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Stray Thoughts

Money in Games

by Thomas Hume
Nov 14,2002


Money in Games

Time for my two-cents worth.

This column is not a study of currency, or its conversions, or tips on how to call a gold piece a "kroner" to add flavor to your game. This is not a study on global or local economics or how the euro devalues the yen.

The hows and wherefores of money, all those nitty-gritty little details, are best left to those who have the time for it. Most gamemaster s and players are satisfied with talking about gold pieces, dollars and creds. Where most games lose the effectiveness of money is by not using wealth as a plot device or as motivation for PCs, NPCs and villains.

Everyone understands the concept of money ("This represents something of value and is therefore valuable itself") and I would wager we all use it at one time or another. I would further wager (if I were a betting man) that we would all like to have a little bit more.

But in game terms this often falls flat. After all, what is the true difference between me writing that my cyberpunk character has 100 creds versus 1,000 creds? All that really exists is an extra zero on a piece of paper that could hardly be cashed in or used as currency. I could easily decide my character is the wealthiest socialite on the planet, or in the next breath make them destitute. It may change the way I play the game, or it might be altogether ignored, like most peripheral elements of gameplay. Earning and spending money, in game terms, is often handled the same way we would treat a hero using the bathroom; we know they do it, but is that really why we came here to play?

Even so, the role-playing potential in wealth is staggering. You just have to know how to use it.

Money ...

Too often money is used in role playing games as a physical reward for player characters. How many of us tromped out of some dimly lit dungeon with three tons of gold coins filling our imaginary pockets? Early Dungeons & Dragons also allowed player characters to translate gold or the monetary worth of an item into experience. In many cases, a character could attain levels more easily by simply getting a job than by dungeon. Sure, it takes longer, but the risk is pretty minimal. In today's society, for example, most of us would work at the local burger joint rather than rob a liquor store, even though the payoff compared to the time involved is much greater with the heist. Even so, you are a lot less likely to be shot while working at McDonalds. At least, in most cities.

Aside from that, most gamemasters fail to see the true "worth" of money in their games. An over-abundance of in-game wealth often leads to a blas attitude among gamers. Unless they are hoarding those coins for a specific purpose, it is never quite as exciting to say "You receive 100 gold coins" as it is to say "You receive a glowing blue dagger;" even if, in the end, the dagger is worth about as much as a used glow-stick.

On the other hand, money is often used in games as a limiting factor. Don't want your crew to have that super-tank? M ake sure it is well out of their price range.

One of the best examples of money being used improperly actually came from Mayfair's DC Heroes. In first edition, wealth was basically an a representation of a character's buying power and was intended primarily to flesh out the game's rules for building gadgets. Everything in the game worked off Hero Points, which could earned by doing heroic things or completing an adventure successfully. The points could then be spent on improving character stats, buying new powers, or spent in-game to accomplish super feats.

A character's wealth rating represented how much money each Hero Point was worth. Since there was very little "cost" to upping a character's wealth rating, and since it was also a one-time cost, many beginning characters started off with a high wealth rating, allowing them to throw around thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars for only a handful of Hero Points.

The problem in this quickly becomes obvious. So the villain wants to steal a million dollar diamond from a museum, eh? Well, for 20 Hero Points I can give him two million dollars not to and receive over 100 Hero Points for accomplishing the adventure's objective ... all without lifting a finger. Or I can triple how much that villain pays their goons if they turn him or her in, and nobody has to get their teeth kicked in.

Better yet, I offer a 10 million dollar award for my arch-nemesis' capture and get rid of my Arch-Enemy drawback in the process. Just call me Money Man.

... Makes the world go 'round

So lets assume your player characters aren't millionaires, nor do they have access to corporate funds or wealthy relatives (the latter actually being an actual Advantage in the DC game). Wealth can still be used by the characters to purchase equipment, food or lodgings. One of the easiest ways to do this is for the gamemaster to take an allowance from each player during a month of gametime. Kind of like role-playing rent, if the character can't pay they begin to lose items, having had to hock their Holy Sword at the local market to pay the landlord.

If a player doesn't like the idea of having to pay the piper or tries to get a little extra-spending money by fudging their finances, there are always the debt collectors. Never underestimate the power of debt. Truth be told, most dungeon-delvers are just as likely running from some knee-b reaker on the surface as they are risking their lives for wealth below. Debt collectors can be used in nearly any genre, from hassling phone calls, to dagger -wielding guilds, to cybernetic skip-tracers sent to reclaim body parts.

... Equals power

If your heroes have no use for money, I'm sure there is a villain who does. Again, don't underestimate the value of currency to the common man and the lengths most people will go to obtain it.

A prime, and almost cliched, example of the wealthy villain is Lex Luthor of DC Comics fame. Here is a man who, for all intents and purposes, is a normal guy. Though gifted with a brilliant mind, rugged good looks and a shiny head, Lex is ultimately just human. Yet somehow, on an almost daily basis, he goes toe to toe with the most powerful being on the planet. And sometimes, he even wins.

