Historical Hit Points 2: Simulating Medieval Economics in Tabletop RPGs
I have spent much of my free time lately poking through the core rulebook for Adventurer Conqueror King (ACKS for short), a new fantasy RPG published by a company called Autarch LLC. ACKS is what I like to think of as a classic Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) retro-clone on steroids. Mechanically it tries to emulate the rules set, feel, and stylistic emphasis of the original versions of basic D&D published in the late 1970s/early 1980s (or more specifically the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert revised rule sets published in 1981). However, ACKS goes beyond simply remaking the old rules with a new set dressing and brings more modern design choices and sensibilities to the table. In other words, the classic D&D core is a starting point not an end point, hence retro-clone on steroids.
One area of ACKS that has piqued my interest is the emphasis on stronghold/domain building for higher level player characters. The ACKS rules contain detailed sections not only on the various strongholds PCs can establish, but also the requisite costs involved in building and maintaining them; population issues and broader domain development; stronghold/domain economics; and a rule set for PCs to gain wealth and experience through mercantile ventures. There’s even a mechanism for simulating variable commodity demand when engaging in trade activities. It all looks rather impressive, although how it actually comes across in gameplay is a bit of a mystery to me since I have yet to play in or run the system (perhaps my game group will find time in the fall). Nevertheless, picking through the rules for economics in ACKS has caused me to think more broadly about the interplay of fidelity and simulation in tabletop RPGS, which fits right in with the purpose of this series of posts here at Play the Past. Huh, imagine that.
All That Glitters…
Generally speaking, I have never cared for the way most medieval themed RPGs have dealt with game mechanics for the economic systems of their settings. For starters, most systems rely entirely too much on presenting economies centered heavily on the exchange of precious metal coinage, especially gold coins. Early medieval European societies did not have strong coin-based economies, owing to the disruption in commerce and urban living that followed the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. Although the minting and exchanging of coins never entirely disappeared, it took centuries for commercial economies to reemerge fully in Western Europe.
However, even then, the bartering of tangible goods and services for other goods and services, not for coins, remained a staple part of medieval economic life. This basic phenomenon was especially pronounced the farther down the socioeconomic status ladder one went (think poor rural peasants periodically paying in agricultural product for the right to live on and farm a piece of a lord’s land). That medieval themed RPGs also rely on gold coins as the main medium of exchange when historically silver was the coin of common trade in medieval Europe also vexes me a bit. As this older post at the RPG Athenaeum blog has characterized it, why would a rural blacksmith operating in a barter-based local economy even consider taking gold from an adventurer when his ability to exchange it for the goods and services he needs would be negligible?
That the designers of these kinds of RPGs have chosen to present medieval economic life in this fashion is not necessarily surprising. The core dilemma for any designer of a history-based RPG setting is how to strike a balance between good, fun game design, player expectations, and fidelity to accurate historical detail. RPGs are not history books, nor presumably do the designers and players of these games consider them such. Consequently, game design more often than not trumps fidelity. What one is then left with is the RPG as pastiche, pulling in bits and pieces from all over the place to fill out the whole (in Part One of this series, I also described this as using history and culture as “building blocks” to craft the game setting, while another recent post by Longbow Games’ Jim MacNally used the concept of caricature to describe this process from a video game designer’s point of view). It is why I always feel like the tropes of modern capitalism seem to pervade the presentation of medieval economic life in these kinds of RPGs. Designers are merely blending in systems they know in order to flesh out those that are more alien to them. For modern or near-future set RPGs (think Vampire: the Masquerade or Shadowrun), fidelity in the presentation of economic life is not as difficult to carry off. Representing and referencing the tropes of modern capitalism in an RPG’s game setting and mechanics for players already immersed in the reality of that same modern capitalism is more straightforward (a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, after all).
What I find even more intriguing out of all this is when RPG designers consciously choose to craft a game that firmly embraces the presentation/simulation of accurate historical knowledge. For these RPG products, the main goal seems to be about finding a way to blend in good history without sacrificing good game design in a deliberate attempt to avoid pastiche. Sometimes the designers bake this directly into a core game system (for instance, ACKS), but just as often lately it takes the form of supplements to existing game system produced by third party publishers.
For example, in 2003, a third party D20 publisher called Expeditious Retreat Press put out a pdf supplement that took a hearty stab at developing a rule set for simulating medieval economics in a 3rd Edition D&D game. In the book, entitled A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, authors Suzi Yee and Joseph Browning explore how to meld logically the more realistic characteristics of a generic medieval European society with the fantastical magic system inherent in D&D. As they note in the introduction to the first edition, “This volume provides a wealth of resources concerning medieval Western Europe: the spatial systems, the social groups and distinctions, the trade and economics, the law and justice, and the typical medieval mindset. Modeled after Germanic high medieval societies, this book simulates, but does not replicate actual medieval Europe.”
The book is hands down the best historical simulation supplement for RPGs I have ever seen and became my favorite third party D20 publication from the moment I first downloaded it way back in the day. Its level of crunchy historical detail complements well the sheer comprehensiveness of its rule set. At times this level of comprehension can seem a bit manic (the economic simulator rules have a commodity price chart for determining prices through supply and demand that is seven pages long), but I guess I should never underestimate the thoroughness of those who wish to play in a more realistic medieval themed RPG setting (if nothing else, this post at Bat in the Attic that includes a highly detailed Excel worksheet for calculating revenues and troop strength for a medieval domain recently reminded me of this). The fact that the supplement also has an extensive bibliography referencing scholars such as Henri Pirenne, Sidney Painter, Robert Bartlett, and Lewis Mumford, among many others, reflects well on its judiciousness.
Give Up the Gold?
Ultimately, there are no easy answers to this question of design vs. fidelity in medieval themed RPGs, as evidenced by the sheer variety of approaches one can find among the many RPGs in the marketplace (I have only scratched the surface here). I certainly do not expect there to be massive calls for D&D to drop the gold standard or anything, but I am interested in exploring this issue further. In fact, here’s where I want to turn matters over to you, fellow readers of Play the Past. What tabletop RPGs (or even video game RPGs) out there do you think handle this balancing act well? What else should I be looking at that I have not already mentioned in this or previous posts? Feel free to let me know in the comments.
Main Post Image: Medieval Peasant Meal, from Wikimedia Commons.
 Suzi Yee and Joseph Browning, A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (Expeditious Retreat Press, 2003), 6.