Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guest Post: Why the Economy Sucks in the SSI Gold Box Games (Part 2)

The second of two parts dealing with my most frequent complaint among the Gold Box titles.


Why the Economy Sucks in the SSI Gold Box Games
Part 2: No Money Sinks and a Real-Life "Monty Haul"
by OldWowBastard

In the first part of this article, we considered the frequent claim that SSI was forced, either by contractual obligation or personal preference, to adapt AD&D first edition rules literally. We saw that SSI, in fact, made numerous changes to AD&D rules in other aspects of gameplay. Here, we look at decisions made to the economy specifically that resulted in a hopelessly broken aspect of gameplay.

My Pools of Darkness party has specifically not been picking up any money the entire game, and they still have all of this.

1.9. Changes to training rules and costs

Training costs in the Gold Box games are massively reduced from the arguably broken rules presented as written in the AD&D 1st edition DMG. As written, training cost is based on a per-week, per-character level fee. This is the formula:

-1500 gp X current character level X number of weeks trained = Training cost.

Number of weeks required is based on a stat invented just for this purpose; the “how well did this player play their class” stat. As written, the DM is instructed to assign a value of 1-4 to a character every time XP is assigned, 1 meaning they played their class perfectly, 4 meaning they did not.

When a character has enough XP to level, they are supposed to average that score out to find the number of weeks required to train; so in a perfect world this would be a minimum of one week, but would generally average more than one.

Please note the costs derived from said formula do not reflect the costs charged by the entity training the character. These are material costs associated with training; the rules clearly state that. So in an imperfect world, these fees would be larger than written, as you have to pay for your trainer’s time.

Now, as written, these rules are fairly interesting. I’m assuming this is unintentional and more due to an improperly thought-out system than any intentional design. In their true form, it is incredibly expensive to train at lower levels--to the point that in many cases you would never have enough gold to pay for training, despite having enough XP.

This table help illustrate the gap here is a breakdown of the XP required to train as a thief vs. the gold cost if you’ve played optimally and only need to train for a single week. You see the gap between what the Thief would have on hand, vs what they’d need to spend, in the last column.

Current Level
Total XP earned
XP to next level
GP to Train Current
Spent on Training
XP/Gold Gap

A 1st level Thief needs 250 more gold than XP to train to second level under optimal conditions. A starting Thief needs to earn 2500 xp total to get up to third level, but would need to have earned a total of 4500gp to train to that point.

Since a character earns 1 xp, per gp earned, a level 1 thief that could afford to train level 2 would have 20% more XP than needed to gain that level. A Thief with just enough XP to level could not afford to pay for training, even if every point of XP they obtained was via gold acquisition, as opposed to any coming from actually killing a monster.

These rules, as written, would completely solve the “broken” economy, albeit in the wrong direction.

Clerics and thieves, who have lower xp requirements to level, would often need the monetary assistance of characters with higher XP requirements, to afford leveling. This would peak around level 5, and go away by level 7 or so. Characters with higher XP requirements would, at best, be able to train when they earned the xp to, but would literally spend every piece of gold they had doing so.

You would essentially end up burning all of your party’s gold just on training, up until level 7 or so. In many cases, you’d have to make the choice of which character to level across an entire party, and would likely often have characters with enough xp to level, but not enough gold to train them.

This all assumes the bare minimum training costs, and optimal PC play. If your training modifier ever goes above 1, the whole system breaks even more as your “break even” point of cumulative training cost vs xp required moves substantially. Even a 1.5 multiplier drastically exacerbates the gaps above; a Thief that has a 1.5 multiplier to train levels 2 and 3 would have spent 6750 total, which brings our xp/gold gap from 2000 to 4750. Since a multiplier can go as high as 4, it’s pretty obvious this system was never “mathed out” for balance purposes.

As the Gold Box changed this to a flat 1000gp fee, this potential money pit was avoided. This is a bit unfortunate, as the mechanic could have been adjusted slightly (e.g. make the base 1000gp X current level instead of 1500 X current level x number of weeks/player rating) to make training a legitimate way to force the player to spend money.

And Pools of Darkness makes it worse by not charging for training at all.
2.0. Overall distribution of treasure

As mentioned briefly in the first part, the AD&D 1st edition rules were heavily derived from OD&D and its supplements, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes, and Eldritch Wizardry. Tables utilized in those sources were really a "ol' college try" kind of setup. They were minimally play-tested before being codified. They were not heavily reviewed prior to publication.

