I’m unsatisfied with how things like reciprocal economies are usually handled in RPGs. I've come up with a homebrew mechanic of my own, but it's also far from perfect and I’m trying to improve it.
In RPGs I've seen, gift economies, mutual obligation economies, and reputation economies usually suffer from being overengineered and rule-bloated, while not looking all that different from economies of gold coins or dollars in actual play.
My homebrew is simpler while already delivering that same 'only slightly different than a cash economy' impression that more complex mechanics offer. It works well enough in the two campaigns I’m GMing, but I want to improve it so it feels less like just another kind of market economy.
The two campaigns in question are an Eclipse Phase campaign (where many outer solar system economies are reputation-based) and another campaign in a homebrew setting (where one of the cultures has a reputation-and-mutual-obligation economy, and has recently ended its isolation from the rest of the world that is largely market-based).
My Current Working Solution
- A character may start out as a member either of a market or a reciprocal economy, and the two options are meant to be comparable in terms of utility, albeit each with some pros and cons. Subsequent bullet points will only describe the handling of a participant of a reciprocal economy.
- Even if not bought with money, all goods, favours and services are still evaluated in arbitrary units that can be meaningfully compared to the currencies of the setting. For simplicity, let's call them units of goodwill.
- A starting character in a reciprocal economy can have as much starting equipment and other possessions as a standard character (i.e. if standard character starts with 10,000 credits worth of money and goods, then the one in a reciprocal economy may also start with possessions up to the same value). Any leftover value (which would be in the form of cash for standard characters) is converted to goodwill.
- When the character contributes to the community by needed work, helps out people, gives out gifts etc., the character's goodwill score increases. When the character receives gifts and help from the community, the character's goodwill score decreases. A person working full time for the benefit of the community is expected to have a regular 'income' of goodwill comparable in value to a salary of a similar professional in the market economy, give or take. Conversely, long-term benefits of living in such a community, such as regular access to shelter and food, have an ongoing cost.
- It is expected that throughout time, a person's goodwill score will fluctuate, with many (most?) people going into the negatives and back into positives. This is how reciprocal economies' behaviours are described, but doesn't seem to be how things go in actual play.
- Beyond a reasonable threshold of negative goodwill, a person starts attaining a reputation for laziness, wastefulness etc., which gradually reduces the likelihood of receiving gifts and help, especially those not essential to survival. I never put a hard number (and thankfully didn't need one so far) on what the thresholds should be, but am thinking that it should be somewhere between 1 and 10 times the typical value of a monthly 'income' (with the latter happening to almost perfectly map to the starting funds of a character in GURPS, and in some cases in Eclipse Phase).
- Similarly, I'm thinking going beyond some value in the positive goodwill should (a) hit diminishing returns for accumulating an actual goodwill 'stockpile' and (b) result in opportunities to temporarily increase status in a way reminiscent of the big men. I likewise don't know at what point the diminishing returns and status opportunities should kick in. (Though once I get a cutoff point, at least I'll be able to easily plug the results into GURPS' status-and-cost table or Eclipse Phase's lifestyle cost table.)
- The inconvenience of goodwill not being as easily convertible into other currencies during travel is considered roughly counterbalanced by the ability to go into negatives more easily and with less pressure, and by the greater ease of borrowing stuff owned by the community if it's only needed temporarily if it's within one's goodwill limits. Admittedly, I don't have a solid enough basis for handling availability of items in a semi-collective ownership, and would like to fill this gap sooner or later (but it probably deserves a separate question here or thread elsewhere).
- There is an assumption that for communities larger than the monkeysphere, some aids will be used to keep track of all the goodwill values. In Eclipse Phase this is handled by reputation network software; in the other campaign, there are mentat-like individuals who serve a similar function (and are disinclined to abuse their position).
Current Flaws and Desired Improvements
I found my solution workable enough for actual play so far (and, in my opinion, better than Eclipse Phase's native system's solution for reputation networks), but I understand perfectly well that this is an extremely flawed way of modelling such economies and I'd like to fix that. These are the things that I found unsatisfactory about this model:
- The thing looks very much like a slightly reskinned cashless market economy (because that's really what it is at this point under the bonnet). I'm not sure how to fix that without making the framework significantly harder to understand.
- It doesn't really do anything to emphasise the ongoing relationship of the exchanges: currently, membership in a community's economy feels very binary, either one has a 'goodwill account' or one doesn't, and there's nothing to encourage a constant flow of gifts and favours in both directions. I've been thinking of making goodwill 'decay' with time, but I'm worried that would be a downside with no meaningful upside for the character.
- While the PCs from reciprocal economies tell others that they're more personal than 'warm' than the economies operating on hard cold cash, this is currently a tell-not-show thing, an Informed Attribute. I'd like to find a way to make the framework show the more personal touch in actual play in some way, not merely have it be told by its proponents.
- It's likely that I might be approaching the whole thing wrong in my attempt to keep it playable.
Some final notes on what I'm after that don't really fit elsewhere:
- I'm not trying to emulate any specific example of historical reciprocal economies, as the cultures using such economies in the campaigns I GM (and most likely in worlds I may build in the future) are purely fictional, and the cultural context is sufficiently divorced/different from, say, modern or historical American or Oceanic examples.
- I'm open both to fixes and improvements to the framework I brewed on my own, and to radical frame challenges that would propose changing much more than I mentioned above.
- I'm very much trying to keep the framework system-neutral and 'pluggable' into various systems.
- I'm trying to keep the reciprocal economies neither better nor worse, just different, as a character option. This eliminates the need to consider how much the dis/advantage of being a member of an alternative economy should cost in a given system, and also avoids the awkward topic of superiority of this or that culture over the other one.
How can my framework's flaws be fixed or mitigated and improvements achieved?