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D&D 5E Barter Economy

embee

Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
Ah the gold piece. The staple of the RPG economy. But why?

I mean, in an urban center, currency makes sense. But what about once you get outside of the cities?

I'm almost done with a campaign and am thinking that, for the next one, I'm going to try to switch over to a barter economy which, I would think would make more sense.

I got to thinking this because of the habit of players to go for the treasure chests full of gold and gems but then leaving any barrels of wheat or other foodstuffs that you would find in a bandit hideout (bandits gotta eat too). As it stands, I already do maintain a spreadsheet of the gems that I dole out. I don't tell players the values because none of their characters would have a reason to know how much any given gem is worth. Also, they don't get the base price. They get a percentage of the base price based on haggling and whether they are getting swindled. It's kind of a pain but I think it's ultimately worth it.

Consider the average hamlet. It's small, maybe has a few guards, but probably doesn't even have palisades to guard it. It's a farming village with some tradesfolk for all the standard stuff. A cooper to make barrels. A blacksmith to make horseshoes and nails. A chandler for the candles. A miller to make flour. I like having there being a world of "cottage" industries. Got a bag of wool? Take it down to the spinster or the weaver. Why wouldn't these villages be relying on barter?

All of the clutter that exists in hideouts and dungeons has some value to it. Probably more immediate value than gold pieces. After all, you can't eat gold pieces. You can't make it into bread or brew it into beer. All gold does is sit there, inertly, attracting raiders. I think that giving immediate value to the clutter gives the players a reason to have some hirelings, like some porters, a couple of level 1 trainees to guard the wagon, and a teamster to drive the cart.

Has anyone tried using barter instead of (or in addition to) GP in their games? I like the idea of it, especially given that GP is kind of worthless in 5e anyway.
 

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MarkB

Legend
From many years of playing Skyrim, what it comes down to is weight-to-value ratios. There's no point in carting barrels, crates and sacks of ordinary produce all the way back to town if they're only going to earn you a relative pittance compared to something relatively far more valuable and less cumbersome like a jewelled necklace or a finely crafted longsword.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
A lot of activity can be done with barter, but that doesn't mean money doesn't also exist for larger purchases or just for convenience. You can only use so many chickens. In my own campaign one example is that a servant's wages may be largely paid for with a safe place to live and food. Taxes are regularly paid in goods and services not cash and so on.

But I don't think it's realistic to get rid of money altogether, it's simply too useful in a complex society. On a related note, while currency should probably be silver instead of gold, I just look at a gold piece similar in value to a $20 bill. Not an inconsequential amount for the poor, but for the middle class it's just a standard denomination. In a fantasy world, who says that alchemists can't change lead to gold, devaluing it's scarcity and value compared to the real world.

Barter is slightly less common in cities where people are less self-reliant, but it still exists.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Cash is convenient to work with. Everything else is complicated - which doesn't need to be a bad thing. Gems, jewelry, occasional objects d'art.
But if you handle large portions of hoards as barter goods that are bulky to transport, you end up with the Knights of the Dinner Table story where they recruited lots of goats to haul a dragon's hoard and you probably encourage PCs to strip the dead of everything to sell later (something bad enough in 3e when cash could be easily converted to magic power-ups). If it doesn't end up as satire, you'll probably face player ire with having to futz with logistics rather than action-adventure and story.
 

aco175

Legend
gold is not the historically accurate version of how trade was conducted. But, like most things D&D it is only a simplified version of old-timey days. Like glossing over plague, torture, rape and pillage for more romantic things like chivalry and people helping because they are heroes, gold is easy and players can see/know that it is worth taking.

A few games I had involved the PCs being offered a night in the barn and a cooked meal as payment for saving the farm from the ankheg. The farmer simply did not have 50gold, or even 5gold. The PCs being heroes took the job and were later rewarded with a cavern that the ankheg used under the farmer's field that had some treasure from something else. It is a worthy goal to have the players use some of this, but like most things I find that only some want this or want this to an extend to not just skim over.

