It is pretty common to complain that the d20 economy – whether in 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, or many another version – is broken. After all, the rules are full of exploits that “ought” to get you all kinds of cash, ranging from the simple and stupid (“Iron is worth 1 SP per pound and is classified as a Trade Good so I can get full price. I buy a thousand 100 Lb Iron Anvils for 5 GP each and sell them as Iron for 10 GP each!”) on through various methods of exploiting skills like Profession or Crafting, casting spells that produce salable materials or items (“Wall of Salt” or “Fabricate”), right on up to abusing Crafting Magical Items. This wasn’t a problem before third edition because – before then – getting money got you experience points, but the money itself was basically useless afterwards – at least to you personally. Magic items generally weren’t for sale, it took quests rather than money and die rolls to make them, and you could only eat so much fine food – so all you could do with your money was buy land, build castles, rescue orphans, and so on.
But after 3.0 came along money translated directly to personal power – and the best way to get more power was to supposed to be to go out and adventure and gain more experience and money. Unless they were supported by things like the “Landlord” feat (which got you a pot of money that you could not use for anything but building a stronghold) paying for castles and charities and such just left you way behind the power curve – and if a particular character got a hold of too much money they would outshine everyone else.
Suddenly, to keep personal power at the appropriate levels, the game master had to enforce Wealth by Level. (And, incidentally, kill off things like the classical “Ever Full Purse”). Now that the players were really concerned about what happened to the money, they wanted to take up sidelines in merchandising. Previously artworks, crowns and jewels, and similar stuff had just tended to pile up; since money didn’t really do anything, there was no real point in trying to convert them to cash. But now a handful of self-contradictory price charts and rules about selling loot that had been meant to create challenging (but easily survivable) logistics and supply problems for low level types got pressed into service as an economic engine.
That has yet to work.
There have been a lot of proposed fixes. The only ones that really work basically discard wealth, and the system of magical items built around it, generally in favor of personal talents and perhaps a few modifiers for being “poor”, “well-off”, or “rich” – the approach used in The Practical Enchanter. There is another approach though; you can simply accept the rules.
If you do that… then D20 doesn’t have an “Economy”. It has a very superficial list of goods and a vague illusion of currency, trade, and economic activity glossing over the mysterious laws of nature or divine mandates that enforce Wealth By Level. There may be variances – some Feats or special skills may let a character get a limited allowance of extra funds, or let you get some items at half the usual cost, or something – but the universe/GM will find a way to enforce those wealth by level limits (and keep the game playable) regardless.
Are you planning on breaking Wealth-By-Level by selling masses of Salt from your Wall of Salt?
Then Wealth-By-Level will actively fight back = and it blatantly has the power to govern the entire world, and all it’s monsters, deities, and powers, without any serious difficulty. It has a LOT more power and resources than you do.
Perhaps the exchange rate will collapse, or – at least as likely – you will simply get entangled in adventures that lack rewards other than experience points and getting to keep the money you just acquired until your level is once again appropriate to your wealth. Perhaps you will have to break the royal monopoly that the salt cartel holds, and evade their assassins, and investigate their heavily guarded “salt mine:, and deal with their attempt to get you outlawed, and then fight the wizard who uses “Wall of Salt” to supply THEM with cheap salt, and so on and so on. It will just keep going until your wealth-to-level ratio is back to normal.
Or perhaps currency manipulations will undermine your fortunes. Or a monster stampede will come through and destroy your house and scatter much of your wealth. Will thieves and taxes put in an unwelcome appearance? Will your faith call for a Crusade? Will you suddenly have to support a bunch of orphaned relatives?
Those below their allotted Wealth-by-Level will find it easy to buy cheap. Those above it will find it impossible to sell high. Similarly, short of voluntary asceticism or short-term efforts to live above their station (fairly common during courtships) a characters lifestyle will correlate with their wealth level without impacting on it. High level characters will eat splendid meals, sleep in feather beds in the finest inns, give generously to charity, pay their taxes, and live in castles without it impacting their personal wealth and power; such minor expenses will be covered by gifts, taxes and rents from their own properties, sycophants currying favor, people wanting to persuade them to undertake various missions, politicians trying to use their reputations, and so on, Characters with low wealth by level will find themselves eating cheap meals in equally cheap inns, being victims of petty theft, having to pay taxes and fees, being victimized by petty scams, having to pay small bribes to keep the local officials and constabulary off their backs, having to constantly repair or replace their worn, low-quality, (if functional) gear, being cheated of their pay, and otherwise being constantly drained of any excess funds gained from their jobs or other sources.
