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Game Currency: There’s More Than Money At Stake

Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 8, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

In many ways GM’s have it easier in RPG’s. Slow down, I know all about the work we do as GM’s, after all I did just write a book about it [Shameless Plug]. What I meant is that as a GM when I need something in the game world, I have it. Need a cybernetic ninja with the most expensive nano-tech implants? Done. For players this is not the case. They have to survive our plots and encounters so that we will dole out the things that they desire. They scrimp and save, and often horde until they can get their hands on the things they desire the most, only to start the process again for the next thing they desire. Some days it’s not easy being a player.

The Currency Of Your Game

Most RPG’s, and all mainstream RPG’s have one or more lines of currency. By currency I mean something that is given by the GM to the players, which the players can use for some form of advancement within the game. Things like:

  • Money: Gold pieces, valuable gems, credits, Dollars
  • Items: Magic items, high-tech weapons
  • Plot Points
  • Rank Points
  • Experience Points
  • Bennies
  • Action Points
  • Style
  • Conviction

Some currencies are only for short-term gain during a session, such as those that can influence a die roll or stage down a wound. Other currencies can be spent on long-term benefits such as increasing levels, raising attributes/skills, purchasing benefits/feats/talents, additional powers, etc. Some games have only one currency, while other games have several different lines of currency all flowing at the same time.

Currency often has rules which control the flow from the GM to the players. In D&D 3.x, monsters have a CR, which equates to some number of Experience Points. Also, Monsters had a treasure type to determine how much money and items they have. In Corporation, Agents receive Money, gain or lose Rank Points, and are awarded Experience Points based on the mission and its outcome.

What Currency Are Your Players After?

As a GM it’s important to know which currency matters most to your players, as it is the one that will have the most influence on them in terms of performing acts to keep that currency flowing.

Players have a strong desire to advance. Once they learn the game mechanics and see what they want and don’t have, they will then focus on figuring out how to get those things from the game. It’s perfectly natural; it’s the nature of the game.

There can be problems when players focus heavily on the actions to produce a certain currency. The first is that players will perform actions which yield the most currency they need, over actions that yield less or none of the desired currency. This is most prevalent in less experienced gamers, but even us crusty veterans are pulled by this current.

Quick example: You are running Pathfinder, where the currencies are: Money, Items, and Experience points. If your players value Money as the primary currency, then they will be drawn to activities that provide coin: dungeon exploration, mercenary activities, stealing, etc. They will regard an encounter in terms of what monetary yield it provides.

The second problem is when the GM is not focused on the same currency as the players. When the GM is focused on delivering one type of currency (or not focused on any currency), and the players are focused on another currency, the effect is that the GM and the players are moving in two different directions. This can result in the players acting in ways that the GM was not expecting, and create a struggle between the group and the GM.

Quick example: In my Corporation game, I want to raise the Rank of my players because at Rank 3 they get cool Ion Katana’s (trust me they are cool), but the players want Money so they can buy cybernetics and more gear (Corporation has a lot of cool gear). Now to get Rank points they have to undertake Law Enforcement missions, which are often low paying in cash, but yield lots of Rank. My players become frustrated because I am handing out Rank points, but starving them for cash.

By making sure you are aligned with your players, you can make sure that the plots you are delivering are keeping the currency they value most flowing. When that happens your players will be less focused on gaining currency and more focused on the rest of the story, with the trust that it is being handled.

Ways to Neutralize Currency Issues

If you are not into managing currency in your game, or you do not like a specific type of currency within the system, there are ways to neutralize it. Here are a few techniques:

  • Take It Off The Table- In this case, don’t use that currency. If you are playing a d20 game with XP, decide to level up by plot and not by gaining XP.
  • Don’t Make It Scarce- Create an abundance of the currency, so that the players can access what they need and not have to scrounge for it. If you are playing an espionage game, give your players a healthy expense account to buy the gear they need, and they won’t need to focus on money (caution: give them too much and they will try to buy their way out of every challenge).
  • Set It High and Freeze It- Give the players a large amount of the currency but then freeze it for the rest of the game. In a game of Corporation I could set the Agents at a fixed Rank and not deal any more points to them, nor take any away.

Pay What You Owe

The currencies of the game are always there, and it effects what the players see. You may be describing the most fearsome dragon, but on some level they see a bucket of XP and a horde of gold stuffed with magic items. Currency can be a great motivator for players when difficult challenges provide substantial desired rewards. When GM’s ignore the issue of currency, they can create friction with their players. It is far better to understand the currencies within your game, find out what is important to the players, and take control.

