Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Streamlining Play: rules for Wealth & Currency (studying *A Land of Ice and Blades*)

I recently promised/threatened to polish off my mini-series on streamlining RPG processes by addressing streamlined mechanics for WEALTH and for DOMAIN PLAY (where you run an estate, manage a realm, etc.). Well, here we go [EDIT - this ended up with plenty to say on wealth, so I'll put most of the Domain discussion in a later post, but this will serve as a necessary introduction to that stuff]. 

This will be far from comprehensive, but I want to highlight some ideas I’ve run into that could be useful in a variety of contexts. Although I’ll add a bunch of commentary, everything flows from this point:

Go download A Land of Ice and Blades. No, seriously; it’s free (affiliate link, as are the ones below) - and while this is not a game that I am eager to play in its totality, it has certain aspects that have got me all excited to implement them in my own games, whether I’m running PbtA stuff or an OSR game. Let me explain. 

Vincent Baker kicked off the whole Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game movement with his landmark game Apocalypse World. He later thought about making a game called Apocalypse World: Dark Age set in, well, the ‘Dark Ages,’ but he ultimately didn’t finish that project (you can, however, find Apocalypse World: Fallen Empires, which is a fantasy rendition of the AW system). Instead, Baker apparently gave his blessing to the fan project A Land of Ice and Blades, which built on the early chassis of AW: Dark Age and then turned it into its own standalone PbtA game. It has a number of features that don’t really appeal to me, including the expectation hard-coded into the game that the GM chair will rotate among the players, who share narrative authority over the in-game world. 

What it does offer, though, is a really cool, streamlined way to handle wealth and domain play. 


I have a love-hate relationship with tracking wealth found or “earned” in RPG campaigns. Most of of the time it’s kind of irrelevant (unless your players are zealously tracking gold-for-xp). My current campaign doesn’t use that advancement model, and to be honest, my players and I have completely lost track of how much wealth they’ve collected. In our most recent session, a PC opened a treasure chest in a goblinoid shaman’s bedchamber. “You find a stack of silver bars,” I told the player, and his eyes and voice lit up: “REALLY!” But…did we ever quantify it? Nope. Never came up. 

I suppose one could run an entire campaign this way, just hand-waving it all, but there are still those rare (to me) moments when having enough cash on hand is fiercely interesting. Can I level up? Can I pay this bribe to ransom Lord Mufflesbury, or is Lord M’s player rolling up a new character? If I throw a huge banquet for the Androbobulan Ambassador, will I have enough left over to equip my warhorse with gleaming dragon scale armor? Or - well, whatever it is that suddenly excites that prospective customer at the table (personally, I find routine gear shopping kind of boring in play). So I want a way to have wealth still matter when it matters, but I don’t really want to have to track pennies every time the players loot another room in the dungeon. 

Some games address this desire by going full-on abstract. The domain system in An Echo, Resounding, for example, has domains generate (and use up) “Wealth” as an abstract resource that is explicitly distinct from the quantified coin-counts the heroes are hauling out of dungeons (there is a way to get $$$ from the dungeon to the domain, but it’s a little awkward in those otherwise fine rules, I think). Apocalypse World - say, its Fallen Empires hack - uses an abstract “Keep” to handle wealth and upkeep: 

“At the beginning of every session, spend 1, 2, or 3 keep for your lifestyle (plus 0, 1, or 2 more for your mount’s hunger, if you have one).” Spending 1 keep means you lead a normal, not particularly nice lifestyle; 2 marks you out at the upper end of your local community’s social ladder; 3 reveals you as a 1-percenter who enjoys a world of kingly or queenly luxury (oh, and spending 0 keep means “you are starving, in rags, desperate, dying of hunger, thirst, and exposure” unless someone bails you out.

Now, this solves some problems: it is pretty easy to track, but it means the economic game still has real teeth. On the other hand, I don’t like the way that making all wealth fit into one abstract resource - “keep” totally flattens the range of resource inequality. I mean, if you pay 2 keep, and 1 or 2 to keep your august battle-mount fed, you’ve apparently just fed so much wealth to your mount in a month that it would have made the difference between a rich burgher’s life and a king’s. Nuh-uh. If 1 keep is just 1 keep, and if players aren’t going to be tracking 150 keep at a time (in which case, just switch back to tracking cp, sp, and gp anyway), then this is TOO abstract for my tastes. 

