Matt Thinks Too Much About: D&D Money, part 1

Let’s talk about something that I do horribly that is near and dear to every players heart: money. Filthy Lucre. Dollars, dineros, pounds, pesos. Cold hard cash. What ever you call it, I have a problem with it.

Let’s start with a bit of a disclaimer. Most people don’t have a problem with gold in D&D. Heck, the only problem players have with gold is not having enough. They aren’t concerned with macro-economics. They don’t need to know what the price of a bag of flour is and why. That falls to the DMs, who want to have a consistent world, believable merchants, or who just care too much about unimportant things.

And, truth be told, that 3rd qualifier isn’t just self-depreciating humor. I fully believe the D&D design crew have said “yeah, that’ll work well enough” when pricing things. Maybe there are charts and rolls and stuff I haven’t seen or haven’t internalized. Maybe for other people, it’s simple, easy, a non-issue.

Not for me tho. Maybe i just complicate things, or, more likely, i just do it wrong. I have over-treasured my party at least twice that i can think of. The first, at the Ruins of Reznor, where i did sneaky DM shenanigans to take the treasure back, and last week, where i will just end the campaign and probably hand wave the treasure away. (Nah, I’m too nice for that. But i will take steps to separate people from said fortune. Probably by forcing a good magic item on them. Get in that briar patch!)

By now, y’all’re probably thinking: “Matt! We can tell you’re a swell guy, with a mind like a vise and a winning smile. But why do you care so much?”

The answer, kind reader, is that I was in The Campaign Where The DM Broke Money.

The year? 4th edition. The level? 9. The party? The Fey Team: A Bard, 3 Druids, and my, Pixie Thief. The party had been hired to investigate an enchanter’s guild. Along the way, we came across some residuum, 4e’s half-hearted explanation that explained why magic items and money worked so linearly. Being a thief and having sod-all for treasure thus far, i told the DM that i was going to scoop as much of the stuff into my Bag of Holdings as i could (I had 3. Pixie, ya know. I figured some AC loss was worth the looting capabilities. Man, I miss buying enchanted items at character creation. (As a player, I mean. (Unfiltered magic items are way too OP to run as a DM. I mean, I could, but I won’t.)))

So I wrote it down and sat quietly on my phone, trying to find how much 600lbs of residuum is worth. Game stuff rolled over me as I let the characters with emptier pockets deal with the story as I hunted for my numbers. (5e has a LOT more in the way of indexes, lists, and searchable PDFs) Finally, I had my number. And I looked up at the DM, quizzically. “You know a pound of residuum is 500,000 gold, right? Did you mean to give me 600lbs of it?” I asked.

Now, there are lots of ways of fixing the game when you learn it is broken. “Oh, its not pure. Divide it by 1000, to show loss when refining it” is, AFAICT, the smoothest way of backtracking. I also would have excepted a “Whoa! Really? Frick. I thought it was way less. Cut that down to, oh, 7k worth, please? Thanks.” Srsly. No quibbles from me. This was Too Much Gold and it needed fixed before play could continue.

“Nah, that’s about right…” was his response. And I was floored. Gobsmacked. I couldn’t be MORE gobsmacked if a level 13 barbarian picked up a goblin and hit me with it!

Hold on, that needs drawn.


Okay, where was I? Right. Rich beyond reason.

I don’t recall why my pixie didn’t quit there and then. We were a fairly docile group, prone to staying in the lines, on the plot road. Maybe I was too stunned to revolt. Yet. But anti-irregardless, we proceeded deeper into this enchanter’s lair and found a MOUNTAIN of residuum. We even invented a new magic item, the crap-ton crate, which is like a bag of holding, but instead, it’s a 1 ton box with 200 tons inside.  All filled with the most expensive stuff in the galaxy. And then the DM wanted us to fight a god or something? And I rolled a 19 with my absurd to hit (yeah, I min-max. Ask me how!) and I missed. At that point, I threw up my hands and moved to abort the plot. And when the DM tried to convince me to do something for the greater good, I pointed out that we were ALL mercenaries, and I had enough gold to not only BUILD a flying castle, but FOUR flying castles, so I could use them as cornerstones to build a FIFTH castle on top of them and still have enough money to play chicken with other floating castle owners.

Breaking money wasn’t the only bad DMing that happened in that campaign, but it left a lasting impression on me. And so I want to get to the bottom of where a lot of the problem resides.

The first thing that throws me for a loop is differing denominations. In standard D&D, we have coppers, silvers, and golds. I don’t know about all the readers out there, (some of which I’ve been mooching from AngryDM. Hi! Welcome!) but here in my country, USA, we only have one real denomination. Well, kinda 2. The dollar is the main one and we have cents, which are a fraction of a dollar. Now, that is how coppers work when compared to a silver, but in all of my playing D&D, I have never internalized the exchange rate up and down. I think they changed it when they moved to 5e. 4e was based on hundreds and if I hadn’t internalized it, it didn’t really matter. (Just checked,  it is 10s now, instead of 100s.)

