Tuesday, August 18, 2020

On the Wealth of Cities - Warhammer edition, and on the impact of low gold on a campaign

In a previous post, I made calculations on how much wealth a city had - it's GDP, based on an "economic yardsick" - the amount a laborer made.

But this was for 5e, a "wealthy" system where gold is plentiful.  What about a system that is a bit more realistic, where finding 10 gold pieces is a bit of a big deal?   Enter Warhammer - more precisely, Warhammer frpg 2nd edition.

A woman with an eye-patch stands in a courtyard and gestures to a man sheepishly pleading to her
By Arthur Rakham

The Warhammer coinage is roughly based on the medieval system, where 1 gold (crown) = 20 silver (shilling) = 240 copper (pence).  This means that one gold piece is worth more, but I also note that this system, in my experience, is about as complex as most players will tolerate - don't get too complex!

So in 5e, our laborer makes 2 silvers a day.   In Warhammer, a laborer would be making 10 pence (10 coppers), or a little less than a silver (since it takes 12 coppers to make a silver).  This means that 5e is a little more than twice as "expensive" as Warhammer - or four time if you consider that it takes *20* silver pieces to make a gold, not 10!

(Re laborer cost:  Interestingly, if you look at the yearly income of a peasant (9-15 gp per year), the unskilled laborer is being paid on the high end of the scale.  I suppose that is why the labor is available - why go work for some guy carrying stuff or digging a ditch, when you could be home peasanting instead? Because it pays more.  For those with the book, compare table 5-1 and 5-18.)

At this point, I thought about doing further calculations but... that's not fun content is it?  So I'm happy with the answer "GDP and rewards should be 1/4 than what they are in 5e" and leave it at that. 

Buuut that isn't the case in Warhammer.  Rewards in Warhammer are *small*.  A mercenary makes 20-50 GP a year... and that's the kind of gold that will motivate a PC to risk their lives.  It's a grim, grubby world.  In the introductory adventure in the main book, the PCs are escorting a small band of villagers - not for money, but because there is strength in numbers and the area is perilous.  If they are lucky, they may find a relic worth 100 gp.  So 25 gp each for a party of 4 - that would be considered a *very* successful venture by Warhammer terms - it's a year's salary!

Now at first level in D&D, (multiply by 4), PCs wouldn't be too upset at gaining 100 gp each... but the difference is that the rewards never really ramps up in Warhammer, unlike D&D where finding 10 000's worth of GPs in an adventure is likely at higher level.   Every new piece of equipment (armor and guns are particularly expensive relative to the rewards) is dearly needed and requires a lot of work to obtain.

And it's not just "I need armor to increase my chance of survival".  The Warhammer system has a "career" system that is roughly analogous to class (2nd career adventurers would be mid-level, and third career is "high levels").  To enter those new careers so you can progress, you need the career's trappings (i.e. its gear).  You can't be a knight without a horse can you?  And it has to be a destrier incidentally , which is worth 500 gp.  Even considering you may have started with a regular horse (80 gp) that you could sell to "upgrade", the costs are high.  Not all advance careers have such onerous requirements, but you get the picture - you probably need gold to "level up".

(Interestingly, once you have entered the new career, you can lose all your stuff and still be in it - it's just to make the jump that they are needed.  No renting a horse doesn't count.)

So what are the consequences of having a low-reward campaign.   Well on the good side, your PCs will almost never become jaded with getting gold (in 5e you can't buy magical items easily, so PCs can accumulate a lot of cash after a while).  Third Career PCs will probably be relatively well off - they already own most of the gear they want, they can afford that fat 5 gp bribe to a guard.  However, if a noble offers them 1 gp a day each(!) to guard them during a month-long trip through a dangerous forest, the party will most probably accept (that would be a noble splurging for the best sell-swords in the city, essentially).   I think that's a great thing...

BUT it comes at a cost.  Say the party is attacked by brigands and defeat them.  Their main treasure will not be coins and gems; it's going to be their gear.  Weapons, armor, even clothes, supplies and utility items... They are precious loot for the PC.  Even considering the loot may have to be sold for a 1/4 value to a fence that won't ask questions; it's worth doing for first-career adventurers. Third career adventurers probably won't bother anymore, but at first career.. you might not have *any* armor at all!  (a full set of leather armor is 25 gp).  Add living costs (roughly half a gold a week for decent living standards), and the PCs will most likely act like scavengers for quite some time.

(I will note that this has historical accuracy.  The word "rob" comes from the French "derober" or "disrobe" - because brigands would literally steal the clothes of traveler's back.)

I'm not speculating about this happening during play, incidentally.  I have, in the past, run a number of Warhammer campaigns, and this is what happened.

So it's a tradeoff.  A low gold campaign has added tension - the PCs are hungry for money to get equipment, or even just to pay costs of living! BUT you may end up with a lot of scrounging and scavenging.  In  the grim perilous world of Warhammer, that's not too bad.  But for some other games... this may not fit the tone you were hoping to get.   Furthermore, figuring out the cost of every salvageable item takes time, and it will be something you'll have to do as a GM.

P.S.  I can't help but note the parallels between some OSR system's XP system, which is based on gold earned, and Warhammer, where gold can (doesn't always) act as a "gate keeper) to the entry to some advanced classes.  While both systems have flaws and benefits, I note that I find the Warhammer system to be superior.  Both systems make the PCs hungry for money, not combat (combat in Warhammer is dangerous!) but it avoid adventures "having" to have money (because otherwise the PC would not advance), which bothers me to be frank.


  1. Great post; very thought provoking. Reading "Voices of Morebath" a study of a parish during the English Reformation really impressed on me the scarcity and value of money even as late as the mid 1500s.

    1. I didn't know about this, very interesting.

      Trying to be historically accurate in an RPG game is difficult, and perhaps not the most important thing (I think internal consistency is more important, but even *that* is harder than people realize).

      What matters most is "is this fun? Is this working?" And the low reward style of Warhammer is more historically accurate and it *can* be fun, but... it isn't for everyone I suppose (it worked well enough for us though).

      In one campaign I had the party on retainer for a good portion of it. Having a base salary helped a bit.