Gygax clearly grew to feel said tables were overgenerous if applied verbatim. 

2.1. Monetary distribution

In the AD&D 1E Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax details his thoughts on the matter in the sections "Placement of Monetary Treasure" and "Placement of Magic Items" on Pages 91-93. First, he establishes that the treasures corresponding with those tables is not applicable in general situations:

All monsters would not and should not possess treasure! The TREASURE TYPES gives in the MONSTER MANUAL are optimums and are meant to consider the maximum number of creatures guarding them. Many of the monsters shown as possessing some form of wealth are quite unlikely to have any at all. This is not a contradiction of the rules but an admonition to the DM to not give away too much!

He instructs the DM to convert the bulk of monetary treasure into valuable goods instead, except in those rare cases where hard currency would be the most appropriate. Here he gives an example of what a 2,000 g.p. ogre cache would look like:

There are many copper and silver coins in a large, locked iron chest. There are pewter vessels worth a fair number of silver pieces. An inlaid wooden coffer, worth 100 gold pieces alone, holds a finely wrought silver necklace worth an incredible 350 gold pieces! Food and other provisions…

This continues for several more sentences which are omitted for the sake of brevity. Suffice it to say, a 2000 g.p. ogre hoard was never supposed to consist of raw cash. It was, at least in the example above, supposed to take substantial effort to transport and liquidate, before being converted into gold and XP.
You can see a few examples of this in Pool of Radiance, in the Kovel Mansion area, and in a few other sections, where the PCs end up with tapestries, statues, and other valuables, instead of raw cash. It was really only briefly touched on in the games, and instead treasure was almost always gold, platinum, gems or jewelry. It should be noted that this occurs rarely enough to cause player confusion. An average player would not know said items were there just to sell and might have held onto them, thinking they were some kind of quest items.

Some of the loot from the kobold king in Pool of Radiance. By this time in the game, there's no point in hauling all of these valuables back to the city for sale.
Regardless, following those guidelines it would be nearly impossible for a party of PCs to acquire massive piles of wealth, without substantial logistical effort.

2.1.2. Magic item distribution

In the aforementioned “Placement of Magic Items” section, Gary gives the DM a very severe set of warnings against providing too much magical treasure: “…the placement of magic items is a serious matter. Thoughtless placement of powerful magic items has been the ruination of many a campaign.”

This is a point that could benefit from expanded discussion, but essentially the sense I get, after researching this heavily, is that Gygax knew how unbalanced games became when excessive treasure was provided.

Rob Kuntz, an extremely early and influential play-tester who played the character Robilar, was co-DM on Greyhawk and probably DM'd for Gary more than anyone else. Per his statements to me on the Dragonsfoot Forums, he would explore Gary's Greyhawk dungeon with Elven Boots and a Ring of Invisibility on. This essentially made him immune to any combats he chose not to fight as he was able to move invisible and silently at all times. “I avoided more encounters than I attacked.”
At the end of this Gold Box battle, every slain Fire Knife has a set of magic items. If I bothered to pick them all up and sell them, the loot from this one battle would probably be enough to get through the entire game.
It is my honest belief, after reading about Rob's play style, that a lot of rules in the AD&D DMG were written as a reaction to Rob, and others in Gary’s campaign, breaking the game in this manner.

His discussion on treasure seems to be one of those situations. He boils it down to "don't give them the stuff as written because they'll become TOO rich and powerful and then the game stops being fun to referee."

Gary’s specific guidance on the matter, when discussing magic items towards the onset of a campaign, is as follows: “You never allow more than a single item or grouping (such as 3 magic arrows) to a treasure, nor more treasures with magic items than 1 in 5 to 1 in 10, as this is an initial adventure setting.”

Gateway to the Savage Frontier, for example, gives the party 3 magic items in the first scripted encounter that provides magic items. This is maybe the 5th required encounter in the game, but can be the 2nd or 3rd with proper play or prior knowledge. Not quite in line with the suggestions, clearly.

2.2. Unguarded treasures that do not correspond with the rules

There are tables present in the AD&D 1st Edition DMG that one can roll on to determine the amount, quality and contents of unguarded treasure that has been placed in a dungeon. These tables are modified by dungeon level, as in the original AD&D rules dungeon level was used in a lot of cases as a power indicator. In theory, a DM was supposed to have creatures of levels 1-2 on the first level of a dungeon, 2-4 on the second, and so on.