I'm at the point that I just let the players convert all the hapless copper and silver to gold once they get to a town and not have to worry about finding someone to take the 1,000cp off their hands, or the weight of carrying it once they do get to town. I find it mostly not worth it like tracking food and arrows, unless needed for game purposes.
 

embee

Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
From many years of playing Skyrim, what it comes down to is weight-to-value ratios. There's no point in carting barrels, crates and sacks of ordinary produce all the way back to town if they're only going to earn you a relative pittance compared to something relatively far more valuable and less cumbersome like a jewelled necklace or a finely crafted longsword.
That begs the question...

Who is going to buy the sword?

The farmer? He's a farmer. The sword doesn't help him farm. That longsword is of value to the player but not to the village. There's already an armory where there are swords if trouble strikes. The average person doesn't have one and the local lord probably doesn't want the populace to have swords either.

As it stands, I make swords and armor something that is not available for sale outside of cities. There's neither demand nor permission for it. If a PC wants a better weapon or armor, s/he can take it off a corpse or find it in a dungeon. The blacksmith is a blacksmith, not a weaponsmith and certainly not an armorer.

As to the weight-to-value, that's why I let players use hirelings. It gives something to spend gold on (services) and a reason to be in the world.

Skyrim is an okay example. However, even it needs patching to make it work (ie with mods like (surprise!) "Trade & Barter"). And remember, even in Skyrim, the alchemist won't buy a sword from you and the armorer won't buy apples from you. You need to go to the proper merchant.

Ultimately, I'm trying to think of a way to have a more robust (or at least functional) economy in the game and am trying to figure out if it can be patched with barter.
 

aco175

Legend
Most of the players in my games today would totally wreck local economies when they walk into towns. It is like someone won the lottery and knew they were dying next week. Anything less than gold is almost given away. Some cross all their silver off as beer, gambling, and partying expense for the the time in town. One always buys the tavern drinks as soon as they walk into the bar. Mostly leads to friends and hangers-on, but sometimes leads to alley fights. To haggle with someone over giving change being a carrot, 2 turnips, and an old brass chain from grandma in exchange for dropping 10gold for a new backpack would not happen. Most of my group would just say keep it, or maybe you can pack me a trail meal to go.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Who is going to buy the sword?

The farmer? He's a farmer. The sword doesn't help him farm.
That's why he takes the sword to the nearest city, sells it, and buys two dozen sacks of grain, a couple of top-quality draft horses, a flock of chickens, and a bunch of new tools. He comes back with loads of stuff and becomes the new big man in town.

Like I said, a community would have to be really isolated to have no use for gold. And again: If the community is truly and utterly cut off from civilization, such that they can't even travel to a place where gold has value, then what the heck do they have that the PCs want to trade for?
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
If a good portion of the game is meant to be about deciding what to carry into a dungeon and what to carry out, then having bulky treasure is good because it plays to that theme. It becomes a logistical problem for the players to solve.

But underpinning any such consideration is what you said in the last line of your original post - that gold (or wealth, really) doesn't matter in D&D 5e out of the tin. Solving for that problem is really the first step in any kind of house rules for this sort of thing. Otherwise all you're doing is trading useless gold for useless wheat (once the fighters get their plate armor and the odd spell component/spell scribing).
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
That begs the question...

Who is going to buy the sword?

The farmer? He's a farmer. The sword doesn't help him farm. That longsword is of value to the player but not to the village. There's already an armory where there are swords if trouble strikes. The average person doesn't have one and the local lord probably doesn't want the populace to have swords either.

As it stands, I make swords and armor something that is not available for sale outside of cities. There's neither demand nor permission for it. If a PC wants a better weapon or armor, s/he can take it off a corpse or find it in a dungeon. The blacksmith is a blacksmith, not a weaponsmith and certainly not an armorer.

As to the weight-to-value, that's why I let players use hirelings. It gives something to spend gold on (services) and a reason to be in the world.