What are the currencies that populate your campaigns, and how do you deal with them? Do you ration them? Do you let them flow freely? Are your players always begging for one point more?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Game Currency: There’s More Than Money At Stake"

#1 Comment By Norcross On June 8, 2012 @ 8:31 am

What to do if players want different things? For example, one wants XP, another wants money, and a third one wants to earn a noble rank?
One option would be to throw out lots of all three, but that would quickly devolve into a Monty Haul campaign.
Another would be to provide each one with what they want, but that could lead to resentment. The one that wants money will be happy to get it, but not like that he is somehow falling behind the first one in level. Another might be happy that he gets a title, but is left wondering why another one still has more money and better equipment than his supposedly higher-status character. The other might like gaining levels quickly, but wonder why lower-level characters have more goodies than he does even though he is higher level. And this doesn’t even address the problems of characters with different levels adventuring together.
Admittedly this would be less of a problem in most future-noir games than in D&D-style games. Maybe if players have different motivations you should stick to a game where different levels of ability/equipment/whatever don’t matter as much. I’m not familiar with Corporation, but it sounds like it might be that sort of game – as might Shadowrun or Savage Worlds, or any game where characters don’t go up massively in power when they gain “levels” and equipment doesn’t grant too much of an advantage.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 8, 2012 @ 8:40 am

Three solid suggestions at the end. I think this article points out something that may not occur to many of us when we consider WHY a game might be bogging down. We often look at symptoms such as theme, genre, character creation mechanics, etc., — when the problem might actually be contained within one of these categories of currency. Take it off the table might well be one of the best suggestions, especially if your game has a multitude of currencies. There might be joy to be had in simplifying the game, emphasizing the SINGLE currency that is the most important to that particular game, and getting on with your lives.
This is really an insightful piece, Phil!

#3 Comment By Rickard Elimää On June 8, 2012 @ 10:56 am

Cool article, but the only rewards (what the player’s are after) you are talking about is what I in a previous post defined as achievement rewards. If you’re not into rewards in game mechanics, you can both neutralize the achievement awards and change the type of currency into actor rewards (new relationships, a change in personality, fulfill goals) or appreciation reward.

Don’t underestimate the player’s feeling of being appreciated. One of three key things in flow theory (read more about flow in RPG’s) is that “…the task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback” (Wikipedia). So if the player is doing something good, one thing you can do is tell that person that it was great. What currency are your players after? Sometimes it’s just appreciation. To be confirmed. To be acknowledged.

#4 Comment By XonImmortal On June 8, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

Unfortunately, there’s usually one player whose desired currency is blood and gore, despite what everybody else wants. Experience is only secondary (because at higher levels, there’s more damage, which means more blood and gore).

I’ve been tempted to just drop a couple in an oubliette full of 1 HD ghouls. While the other players are negotiating with the king or tracking down the Artifact of ZOMG, they’ll still be hip-deep in ghouls.

#5 Comment By Knight of Roses On June 8, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

Yes, XonImmortal, I know that guy too.

This is a good way to think of things, breaking down what in game players are looking for their characters to achieve. A useful reminder.

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#7 Comment By danroth On June 8, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

File this one under things you never think that you think about; I never realized I had considered this sort of thing until I read this article.

Apparently, my main concern is with XP. I make items, armor, etc. easy to obtain monetarily, and drive the game towards encounters (battle or otherwise), which give XP. I haven’t had any issues with my players yet, so I guess we’re on the same page :)

#8 Comment By gamenightpainter On June 9, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

I am running a pirate campaign and when my players find gold, they usually find A LOT of it. They find someone’s long forgotten treasure or find something in a shipwreck, etc. I’ve had people say they have too much gold. (I know…my players need to be slapped sometimes) My real currency in the game is XP and magical items. Sometimes making one of the currency types obsolete can help people focus on the story rather than, man I wish I could have bought that new weapon/armor when we were in town.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On June 10, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

I’ve been very seriously thinking about floating my own world using the Pathfinder rules past some players, and only yesterday I began thinking seriously about the “problem” of worth, as in the encounter design process calling for a given challenge “requiring” a given spread of worth (XP, Gold, Items etc).

The problem is that I don’t want the campaign to be swamped with caricature amounts of gold. It came to me that the monetary worth of a challenge might be presented in something other than bags/chests of gold, something that could be converted into the called-for gold reward under the right circumstances. Perhaps the gold is in the form of information that may be sold, or in some aspect of the location/encounter that has worth to someone.

It’s an interesting and challenging line of thought.

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