Unguarded treasures generated by these tables would be larger in lower dungeon levels due to the additional risk required to venture into said areas. A third dungeon level would have a very high risk ratio for level 2 characters, but would, in theory, have rewards commensurate with said risks.

In the SSI Gold Box games, the unguarded treasures, especially in cases where said unguarded treasure is clearly not the "hoard" of a creature you killed nearby, are drastically larger and more valuable than they should be based on their approximate “dungeon level”.

Even in cases where one could argue that the layout of these games demand an overlap of dungeon level/areas you explore there are problems.

Per the table on the 1E DMG p 171, an unguarded treasure would have either 1000 cp/level, 1000 sp/level, 750 ep/level, 250 gp/level, 100 pp/level, 1-4 gems/level, 1 piece of jewelry/level, or a single magic item or grouping of magic items.

In Pool of Radiance, for example, there is a very large, hidden, unguarded treasure in the far northwest corner of the slum area. That slum area is the first area you adventure in and is arguably equivalent to the “first” level of a dungeon. That treasure contains money, a short bow +1 and 20 arrows +1. This would not be possible via the tables as they only allow a single magic item, and both the bow and set of arrows count as separate items.

There is a similar treasure in Sokol Keep, which could be considered the second or third dungeon "level". Again, it contains both money and 4 magic items, a shield +1, Long Sword +1, Chain Mail +1 and Mace +2. That would not be possible with the tables.

It should be noted that the tables are part of the “random dungeon generation” section of the DMG. It would be logically assumed that said tables are supposed to be a guideline despite their being no text evidence directing the DM to respect the results of said tables. So, one could give SSI a pass for not respecting them, as they could be simply considered guidelines.

2.3. Guarded treasures that do not correspond with the rules

There are several treasure caches present in the Gold Box games that cannot be a product of the random determination tables SSI claims they were forced to stick to.

These caches contain either money or magic in quantities that simply are not in line with the values listed for the foes guarding them.

An early example of this is the cache in the Guild hideout in Curse of the Azure Bonds. It contains these magic items:

4 Potions
Dust of Disappearance
Ioun Stone, Deep Red
2 Magic User Scrolls
Long Sword +1
Banded Mail +1

These monsters should have treasure type A, which provides a 30% chance of the foes having a total of 3 magic items. That list included 10 magic items; there is literally no treasure type that could provide that result.

This a consistent problem with many placed treasures. As a result, any clams from SSI that they were forced to follow the rules are simply incorrect.

I should note than the treasures that are randomly generated in the game, e.g. dropped by random encounters, are usually in line with the Monster Manual’s Treasure Type suggestions.
2.4. Magic items possessed by "classed" NPCs

In almost every case, especially by the later entries in each respective series, the magic items possessed by classed NPC enemies are not in line with the equipment they should have.

In Treasures of the Savage Frontier, for example, Black Robed Masters carry Plate Mail +2, Long Swords +2, Shields +2 and Helms +2.

The 1E DMG, pp 224-226 a Fighter classed NPC has a 7% chance per level of having a +1 Long Sword, a 10% chance per level to have a +1 Shield, and a 6% change per level of having +1 Plate Mail.

I cannot find a level on those NPCs, but as the maximum character level in this game is 11-12 we can assume they’re at most 12th level.

They only have a 1% chance per level, plus their chance at the corresponding +1 item, minus 90% (if that sum is above 0) to have a +2 item. For example; a 12th level fighter has a 120% chance to have a +1 shield, 120% - 90% = 30% + (1% * 12) = 42% chance of having a +2 shield. When you math it all up, a 12th level NPC fighter has a 12% chance of possessing Plate Mail +2, a 42% chance of possessing a Shield +2 and a 12% chance of possessing a Long Sword +2. Magic helms weren’t included in the rules as written.

So, at best, 1 in 8 “Black Robed Masters” should have the aforementioned Plate +2 and Sword +2, about 2 in 5 should have a Shield +2. With the rules as written, the remainder would have NO magic items. If you attempt to roll for the +2 item, and come up empty you cannot roll on the +1 item.

So just in this single example you have a NPC magic item possession rate far above what was recommended in the rules. 

2.5. Monty Haul DMing

Gary Gygax spends several paragraphs in the AD&D 1st Edition DMG condemning “Monty Haul” DMs. Monty Hall was a game show host in the 70s, and that pun was used to describe DMs that were more akin to game show hosts than impartial referees.

