How much for a pitcher of ale?

It occasionally becomes necessary to determine the price of daily goods. How much for a pitcher of ale? How much do you pay laborers to excavate a dungeon entrance? Whenever this comes up, it’s best not to think about it too hard, because D&D economy has never made sense. The best thing to do is to hand-wave the economy and move to the killing as quickly as possible.

Ever since 1e, there has been a tension between “realistic”, Earth-modelled prices for goods and the need to give players vast hoards of gold. No one wants to kill a dragon and get nothing but a bag of silver, but in medieval Europe, a dragon-sized bed of gold (even split five ways) would make all the PCs rich to the point where money was never an object again.

First edition gave us the huge piles of gold we wanted, and comparably high consumer prices. A longsword cost 15 GP. That’s one and a half pounds of gold! (A longsword weighs 6 pounds, so it’s 1/4 as valuable as gold.) The reasoning was that the campaign area was assumed to be suffering massive inflation due to new gold unearthed by dungeoneering adventurers. What’s more, many pages of the DMG was devoted to giving the DM advice on how to steal money from the PCs so they’d be hungry for adventure again.

3rd edition tried to introduce a little realism, while keeping adventurer’s gear expensive. This led to some economic absurdities if you tried to use d&d to model peasant life – forgivable in a game that’s meant to model awesome-hero life. A laborer earned 1 sp per day, which is not actually unreasonable for medieval England if you assume 1gp = 1 pound. However, “poor meal (per day)” costs 1sp, leaving nothing left for other expenses. Just a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese cost 12 cp. Every day, a plowman would spend more than he made, just on his plowman’s lunch.

The fact is, prices for adventurers don’t work for peasants. But this need not break our game. We don’t even have to hand-wave it.

Different people pay different prices for things. A rich guy may pay hundreds of dollars for an immaculately tailored jacket. On the other hand, I wear T-shirts I found in the gutter. Most versions of D&D address this: for instance, in 1e, a common meal costs 1sp and a rich meal costs 1gp. In 3e, a poor meal costs 1sp and a good meal costs 5sp.

If I were to try to make sense of the D&D economy (a dangerous undertaking; but my middle name is “dangerous” and my last name is “futile”) I would extend the “poor” and “rich” pricing of 1e further to every item.

Most of the items listed in the PHB are typical items. Poor versions of the items, designed for the lower classes, are also available; they cost 1/10 the price. Fine versions, for nobility, cost 10x the price. Any time that the PHB lists multiple prices for different versions of an item (qualities of meal or inn stay, for instance) keep only the Typical cost, and use 1/10 and 10x for the poor and fine versions.

Level 1 adventurers are middle class. Whatever their sob-story backstory, they all start the game with around 100 gold; they’ve had the opportunity to get good training and equipment, so they’re not lower class; and they have no servants, lands, or armies, so they’re not upper-class. Therefore, beginning PCs generally pay 15gp, not 15sp or 150gp, for a longsword.

“Poor” items are available for adventurers to buy, if they want, but all poor items come with some disadvantage: they may be rusty, torn, out of fashion, contaminated, shoddy, or old. They’re prone to unexpected failure or some other disadvantage:

  • poor weapons breaks on a natural 1.
  • Every time you are critically hit, poor armor’s AC bonus and armor check penalty gets worse by 1.
  • poor food doesn’t give you the extra energy you need: you don’t start the next day with an action point. Either that or you roll a d20, and on a roll of 1 you are exposed to a gastrointestinal disease from the 1st edition DMG.
  • getting drunk on poor alcohol gives you a monster hangover, equivalent to 4e “resurrection fatigue” the next morning.
  • a poor riding horse is a broken-down nag. Its movement rate is reduced by 1, and it is prone to randomly stop and eat grass, and it needs a good Nature or Intimidate check to get it moving again.
  • every time you use a poor rope, roll a d20. On a 1, it breaks. Why are you buying poor rope? Rope costs like 1 gp.


    “Fine” items are made for the nobility. They cost 10x (or more) the book price. A noble is expected to have fine gear and clothing, or face ridicule.

