Dungeons & Dragons has a surprising lack of options when it comes to players spending their hard-earned gold. One of the major motivators in Dungeons & Dragons is cold hard cash. Players will risk their character’s life and limbs to find a rumored treasure inside a dangerous dungeon, and many adventures begin with players answering an NPC’s call to rid a town of some monster for a few gold pieces. But while gold remains a major motivator in Dungeons & Dragons, the game surprisingly lacks a comprehensive in-game economic system to help DMs. From a lack of official resources on how to build interesting stores to a lack of alternative ways to spend gold, Dungeons & Dragons has a major problem with its in-game economics.
At first, the lack of an consistent and easy to access economic system seems like a relatively minor problem, especially as Dungeons & Dragons is a game about killing monsters and becoming epic heroes. But monsters leave treasure behind and players want to either sell that treasure or spend gold to buy more, and there simply aren't a lot of options to do so in the game. Some players really enjoy haggling over prices or trying to find that rare magic item or potion in a back alley store, while others simply want a way to spend all the gold and treasure they've accumulated over months of adventuring. In previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, there were entire crafting systems and books that listed the price of countless magical and mundane items that players could buy or sell. However, the current Fifth Edition rulesets did away with these complex systems, likely in an attempt to both streamline the rules and give the DM more freedom and less need to bookkeeping.
D&D's streamlined Fifth Edition ruleset goes too far in eliminating the need for gold from the game. Outside of a chapter on equipment in the Player's Handbook, there aren't any "official" prices for items or services in any of D&D's rulebooks. And because of Dungeons & Dragons' bounded accuracy system, players won't really need to upgrade their equipment often, especially as magic items are supposed to be mostly limited to dungeons or monster hordes and not often found in stores. Xanathar's Guide to Everything provides a few more things to spend gold on, such as learning a new language, carousing, or gaining an additional proficiency with a weapon or tool. But even these downtime options are relatively limited and will ultimately leave players with a huge gold purse and not a lot to spend it on. Unless you're a wizard or cleric that deals in spells with high cost components, you may go your entire campaign without spending a ton of gold, leaving you wealthier than a small nation by the end of a campaign.
As an always DM, one of the most difficult parts of my session preparations is coming up with ways for players to spend money on. There are a handful of random item generators or random shop generators that can help with those "surprise" encounters, but even those are limited in scope and recycle the same few items over and over again. Some of this is due to a separate issue - namely that Dungeons & Dragons has surprisingly few "official" magic items - but it's also because Wizards of the Coast doesn't give developers a whole lot to work with. Trying to find a manageable economic system has given me a lot more appreciation for the designers who try to build shop and innkeeping systems that compliment Fifth Edition games, and left me disappointed that it wasn't easier for DMs to either make their own system using some sort of template or foundation provided by Dungeons & Dragons.
Of course, the simplest solution is to either do away with gold and in-game shopping entirely, leaving players to only upgrade their equipment through treasure they find in dungeons. But I've discovered that many D&D players are conditioned to find stores to sell their loot, mostly by playing either past versions of D&D or some of the many, many video games that drew inspiration from D&D. Luckily, there are a ton of great DMs Guild supplements and other third-party material that tries to fill the demand for a sensible economic system through crafting systems, store charts, and other cool rule systems, but even those suffer from having a ton of variance due to the lack of official guidance. Usually, DMs Guild publications mesh well with each other in terms of complementary mechanics, but you'll have to do at least a bit of right-sizing to integrate multiple supplements that involve gold.
This might not seem like a problem, but overly simplifying shopping and crafting does weaken the overall D&D experience. It's tedious to send players to a bazaar or marketplace (a staple of D&D encounters) mostly because you'll have to create both interesting NPCs and exotic items to sell. It's harder to incentivize players to complete quests for gold when they already have full gold pouches. And it's just more work for the DM, which cuts into time that could be spent planning something else. The good news is that Dungeons & Dragons' current Fifth Edition isn't going anywhere, so there's plenty of time for Wizards of the Coast to develop a manageable economic system. They've all but perfected other aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, which leaves some room to develop some of the more technical systems that players still expect when sitting down to play an immersive fantasy roleplaying game.
Are you satisfied by how Dungeons & Dragons handles its in-game economy? Let us know in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCBus to chat all things D&D!