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:
“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.
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 at least they can get some cash or use out of the nice axe.