Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about the economics of the game world.
In order to write several of the articles that I have planned, it is important for us to establish a bit of “world economics” for our campaign. This means that we need to know how money would realistically move around a campaign setting. So without further adieu, let’s talk economics!
What is an Economy?
Although I believe I’ve answered this question before, I think its worth revisiting just what an economy is. We need to know our beast in order to best simulate it, after all. According to the most general of searches, an economy is a system consisting of the production, distribution, and consumption of limited goods and services by different agents in a given geographic location. Let’s break this down.
- Production: The creation of goods and/or services. If you’re a farmer, you’re creating goods (agricultural products). If you’re a doctor, you’re creating services (medicinal advice and assistance).
- Distribution: Also called trade, this is the process of exchanging goods and services for other goods and services.
- Consumption: This is the use or expenditure of limited goods and services.
- Transaction: When all three steps have been fulfilled; the god or service has been produced, distributed, and ultimately consumed. For a transaction to occur, both parties (the distributor and the consumer) must agree to the value or price of the transaction, which is typically expressed in a currency.
- Economic Agents: Anyone who participates in an economic system, such as an individual, a business, or even a government.
Additionally, there are five major “bonds” to economic activity within an economy. These things limit how much an economy can grow. They are:
- Capital: This is the most difficult economic bond to understand. Basically, capital is any produced thing that can enhance a person’s power to perform economically useful work. For example, if you’re a hunter, then an arrow is capital to you because an arrow enables you to kill your prey and sell the game to a potential buyer, which is economically useful work for you.
- Innovation: The ability to generate and apply better economic solutions to create new or existing economic needs. For example, upgrading from hand looms to electric looms is an innovation because the electric loom is a solution to an economic need (more cloth).
- Labor: A group of individuals employed to meet an economic task. Whether you’re sitting at a desk or working in the fields, you’re performing labor. Labor is essentially the ability to get work done.
- Natural Resources: Any economic resources that can be acquired in nature without any processing or refinement needed. For example, you’ve got things like air, sunlight, and water; these things exist in nature without us needing to make them. They’re constants and often form the basis of economic production.
- Technology: Any tool or technique that is used in the production of goods and services or towards the accomplishment of any other objective.
To summarize all of this technical information, we can define an economy as a system that uses labor, technology, and innovation to produce capital from natural resources that is then distributed to consumers via mutually accepted transactions. As Anthony might say, “Gee, Alex, you just LOVE making stuff more difficult, don’t you?”
Aligning Fantasy and Reality
So it does us absolutely no good to talk about fantasy economics if we can’t put it in comparison with our own modern money. Saying something is worth “10 gold pieces” doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have a way to reliably measure what “10 gold pieces” actuals means. There are three ways that we could make this exchange.
- Exchange Rates: In the real world, the value of one nation’s currency in relationship to another is set by global demand for each nation’s money. For example, if citizens of other countries REALLY want US Dollars, then the cost of the USD rises in comparison to that of other creatures. Likewise, the currency of a nation like Uganda, which you might not even know of, is relatively low because their currency isn’t in high demand. It becomes apparent rather quickly why this doesn’t work for our purposes; gold pieces are entirely hypothetical, which means they aren’t worth anything. Not unless you decide to use the next method….
- Value of Gold: Few real-world currencies are backed by gold anymore, but we could use the value of gold as a standard when making this transition. Interestingly enough, in the real world gold isn’t measured by the ounce or even by the gram; we have a special unit specifically for gold called the troy ounce that is based upon the specific mass of gold as an element. The conversion is a little bit messy, but 1 pound of gold is worth approximately 15 troy ounces, and while the value of gold per troy ounce is constantly changing, as of the moment when this article was written, one troy ounce is worth about $1,191.25 USD. That means that a pound of gold (15 troy ounces) is worth $17,868.75 USD. The reason I bring this up is that according to the Core Rulebook, a bag of 50 gp weighs roughly 1 pound. So yeah, this isn’t the best comparison model for our purposes either, as a bag of Pathfinder gold is worth a menial job’s yearly salary in our world.
- Capital Exchange Rate: Since comparing money doesn’t work too well, our best bet is to compare mutually existent goods and services that both our world and the fantasy world of Pathfinder possess. The easiest kind of capital to choose, in my opinion, is food. Food is a universal need and therefore would be equally valuable in both worlds. Now, the Core Rulebook has some living expenses rules that we can look to for advice on what constitutes a baseline for our fantasy world. The cost of living rules in the Core Rulebook both state that poor people don’t need to track meals that cost 1 sp or less while average people don’t need to track meals that cost 1 gp or less. In the equipment chapter, a good meal costs 5 sp per meal while an average meal costs 3 sp per meal and a poor meal costs 1 sp per meal. This means that a poor person will probably be eating three poor meals a day while an average person will probably be eating three average meals a day. We’ll go with averages for this purpose. Now, a quick Google search looking for “How Much Does an Average Meal in the US Cost” has earned me the following results: a meal at an inexpensive restaurant costs $10 USD, a meal at McDonalds costs $6.50, and a meal for 2 at a mid-range, three-course restaurant costs $45.00. Taking that down a peg, we can guess that a mid-range, three course restaurant might come a bit closer to $22.50 per person. If the poor meal ($6.50) is worth 1 sp, then this is pretty close to our guestimates; if we take our 1 sp meal and triple it to a 3 sp average meal, we get $18.75, which is right in the middle of our two average meal prices. For the time being, I’m going to use this and say that 1 sp is equal to about $6.50, which means 1 gp is worth roughly $65 USD in our modern currency, subject to change.