Fortunately, the “laws” of Wealth By Level are a bit more complicated than a simple chart.
- Characters with an relevant skill get two-thirds off the cost of the relevant category of mundane items of the appropriate type. Weaponsmiths can make their own weapons, cooks can make their own meals and rations, and so on. Some Eclipse-Style “Occult” skills may provide
- Characters with an appropriate item creation Feat can get 50% off the cost of a particular category of magical gear.
- Characters with feats devoted to normal kinds of wealth – “Landlord”, or “Stronghold” and “Mighty Fortress”, or “Imbuement” (which effectively provides you with a free magical weapon, freeing up that cash for other purposes), or similar, basically get a free, scaling, pool of “cash” (or some equivalent) to devote to such purposes.
- Characters with particular special abilities devoted to obtaining generic cash – whether those are class abilities or Eclipse abilities such as “Stipend”, “Major Privilege: Wealthy”, or “Tenebrium’s Coin” – generally get a +1 bonus on their effective level for purposes of calculating their Wealth by Level. If they have many such abilities they MIGHT get a +2 – but there would need to be a very good reason for a Game Master to allow that.
- A character could take a one level penalty to their Wealth by Level as a disadvantage – but few will want to.
- The Game Master may opt to apply a circumstantial adjustment. If a character or party is doing a lot better than expected – whether by managing to accomplish some extraordinary (even for adventurers) feat, pulling off some really clever series of schemes, or gaining the backing of some mighty empire (or perhaps are second-generation adventurers with concerned and high-level parents), then treating them as being a level – or possibly even two levels – higher for their Wealth by Level calculations may be in order. Unfortunately, such adjustments are temporary. They will fade after a time – most often as the characters go up in level and “catch up”. Circumstantial reductions (the characters have been shipwrecked, they have been outlawed and cut off from some of their usual sources of supply, etc) may impose equally temporary penalties. In either case, such effects do not have to manifest as new or lost equipment; magical items can be powered up or lose power as the prayers of the faithful on your behalf, or the gratitude of the orphans, or your reputation, or any of a thousand other possible sources of magical power wax and wane.
- This, of course, also provides many motives for adventuring; if a part of your personal power relies on some external power source, you now have quite a motive for developing and protecting that power source – or for attacking your enemies power sources to undermine them.
- Optionally, Game Masters using this system may choose to permit tradeoffs of Wealth and Level – allowing characters to take a penalty to their effective level for everything else in order to obtain more wealth, or vice versa. For example…
- A goodly priest gives so much of his wealth to charity that his Wealth by Level rating is two whole levels below normal – but the gods are so impressed by his generosity that he gains a +1 to his effective level as a Cleric.
- A sorceress might spend so much time selling spells, making items, and managing her money that her effective Wealth by Level is two levels higher than usual – but this leaves her little time to develop her personal powers – reducing her effective level as a Sorceress by one.
Finally, of course, if you want to discard Wealth-by-Level (and all the economic arguments that go with it, including bothersome questions like “why is the Paladin getting another +1 to his sword that he will hardly notice instead of spending that 40,000 GP feeding the countries starving children for ten years?”), Eclipse will let you do that. Dump conventional magic items in favor of Literary Relics (Samples HERE), Charms and Talismans and (possibly) the Wealth Levels from The Practical Enchanter, and just build your characters to function without an arsenal of magical items. Alternatively you can use the Talents rules (again from The Practical Enchanter), or skills like Legendarium, Dream-Binding, and the Shadowed Galaxy Equipment and Action Skills.
And thus the real answer to “Help me make sense of the d20 Economy!” questions is “First, disbelieve… you are trying to “make sense” out of an illusion”.