5e Dungeon Masters Guide: The Paradoxical Economy of D&D

10313383_10152396043486071_5167317756165026174_nThe D&D Dungeon Masters Guide is out now, and it’s a very cool resource filled with lots of new rules for treasure, magic items, world building, new downtime activities, and optional rules! Also, my name is in the play-tester credits, so that’s pretty fun :).

Anyway, instead of doing something ridiculous, like review an entire book, I’d like to focus on one specific element I found interesting, the rules for running a business during your downtime!

The idea of running a business and making extra money during downtime is pretty appealing. It’s a great way to engage with the campaign world, a fun “simulationist” way to make money, and it opens up some cool adventure hooks for the DM. For example, maybe some mysterious cloaked figures show up at your Inn, clearly wounded and seeking shelter for the night, OR maybe a group of bumbling first level adventures meet up for the first time, planning a raid on a dragon lair that will surely result in their deaths!

However, running a business is a tricky mechanic to get right. You probably don’t want it to be TOO profitable, or else your PCs will be scratching their heads, wondering why they ever go on adventures. Conversely, if it doesn’t really make you any money, why even bother? Sure, running an Inn sounds cool, but if it’s not profitable, maybe you’re better off spending your character’s time elsewhere.

The folks at Wizards of the Coast gave running a business a decent shot that may work for casual play, but unfortunately it suffers from a few serious flaws when you dig into it:

  • Running a big business is less profitable than running a small business: If you look at the table for running a business, you’ll see that lower results penalize you by forcing you to pay some percentage of your upkeep every day you spent running a business. Your upkeep can range from 5SP a day for a farm to 10GP a day for a trading post. That makes sense. If your business does poorly, you still have to pay your workers and keep your property in shape. What is pretty counter-intuitive, however, is that if you roll higher on the table, you roll a set amount of dice to determine your profit. This profit is in the same range no matter the size of your business. So a small farm makes the same profit as a large inn, but since the large inn has an upkeep that is 20 times larger, you’ll end up making a lot less money overall since it will hurt a lot more when you roll poorly and need to pay that upkeep.
  • You make more money per day if you run a business for one day compared to 30 days: You get a bonus to your roll for every day you spend running a business. If you spend one day running a business, you get a +1% to your roll, where as if you spend 30 days running a business, you get a +30% to your roll. So on the surface, running a business for 30 days seems like it gives you a big advantage. However, if you crunch the numbers, you’ll find that it is vastly more profitable for your time to run a business for one day compared to 30 days. Sure, you make more money, but not enough to justify all the extra time spent. For example, if you spend one day running an Inn, you should expect to make about 13GP on average. If you run that same Inn for 30 days, you should expect to make about 26GP on average. So you’ve about doubled your profit for 30X the work! Clearly any player who can get away with it will try to game the system by making a roll every day for running a business.
  • You pay upkeep on your business while you are away: On the surface, this isn’t too surprising. The property still needs to be maintained, and you’re going to need staff to keep everything running, but having this requirement means that for most campaigns, owning a business is a money losing proposition. Imagine a campaign where the PCs spend half their time in downtime and half their time traveling and going on adventures. That doesn’t seem too unusual. In such a campaign, the PC would spend 10GP on upkeep for every day spent adventuring and would make about 13GP for every day spent running their Inn. So technically, they are making a profit, but it is pretty thin, especially since they are probably spending 1GP to cover their lifestyle expenses every day they run their Inn. Now, imagine a campaign where the DM is constantly putting challenges in front of the PCs, forcing them to adventure frequently and travel across the world fighting evil. Now, they are only spending 1 day out of every 4 in downtime. Suddenly, the PC is losing A LOT of money running that Inn. For every 13GP they make on average, they are losing 30GP!

With all that in mind, I put together the following house rules:

