Money is the Root of all Fun: Economics in Games: panel at Gen Con 2014

Rob Boyle (Eclipse Phase), Ross Payton (Baseraiders), and Caleb Stokes (No Security) discuss using the basics of economic theory to make RPG settings more unique, immersive, and fun for your players.

Designers can talk forever about economies of narrative control and the finances of the RPG industry, but what about the economic structure of your setting? Most RPGs largely ignore the topic, but the basic tenets of economic theory are a great way to immerse players in a story and create conflict. A materialist outlook can make any setting unique and generate numerous plot hooks. This panel is here to show you how. Rob Boyle (lead designer for Eclipse Phase), Ross Payton (author of BaseRaiders: Superpowered Dungeon Crawling), and Caleb Stokes (author of No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression) will discuss using economics to engage players.

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  1. Woot, this one should be good.

  2. Very, very useful, I am going to be including some of this stuff in my sandbox 5th edition game I think.

  3. Really good panel! Excellent advice all around.

    Caleb, I especially enjoyed your point about poverty being scary. I’d never really thought of that before, but now I see how important that can be. Say, have you seen the movie “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil”? It’s basically about how all the tropes of rural horror movies are really just negative tropes about rednecks, and all the violence in the movie is caused by class stereotypes.

  4. Yeah, Tucker and Dale is a great genre deconstruction. I love how torn up they are by the end of it and the way the “unkillable slasher” trope is now played for pathos and slapstick comedy.

  5. About becoming a target because of your wealth: in my D&D campaign, starting at level 1, just by right of being superpowered PC freaks, I’ve been having soldiers for the kingdom, which is at war with the king’s cousin’s kingdom so they can both generate power and wealth and appease a Mythosificated version of Moloch that they secretly worship, constantly trying to kidnap the players and force them into military service. They have documents exempting them from conscription because they are working for an officially recognized adventuring party that is legally required to give the lion’s share of magic items and money they find in dungeons to the kingdom to support the war effort (and they obviously don’t give all they’re supposed to), but the recruiters have quotas to meet, so they’re starting to ignore their exemptions and try to poach people from their group. Now they’ve obviously murdered a lot of soldiers and their charter is about to be nullified, of course.

    Later on I’m thinking of having them clear out some goblins squatting in an old dwarf city or something, and it’s going to ruin the economy of the nearby village. “Well, Jim, we’ve got a lot less houses being burnt down, so I’m afraid we’ve got a few too many carpenters, so there are going to be some layoffs. But have you seen the price of mutton? It’s dirt cheap now that there aren’t goblins constantly stealing sheep, so at least there’s that. So I’m afraid you’re fired, but as a severance package, here’s a lambchop and a sweater. Good luck.”

    About currency exchange and different markets and stuff: in case it’s helpful for gaining inspiration in any way, I’m going to describe the economic situation in Argentina a little bit here. So without going too far into the weeds about the causes (long story short: legacy of military dictatorship, financial industry fucking the country over, default), Argentina is constantly in some sort of economic crisis. They attempt to control their currency through what most people in the dwindling middle class or the oligarchical upper classes tend to agree are draconian measures. In the 90s they maintained an artificially imposed 1-to-1 dollar-peso ratio. That broke down in the early 2000s economic collapse, and the parallel dollar (“blue” dollar in local jargon) was born. It’s a parallel exchange market that, despite being illegal, has its prices listed in newspapers and on news programs and so forth. It’s simultaneously underground yet very formalized.

    They’ve made it very difficult to get dollars within the country legally, and currently the official dollar, which only some people can purchase legally sometimes and usually in very limited amounts, is about 8 or 9 pesos, while the blue is 14. The inflation levels mean anyone who actually has a little extra money to save MUST do so in dollars, and major transactions like purchasing real estate or automobiles are all done in dollars.

    Also, prices are ridiculously high in Argentina for anything sold on an international market. Electronics and clothing and children’s toys and appliances all cost somewhere between 2 and 5 times as much here as they would in the U.S. So it became common for people to order packages from overseas, despite the several-hour wait at customs and the 50%-plus-fees tax. But then the government made that illegal as well, allowing each individual to import a maximum of two items per year… which did nothing to help that price difference, the consumers trapped in a captive local market. (Side note: and they did so right after I backed a bunch of minis and board games on Kickstarter, the wicked bastards.)

