#RPGaDay 2014: Day Four – Economics in Games

20140804_232252The list selection for #RPGaDay today is ‘Most recent RPG purchase’ but I haven’t had much of a chance to read many of the RPGs I’ve bought recently (and ‘recently’ was also quite a long time ago!). I decided, therefore, to choose a game I acquired very recently but was given by friends for my birthday, ‘Goblin Markets’, a supplement for Changeling: the Lost that I dearly love. This brings me round to one of my favourite subjects in gaming: economics! OK, I don’t actually know much about real-world economics, a hole in my knowledge I’m slowly trying to patch up, but game economics fascinate me because they take the principles of real-world economics and create models for their use in a living environment. It’s literally playing at economics, like a much more complicated version of those checkout toys kids get. I have been thinking on economics in games a lot, and I have come up with a few thoughts. 1) Tipping currency. In my opinion, game economy functions best when it has a tipping currency. Look at Empire, where a ring is practically nothing to most, but a lot to some. It can be used as a tip without causing much cost to those who can afford to tip, but a tip jar can significantly increase the fortunes of those who do not have much money or are new to the game. It produces a culture where it’s worthwhile becoming a lackey or doing simple jobs in the hope of a tip or for a small payment. Hooray for the wheels of commerce. In my opinion, games that attempt to have a currency often fail in this respect, because the currency doesn’t divide small enough. Look at Vampire: the Requiem: trivial boons should be a tipping currency, but because they are too large they aren’t given out (plus three can be upgraded to a minor boon, which is actually a bit of effort, in the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules). This leads me on to my next point… 2) Shinies. Currency may by its nature be abstract and hold an arbitrary value based on what people are willing to pay for things, but it should not be too abstracted. Humans really like objects and shiny things, and as Terry Pratchett noted in Making Money, people will always favour having their money in a sock under a bed than in a bank, no matter how much you talk about compound interest. One of the problems with the boon culture in Requiem, clever as it might be in theory, is that it requires book keeping or it didn’t happen. You can somewhat solve this by having an NPC keep the books, but I’ve been in enough games where boons mysteriously vanished between the sofa when Harpies changed or when the STs didn’t leave notes for the next lot that the integrity of the boon economy is seriously lacking, which means it doesn’t function as an economy. Give people physical things to play with, to hoard, to spend, to earn, beg or steal. The exception to this, in my opinion, is in Changeling: the Lost, because it’s much more difficult to represent the items you can barter at market, which is why the dots system expanded in Goblin Markets is pretty good. That makes sense because Changeling exists on a barter economy more than it does on currency – the things Changelings exchange have value in and of themselves, at which point you don’t need a physical representation of them. Provide physical objects for currency, even cheap plastic tokens, and watch the players invest (literally) in your economy.


The fairy market from the film ‘Stardust’