  • Every week, you make a roll to see how much money your business makes (or loses). You make this roll regardless of whether you are spending your downtime running the business or not. One of the NPCs on your staff is assumed to be managing the business if your PC is not available.  The DM may elect to make this roll in secret and inform you of the results when you return from adventuring.  Absent other factors, the DM determines how trustworthy the NPC is, so PCs are advised to hire NPCs they already trust to run their business for them to avoid embezzlement.
  • Replace the 61-80, 81-90 and 91+ results with the following:
    61-80: You cover your upkeep and make 100% of your upkeep each day in profits (since businesses make a roll every week, you are multiplying your upkeep times 7).
    81-90:  You cover your upkeep and make 200% of your upkeep each day in profits.
    91+: You cover your upkeep and make 300% of your upkeep each day in profits.
  • If you spend a week of downtime running your business, you get a +10 bonus on your roll that week. If you only spend a few days running the business during the week, you get a +1% bonus for every day you spent running the business (so it’s much more efficient to dedicate an entire week).
  • As per normal rules, if you roll poorly and are required to pay upkeep but elect not to do so, subsequent rolls take a -10 penalty until you pay your debt. This effect is cumulative, so if you fail to pay your upkeep two times, you take a -20 on the roll, and so on. A PC may elect to leave funds behind to pay their debts if the business loses money while they are away; again if the NPC managing your business is not trustworthy, the DM may determine that they abscond with the money (tracking down an unscrupulous NPC could be an adventure in itself!).
  • The DM may grant other temporary or permanent bonuses or penalties to these rolls as makes sense for the story. For example, perhaps one week there is an important festival in the town, and so the DM grants a +10 bonus. Or maybe a plague hits the town, and so the DM gives a -10 penalty. Alternatively, if an important rival is eliminated or a lucrative trade deal is established, the DM may grant a +5 or +10 bonus to rolls as long as that bonus remains in effect (which could be indefinitely).

If you crunch the numbers on these house rules, you’ll find that, absent any other factors, all businesses are profitable even without direct management. A farm makes about 1GP a week on average absent any management, and a rural Inn makes between 15-20GP a week on average. Of course, one wrong turn can send a business spiraling into the red. A single -10 modifier from an unpaid debt or unfortunate turn of events (perhaps goblins are attacking nearby trade routes) will turn a marginally profitable business into an unprofitable one, so PCs must remain vigilant to protect against any threats that arise through the course of play (or the DM’s whim).

If PCs are buying their businesses outright instead of, say, inheriting an Inn, they’ll find that absent direct management, they’ll recoup their investment within 4-5 years, which feels about right and isn’t too far from what you’d expect running a 7-11 in the real world! If they run the business non-stop or secure bonuses in other ways (such as lucrative trade deals), they can easily cut this time in half. In D&D terms, this may seem rather slow, but hey, there is SOME prestige to owning your own Inn or Trade-post, and you can always sell the property at a later date to get your money back (assuming you can find a buyer).

These rules can also be applied to running a barony or even an entire kingdom. As long as the manors and castles the PCs build or acquire come with the lands and rights to taxation appropriate to their station, you can factor in their upkeep and treat them like running any other business. Obviously, this doesn’t mean the PCs can spend 500K GP to build a palace in the wilderness and suddenly expect to start raking in the cash, but if the PCs are granted land or spend much of the campaign carving out their own little kingdom, I think it would be quite appropriate and a lot of fun. Bonuses and penalties to rolls take on a new meaning at this scale; suddenly a -10 negative represents a blight across the land or a war with a powerful kingdom that is taking its toll on the populace. A +10 bonus might represent a recent discovery of gold in mountains within the kingdom’s domain or a recent trade agreement with an exotic and faraway land.

This system is quite abstract, but I think it gives most DMs and Players the flexibility they need to fit it to a variety of different businesses and situations, including plenty of room for game events and PC actions to affect the development of the business. It’s also quite easy to manage, requiring one roll per game week and keeping track of a handful of modifiers (at most) and the current profit or debt of the business. I’m really excited to try it out in my campaign. I’d love to hear how it works for you, dear reader!

20 Responses to “5e Dungeon Masters Guide: The Paradoxical Economy of D&D”

  1. 1d30 says:

    Gygax rationalized ridiculous equipment costs by describing the town near the dungeon as a gold-rush economy where you’d spend a dollar for an egg or something. In those circumstances, in reality, the people who actually made money were the ones running the trading post or whorehouse – someone actually digging up gold would generally spend it all in the town. Secondly, because so much gold is coming into the town, gold devalues locally.

    However, the D&D adventurers are getting a much larger haul than gold miners. They should be able to easily buy out or start a business and outcompete the townie merchants because they just have more capital available. That puts the dedicated townsperson at the disadvantage. Also, because magical travel is possible and PCs will typically have greater access to it than a townie would, the gold can be effectively dispersed across several economies so the PCs get all of the value from that loot instead of losing a lot of it to inflation.

    And PCs typically don’t spend a ton of money on inn fare and new weapons – the big money is in high end services they can’t do on their own because they are NPC skills, like animal training, sage research, spies, and maybe making magic items. It’s more likely that whoever positions himself as the magic item broker in town will come to own everything, rather than the town’s general store or pimp. All he needs is one magic item sale to exceed a blacksmith’s annual profit.

