The Economy Engine, v0.2

I made a thing.

For D&D 3rd edition, so it might not be that interesting to a lot of people. But I made it and I think it’s cool.

The 3rd edition Dungeon Masters Guides has a system to determine various traits of any randomly generated town or village. The rules for making a list of all NPCs that live in a city by class and level are pretty silly, as they easily produce considerable numbers of level 20 commoners in every major city. But the guidelines for what kind of equipment and other things are available for sale in a random village that the party might come through, and how much of their treasure hauls they will be able to sell there always seemed like an interesting idea to me. You can’t sell off a dragon’s hoard in some remote village, and you won’t be able to quickly recruit a hundred mercenaries and have them decked out with plate armor in a small town, even if you have the money to pay for all of that.

I am currently working on a West Marches inspired campaign concept in which the players would grow the local frontier economy with the treasures they haul up from ancient ruins, and in the process more rare and specialized items and services would become available in the growing villages in the area. Since the plan is to make it a D&D 3rd edition campaign, using the DMG’s guidelines is as good a start as any. To make tracking of how much of the local stocks of various items the players have already bought up, and how much of their treasures they will be able to sell before they might have to make a trip to the big city where the major buyers are, I put together a spreadsheet that automatically does all the calculations that the DMG suggests.

Economy Engine v0.2 (.0ds)

Economy Engine v0.2 (.xlsx)

The only thing you have to do to get the entire store inventory list for any settlement is to enter the population size at the top. It then automatically sets the correct gp limit and calculates the asset values, and then uses those to determine which items are available for sale and how many of them are in stock.

Because I want to use this for an open table campaign where players might have several characters and there might be a number of different parties going on their separate adventures at different times, which might have very different uses for certain items, I made the Economy Engine with an option to keep track of how many items of a type are currently on stock, based on what players have bought, as well as what they have sold. And the sheet also calculates how this makes the cash reserves of the local businesses go up and down.

I’ve put all the equipment lists from the Player’s Handbook into the sheet, but I would recommend to either delete or just hide all the rows with items that are not produced in the setting of a campaign. New rows can be added to the list and nothing should be caused to break from this. You just have to enter the name of the item and its price in gp. The other rows look empty, but will automatically be filled in once you have the price typed into the B column. The formatting goes down to row 1000, and even with just the most very basic spreadsheet skills you can extend the formatting further down as much as you want if you should need it.

I really don’t know if anyone still has any use for this tool 17 years after the game ceased publication. But I made it for myself, it’s really easy to use, and it doesn’t take up space. So have it.

I updated the files to v0.2 because the code for tracking current stock was completely borked. This is also now properly attributed with a Creative Commons Do Whatever You Want License.

The Game of my Imagination

As far as I am able to tell, I started working on a concept for a fantasy setting that eventually developed into Kaendor in its current state at least 15 years ago. For most of these years, it’s been my primary hobby and I surely must have spend well over 10,000 hours on it by now. I’ve run five different campaigns in various versions of the world so far, but I always felt like the things that make the world so special to me did not really come through in the adventures that the player’s got to experience. From what I remember, I always fell back on well established, conventional D&D adventure setups, and the players probably did not see much of a difference.

I have come to think that one probable cause of this might be the fact that the mental images that I am dreaming up about Kaendor are not exactly gameable content. What I am seeing when I am thinking about what my perfect fantasy world would be like are primarily stunning environments, but also fantastic creatures and interesting cultures. But what I am not really seeing in my imagination are stories, characters, or events. Amazing lairs for great monsters or villains perhaps, and even really cool setups for exciting fight scenes. But I never really had any success coming up with interesting people, hidden plots, grand designs, or escalating conflicts.

The world that is emerging from my imagination and creativity is one that would be stunning to behold, and perhaps fascinating to read travel guides about. But that’s not exactly gameable content. Not if the kind of gameplay I am interested in is about descending into dark and dangerous places and facing off against strange and terrifying beasts. Gazing out over a magnificent landscape from the porch of your comfortable little hut is not a game or an adventure.

I think if I would ever get bored with this RPG stuff, I would make a much better fantasy painter than a fantasy writer.

