Economics in Games

Here is my newest post.  I haven’t written anything in a long time, because I have a new job and no free time.

Economics in RPGs is very different from economics in board games. This post will analyze economics in RPGs and Board games, compare the results, and then use the resulting conclusions to make business in RPGs as enjoyable as it is in board games. This will make it easier to make a fun RPG about being a space merchant, explorer in search of trade routes, or prospector.

Spending Money in RPGs

In RPGs money is spent on acquiring better or new equipment. Generally speaking, gear either improves existing abilities or enables novel abilities. For the most part, there is not much overlap over how the players spend their money: wizards want scrolls, fighters want weapons. Where there is overlap (such as a fighers and ranger both wanting a better weapon) it is common for more than one of the desired gear to be available.

Spending Resources in Trade Based RPGs

In trade based RPGs, resources are spent to acquire victory points. An important feature of game play is that usually the way of winning victory points is also useful for acquiring more resources. For example, in Settlers of Catan points are earned by building settlements and cities (which acquire more resources directly), roads (which are a requirement for new settlements), and buying development cards (the most common development card can be used to steal resources). There is competition for the best ways to spend resources. In Settlers of Catan there are only a few good locations to place settlements and there is a finite number of development cards that are worth bonus victory points.

Resources in RPGs

The obvious resource in RPGs is gold or money. It is normally acquired by doing missions or going on quests. They can also be acquired by looting defeated enemies, use of skills (such as bartering for better deals), or even having a job. In some games, players have the option of spending experience points in a variety of ways. Experience, unlike gold, cannot normally be traded, stolen, or pooled together. Experience is usually acquired in the same way as acquiring money, but is also sometimes awarded for making the game more enjoyable with things like humour, character development, or bringing snacks. In some games health (usually maximum HP; not temporary HP) can be spent to obtain certain benefits. This is often representative of some kind of “deal with the devil” scenario. Note that money is the only resource that can be traded.

Resources in economic Board Games

There are almost always multiple resources that can be acquired in an economic board game. This makes some resources more valuable or less valuable at a given time. In games where the players trade with one another (like settlers), this facilitates trade. In games with more competitive markets, the players interact indirectly by driving up prices, like in Power Grid. Acquiring the resources is not normally a major part of play; interacting with other players is often important. Settlers has a single dice roll to get resources, but frequent bartering between players. Power Grid has a simple resource market, but the player needs to anticipate other players purchasing habits in order to drive up prices for their opponents (and protect themselves from similar shenanigans).


Key Differences:


Economic Board Games

Gear is not scarce; there is always enough to buy

Valuable things to buy are scarce; there is competition to buy them.

Money spent is lost

Spend resources to make more resources

Usually only one resource: money

Multiple resources.

Acquiring the resource takes a lot of game time

Acquiring the resource does not take a lot of game time

Conclusions about Play

In RPGs money is spent between the bulk of play is going on quests that earn money. In economic board games acquiring the resources occur with minimal investment of time or effort, and play is mostly about how to use the resources. Changing the emphasis in play from getting money to spending money is necessary to make more economically focused RPGs.

Spending resources to get more resources is a reward system to encourage more spending. As such, this particular component is probably not desirable as it will end up detracting from going on adventures. If RPG adventure is integrated into spending, however, this is completely overcome.

Conclusions about Game Structure

Having a single resource to spend and no scarcity when it comes to things to buy supports play that doesn’t focus on economics. In an economics game, however, complexity can emerge from balancing multiple resources and only having a few things to buy.

Changes to RPGs

  1. Have a 4 trade-able resources in game.

  2. Provide “goal gear:” items that can be purchased that are obviously superior, desirable to multiple players, and limited in number.

  3. Allow players to trade their 4 resources.

  4. Make sure that acquiring, trading, and spending the resources all occurs while role-playing (preferably during quests).


The Merchant League

This is a fantasy game where the players are explorers working for a league of merchants. It is for Pathfinder. The four resources are Gold, Crafts, Herbs, and Trophies. Crafts is a general term for finished goods. Herbs is intended to represent spices, medicine, and various magical reagents that can be harvested from plants. Trophies are anything that is harvested from monsters.

Goal gear will be selected from the various items that introduce novel powers instead of numerical increases. This mostly limits the list to rings, rods, and wondrous items. An exception will be made for items that are actually desirable to every character class, like a ring of deflection, but these items are few and far between. Goal gear will always be at least two levels higher than the PCs current level.