Several paragraphs are spent explaining that this type of behavior will lead to bored players and broken economies. It is vehement enough that it seems almost as if Gary was calling out a specific person.

A "Monty Haul" after a fire giant battle in Pool of Radiance. There's no way to even begin to carry so much coin.
Essentially, though, one would have to reasonably believe that the discussion regarding this play style was part of the ruleset. Gygax was stating clearly and for the record, that as a DM you need to be careful about distributing treasure. If you did not the players would quickly get bored of acquiring money and magic, your economy would break, and they would lose much of their motivation for playing.

Not only are such ‘Monty Haul’ games a crashing bore for most participants, they are a headache for DMs as well, for the rules of the game do not provide anything for such play – no reasonable opponents, no rewards, nothing! The creative DM can, of course, develop a game which extrapolates from the original to allow such play, but this is a monumental task to accomplish with even passable results, and those attempts I have seen have been uniformly dismal. [1E DMG p. 92]

2.5.1. Who was this mystery man?

Gary Gygax was, per James “Jim” Ward's own admission, basically calling Jim out for his DM style, which per Jim was overly generous. He enjoyed the positive reactions from players and fed off of that.

This exchange from the "Save Or Die Podcast," episode 68, starting at 8:15 or so illustrates Jim’s mentality quite clearly.

Jim Ward: "In my game I had lots of treasure, because I always liked the way people smile when they get treasure. But I was playing in front of Gary Gygax and he scoffed at that notion and started calling me the Monty Haul DM….I took it as a badge of honor…It’s kind of grown up in the world as a bad thing. If you’re a Monty Haul DM you give away way too much treasure and soon your game goes out of control, but in the 30 plus years I’ve been gaming I’ve never had a game go out of control ever."

Jim Wampler [co-host]: "So no matter how loaded up on magic items and weapons the party gets you can still kill em?

Jim Ward: “Well, yeah, kill em or…"

[Jim then gets interrupted by another co-host who provides an anecdote about a Gamma World game she participated, in with Jim Ward GMing,  in which he successfully killed their characters despite allowing them to pick whatever rare/high powered items they wanted.]

Jim actually ended up writing a column for Dragon magazine for a while, detailing the exploits of a fictitious Monty Haul DM and his players. Generally, these were parody columns that joked about the fact that the players of said DM would need to face enormously overpowered foes in order to be legitimately challenged.

So, again, Jim Ward was Monty Haul. Hse literally was the DM that Gary told you to not be like. The guy wrote the rules said, almost literally, in the rulebook “don’t DM like Jim Ward.”

2.5.2. Jim goes to California

By the later 1980s, when TSR and SSI started working on the Gold Box games, Gary Gygax no longer worked for the company he founded, and no longer worked on the game he created.

(For more information on that, one should reference this wonderful article by Jon Peterson.)

As a result, when it came time to send someone to work with SSI on the Gold Box games, to coach the SSI team on their usage of the AD&D rules, Gary, the creator of the game was not sent.

In his place, they sent Jim Ward. Monty Haul. He was a well-respected, senior employee, at this point and his affable nature made him a good fit for this type of collaboration.

Now, in a tabletop game DM’d by Jim, excessive treasure distribution was not a problem, per his own statements above. He can still kill you, even if you’ve been showered in treasure. That pile of money won’t save you, that pile of magic items won’t save you. You play smart, or you die.

The least offensive image that came up when I Googled "gold shower."
This unfortunately does not translate to the CRPG version of that ruleset, and minus Jim’s organic DM-ing style, it is very clear that the treasure distribution he instructed SSI to use had a drastically negative impact on the economy of the game.

Jim did a lot of work on Pool of Radiance, outside of his general coaching. He has a co-writer credit on the pen and paper module used as the basis for the game, he co-wrote the novelization as well. By all accounts, he was the primary designer on the module, and the other listed co-writers created specific sub-sections.

It was technically Jim’s job to tell the SSI folks to not use the written tables verbatim.

It was technically Jim’s job to let them know the unguarded caches mentioned above were a bit much.

It was technically Jim’s job to not allow the level 7-8 characters in Pool of Radiance to get items like a +5 Long Sword at the end of the game, thereby forcing the “reset” at the beginning of Curse, when your team loses their equipment.

