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NWN Economies

Mandos (AKA Major Bill Marcellino, USMC)

One of my particular concerns in persistent world gaming is economics. Most games of the ilk have trade skills and a monetary system coupled with the sale and purchase of items with scripted game characters (vendors and store keeps). All these systems share something in common with the failed systems of collectivist economies like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, to whit; they are centrally directed and controlled.

In a game like Ultima Online (UO) designers have chosen to create a simulation: the creation of value (items and money), prices for vendors and rules for the creation and destruction of items (or by omission forbid such). The have generally set the conditions for an economy based on their expectation of what this will result in. Like a Soviet centralized planner, the game designer has an expectation of economic outcome; this is in stark contrast to the real world practices of liberalist nations like the U.S.A and the U.K. There the invisible hand of millions of local decision makers set prices and direct wealth.

Like Soviet central planners, game worlds often have unintended consequences. In UO there is rampant inflation (50,000 gold for a hair dye job), in EverQuest (EQ) there is rampant deflation (bronze armor is not worth the weight to carry it). In both cases the economies are in shambles, and trade skills are not useful elements of the game. People like myself criticize, gamers drop or hop to a new game, but there is not much chance of game designers ever listening to a critique of their economic assumptions (again a similarity to Chinese or Soviet central planners…think "The Great Leap Forward" of Mao).

Some of that is about to change. The next iteration of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing (MMORP) games is about to hit the scene in the form of Neverwinter Nights (NWN). In MMORPs like OU and EQ, or upcoming second-generation games like Shadow Bane (SB) or Project Utopia (PU) the designers hand you their world and say, "Here, play with it." In NWN you get the toolset, "Here, build your own world to play in."

This is where things get different. Now we get to choose how the economy is modeled in the world; there are no more game design Nazi's or Communists to blame.

In NWN the one hard and fast economic input I can think of is player creation. To the best of my understanding new characters come with starting cash as per the Dungeons and Dragons 3E rules. Other than that, all economic potential rests with the Dungeon Master (DM)/World Designer. If I build a little town with no items for trade, no NPCs or monsters to kill and loot, there cannot be any real economic activity (unless there is some wacky player dreamed up service). But once I as a designer drop an orc with a bag of loot down outside the town, economic activity becomes possible. It is readily apparent that every choice in world building has an economic impact.

I think many persistent worlds that plan to use NWN, or some future toolset to build, will face the same deflationary problem. To the best of my understanding (the game is still pre-release), NWN has no built in economic sinks like item decay or breakage.

Lets us say that my very simple world has one town, one weapon vendor, one potion vendor, and a general goods vendor. Further, my town has a "newbie zone" that spawns several monsters; increasing in power (and loot) the farther you go from the village gate. Newbies fight and loot, build up their pitiful collection of bronze and silver coins, until one of them saves enough to buy, let us say, a small shield. W00t! Now you have a shield, and can move farther into the newbie zone, killing tougher things. More and more items and loot drop, until you can afford…a medium shield! So you buy your medium shield and give your old shield to your best buddy. That is twinking, it is natural, and it raises the number of goods in circulation, goods that in this case never decay or break or leave the economic system. But perhaps you don't twink. You are a mercenary type, and sell your goods to other players for cold hard cash. Either way, once everyone out there has bought, won, or been given a shield, shields drop dramatically in price. This is deflation, too few dollars chasing after too many goods. Unlike the real world, where shields (automobiles let's say) get older, more banged up, less useful and attractive until they finally break or die, in NWN every item will stay in circulation endlessly.

Of particular worry to me are magic weapons. The first time on a server someone wins a +1 sword, it will be an epochal event. Finally, a player character (PC) can attack creatures with damage reduction. No amount of money could persuade a fighter to part with it; it would take a kings ransom to buy it from a wizard. Because of its rarity it will be incredibly valuable. The next time someone finds a sword +1 though the value drops dramatically. If the wizard who wants to sell a sword demands an "unreasonable" sum, then the buyer can go to the cleric that has the other and perhaps get a better price…competition leading to lower prices. Fast forward to when there is as many +1 swords out there as there are PCs. Now they are a dime a dozen, and all they are used for is quick cash at a vendor. The emotional impact of winning a +1 sword is totally gone.

What was an epochal event is "Ho hum...another sword. Throw it in the bag with the others." Part of the appeal of RPGs is getting some really neat item. You don't have to be a power-gamer or munchkin to be pleased when you defeat a tough monster, complete a difficult quest etc, and are rewarded with a nice item. But for that emotional satisfaction to remain, the reward must have value, and an ever-increasing, never depleting supply of +1 swords robs that item of any value; it is purely deflationary.

