4E Economy!

May 14, 2008

WOTC’s preview on 4E reward economy also is making me smile.

Historically, D&D has always had a big magic item problem.

In order to understand this, you have to realize that magic items represent special powers or buffs, which a) can be instantly gained or transferred amongst the party, b) survive beyond the death of any individual character, c) often break the limited use power economy. (You see similiar issues crop up in older MMO’s, especially around item economy)

So, in way old D&D, you could get a +5 Holy Avenger sword at 3rd level, if you just happened to roll lucky on the treasure tables. The only “restriction” was the idea that the DM would throw out any crazy results (which, then, you wonder why you’re rolling in the first place, especially since each character had a vastly limited number of weapons which would work well for them given weapon proficiency rules…).

But a larger problem is how it looks over long term play. Since characters could die off, the thing was that magic items could simply be transferred back and forth over time. Basically, after a certain point, a party is more measured in power based on their magic item collection than their actual abilities.

The fact that a spellcaster could cast usually a handful of spells a day, could pick up an item that gives them 32 charges of (oh, healing, or fireball) basically spikes out their uses of that spell. Encounters that would have been impossible become pushovers. Depending on the item, you stop needing to ever memorize a certain spell.

But then, people ask, why does randomized reward work in Rogue-like videogames or Diablo? Well, in both cases, you realize there isn’t a DM sitting down to prep each encounter- a computer is generating the challenges – it doesn’t care if you actually get a challenge or blow through it. You also don’t have to coordinate to get 4 or more people together to sit and play for 4 hours to play these games. You simply save the videogame when you need a break and come back to it later.

In other words, tabletop rpgs have to be more efficient than videogames just to justify the amount of effort going into them.

Then we have to look at how randomized reward works – you keep playing because you’re hoping on getting items that combo well with your character build and the other items you already have. D&D would futz this up by also adding in the option to both make magic items AND buy them. If the challenge is getting things to combine well, giving people the option to buy or make things makes it really easy to break the point of randomization. It’s much like the same reason CCGs sell random packs and not specific cards.

There’s also the fact that gold is the universal resource in D&D. You might have to adventure for years before rolling lucky and getting your +5 Holy Avenger. You won’t have to adventure nearly as long to get enough gold to buy it- in fact, you might just stay home and have the wizard make potions or cast spells for money until you can buy one.

With all these broken economies about magic items, it’s no surprise that over 30 years one of the biggest problems has been how to deal with “overpowered parties with super magic items”… And nearly all the advice has revolved around some form of DM fiat to steal/destroy the items along with remonitions that DM’s should have known better than to introduce the items in the first place.

Of course, did you know you could kill the Tarrasque in a few short rounds with a giant growth spell and a bag of Devouring?

Probably not.

I still think we’re going to come across some overpowered item combos in the 4E, though I think it’s going to be a lot less nasty, and a lot less common than previous editions, especially since the philosophy appears to be looking at powers in terms of use economy and “damage” instead of insta-death effects.



  1. I recently ran a D&D game for players I wasn’t familiar with, and it got me thinking of how to streamline D&D 3.5 a bit (something I think about a lot). One solution I came up with was to give characters a Renown score equal to their level, and then to have them spend that Renown to get magic items they can use. The Renown sort of represents their heroic status. Heroes often have to quest and take risks to prove that they are worthy of magical treasures from the depths of time, and this seems more satisfying to me than shopping in the DMG.

    I’ve always been bothered by the D&D economy in all of its incarnations (where I can sell a +1 longsword and then hire 1,000 manual laborers for two weeks or buy thousands of pounds of food or whatever), and I’ve always thought that magic items should be mythological rather than economic realities.

    Anyway, the post is here:


    I just mention it because this post brought it to mind as one solution among others. Feel free to let me know what you think on the other stuff as well.

  2. The new ideas look more balanced, certainly, but somehow less organic, which really is a pity.

    D&D 4th will certainly be a focused design, just not focused on where I’d like it to be.

  3. I think we’re about to enter a fascinating time for D&D over the next 5 years. And not just 4E- also 3.75 via Paizo, all the retro-hack games, and OGL games. D&D is splintering and people are making the D&D they want, but no longer in this isolated houserule/”His DM’ing style is great” kind of way.

    Without folks trying to toe the line of compatibility to the D20 line, they have room to veer further into experimental design to make the version of D&D they want.

    The best part that 4E brings to this is the attitude -towards- design, which means even if 4E isn’t folks cup of tea, they can take that attitude and apply it towards the D&D game they DO want to see.

  4. One can hope that the new situation will inspire an era of homebrewing like none before, for D&D and other games.

    I’m not quite certain I like to actually play very focused games, but they do make for excellent idea mines.

  5. I’ve been finding the reactions to 4E really interesting. For example, Red Box D&D was an even more focused design, yet I find few people complaining about that.

    I think really, what’s bugging people is seeing the design theory behind the game. Like, if WOTC released it without telling the why’s and how’s of design, people probably wouldn’t be freaking as much- they’d play the game a bit and then decide if it’s for them or not.

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