This post comes out of countless conversations with Kainenchen about Flight Rising and other, similar games with active economies. I’ve written about trying to build functional game economies for LARPs before, and though that post is somewhat dated now, it’s still a foundation for this one. The point of this post is to give players more things to want (but not need), to drive money changing hands both between PCs, and from PC to NPC. I’ll also be talking a bit about things we tried in DtD that worked, and things that didn’t do quite what we hoped. Let me emphasize that I am, in big swathes of this post, a flawed messenger for Kainenchen’s ideas; I just happen to be the one with time to write.
In Flight Rising, players can breed, collect, buy, and sell a nigh-endless variety of dragons. Dragons have different stats, with some meaningful game throughput. They also have their visual appearance, which ranges from one of the common types to very rare or even decommissioned skins. The game has a basic treadmill of advancing dragons to their highest level and then exalting them, which removes them from the game and gives points to the owner’s faction.
As a result, the game economy has a constant inflow and outflow of dragons. The auction prices for common dragons fluctuate based on the flow of in-game competition. Prices for rare dragons stay consistently high, as you’d expect of a collector’s market. There’s no additional reward for exalting rare dragons, so their general purpose is to be interesting collection pieces – they don’t carry mechanical benefits.
Translating this to a LARP economy, common dragons are anything you can use up. In the economy of Dust to Dust, there are all kinds of consumable goods with meaningful game benefits, from potions and spell scrolls to item enchantments. In DtD’s Forge Magic system, enchantments last for a limited number of events before they have to be replaced, so they are gradually consumed through use. DtD’s scope and variety of useful items got a lot of players involved in the economy mini-game and drew praise from many of those most experienced in the challenges of building an economy. It wasn’t perfect – we bulked up the Security craft in the course of the campaign and it still wasn’t enough – but we gave it our best effort. Anyway.
Rare dragons, then, are anything that doesn’t have an obvious mechanical function, but that the game distributes and the players might trade. Again using DtD as an example – though this post isn’t a DtD postmortem – we had Daynor’s Curiosity Shop that traded in art pieces, antiques, and oddities as well as consumable goods and crafting materials. It didn’t have a lot of luck selling art objects, in general; instead, players used it to offload art objects they had looted as part of their adventures. Cursed art objects – that is, the player went in knowing it might be more bad than good – did okay. The one big seller was anything that looked like a piece of the lore game, because information was never more than one step removed from mechanical impact. In fairness, a lot of art items could contribute to research on one topic or another, but not all of those effects were obvious on the shelf of the Curiosity Shop.
The point here is that art did not, in itself, drive the kind of collection mini-game I am suggesting in this post. Players did assiduously chase the Secrets of the Deep (tiny scrolls with secrets written on them) and the Focail Draíochta (tiny scrolls showing illuminated letters in the Lingua Arcana). In addition to being part of the lore game, they were also small and easily transported. We’re talking about LARPing and props that have to be transported to and from site, after all. Also, we’re talking about state park cabins that take a lot of creative effort to decorate. (I would have said “are very hard to decorate” before I saw what people have managed in Calamity.) Thirdly, there’s a much greater sense with these items that they are the kind of set you could complete, even if that wasn’t strictly true in the course of the campaign as presented.
There’s one other kind of item that we only very rarely sold for in-game money, because they were so valuable that they were hard to price: spell formulas and crafting formulas. From one point of view, every new spell and crafting formula is a new character feature. Our formulas were permanent items that cost a modest amount of money and effort from a scribe (that is, someone with the Inscription craft skill) to duplicate, and players did indeed hasten to duplicate and trade them. Between all types of spellcasting and all types of production skills, I want to say that we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 formulas, but that might be low; there were easily over 100 in Ritualism alone.
