Dungeon Economics 101

Managing treasure parcels for the my players is always an interesting challenge for me while DMing. It takes zero preparation to dish out monetory rewards to the party, “The lair has been cleared of enemies. In the corner, you find a chest with 200 gp and a brilliant red gem that you estimate is worth 50 gold pieces (gp).” A DM can get creative with describing expensive jewelry and art objects and even tie them in to the plot of the campaign, but the party is simply going to sell the treasure and split the gold equally. Monetary treasure parcels are typically split evenly whereas magic-item treasure parcels create potential balance issues within the party. The DM needs to invest more time in ensuring a good balance of magic items are found so that all in the party benefit equally over time.

Gold, Gold, GOLD!

In addition, I find discovering treasure parcels and splitting them with my fellow party members entertaining as a player. But something about the economics of 4th Edition has always trouble me, and I was never able to put a figure out why. As a player, I’d look at the gp I have saved up from many levels of adventuring and look at the price of items and think, “I could save up forever and never afford a decent magic item. What else can I even do with this gold?” Months ago, I reached the conclusion that treasure parcels and the economics of D&D 4th Edition were “broken,” but I didn’t have anything to substantiate that belief.

I returned to the question last week, and decided to finally add some structure and data to my belief that the economics in 4e are a problem. My primary means of addressing the issue was returning to the suggested Treasure Parcel list that appears in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I wanted to know how much treasure an adventuring party can expect to earn during a Level 1-30 campaign. The graphs below illustrate the data, and a discussion of potential uses for the data follows. It turns out that my belief that the economy is broken may not be entirely accurate. And serious bonus points to anyone that understands the reference in the picture above!

Method & Results

My plan was simple – calculate the total treasure a party could be expected to earn during a Level 1-3o campaign using the suggested treasure parcels from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I wanted to start by converting all possible treasure to gp, since that is the most common currency used by DMs and players. This turned out to take more time that I thought (a common problem when I get an idea that involves generating data and graphs) since I had to convert Magic Items to gp (more on that later) and the DMG uses platinum-piece (pp) calculations for Epic Tier parcels, which was a minor inconvienance requiring an adjustment to gp. The treausre parcels in the DMG are suggestions for an adventuring party of five players; they offer suggestions if the adventuring party is more or less than five members, but to keep things simple, I focused on the 5-player adventuring party. The graph below is the result of the various calculations of turning all treasure parcels into gp.

Treasure Parcels in gp (PDF Version)

Click on the PDF to get a clear image of the graph above. The graph dsplays the suggested parcels as gp. The DMG suggests 10 parcels per Level for a party of five players. The first four parcels in each level are magic items. Over the course of 30 Levels, the party can expect to receive 120 Magic items (30 Levels x 4 Items per Level). To stay with the typical adventuring party of five players, each player would receive 24 Magic items during an adventuring career. For the above graph, I have converted the magic items to their equivalent gp. For example, the first four treasure parcels during Level 1 are: Magic item, Level 5; Magic item, Level 4; Magic item, Level 3; Magic item, Level 2. I converted these items to their full price: 1,000; 840; 680; 520 gp respectively.

I realize that Magic Items are not sold for their full price, so including their full price for each treasure parcel would not give an accurate picture of the total wealth a player accumulates during an adventuring career. I created three categories to provide additional data. The first is Total With Magic Items Full Price (TWMIFP), which this is the amount of gp the party is expected to earn each level if they were allowed to sell magic items at full price. For example, the TWMIFP for Level 1 is 3,760 gp.

Since selling magic items at full price is not possible most of the time, the next category is Total With Magic Items Half Price (TWMIHP), which is the amount of gp the party is expected to earn each level if they sell magic items at half price. For example, the TWMIHP for Level 1 is 2,240 gp. The difference between selling magic items at full or half price during Level 1 is 1,520 gp.

The final category is the Total Monetary Treasure (TMT) for each level. The TMT is only the total of monetary treasure like coinage, gems, jewerly, art objects and other valuables. For example, the TMT for Level 1 is 720 gp.

