Capitalism in the Heroic Sword and Sorcery World

For those of you keeping score this post is a non-Conan topic though it is exploring facts I plan on incorporating into the Hyborian Age.

I have a HUGE problem with buying magic items in a fantasy game. I’m specifically speaking in d20 / Pathfinder rules.

Now let me start off by saying that I completely understand that in d20 a character’s ability to combat a threat is partially related to the magic items she has at her disposal. Technically speaking it doesn’t really matter all that much what equipment said character has but in the unlikely event the party Wizard winds up with a suit of full plate mail +2 he should have the opportunity to exchange it for something he can really use. Personally I think this problem can be combated by careful placement of treasure but players like customization as well. As I’ve said in previous posts players LOVE hundreds upon hundreds of options. In a future post I will discuss min/maxing and how it’s actually pointless in the d20 system but back to the matter at hand.

So picture this: A weary party emerges from an ancient crypt newly burdened with treasures from ancient times. They wander, still tired from their adventures to the nearest town; a Thorp called Duggersten. The population, twenty or so humans, mostly farmers, watch the outsiders with suspicion as the daily affairs of their simple, rural life come to a momentary halt. Are these newcomers friend or foe? The party, skipping the small ale house, walk instead to the tiny town’s magic emporium. Laying down their gold the shopkeep, a wizened old man that sells potions of all kinds kindly greets his new friends and the sale commences.

Does anyone else see a problem with this? According to the Pathfinder Rulebook when a party reaches a town there is a 75% chance that any magic item of a certain gp or less can be found there. Lets take a mathematical look at Duggersten to see what this really means.

Duggersten, Settlement, Thorp, Population 20 adult humans, 1 full-time guard (at most), 1 militia member, gp value 50, 1-4 additional minor magic items.

So this means that our weary adventurers can expect a 75% chance that any magic item of 50 gp or less is available here. With such a small gp total that should severely limit our choices, right? Well by my count there are over 100 zero and 1st level spells in the core rulebook alone. That means Duggersten, a Thorp of 20 people, has access to over 75 potions, 75 scrolls, potentially the feather token: anchor and Universal Solvent, and 1-4 minor magic items that range in value as high as 34,000 gp each (a greater slick, greater shadowed full plate mail +2 for example).

When we add this up the tiny town of Duggersten has access to at least 7,500 gp but up to as much as 41,600 gp (possibly more) …





Again I understand that the party should have access to options but you have to admit that this is freaking ridiculous.

This opens up another question; What does the party know? Are they completely aware that in EVERY town they can expect to find almost anything they want? If the answer is yes then we have a few dilemmas to deal with.

Dilemma #1) If the players know then it’s not a secret. If it’s not a secret then everybody knows. From the lowliest commoner to the great villain attempting to subjugate the world under his iron boot. Why isn’t every thorp immediately burned to the ground by the Villain’s minions and their magic emporium ransacked to fuel his evil plot? I’m sure his Orc general could use the magic plate mail.

Dilemma #2) Where do they get those wonderful toys? Really. Where did they come from? Does Duggersten make them? That would mean that it has enough Arcane and Divine Spellcasters with access to 75% of the spells in the core rulebook and enough time and resources to churn out scrolls on a regular schedule (75 scrolls will take 1875 gp and 144 man hours) and enough 3rd level Arcane AND 3rd level Divine spell casters (neither of which EVER make a 2nd level potion or scroll) to craft the 75 potions (an additional 1875 gp and 144 man hours). This would take quite a few members of the community working pretty much around the clock to meet the demand. Duggersten, apparently, is a veritable Magical Sweatshop.

Dilemma #3) If the town can make these items apparently they think they can sell them. If they sell them they can profit. If they profit they can sell more and grow larger allowing them to make more expensive items to sell for higher prices to grow even larger etc. Every thorp would soon be a metropolis and poverty would be a thing of the past. If they make them but can’t sell them then they’ve invested thousands of gp in goods that earn them nothing. Something supposedly poor farmers can’t afford to do.

Dilemma #4) If the town doesn’t make the items then maybe they are traded for with caravans. But where are the caravans getting the items and how the hell does Duggersten have 32,000 gp just lying around ready to buy 150+ items?