I’d like to see games enrich their economic play without getting into a lot of fiddly manipulation of resources that can’t show up on-camera, or that can’t have direct in-game effects. This isn’t a criticism of games that do involve trading off-camera wagon-loads of lumber or stone, except insofar as those systems don’t do much for me personally. There are any number of ways to bring immediacy to those trades and their effects, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
In every LARP I’ve played or run so far, some players or teams develop a clear lead in cash-on-hand. Much like in the real world, they start looking for something interesting to do with it, but most LARPs don’t have NPC senators for sale, so the players have to get more creative. Sometimes they sit on the money and just run up their score, which is only bad for the game if they insist on hanging onto all of the individual currency props (if the game uses currency props that are hard to replace). Just about every game eventually runs an in-play auction with big-ticket items, pitting the wealthiest teams against one another in order to pull cash out of the economy. Depending on the game, those big-ticket items might offer a superlative, permanent mechanical benefit. If that’s the only way to get that kind of item, you’re looking at in-game money to permanently tilt the game’s rules a little more in their favor. So about magic item design…
The first goal, then, is something interesting enough to drive collection impulses among wealthy PCs, but without major mechanical impact (unless that impact is beneficial to everyone).
Secondly, we’re seeing more games do away with required maintenance on basic gear. The good side of that is that maintenance is irritating, fiddly work that involves reviewing your item tags every game to see what has expired, then finding a character with the appropriate production skill who can complete the fairly boring production action required to maintain it in exchange for a minor in-game fee. No one in that exchange did anything compelling. On the other hand, low-level smiths don’t have a lot of compelling options available, because the main thing they make is available as starting gear, and is permanent. Weapons, armor, and shields can be destroyed through game effects, but that’s not common. Making Destroy effects more common isn’t super satisfying either, as weapons are tools of basic engagement with the game engine. (Games where every player can use small boffers for brawling attacks get a pass here, but those are also cumbersome and far from universal.)
Maintenance, then, has been the kind of novice-level scut-work that experienced PC smiths farm out to their apprentices. It keeps the master smiths free for bigger projects and gives the novice smiths something to do and a reliable – if dull – way to bring in some money. If that’s going away, something needs to replace it – either a consumable item that is use for oneself and/or sell to other PCs, or something TBD that soaks up production points and offers interest, if not enormous mechanical benefit.
The second goal is to give smiths some more love, for when they don’t have a customer or don’t have enough rare components to make something cool. Let’s take it as read that one could pursue eliminating Production Points and all similar currencies, but I’m not in contact with games that are interested in doing that. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Calamity dodges this issue a couple of different ways. I’m particularly intrigued with the talismans produced through Artificing. I don’t currently have enough contact with the Calamity system to spot any issues that might emerge in its economy, though.
Building a Collection Economy
The constraints of a game’s staff being what they are, the collectible items need to be light on real-money costs and production time. The more you can comfortably farm out that production work to players who will actually get it done, the better. You don’t want every item to be unique, though. You want multiple players chasing full collections of the same category of item. If trading away even one item means they can’t chase completion anymore, there’s no movement and thus no economy.
You also want to get comfortable with the idea that some of these items are going to be available from the game for a limited time. Thereafter, the game no longer distributes them, so if you want them, you’re trading with other players. It’s not a collection economy without rarity, and collectors don’t seem to mind artificial rarity. (I mean, in Flight Rising, it’s not like the game’s database couldn’t make more of those rare dragons from a seasonal event five years back. They just won’t.)
Since players are already in a mindset of chasing spell and crafting formulas, let’s start there. There’s this other game, pretty obscure, about collecting spells. Gathering: the Magic, you might call it. Try to stay with me here. Did you know that alpha Black Lotus sold for $27,302 in 2013? To model this in a LARP, consider issuing variant versions of spell and crafting formulas. Maybe they have a fancy margin decoration or variant flavor text. I don’t really recommend altering the spell’s parameters for this. I mean, yes, you should have vast diversity in spells and crafting formulas. Pandelume’s thousand sorceries are a good start. I am totally here for wizards trading and competing over spells, as everyone reading this already knows. Just remember that a gold foil border is enough to drive rarity, for baseball cards and CCGs alike.