This has been my desktop background for most of the last 20 years, on at least six different computers.

However, I’ve been thinking last week that perhaps there could be forms of fun and exciting adventure play that still draw upon those aesthetics and sensibilities that are fueling my imagination. And I was quite surprised by the amount of engagement that my idle thoughts on the subject got on Mastodon. And so here we are, with a more in depth explanation of the general ideas I have been entertaining.

A Campaign Aesthetic

The core sensibility that is underlying the entire worldbuilding for Kaendor is the idea of being in this vast world of barely explored and largely uninhabited wilderness, which is full of amazing and alien creatures that are different from the generic European and North American wildlife of typical fantasy worlds. The forests and mountains are covered in grand ancient ruins that hold great magical wonders and mysteries. The world is wild and rugged and dominated by powerful natural forces, but also quiet, timeless, and pleasant. I guess you could say, romantic. A fantasy of a world that is simultaneously exciting and peaceful.

This is not an aesthetic that lends itself to complex intrigues or sprawling conflicts that cover the world in war and threaten it with destruction. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be exploring treacherous ruins and battling with leathal monsters. Taking stupid risks to discover something magical, and to take on great tasks to establish a place of quiet comfort in the middle of a rugged wilderness are spot on for the core ideals of Romanticism.

And I have in fact come across at least two cases where people have managed successfully to create engaging games that are catering to these very sentiments. The survival sandbox videogames Conan Exiles and Kenshi. Yes, the world of Conan is hyper violent and filled with manly men doing manly things. And manly women doing manly things. And the planet Kenshi is violent post-apocalyptic wasteland. But even with all the blood and grime, Sword & Sorcery and Wasteland Fiction are still fundamentally expressions of Romanticism.

Now both of these games gain a lot of their aesthetic payout from their visual presentation. Even though their graphics aren’t anything special, their visual design can often be gorgeous. This is something that obviously doesn’t translate to the medium of roleplaying games. No matter how much GMs might want to indulge in flowery environmental descriptions. But I think one of the key gameplay elements of both Conan Exiles and Kenshi that appeals to the romantic ideal is the construction of completely custom build home bases in nearly any spot you might want to pick. It’s the fantasy of carving out your own little corner of the world where you can shape everything exactly to your personal ideal. But for that you first have to acquire the resources that are needed to construct those buildings, and to neutralize the threat of dangerous creatures and hostile neighbors that also roam the area. And it’s in these encounters with the other actors that stand in your way of having the house of your dreams and enjoying it in peace that you can have the most amazing adventures. Adventures that are not scripted stories about uncovering the cool things some of the GM’s NPCs have already done, but instead constantly evolving sequences of making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices. The kind of emerging stories that RPGs are uniquely capable of telling. The kind of adventures where RPGs as a medium can really shine.

I could talk for hours about my earliest adventures in Kenshi, which are some of the greatest experiences I ever had in any kinds of games. How two of my guys got separated from the rest in a bandit ambush and were spending the entire night hiding in a ditch with broken legs, only meters away from where the bandits had set up their campfires, blocking the narrow mountain pass to the stronghold where their friends had found safety. Or how the gang was desperately trying to finish the wall around their first compound before a group of approaching raiders reached them, only for the concrete mixer refusing to work because the previously constant winds had completely died down and the lone wind turbine refused to spin. Or how the compound later changed hands between my gang and bandits seven times, as each side was able to kick out the current occupants and chase them into the desert, but then was too beaten up to hold it when the next assault came.

And those are just the ones that happened from random encounters with the lowest level enemy type in the game, still within site of the starting town.

Dungeons & Dragons has toyed many times throughout its history with the idea of higher level PCs establishing their own stronghold in the wilderness. While a very cool sounding idea, from what I heard from people who played a lot when this mode of play was featured prominently in the rulebooks, this apprently saw only very little actual play. Many reasons have been hypothesized for this, but the most compelling sounding ones focus on the fact that the idea was to switch play from dungeon crawling to domain management, and that this was a switch that would be rather sudden, but also only very late in a campaign. And I think it wasn’t helped either by the rules for running a domain being a single player undertaking rather than a group activity as the dungeon crawling play.

