Go Farther: Fantasy Game Economics

Some time ago I wrote, wistfully, that writers of fictions and worldbuilders of all kinds could do better – and have interesting ideas if they focused on economics.  Economics helps you build a world, create plots, and of course, make a story more relatable since we deal with economic issues all the times.

I'd like to return to that issue by noting a specific area of fantasy fiction and gaming – especially gaming – that I'd like to addressed further.  Those of you writing, those of you building games, and so on, keep this in mind.  It will help you create better.

(And this issue really bugs me).

I'd like to see some attention paid to the day-to-day economics of a fantasy setting.  I'm used to stories and games that deal with sword-swinging heroes and vast empires.  But the broad strokes and limited perspectives we see often break down when you try to deal with the "everyday" of your setting.  You can argue that these areas aren't relevant to what you're doing – and they may not be – but when you do have to bring in the everyday, its important.

I can disbelieve enough for dragons and magic.  But when characters and economies in fantasy settings start messing with simple numbers, values, and economic exchanges it takes me right out of it.  Maybe it's just me, but still . . .

Some of the most egregious examples I've seen, and one that continues to stick in my craw, is fantasy games that do the following:

  • Have everything measured in pieces of gold.  Gold in human history was rarely used for everyday transactions.
  • For that matter, in an age of alchemy and ancient kingdoms, how the heck do you even reconcile coinage?  How do you avoid counterfeiting?
  • Try and reconcile an economy where people blow tens of thousands of whatever-the-probably-gold currency is on weapons, where even simple items cost a lot of gold, with the every day economy of people eating.  Sure that meat will heal your party, but why does it cost half the price of a good sword?
  • How does anyone CARRY all this gold/coinage anyway?

Sure some of these are gaming tropes – and to an extent fantasy tropes that are often due to gaming – but when you try and build the world further, adding dialogue or plot points, the tropes quickly fall apart.  In many cases you end up with games whose mechanics seem disconnected from the world and the story itself.

So if you're a game designer (or a fantasy writer) and you want that realistic feeling,  if you can address these economic issues in your game plot, you'll go a long way to adding believability.  A few thoughts:

  • Tired of gold?  Why not call coins by a different name instead of the usual "Gold Piece"
  • Avoiding counterfeiting?  Maybe there are magical means of validating value of some kind, or only specifically stamped coins are used and trusted – and thus any merchant knows how to recognize them.
  • If you're going to throw out the highly expensive stuff, make sure that you make it exotic, not healing beef and statistic-curing tomatoes.  You might even make sure in-game character comment on insanely expensive equipment.
  • For explaining how people carry tons of coinage, well you've got magical bags and other explanations.

Go on game-makers.  Give us a financial system that doesn't wreck our suspension of disbelief – by clinging to old tropes we're used to.

– Steven Savage