    Fine items usually have some advantage that makes them more desirable than a normal item, but often less desirable than a magic item. Their main purpose, however, is to identify their owner as rich and important.

  • Fine weapons are masterwork weapons with runed blades, jeweled pommels, etc. In 4e, I’d say the wielder of a fine weapon gets the benefit of the Weapon Expertise feat with that weapon: +1 on attack rolls, which becomes +2 at 15th level and +3 at 25th. I’d further say that magic weapons of level 5 or greater are automatically masterwork weapons. This is one way to get rid of that execrable Weapon Expertise feat.
  • Fine armor is incredibly expensive – usually more expensive than a +1 magic item. Fine armor is fitted, not like that off-the-shelf stuff level 1 adventurers usually get. Besides the obvious advantage of coming in gold, silver, and mirror finish, having sculpted pectoral muscles, and getting the embossed scary monster head of your choice, fine armor is Masterwork and reduces armor check penalties by 1. I’d say that any magic armor of level 5 or greater is automatically Fine.
  • Fine food is appreciated by gourmands everywhere. If a common meal is 2 sp, a fine meal is 2 gp. A fine meal on its own has no game effect, but I’d say that if a character springs for a fine meal, fine wine, fine entertainment, and a fine stay at an inn, they should start the next day with an extra action point or some temporary HP.
  • A Fine riding horse is a particularly noteworthy member of some famous breed. It gains +1 speed and may be a level or two higher than normal.
  • A Fine rope is just silk rope (which is already 10x the price of hempen rope).

    When creating worldbuilding rules, the key question is “Does this provide player fun, or is it just something fun for the DM to think about?” I’ve thought of a few ways that Poor- and Fine-quality items could influence actual play in neat ways.

  • Now that we have a concept of Poor weapons, I bet that kobolds and goblins (definitely the minions, and probably the level 1 guys) have Poor weapons. Therefore, when they roll a 1, their weapons breaks. Chances are, they’d immediately try to run away.
  • New low-level treasure! When the orc king has been whaling on the PCs with his axe, the PCs invariably ask, “Is the axe magic?” “No, it’s just a really nice axe.”
    Now at least they can get some cash or use out of the nice axe.

  • I’d like to run (or play in) a level-1, potentially low-magic, picaresque urban adventure where the players each start with 10gp. They’d be running around with Poor equipment: paring knives would be breaking all over the place, armor straps would be impeding climbing, and people would be looking for their big break so they could buy, loot or steal regular equipment. Robbing or cheating nobles would also be an attractive option.
  • It’s also fun (and historically realistic) when you can give a peasant 1 GP and it’s a pretty big deal to them. Sure, it only buys you one week of food, but it feeds them for 2 months.

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  • 7 Responses to “How much for a pitcher of ale?”

    1. katre says:

      I would totally play that low-money urban picaresque.

    2. Mark says:

      I love your ideas here. I’ve written up a blog to show up later on this week that’ll address my thoughts on it.

      If you want to email me, I’d love to talk to you about fleshing out the concepts you’ve come up with here into a pdf supplement on poor and fine items. I think people would really like that.

    3. […] at Blog of Holding has a good commentary on the economics of D&D and it’s, I think, pretty important to look at in your game. While Paul discusses adding poor […]

    4. […] this into D&D or other fantasy RPGs? I think, using some techniques mentioned by Paul at Blog of Holding, which I discussed yesterday. If you made gold more expensive and rare, you could really make money […]

    5. What a great idea! I’m definitely going to try this.

    6. […] Here are the rules for my upcoming picaresque one-shot 4e game, using my item quality rules: […]

    7. Random832 says:

      Randomly came across this.

      “I’d further say that magic weapons of level 5 or greater are automatically masterwork weapons. ” Magic weapons are already automatically masterwork weapons in 3e (Unless you meant they’re also automatically Fine weapons) – It doesn’t come into play much because it doesn’t stack.

      I’d give poor rope an easier break check, lower weight capacity, more bulk, etc, rather than random break chance. Maybe say it’s straw rope for fluff. If it were as crappy as you’re making it, poor farmers wouldn’t use it either.

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