Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Sure Beats Working For A Living

A few weeks back I was discussing Treasure, Wealth, and Money in RPGs with my Sunday evening gaming group when the topic took a turn toward in game economics. 

Hmm. Perhaps that's not an accurate name for subject I want to discuss but it is how I think of it. What I really mean is the bookkeeping elements of certain RPGs that relate to the game world or universe's economy.

  • Busting Ghosts, getting paid, and putting take-out Chinese on the table in Ghostbusters.
  • Docking fees, repairs, and paying off that galactic gangster you owe in Star Wars.
  • Hiring Hirelings for Hire and I assume paying them in Dungeons and Dragons.
  • Things like fuel, upkeep, and payments on a starship in Traveller.

These are just some examples of what I'm talking about but hopefully enough for you to get the idea. The settings of many RPGs revolve around the making of money just like real life does. [Remember this as it will come into play later on]. Making money in this context is very different from seeking Treasure. At least it is in my mind. 

As opposed to Treasure being the one time motivation and reward for completing an adventure, Money is the ongoing ancillary element that allows the adventure to happen and to continue. Without Treasure, a Fantasy Adventurer goes on an adventure to find Treasure. Without Money, a business is out of business and the 'adventure' is over. 

Now the big question that this brought to my mind was...is this fun? Is a game where you struggle to make sure your company stays afloat or you have enough fuel to keep your ship running something people enjoy? 

Responses were mixed. 

My friend Keith summed up the overall consensus that, "Worrying about how much money I have and whether or not I can pay the bills is what I do in real life. Making that money and balancing my books is work. I am not here to do work. I'm here to have fun."

Sure, I get that. Far be for me, as Anti-Math as they come, to advocate economics as an enjoyable pastime but...well...I have on more than one occasion run and played in games where this dynamic was present to a greater or lesser extent and had a blast. Funny enough, it hasn't always involved 'real math' but rather an abstraction of money management that sets a tone and atmosphere more than anything else. 

The best example of this in my own experience is Ghostbusters, specifically my Ghostbusters/InSpectres hybrid. There you have a pool of dice or rather a set of pools called, 'Franchise Dice'. In my version, there are three pools that make up a Ghostbusters Franchise:

  • Information - Resources in the form of physical or digital writing or access to it. 
  • Equipment - Resources in the form of physical device and gear on hand or accessible. 
  • Capital - Resources in the form of liquid assets - Cash or funds that are easily accessible. 

An example of Information would be a small library at the team headquarters that includes Spates Catalog and Tobin's Spirit Guide. An example of Equipment would be a pair of Hand-Held Fire Extinguishers or a Geiger Counter. An example of Capital would be a Bank Account that enables you to write a check to pay a fine from the EPA. 

PCs in my Ghostbusters/InSpectres mash-up get Experience Points towards improving their skills but they can also pool their points to improve one of the three Franchise Dice categories. The catch is, in order to improve any of the Franchise Dice the team must have been paid for their services and have a positive amount of money after paying for any fines or damages they caused.

In the end I am not saying monetary resource management is objectively fun, though I am sure some gamers out there do. What I am saying is that for me, some resource management and the trappings of 'needed to pay the bills' can be an interesting part of an RPG campaign; one oft overlooked aspect of 'Survival Skill' in modern to future settings. If you focus on the results more than the math itself, it adds a distinct level of immersion that makes certain genres and settings feel more real. 

Barking Alien


  1. I don't mind some bookkeeping when I play, I will just avoid overdoing it (no filling my tax form). It will depend on the game and the setting.
    When playing a Trader campaign of Traveller, I expect to have a lot of bookkeeping (buy low, sell high and keep an eye on opportunities).
    Playing a Gundam-like Mekton campaign, I expect to overlook greatly the cash issue (not relevent for the setting/trope). But playing a Cowboy Bebop-like campaign, it will be another story (I know I will start poor and end poor).
    Playing a Mercenary campaign in Battletech, well repairs will cost a lot, so you need to choose wisely your battles (risks vs gains, will I be able to cover for the repairs and to leave the planet).
    For your Ghostbuster/Spectres mash-up, I would not allow to use 'normal' experience to raise the Franchise Dice, I would rather have a second set of Exp Points that represent cash inflow. And it could be reduced by colateral damage (break the Ming vase and the customer won't pay you as much, unless you are very persuasive. Exemple the first job in Ghostbuster "If you don't want to pay, we'll just release it").
    For D&D, you can have 'Loot Points' that can be used to buy items or services.
    IIRC in The One Ring, you have a standard of living that tells how easily you can get something and loot point that can be used for big spending and to raise your standard of living.

    1. The point of the Experience-to-Franchise Dice system for my Ghostbusters game is you are spending Experience Points (Game Mechanics) only after you earn a profit (In-game Narrative). You can't do the former if the latter criteria isn't met.

    2. Heh, technically I wrote that in the wrong order. You need to have made the money in the narrative before you can spend the XP.

  2. I will say that one of the best times I have had "book keeping" was in the Pathfinder game where the party is involved in building a kingdom. Do you build a dock to increase your trade revenue this month, or do you pay to start training a town militia?

  3. I think what's being described here (with regard to Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Traveller, etc.) is more akin to the torches/oil/arrows/rations resource management activities in D&D. Versions of D&D from the current owners of the IP tend to gloss over this, or provide easy work-arounds to ignore it pretty much from the get-go. Even the older editions allowed easy magical work-arounds once your PCs have earned a few levels or lucked out finding the right magic items.

    This kind of resource management adds a good kind of tension to the game. As Alqualonde pointed out, it's an extra layer of worry beyond the monsters/aliens/giant robots.

    1. I feel like the difference here is that the Ghostbusters rules (and by extension I as GM) aren't trying to nickel and dime you the way some games do.

      Running low on supplies is dramatic but counting each arrow you shoot or foot of rope you've used feels tedious.

      I've seen a number of systems over the years where you don't count every bullet but instead make a 'Resource Roll' after a botched action or key moment. If the roll fails you're running low on ammo or the like.

    2. As I said, all depends on the kind of campaign you are running. You can manage thing by 'item' and not by length. For exemple using 'standard' ropes (all the same size, cost & weight), thus you can tell the players "Climbing down that well will use 2 ropes").
      In an Epic campaign where the caracters are larger than life heroes, you will probably gloss over a few (or a lot of) things (ammo, supplies). Beside they will often have the magic for that.
      In a 'Ruin Explorer' campaign, managing your supplies can be a large part of the game (do we explore a little longer or do we go back to base camp).
      In D&D, some classes having limited powers (wizard, cleric, etc.), you already have to manage your magical ressources (can we fight another time with my remaining spells or do we rest?). IIRC this has changed in the 4th edition (all classes having powers with limited charges), this feels more like a MMORPG.
      In a current campaign, the characters are knights traveling in the Kingfom of France (12th century), we don't manage supplies like food and lodging.
      I intend to test the new Twilight 2000, I guess that food & foraging will become issues for the characters. Same for ammunitions (do I keep my M16 since I only have one clip left, or do I take my enemy's AK47 with its 5 full clips?).
      Beside it can be fun to find a solution to the lack of some items. It's like solving a riddle.