5 Ways To Incorporate Economics Into Your Worldbuilding Or If You Don't Do This Your Homebrew World Sucks
I want to advocate for all of you that are building your own worlds out there to incoporate even the basics of economics into your worlds. Why? Good question! Well, if you don’t your world is unbelievable and kind of sucks. Basically, you are breaking the bonds of believability between GM and player by not providing a relatively rational world. And yes, I get the irony of wanting realism in worlds where you can vaporize your enemies from space/fly/cast fireballs/mana bolts/fight dragons. I get it. I also realize that your world may be radically different in many ways from our current and modern one, or even historical examples, possibly due to super science or the use of magic or even the intervention of powerful deities.But none of that lets you off the hook, it just adds levels of complexity. So start doing this, and start doing this now. But how?
1. Keep in mind the implications of the loot. You see, when you reward your players with that awesome filthy lucre for building amazing storylines or even just for being the baddest mofos around you imply a staggering amount of information about your world. In many fantasy worlds, there is an implication that a previous, far more advanced and wealthy civilization or civilizations existed. Think Tolkien. Smaug’s hoard is enough to not only make every dwarf in Middle Earth fabulously wealthy, but also to devalue currency and the price of gold to the point wherein mining and trade could essentially collapse across the continent. There could be massive political and even military implications for the entire world due to this wealth. But even more, it implies that an economy existed wherein this could be gathered and whatnot with trade not collapsing at some time in the past. And if this one exists, are there others?
One of my favourite worlds is the world of Rifts. In that world, there was a previous Golden Age of science and economic prosperity that existed before everything completely collapsed. That means that even with the giant robots and laser pistols in abundance, the technology and economy of the pre-Cataclysm world outpaces anything that exists today. That means that finding a hoard of pre-Rifts technology is the equivalent of finding Smaug’s hoard. Sure, some might be old leavings from our modern time, but it is possible to find a hoard of preserved Glitter Boys or even an advanced variant of some mech that hasn’t been discovered in. All perfectly rational. But to switch to too many fantasy worlds there is seemingly endless supply of magic swords in crypts and dungeons for adventurers to find, with no corresponding reason why these were lost. Is the ability to craft these lost? If so, why? Answer those questions in your world, because your players are likely thinking them. And they can be awesome adventure hooks for later in the campaign.
2. Watch your players’ spending. The average adventurer in most campaigns becomes fabulously wealthy. And the average campaign has no consequences for this. I was once in a campaign wherein we rolled into a small village in the frontier of a kingdom in decline and proceeded to drop thousands of gold pieces into the local economy. Of course, the people were very happy to take our money, but maybe they don’t have the resources to provide what we need, it is an isolated village after all. I mean, in that situation the DM was good enough to actually describe some consequences; we ended up making the local Baron a lifelong enemy because of our high spending ways. And since we were there previous to the winter, the good feelings of the townsfolk soon disappeared when it was realized that we left town with most of their food stores and a good number of their young men as hirelings and soldiers, leaving them in an incredibly precarious position to survive the coming winter, which did not go well for them. One cannot eat gold. That left a well-funded enemy at our back, with several soldiers whose wives and children had starved that winter as motivation. And we were the good guys!
3. How did they buy that? Everything that you describe as your players explore the world you have so painstakingly created implies a tonne of information about the people and places that you have created. For example, though there is no good and perfect means by which to calculate it for this period in our history, medieval societies were built primarily around food production - specifically how much food production it would take to feed the people present and provide for the hold, men-at-arms, and court of the local and possibly not so local lord. That is - using Western Europe for example - the early feudal system was built around local lords holding enough land for the support of a single knight. So an estate should have enough land and resources for that knight and his retinue so that that person could then go and fight for his liege lord. Of course, in RL this was complicated by religious obligations, food debts, taxation, etc. But you get the idea.
In one campaign I was in, the DM had a secret army being raised under the nose of the local prince and that army was being supplied with magical swords, one for each soldier. In that game system each sword would then cost thousands of gold pieces. And if one assumed that an average peasant was willing to hire on as a soldier for 1-5gp/month plus equipment, room, and board, it raises some serious questions as to the resources of that organization to equip its troops. Its wealth would have to be, even for a modest fighting force, enormous. And sadly, having done the quick math our group derailed the adventure based on that understanding, looking for an organization that would have wealth that rivaled any two other kingdoms in the world.
4. How does the government work? In one great role-playing system, Traveler, there is an interplanetary government that spans huge swathes of the universe. Often, the implications of how that would work together though, feel ignored. And for a system that forces one to do that much math, it is shocking in its absence. The governments in that system tend to be pictured as having technology and resources that dwarf what in its own mechanics should be possible for its own worlds. The government, and everything that comes with it - from local to regional to national to galactic - everything they do costs money and resources. Every spacecraft, every soldier, every building, every road. We often build our worlds assuming a stable and wealthy government that has limitless resources. That by itself is not that realistic in most places and most times in human history, it is the exception, not the rule. For example if the city guard is 200 strong, each with plate mail and a warhorse and a good sword: do the math. That is an enormous amount of money. Where is that coming from? If we assume a peasant can feed themselves and their families and pay some taxes but not much else, how many people have to exist to arm every soldier? It doesn’t have to be mapped exactly out, but some justification would be nice. I mean, are these suits of armour passed down from generation to generation? Is that why they can afford it? They have been purchased over centuries? If so, how willing would that city be to risk even a small squad of soldiers for all but the most important tasks? Losing ten soldiers may be unrecoverable for decades.
5. What is life like for the average, non-adventuring, citizen? This may be the most important, and most overlooked, piece of world building. To start your world building, think of the average person. Think about their standard of life. Then extrapolate from there. Are they dirty peasants living hand to mouth on subsidence farms praying to not starve that winter? Or relatively comfortable corporate citizens living out their whole lives in a megacorps’ arcology? Or something in between? I mean, food production is critically important for figuring this out. In a medieval setting or setting wherein society and technology has broken down, remember that the vast majority of your people will be agrarian. In a medieval setting, a decent rule of thumb is that for every townsperson, there is around nine people in farms surrounding that place, with rational differences if food production can be done differently. Urban centres can be larger where fishing is good, for example. So your city of 1000 people implies an additional 9000 farmers in the surrounding countryside, give or take, who may owe fealty to the town, but likely will be encountered for a day or two before one even rides up on the town. In futuristic settings, ask how efficient food production is. How do they do it? Is it a matter of saying “Earl Grey, hot!” and food appears? Or are they dependent on Serenity shipping in a herd of cows? In the end, this will help imply a rational world, and knowing the economic underpinnings of your world will help you to understand the impact your players are having on the world you have built, which is kind of the point, isn’t it?
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.