Challenge coins are also popular collection items, and very LARP-friendly if you’re willing to use painted wooden tokens rather than metal. Scale that up by going for unusual materials – home improvement stores sell Lexan and similar materials that you could cut a circle out of and write on. The interesting part here is distribution, as you need to set up a semi-secret mini-game of finding out if a given NPC has challenge coins, and what you have to do to get one. That NPC being on-camera becomes the control on item rarity. Each NPC needs to distribute enough coins that there can be a few in circulation, but not enough that every player has one. Push the idea of exchanging them for money by having an NPC come along that wants to buy at generous prices.
Something for the Smiths of the World
Let’s assume you have a setting where smithing starts out mundane and builds up to being magical. Forge Magic makes it obvious that I embrace this, but it was a thing in DtD’s direct predecessors as well. For this, I have two suggestions.
The first and most mundane is an NPC-driven demand for production points. We experimented with NPC-driven demand in DtD to support smithing and Security, but selling 10 locks or longswords or whatever, at guild rates (guild rates were a thing in DtD), was a huge lump sum of cash to drop on the PC, and didn’t do the greatest job of supporting apprentice smiths. If I had that to do over again, I’d look at a simpler guild-rate formula that just had a step for people under a particular skill level, and a higher guild-rate markup for people over that level. The novices can beat out the masters for basic items, but the masters can create enchantments that the novices simply cannot.
Anyway, the other way to do it would be to trade in labor contracts, where the PC agrees to sell… let’s say 20 Production Points. They get paid in full at the end. (If there are “but how do I know the NPC will pay?” concerns, have the smithing guild invent escrow.) The PC marks production points off that contract event by event. The payout at the end is intended to be worth an apprentice’s time, but not a master’s – so maybe we’re talking 10 gold (the Dust to Dust material unit and primary exchange currency) per 20 PP. If this also carries with it a chance to interact with an NPC, great. If they’re paid in a mix of in-game cash and uncommon crafting materials, the kind that masters have plenty of but apprentices still need, maybe we’re getting somewhere.
The second idea, more explicitly magical: smiths (including Security crafters) can construct small metal boxes with rune-engraved sides. These take time to create, but (unlike some kinds of smithing production in many rulesets) the production points can be spaced out over as many events as you need. As with the contract idea above, this is about soaking up unspent PP (Editor’s Note: the writer of this pun has been shot). Anyway, once you complete the box, you wait a little while and open it back up, wondering what will be inside. Yeah, it’s a loot crate. But you didn’t have to pay real money for it (other than the LARP’s base event fee) and it doesn’t have Luke Skywalker inside. The idea is that there are enough low-end items that players could want that a player-crafted magical loot crate might wind up being pretty compelling. There could also be some fun stories around where the items found inside come from. Are they pulled back from the oblivion of expended magical components and consumable items? Are they filched from a mathom-hoard?
The tricky part is tuning this so that it doesn’t become the main thing that master smiths do with their time. It’s magic and you have any number of potential explanations available, but my favorite might be “if you do this more than once an event, you’re likely to draw attention.” The novice smith can’t do this more than once an event, unless they make a bunch and save them up for some reason. The master smith ideally has better profit-per-point options available and demand to match. I can at least say that DtD’s master smiths did not have a lack of demand. If you’re concerned that Security (or comparable skill) lags out a bit or has deeper demand problems than other flavors of smithing, maybe you open up a few more oddities that can show up in their loot crates, or there’s an improved loot crate (harder to make, better rewards) that only they can make.
I’ve tried to make this about giving people more things to want. For some players, gathering great big piles of gold coins (or your game’s comparable currency) is reward enough it itself, because deep down they have Dragon-sickness, just like Thorin. For others, once they have enough to afford basic gear and a decent supply of consumables, they’re not motivated to chase in-game money anymore. Play how you want to play! But the game-runners have to work a lot harder if “we’ll get paid well for it” doesn’t motivate players or create a feeling of reward at the end. Plenty of players engage with story hooks and adventure because that’s the game and it’s fun to do stuff, but rewards feel great. (I can work hard and not get rewarded for it in my real life, thank you very much!) When money doesn’t work anymore, you start going to the well of magic items too heavily, and that’s your slippery slope into no longer having a game economy.