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While reading this Cohort Question I was kinda struck by a quote in there and instead of asking an unrelated question in that area I figured it would be good to make a separate question.

The quote was "Though I am not advocating a strict adherence to the wealth by level progression..." So my question is, why wouldn't you want to follow this chart? I'm not defending the chart and in fact I usually reduce the starting amount for new characters but what is the consensus among other gamers?

So I guess a better worded question is: "Do you adhere to the wealth by level chart; if not what is your justification/reasoning for not doing so?

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4 Answers

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It's a major decision not to be made lightly

D&D 3.5's power curve is strongly influenced by wealth. A character with magic items is obviously much more powerful than a character without, and to an equal extent a character with level 15 items is probably going to kick the face of a character with level 5 items regardless of what level the characters might be.

By that reading, it seems as though reducing a character's wealth (and thus the items they have access to) makes for a lower-powered campaign. This is true, but doesn't touch the heart of the issue:

Challenges are (in theory) balanced around the wealth by level chart.

A CR 15 monster is supposedly designed to use about 1/4 of the daily resources (spells, hp, consumables, etc) of a party of four level 15 characters. That "daily resources" estimate is based on wealth-by-level, because wealth is a major part of the D&D power curve.

There are spells and items which wealth-by-level ensures a party will have access to at certain levels even if no one in the party can cast or make them. Monsters and other challenges are built and their difficulty assessed by assuming this level of access.

So proceed with caution, because there is no single answer here

There are plenty of good reasons to adjust party wealth, but it's important to remember that you're redefining one of the basic balancing assumptions in a system whose balance is already off-kilter. Be prepared to compensate.

An undergeared party will have fewer resources and be forced to use more of the resources they have in order to defeat a creature of their level. An overgeared party will often have utility at its command which trivializes encounters of its level.

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Ignore the WBL Chart at your own risk

Especially if you’re going under.

The WBL tables are a suggestion, but changing WBL and ignoring the tables is an extremely dangerous thing to do within the mathematics of 3.x. Few things are as broad in their scope. Changing wealth affects every character in the world, or at least every player character, and can have some very far-reaching and unexpected side-effects.

In particular, the system responds extremely poorly to lower-than-normal wealth. The WBL provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is very close to the bare minimum for 3.x to work as expected without massive changes.

Make no mistake: wealth is effectively non-casters’ access to magic, and magic trumps everything else in the system. Starving those classes, already the weakest in the system, of their poor access to magic results in severely exacerbating the existing imbalances within 3.x.

As a result, lowering wealth should only be done when you are also making sweeping changes to the system in general. Reduce access to magic (including through class features), and eliminate the (many) encounters that under normal circumstances require magic to solve. Be prepared for a lot of detailed work converting everything. It is not something to be done lightly.

Wealth above the guidelines is easier but can also be dangerous. Because magic is so powerful, more wealth means more magic, which means characters can pull out “trump cards” more often. At extremely high levels of wealth, all characters are effectively full-casters, since they’re all just using magic items to replicate the spellcasters’ native magics.

Judging Parties and Encounters

Anyone who has looked through any significant number of monsters in 3.x with a critical eye can tell you that monsters’ CR is so frequently inaccurate as to make the entire system near useless. As a result, DMing always requires judging the actual abilities of parties and encounters, not simply blind adherence to CR and EL rules. Following the Wealth by Level guidelines does not guarantee that any given party will be able to handle any given CR-appropriate encounter.

The problem is magic has the ability to trivialize encounters. The right spell, and by extension, the right magic item, can eliminate certain threats. And the lack thereof can make what should be merely an obstacle into a death trap.

And magic is not equally available to all classes.

A mundane warrior literally cannot fight a Ghost if he doesn’t have a magic weapon. His abilities have a 0% chance of doing anything at all to Incorporeal enemies. A Cleric can just Turn/Rebuke it, a Wizard can command undead, and so on.

Meanwhile, it becomes extremely difficult to find a mirror example, where the spellcasters cannot do anything but the warriors can. Most examples involve heavy DM-fiat, such as permanent, expansive, and arbitrary Dead Magic Zones. Antimagic field is high-level and has a tiny area. Golems aren’t really immune to magic, they just have SR ∞, and competent spellcasters prepare ways to handle SR. And so on. Any problem you can come up with, magic has an answer to.

What this winds up causing is making an already-serious problem even worse: it becomes very difficult to challenge spellcasters without sidelining mundanes, and even harder to give mundanes appropriate challenges without some arbitrary excuse why the spellcasters are unable to just magic it away.

So while a very experienced DM, with a group of very experienced players, who have played together for a time and who are all on the same page in terms of expectations and how to accomplish them, can afford to simply ignore the Wealth by Level guidelines, any kind of heterogeneous group risks having an extremely serious problem where players cannot meaningfully contribute to the same encounters.