Dilemma # 5) Maybe they belong to a local retired adventurer. Well what level is he and why does he only have a shit-ton of potions and scrolls available? Did he retire because his DM was a jerk when handing out magic items?

Dilemma #6) If the town is not ransacked it could be because it is defended by a larger city. But troops need food and equipment. The thorp no doubt pays its taxes (no idea how with all of their resources tied up in magic items) but they don’t have a permanent detachment stationed there 24/7. As you recall there is only 1 full-time guard and 1 militia member available. Hardly enough to fend off an orc raid. Why wouldn’t the defending city commandeer the magic items in the name of protecting the thorp and the surrounding countryside? Duggersten would have nothing to offer visiting adventurers.

Dilemma #7) Well couldn’t the lonely town guard use the magic items to protect the town? Sure he could but what possible reason would Duggersten’s lone guard sell his 34,000 gp armor and leave himself defenseless? Maybe he wants to hire guards to help him defend the town. For 3 sp / day he can hire 31 guards for 10 years. Well then the town’s population would swell to 50 people and the military presence would outweigh the general populace. Keep in mind the guards don’t actually produce anything but the few local shops would increase their sales by double. The town would once again grow quickly but only by exhausting their magic item supplies which means only the first lucky party gets the magic.

Dilemma #8) Why don’t the players just take what they want? Well they’re the good guys. If you’re running an evil game then look out. Duggersten won’t last long.

Dilemma #9) Why would adventurers continue to adventure? They could retire after a few levels and make a fortune just selling their gear to other adventurers and restocking from the super-rich caravans.

Ok. Let’s stop here. We need a solution. The Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide includes a “gp purchase limit” but this doesn’t limit the number of items available it limits how much free coin the town has to give. But this opens up another problem: Duggersten has over 41,000 gp in magic items but they only have 5000 sp (since commoners only actually get paid 1 sp a day) and the town would become bankrupt the first time an adventuring party sold something but didn’t buy anything. The town wouldn’t actually be able to pay its commoners for their work so they wouldn’t be able to go to shops in the town so the shops would go out of business so the people would gather up their hundreds of items and move to other bigger towns so Duggersten would cease to exist.

My fix is thus: The gp limit from the Gamemastery Guide also represents the gp total value of all items in the town. So ignore the extra items completely. In this case Duggersten (and any other thorp just like it) has a 75% chance to have any 10 potions or scrolls of 50 gp or less while the metropolis protecting the tiny thorp has access to a maximum of 100,000 gp of magic items for sale.

Another issue arises though; How fast does Duggersten restock its supply of potions? If we were talking about Target or Wal-Mart it would be a day or 2 tops but this is not the modern world we’re talking about. We could go the direction of how long it take to make an item. So it would take Duggersten (assuming it has access to an appropriately leveled spellcaster) 10 days to remake its 10 potions. Maybe that means that every town “regenerates” 10% of its missing gp value each day. Now for those of you that like to keep records like that have at it. Personally it’s too much work for me. I think this can be just as easy as items change and restock as you, the DM, decide they do. But beware! If Duggersten’s stock of potions and scrolls change from a day-to-day basis then there shouldn’t be a limit at all since the party only has to camp out until (75% chance each day) it has all the potions it wants which makes my entire post irrelevant.

This option limits the player’s ability to exchange equipment quickly but they can still hire someone to make something. Besides I think the DM should learn his player’s tastes and try to place treasure with that in mind.

I think I’ll do a post on magic item placement soon.

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13 Responses to Capitalism in the Heroic Sword and Sorcery World

  1. wolvercote66 November 13, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    This is why I NEVER allow the purchase of magic items in towns. Crafting in cities is possible but it’s costly and takes time. Excellent article!

