Retail Therapy: RPG shopping for beginners
It is a fact of life that when my gaming group gather to adventure, the issue of gold and the ability to buy items will rear its head. It is true that one of the easiest jobs for me as DM is to spread out the large ‘Town Centre Map’ and set the PC’s to purchasing goods for an upcoming campaign or adventure.
Over the years, my technique for arranging shopping trips has altered quite dramatically. In the early days, I would rely on the ‘Adventure’s Gear’ section in the Players' Manual or DM guide, and get the players to interact with me for the purchase of whatever they wanted, using the printed cost as the absolute price of the item. That, together with being a little too generous with treasure and gold finds, led to the PC’s fast becoming a little ‘OP’ (over powered) to use a gaming phrase. After a while I had to constantly re-jig the strength and hit points for every NPC as the fights were getting too easy for the players. Actually, I had to design an encounter with a particularly acquisitive Dragon in order to relieve the PC’s of their excess wealth! This had to change. And so I began to limit what was available to buy for the PC’s, by area, by cost, and by power.
Firstly area. It seemed obvious that not every town or village would have access to all the available items in the game. We live in the Far North of New Zealand, and although the countryside is spectacular and beautiful, it really needs at least a three hour drive to Auckland to get the more unusual items to buy. Our local township simply does not stock everything we might need. So it is in the fantasy World you have created, and PC’s should be aware that certain rare or hard-hitting items might only be available in the major city centres, and even then they may well have to be ordered! This ordering of items is a great way to add a bit of realism to the process, and it gives the PC’s something else to look forward to when they return to the city later in the campaign. Also consider “Made-To-Measure” armour! If your huge Barbarian fighter is after a breastplate, it is understandable that the shop might not have one to fit…so get one made, at a premium of course :-)
The price of items is another area where the DM should keep a tight rein. The PC’s will start a campaign with a limited amount of money, and although they will gain money and goods as they play, it is far better to give the players a simple greatsword as treasure than overload them with gold and gems. A tip I have found is to make sure that you give the aforementioned sword a cool name…’The Biting Blade of Fear’ or something. The stat on the simple sword does not HAVE to be strength or damage based, a +plus one to speed for one encounter, during which time the sword glows blue (thank you Tolkien) makes the item seem cool for the PC, but without overbalancing the game. Think of the item stats on MMORPG weapons and armour for some great ideas. When the PC’s come to spend their hard earned cash, how about
having a ‘Pretty Woman’ style shopkeeper, who looks down on the PC’s and refuses to discuss the purchase of certain exotic goods? A fun role play encounter is set up!
The final limit I place on items is power. Never give too much power to the PC’s too early. It is better for them to feel that they have worked hard for all they get, and the owning of an Axe or an Orb is so much sweeter when it has been a while in the getting. Add the +1 to any new item you hand out by all means, but as I said earlier, think about mixing the boons up a bit. Make them related to outside influences…a sword that hits +1 against spiders, or a mace that glows with the extra power, but only at night! This way you can be sure that the encounters you design will be interesting, taxing but enjoyable.
Freya adds: With regard to the Dragon encounter the DM mentions—this was really interesting from a people-watching point of view. It made me laugh, made one of the younger players angry that he had lost some of his new items, and caused one of the other players to roleplay a great scene where she hid some of her weapons in the cave and refused to tell the Dragon where they were so she could go back later and retrieve them!
As a fantasy writer, the economy of a make-believe world can be a difficult element to come up with. The easiest way to create a currency—if writing in a European-medieval-style world—is to base it on an actual economy, as the coins of the day sound fantastical anyway (think shilling, florin, farthing, penny, noble, mark, doubloon, guinea etc.) A lot of Heartwood (my epic fantasy) is based on Latin/Roman names, and therefore I could have used denarius, sestertius etc.
As the DM says, with an economy you have to consider means of travel and access via the landscape you have created. Difficult to access areas or those far from the coast will probably have less exotic goods for sale than ports. Some areas will produce different goods to others—not every land has pastoral and arable land, and some arable land will produce different crops to others.
It’s extremely difficult to create a whole world from scratch. Giving every animal a new name, deciding what crops are called and where they grow, is very challenging. Plus many of us are steeped in the medieval world through lessons at school and movies set in the period. If you say a character is walking past grazing ponies, we are likely to think of moors. Sheep graze on high hills and fields, cattle in meadows (very broadly speaking.) Ducks on a pond immediately bring a village to life. Meat from cattle and pigs gets taken to market in return for wool from the sheep, fish from the coast, ore and gems from mines. So if you’re struggling to create a completely new economy, perhaps begin by basing it on a vaguely medieval-style one, and that way you will already have an edge of authenticity to convince your reader and draw him or her into your new world.