A lot of games, especially RPGs (and especially MMORPGs), make a big deal about the economy of finding and selling loot. It’s a standard trope that makes advancement possible from an equipment standpoint. My question is, what about this is fun, and what isn’t? For a discussion of vendor design for an MMORPG check out this link.
Upgrading Equipment is Interesting
There are plenty of games that prove this. Diablo and Borderlands come to mind as games where the never-ending search for the greatest loot is one of the reasons people play it so obsessively. Because we’re planning on having a grittier fantasy game, this means instead of having tons of loot attributes that combine in millions of ways, equipment needs to go backwards – at least to begin the game. Maybe your fighter couldn’t afford a suit of armor and a longsword, and so you’re wearing a leather tunic and holding a dull hunting knife. Next time you get back to town though, you have your eye on a brand new knife from the blacksmith. If you can hold out a little longer though, you might just be able to spring for that low quality short sword on consignment. Eventually, the heroes can come into their own and acquire something like the The Green Destiny Sword from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
How to Upgrade?
The traditional model is that the players fight monsters, gather loot, and return to town to sell it. I’m not sure how much I really enjoy the idea of stripping down every enemy after your combat, and lugging their armor and materials around to town to sell them. I think encumbrance is the only real way to stop this from happening. If the players are far from town, they’ll be more likely to ignore the heavier and less valuable junk, and focus on gathering treasure with actual value.
I think encumbrance is necessary, when you’re playing a low-power game, to keep players from going out and having one fight, dragging back bits and pieces of worn and used equipment to sell – because otherwise, that’s exactly the way you’d think to “farm money.” An unlimited faucet of junk “treasures” that players have to farm is not my idea of an interesting session.
That being said, I think that players should think carefully about the wealth they’re acquiring – it’s a major reason most adventurers are adventuring. Early on, their just trying to afford some reasonable quality equipment, so they’re scrounging coppers. It might be an interesting evening if the players decide that the best way to acquire some coppers is to collect on that reward poster in town square, or start trading in spice along the Great Spice Road, or to sell some exotic animal hides – so I don’t want to disparage the buying and selling of stuff – just that in a lot of RPGs, any equipment not in coins might as well have been translated to “gold coins” for the inventory list – since encumbrance isn’t well-enforced and because the objects themselves have a standard value and will be sold as junk.
In another post, I’ll try to tackle the value of a bottle of rare wine in an RPG to the player, which I think is an interesting and complicated question.
So, the trope is that each town is going to have a weapon vendor, an armor vendor, a spell vendor, etc. Here are a couple of issues I have with how vendors work in RPGs.
1. They tend to have unlimited money
You have a Diamond the size of a fist to sell? Sure – it’s worth a cool 250k, but there’s not a vendor in hundreds of miles that has that kind of liquidity
2. They tend not to change their prices based on circumstance.
I’ll buy a wolf hide for a gp, but bring me 62,418 wolf hides? I’m not giving you 62,418 gp!
3. Pricing and Arbitrage
How much is a short sword? Look it up in the Player’s Handbook!
We need to have starting equipment prices and it would be painful to have the players negotiate with the GM to acquire it, but at some point does it make sense for every vendor to charge and pay exactly the same prices?
Obviously, it doesn’t. Some vendors are better off than others, some have a wealthier clientele, some just plain don’t like you and won’t give you a good deal. The real question is, how fun is it to play in a game world where you’re getting different prices on all of your loot from different people? Do you want to keep track of the fact that the shop keeper in the Clergy District buys fruit at a 20% premium? Do you want to travel from city to city to find the best deals and buyers? And what’s the benefit of befriending a vendor? Will a vendor just GIVE you that axe in a time of need?
So, different prices, on one hand, give you some immersion in the game. Sally won’t buy bows, because she sells shields. Billy will buy shields for a premium, because their town lost the local shield maker. But it can also can turn into an annoyance for players! Do you remember what salt was selling for in Freemarch? We should have waited to sell it in Aberhelm! Too bad we didn’t find those silk scarves two weeks ago though, because if we had them in Brier Hollow we’d be getting 25% more for silk.
Still, some of this is fun. You found a bottle of rare wine? Well, if you met and talked to the mayor you’d know he was a wine connoisseur and willing to pay out 4,000 gp for the wine that the local vendor doesn’t even recognize and is offering you 25 gp for. It’s interesting, I think, to make those connections with the world and have them turn into useful rewards. I think this has to be used sparingly though, maybe 2-5 specialty shops in the whole of a campaign, or else it turns into a scavenger hunt exercise.
So, for game design purposes, I think I’ll want to build a formal structure for a vendor to be something like:
[Purchase Cap per Item]
[Equipment Type A] [Sales Multiplier (1.5 – 3.0)] [Purchase Multiplier (0.1 – 1.3)]
[Equipment Type B] [Sales Multiplier (1.5 – 3.0)] [Purchase Multiplier (0.1 – 1.3)]
[Faction Adjustments (ex. Faction A: +0.1 Purchase Multiplier; or Faction B: Won’t Buy/Sell)]
* item value is based on 1.0 = common sales price of the item to a vendor (not retail price)
* Any equipment type not listed is purchased at multiplier of 0.1
And this vendor structure would basically be an optional rule for groups that wanted to see arbitrage like this in their game. If players hate the idea of going from town to town shopping for deals, it’s easy to set everything back to a base where you sell items to a vendor at value x1.0 and buy items from a vendor at value x2.0.
Also, I’m not sure what you all think should be the base price of the item: Sales Price, Purchase Price, or something in the middle like True Price. Technically, it doesn’t matter which is picked, but, essentially, would you rather be doubling or halving?