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As an experienced GM, I generally ignore the wealth by level chart for all purposes except as a quick and convenient guide to equipping custom NPCs.

The documented goal of the Wealth By Level sidebar and table is to tell you what default level of value of gear might keep an average party of the average number of PCs of some average build hitting the default expcted CR/ELs at the standard level of difficulty in an average campaign.

An even slightly careful reading of that previous sentence illustrates the vast number of assumptions required to make it useful. I'm not sure when I've ever had an average group of PCs. I don't always allow every gp to be bought/sold into custom gearing, so sometimes an expensive piece of gear doesn't contribute to "kill factor." I am not a big fan of level setting everything to the "right" CR. As an actual living Dungeon Master, not a computer AI or someone bound by Organized Play rules, there are six or so variables in balancing my campaign that I tune at my discretion to make the game run smoothly. If you're not tuning encounter difficulty to your actual PCs in their specific situation every time based on their builds, their gearing, and many other situational factors, you are probably not doing a great job as a GM. Putting lots of work into making all those factors 'standard' will get you a very generic game and blindly relying on those tables for balance will actually inhibit you from understanding how to balance things yourself based on all the factors in game and not just the couple they've sidebarred for you..

WBL, along with CR/EL, is one of those "let's be helpful and give new DMs some guidance" parts of the DMG that have been misinterpreted as black letter law by too many legalistic gamers. My groups don't pay them any mind except when we want to eyeball the guideline to know how much we're violating it. Worrying about the "default guidance" and other GMing advice the book provides you with is great your first couple times DMing - then after that the world and story should come above the rules. It's picky minutiae to feel constrained by it. Those tables (CR, WBL) didn't exist for many versions of D&D and it all worked out OK. I've never in my last 13 years of active gaming played with a 3e/3.5e/Pathfinder group that bothered with WBL and we're all still alive and have had consistently good games.

WBL Pitfall 1

First, if you feel constrained to follow WBL, you're likely to break simulation to do so. You can see this in the related question about WBL and sandboxes - so if the party goes and kills wild boars, you need to have the right amount of money drop into their laps? In the pirate campaign I run, if the PCs want money they have to go out and do something to get it - the idea that there's a certain entitled amount you just get as you run through the world like a passive spectator removes much of the drive from adventuring. And usually in sandbox campaigns, PCs can run across "inappropriate CRs" easily so the whole concept of slavish balance isn't in scope anyway.

WBL Pitfall 2

Second, and related, it constrains what stories you can tell. Right now I'm a player in a group running through the Jade Regent Adventure Path. We're power players on the path to be the next emperors of fantasy-Japan, and we have access to lots and lots of wealth - last time I checked at level 12 I was carrying something in excess of $150k of stuff. But because of the story, lots of that is "ancestral weapons" you don't just hock at the nearest magic shop, and lots of it is stuff we end up giving away to allies - "You nine ronin helped us? Here's 9 +1 katanas we just got off the bad guys! Go forth and kick ass in our names!" Adherence to WBL would limit the scope of stories available to the game.

People over Process over Tools

Does this require "consensus at the table" beyond what the RAW gives you? Totally. All games require and benefit from consensus at the table on many points. The hard and fast rules about CR, WBL, etc. are mainly useful when you lack a meaningful social contract otherwise (e.g. Organized Play at cons). But I'm not sure why someone would play in a normal home game without that kind of understanding.

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The original quote was about strict adherence. If you're just asking should you use it at all, the answer is yes. It's a good chart that provides very important information about how the game is balanced. I was a player in a game where we got below half those numbers due to the GM wanting a low magic game, and as soon as we hit level 10+ monsters, things got ugly. We wound up doing 1 fight a day because it was taxing us so much.

OTOH, if you're asking if it should be treated as gospel? I'd say no. The chart was created for four core characters. If you suddenly find yourself GMing a party of six with access to the Spell Compendium and a whole whack of more powerful prestige classes than what existed in core, you've got a far more powerful party than what that chart expects. (You've also got more characters to spread the same wealth around, so trying to keep everyone at that number means adding more loot.)

Optimization and player skill also matter here. A party of players with heavily optimized characters is again far more powerful than a party of players who didn't optimize, and more so again if the skill level of the players is different. The chart can't take this stuff into account, but you can.

In a similar vein, a tightly-knit group is going to do a better job of directing their wealth to where it'll do the most good, whereas some other parties go to great lengths to try and ensure everyone has equal wealth, even if it means the Barbarian's weapon is lousy because the Druid wanted some new armor that doesn't work in Wild Shape anyway.

Just a few examples, really. The point is that your job is to provide an appropriate challenge to the party. Controlling wealth is a way to do that, and it's one that requires you to learn how your players are handling what you're throwing at them before you start changing it around. In that vein the chart is a guideline to help you, but you can adjust wealth to suit your game so long as you do it with care.

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