Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Magic Item Shops vs. the Domain Game

That's a pretty grandiose title for a pretty simple thought I had.

I think that in a game where you can buy significant adventuring power, you end with a choice between:

- upgrade my PC with magical power

- upgrade my PC with mundane power

Buy some magical power at the magic shop, and you are better at adventuring. Especially in those areas where merely adding more manpower (hirelings, henchmen, etc.) just won't matter. All the crossbowmen in the world won't help much vs. weapon-immune demons or when you have to crawl down a tight corridor to face a lich in his lair.

Spend those resources on establishing a fortress, hiring guards, etc. and you expand out in the political world.

In a game without the ability to spend loot on dramatic personal power upgrades, you start to automatically get drawn into the "domain game."

But in a game with only one, you've essentially made the choice. No magic shoppes or NPC enchanters? Loot is useful mainly for expanding your non-dungeon power and your control over the larger campaign map. Have them? You can get personal power.

In fact, having them is a strong signal that the intent of loot is that you upgrade. If building a fortress or hiring some guards and henchmen doesn't help you adventure better, but magic swords are for sale, you're saying that you're handing out loot so people can buy magic swords.

In my current game, buying additional adventuring power is the name of the game. Wealth is a tool for the players to expand the power and resources of their adventurer's personal abilities. While we could expand the game out to be "establish a domain" I'm not sure we ever will. It's a feature, not a bug, and I have to remind myself of that when people think of the best cash-based upgrades they can get when they hit a large pile of loot. $200K worth of gold and silver isn't a downpayment on the walls of Mi'Pee'Cees Castle; $200K is a signal that you darn well need $200K worth of magic upgrades for the upcoming adventures.

In my past games where magic was only found - not made or sold - mundane power was where the money went. PCs own inns and taverns, cleared mini-dungeons and lived in them, cleared haunted mansions and lived in them, worried about getting to name level (in D&D-based) or enough cash flow because they wanted followers, and so on. That's pretty much what money was good for.

I don't think this is a good vs. bad issue. It's just that I feel like allowing magic item purchases might be a signal that loot is provided so you can upgrade your personal power. Also, people tend to worry about winning the last war. So even if upgrading personal power isn't the endgame, if lack of it made the previous adventure hard, then it's reasonable to expect they'll spend on personal power.

It's possible circular as well - play games where you don't really have a "domain game" as a goal, and people start to wonder what all the loot is for. Let them buy some personal power, and then loot becomes all about it. And vice-versa - play games where "domain game" is the up-front goal, and personal power isn't easily for sale, and people will gravitate the other way.

Just something I was mulling over while thinking of spending habits of PCs in my own past games.


  1. One option I've seen floated around is to have two currencies: gold and astral diamonds/perfect souls/whatever. Powerful magic items can only be made from the latter currency, and so are only sold for the latter currency. Beginning adventurers can upgrade their mundane and low magic gear with gold, but after a certain point gold doesn't buy better magic items. You can only buy the best magic items with astral diamonds. It gives you a path where you can still have powerful magic items but giving someone $200K in gold means they can put a down payment on their castle. I don't know how it would work out in practice, but it sounds slick in theory.

    1. Yeah, I like that idea. My concern is that it's strange if there is no price for the special currency - "priceless" sounds great in theory but it just means "make up a price on the spot each time" in practice.

    2. Astral diamonds are valuable for other magic items and worthless otherwise. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

      I wrote up some more thoughts at

  2. i make basic potions and non plus items available but rich and powerful only let high lv types in the good shops

    in RQ i have players who want no items or cash as it can be lost so they spend cash on magic tatoos

    i might do a tangent on this idea on my blog - cheers for inspiring read

    1. If you do, please reply and link it here too!

  3. I'm running a megadungeon DF game where the dungeon is rather isolated. It's a couple of days away from a small town, where no magic items beyond potions are normally available for sale. It's a couple of weeks away from a big city, where they might be. But during the time required for such a shopping trip, the dungeon might restock. So far, the PCs haven't chosen to make a shopping trip. So they're basically using the same equipment they started with, plus a few things they've found in the dungeon.

    But it's a dungeon-focused DF game, so I haven't really given them much opportunity to buy mundane power either.

    So the money on their character sheets mostly serves as a way of keeping score, rather than a useful resource. I think that works pretty well, because adventuring is more fun than shopping.

    If at some point they want to take their stash to the big city and try to upgrade their equipment, I'll let them. But the opportunity cost of doing so is high enough that it's a once-in-N-sessions thing, not a routine event, like it would be if the dungeon were right next to a big city with magic shops. I like it that way.

    1. When they get to town, do you think it'll be upgrades, or using the money to do "domain" type things?

  4. A few things.

    There's the DF campaign ala'Eye of the Beholder' where you can't leave the actual Dungeon. Even if you introduce a shop into the Dungeon it's still a game where money can't go out only be spent in the Dungeon.

    A VR campaign where the PCs have a 'real world' where real money matters but enter the game and you can't take anything out (or even in necessarily) is one where everything must be spent on what the VR game allows. (Not my cup of tea so much, but if their XP and special abilities can be used outside then that might appeal to me even if their gold can't.)

    Then there's the campaign where magic doesn't work outside the Dungeon. Kind of wainscott fantasy where the real world doesn't even necessarily know much about it. You accumulate magic items to accumulate more or better magical items in the Dungeon. The items can't be sold because they don't do anything for anyone else.

    1. My Castle of Horrors is a a bunch of real world hunters find a magical device that transports them from the Real World to a fantasy castle that they've been exploring and looting. Kind of like your wainscott fantasy adventure. And they've already encountered the problem of magic items that you can't really sell: they've got a Three-Arrow Bow (DF8 p42) that is in every way inferior to the guns they already have, but they can't sell it because it isn't magical in the Real World.

    2. I'd rather not run that kind of game. It's essentially adding a layer of need of suspension of disbelief on top of the existing one. It's like playing a video game where you're running a person playing a video game. If you need that level of abstraction, it feels like it's solving a problem by adding different complexity.

      Mark - we have a term for non-salable, non-useful items in my games. It's called "junk." ;)

      I really meant this post as a thought on why people with access to purchasable power don't naturally gravitate to domains and politics and such, but it's kind of spun into a "magic item economy control" kind of angle in the comments. I didn't anticipate that at all.

  5. In Northport, a city built on top of a megadungeon, there is a magic shop inside the Adventurers Guild. It specializes in basic esoteric equipment as found in DF1, potions, scrolls, spellstones, power items and their charging, and serves as a place to sell found but unwanted magic, meaning the only funky items for sale come from other PC's. You can also learn spells, or have them cost, but it isn't a place to get more than the simplest enchantments made, and those are performed at the slow rate. As my game, active on a pbpforum for about 18 months is realy only into the second or third week of elapsed time (roughly equivalent to playing one second rounds at 15 minutes), no one has ordered any magic, or for example, bought the recently sold Sword +1, +2 vs trolls. More players have looked at investing points in social advantages like guild rank
    or expanded henchmen than in boosting gear.
    On the otherhand, watching struggling characters scramble to buy better armor and hope to upgrade from cheap weapons is entertaining and purposeful.

    1. Since I've structured my game differently, buying magic items isn't that hard - takes a year? Order it in 2014 and it shows up in 2015. No worries. And it's easier since we're playing slightly less often and swapping out DF with Star Wars and Gamma Terra. It makes for a very different logistical issue with magic item enchantment times.


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