Skyrim is an okay example. However, even it needs patching to make it work (ie with mods like (surprise!) "Trade & Barter"). And remember, even in Skyrim, the alchemist won't buy a sword from you and the armorer won't buy apples from you. You need to go to the proper merchant.

Ultimately, I'm trying to think of a way to have a more robust (or at least functional) economy in the game and am trying to figure out if it can be patched with barter.
To a degree availability likely depends on location yea. That mundane short sword might not be a freshly made by the local smith so much as the local smith who specializes in things like horseshoes nails & cooking pots sending his apprentice to billybob's place cause he found a buyer for that sword he keeps over the mantle from when he got drafted to fight those zombies. Meanwhile somewhere else where the zombies have been attacking every time a particular moon is brightest might have so many swords that a well cooked meal could get you two.

I think that the economy destroying party of PCs walking around the local lord's territory with the yearly GDP of the empire he's subject to if there were two different types of currency. One currency for normal stuff & some sort of magical currency used to enchant things like wizard towers & the kinds of magical stuff players care about. The real world is kind of similar but less overt in that regard.... Sure there are countries that will allow people to buy tanks bombs & military ships from them, but after a certain point a significant part of the pricetag comes in the form of political things. The large number of spells & certain class abilities having Xgp components rather than something more abstract like 2 ounces of fernian dust or something makes accomplishing this sort of thing a huge mess at the table though
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
So much of D&D is predicated on the idea of gathering wealth and magic items I have my doubts that a barter economy would work.

Now, if you are running a game where the PCs are doing things other than killing things to get treasure it works quite well.

I have run numerous non-D&D games where treasure gathering wasn't part of the running narrative as the players were far more interested in doing something other than killing monsters to gain treasure. This made it quite easy to use barter as an economic form because the PCs rarely had or found treasure. Not having treasure gaining as a primary motivation for play makes it much more likely that players will utilize a barter system.

The best part of using a barter system is that economic exchange becomes a social experience rather than just ticking off some coin on a character sheet. It can be a lot of fun to have the PCs actually have to barter with the locals to get what they need.
 

6ENow!

The Game Is Over
FWIW, I use barter in all my games in addition to coinage. I have had NPCs actually refuse gold (due to isolation) and barter for food or water from the PCs for information or services. Players in my games have also learned to take anything of value or that they think they might be able to trade. Taking a barrel of beer to an inn is a nice way to get a couple free rooms for a night or two, etc.

Oddly enough, the more "city-focused" my game is, the more this stuff occurs. Even though coinage is there, it isn't often used except in shops maybe (maybe!). But, people had coins and taxes were collected. I remember one time the PCs were hired out to help protect a tax collector's wagons while he collected--it was fun because he had coins, silverware and other valuables, and livestock and foodstuffs--all different things he collected as taxes for the local lord.

I find I enjoy the game more the more immersive it becomes in the "lives of the commonfolk". For decades I ran and played in the "hero" and "questing" games so now I like more mundane styles of play. At this point, I find it funny when new players kill something and want to take its eyes and heart and horns to give to some wizard for money! First, the wizard likely has little use for them, and second you are more likely to get the wizard to cast a spell for you in payment instead of cash in my game. :)
 

jgsugden

Legend
Why do we not use barter as the primary exchange method in the United States in 2020? Because another option was invented, and it proved to be more versatile and efficient.

This is the same reason why you'd expect that small villages would also resort to using coin for most transactions - someone invented the system, and it is more efficient than trying to figure out how to trade your services for every little product you need. You might have some truly isolated places where they do not get enough coin to their settlement to form a currency based economy, but that would be an oddity, not a trend.

However, there is no reason that it can't be supplemented by barter. If the PCs visit a small village, they might have a farmer offer to provide their keep with food at a cheap rate (or for free) for 8 years in exchange for them rescuing his daughter. A nobleman might offer his child's hand in marriage in exchange for eliminating a threat. An innkeep might offer them permanent residence in his new inn if the PCs eliminate the ghost that haunts it (which, of course, is actually Old Man Jenkins who would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling adventurers!)
 



