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I've seen so many attempts to justify this or that crazy thing in various fantasy RPG economies, but they don't tend to hold water as far as I've seen. I realize that suspension of disbelief is technically an option here, but my brain clenches up when I notice a lot of the most obvious problems.

For example, in Moldvay/Cook D&D (and Labyrinth Lord), a light footman mercenary earns 1-3 gp per month. That's enough to buy a backpack, if you save up for two months. Let's say that these are all extremely durable artisanal adventuring backpacks. The soldier can instead spend nothing for a month but 2gp for a sack. That 3 gp per month can't buy a week's rations. Presumably in Mystara, garlic is extremely rare: it goes for 5gp a clove.

These kinds of implausibilities abound in all the fantasy equipment lists I've seen. I think there are ways to justify some of them. The explanation I remember reading in some ancient D&D books in my youth related to massive inflation because of adventurers hauling unending gold from ubiquitous dungeons. If that's the case, though, wages should still make sense.

The 1E PHB happily includes some kinds of daily expenses, like 1 sp for a simple meal and 5 cp for a pint of small beer. A footman still earns only 1-2 gp, though, which makes it seem entirely untenable.

It seems like a coherent price list and wage list would be a great start to making a more plausible economy. (If I were making this online, I'd also include a slider to simulate recent booms due to dungeon hauls.) Has anyone produced a game or game supplement in which the economics of the fantasy world have been addressed with attention to detail without growing cumbersome and insane? I assume that most fantasy games' economic systems could be ported to one another.

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A related question suggested Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue and A Magical Society: A Silk Road. –  rjbs Jun 8 '11 at 20:57
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IIRC, it was stated in oD&D that the economy and prices reflected a state of hyperinflation and scarcity due to adventurers introducing so much gold into the economy and buying up supplies, many not produced locally. Basically, the presence of adventurers disrupted the local economy. –  Jo-Herman Haugholt Jun 9 '11 at 8:35
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Are you talking about economics for individuals or for large organizations like cities, guilds, or kingdoms? Are you interested in a crunchy, detail-oriented economic game like Debits & Depreciations or are you looking for something more abstract? –  gomad Jun 11 '11 at 19:04
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There's a reason that armies were often given looting rights. That footman making 1-2gp wages wasn't banking on the wages paying their way… –  SevenSidedDie May 6 '12 at 20:54
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Remember also that 1-2 silver for a meal is the equivalent of 'going out to eat'. You could probably also play a silver for a sack of potatoes and there's your meals for a week. Also, footmen also aren't just given wages for their service. Their room and board is taken care of in addition to their wages. –  Wolfman Joe yesterday
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7 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

There are a few games with reasonable economics: Runequest (2nd or 3rd ed, not the Mongoose versions) and Pendragon (all editions). Fantasy Wargaming, for all its derision as a game, has decent econ research. Later versions of Chivlary & Sorcery also do reasonably well at it. Several supplements for Hero System also have decent price lists.

There are several using abstracted resources: HeroQuest, Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, d6 Fantasy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch.

The problems with reasonable economics:

  1. Barter
  2. Unrecognizable units
  3. Localization
  4. Lack of data
  5. Playability

Barter:
until the 1700's, 90% of an economy was in simple barter; that peasant wouldn't take your coin of gold because he would be called a thief for simply having it. He might be able to handle a denarii or two, or the local copper...

Unrecognizable Units: Groats, florins, farthings?
People complained so much about the old "LSD Money" that the UK did away with it. And it had more than just pounds, shillings, and pence, but we know it for those three. (The English denarius, inherited from Rome via the French denier, became the penny by devalation, and the abbreviation for pence is "d"...) Farthings, ha'pennies, florins, crowns and halfcrowns,sovereigns (20-22 shillings), Guinea, groats... and gold coin measured by weight and converted to silver at going rates!

Simply put, the variety in England alone was so diverse that it needs a score sheet, and most coin was copper, silver or gold. It can be shown, however, that the peasants seldom used coins until the industrial revolution.

Localization:
Each economy had a different set of valuations. A billy goat might be worth 5 chickens in one community, and 20 in another... depending on how well the goats and chickens do in those areas. Not to mention each king keeping different standards of measure.

Lack of Data:
while there is a wide amount of mercantile data surviving, it's not a uniform mix, and it's mostly bulk trade data. Finding out how much a particular item cost in a given year is a matter of approximation in most cases. We do have some surviving 1st person accounts in letters, and more in court records, but very few are consistent lists of goods, let alone entire systems. And where we do have lists, they often are the same base items at different relative valuations. So most of the extant gaming resources are derived from these same few extraordinary source lists, which were usually written about at the time for having been abnormal in the first place, hence the court cases.