The totals are listed by level and then the cumulative total for each category appears at the bottom of the graph. For example, the total gp a party of five players would earn during a Level 1-30 adventuring career if they were allowed to sell Magic Items at full price (TWMIFP) would be 111,013,395 gp! However, if the party is allowed to sell their magic items at only half price (TWMIHP), then the total is reduced drastically to 68,842,495 pg. Finally, the party can expect to collect 26,671,295 gp in monetary treasure (TMT) throughout a Level 1-30 campaign. Evaluating party treasure is a bit difficult since loot is routinely divided amongst the party members. The following graph takes the information from above and splits it between five party members.

This graph illustrates a clearer picture of the amount of gp each player in a campaign can expect to receive throughout the campaign. For example, a player starting a campaign at Level 1 can expect to earn 752 gp if the party sells all magic items received at full price (TWMIFP), 448 gp if the party sells all magic items at half price (TWMIHP) and 144 gp from monetary treasure splits (TMT). By the end of the campaign starting at Level 1, the player can expect to earn 22,202,739 gp (TWMIFP), 13,768,499 gp (TWMIHP) or 5,334,259 gp (TMT).

Treasure Parcel Split in gp (5Players) [PDF Version]


The calculations for magic items sold at full price (TWMIFP) are not incredibly useful because I’m not aware of any DM that allows magic items to be sold at full price. But the data gives a clear indication of the “best-case scenario” for an adventurer during their career. At best, a player can expect to earn 22,202,739 gp if they have survived a Level 1-30 campaign. A more realistic total is 13,768,499 gp, as this is the calculation with magic items sold at half price. I realize each DM handles selling magic items differently; some may only allow items sold at 25% of their cost, while other DMs may rely on their rarity to determine the gp earned from selling the item. I chose 50% (TWMIHP) because it’s likely the most common method (pure speculation on my part though) and gives anyone an idea of total wealth in the middle of the re-sell range.

The total monetary treasure (TMT) values are interesting because they are significantly lower than the totals when factoring in magic item resale. During a full Level 1-30 career, a player can expect to earn 5,334,259 gp from treasure splits of items like coins, gems, art and other valuables. The 5.3 million gp that a player earns during a full Level 1-30 career is not enough to buy a Level 30 (3,125,000 gp) plus a Level 29 (2,625,000 gp) magic item, which would total 5,750,000 gp. And that is if the player has never purchased anything else with their gp during the entire adventure.

Another example illustrates the same dynamic, and hits close to home for me since my Level 12 Rogue is dealing with the issue at the moment. A player that just advanced to Level 12 can expect to earn 11,759 gp from Levels 1-11; this is calculated by adding the TMT for Levels 1-11.  The player can also expect to own approximately 9 magic items by this point in time. It is likely a safe assumption that each player has a magic weapon/implement and magic armor in addition to other utility magic items. A player that just advanced to Level 12, even if they have not spent any of their earned gp from Level -11, can afford a single Level 11 magic item (9,000 gp) and have 2,759 gp remaining. This seems problematic to me and it only escalates as the player advances in level.

Jumping ahead several levels, a player entering 19th Level player (they have earned gp from Levels 1-18, which would be 120,259 gp according the the TMT) can buy one 19th Level magic item (105,000 gp) if they have saved up almost every gp they have earned since Level 1. The picture does improve if the TWMIHP is used instead of TMT; the player entering 19th Level would have 394,499 gp instead of 120,259 gp. The player could then buy a single Level 22 magic item (325,000 gp) and have 69,499 gp left over, which could be used on a 17th Level magic item (65,000 gp); however, the player would be without the rest of their magical gear since they sold it to earn the 394,499 gp in the first place!

A player is faced with few options in terms of wealth in the game. The options are to save up for a big-ticket item, but even saving for an entire Tier isn’t going to help much in terms of buying an awesome item. For example, a player could save up every gp earned from monetary treasure splits through Levels 1-11 and only have 11,759 gp to show for it. They could buy a single 11th Level magic item or spend it on an assortment of lower-level magic items. If something unforseen happens (like you’re taken prisoner and lose your +2 mace, which means you have to buy another +2 mace. . . no complaints, Dungeon Maestro, I’m simply happy to be alive!), then your gp is tapped for a long time.