3) Trade. Of course, people need something to do with that currency and ways to earn it. It’s important to have a fairly fleshed-out idea of the various markets and commodities available, so when your players go to the market or to an NPC and ask about buying or selling, you know what you’re doing. Empire (I love how their economics work) theoretically provided a system that attached no inherent value to the currency beyond its relationship to other denominations of the currency (rings -> crowns -> thrones), confident that the players would set the currency’s value as soon as they got on the field by using it. However, there is a certain degree of guidance in the setting (which some mistake for a statement of value) by the fact that, assuming all character resources (which provide things you come in with at the start of each event) are equal, you can get a fairly clear idea of how much every resource is worth in money and therefore what that money equates to in practical terms. One of the important things to come out of this, of course, is the concept that even if the value of things is theoretically set by players, the games masters must have a standard by which to judge value. It can be a secret standard, but as soon as the player sells a dagger to an NPC for one gold, they will mentally value a dagger at one gold selling value, probably higher buying value. If you then spend the next several sessions letting them sell daggers for two gold apiece, they will assume they got shafted first time around (though you can have reasons for things to vary in value from place to place – you should just know that they’re going to do so). It’s worth working out a system for value in the planning stages to create the impression of a functional economy, even if that economy is vaguely ridiculous. As an aside, several people have pointed out that one gold for a loaf of bread compared to the rareness of one gold coin means most fantasy settings don’t work economically. 4) Neutral currency. OK, this is a specific thing for Requiem, but it could apply to other games where there are societal implications for using certain kinds of currency. An important note here: any currency based on slaves is probably not a good idea, and you definitely want to think hard about that one. It has really unfortunate implications. My main example, however, is in Vampire: the Requiem. Boons are the closest there is to a neutral currency in that game, a currency with minimal strings attached. Sure, you might get killed for having too many boons over the wrong people, but you might get killed for having too much money or taking it from the wrong person. Blood, the other major currency in Requiem, doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because a currency needs to be transferable. To transfer blood in Requiem, without some specific rules that aren’t going to apply to every character, means blood bonds and maybe blood addiction. Fun! This is cool from a roleplaying perspective, but a sustainable economy does not make. If your currency means that people who trade in it will be addicted to each other, trade is probably going to slow to a crawl. That’s fine if the game’s focus isn’t trade, but if you want an economy, make the currency transferable. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be able to use your currency for things beyond buying stuff (Echo Bazaar did this very well, making it a choice of priorities, and using some of the currencies for recreation was addictive) or that it should be free from consequences (souls) but make it eminently transferable. 5) Starting currency or minimum-effort currency. This specifically relates to live games, as in tabletop, the players are usually earning currency or barter as part of their adventures, whereas this is much less common in live games. I have a controversial opinion, but I think that the first rung on the ladder to actually having money as a character should start with minimal effort. At Empire, all you need to do is show up – everyone has starting money. Without it, the economy would be much more limited. In Vampire, one of the advantages of the boons system is that you always have something to bet – though the value of that bet will be much less valuable if you’re new to the game or a social bottom-feeder. In Lost, the lowest barter currency is ‘0 dots’ (as it works on a scale of 1-5 dots, with guidelines as to what equals each dot). However, what you can sell and buy at 0 dots is extremely limited unless you’re willing to start selling permanent things like memories or emotions, or unless you have token-crafting skills. Essentially, I believe that for an economy to thrive in a game, a character should be able to get the equivalent of 1 dot’s worth of trade goods for just putting in a little time, effort, or if you like, glamour. Gew-gaws theoretically already exist for this, but even so, anything above 0 dots takes quite a lot of time and effort to gain. The way I personally wish to run Lost is to have a glamour/a downtime action producing 1 dot of ephemera (or some other word that isn’t taken up elsewhere in World of Darkness) that is flavoured according to the character’s whims. This is just a little bit of shaped Wyrd that contains a certain value simply because it has been shaped by a Changeling. It doesn’t actually do anything, but serves as a relatively neutral currency that can be exchanged for 1 dot of items, used as a tipping currency or added to a deal to sweeten it. No trader will accept more than 1 dot of ephemera, so you can’t put together a load of ephemera to make five dot’s worth, and it doesn’t last long unless you sustain it, so you can’t hold onto to more than 1 dot. This can easily be flavoured for other settings: you spend a day and make some rolls and find some scrap in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (or some bottle caps), or you harvest some herbs or animal parts from a nearby forest in a fantasy game. Not so much for modern world settings. In a setting with a variety of currencies, give them a random selection. Or just give them some starting cash – as long as they have something to play with. It stimulates economy and makes up for the fact that it’d be really boring to have a character go to work all day and earn a monthly wage.


Mmmmm, delicious book

6) Variety. This a super personal one for me, but I love shiny things. I especially love piles of shiny things. I’m essentially a rogue. Periodically I get our various coins, crafting materials, herbs and potions out from our Empire bags and put them in a big pile and count them. I care very little about real-world money, as long as I have enough to live on, but give me clinky coins and pretty materials and interesting magic items and I become a complete magpie (hence my username). I was in a brilliant but sadly short-lived live game based on the Echo Bazaar browser game and one of the things I loved was that we had the currencies and advantages from the game. I was planning on making phys-reps for the various currencies where I could just so I could carry round a big bag and sometimes count them. I had a friend when we were in the Shackled City Adventure path (it has such long loot lists) who used to make spreadsheets of the loot we acquired so we could split it up, and that was super fun. Obviously, some settings are better for this than others: Requiem wouldn’t really suit. But if you can and it works with the setting, add a bit of variety into the objects and loot given out to players, if only for the rogues like me in the party. Link: The Empire larp release notes regarding their decisions on economy (among other things).