A Campaign Structure

A good home base system should become part of the gameplay fairly early on in the campaign. It should supplement rather than replace the expeditions into the strange and dangerous wilderness, and it shouldn’t mean the end of the players playing together as a party. But I also think that the idea of becoming a ruler and dealing with government work and managing taxes doesn’t really appeal to the romantic fantasy of establishing your personal dream house overlooking the landscape.

So I am proposing a different kind of campaign structure that might work better to accomodate and evoke the themes I outlined above:

The PCs are individuals who for one reason or another chose to leave behind their old homes to seek their fortune in the borderlands, on the very edges of the lands that are explored and settled. These borderlands are a fairly conventional sandbox with a lot of old ruins and monster lairs scattered around. Theres both gold and silver to be found and ancient magic items and forgotten spells. New magic items can be made, but the process is complicated, slow, and expensive, which makes the dangerous activity of recovering lost items a worthwhile undertaking. Searching for magic items should be the main premise of the campaign, and the default activity for players to engage in if they don’t have anything else that is demanding their attention right now.

So far, so ordinary. But what I am thinking is to set things up in a way that establishing a permanent home base, and perhaps aditional base camps, somewhere in the sandbox would make the searches much more efficient. Places to store supplies. To safely lock away your money. Where you can produce the tools and other equipment that you’ll be using on your expedition. Where you can stable your pack animals and house your hirelings.

Exploring ruins in the wilderness is the main hook. But establishing a base should become a highly attractive measure to pursue that primary goal. Typically, that base is assumed to be a small castle staffed by the PCs’ hirelings. With settlers being recruited to set up farms nearby, whose tax payments will support the castle’s expenses. But you can really only have one lord who rules the domain, and theb you’re also required to deal with administration.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, the home base could also be a village. Potentially a quite dispersed one. Simply by making the surrounding area more secure, the players could make the village more attractive to new settlers. And as the settlement grows in size, new services become available that the players can use. Animal breeders to increase the amount of pack animals that can be bought in any given time period. Potion makers who sell potions. Sages who can help deciphering clues about undiscovered treasure hoards. And of course an increasing stream of hirelings that can be recruited. Players can then each pick individually if they want their PCs to build some grand villa, or instead live in a shack half an hour away from the village square.

And that’s about all that I got so far. Not terribly much yet, but I think it’s a direction that might be interesting to explore.

A Game for Noobs

I just saw a post by Xaosseed about the ongoing GM shortage crisis in RPGs, and immediately thought that this shortage has now been going on for probably 50 years.

My view has been for quite some time that the biggest barrier to entry for learning how to run an RPG is the fact that you first need to have mastered the majority of the rules before you can start giving it your first try. And I think most people who are looking at the prospect of running a game themselves are having Dungeons & Dragons before their eyes. The game with the three big tomes that I think come out as about 1000 pages in total. One of the games that doesn’t really have a game structure or any procedures to follow. D&D is an awful game to first try learning gamemastering with.

I think one thing that the RPG world could really use would be a simple system that is specifically designed to be easy to run for new GMs who have never run a an RPG before, and maybe even never played an RPG before. Which also would be a game that is easy to learn for players. And it should be specifically marketed as such.

The first priority would be for it to be a system that has relatively few rules and mechanics that GMs and players would have to know. It should be a short rulebook, simply on the virtue of not looking daunting to people who feel they have no clue what they are signing up for. But also, we would want to minimize situations where the new learning GMs have to interrupt the play to look up the rules for how something works. What we would want to teach is not how to manage mechanics, but how to conduct play. Which is the skills that we would want them to learn and that they could transfer to whatever game of choice they want to switch to later.

The game should have a very clear adventure structure and procedures for play. Instead of a game where players can play anything and do anything they can image, limit it to a clearly defined scope in which the overall goals are clear to both players and GMs. Provide templates for how adventures can be prepared and set up that GMs can fill in with their own content.