As the PCs explore, they find amazing crafts-people. These people will say they can make a particular goal item for a PC if a particular collection of stuff is brought to them.

The cost of these items will be half the normal price (like if a PC was making it themselves), plus a particular combination of crafts, herbs, and trophies. It will always be at least two of each resource, plus one additional resource.

Players could trade gold for other resources amongst each other at any time. Trophies are acquired exclusively by hunting monsters, and will often require the largest investment of game time to acquire. To decide which player gets the trophie, they bid on it using only gold. As such, I imagine that much of the trading will occur after players defeat a monster.

Players may acquire herbs themselves if they have appropriate skills, like survival and herbalism, and are in an appropriate environment. They can also acquire crafts and gold with appropriate skills.

This game will result in players exploring for three mechanical reasons: find new goal gear opportunities, finding new resources, or because a different player is paying them. These first two options are, in narrative terms, part of making new trade routes and finding new markets.

Players may also interfere with other players, by using spells or skills to sabotage the amazing craftsperson’s work, or making the amazing craftsperson dislike the other PCs. Such underhanded, dirty play is limited more by the players’ cunning than anything else. This ought to be encouraged, as an important part of economic games is the tension from racing for something scarce. This allows people to feel, fear, and play into this tension.

Hometown Heroes

The players are prominent members of a small community. It doesn’t really matter what kind of setting it is, but lets say it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. The players are going to ensure the town can defend itself, grow, prosper, and maybe even someday beginning moving towards a “higher” goal than survival. Examples would include art, culture, science, humanitarianism, etc.

There are four resources, and they are deliberately vague: supplies, labour, knowledge, and influence. Influence is a limiting factor on the success of the community. Without sufficient influence, the community will splinter into disparate factions as it grows larger. Influence cannot be traded. Depending on personal preferences for a campaign, influence could be traded out for something like ecology, in which case it represents the carrying capacity of the post-apocalyptic biosphere. Other alternatives are oil wells (for a mad-max like world) and medicine (for a flu-pocalypse setting).

The “goal gear” is a reward that accompanies a permanent improvement to the town. Examples would include building a wall, a new well, a mill, a machine shop, etc. These always cost some influence to get built. It will normally be a unique piece of cool technology from before the apocalypse, but in other settings it could be state of the art technology, a superior and highly customized device, or magical equipment.

As PCs build more pemanent improvements to the town, the town starts becoming more self sufficient. This provides every PC with a certain amount of supplies, labour, and knowledge every turn. The person with the highest influence gets an extra share. The total amount of resources earned per turn cannot exceed the total influence held by the entire party. The resources produced will need to make sense for the improvement created. A wall might increase labour, because now less people spend their time on patrol. A farm increases supplies. A public forum increases knowledge. PCs would be encouraged to come up with their own ideas: a PC who is a preacher may wish to suggest some very different improvements than an electrician would.

When the PCs go on missions they’ll have many options about how to acquire more resources. Rescuing a bunch of survivors and bringing them back to town will give the PCs more labour (because they owe the PCs a favour). Finding a cache of canned food will increase their supplies. Books and skilled or educated survivors increase the knowledge available to the party. All of the PCs gain equal resources; it is their choices about spending their resources that will make for meaningful differences between the PCs.

Any resource cost when creating a permanent improvement could potentially be met by a PC with the appropriate skills. In such a way, a carpenter could use their skills to reduce the cost of a wall, and a physicist could use their extensive education to reduce the knowledge cost of a library. Skills are not used to acquire more resources, however. Only to reduce costs. This is to put more of an emphasis on adventuring and spending, reducing the emphasis on town life.

Influence is acquired by helping people in town, succesfully coercing them, or by being in a position of power over people. In this way, one player can have influence by doing favours, one player can have influence by being a scary bully, and one player might be a landlord with tenants who are concerned they might lose their home. Players can interfere with each others influence, and even steal it away, in ways that will seem reasonable and acceptable in character. For example, if the nice PC helps an impoverished tenant pay their rent, the landlord might lose influence while the nice PC gains it. This creates some out of character competition but limits in-character competition. This will be beneficial for some groups and not beneficial for others.

The entire party gains influence whenever they complete a mission for their community. This is the impetus to pursue the main plot and do normal RPG things like hunt raiders.


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