    So what do people do? They go by ferry from Buenos Aires to a small tourist town in Uruguay, which is packed every day with people who are there to take dollars out of ATM machines either through foreign bank accounts or credit cards (using a credit card abroad allows access to a small amount of dollars, with a hefty fee. It’s not enough to actually pay for vacation expenses, so any Argentine going on vacation usually has to buy dollars on the black market to do so). They also set up PO boxes at the post office in Uruguay so they can import packages. Uruguay is well aware of this and taking advantage of the incoming tourism, with armed guards and armored trucks always ready to keep refilling that ATM while the tourists are in town.

    Meanwhile, in Uruguay, the currency is more stable, and they have a genuinely hard left president, and they’re doing well in most respects, but the prices are actually even worse than in Argentina, at least so far (at Argentina’s inflation rate, this may change soon). But for now, those ferries are basically constantly shipping Argentines going to Uruguay to get their hands on a few dollars to sell, and Uruguayans going to Argentina and coming back with packed suitcases so they can save a little money on consumer goods.

    Possibly interesting side note: the current president of Argentina, Christina Kirchner, is basically a master at passing off as leftist while actually being rather neoliberal, restricting foreign currency investments, which are totes not just a rich person thing to do here, while amassing a personal fortune in dollars and euros and cheap land bought through shady government deals. But the administration also constantly passes increases in social services, the minimum wage, and retirement benefits… which they say is leftist policy, but when the inflation rate is actually much higher than the increases they pass, social services are actually getting cut in real terms. And she recently famously said “mas izquierdo que yo esta la pared”, which roughly translates to if you try to go further left than me, you run into the wall… her way of declaring herself to be the farthest left one could possibly be, but phrased in a disquieting way… in a country with a history of mass-murdering military dictatorships, talking about being up against a wall in a sentence about leftist movements is at least a little bit disturbing.

    Sorry for the long comment, maybe there’s some inspiration in there somewhere for ways you can fuck with your players.

  6. Utterly engaging material! It’s a shame Rob didn’t speak up more, Posthuman’s take on post scarcity economics is one of my favorite parts of the Eclipse Phase setting. It was good to hear him explain
    the reputation economy. I’m unashamed to admit it was the reason I never picked up the book until after listening to RPPR’s actual plays.

  7. Capitalocracy, estas en Buenos Aries o un otra parte de país? Era el mismo en todos partes de país o hay diferente maneras de hacer las cosas en Missiones de Tierra del Fuego? (Yo vivía en Chaco hace muchos años).

    Translation: Are you in Boenos Aires or another part of the country? Is it the same in all part of the country or are there different methods of doing things in Missiones or Tierra del Fuego? (Explination, Argentina is a BIG place and it has borders to a few countries, I’m curious to know if location affects peoples survival methods).

  8. Listening to this panel recording has given me a bunch of ideas, thank you so much!

    Reading Capitalocracy’s situation, I realize that you can exchange Argentina for Venezuela, Kirchner for Chavez and Maduro, and Uruguay with Colombia, and it is almost exactly the same thing happening in Venezuela.

    A supposedly leftist government tries to control the economy and restrict thing such as importation and currency exchange, and what it ends up doing is screwing the market prices. The government has also tried to control prices for basic goods such as water, food, and toilet paper…. what this ends up causing is extreme shortages as the prices for which the items are SUPPOSED to be sold do not even cover the costs of production, hence factories close down and there is almost no national production of goods.What happens then? Importation businesses that have members with government pull, get government-approved currency exchange to make government-approved imports which let them line their own pockets while at the same time screwing over the country’s dollar reserves.

    The only thing that keeps the government from claiming default is the country’s oil company, which was forcefully nationalized and all workers who did not agree with the government’s political agenda were fired. While this company used to be one of the best and most successful companies in the country, it is now poorly administered and doesn’t even produce enough oil for the Venezuelan’s citizens own needs.

    In short, Venezuela’s economic situation is in a downward spiral, and will likely not recover in the near future.

  9. Author

    You guys should probably read the Shock Doctrine. It talks a lot about South American economies.

  10. I’ll check it out. Thanks Ross!

  11. Fridrik, I’m in Buenos Aires (I’m from Kansas, but I married an Argentine woman and immigration in the U.S. is pretty difficult), and I don’t know too much about what they do in other parts of the country, but I know a lot of people that are close to the Chilean border do a lot of shopping there and presumably get dollars there as well. Argentina is extremely centralized in Buenos Aires, though, with the vast majority of the population here. In other places, the inflation is still bad, but the basics (food and housing) do cost less. There are less jobs as well, but if you have a good one, you can get by. But everything gravitates toward Buenos Aires. They say that Bitcoin is actually pretty popular here as well, btw.

