The 4E Economy

Many in the grognardosphere are abuzz about the recent post by WotC concerning how they think treasure should be spread out in the new 4.0 version of the game.

I, however, am somewhat more concerned about the second half of the article, which has gleaned not nearly as much attention, which deals with “civilization” and how the implied 4E economy operates.

I should point out here that one of my chief objections to 4E lies not with its mechanics (although I do have some problems with those), but rather with the assumptions it makes regarding setting. Specifically, it forces certain assumptions on settings which, by rights, should be setting specific. The lack of half-orcs and gnomes, and the forced inclusion of tieflings is only one example, and a rather cosmetic one at that (although its one which will turn the Forgotten Realms upside-down in just a few months, and some FR fans are justifiably upset). The “points of light” assumption is one which has much greater implications when it comes to Greyhawk, and to date I’ve not yet seen anyone argue against a 4E treatment of Greyhawk on that basis.

But specific to this post are the explicit economic assumptions that are built into the new game. First and foremost is the notion that magical items have but one of two destinies. Either they will be sold off for 20% of their value, or the PCs are expected to melt them down through a “disenchanting” ritual (woe betide the party that doesn’t have a magic-user who can perform the proper ritual) and gain gold or X.P. that way. Concomitant with this is the notion that magical items will be available for sale; the article states so outright (although I have to wonder if the author really knows where the City of Brass is supposed to be located; doesn’t 4E do away with the Elemental Plane of Fire?).

I must wonder also at the notion that there are scattered tiny villages, each with its own inn (which implies a thriving traveling culture), which are visited by wandering merchants (which has its own raft of implications). Does this really jive with the stated design philosophy of 4E, which is “islands of light in a sea of darkness”? Is trade really so lucrative that merchants are willing to brave not only the normal bandits and brigands that a traditional D&D world possesses, but the monster-ridden wilderness that spreads between those tiny outposts of civilization? The above-referenced article implies that adventurers are the primary customers; the implications inherent in THAT are manifold…

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

1 thought on “The 4E Economy

  1. I would strongly agree with the problems and issues you identify.

    It seems to me that the default economy of the PHB is not intended to be reflective of a campaign setting but is merely a reflection of rules mechanics. As such it probably functions fine for say, the RPGA or other "tournament play" or even a home campaign where the game is limited to dungeon crawls.

    It doesn't make any sense as a subjective economy. But truth be told, I don't need it to be. When I run a campaign, I'll design my own economy and not follow these ideals, or at least not remotely closely. I'd probably still use the treasure guidelines as a rough estimate of balance, but altered so as to fit my baseline economy.

    But I think it is impossible for the PHB to go beyond mechanics. An economy is too specific to a campaign setting.

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