Excuse me, sir, but can you fix my glaive guisarme?

Ok, so in the real world I need to fix shit (or hire someone to fix shit) all of the time… or replace shit that has worn out. Pipes leak, shoes wear out, food rots or gets eaten — even this sack of blood and meat I call my body needs the occasional repair. In D&D world, stuff never really seems to break.  You can buy that sword at 1st level, and, assuming you don’t hit a rust monster or a black pudding with it, still be using when you are 10th level without ever even having sharpened the damn thing. Of course, by the time they are 10th level, most player will have a pile of magic swords to choose from (unless their DM is a real skin flint), but you get my drift.

I remember in 1st edition AD&D, Gygax suggested you charge player characters x amount per month per level for upkeep (I don’t remember what he called it) and I guess that was supposed to represent hair cuts, getting your boots resoled, the occasional clean shirt or new pair of socks, armor and weapon repairs, etc. I don’t remember ever enforcing that rule (or having it imposed on my character when I was a player), but the Gygaxians will claim that ‘Saint Gary already covered that.’ And I’m not sure that having players deduct 3 silver pieces from their inventory every time they need to get a haircut or their bowstring replaced is going to feel like the ‘stuff of high adventure,’ but since D&D first caught my fancy because it was ‘less abstract’ than other games I had played up until that point, the occasional lack of abstraction within the game can sometimes be jarring or amusing. Greyhawk city is probably chock full of shoe repair shops, but the rules don’t have any accommodation for forcing the players or NPCs to go get their shoes repaired… so how do all of those shoe repair shops stay in business?

Two of my favorite video games, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, have some accommodation for repairs.  In both these video games, armor and weapons wear out as you use them… every time an enemy hits you, the degree to which your armor protects you drops a little bit.  Every time you use a weapon, it wears a little bit and gets a little less effective. In Oblivion, you can purchase ‘repair hammers’ and use them to repair your weapons or armor (how much they repair it depends on your character’s repair skill, but, bizarrely, these little blacksmith hammers disappear as you use them). As an alternative, you can take your equipment to a blacksmith and they will repair it for a price. In Fallout 3, there are merchants who can repair things for you for a price, or, if you have 2 items of the same type (like 2 laser pistols), you can use 1 item to repair the other, leaving you will 1 item in better shape.  The item you used to repair with disappears (and the game makes a little ‘repair’ sound which sometimes sounds like someone tearing off a length of duct tape — which always makes me chuckle). In both games, how high your repair skill is governs how well you can repair. After a while, in both games, I find the ‘repair’ concept gets a little tedious, although I do wonder how my Fallout 3 character takes 4 worn out shotguns and with the click of a mouse creates 1 really good shotgun with no parts left over. Since it’s a computer game, though, you don’t have to track the current condition of your armor and weapons; the computer does it for you.  If you had to keep track of that using paper and pencil, it would require too much effort.

And ‘too much effort’ probably describes why I won’t have rules for wear and tear and repair in Aldeboran (although I guess since the combat “fumble” tables I use have a chance for your weapon to break, so there is a chance a player might need to seek out a repair person from time to time). Things needing repair seems pretty mundane — certainly not what I imagine when I say “adventure.”

Fantasy Economy Boondoggle

One of the complaints being voiced over at Dragonsfoot these days is that the old “price list” for adventuring equipment, weapons and armor used in Dungeons & Dragons is unrealistic. The first version of D&D I ever played (1978 edition) had very simple rules for generating a character — after rolling the dice to determine your character’s abilities and picking a class (magic user, cleric, fighter or thief, elf, dwarf or hobbit), you rolled dice to randomly determine how much ‘starting gold’ you had and then bought what you wanted or thought you needed from a price list that had everything from chain mail armor, axes, bows, spears, etc., to more mundane items like backpacks, ropes, torches and lanterns.

The departure from economic reality in classic D&D does not bother me much. If you ‘fixed’ prices in the price list to become more realistic, you would also have to ‘fix’ treasures to reflect the idea that big piles of coin just might not be availible. OK, so you toss out the treasure tables in order to get a more realistic price on lamp oil and torches… what other changes would you have to make for ‘realism’? And, once you got done making all of those changes, would the game even be fun anymore?

I wonder if, strictly speaking, the ‘price lists’ of games like D&D, where every ‘dungeoneering item’ like torches or rope has a fixed price, might be pretty ahistorical anyway. In a typical medieval town would one have found little bodegas that sold everything from flasks of oil to spikes, sacks and 10 foot poles? Would there be a lot of ‘readymade’ goods available? Would the armorer really have a rack full of suits of armor ready to wear like they have ready to wear suits for sale at The Men’s Wearhouse? Would a lamp oil merchant really sell oil in little ceramic flasks, ready for dungeoneering, or would the vast majority of his customers provide their own container and the merchant would just sell the oil itself? The latter seems more likely and I don’t think “variety stores” (like 7-11 or Sears Roebuck) are likely in preindustrial times. The people who sold shoes probably also made them. There would be merchants who carried goods from one town to another, but I think they would make money on the fact that prices varied from place to place — you could take wine from the town with the vineyards (where wine was cheap) and sell it for more once you had moved it to a town with fewer or no vineyards. If the oil is made from something like fish, wouldn’t it cost more the further inland you went? Wouldn’t the price of bread go up if the grain harvest was bad? Moving goods by cart or mule would add a lot more per unit cost than moving them by UPS or Fed Ex.
If I’m not mistaken, Europeans had to come to the new world to discover platinum, so if you are, strictly speaking, basing your economy on medieval Europe, then platinum coins should go. I don’t know if the American natives used platinum at all as a metal, or even if they knew how to extract it from ore…(OK, I just Wikipedia’d it… and, according to Wikipedia, the first mention of Platinum by a European was in 1557…). Although the pre-Columbians had silver, gold and copper, I don’t think they used them as a medium of exchange the way the Spanish did, anyway, so different cultures might value different stuff. Plus the idea of a ‘universal’ economy where gold coins, silver coins, copper coins, etc., are all valued the same and items like gems have a fixed value seems pretty unrealistic, but if you want to give PCs XP based on treasure, you need to standardize value of ‘prizes’ at some point.

I suspect that fixed prices in the marketplace may actually be a relatively recent phenomenon. In older economies, people probably tended to haggle or bargain a great deal more… but to be honest, in most cases when I am gaming I really don’t anticipate roleplaying the “haggling” between a merchant and a player character whenever the players need a coil of rope or a few candles. In a quasi-medieval setting, it seems entirely likely to me that someone who bought oil from the oil merchant every week or month might be charged one price while some stranger who came into town and was probably heading off somewhere to get killed by trolls and never return was going to be seen as an opportunity to make a little more. The regular customer from next door is the oil merchant’s bread and butter. The adventurer who needs lamp oil might be seen as ‘gravy’ money.

Faced with the sheer record keeping nightmare that a realistic pricing structure entails, I think I’ll stick with a price list — although a nod to realism (such as perhaps variations in price or potential shortages) could add some fun. A food shortage could be a great adventure hook. But at the end of the day, the price list is just one way to get coin out of the pockets and pouches of the player characters.

My own experience is that in ‘default’ D&D, carrying all the stuff one might want to have on an adventure rather than being able to afford it is usually more of a problem for player characters. After a few adventures, my 2nd or 3rd level fighter is likely to be able to afford several suits of platemail at 50 gp a pop… so if a black pudding dissolves his armor he is likely to be able to afford another suit — but given the bulk and weight, he is unlikely to have it with him!

One DM’s “screw the players” is another DM’s “challenge the players.”

(this post originally written by me at Dragonsfoot)