To me, the Capital Exchange Rate seems the most reasonable for our purposes, so it’s the one that we’ll go with moving forward.
Cost of Living in a Fantasy World
So using our tentative conversion of 1 gp = $65 USD, let’s take a look at what the standard of living looks like in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, according to the cost of living rules of the GameMastery section of the Core Rulebook.
- Destitute (0 gp): Anything multiplied 0 is 0! Being broke is something we can agree on across game systems and realities, it seems.
- Poor (3 gp/month): At 3 gp a month, you’re making $195 a month, for an annual 12-month salary of roughly $2,340 USD. All of a sudden, the “you live in a common room of a tavern, with your parents, or in a communal situation” makes sense.
- Average (10 gp/month): Another easy conversion; 10 gp a month would be $650 USD a month, for a total of $7,800 USD a year. That … is very low by US standards. Especially considering that this value claims that the PC lives in his own apartment or small house.
- Wealthy (100 gp/month): At this range, we’re looking at $6,500 USD a month, meaning an annual 12-month salary of $78,000 USD. This is a little bit closer to what many US citizens would consider “average,” nowadays.
- Extravagant (1,000 gp/month): At this range, we’re looking at $65,000 USD a month, meaning an annual 12-month salary of $780,000 USD. This is also interesting, because by our standards this isn’t THAT extravagant. Taylor Swift earned $64 MILLION USD in 2014, for example. Is it more money then I’ve made in my lifetime? Heck yes. Its just that $780,000 isn’t that much compared to what the superstars of today make. Let’s talk about why that is.
Working As Intended
So, let’s talk about why these discoveries make a lot of sense. Tying this article back to all of the crazy, technical terms that I threw at the wall, a fantasy economy (let’s say Golarion) would not be as developed as a modern economy for a few reasons.
- Less Labor, Fewer Economic Agents: Populations are generally MUCH smaller in a fantasy world then they are in the real world. Take Golarion, for instance, where Absolam is one of the few cities boasting a population of more than a million people, and that’s considered a Metropolis. My hometown, which is in the suburbs of Philadelphia, boasts 50,000 people easy. By local standards, we’re a town. By Golarion standards, we’re a metropolis. Having less people around not only means that the amount of labor that you can generate is limited, but it also reduces the number of economic agents in your economy. Less people alive means less people buying stuff, after all.
- Distribution: Distribution is MUCH slower in Golarion then in the real world. Few organizations have access to the reality-bending magic that we all know and love, so you’re mostly moving at the speed of foot (yours or an animal’s).
- Transaction: If people don’t have money to buy your stuff, they’re not going to buy your stuff (a fact that politicians don’t seem to recognize). For an economy to grow, money needs to be circulating. The faster money moves from hand to hand, the more stuff grows and improves.
- Technology: High-level economic magic (namely fabricate) is not widely available in Golarion, and they’ve had surprisingly few technological developments to help them create new objects and items to help bolster the economy. One of the few that I can think of is the printing press.
But then again, so far we haven’t been talking about gross income; we’ve only been talking about living expenses. So let’s check gross income with the best way I know how: the Perform/Profession rules!
Checking the Perform / Profession Rules
So, with this in mind let’s look at how much money people actually manage to earn for themselves. Let’s have some benchline characters for this: an untrained worker, and a trained worker. We’ll be using Level 1 characters for this exercise.
- Untrained Worker: He’s effectively making an untrained Profession check. Since you can never roll higher than a 10 on an untrained Profession check, his average is 5.25 on a check, rounded down to 5. (10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 +10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2+ 1 = 115 / 20 = 5.75.) When you make a Profession check, you earn half your check in gold pieces per week, meaning this worker earns 2.875 gp each work week. That’s almost precisely what the Poor living expenses expectation are set as.
- Trained Worker: We’ll say this worker is of the same Wisdom as the Untrained Worker, but he’s also got a rank and a class skill bonus on his check, for an extra +4. Since he’s trained, he can roll a 20, which makes his average a 14.5, rounded down to 14 for a total of 7 gp earned per week. (24 + 23 + 22 + 21 + 20 + 19 + 18 + 17 + 16 + 15 +14 + 13 + 12 + 11 + 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 +6 + 5 = 290 / 20 = 14.5) This is fairly close to our average living expense, but not close enough, so what if we threw Skill Focus into the mix? An extra +3 would alter the total from 290 to 350 (3 x 20 + 290), which would give us an average of 17.5 gp a week or about 9.75 gp earned. That’s almost perfect.