Also the game would have to be designed to work best for fairly short campaigns. Assume that a campaign might run for three or four adventures and that will be it. That might be enough for a lot of people completely new to RPGs to feel like they have a basic hang of how to play and run an RPG, which then will make it much less daunting to start a new campaign with a much bigger and more complex game. And again, it should be presented as such. It does not have to be a cool game that experienced players need to feel excited about to play it. If it is clear from the start that the goal of playing the game is not to be start of a great new campaign, but to help a new GM get some practice at the basics of running the game over the course of just a month or so, I think a lot of longtime players would be totally up for it. Even if that noob game is not what they actually want to play as their own game of choice.

As a consequence, the game would not need to have much replay value. If you’ve seen anything the game has to offer after four adventures, that would be fine. It would be perfectly okay to get bored with it very quickly.

I don’t have any clue how to make such a game. But I think it could be really great to have something like that. It wouldn’t even have to compete with D&D. It could simply be very successful as the thing you play to prepare for playing D&D.

Speeding up play by Delaying

In the 23 years that I’ve been playing RPGs, I played more Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition than anything else combined. And then Pathfinder might be on spot two. And perhaps the most annoying issue I had with the system the entire time was how much combat can drag out. By going from one initiative count to the next, the game has a build-in Feedback Loop of Inattention.

Player 1 takes a while deciding on the action for the current turn. Player 3 knows it will still be quite a while until 1 and 2 have made their turns, and there will be monsters acting inbetween as well. By the time it’s Player 3’s turn, the tactical situation will have changed so much that it’s pointless to decide what action to take yet. So Player 3 get’s bored, stops paying attention, gets distracted. And suddenly it’s Player 3’s turn, and the surprised Player 3 needs a minute or two to take in the current situation in the fight, and then a bit more to consider all the possible actions that the PC could take.

Player 4 knows this will happen. So player 4 gets bored, stops paying attention, …

And this is why a single round of combat can take 15 to 20 minutes. Not to resolve the actions. Most of it is surprised players trying to figure out what has changed since their last turn and considering all the actions they could take on their turn, while it is their turn.

One way games can deal with this is by having a group initiative system. All the PCs act on the same turn, in whatever order they are ready to announce their action. All the players can think simultaneously about the action they are taking right now, and those who need less time to think don’t have to wait for those who take longer. And when it is the monsters’ turn, the players know that the new situation that is taking shape is the one they will actually have to react to on their turn. Unfortunately, the d20 game engine has lots of mechanics build on the assumption of an initiative order, and switching to group initiative isn’t quite seamlessly. Andnif you want to play the game online, when you can’t see where everyone is looking right now and can’t gesture to indicate things, which makes talking over each other a bigger issue, having an initiative order really does have some positive sides.

I think a lot of GMs have entertained the thought of giving players a time limit to take their turns, but it seems fairly obvious that this probably would be a bad idea that only adds pressure and tension and won’t make the game more fun for anyone in it. But it just occured to me that the d20 system already includes a mechanic for players taking their turn at a later point in the round.


By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until some time later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

Delaying is useful if you need to see what your friends or opponents are going to do before deciding what to do yourself.

When there’s nothing really useful you could do with your action on your turn, you can just wait for some more things changing in the fight that hopefully will create opportunities to do something efficient and interesting. But there is no reason why you can’t delay for any out of game reasons when you’re not quite ready for your turn yet and not make the next player wait unneccesarily. And you can easily make this a rule: When it’s your turn, and you don’t have a plan yet what to do, let the next player or the GM skip ahead in line.

If you have questions for the GM before committing to the action, that’s fine. If you still need to figure out how to move or where to best aim your spell, that’s fine. You don’t need to be able to execute your full turn instantly the moment your number is up. But you should have a plan what you want to do when it is your turn. If the PC’s or enemy’s turn right before yours changes the situation significantly and your plan is now obsolete, you can have a minute to adjust. Maybe choose a different target for your spell, or fall back to making a regular melee attack against the enemy next to you. But when you’re not ready to make a choice yet, let the next player go ahead. You probably just move down one or two positions in the initiative sequence. It’s no big deal.

But I think the potential payoff in reducing slack could be huge, if this is applied consistently by the GM. Not only can you fit more combat encounters within a given amount of play time, it also makes the encounters a lot more fun for everyone when you don’t have to sit around for ages watching a person looking at a map, a character sheet, or spell descriptions.