He clearly did not do the job he needed to do.

Now, in all fairness, Jim was not a game designer that did a lot of work on this type of a closed system. Any product he created at that time, any games he ran, any rules he wrote; were subject to a human interpreter. With written rules, the DM reading them would either make adjustments on the fly, or hack it somehow.

I think that in this case he just did not understand that tuning would matter--that a secondary pass, to review if the numbers lined up, would mean the difference between a post mortem like this, or something that just worked.

So, unfortunately, in his 30 + years of DMing, he did have a game go out of control due to his views on treasure distribution--several, in fact. Every Gold Box game.

I do want to note, but all accounts Jim is an incredibly affable fellow. Every interview I’ve read, or heard, that he’s participated in has really painted him as a super nice guy. It just seems like he lacked the experience to make the right call here.

3. A complete lack of money sinks, or, what they conveniently left out

For whatever reason, a majority of the rules included in AD&D 1E, that could have allowed players to meaningfully spend the money they acquired, were omitted in the SSI Gold Box games.

These items encompassed everything from hiring support personnel, to building a fiefdom, and were by all accounts very core to the intended play style of the rule set.

3.1. Building a team

As mentioned earlier, the rules of AD&D 1st edition are often derived from the OD&D rules. In many cases, the rules of OD&D were heavily influenced by Gygax's players, and based on historical anecdotes he definitely shaped his game around their play style.

In most cases, his players were wargamers: folks that enjoyed nothing more than commanding armies of soldiers in both board and sand table wargames. As a result, many of them wanted to build small armies around their PCs, both for personal protection and eventual conquest.

They also built a personal retinue for another simple reason: if one cannot survive in a dungeon alone, but one wants the lion's share of the treasure from a dungeon location, why drag along other PCs who will want an equal share? Hire some meat shields, give them a cut of some sort, and get on with it.

To add to this, in AD&D 1st edition, as written, XP is only given for treasure that is successfully found and returned to "civilization" of some sort. Simply finding the treasure, and subsequently ditching it, leaving it behind or having it stolen, does not qualify one for an XP reward. [Ed: This is, of course, another rule dropped by SSI. Experience is rewarded when you find treasure, even if you leave it on the ground, as you typically do after the 6th hour of campaigning.]

This made essential the role of hired bag carriers, teamsters with wagons, and similar NPCs. In 1E, coins weigh 1/10 of a lb per coin. 10,000 gp would weigh 1,000 lbs. You’d clearly need people and equipment to move that.

Since characters often fought and explored in the complete darkness of a dungeon, and one obviously needs to have both hands free for fighting, spell casting, bow use, or other tasks, the role of torch bearer is a required addition to any dungeon expedition.

As a result, there are very robust and detailed systems in AD&D 1st edition to deal with the acquisition, maintenance, and loyalty of henchmen (secondary player characters), hirelings (untrained 0 level NPCs like torch bearers and teamsters) and specialists, such as sages that the party hires to acquire information or identify magical items.

3.1.1. Henchmen

In early AD&D and OD&D, there was, at least at Gary's game, a rule of one PC per player. This appears to have been somewhat strictly enforced. In order to work around this somewhat, while still maintaining "gameplay" of some sort, the henchman role was added to OD&D.

Essentially, a henchman is a secondary player character that is hired by a player character, after being recruited and diced for. There is a decent amount of random determination included in the acquisition and creation of a henchman so the resulting hired character will often be further out of control of the PC's player, in terms of initial generation, then a PC would be. There's also a decent chance that a PC attempting to hire a henchman will be unsuccessful based on a number of factors including PC level and size of the town one is recruiting in.

However, once a Henchman is hired, he essentially becomes a secondary PC for the player that “controls” them. Outside of extreme circumstances, they generally would be under the control of that player, unless the player did something very out of character for said henchman (e.g. "henchman, charge that dragon to buy us time while I go get backup") In those cases the DM would make a loyalty check and the henchman would act based on the results.

Henchmen needed the following from PCs:

1) A share of treasure equal to one half of a PC's share. A party with two henchmen and three PCs would split a treasure into fourths, each PC would get a fourth, the remaining fourth would be split evenly amongst the henchmen.

2) Room and board. This would be a minimal cost, but is required.

3) Equipment and training costs. This would be a bit more substantial.