Ok, now here’s where Land of Ice and Blades improves things:

Wealth is measured in Coppers, Silvers, and Golds. … If you get paid for service, the price will depend on who hired you: usually you get coppers from villagers, silver from notables and notables (or from an entire village), gold from royals or high nobles. You cannot exchange coppers for silvers, or silvers for gold, but if you have silvers you have and don’t bother to count coppers, and if you have gold you have and don’t bother to count silvers, unless you really jump into crazy expenses for that season. When you pay more than what’s asked from you, you get better stuff, or friendship, a kind disposition, you buy their silence, you get a few words of advice, and some rumors are told, and so on. … When passing the season, you are supposed to pay for the coming season in advance. … You pay for yourself, and for other characters and/or Notable NPCs that you wish to sustain. … Regardless of your wealth and of your ranking, you live according to what you spend. If you’re a small noble and declare you spend a copper, you save your silver, sure, and everybody around you starts rumoring that something is wrong…” 

What are Coppers, Silvers, and Golds worth? Well, for example, in these rules (meant to evoke an early medieval society), “one copper is the price of basic weapons” while “a full war-set (sword, spear and bow, shield and armor) sells for three silvers” - a war-horse might cost 5 silvers or more, even 1 gold for a truly magnificent creature. One gold also “buys full war-set for a gang, and two golds war-horses for a gan, if you can find who sells that many.” 

Why am I so enamored with this approach? 

First, it’s pretty abstract, and doesn’t require much accounting. “Ok, you enter the village, what do you do?” “Can we go pay for a wild party at the tavern to get the locals on our good side?” (GM sees the players have silver) “Um, sure; you throw coppers around liberally and a few hours later are deep in conversation with an old lore-keeper, who says that…” 

Second, it permits accounting when it’s actually interesting (this comes into play in particular with domain play, see below). 

Third, by incorporating a trimetallic system without forcing a mathematical ratio between the metals, it imposes qualitative and not just quantitate differences between the kinds of treasure. To live by your Coppers is not fixed by accumulating more Coppers; if you want to live like a king some day, well, you’d better take more risks, explore deeper dungeons, accept the kind of job that you’ve been scared to try but will start earning you some silver. And so forth. To live with gold is not just to have more wealth, but to have a different kind of wealth and a different kind of social position. 

Fourth, with minimal tweaking this approach to wealth could work in a wide variety of campaign settings. Anything with a trimetallic value system (that’s the Roman Empire, and much of medieval Europe, though various coinage regimes sometimes focused just on silver) should work. In fact, the system as written for Land of… isn’t tied to coins at all; the default assumption reflects a non-monetary economy in which precious metals are measured by weight. But you could use this with coins, too - and you could use this system for campaign setting A, where 100 copper pieces = 1 silver piece, or campaign setting B, where the ratio is 50:1, so long as you have three distinct metals (or commodities) of value and want to use them. 

And it all looks so easy to administer. I haven’t tried this yet in play - I’m mid-campaign right now with some players running a sort of Iron Age version of B10 in Karameikos, and it seems a bit awkward to suddenly impose in medias res - but man, I really dig this system and can’t wait to try it out. 

Know what? There’s more to say about Domain Play, but I think this is getting long enough. I’ll pin this here and plan to revisit the topic again soon. 

Anyway, what do you think? 

Happy gaming!


  1. Sounds excellent! Also, I could imagine more social strata using different units, like in a society of barons you can always borrow gold from the merchants buy what counts is how many villages you have as that determines how many vassals you can have (one knight for every village), etc.

    1. Yeah, absolutely. It's a very flexible framework that strikes me as quite elegant. If I get around soon to discussing the game's way of handling domain play, you'll see that it already incorporates something like what you're discussing - a pretty straightforward way to draw wealth and followers out of different domains, while facing local challenges in each case - without all the crunch of comparatively heavier approaches like An Echo, Resounding - or ACKS, which is much crunchier.

  2. I look forward to it! I’ve tried An Echo Resounding and King Arthur Pendragon game and variants of it, but none of them seemed very interesting.

  3. Swordbearer is also interesting in this regard with a silver coin worth about a purse of copper. Your Social Status determines what equipment and servants you have and can afford. Treasures have an equivalent Social Status rating. Anything less than yours just disappears into your pocket money. You can live on Treasure alone for quite some time (at an equivalent level to the Social Status of the Treasure), but the ideal is to use Treasure to increase you Social Status.

    1. Interesting. I didn't know about Swordbearer. Reading up on it, it sounds like it anticipated several modern game-design innovations that have streamlined play (e.g., Knave-style inventory).

  4. I've always considered "copper" loot to be exchangeable for coin (although usually it will be to an account) at any village, "silver" loot to be exchangeable at any town, "gold" loot to be exchangeable at any city, and "platinum" loot exchangeable only at the royal court (or equivalent). Most of the treasure taken is in the form of loot, rather than actual coin.

    The same sort of standard units of account exist in each local. If you are somebody of note in a village you will have copper. If you are somebody of note in a town you will have silver, and if you are somebody of note in a city you will have gold.

    [In a military style campaign (useful for actually looting settlements), the "copper" loot actually turns out to be very valuable, since basically I consider it food and other miscellaneous supplies.]

    1. I like those ideas. Freebooters on the Frontier has a mechanic for rolling to see whether you find a customer for loot in various communities, with penalty/bonus applied when in a village or city. Your idea, in contrast, necessitates travel to certain types of settlement based on the loot you've found. Freebooters is more versatile, but your idea has perhaps just a bit more verisimilitude and can motivate broader engagement across the campaign map.


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