Playability:
Playability requires some simplifications. The biggest ones are universal measures, universal coin sizes, and unified price lists. With only those, for the sake of GM sanity, one can readily research historical prices, and come up with a workable system.

Which is exactly what Greg Stafford did. He did this for both Pendragon and Runequest. Likewise, he examined historical documents for knights' manors and fees... and the disturbing thing is that the divide between rich and poor is low.

Adding magic can and should alter things, but, fundamentally, we can't know exactly how much. For example, in Tunnels and Trolls, a wizard can comfortably retire and break whole guilds with one spell: Slush Yuck. He can, for a short period, turn stone to slush, and it can be put in molds, and when the spell ends, custom cut stone. Which means, long term, custom stone homes being unreasonably cheap... successful peasants kind of cheap. And mountains with whole communities cut in by a single wizard for the fun of it.

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re: the magic bit, sure but that doesn't affect the economy, it just means that the peasant's villages will be stone rather than wood. Of course, it still costs a lot to transport the slush to where you want it, that's manual labour and the weight will still be the same as stone. So maybe it's not so cheap after all. Anyway, its just an aesthetic rather than financial aspect - until you want a castle made and then the fee is simply what the wizard will charge you (and remember he's not stupid, so it'll be roughly what it'd cost you anyway :) ) –  gbjbaanb Mar 31 '12 at 14:23
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@gbjbaanb: sorry, but wrong. In D&D3.x, Rolemaster, WFRP, and several other games, magic is stated to effect the economy. Any technology can and will affect the economy; in most FRPG's, magic is a technology. And if you don't think so, there's no point in belaboring it further, as you've rejected one of the fundamental axioms of economics. –  aramis Mar 31 '12 at 21:51
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@aramis - all your points are excellent, and we have multiple historical examples of economies. Example: China had invented paper money and uniform coinage several times before Europe stumbled upon it. –  SteveED May 6 '12 at 17:10
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Consider the fact that there is no DungeonMart to go purchase supplies from. There are no autolooms to help weave fabric. No cotton gin to quickly process cotton into fluff. The process of crafting items was time consuming and labor intensive. Only the wealthy had any sort of real wardrobe. If an adventurer needed a back pack they would most likely need to place an order with a leatherworker and come back in a few weeks for it. The pack would be made durably and in normal use last for a lifetime. Indeed a common hired hand is likely to pass such a treasure on to his heir (assuming you do not treat them like a no name red shirt on star trek and loot their body when they get killed). If you find one for sale in a shop it is probably well used, and stinks of its former owner.

Second a hired hand is not going to stuff their back pack to the brim with your loot. (at least not unless it is a gift to them). You will be expected to provide the container for transport, generally a chest or trunk. The adventurer is also expected to provide rations for the hands as well as cover any lodging costs (though most hands are willing to sleep in a loft or common room).

Perhaps instead of treating every hamlet like there are quickie marts and sams clubs in the town square treat them like they would be. If adventurers need something make them place an order. Few villages are going to want adventurers hanging around for more than a night because they will tend to cause problems. The tiny villages are not likely to have a leatherworker or other skilled artisans. Most of the village will probably be simple farmers. They will gladly point you to a nearby town with such an artisan. As pointed out in other answers most villages are not in need nor do they desire the influx of gold your adventuring party will bring. It will upset the balance of their community that has likely settled into a level of comfort that makes them happy.

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"a hired hand is not going to stuff their back pack to the brim with your loot" - not if they still want to be able to move! Get a mule. –  gbjbaanb Mar 31 '12 at 14:35
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I actually like HeroQuest's (the roleplaying game not the board game) method of economy better. You don't keep track of coins at all, rather you have an attribute that is your purchasing power. The more things you purchase in one sitting the greater the penalty to further purchases. Incidentals, like a drink and meal at a tavern, well below the purchasing power of the character should just be automatic successes without incurring future penalities in the sitting. Buying everyone in a tavern drinks would likely require a roll. Buy supplies for a journey could be lumped into one roll rather than seperate rolls.

It could just be me but I never really enjoyed book keeping the coins carried vs stored (and where they were stored) and the more than one character sheet wound up with eraser holes where coinage was recorded. Actually the eraser hole problem was significant enough for me that I just always used a seperate piece of paper. And in my opinion doing the math on coin changes slows a game down too much.

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I ran a space pirates game that more or less used purchasing power, and when it worked, I liked it. I want to run a very old-school feeling D&D game, though, which means some accounting for nonsensical amounts of gold -- but nonetheless I get bugged by small economic details. Anyway, thanks, I will look at the HQ rules for this! –  rjbs Jun 8 '11 at 21:01
    
There are a number of other games with purchasing power abstracted similarly - it's an option in d6 Fantasy, it's standard in Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard, and in the space-fantasy Rogue Trader RPG. –  aramis Jan 3 '12 at 10:14
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hehe, see this for the perfect example of purchasing power: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Million_Pound_Note of course this still doesn't mean you can afford to buy anything. –  gbjbaanb Mar 31 '12 at 14:30
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I like trying to get realism in my worlds and that includes economies.