    I think the successful PC business is just bypassing a middleman NPC that’s screwing him. The trader in Hommlet for example should be replaced by an enterprising party ASAP with a more sympathetic dealer or even a hireling of a PC. If you come out of a nasty hellhole two men down, with 1000 GP to show for it, and some crappy guy wants to take 30% off the top, it takes a LG iron will not to publicly debone him alive and show the rest of the town exactly how far you are willing to be pushed. And the LG character should simply invest the money to put the middleman out of business so that even if there is no other profit, at least nobody is taking 30% of your loot every time.

  2. 1d30 says:

    As for a business rule, I’ve used a system where the player chooses how much to invest and his risk level. The risk level is the percentage chance of the investment failing, and also relates to the profit gained if it succeeds.

    If you set the risk percentage = profit percentage, it’s just a straight gamble and nobody makes money in the long run.

    If you say that a failure means no profit but you don’t lose your investment, and success means you gain HALF the risk percentage in profit, you see slow gains. With the optimal 50% risk choice, and the lack of a chance for a “bust” where you lose some of your investment, it’s not a great system.

    I’d say if you roll under 1/10th your risk you get a bust where you lose half of your investment, and if you roll 01 you lose it all.

    Dunno how you’d fix the optimal place on the risk curve – possibly by adding a random component or just hidden information.

  3. Florian says:

    Wow, the rules for business as presented in the DMG are pretty much useless. :(

  4. brink. says:

    I haven’t looked at the business rules in the dmg yet, but all of your suggestions certainly seem sound. I’m printing them out now and sticking them in the book. Thanks.

  5. Jason says:

    This is great. I had similar concerns with the Business table and I think you’ve fixed them.

  6. Jason says:

    One other thing I’d like to see reflected in running a business, but am not sure how to handle, is proficiency. If you run an inn and you’re proficient with cooking tools, I think that should factor into it. Or if you run a trading post and are proficient with Diplomacy, etc. Your proficiency bonus is obvious, but it doesn’t make a huge difference on a d100 roll.

    This could just be incorporated into “If you spend a week of downtime running your business, you get a +10 bonus on your roll that week”, or it could be a variant to replace the +10 with Ability Score + Proficiency (which would lag behind +10 until, probably, level 20, but could be around +6 or +7, which is the same as the days of the week.)

  7. paul says:

    That makes sense to me. When my PCs wanted to run a pizza joint, the half-orc took a few weeks to study being a chef. (This was during the playtest and before business/downtime rules.)

  8. Rich Howard says:

    These are great. I’ll check them out in more detail later, but the concepts are sound.

  9. I love these fixes!

    Two little quibbles, though. First, in your table, 60-70 should be 60-69 because otherwise 70 is on there twice. I assume that 70-80 should also be 70-79, but I’m not sure because you don’t have anything for 81-89. (Are you leaving the 80s alone then?)

    Second, rolling 100 should be magic. Right? http://blogofholding.com/?p=2306 Something super awesome should happen, like maybe a +10 bonus for the following 3 weeks. Or your business doubles in size. Or you get a unicorn.

  10. paul paul says:

    Funny you should mention it – in further discussions, Rory and I agreed that a roll of 95-00 should increase the size of the business (adding upkeep which generally increases profits permanently).

  11. Rory Rory says:

    Good catch, John! Stupid error on my part. I made edits so it matches the numbers on the DMG table.

    As for rolling a natural 100, I agree something really cool should happen. A bonus on future rolls for the next month sounds good. It could also be fun to say that an NPC has gifted the PCs with a special boon and let then roll on one of the treasure tables.

  12. Caduceus says:

    Rory, this is perfect! You noted all the problems I’d seen, plus some, and I was planning on doing something right along these lines, but now I don’t have to do that work. Thank you!

  13. Marty says:

    Lots of good ideas here… but I do disagree with one aspect.

    I think adventurers *should* be penalized by not overseeing their business more. The expression goes, “When the boss is away…”

    What it comes down to is that running a business should be hard — a full time job. Running a business during down-time only, should be significantly harder to be profitable.

    There’s a balance between realism and fun, and as you note, WotC doesn’t quite hit this nail on the head, but I think the pendulum should not swing too far in the opposite direction and make running a business during downtime too easy. It *should be* a gamble with relatively narrow profit margins.

    The adventurer should be given a hard decision: Are you an adventurer or a shop keeper?

  14. Rory Rory says:

    Marty, if you shift the percentages around a bit, you can make it so running a business while you are away is, on average, a completely break even proposition. Furthermore, if the PC doesn’t leave money behind to cover debts when they roll poorly, running a business would quickly become a losing proposition. And with variance, it will never be a sure thing; someone could easily lose money several weeks in a row.

