The Riches of World-Building: Spending Party Treasure

A 5E GM expressed frustration to me over the limited ways in which players can spend their loot:

The only issue with treasure as plot devices, and I already see it within the game. There isn’t anything to buy with the gold and riches you reward. In 5E, magic isn’t supposed to be bought and sold like common goods and what else really is there?

This is a valid point. Not all systems are shopping mall games. Take Mythras or Mutant Year Zero, for example. Survival is your reward, and you’ll like it!

When I played Twilight 2000 one time, the whole table erupted into cheers at the end of a session when we found our first functional bullet. Never mind the massive, Planet of the Apes nuke we stumbled upon. That bullet was worth more to us.

The first thing I’d do is drop an economy into your game. And for magic items and special equipment, especially. Your game system might not have rules for this, but we really don’t need any. It’s all world building.

Examples From My Campaign

For example, here’s what I’m brewing in Basilica:

The Bale Ghoul Bazaar. An underworld market run by monsters where H.P. Lovecraft meets the Dark Web.

Tithes & Taxes. The Baron needs his cut to help rebuild the land and pay soldiers and mercenaries to defend it from neighbouring warlords. And the Pope also needs funds. It’s the fall of Rome meets The Warlord Era.

The Tinker and Caravans. I’ve got some itinerant merchants and trade caravans either in play or coming down the pipe who find, buy, and sell cool trinkets, unusual items, and special crafting ingredients. It’s Antiques Road Show meets Marco Polo.

How to Make This Work

One key to homebrewing this stuff is to ask Why? Why does it exist? Why do the NPCs do this? And, most importantly, why would the player characters care about these institutions?

That last question is critical to deep world-building. If we can connect the world to the PCs and get players to care, then things like tithes and taxes won’t feel like a burden. Nay, players will want to donate, believe it or not. Such is the power of building connection to your world that players can lean into and want to support.

AD&D did this very well. Character races and classes were part of your setting’s institutions. For example, at level 9, fighter lords could establish a freehold by building a castle and clearing the land in a radius of twenty to fifty miles. The player could then attract a cohort of men-at-arms lead by an above average fighter. The PC must pay for castle construction and for his followers. He or she could also collect seven silver coins for every sentient inhabitant of the area through trade, tariffs, and taxes

There’s so much going on there… A cycle of setting => adventuring => setting. Players engaging in world building. New NPCs entering the campaign who matter to the player. And, especially, the economy. At level one, it’s taxes and more damn taxes. At level 9, the character becomes The Man.

And, of course, everything you and the player build together stays on-theme for your world and oozes flavour, plot hooks, and character goals. That’s a type of pure gold you won’t spend and is much more valuable than mere coins!

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