    Dom, the general consensus here is that what the government is trying to do is sort of a bread and circus routine (or more precisely, hot dogs and soda, famously handed out to get people to show up for political rallies, and soccer). The problem is that lifting people OUT of poverty is really hard, because they live in a whole different universe that’s superimposed on the universe of the dwindling middle class and the rich. It’s the same problem of growing inequality the U.S. has, but on steroids because they tested the policies that lead to it here first (as documented in The Shock Doctrine), and because of the political instability and corruption. Here’s a picture from Brazil that kind of sums it all up: . The poor and “polite society” are almost completely alien to eachother. The government of Argentina solved the problem of shantytowns (villas) when they hosted the World Cup by putting up high fences so the tourists couldn’t see them (and in Brazil this year, apparently they went into the favelas to crack heads). Jobs are not even on the table for a lot of these people, and the ones they could get will never pay enough to afford a complete change of lifestyle and real housing. So the government gives them the kind of money you need to stay alive in a shantytown, but not the kind of money you need to get out of one, which would be astronomically higher amounts. I mean, I don’t want it to sound like I’m against the government helping people, I’m about as rabidly leftist as they come and a strong supporter of basic income replacing bank loans as how money is distributed into the economy (and I actually think we’re in a false scarcity economy like the Jovian fascists already), but a safety net like that isn’t going to actually catch anybody. It’s not even a safety net they need, really, it’s a fishing net. These people are already underwater. They’ve got to give them a lot more money and opportunity, and it has to be built on a system where when they do claw their way into society, they’ll have access to jobs that pay a living wage.

    I second Ross’s recommendation to read The Shock Doctrine. It’s a great primer for the point Caleb made on the panel: how did your gritty dystopian fascist system actually come about? How did they manage to seize power, who gains from it, who funded it, where did the ideology come from? There’s a lot of inspiration for those kinds of questions in that book.

  12. One thing I wish someone on the panel had mentioned: the game Torchbearer does a lot to model the “economics of dungeon raiding.” The game’s thesis is that the only folks desperate enough to go down monster-filled holes looking for gold are impoverished schmucks without the skills to get real jobs. Every time you go back to town, you have to spend some of the meager loot you collect just to recover from the ordeal of adventuring. I played an intro scenario at Fear the Con, and even if we hadn’t all died, we would have ended the adventure poorer than when we started.

  13. Awesome panel. Can we get an entire RPPR episode dedicated to this topic? I want MOAR. It is my capitalist right.

  14. I felt scalps prickle when Rob scorned people who run rep economies with spends.

  15. I have family that are accountants and while they’re not I to gaming they found the panel extremely interesting,

  16. Crawkill: Yeah, maybe some not-at-all-anyone-here could put their not-money where their mouth is and try the favor-based rep economy in their next EP campaign.
    I gotta say, using the rep-spending shortcut from Scum Swarm tier in a campaign that apparently had an entire year of pre-planning put in is kind of robbing Duality of versimilitude. Or as some would put it: ruining my immersion.

  17. Reputation economies require favors. In game, favors require adventures be written to play them out or else the currency changes from reputation to hand-wavium. The sidequest adventures stem off of everything a group does to prepare for the current scenario they are playing. With a group like RPPR, which can easily descend into EXCESSIVE player dithering and preparation, that means you have an exponential growth of sidequests stemming from the main plot, and these sidequests may exist only to pay back some piece of equipment that didn’t even play a significant factor in the game’s plot.

    In Know Evil, I added three months of campaign material just stemming from actions previously taken and favors owed from earlier in the campaign. It was ALL sidequests, and we could have easily kept going for another three months. I went to the spend system not because I didn’t “get” how reputation economies worked or because I didn’t want to keep track anymore; we had to finish the campaign before Thad left for China. Had we kept going down the meandering path of sidequests, everyone would have forgotten who that “Manjappa” guy was and we would have seen the rapture before we saw the endgame.

    Similarly, Duality has been plagued with a campaign schedule interrupted by work demands, business trips, illness, personal/family crisis, vacations, and every other plague that can befall a gaming group. Ross is using spends because we want to see the campaign’s climax sometime before we die of old age. We know it doesn’t match the economic ideology of the setting, but we understand that ideology well enough to translate the capitalist shorthand of reputation spends into what our characters must be doing in their downtime.

