Why on earth would low-level PCs care about finding 456 cp?
Low level PCs have already been through character creation, where they’ve spend a better quantity of resources on simple, worldly things that are going to help them in their adventurous exploits. Aside from that first of many magic items, there’s not a lot you can give a PCs that have a game-function value in an economic model. There’s tons of cool story stuff you can give them — “The orcs have manacles among their belongings. They must have been raiding for slaves!” or “Among the heretics’ belongings are alchemical substances. Perhaps they believe they can transmute common substances to gold.” — but unless those are followed up on or have weight in the game world, they’re not likely to be seen as rewards.
The problem is, the money sinks in many modern tabletop games aren’t valid extensions of the larger activity. In Vampire, you either have the Resources to make your purchase or you don’t. There’s no mugging people at the bus stop to get money for a limo to take to the Prince’s mansion. Certainly, some Vampire stories center around finances, but those are usually MacGuffins — cripple the assets of a rival Kindred to lay him low and reduce his power, not heist a bunch of money to buy Aaron’s Feeding Razors for the whole coterie. In the rules and setting, collecting money just isn’t that big of a deal for vampires.
Many older games seemingly have a better grasp of the money-harvest mechanics by having sinks for the money gathered. Older versions of D&D, for example, assume that the character is socking away money for a stronghold, which is really expensive and which he’ll ultimately do endgamey (or at least property-ownery) type stuff once that stronghold is built: magical research, training fighters, fence loot, etc. that’s different from the core adventure-driven exercises
I don’t necessarily care about realism here, I care about the mechanics of a system with extrinsic rewards undermining the intrinsic fun of play. In D&D, fighting monsters and overcoming traps is the fun part (now; again, the economic model used to have a more focused assumed end goal). Now that the setting gives me my power-ups in the form of level achievement and the magical-item treasure I need to continue facing the scaling challenges, why should a player care about collecting GP at all? Especially at lower levels when the rewards are so meager as to literally not be worth the effort. Four hundred and fifty-six copper pieces isn’t even half a GP, and it weighs either 45 pounds or around 10 pounds, depending on your ruleset. Who in their right mind would encumber themselves for such a hardscrabble reward?
This works, I suppose, for settings in which life is hard, money is rare and thus more valuable, etc., but the common assumption is that money is easy to find for bold adventurers and even more so the higher your level rises. There’s no increasing cost of living for higher-level characters.
There’s some acknowledgement of value in the various “trade goods” tables that show up in game setting source material, but those rarely solve the problem. I’m a second-level cleric. What am I going to do with a cow, a goose, or a pound of salt? The implication is that I’m going to take it where I can get a premium for it, but:
- That’s what NPC merchant caravans are for, and if they’re not,
- “Ferry trade goods back and forth” is a fine campaign model, but not really one in the spirit of most adventure games, and
- I’m a goddamned cleric, or sorcerer, or thief, or fighter. Why the hell am I trucking groceries back and forth?
At least in Traveller, when I cared about my cargo, I was either going to rip it off and spend the money on a better ship, or I was going to legitimately take it from A to B (probably get in some adventures along the way) and use the proceeds to buy a better ship. There’s the money sink model at work, and there’s a basis for a merchant-caravan campaign that’s more exciting than chasing a flock of geese from Swampton to Mucklesborough.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, both in terms of my recent Vampire work, and for the Pagan Lands project I’m working on. What’s a reasonable reward — one that fits into the intrinsic-fun play model rather than being an abstracted, extrinsic “score” like GP I can’t possibly spend all of? In Vampire, the goal is exceedingly rarely the resource I’m gathering. In Pagan Lands, I’m assuming the old-school D&D model of wanting to build a frontier stronghold somewhere. But for Pathfinder and 4E campaigns, seriously: What am I supposed to do with my money? Conan and Fafhrd and the Mouser used to spend a lot of their money on, um, “lifestyle,” and I’ve seen neat rules for that in various swords & sorcery themed games, but in general, where does my money go?