Did I mention he's rich?

Lex us es the power of the dollar to his utmost advantage. With it, he can buy the latest and greatest technology (or have it developed), hire minions with which to beset the Man of Steel, discover (or plant) vital information on both his friends and his enemies, and insinuate himself in the daily lives of almost all the residents of Metropolis, including Superman's.

Money provides resources. Any person who has entered a lawsuit against a major corporation has learned that the more money you have the longer you can last. Wealthy individuals or powerful corporations can fight heroes through attrition. Your wizard managed to defeat a group of my men? No problem, next time I'll send twice as many. Better yet, I'll put a bounty on your head and see how many step up to claim it. I don't have to pay those who fail and they'll likely take a piece of you in the process anyhow. Troublesome heroes getting too organized? Why not purchase the lease to their base? Or better yet, make sure you are the guy they need to purchase equipment and supplies from.

I mention this last part in defense of the heroes: Even villains have limits. Even Lex Luthor understands that a fight can become unprofitable. After the fourth or fifth time the heroes trash your 100 million dollar killer robot, you begin to feel the pinch. Make sure you set some sort of limit for your villain. If it is a major corporation, there is a board of directors they ultimately answer to. Often, it is more economical to take a hit than to hit back. Cases can be settled out of court, fines can be paid and then ignored, operations can be relocated.

... Is the root of all evil

Wealth changes people. It's a fact of life. Living near a resort area I have watched people drop a hundreds of dollars on a pair of jeans without blinking. Meanwhile, I'm scrounging the bargain rack for something under 10 bucks. Not to say those people are evil, but anyone who says they wouldn't quit their job if they won the lottery is deluding themselves.

Also, as I said earlier, people will go to great lengths to achieve what they perceive as wealth. Offer someone a dollar to do you a favor. When they say no, offer them 20. Chances are they will do for 20 what they wouldn't do for one.

People lie for money. People cheat for money. People kill for money. Are they villains? Not necessarily. Does that make them villains? Absolutely.

In my early days of playing Dungeons & Dragons, the thought of looting a fallen foe never bothered me. After all, that was my reward, right? I kill the baddie and take their gold, the n move on to the next baddie. It didn't occur to me until years later that I was effectively robbing a corpse. I was taking from that dead goblin the last possessions he or she would ever have. And what's more, I knew that I would before I ever fought them. My character was killing others to acquire their wealth, often a meager sum.

Money can be used to introduce heroes into moral dilemmas. For example, a group is hired to defend a local lord from a group of assassins. The heroes are paid well, enjoy their host's gracious hospitality and enjoy the good life while acting as bodyguards. During the course of their assignment, the heroes successfully turn away an attack on the lord. But these are not assassins, they are farmers, the lord's own oppressed people. The conspirators are to be put to death, the heroes are to be celebrated, and suddenly they begin to realize they've been working for the wrong side.

If the heroes choose to turn on the lord, they will become infamous among the nobles for breaking their contract and effectively stealing their pay. If they choose to finish the job and move on, they will do so knowing the blood of innocents is on their hands. But they were paid well, right?

Where do you think that money came from?

Likewise, wealth can cause PCs to turn on one another. Divvying treasure can easily lead to a duel if one feels the other got an unfair share. And what is fair to you might not be fair to me. How many thieves have stolen from their own party? How many adventurers have looted their fallen friends?

Make wealth important enough in a game and it will happen.

... Can't buy me love

In the real world, there are things that money cannot buy. Maybe you can own something close, but ultimately, its just not the same thing.

For example, wealth can pur chase you power and influence, but often those in such positions are loathed, either secretly or openly. You can paste your face on billboards around the country, hire musicians to sing songs about how great you are and authors and poets to write about your epic qualities, but if I don't like you to begin with, I am probably just going to dislike you that much more.

Money cannot buy relationships. You can dictate how a person acts, how a person treats you, but just because you pay me to dress like Mom and act like Mom and to call myself your mom ... well, you get the idea.

No matter how much wealth and power Lex Luthor acquires, it still pisses him off that he can't fly.

Few items in life are priceless. If you sell me a priceless statue for a buck, even though it may be worth more, we just put a price on it. If I refuse to take a priceless statue even when you offer to sell it to me for a buck, well then its wo rth even less to me.

By priceless we often mean unique. That statue is simply the only one like it in existence and no matter how many people covet it there will never be more. That is what makes it priceless, another reason that the word "priceless" is often used to describe thoughts, feelings, people and moments.

Wealth and money in any game needs to reflect that there will always be something else out there, some motivation beyond acquisition and greed. That the heroes are heroes probably galls the villains, and if no amount of money in the world can change that ...

... so much the better.

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What do you think?

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