure" was a concern all the way back in the earliest editions of the game, given the copious advice given in the Dungeon Masters guide, and the expensive training requirements.

There's basically three dimensions to this treasure economy that need to be taken into account in order to have a healthy functioning economy: Energon Cubes, hacking gold out of the system, and player world options.

The Three Dimensions

Energon Cubes

Energon cubes (coined in relation to Role-Playing Games's by +Scrap Princess) were cubes of energy that the transformers fought over. They served little purpose other than as a device to drive conflict and something that could "power up" a person who uses them. This is very similar to the purpose of gold/treasure in Role-Playing Games.

This dimension is about how treasure drives the player, not the character, to adventure. Acquiring this treasure increases the power of the player's character. Either it is converted into experience, like in older versions of Dungeons & Dragons, spent to increase the power of the character or on upkeep as it is in some clones and 5th edition, or used to craft magic items in third edition and its derivatives.

Hacking Gold out of the System 

Another aspect of the treasure economy are steps taken to remove gold from the system, without the players spending it. This consists of taxes, theft of gold or items, fees for currency exchanges, commissions, and various other items.

This was frequently a factor in older games, because the experience from the gold was gained upon acquirement, and afterwords could (often) be spent again to increase player power. To slow down this relationship, money was removed from the system without any benefit to the players. That's the key feature of hacking gold outit is a tax and the player and character receive no benefit at all.

There is a way to do this well. Hacking gold out of the system is not something your players will enjoy. You shouldn't do it just because you gave out a lot of treasure. The point of hacking gold out of the system is (unsurprisingly) to provide an interesting choice to the players. Do we pay the king's guard and bow to his demand or slaughter his men? Do we smuggle the goods into town to eliminate the tariff? Do we avoid the toll bridge? Do we track down the thief who took our stuff? It's always a choice between money and convenience. If it's ever presented without any options, then it shouldn't be done in game. You should just tell the player to erase the gold off of his sheet, because you said to.

Note that players won't often like those choices since they both seem to be bad to the player, but the actual outcomes: the reduction of unreasonable amounts of treasure or new adventures and motivations are actually positive outcomes.

It's also important to note, that providing treasure that is difficult to acquire or utilize is perfectly ok, especially if it adds interest and challenge to the game. But if the game is designed to hand out treasure, and you don't; then you are subverting both the game and the fun of the players. Getting treasure is fun. Letting them enjoy it is memorable and part of play. Saying "Nope, no treasure here" because it's buried 200 yards away or in one of the creatures 8 other unfindable lairs just so you feel better about not handing out treasure is bad. We are playing a game. Choices should provide interesting consequences.

Player World Options

Finally, gold can be spent on in-world items that provide new options for the player characters. Perhaps the players could drain a swamp to gain access to a new adventure site. Maybe a cult leader needs bribing. Or perhaps the characters could purchase an army or a castle to protect themselves.  These are things that present new options and ways of dealing with problems.

It is important that these expenses are always optional. Anytime you find yourself presenting the players with a situation involving gold removal that doesn't have at least 3 viable courses of action, you're better off just having them erase the money from their sheet.

The Economy

The economy is about player interest and choice. It's working if you can have interesting treasure, interesting options for players to do things with treasure, and that it works within the system given without straining disbelief. It's also an economy which means it is both arbitrary and actively designed and controlled. That's your job.

The problems with this system are by design. The experience point requirements to reach the upper levels, require characters to accumulate the equivalent to several hundred million dollars every time they level. This is because in the original literature, huge hoards of treasure were a feature. You can't have dragons sleeping on a bed of 10,000 coins. A mid-sized dragon will need a bed 20 feet or so in diameter and several feet high, requiring somewhere between 3-5 million coins. That's excitement!

If you give gold for experience, even at 5:1 ratio, you can't have players going up levels every 100 experience points.

However, this presents several challenges to the Dungeon Master. What happens to the local economy? What do the players spend 5 million gold pieces on?

The d20 family of games fixed this problem by making the gold in a dragons horde equal to about a 2 liter bottle of gold coins. The coins are smaller and lighter, and because experience is tied to combat and not treasure, and instead now treasure is limited by level, the treasure amounts are greatly reduced. You could trivially fix this in old school games by dividing advancement experience by 100, converting all in game treasure to silver, and keeping prices the same.

So it's really a question of do you want small hordes and straightforward (dull) treasure or giant hordes and the associated economy issues with that?

Personally, I'm very much in favor of both large hordes and interesting treasure, because they help drive open campaign play, like sandboxes, hexcrawls, and mega-dungeons. The "Problems" associated with it, always drive more adventure. The other option is expressly better for more focused play, like adventure paths, because it prevents players from subverting the path. Since little needs to be done with small hordes and straightforward treasure, let's look at how to solve the problems involved in large hoards.

A Functional Boom Economy

You have to actively design your system. The default rules as written for the major games all address this economy and function as written. 1st edition has training costs equal to 1500 gold, times your class rating (1-5, one being the best), times your level. D20 versions have magic item crafting and purchasing (and feats that make your money go farther at the expense of combat utility). 5th edition has upkeep costs, that eat up thousands of gold per year, and allows training tool and language proficiencies.

