Vendors and Economics

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:

[Vendor Name]
[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)]
[Personal Adjustments]

* 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?

9 thoughts on “Vendors and Economics

  1. connorbros

    I’m coming at this more from a video game perspective than a tabletop perspective (since I don’t have that much experience with the latter).

    A lot of these ideas are really interesting. I think the trouble of recreating those more real life components in video games can be found in and around how much variability can be packed into a static code (not thinking MMO here, since that in itself often creates a very real system). Unless the system is constantly changing in a way that doesn’t feel stale there is generally going to be the point where if the gamer understands the system and the event drivers, then it settles into something more set and manipulatable. Without economics patches of some sort, I feel like it would be extremely hard to not end up with lasting arbitrage in the system.

    But this is a poor reason to not add complexities to the system. I really like the liquidity and purchase cap ideas. I think that is a fairly easy to implement mechanic that could go a long way. Ultimately, I feel like adding complexities/variables to the economics structure, though may not eliminate that ultimate plateau of things becoming more set and less dynamic, greatly heightens that plateau point… perhaps beyond many people’s interest to climb. I think this would be quite good, if the game only ever got to a rigid structure feeling for those that really wanted to delve into the system. The only issue with that then becomes how easy is it to relay that set system with given arbitrage opportunities to other people… because the internet with guides and walkthroughs often make that bypass all to enticing. Though that is the players choice I suppose.

    I also really like the idea that you could set those mulitpliers to their standard 1x, 2x. I’m all for player choice. I could really get into a system like this, but I could see people that might feel frustrated by the system. There is a nicety about the simplicity of the trope that could be a nice fallback.

    The only games I can think of with vague attempts at barter elements felt more like side components than the main system. I’m thinking of Suikoden 2 and The Last Story, which had some kind of commodities style price fluctuation. But it never felt that relevant enough for me to really jump into the system. More often than not I would just buy a ton of anything that was cheap and then eventually stumble upon a place where that stuff could fetch me a profit… though in Suikoden 2 you needed to care about the system slightly more because you needed to use it to get a character.

    But if the complexities pervaded the entire sale/purchase system, it would push the player to really get into the system and care. And that caring/investment in the system is a great thing.

    Perhaps for a tabletop game with a GM, the “patches” component don’t matter as much because you have the human element. I feel like perhaps it would be more important to have created a strong enough structure such that it can nearly play itself without feeling like the GM is not overly taking actions for or against the players on a continual basis.

    Sorry about this explosive comment 😛 I just like the topic of economics in games and it doesn’t necessarily fit into my Life Lessons kind of column… though maybe I could work something out of it haha. Anyways, great ideas! I quite enjoyed reading it.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      No problem, I like the discussion. To me, the difficulty of doing this right is that you need to design something that’s just complex enough to be engaging, and then stop. If it’s over-complicated, too much energy is wasted on it and it disrupts the fluid action of the game.

      For example, part of me wants to develop a method for increasing and decreasing prices based on some sort of supply and demand – maybe defining a certain set of commodities along the way. That 60,000th wolf pelt really shouldn’t be worth the same as the 1st, right? As the GM, I can patch the system, and I think that’s my answer – but part of me wants an objective system.

      1. connorbros

        You make a good point of avoiding over complexity. I’m always a fan of very intricate, deep systems and I am fine exploring these without losing steam. I think when done well, vast systems of mechanics can be fun even if they are never fully understood, kind of like the SaGa games or something (mechanically, not necessarily economically). But, much like the SaGa games, it isn’t for everyone. I can see how over complexity can 1) be a pain to keep track of and 2) leads people to get frustrated with the system.

        I think that objective/subjective balance will be pretty important in creating a satisfying system in line with what you are thinking.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Thanks for the link, I hadn’t seen that one.

      I could write a whole post about the difficulty of role playing all the shop keepers you’ll encounter in the world – and whether there’s any value in doing it. That’ll go in my list of potential topics…

      1. Andrew

        Yeah. I can see a benefit to it too…the problem is there are so many to play. Old Beldane could be seen as a vendor, and interacting with her and others (that old hermit that the party has totally forgotten about) that are more fully developed characters definitely enhance the immersion in the game, rather than pretending the party is traveling to Ye Olde’ Walmarte where everything you could ever need is available.

  2. connorbros

    I don’t have much else to add here besides the fact that it’s a great topic and an opportunity for a lot of depth.

    From a video game angle, the Elder Scrolls games add a lot of depth simply by enforcing encumbrance and giving vendors a limit on what they will buy, and a set amount of money for a given period of, say, a day or two. It’s not complicated, and once you know your way around you can certainly manipulate it, but it does encourage scavenging behaviour of ‘weight versus approximate value’, as well as seeking out the right vendors to peddle your hard earned wares. Sometimes finding a vendor with a higher spending limit is reason enough to go exploring to a new area, and that’s fantastic gameplay interaction.

    Moreover, this is in a single player game with no real penalties for manipulating the system. I guess my major point is that with just these two major points, you can get a lot out of it… especially in a system like D&D which might have other costs for ‘waiting a few days’.

    Nothing groundbreaking, but a solid reference point, I feel.


  3. Andy

    I am ok with where we’re trending here but remember that you only have so much time to prepare and we only have so much time to play. I’m not sure that coming up with inflation, currency exchange, monetary supply, etc are the things we’re going to really want to spend that valuable time working through. Is it really worth it for us to spend an hour going around to various shops in town to find the one piece of equipment that we really like?

    I’d venture to say we’d probably handle that offline as it stands anyways. Having said that, I’m not particularly opinionated either way. I do think it adds immersion. Tough call.

    I definitely agree with some of the simpler ideas you bring up, like MAX item value that can be purchased/sold in a given shop/town. Or even type of items that can be purchase/sold in a given shop/town.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Yeah, I’ll see what I can do… can’t have so many shops everywhere to deal with all of this. Would need to plan out a handful ahead of time, and the others might go to a ‘default’ shop, which I think I would need to provide in the rules – where a default shop has somewhat below average pricing on anything outside of their specialty.


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