It was assumed that upon a PCs death, the player could swap to a henchman and either make that his or her new PC, or work to recover the PC for resurrection. PCs would generally "play" their henchmen during sessions; albeit with the restriction that actions not in-character for a henchman would be prohibited or would result in some loss of morale for the henchman.

In many cases, characters had multiple henchmen. Gygax's character, Mordenkainen, had 4 or 5.

Characters with high charisma, who could easily maintain a large number of henchmen, often would, to the detriment of their wallets.

Due to the requirements above, henchmen were fairly expensive to maintain, in terms of overall party costs. A team of PCs that comprises 6 PCs and 6 henchmen would see each PC's share cut to 2/3rds of what it would be without the henchmen. That additional share, plus the upkeep cost of henchmen, conspired to lessen the purse of many PCs.

I miss the hirelings from Pool of Radiance.
It should be noted that Pool of Radiance did allow your team to recruit followers that would each take a treasure and experience share, akin to henchmen. Unlike a pen and paper game, however, you were limited to a maximum of 2 total henchmen in a 6 player party.

A more accurate experience would involve 1-3 henchmen per Player Character, by level 5 or so, for a total party size of 12-24.

3.1.2. Hirelings

Hirelings, unlike henchmen, would not receive an actual share of treasure, but were instead paid a daily or monthly wage. Also, unlike henchmen, hirelings are entirely considered NPCs and are always under the control of the DM.

Lastly, unlike henchmen, hirelings are often hired in very large quantities as they generally cannot advance past 0 level, and are usually hired as a labor force, or as grunts.

A standard party would need at least 2-3 torch bearers at lower levels, a few folks to cart gold back to town with, and maybe a few 0 level man at arms to either assist in the dungeon, or to protect the other hirelings on the surface.

As characters gain levels, and decide to build and man strongholds, their personnel needs would obviously increase. Hundreds of expert craftsmen to build a castle or cathedral. Hundreds of troops to properly man and fortify a holding.

Rules are codified for all of this, and as it takes a fortune to pay and feed an army, it can become a money sink like no other.

These rules were omitted in the Gold Box games. 

3.1.3. Sages

Magical item identification in AD&D 1st edition is a bit of a mixed bag. Potions can be identified by taking a sip. There is an Identify spell introduced, but it is extremely limited in scope and ability.

Bards are able to discern the attributes of unknown items in some manner as well, but bards are absurdly rare, nearly impossible to make as a PC, and only the higher level ones have a solid chance of success.

As a result, the rules assumed Sages would be hired by PCs in order to identify the traits and abilities of found items that were determined to be magical in nature via "Detect Magic."  A character would deposit the item with a trusted sage, pay a healthy fee determined by the DM, and wait a DM-chosen amount of time for the sage to complete his or her work.

This in theory would allow to very cleanly control money supply. "Sorry, this sage says it will be 30,000 gp to identify this incredibly rare and powerful item you have brought him. Oh you only have 32,000 gp. That terrible….”

In contrast to this, in the Gold Box games the party can simply wander into any store and pay 200 gold to immediately identify any item. That ability simply did not exist in AD&D 1st edition as written. Its inclusion retools the process of identifying magical items from a very difficult and expensive one to an incredibly simple and inexpensive one.

Even worse, they seem to have reduced it to 100 gold by the time of Pools of Darkness.
3.1.4. Granted followers
In AD&D 1st Edition rules, most classes are granted a large number of followers at or around 9th level or 10th level, dependent on class.

These followers tend to reflect the class they are assigned to.

Fighters get a large number of men at arms, a small group of leaders for those men, and a few special troops as personal guards. Clerics receive a similar contingent of religious devotees to guard the churches or temples that they build. Rangers receive a set of nature-based followers: animals, woodland spirits, sentient rangers, and so on.

A character is generally responsible for the upkeep of these followers, which could become quite expensive when one includes room, board, feed, and equipment. In the case of the fighter’s granted troops, one would need to add, at a minimum, several blacksmiths, armorers, and farriers to the roster, just to keep the equipment of said troops in good order.

Granted followers were omitted completely from the Gold Box games.

3.2. Strongholds and fortifications

As mentioned above, PCs would spend a dramatic amount of money building and staffing strongholds and fortifications. A PC can choose to spend anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of GP just building the fortification. Then one has to pay for staffing and maintenance and upkeep.