The best gaming source for this is HarnManor which, though nominally for Harn, has no real ties to that system - it's a toolkit with examples for generating a real fief/village/manor and its economy. I've used it in many a campaign. Chivalry & Sorcery is also a good source.

I think you may not necessarily find these fix some of your issue, which is an incomplete understanding of the untenability of those wages in a medieval type economy however - on the average, people didn't make enough to buy all the backpacks and rations they wanted. Common laborers lived in squalor and common soldiers barely got by in the hopes of booty from a battle. 1 sp/day is a historical payment for an unskilled laborer. A farmer family might gross 50-100 gp per family member per year and only come away with 10% of that as profit.

Most people had to make what they wanted - families did their own sewing, you raise/make your own food. Buying "a week's rations" from someone was like saying "I'm going to eat out at an expensive restaurant every meal of every day" - not feasible for the lower classes.

Non-gaming sources are also relevant, try Joseph & Frances Gies' "Life in a Medieval Village," esp. Chapter 5, "The Villagers: How They Lived."

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+1 for the world of Hârn! –  SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '11 at 21:48
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I don't know where you're 'historical' data is coming from, but no farmer in the middle ages grossed 50-100 gold pieces(!) per year, let alone per family member. I actually did some research into medievel England economy: One hide cultivated with grain by 4 families (~20 people) would yield roughly (order of magnitude!) 160 shillings or 8 pounds a year (estimated worth of the grain not used as food or seed). And this does not account for animal fodder (oxen, horses), wages of seasonal workers, spoilage, etc. –  fgysin Feb 27 '13 at 22:30
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That's just a D&D example based on how the OP is likely to calculate revenue. Although I might note that "gross" means "before all deductions" including food and seed - so 50-100 gp gross at 10% turns into 5-10 gp net which is right around the 8 pounds you're citing... –  mxyzplk Feb 28 '13 at 2:05
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Fief and Town

There are two great system-agnostic sources for you to check out.

Almost all fantasy is based on Medieval Europe, and that's what these books are about. From the publisher's site:

Fief: A Look at Medieval Society from its Lower Rungs is a sourcebook that examines the Middle Ages from the viewpoint of the ordinary farmer, priest, and landholder – the inhabitants of a feudal manor. It's one of Cumberland's best-selling and most acclaimed titles.

Town: A City-Dweller's Look at 13th to 15th Century Europe is the all-new companion volume: a self-contained sourcebook examining medieval life from the perspective of the guild and merchant-house, through the lives of craftsmen, traders, students, thieves and mercenaries – dwellers in medieval europe's cities and towns

You said you wanted a sane list of prices and wages. Well, here's the first bullet point listed:

Lists of historical wages and prices for things from common beasts to the construction of houses, from the price of swords to the cost to hire mercenaries.

The site's owner, S. John Ross, is also responsible for the awesome (and free!) Medieval Demographics Made Easy which will help you build sane regions and towns in this world of yours.

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I'm not sure about Medieval Europe, a lot is based on Anglo-Saxon europe, though establish econonies weren't quite so organised back then. –  gbjbaanb Mar 31 '12 at 14:33
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GURPS Fantasy

I know, it gets boring. Somebody asks, "Is there a good book about blank?" Then, inevitably, someone chimes in with "Yes! GURPS blank is awesome!"

Sorry to bore you, but GURPS Fantasy, like practically all GURPS books, is a font of solid information for any game. How many game books will help you figure out what it cost to maintain your status, for instance?

There's a decent job listing covering beggars, mercenaries, courtiers and artisans. There's an equipment price list that's not huge, but will allow you to infer the prices of a wide variety of other items (don't forget that the core GURPS rules already cover costs and benefits of several levels of equipment quality).

It's a great place to get some founding assumptions - including some options on how much gold and silver are worth! Is a dragon's hoard a roomful of golden coins, or a sackful?

I would still recommend Fief and Town, but when you want sanity and "realism", you can't go far wrong by starting with GURPS - no matter what system you want to run.

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I've never seen a total "drop-in" system. And I don't like turning role playing into a bean counter experience. However, no PC has an endless supply of munitions, and sometimes scarcity and lack of supplies can make an otherwise easy challenge more difficult. I built a simple "availability" matrix for my particular world where most things fit into 1-3 categories of cost - pocket/chump change (dont track usually), impactful (something a a few days wages for a laborer), and significant (must be tracked carefully). Then I have an availability matrix of 7 ranges representing over-stock to unique items. The cost, time to get and chance to have in stock all vary based on this availability matrix. I can fit any item into this using relative base prices and multipliers for availability.

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