Strange Currencies: Cashing in with 5e

Picture a party of dishevelled, down at heel and down on their luck adventurers, sitting around a tavern table, pushing their last coppers into a pile. They need a stoke of fortune, they need a patron, a paying one.

That’s a classic opening scene for so many scenarios in my head, and on the pages of many a module too. Yet, if that party does take the job, it’s a scene that never gets played out again. D&D makes it appear that money is important, but to be honest, the adventures on offer make the accumulation of coin almost trivial. If you don’t walk out of your first dungeon with bulging sacks of gold, you’ve done something wrong, or more likely something fatal to yourself.

But I like the idea of necessity providing impetus for great adventure. In real life you need money to live, and more money to live comfortably. If you look at an adventurer as some kind of freelancer, then perhaps the single biggest challenge in their lives would be where the next rent payment is coming from rather than the chance of swigging from a cursed potion bottle in some crusty tomb. It’s the same for all the other essentials (usually cured by the application of cold hard cash) such as food, drink, companionship and shelter.

The way D&D works tends to mean that none of these things are the slightest concern within about ten minutes of playing. Magic helps, with prayers and spells that create light, food and water for you. Later, it evens provides arcane accommodation at fairly short notice. The monsters leave loads of gold laying about in their lairs, when before that point your adventurer wannabe had been dreaming of a handful of silver at the best of possible results. All that hard choice of picking just the right equipment with your starting funds swiftly becomes a nonsense. Unless you’re looking for Items with a Capital Magic rather than plain old ordinary items, the cost has suddenly become trivial. A single gem in a treasure haul, and you’ve doubled your life’s earnings to date.

I think that’s a shame. Reading through the new editions equipment chapter has reignited my first readings of D&D back in the late 70s, that notion that I might have to spend my resources very carefully indeed, because my PC might only have one chance to make it in the game. Kit was very much it’s own reward back then. Given the rules, or lack of specifics anyway, a clever player would defeat a dungeon with a ten foot pole (obviously), a small steel mirror, some chalk and a single caltrop. It may well be that everyone hand waved encumbrance and torches etc by I at least was careful to note my possessions, just in case we encountered a problem that could only be solved by string and a pocket knife. Exploration was more important than combat for me, and I loved using my character sheet for possessions more than powers.

As I look through fifth edition, and read it closely, I think I might see frugality returning. The starting cash is a random roll (not actually a huge fan of that but anyway…) and it’s not a huge sum of money at all. Check out the starting packages of equipment available, they offer savings of no more than the occasional copper and silver over buying stuff individually. Incidentally, if you take the kit from the background, you won’t be able to afford ANY of the package deals. And then there’s all the implications brought up by the amount of text space given to things like goods and services, living standards, trade items, and the absolute admonition that magic items are not readily bought and sold. The closer for me? the reward offered by the patron in the Starter Sets adventure, 10gp per person.

I wonder if this isn’t deliberate? There was some murmurings of moving to a silver standard in the playtest at one point. I can see why they didn’t, but I think there may have been some quantative easing going on at the bank of D&D. And I like that. I don’t want to turn my games into Accountancy exercises, but I’ve no issue with asking for a little resource management purely as a catalyst for adventures. What better motivation that filthy lucre? Blackmail, arrears, wills, extortion, charity, legacy, all grist to the mill of cool stories.

When was the last time your PC had to save up for something like plate mail?and by save up, I mean take a risk? I’d like to run a game where money matters, where it’s always slipping away, and always with an eye on the main chance for getting your hands on more. Not forever of course, eventually a campaign needs more motivation that hand to mouth, but for more than a single session please!

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