Often, characters high enough level to build strongholds would own enough valuable items that they need their own strongholds to house them safely, and armies to protect them. When your PCs have a few hundred thousand GP in gems, jewelry, and assorted coin at their disposal, it becomes quite difficult to find and maintain adequate safe locations to house all that wealth.

Despite potentially having serfs on the land they control, PCs would gain minimal amounts of money from actually holding and maintaining any sort of domain or stronghold. As a result, these fortifications and their associated staff of hundreds quickly become a money sink and a motivation to adventure and acquire money.

In a lot of ways, strongholds are the biggest “money sink” included in the original game. A player could feasibly spend his entire career up until 9th level just saving money to build a stronghold.

Upkeep costs, especially when staff-related expenses are taken into account, would be quite heavy--large enough to force a lazy semi-retired adventurer out in search of a dragon hoard or two just to keep up with the bills.

To frame this in a “real world” scenario, how much more money would your average worker have if any and all of his housing costs vanished tomorrow? Most folks would seem drastically overpaid. This omission drastically unbalances the economy of the game.

 4.0. Conclusion

With all of the data above in mind, it becomes exceedingly clear why the economies in the SSI Gold Box games are so broken.

Many of the rules in the game are only referee-able by a human, and require an organic brain in order to run properly. Many of the rules, as written, require human interpretation in order to “work” in a real scenario. Most of the major money sinks were removed.

SSI was adapting a rule set that was written in a disjointed manner and had an accepted playstyle that, in actual practice, generally comprised a sampling of random rules from several, slightly different, rule sets. In reality the rule set they were adapting was something that was honestly never executed “properly” outside of official tournaments. Even then, the accuracy of their implementation was rarely in the 90%+ range.

In addition, the person assigned to adapt these rules had no desire to create a balanced economy in the process of adaptation, and was, in his own words, philosophically opposed to the balance the creator of the game attempted to build into it.

It was built to spill. Tuning would have been trivial, and the implementation of spell components, increased training costs, realistic item identification costs, and either a henchman/hireling or “stronghold” system would have easily bled off that extra cash.

As-is the “meat” of the games, exploration, and combat, are quite enjoyable, so the weakness of this particular facet is excusable.


Chet here for some final thoughts. First of all, I thank OldWowBastard for this incredibly well-researched article that at least tripled my knowledge of tabletop D&D.

I also echo his last statement: these are fantastic games, as their places on my list of "highest rated" titles clearly demonstrate. It's primarily because of how good they were in other areas that the failure to adequately implement this one facet of gameplay is so frustrating.

Many of the ways that SSI could have "fixed" the economy, either by adhering to the original rules or creating their own, would have added significantly to game development time, complexity, disk space, memory, and other "hard" considerations. I wouldn't really have expected them to include hirelings or strongholds, for instance, or even an item-breakage-and-repair system.
Note that by the time of Pools of Darkness, treasure and experience do seem more divorced from each other than in earlier games.
But there are numerous other fixes that would have worked within their existing programming. Bastard covers a few above. My "master list" of such potential fixes would include:

1. Increased costs for training.

2. Higher costs for staying at inns, especially for the multiple days it takes higher-level characters to memorize all spells.

3. Higher costs for item identification, perhaps tied to character level.

4. Roaming healers. In most of the games, the only places to pay for healing are found in towns, when you're perfectly safe to rest at your leisure.

5. Bribing wandering monsters to disappear.

6. Transportation costs. It must require mounts, equipment, and food to gallop around the Moonsea. Having each trip cost a reasonable amount of money would add a tactical element to the otherwise-easy decision whether to frequently return to "home base" for healing, item identification, training, and so forth.

7. Magical items that you actually want to buy. Make them incredibly expensive; I don't care. If at the end of Secret of the Silver Blades, the party combined its amassed gold for the entire game and was just barely able to afford a Girdle of Giant Strength, it would be a much better economy.

8. Eliminate the rule that you lose a point of constitution on successful resurrection. With that rule in place, no one pays for resurrection. They reload.

9. Mimic the "spell components" system by draining money for every spell cast. You'd think twice about spamming "Fireball" in late-game battles.

10. Allow spellcasters to buy specific, named spells instead of just scrolls where they don't know what they're going to get.

11. And, of course, just offer less treasure in general. You could grant each party a tenth of the treasure found in each game and they'd still have more than enough. 
I hope this two-part article has been informative, and that overall you're satisfied with the first "guest post" on the CRPG Addict. I'll think about offering posts from other commenters in the future!