Dausuul

Legend
Why do we not use barter as the primary exchange method in the United States in 2020? Because another option was invented, and it proved to be more versatile and efficient.

This is the same reason why you'd expect that small villages would also resort to using coin for most transactions - someone invented the system, and it is more efficient than trying to figure out how to trade your services for every little product you need.
Not necessarily. Small communities often resort to a gift economy. If somebody needs something, and you have some extra, you give it to them. When you need something later, somebody--not necessarily the same somebody--will give it to you. It works because everybody knows everybody else, and people who accept gifts but never give any will be noticed and frozen out.

Such a community might rely on barter for outside trade (and trade with the PCs would certainly qualify). But that assumes, not only that the community itself does not use money, but that nobody in their entire trade network uses money. That's a fairly extreme assumption in a typical D&D setting.
 

I think incorporating barter in is great, but insisting on it as the only route just creates player frustration and legitimate argument about "realism".

I think it's great to have barter be the norm for transactions in a village by villagers, and perhaps to reflect this in nobody ever being able to pay them coin for anything, and insisting that if they want to trade in those 4 shortbows they took off the goblins it will be bartering for other goods. I think its great to have money be rare in the world and to have them rarely find much wealth in the form of money. Shortage of coin compared to what we are used to was historically a major aspect of many societies and players are fairly likely to buy into dealing with this on some level if it is well presented.

I think it's great to put more economic value in food and mundane goods than we typically do when we bring 21st century economic assumptions to D&D. In some communities in Tudor England it was common for someone's will (typically written on their death bed) to indicate which of their heirs would receive a particular wheel of cheese in their possession. In the late middle ages clothing and other textiles might not only see generations of use, before eventually becoming repurposed as rags, but then even at the end of their useful life as rags the rags would be broken down to make paper. Which is all to say that I think you can get some good worldbuilding flavor out of having the ordinary people of a village see real value in the mundane items our heroes find in a bandit hoard.

But barter because the society is short on coin and barter because the society has no interest in coin are two different things. If you give the players coin then it should be readily exchangeable for goods and services wherever they go and people, even those who don't usually handle coin, should be all the more eager to accept it because there is a shortage of coin.

If instead you are trying to insist that the society has no interest in coin because "you can't eat gold" or whatever, well keep in mind that our base D&D assumptions tend to be of a fairly economically advanced situation where a village is wont to have dedicated merchants and inns which would be unlikely to exist in a truly pure barter society. It may be interesting to play out visiting a town where the only "tavern" is a widow who brews beer to make ends meet and the only "merchants" are people coming to the market day once a week to trade their various produce for that of others, and in a situation like that it might ring true to have people discount the value of money vs. things they need (though even there I don't see insiting on pure barter making sense). But trying to map a pure barter system or even a barter preferred system onto the relatively advanced, differentiated economies we interpolate into the average D&D small town, with an inn, a blacksmith, a general goods merchant, etc. is trying to model an economy that never existed and can't really make sense.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I haven't actually read the book myself, so I can't say how applicable it'd be toward 5E, but d20 Modern's d20 Apocalypse (affiliate link) has a barter system that might be usable.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Some historical context that may be relevant to this discussion: the intuitive assumption among lay-people is that forms of trade would have developed from least abstract to most abstract: first barter, then currency that is intrinsically valuable like bullion coinage, then currency that is not intrinsically valuable but represents concrete resources, then currency representing trust in the institution that issues it, and finally credit (and arguably then cryptocurrency). But if you actually analyze the way trade tends to evolve, it usually starts with credit. In small, minimally-developed communities, people mostly trade debts with their neighbors, which could theoretically be called in for goods or services when needed. As a community grows larger, tracking these debts becomes more complex, so currencies are developed as concrete representations of these debts. Direct barter is historically pretty rare between people within a shared community, and was mostly only done between people of different communities who lack the trust to accept debts from one another. Representative currency serves a similar role in facilitating trade between communities that don’t have trust between one another when that trade is on a larger, more complex scale.
 
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