Now, the interesting thing about these numbers is that they only represent about 1/4th of the character’s wealth. Why’s that? Well, each of these checks represents a week of pay, and you typically get paid four times a week, right? This means that we can assume the following:
- An untrained, Level 1 worker can earn up to 2.875 gp a week, for a total of 11.5 gp per month. This is an monthly wage of $747.50 USD, or $8,790 USD per year.
- A trained, Level 1 worker can earn up to 9.75 gp a week, for a total of 39 gp per month. This is a monthly wage of $2,535 USD, or $30,420 USD per year.
A Glance At Extravagance
So with this in mind, how do we get to that 100 gp/month (wealthy) and 1,000 gp/month (extravagant) total? Well, let’s look at extravagant, since the numbers are bigger.
- First, we know that our extravagant fellow’s living expenses are 1,000 gp a month. From the trained and untrained workers section, we can see that most of our jobs have earned their living expenses in the first week of each month, so we can assume that to follow suit, our extravagant guy needs to earn 1,000 gp or more per week. This means that he needs a check DC of 2,000 or more, since you get half your result in gold.
- This means that our extravagant person needs a Perform/Profession bonus of 2,000 or more on average to keep his benefits. How is this even possible? Simple: downtime. If we check Ultimate Campaign’s downtime rules, we can see that having things like buildings and workers give bonuses on checks to earn gp, which is simply what an extravagant person needs to be doing in order to make rent.
- While this does mean that its impossible for us to backward engineer the extravagantly wealthy person’s level, we can assume that its pretty high. After all, its much more cost affordable to improve your own skills in Pathfinder then hire a bunch of untrained lackeys to do things for you.
- This also means that the wealthy individual would need to be able to hit a craft DC of 200 per week in order to make his ends meet.
Why Calculate This?
There really isn’t a strong reason to KNOW about the USD to Golarion conversion rates save curiosity and the benefit of having fantasy currency put in-line with modern currency, but there are a couple of key ideas that we can take away from this.
- Work experience is DEFINETELY a thing and DEFINETELY is needed to justify the existence of wealthy merchant-type NPCs. Leadership rules not withstanding, the DCs are just too big for a merchant to gain a sizable cartel without gaining experience from her downtime activities.
- Our annual salaries for these purposes are eerily spot-on in some cases.
- Modern economics can’t exist in a world without access to modern technology and population sizes.
Before I sign off, here are some fun facts about this conversion.
- A wand of cure light wounds (750 gp) would cost roughly $48,750 USD. So yeah, thank the Pathfinder Society for your 2 Prestige Wands. They’re worth your salary for a year in our world.
- A cloak of resistance +1 (1,000 gp) would cost $65,000 USD. That’s a whole lot of NOPE.
- In the downtime system, a small cottage sized for two adults or a new family (1,290 gp) costs $83,850 USD. That’s … actually pretty affordable. Sign me up for the first plane shift to Golarion, please.
- If you’ve come down with Bulhmangitis (aka ConCrud) and want a fast track to being cured, remove disease (150 gp) will suck $9,750 USD from your account. This is why you want universal healthcare, people!
- Lost a limb? No worries, regenerate (910 gp) will cost you a meager $59,150 USD. Much better than the millions that artificial limbs cost you, right?
- Want Lassie to come back to life? If he’s your animal companion, raise animal companion (1,450 gp) will cost you $94,250 USD. Maybe it’s best to let the dog have its eternal rest….
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.
PS. If you like Paizo’s Pathfinder Unchained and its revisions to the barbarian class, you might be excited to know that my company, Everyman Gaming, LLC, has released a NEW product themed to help players who want to unchain their rage-based classes. From revised versions of feats to updates to the bloodrager, skald, rage prophet, and stalwart defender, Everyman Unchained: Unchained Rage has everything that YOU need to avoid falling to negative hit points and dying when your rage ends!
Wouldn’t the Take 20 option require spending 20 weeks, with each week leading up the last one being a different roll on the d20? Thus making the total amount of GP earned over the 20 week period being 171 gp, and the average per week being 8.55 gp.
My math isn’t taking 20. My build is assuming that over the course of a month/year, you roll 100% average.
Assuming that a characters rolls 100% average and rounding down is functionally equivalent to using Take 10, though, which might have made for “cleaner” phrasing.
What’s your source for the proposition that “you can never roll higher than a 10 on an untrained Profession check?” It’s my understanding that untrained characters can’t make Profession checks at all.
I was just rereading this article, and something jumped out at me that I didn’t notice before. When you speak of cost of living you say “At 3 gp a month, you’re making $195 a month,” but that’s not what a character living at that level makes, it’s what a character living at that level SPENDS.
This is significant because it means that an unskilled laborer, who earns 1 sp per day must either work literally every day of a month just to maintain his or her own cost of living, which is to say nothing of supporting children or an elderly parent. This paints a much bleaker picture of the existence of untrained laborers on Golarion than one might ordinarily expect.