Then, sometime around hour five, you stumble in to a Daedric ruin somewhere, kill a dremora, and suddenly you have a weapon worth so much that literally no merchant in the game can buy it. You sell it to Creeper for one-third of its value, and money no longer has any meaning. You can buy anything. Two or three trips to the ruins, and you can train your character up to level 100 in any skill you desire (Morrowind, unlike Oblivion, places no limit on the number of times you can train per level). The economy, if you let it, breaks the game.
Bad economies, it seems to me, are the rule rather than the exception in most CRPGs. Oblivion doesn't have the training bug, but you do reach a point rather quickly in which amassing a fortune no longer makes sense, even accounting for buying and furnishing houses in every town. I remember in Baldur's Gate II slaughtering an entire map full of fighters with swords +3 and not even bothering to take them to sell them. This is particularly annoying because many of the "evil" role-playing choices in these games center on trying to bully more money out of people, burglarizing houses, selling stolen loot, and so on. What's the point of doing all this if money comes so easily anyway and there's nothing cool to buy?
To me, a good CRPG is one in which money has real value--you never run out of reasons to collect it, kill monsters for it, and quest for it. Some of these early CRPGs, like The Bard's Tale II (my current game), sort-of fit the bill because they have one or two expensive things that make money valuable. In The Bard's Tale II, those things are the mystic emporium, where you recharge spell points, and temples, where you heal your characters of death and petrification. Since the costs for these things go up with your level, it makes sense to keep collecting cash. In Phantasie, leveling up cost so much that I was constantly under-funded. But this is a boring sort of economy. Contrast this with Ultima IV, where you had a role-playing choice about whether to cheat the blind herb seller. Some reagents are damned expensive, and cheating is a real temptation. After all, you want to outfit four of your characters with magic wands, and they cost 5,000 gold pieces each.
Always needing cash is not the only part of a good economy, though. I like games in which there's always a cooler magic weapon waiting for purchase, where you can sell looted weapons, armor, and gear to shops (the Elder Scrolls games are particularly good with this), where gold from your fallen foes is a tangible object that makes a satisfying clink as you pick it up (for some reason, I love the graphics and sounds associated with money in Icewind Dale II). I particularly like it when there are goods and services not strictly essential to the main quest that you nonetheless might want to buy: Oblivion's houses are a good example, as are tankards of expensive drinks. You feel like you're really role-playing when your Baldur's Gate crew staggers into Nashkel from the mines and each character gets thoroughly drunk on pints of dragon's blood.
Let me see if I can recall a few economy-related quirks from other games:
- If you play a fighter in Baldur's Gate II, you can get a castle for your stronghold. You get a number of stronghold-related quests in which you have options ranging from, say, paying 20,000 gold pieces to strengthen your land's fortifications against outside invaders all the way to erecting no fortifications, executing the person who suggested it, and then levying a punitive tax against your subjects (I'm getting the details wrong, but in spirit this is right). The problem is, by this point in the game you have so much money that you're almost grateful for an excuse to spend as much of it as possible, making what could be a sincere role-playing choice almost no choice at all.
- In Wizard's Crown and the later SSI games based on the D&D rules, there are multiple types of coins, just like in pen and paper D&D. If you lug around too much cash in Pool of Radiance, it slows you movement and hurts you in combat. Most games treat gold as if it has no weight.
- In Ultima VII, you can burglarize the royal mint. Since spells and reagents are so expensive, it takes a real role-playing choice not to do this.
- Alternate Reality: the City started you out with a paltry amount of cash but gave you the option to do menial jobs for an honest wage. This took precious game time, but it was a nice touch of realism. I seem to recall that in Ultima VII you can try to make some income baking bread.
- It's only tangentially related, but I love how in Neverwinter Nights, you've just been given a mission to save the city from destruction, and yet you still have to buy your weapons and armor from the temple shop. A lot of games do something similar.
- Games in which you can pay for training (not level-increasing training but skill-increasing training) offer a good reason to quest for cash. Aside from Wizard's Crown and The Elder Scrolls games, I can't think of any off hand. I would love it if Baldur's Gate offered you the ability to add a + to one of your weapon skills for 10,000 gold, or add one point to an attribute for 15,000.
Racking my brain, I can think of only two games that have truly "good" economies. The first is Might and Magic VI. First, there are many, many, things to buy: weapons, armor, helmets, boots, alchemical ingredients, rings, wands, and so on. Skill acquisition and training also cost a lot of cash. Fortunately, you can sell items you loot back to the shops. Still, for much of the game, you're struggling to get enough money to train and outfit all of your characters, which is as it should be. Later in the game, you find yourself with an overabundance of money, like in most games, but at that point you find a magic well in Kriegspire that takes your gold for an equivalent amount of experience. Gold, therefore, remains relevant until the very end of the game. Might and Magic VII and VIII have similar economies in general but lack the magic well.
The second is the Hordes of the Underdark expansion to Neverwinter Nights. There are two excellent reasons to get rich in this game. First, about halfway through you find a smith who will take any weapon and add a variety of enchantments (increase the +, make it do fire damage, and so on) for lots of money. (I should point out that Wizard's Crown offered this option but I didn't play long enough to get into it.) You never have enough to buy all of the upgrades. Second, late in the game you meet the Knower of Names, who for gold will tell you the "true names" of various NPCs in the game. You never have enough gold to buy all of the names, and which ones you do buy have significant role-playing consequences, since equipped with an NPC's true name, you can order him or her to do all sorts of things. For some ridiculous amount of gold, you can even purchase the true name of the demon prince Mephistopheles (the game's villain) and completely skip the game-ending battle by simply ordering him to kill himself!
I haven't played every CRPG, of course--not yet--so there might be other good ones out there. Let me know what you think in the comments.
In the era I'm playing now, economies are very basic, with only a few ways to get cash (there aren't even any side-quests yet) and even fewer to spend it. I'll keep rating this category on the GIMLET scale, though, and we'll see how the economies evolve.