  15. Chaiben says:

    I liked your ideas about it, but in my opinion multiply the upkeep seen a little strange. I am thinking about use part of your idea, but the upkeep is a fix cost of the business, instead of gain some % of the upkeep I think it would a % of some “risk value” or how much gold the PC is willing to put in the business (working capital). So the gain or loss would be in this value minus the upkeep cost and for every 500-1000 gp “risk value” or working capital the PC should hire at least 1 hireling (skilled or not, depend on the business).

    And I would create a 1 roll table (for really bad things – like: fire, robbery, etc.) and a 100 roll table (for really good things – like: 300% over the risk value)

  16. Foxy Boxes says:

    What if you ignore upkeep entirely? After all, profit is what’s left over after expenses have been deducted, and upkeep is an expense. Does that make the vanilla mechanics work better?

  17. Mooby says:

    Foxy: For my campaign I am thinking of rewording it, “You pay 1.5x your business multiplier per day in expenses” or “You make 2x your business multiplier per day in profits.”

    If your business multiplier is x then your business will idle at 1.75x per week. With the max +10 bonus it is 4.2x.

    To find your investment cost, simply multiply the number of years you want it to take to make a profit on investment by 150. So if you want 2 years, make it 300x. A business going full idle will take 3.3 years, while one going max effort will take 1.4 years.

    Downsizing yields 1/2 investment cost in profit. So if a PC has to liquidate half the business to pay back a huge debt, it will hurt a LOT.

    I was initially going to make a table of stuff to buy at given prices, but I think it’s easier just to let the PCs invest whatever they want and then justify it in-game.

    I’m thinking of having proficiency bonus count as bonus days as far as adding to rolls. So at level 1 a PC running a business they are proficient in will only need to work 5 days to get the +10 bonus, and gets +2 while away on adventures. A high level character with +6 proficiency is so good at running a business that they only need to work 1 day a week to get the +10 bonus. +10 is still the max even if that character works all 7 days.

    Example: Jane is a level 1 rogue who decides to open a small courier business. She spends 3g hiring and training her staff, giving her a business multiplier of 0.01g (1c). She leaves an extra 1g with her staff “for emergencies.” She leaves town on a 1 month adventure, expecting a profit of about 7c when she returns.

    Jane returns from her adventure much richer. She decides to buy some horses, train more staff, and do some advertising, declaring that she will invest 297 more gold (for a total investment of 300g). Now her business multiplier is 1g. She leaves for another month adventure, expecting about 7g when she returns.

    However, she forgets to increase her emergency fund. After a couple bad rolls in a row she finds herself deep in debt. She has to sell half her business to pay her debts, giving her 75g and dropping her business multiplier down to 0.5g (5s). Determined to turn things around, she spends the next month growing her business, hoping to get 8-9g in profit…

  18. Mooby says:

    Heh I just realized that the worst her business could have done was -42g in a month. There must be more to this story than meets the eye… did she get into some serious financial trouble on her adventure?

  19. WhiteMatoki says:

    You guys get that there is a section in the DMS book called ”business” right under the total cost per day, specifying that ”an adventurer owned business earn enough to cover its own maintenance costs. However, the owner needs to periodically ensure that everything is running smoothly by tending to the business between _ ventures. See the information on running a business in the “Downtime Activities” section of this chapter.

    So by default, the business type of buildings pay for themselves, letting the player use it for Down time specifically. This does not apply to things like Abbey who are not business type of buildings.

    If the buildings type of adventure is what you prefer, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwF09f1afXWlMlhlVUozZGY2RGM/view is a great tool that should help you

  20. JamesPeach says:

    I came looking because the built-in mechanics for this were bad, but I think you misunderstand a fundamental part of what they are. The earnings are per day. If the average you get for running it for a month is 26GP, that’s the average _per day_, so you’d multiply it by 30, or 26 x 30, which is 780GP for the month.

    This part of the system I like, sticking with it for longer gives you extreme advantages. With it, 1 day means 40% chance of losing money, 20% chance you earn nothing, and a 40% chance you are profitable, with a 10% chance of max earnings.

    And for 30 days, 10% chance you have to pay half the upkeep, 20% chance you’re not profitable, and 70% chance you are profitable – and a 40% chance you hit the max earnings. (max roll is 130, so 91-130; I’d like to see more earnings for rolling beyond 100)

    I still agree with a lot of what you said, that it doesn’t make sense for a trading post with a 10GP daily upkeep should earn as much as a 5SP farm per day, and then if the trading post does poorly you lose comparatively a lot, when the farm would be almost nothing lost.

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