See, here is the thing about differing denominations. It’s great that it allows peasants to use the same monetary system as adventurers, but once a player has gotten used to thinking in gold, he never writes down copper. It doesn’t matter anymore. You don’t think, “ah, pizza will be Twenty dollars and seventeen cents.” You think “Okay, $20.” (Or “$21” if you’re smarter than advertisers.) The pennies don’t matter anymore.

Now, if you see a penny on the ground when you’re out for a walk, you might stop, pick it up and put it in your pocket. But if you were, say, on a bicycle or being chased by zombies, then a penny wouldn’t matter. But, if you take those two examples and imagine that its a $100 bill instead of a penny, then stopping is a consideration. (It all comes down to how fast those zombies are…)

The whole point of all of that being, of course, that no one cares about coppers. Do you know what coppers can buy you in D&D? A single, simple meal. Some candles or torches. Some chalk. Darts. That’s it. According to the app i have, paper is 4sp. (And a vial of ink is 8gp. Feel rich?) Only the most destitute live on coppers a day. No one uses coppers and no one should write it on a character sheet. And, oh hey, look at that, no one does.

Silvers aren’t much better. They’re like quarters. If you drop one, you pick it up. But if it rolls into a sewer grate or down the street, you just sigh and grab another. You don’t have a 90s lottery ticket comedy scene over a quarter. (Unless you’re a 90’s animated comedy. Or gaming as one.) Once you have enough dollars, quarters don’t matter. And once you have enough gold, silver doesn’t matter. Sure, you could write it down on your sheet, but, odds are, I reffered to it as “a handful of silver” and didn’t even give out a real number.

All in all, after a while i just start handing out gold and only gold. Which is fine, until i recall that my party is level 5.

See, one of my concerns with money is there is no “Expected Salary per Level” table. I don’t know how much a decent quest reward is. In Lost Mines, your level 2 characters are rewarded with a few 50gp prizes and I don’t know if they are supposed to be low, high or average piles of coin.

I know of 2 ways of trying to figure it out. First, I could do spreadsheet mathgic to figure out the average treasure rolls for the xp required to level. While I have no doubt such a chart would be useful, I’m yawning just thinking about it.

Mathgic is just too awesome of a word to not do in some way at least, so here’s what I’m going to do: the DMG has a poorly index table entitled “Starting Equipment.” (Without illeagally copying it, it claims starting gold is by tier, instead of by level. 4 and lower use starting gear, levels 5-10 start with about 650 gp. Levels 11-16 get 6.5k gp and 17-20 21.5k gp.) I can take those data points, apply some mathgic, and find an equation to estimate the supposed starting gold per level!

Okay, I just spent like, 6 days working on this math stuff. Most of my issues came from not knowing the terminology of the math stuff. And then I had to figure out exactly what I was trying to do and finally, I ended up just calling my dad and talking to him about the article in general and this mathgic in particular. He very quickly was able to figure out what I was doing wrong, how to fix it, and, basically, made this part of the article possible. So yeah, Dads rock.

Here! Have a chart! The equation, by the way, seems to be Gold=6.52*X^2.87, where X is the level in question.


There we go! None of that broken up into tiers crap the DMG tries to shove on us. Simple, by level gold approximations. So what does this tell us? What can we learn from this table and chart and equation? Plenty!

First, I find it interesting that this table has no qualifiers. It doesn’t matter if you are a dwarf or a dragonborn, a craftsman or a noble, a monk or a rogue. Everyone starts the same. Which is weird as the PHB table “Starting Wealth by Class” does make that distinction.

Second, we now know for sure that a 7th level character ought to be able to afford Plate Mail. A level 19 character can buy a warship out of pocket, but 4 level 7 characters can chip in to buy the aforementioned warship.

But the biggest thing about this chart is the fact that it doesn’t exist. Why was this not included in the offical D&D materials? Well, game designers might hem and haw about not wanting to dictate gold rewards for DMs, but that’s not the entire case. If it was, why do monsters have XP rewards?

The most important part of this chart is that gold doesn’t mean anything to the balance of the core game. Which is a topic we’ll cover next time.


This article was broken into multiple parts. At the moment, the next article in the series hasn’t been written yet. Ideally, in the future, the article will be written and there will be a handy link to the next part somewhere around here. If you don’t see the link and you think it should exist, leave a comment and let Matt know. If there STILL isn’t a next part yet and you really really want one, let Matt know. He works better under pressure.


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