It’s a common lament in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons that players accrue bags and bags of cash, but have very little to spend it on.
Inquisitive players start to wonder why they bother delving into dungeons, or accept life threatening missions, to amass more and more gold, when they can’t even spend the coin they have… and Dungeon Masters start struggling to motivate them, accordingly.
The issue stems (as most of you already know!) from the fact that, once upon an edition, 1 gold piece of loot garnered you 1 XP point; and thus player advancement was neatly tied to how much treasure PCs could drag out of the depths of the local catacombs.
Fifth edition players however are rewarded for being heroic, rather than mercenary, and gain XP through killing monsters and completing quests – rendering their cash rewards as something of an afterthought.
Sure, for a couple of levels, a bit of pocket money might come in handy for upgrading their starting equipment, but once they’ve gone out and bought their plate armour, it’s hard for characters to get any reliable mechanical benefits from being rich.
Generally speaking, this has never been a problem that bothered me much. I like my heroes to be heroic, and I’ve got close to zero interest in campaigns centred around commerce, or saving up for a stronghold full of liveried lackeys.
BUT… having said that, I do like my players to be at least partially money motivated, because – apart from the fact that negotiation scenes are always fun! – a need, or desire, to enrich oneself creates extra tension at the table. Provided there are ways to spend it and/or necessary expenses to adventuring, gold can become a vital resource that players have to manage, and how they spend it can have big repercussions in the game.
In short, I want money to be meaningful in my D&D games. Recently I feel that I’ve been quite successful in achieving this…
10 Ways of Making Coins Count…
Here a few ways you make treasure important in D&D, mostly based around creating a desire for it (to buy cool things)… or creating a need for it (to pay for essentials or settle debts!).
Some are fairly obvious, but I think even experienced DMs will find a few little innovations on this list. The last one is a technique I used in my Waterdeep: Dirty Jobs campaign that is working a treat!
- Create a black market for magic items. Like most DMs, I shy away from magic item shops that a) trivialise the rarity of such items b) take away from the joy of discovering them and c) defy credibility in most settings… but equally, if players are willing to make a few Investigation checks, it can be fun to dangle a few DM-approved items for sale on the black market. Such a market also allows them to trade items they don’t have much use for, usually for much less than they’re worth to an intermediary or fixer.
- Create a ‘white’ market for single-use magic items. One and done potions and scrolls rarely break the game, and can prove useful get-out-of-jail cards for players that find themselves in a hole, usually when a combat takes an unexpectedly nasty turn. Crank up the prices at the local temple, apothecary or wizard school, and let the kids go shopping. Magic items motivate 99% of D&D players, and if there’s a reliable pathway to them your players will continue to appreciate the boring old bags of coins they have to lug out of the dungeon. Another cool thing money should be able to buy, IMHO, is a magic tattoo… (available at Mystic Ink tattoo parlour!).
- Homebrew some rules for superior weapons and armour. There’s something beautiful about owning a finely-honed blade, and, while much cheaper than magical weapons, you can easily justify charging between 5 and 25 times the price of a standard longsword for the marginal gains a masterfully crafted weapon offers. Such equipment should either carry a small bonus (eg. +1 to damage rolls only), or some other minor benefit, that rich players will find worth paying for. Some more ideas here. Superior armour might help you get rid of mobility penalties, or increase your protection against Lingering Injuries (Critical Hits)… if you want to build off my homebrew armour rules.
- Enforce lifestyle costs during downtime. Think of your real world outgoings, and then insert them in your game (not your Spotify subscription obvs., but rent, bills, food, booze, clothes). The Player’s Handbook suggests 1 gp a day is required to maintain a modest lifestyle, but you could also hit your players with bigger expenses once in a while, such as replacing their well-worn weapons and armour. And speaking of downtime…
- Clamp down on lucrative side hustles. Don’t let players game the system and acquire risk free cash between adventures. If they say they spend 3 months pickpocketing for financial gain, have them roll three checks. “25, 9 and 13 you say? Well the 25 represents a great haul, and in your first month you make 1,000 gp in stealing purses. A 9 is not great however. You are caught by the city watch and fined 1,000 gp. You also have your hand cut off, and the local temple charges you 5,000 gp to restore the limb. For the 13 you make a modest haul of 130 gold pieces, before the local thieves guild have a word with you. They want 50% of everything you’ve stolen in the last 3 months…” Apply the same principles to any ‘business ideas’ your players have, stacking the odds to remind them they are adventurers, not entrepreneurs, for a reason.
- Enforce spell component costs. Spells like revivify are expensive to cast, especially if the cheapest diamonds clerics can get their hands on are far in excess of the min. value required. In general, overcharge your players for everything… they will appreciate the realism!
- Charge players eye-watering sums for healing services. If you’re doing your job right, your players will need frequent access to spells like greater restoration, remove curse, and raise dead. Check out my temple casting rules to see why the whole clergy will have to get involved, with no guarantee this powerful magic will work. Naturally, the cost of the service is the same, regardless of whether it works or not. Surely your players aren’t questioning the Gods?
- Insert Training Costs. I have never used this myself, but a DM I play with makes us shell out a fair chunk of cash on training before we can level up. This is irritating if you never get back to your home base, or a city, in order to do so, but provides a nice reliable expense that DMs can impose, and makes sense really. Were I to run this, I wouldn’t do it every level, I’d just improvise it during downtime, so it doesn’t interfere with adventuring. “So you’re level 4 now, but you’ve learned as much as you can in the field for now… you’re going to have to invest X days and Y gold before you can hope to gain more levels.”
- Arrest your players. Put them on trial. And then fine the **** out of them. In fact, if they don’t pay X amount in bribes (where X = more money that they’ve seen in their lifetime) to their sentencers, they will be hung, drawn and quartered instead… who knows, do this enough and they might even start to respect the local laws!
- Give your players an agent. Probably my favourite way, and certainly the most effective I’ve found, of keeping my players in permanent need of cash is to give them an agent. This solution came to be when running my ‘West Marches’ style campaign, in which the players start their adventuring life as members of Drake’s Dragonslayers Guild. This tinpot agency, run by the flamboyantly greedy Drake himself, has plenty of work for budding adventurers, but charges them 20% commission of all fees AND treasure. So you found a magic item while on the job? Great, just pay the guild 20% of what they say its worth and you get to keep it! (The result of this little set up is that 75% of my players are now wildly in debt to Drake, and keen to bite on any adventure hook that comes with a generous cash reward).
So there you go, hopefully, after implementing some of the ideas in this post, you’ll never need worry that your players have too much gold and / or nothing to spend it on again…
As always, I’d be keen to hear strategies that other DMs (i.e. you!) have employed to tackle this infamous D&D issue. Comments section this way… 👇.