The goal is to keep treasure interesting, provide more interesting choices for player characters, and over time to change the nature of play.
  • Simply making the numbers bigger makes everything feel pointless. If nothing substantially changes over time, then advancement really isn't advancement at all. This is one of the major problems with the christmas tree magic item effect. You need the bonuses just to keep pace. They don't really improve the play experience for your character. Whatever you add to the economy must actually provide a benefit (however small) and not simply be a tax to keep pace.
  • Too much treasure is NOT a system-wide destabilizing proposition. First, let's ignore the fact that this is a game and it doesn't matter beyond the fact that it causes cognitive dissonance in some people. Gygax addresses some of this in the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide. An independent frontier town will become a boom town. Prices will skyrocket. The money will work its way into the pockets of the proprietors in town and from there, back to larger bastions of civilization. We have working models where this happened, it all comes out in the wash and didn't ruin the economymostly because the treasure required had to be converted into wealth by the economy it entered. Who cares if your party of 5 adventures reach level 11 in AD&D. 25 million gold pieces added into the global economy is nothing. Assuming that's pure gold, that's 75 billion current dollars at the medieval value of gold (3,000$ an ounce). The modern GDP of England is around 2900 trillion dollars. But the gold pieces the characters will be pulling out of ruins won't be pure gold. 
    • Another example is Elon Musk. Started Paypal. Started Tesla Motors. Worth around 10 billion at any given time, and has a habit of making billions of dollars in like a day, and he's made large efforts to get rid of as much of that as possible in philanthropic ways. Effect on local economy? Effect on national economy? Eh.
    • People complaining about the scale of the gold piece in a local economy, haven't really considered how much wealth is in a local economy. That local inn owner makes the equivalent of thousands of gold a year. Nobels have tens and hundreds of thousands of gold in estates and troops. Other historical nations throughout history had great wealth and good economies. Dumping 500 gold into a market fair? Yeah, that's a lot of money, but how much business does a monthly market fair do in a city of 30,000? 
      • That noise you just heard was a small uptick in prices, not destabilizing inflation. It's also merchants fleecing the players for whatever they think they can get. 
      • 5e, poor lifestyle, 2sp day. To be poor costs over 70 gold a year. What the players spend isn't going to destabilize anything. 
  • Whatever you decide to do, it has to be by design. You have to create the item sets, you have to place the treasure, you have to decide if the players can train to use new talents and skills, you have to decide what the costs and drawbacks are of requiring training to level, you have to pick what actions the players can use money on the map to take.
    • Hackmaster 4e, which uses 1st edition training is excellent. If you pay the very pricy cost to train, then you get some adventure hooks, allies, along with several free skill boosts. If you don't, you can buy equipment and it costs more experience to level up. Interesting choices for the players. 
    • You can have several areas on the map that require some expenditure of gold to access. A site down a chasm that requires 15,000 gp to access. It can also be accessed by a risky climb or perhaps magic, but the players can make that choice. 
    • Can you train up skills? I use Skills: The Middle Road which has the feature of diminishing returns. This allows players to spend increasing amounts of money for decreasing (but still significant) benefits. It also decouples skills from leveling. This is another example of interesting economy design. 
    • Services in town can provide options. Is there an enchanter? an alchemist? spellcasters? a sage? Each of these can provide things for players to spend money on.
  • If you have a well designed economy and are using set items, interesting treasure stays interesting for the life of the character—either for the bonus it provides or for saving it because you'll need the money.

Uses for Money

What can you spend gold on?

Here are ideas of some things you can have players spend their money on.
  • Consumable magic items
  • Improved equipment
    • Magic item construction
    • Poison
  • Upkeep, along with associated in-game effects
  • Carousing & orgies
    • And as a consequence or aside, supporting a mistress
    • Other carousing type choices include, research, gourmandizing, sacrificing, philanthropy, clan hoards/donations.
  • Information: Rumors, in game research, and asking sages questions.
  • Bribes
  • Building construction
  • Purchasing vehicles, ships, and siege weaponry
  • Running a small business for profit
    • and the costs, quests, and accoutrements associated with that
  • Land or an organization (or access to an organization)
  • Positions (Nobility, regency, dukedoms, secret society memberships, reputation)
  • Clearing hexes and expenses associated with keeping them cleared
  • Taxes and other forms of tribute—tithes, dues, fees, maintenance costs
  • Protection, enhancements, or management of any of the above, constructions, businesses, settlements, mines, etc.
  • Followers, including technical (alchemists, engineers), hirelings (secondary/backup players), henchmen (torch-bearers, treasure carriers, labors), hangers-on, support, animals/pets/livestock and others. (Dungeon Chickens mainly)
    • Buying something for dear old mum, you heartless beggar. When was the last time you even paid your old mum a visit. Are you even eating out there? And why don't I have any grandchildren?
    • Horses are not cheap. Animals have upkeep expenses of their own.
  • Purchasing spellcasting services, including larger rituals
  • Some mechanic for passing experience on to a new player.
  • Talents research or spell research, allowing new powers in exchange for gold. (Note that fighters should also get nice things here)
  • Allowing training to increase statistic values (something that costs more each time you do it is very useful here) 
  • Training to increase levels with some benefit over just automatically leveling
    • Require more experience to level without training (or less if training)
    • Allow bonuses to hit point rolls or some other level increased ability
    • Free training or other services, like rumors, etc.


  1. Regarding medieval England, 2 million people x $1300 is $2.6 billion, not $2.6 trillion!

    That means that adding $75 billion to the economy will be equivalent to multiplying the money supply by 30 - if the money is distributed evenly among everyone in England and doesn't leave the country, there will be 3000% inflation.

    1. And you are correct!

      I still don't think it matters.

  2. I like to steal the mechanic from Adventurer, Conqueror, King - every 10 gp the character spends for no purpose, banks 9 XP for the character's heir when the original character fails a final save.

  3. I love the list at the end of the article. When I first dove into it (the whole article, that is), I had reservations. Why the focus on the meta-game of a D&D economy? But the list of ways in-game ways to spend money is a useful resource. Forget everything before that list: just focus on how your character can use her gold to accomplish something worthwhile. (Except for training. Gold for training is a bad mechanic all-round.)


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