The economy in a fantasy roleplaying game is interesting. Traditionally we think of these worlds as using currency such as gold pieces or silver pieces. Unlike modern currency whose value is tied to a belief in the strength of the economy these currencies achieve much of their value because they are made of precious metals. Strip away the crown or dragon markings on a platinum piece and it is still a piece of platinum. Platinum is a rare element and thus has value. This is the same reason that a diamond has value. This makes a fantasy RPG economy fairly easy to throw out of balance; one simply has to devalue the currency by making precious metals less precious. This isn’t something I would recommend approaching willy-nilly in a game, but it can be done. Here are three ways to give players money that will damage the in-game economy.
Wish For It
Many GMs shy away from powerful spells such as Wish simply because it is difficult to decide how to approach the results of the spell. Do you play the nice GM and give the player what they wish for or do you go monkey’s paw style and have the wish come with some horrible side effect? Either way the Wish spell can be detrimental to an in-game economy. Your players adventure in a realm that has a certain level of wealth. There are probably rich lords or merchants who live comfortably and stimulate the local economies. The PCs may even fall into this category if they have adventured enough. Even though there are haves and have-nots the system works.
Now imagine one of the PCs comes across a Wish spell and the player wishes for a million gold pieces as players are liable to do. There are two ways to give them the money if you choose to. The first way is for the Wish spell to make a million gold pieces appear out of thin air. This is the nice GM way. The problem with this is that it introduces one million gold pieces that didn’t exist before. This makes gold less rare and should dramatically decrease the value of gold. That means a gold piece will only have a fraction of the buying power it did before. The second way to handle the wish is to have the spell redistribute the money so that money is taken away from other people, such as the lords and merchants, and given to the player. This is the monkey’s paw way. What you have done is skew the distribution of wealth in the world’s economy. The PC gets rich, but now some of those lords and merchants are no longer wealthy enough to support their local economies.
Make Money with Magic
Someone suggested on Twitter that a wizard or priest could just use a transmutation spell to turn lead into gold and make money. This is an interesting idea since this kind of alchemy was sought after for much of history. This was the purpose of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, but there isn’t a predesigned spell for this kind of transmutation. A higher level wizard or priest could do the necessary research and work to create such a spell. The only problem is that this would have the same devastating effect on the economy as wishing for the gold. As I discussed earlier, the value of a gold piece or a platinum piece is mostly based on its precious metal composition. If your wizard transforms a million iron slugs into a million gold coins that decreases the rarity of gold making it less precious.
The Dragon’s Hoard
Most fantasy games have set up the idea of giant dragons sleeping upon vast piles of gold and gems. Every player dreams of stumbling across the lair of one of these venerable dragons, defeating the great wyrm and hauling off the treasure. It’s a noble idea in keeping with the spirit of adventure that keeps games like D&D alive. Unfortunately liberating such a large amount of precious metals and gems would result in a significant impact to the in-game economy. Over their vast lifespans dragons who hoard treasure act like a natural check on the amount of gold and gems that are available in the world. Little by little they remove these items from circulation and add more value to those still available to the economy. As far as your average blacksmith or merchant is concerned those gold coins and gems might as well be on the moon. Once a group slays the dragon all of that wealth is now part of the economy. This means a reduction in the value of coins and jewels because they are slightly less rare now.
Image: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosophers’ Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771