    Without having the logistical resources and ubiquity of actual reputation networks to do the bookeeping, I’m of the opinion that defaulting to rep spends is the only way to have an epic-length EP campaign and still maintain a coherent, focused plot structure.

  18. What’s old is new again. I remember this was a hot topic in FRPG circles about 35 years ago. Will be interesting to see if there is any new thoughts on it.

  19. It seems to me that the concept of the Rep Economy works really well to depict everyday life in a post-scarcity society. But since RPG adventures aren’t generally about everyday life, it can cause some narrative encumbrances. Since Rep exchange is designed to be a long-term economic process, running the Rep economy accurately in-game would pretty much have to the the entire point of an adventure: the plot would revolve entirely around gaining/maintaining/using Rep to achieve some goal. Which could be a very cool adventure! But not everybody wants every adventure to be about that.

    I can think of a couple of other ways to simplify it without just turning it into normal currency, to make it still feel different for the PCs:

    1. In a short adventure, you could just treat it as a static attribute: Joe has 5 Rep, so he can’t get weapons for blood or treasure, but Dave has 90 Rep, so he can get plasma rifles and mercs to fire ’em in 5 minutes flat. The game is over before the consequences occur.

    2. Have the characters pay for their Rep use in something besides either “spends” or actual in-game activity. Maybe they have to roll a risk of being denied their next fabber request, or give someone some equipment they own, or swap out for a crappier morph for one session, or send off a fork to do God Knows What off-screen. These don’t have to turn into full-blown side-quests; they can just be temporary, unexplored inconveniences. But they *do* have to be actual inconveniences of some sort, to make it an actual cost to using the Rep.

    3. Don’t forget that Firewall is perfectly willing to mess with the standard Rep economy for operational needs. Maybe a PC needs to slot into an existing cover identity with good established Rep to get a job done, but then the normal occupant of that identity has to come in and pick up the consequences. Maybe FW can orchestrate a sudden Rep blitz to get you the points you need, but you’ll be permanently burned after it’s revealed as a fake. Stuff like that can bring the Rep economy into play without the PCs having to actually play along with the normal Rep-gathering rules.

  20. Technically speaking, unless I’ve missed something, nowhere does the book actually say to have to “repay favors owed” in strict terms. In Transitional or Old Economies, when you roll networking for a favor, depending on what you ask, you may still have to pay credit to get what you ask for. In a purely rep economy, if you successfully pull the favor, you just get what you want, no strings. You rep carries weight. But, if you want to repeat the favor, you either have to wait for it to cool down (something a PC can keep track of on his own, on penalty of GM shin-kicks) or “burn” the rep value of the favor to represent you being very needy and not giving back to your community. You can do things to earn you rep in order to bring your score back up from such burns (or cash credit to rep through one of those services), though Know Evil didn’t feature a huge amount of down time for somebody to go “I’m going to roll my Profession skill to earn a little rep back”.

    So, one could simply assume that, due to constraints, all players take the caveat that they’ve effectively used up all their favors and thus must burn rep all the time, which is a decent simplification for a Firewall mission, which seems to be the kind of situation where Sentinels end up burning shitloads of Rep to accomplish their mission, leaving them social pariahs wherever they go until they can get it back (if ever) “off-screen”.

  21. In my opinion, the GM shouldn’t be focused on nook-keeping for tracking rep favors. The truth of the matter is that spending rep is simply a house rule to not bog down the sessions, and a decision that the RPPR crew agrees with. I think I too will use this when I run EP, because even if it is not the ‘correct’ way to do so, it will simplify a lot of things for me.

  22. Of course, I wanted to say book-keeping rather than nook-keeping, but hey that could work in EP’s setting. 😛

  23. Excessive player dithering and preparation? RPPR is the most focused group I’ve ever heard on an AP or encountered in real life. RPPR can get through a scenario in two and a half hours that my group would need six to finish.

  24. You have rep points in EP for the same reason you have hit points, it’s an abstraction that makes the game work. The question isn’t would a rep economy work this way, the question is does it work well this way in a game? And there’s an argument that a rep mechanic where you don’t spend points as if they were gold coins has a “feel” that’s more like a real rep economy, but if it’s easier for your group to just spend and gain points, do what you gotta do.

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