This leads to a new sin: reward inflation. As the emotional impact of deflating goods (+1 swords in our example) lowers, the DM has to resort to bigger and better lewtz to provide the emotional kick, like a junkie needing to shoot up bigger doses to get the same high. That has happened in EQ; as every item loses value and appeal the game needs to come up with even more uber items to provide a kick and keep people hooked (duh! It is not called Ever Crack for nothing!). In my example, the DM needs to have new monsters that drop +2 sword. The thrill is back…but soon enough as the +2's pile up the thrill is gone. So you add spell effects to swords, and make fire resistant chain in an ever-spiraling chain of magic item/reward inflation. Monetary inflation is too much money chasing after too few goods…reward inflation is too much reward chasing after too little appreciation.

What happens when your campaign now has six +5 maces of disruption floating around? The thrill is gone, and it will hurt the game play experience of your gamers. I suppose there is another approach that avoids this magic item inflation and economic deflation: rationing of lewtz. If there is a fixed amount of lewtz available in the world, say ten +1 swords, eight +2 swords, etc planned out before hand then there will be no deflation. Indeed, unless the monetary supply is also fixed (new monsters don't have new gold) then you will suffer from inflation. Let us say though you strictly limit items and money and have a fairly static lewtz economy: it will be boring. When the last +1 sword on your server is discovered, the thrill is permanently gone. Roleplay all you want; it is still a lot of fun to get phat lewtz.

So what's the answer? I recommend that DM's come up with some kind of item sink. If items in some way decay, break or leave the world the remaining ones will retain value.

Decay: Not coded into NWN as far as I know, and for many gamers not a fun idea. Who wants to run back to town every 3 days to get your sword sharpened? I am sure this can be done via a script, where each combat use increases a variable that is used to calculate the chance of decay; the value of that variable is reset to zero every time you pay NPC "Phred the Smith" 10 gold pieces for item maintenance. The drawbacks are the hassle factor, and the use of processing power in having a global script running that calculates wear and breakage.

Item Break: Every once in a while, randomly some poor schlubb's weapon breaks. This can be done manually or via script. I am not sure of the exact item icons available in NWN, but I bet there is a broken weapon icon in there, and most certainly a hack-pack could make something as simple as an icon readily available. The options are twofold then: either a server wide script that randomly breaks someone's weapon once in a while, or the DM manually does it. Perhaps the DM rolls for a random day of the week (Wednesday this week), goes online, picks some one randomly and breaks their weapon (takes it from them, gives them back a broken icon, and sends a "Your sword broke" message). The advantage is that it puts the fear of the Gods in people, it means that the extra sword you have is a valuable backup, and there had better be a good profit to be made before you sell that extra sword. The disadvantage is player resentment; especially if done manually there is the possibility that a player feels cheated or picked on ("Why me?") and it spoils the game experience.

One Shot Sinks: One of the problems in EQ is that because NPC merchants offer lousy prices for goods, all trade is player based. Since EQ has also created a deflationary economy, said player trade sux, barely kept alive by the influx of bigger and better items with each expansion. Imagine instead if vendors offered a decent price for items, but did not sell back permanently enchanted items. Let's say we have one vendor, who will pay 1,000 gp for a +1 sword. This same vendor sells healing potions for 100 gp each. Now the player can make a decision…is my extra sword worth 10 healing potions (or the monetary equivalent), or should I hold out to find another player who really wants my sword, who might pay the equivalent of 15 healing potions?

This is an item sink that also establishes a permanent float for item value; +1 swords have a base value. At the same time, spare items are constantly being taken out of the economy (the vendor must not sell back those swords or deflation sets in), while players have a real use for funds. Magic items tend to retain their value. This being said, there is the possibility of inflation…if more and more swords are sold for money, or if the price for selling a sword is too high, then we may find too many gold pieces chasing after to many dollars. I like this method as it has several advantages, but I worry about the possibility of too much or too little money in the system. This may be a case where a central bank (DM) monitors prices, and with the strict, limited goal of price stability raises or lowers the amount of money in the system.

The advantages of this system are player satisfaction and trade. This is a way to get goods out of the system gently, without rust monsters, breaking or stealing that may lead to player resentment, especially if a player feels they are being singled out. It also is a source of satisfaction to have choices…to be able to hold you extra item or convert it into something else of value. Some people will save up to get some uber item or buy material for item creation; others will spend for today and survive one encounter they might not of because of that extra potion of healing. Another possible benefit is trade. If different servers or areas in a created world produce different goods (let's say healing potions in Cormyr and Poisons in Waterdeep), then the possibility of trade comes in. There will be some enterprising soul who makes a fortune moving potions and poisons back and forth across the world in the face of danger.

Regardless of the particular solution, games like NWN where DM's have control over the world they build and tailor need to come up with creative ways to avoid item deflation, or reward inflation. I would love to hear other solutions to this problem: I have racked my brain for solutions and am still not satisfied.

-Mandos (AKA Major Bill Marcellino, USMC)

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