Haggling with the Blacksmith

Inventory management is a part of most ongoing D&D games. In some games, it is a background element. The Dungeon Master lets the characters take anything. Adventurers are the ultimate packrats. They love stuff, particularly shiny stuff. And when the time comes to sell off goods, characters can dump their packs’ voluminous contents on the countertop of the nearest shop to receive a proportional amount of gold.

In other games, inventory management is its own mini-game. Players might have to track weight, space, and expendable resources, such as food, water, and ammunition. Neither system is inherently wrong; the usefulness of inventory managements depends on the tone of your game and the degree to which the players are willing to buy into it.

In my recent Dark Sun game, I decided to implement rigorous inventory management standards. In my previous two 4E games, I let players ignore ammunition, weight limits, and resources, and I let them conduct business at shops during off-game time. Managing resources was not integral to the setting or the tone of those two games.

Dark Sun is different, because characters live and die by the resources they carry on their sweaty backs. Characters have to make tough choices about what they carry with them and what they leave behind. In any D&D game, Dark Sun or otherwise, inventory management comes down to two things:

The survival factor of inventory management comes into play only in settings where the natural resources are limited. Gamma World and Dark Sun are examples, although with Gamma World, the tone of the game makes the need for such a system questionable. An average D&D game, in which sojourns into the wilderness are scarcely more than a few days, makes survival-based resource management unimportant. Characters have frequent access to taverns, farmsteads, and bountiful forests filled with delicious woodland creatures. However, if you want to experiment with forcing players to manage their resources in a traditional D&D game, the Underdark is a great place to do so.

In my opinion, money is too abundant in most D&D games. When adventurers are carrying around thousands of gold pieces by level 3, money loses its meaning. In my recent Dark Sun game, I divided all monetary rewards by 10 while leaving costs the same. In other words, when the characters would normally receive 10 gold pieces in treasure, they instead receive one gold piece. As a result, I’ve seen players begin to hoard money and save up to spend it on mundane resources. When gold and silver are limited, the choice between buying an extra survival day and buying a second weapon in case you break your first ones becomes an interesting choice (rather than an obvious one—the obvious choice being to buy both, since you can afford both).

To promote money as a resource that must be managed, I’ve gone back to old school shopping. To buy or sell equipment, particularly when the characters are not in a major city, I require the characters to go find a shop and see what that shop has available. To that effect, I’ve created a Equipment Tables in Microsoft Excel that determines what resources a shop has, and whether the price is inflated or deflated based on supply. I realize that doesn’t sound like the most exciting experience, but it actually gives me some solid hooks for roleplaying and provides a degree of verisimilitude. For example, when the characters come across an elven trader on the road, I can drum up some supplies from my list, and those supplies tell a story about what that elven trader has been doing (crafting weapons, stealing from nearby caravans, buying and selling from Balican mercenaries, etc). Having an inventory list for a shop tells me what a shopkeeper will or will not pay for. If a shopkeeper already has four flails, it’s unlikely he’ll want another one, or at least that he’ll pay well for it.

Having players manage their resources promotes verisimilitude in your game, but it should be used with caution. Inventory management is a mini-game that not every player likes, and it requires fastidious note-taking and players willing to play by the rules. As always, talk to your players about your intentions, and find out whether it’s something that is rewarding for them, or whether they feel like it distracts from what’s important in the game. Manage player expectations. In my game, I asked the players how they felt about it, and they agreed that it made Dark Sun feel more gritty and post-apocalyptic. In another setting, they might feel completely different.

12 thoughts on “Haggling with the Blacksmith

  1. You really hit on something for me here, as I’ve almost always hand waved inventory and encumbrance within my “generic” fantasy setting games. All within reason of course, no one is going to carry a solid golden idol the size of a human being around on their backs, etc.

    However Dark Sun seems extremely relevant when it comes to things like this, almost a survival horror aspect (minus the horror) where players are constantly weighing things like “more ammo, or more rations”.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about my own game, with my players being in Ravenloft and all, it’s a rather desolate place to begin with and magic items are even an extreme rarity in my game (aside from starting loot because the PC’s are from various other realms – FR, Nentir Vale, etc.) They are just about to travel beyond Barovia and into Markovia where only the beast men dwell, perhaps it’s high time I start asking them to track everything it is they really need.

    Thanks for the thought provoking read as usual, it’s good to know people like you are behind developing my favorite game. Cheers!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jerry. It’s a fine line to walk—trying to make inventory management meaningful without being tedious. I think Ravenloft is another one of those settings where it could really work well, though.

  2. I used to do this before in my old campaigns, like tracking each arrow or bolt used and what is remaining, then I found out that my only archer player always forgets to deduct his arrows. I gave up and just plainly explained to my players that during rests it is understood that the archer carves or makes new arrows from the surroundings.

    But in Dark Sun, it will mean something totally different. i’ll do this in my next and first Dark Sun campaign. Thanks for post. I appreciate it. :D

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t gone so far as to force the players to track ammunition, but instead, that’s one area where I’m willing to just hand-wave. Still, I occasionally throw in a quiver of arrows into the treasure to justify why the ranger never runs out.

  3. Wait, you let PCs in your Dark Sun campaign get treasure? Shhh… when my players hear this…

    Seriously, I agree. In both my home campaign and Ashes of Athas we limit magic and loot to represent the settings tone of survival. So far, player reaction is positive because they get what is being done and like a realistic setting. The challenges are still appropriate.

    Curious: what do you do for rituals in this resource-poor and magic-hating world?

    1. Most of their treasure is mundane stuff that they end up selling off for a few silver or gold pieces. They’ve gotten a few boons and “magic items,” although most of the magic items have been stuff I could write-off as mundane gear. They’ll probably be getting some of their first REAL magic items soon, though, since they’re heading into some ancient ruins that date back to the Red Age.

  4. I can rarely ever get my players to keep track of ammunition or rations (with one or two exceptional players), and never to keep track of weight limits. When I play (which is rare), I keep track of each arrow I shoot and each extended rest takes down another day’s worth of rations, but my casual players cannot be made to do the same. I let it slide because it’s not that much of an issue; we play in high magic and high gold worlds where treasure is abundant for adventurers and in mid-heroic tier, ammunition costs not even a fraction of what they have. I’d like to play a Dark Sun style game (maybe not in Athas, but a world with similar themes of survival without all the desert) and see how the low equipment works.

    1. Having just run a game in which treasure was abundant, I found this to be a nice change of pace. Granted, it does require the DM to do a little more work, since I have to be vigilant to make sure the characters don’t end up too underpowered. Still, so far it’s been rewarding.

  5. Nice one, Greg! The point about adventure hooks is a good one, giving the DM more opportunity to write adventure(s) into the storyline.

  6. I had not seen this post before writing my last article about the worth of gold in 4th Edition. In my campaigns, it feels like gold is not worth terribly much since magic items are priced so high and out of reach given the DMG treasure parcel suggestions. I think a DM and players need to get creative to use gold instead of hoarding it for more powerful items. I’ve read several articles that have useful suggestions.

    Your approach is really interesting, and it reminds me of playing Resident Evil. Why don’t I have a bigger briefcase?!? The Dark Sun setting is perfect for your economy. At this point, changing the economy in my ongoing campaign would be difficult, but I enjoy the Underdark suggestion. I have handwaved ammunition and ration requirements. At this point, I don’t feel like they add to the game, but I’m also lazy and don’t want to do the extra book-keeping! Thank you for the post.

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