  2. Alex November 14, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    I would argue that “town”, by definition, does not include hamlets, villages, collections of farmsteads, etc. and rather refers to any sort of true metropolitan area. Not having read or played Pathfinder, I could be totally wrong… This is one of those things where it’s really up to the DM to use common sense. While it may not be feasible to track the personal net worth of every NPC in your game, a DM ought to have an idea of the average ‘on hand’ cash of any given person that their players will be interacting with in a commercial fashion. Very well to-do traders, bankers, nobles and retired heroes will be about the only people in the world with the means to buy anything but the most mundane items. Even if you converted all of the gold prices in the items tables to silver and all of the silver to copper (which gives a lot more realistic prices for mundane items), only the truly wealthy and towns with MANY wealthy individuals would have the economic capacity to absorb the purchase and sales of magical novelty items. Easiest cure is to significantly reduce magic bloat by not tossing in a lot of standard magic items into a game world.

  3. Brianna Heine November 18, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    The reason magic items are available in towns ensures that the party has the equipment it needs to survive. D20 is based on the players always winning so they should have access to what they need. The point of my post is to show that the rule is unnecessarily cumbersome and that there are easier fixes (I listed 2) than giving every town access to hundreds of magic items.

    Common sense, at least from a real world perspective, is kind of ridiculous. It’s a fantasy world. So much of the game is based around no common sense… unless you actually believe in magic.

    • Alex November 18, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      I’d argue that common sense is not ridiculous. There’s a difference between suspension of disbelief in interacting and roleplaying in an imaginary world where a +3 sword could exist. Common sense is where the people engaging in said roleplay can agree that no one out of two dozen people living in hovels could scrape together the capital to make such an absurd purchase, nor would they just happen to have such items available for sale.

      • John Carr November 18, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

        I’d have to agree with the “common sense” argument to an extent, though I’d also suggest that this is really about the inherent flaw of trying to codify a fantastic economy in such a way (though perhaps ACKS does it a bit better).

        Let’s not forget that we’re already applying quite a bit of fantastic license by supposing that anything but the largest towns and cities is able to support a currency-based economy in any way whatsoever. Unless, of course, your game world has very powerful central governments more along the lines of the Roman Empire … and even then PCs should probably have a difficulty time using coins in the remote areas most adventuring would occur.

        Edit: To be more clear, by “common sense,” I’d be referring to “what is consistent with the fiction?” Does this feel like pulp/high/dark/whatever fantasy it is we’re playing?

        • Alex November 19, 2013 at 9:20 am #

          The most common position floated about, for purposes of ‘realism’ is implementing a silver economy. Converting everything price-wise to silver gives you more realistic historical prices of mundane things. Part of the problem with RPGs is the conversion of silver to gold at a 10:1 ratio, whereas historically it has usually been at a 17:1 ration. Combine this with the forced use of coinage as not only a measure of wealth in system but as a measure of weight, we’re forced into the assumption that all coins weigh equally as much.

          But anyway, the silver penny was the fairly standard currency for the common person, no one really like the gold penny, merchants used larger denomination silver coinage to facilitate trade, and the truly wealthy used gold because silver was the metal of the common man. Peasant farmers and artisans weren’t going to have any gold and likely wouldn’t be able to do much with it if they did. So, implementing a silver standard in game can do something to alleviate the basic problems presented by the fantasy economy.

      • Brianna Heine November 19, 2013 at 7:38 am #

        Well if we’re defining common sense in this way then I think that’s entirely the point of my post. If a commoner busts his butt working 16-hour days (I doubt there are labor laws) so he can earn 1 sp, just enough to feed himself, (gods only knows how he feeds his kids) then where the heck did he get that +2 suit of plate mail?

        I do think that all the magic in the town is the personal property of the old, retired adventurer, the town adept, or the mayor (or whatever passes as government in the town). Every NPC has something. I just think the values presented in the rulebook are completely out of whack on all levels.

        • Alex November 19, 2013 at 9:13 am #

          Ah, yeah, in that case I agree with you entirely. I don’t know if you’ve read Campaign Mastery’s post on what Mike calls the “Longsword Economy”, but he not only tackles this in depth, he actually dives into a lot of raw data, statistics and economic modelling based on the implied economics of 3e.

  4. Brianna Heine November 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your blog this morning. I plan on tackling Campaign Mastery’s post soon. Thanks for linking back here.

    I only referenced silver because, in 3.5, that’s the salary for an unskilled laborer and the cost of eating in 1 day. Your basic 1st level adventurer lives like a king comparatively.

    • Alex November 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm #



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