So if a player is not saving gp up for “really cool stuff,” then what are the other options for gp? A player in my party routinely stocks up on Potions of Healing and Vigor – like three or more at a time. The potions are pretty cheap, 50 gp and 160gp respectively, but they add up if you are buying several each time a town is visited. I previously thought that was a short-sighted approach, “You should save your money for better gear.” But saving for high-level gear is not much of an option in 4e. A player could save up to buy low-level items, but it is important to focus on items that will be useful down the road.

An example would be an item my Rogue has considered for some time, Boots of Free Movement, Level 6 (1,800 gp). The boots grant a +2 bonus to saves against slowed, immobilized and restrained conditions, and allow a saving throw as a Minor Action against the same conditions as an Encounter Power. Those boots would be useful at any Level. Granted, saving up for Boots of Teleportation, Level 28 (2,125,000 gp) would be awesome since they allow you to use a Move action to teleport the number of squares equal to your speed as an At-Will Power. Good lord, a Rogue’s dream!

The issue for me is that magic items are so wildly overpriced in Paragon and Epic Tiers that gp becomes rather obsolete after a while. For example, a player can spend most of his or her gp during the Heroic Tier to fill out their item slots. But then save up every gp earned during Paragon Tier, which would be 236,500 gp according to TMT (adding Levels 11-20). That allows the purchase of a single 21st Level item (225,000). The player can decide if saving up for a single Level 21 item is worth it or determine if the gp would be better served on two Level 19 items.


One thing is very clear to me – a player is not meant to save up gp over many levels for big-ticket items. I have been thinking about gp all wrong as a player. Is there guidance for players on how to use their gp? If not, then there should be. I have played 4e for over two years as a DM and player, and it took me doing this analysis (of sorts) to realize that I’ve been approaching loot entirely the wrong way as a player. I’ve been saving and saving in the hopes that I could get a “badass” item slightly above my level. Regardless of how much I save, that simply is not going to happen; the treasure parcel system is not built that way.

As a player, I should target lower-level items that fit into my character’s backstory or optimize him in combat. Perhaps this is not a revelation to most people, but I lacked this level of understanding of how the system operates. I still beleive that the cost of magic items compared to the amount of gp earned during an adventure is problematic. The best-case scenario for a player saving all of their gp is a single magic item of their lower or lower. Once the money is spent, the player has to wait a very long time to earn enough money to buy another worthy item.

I’m looking forward to getting Mordenkaiden Magnificent Emporium because it may address another issue that I have – what else is there to do with gp? I believe this is where the DM and players need to be creative to make it feel like having 5,000 gp is really worth something other than one Level 10 magic item. For example, players in my groups have hired heralds to follow their adventures and sing of their exploits (think Chaucer from A Knight’s Tale) and recruited street urchins and other undesirables to gain greater control of a city. They have made donations to repair broken temples or use gold to buy property and businesses. A DM should ensure the players have options for spending gp that do not include buying items.


  • Help your players realize that gp is not meant for saving to buy high-end items; the treasure parcel system does not support that goal. However, inform them that gp is best spent on numerous less-expensive magic items. It may even be helpful to refer players to these graphs to gain a better understanding of the suggested economics in D&D 4th Edition.
  • Consider the suggested economy for D&D 4th Edition and adjust your campaign accordingly. A DM may want her players to have more or less gold over their adventuring career compared to the suggestions above. A DM can adjust the treasure parcels according to taste to either give players more opportunities to buy high-level items or reduce their ability to buy much of anything.
  • Generate situations where spending gp immerses the players into the story of the campaign and creates choice. As a DM, I have set up situations were players must choose to pay an informant or guide a large sum or money to lead them on an easier path to their destination. The players can pay the sum, negotiate for a lower price, initiating a skill challenge, or set out on their own, which is likely more dangerous.
  • Spending gold is a possible “out” for the DM and players to keep in mind to avoid or end combat; the villain could spare the lives of the players from attack for a handsome bribe, “We could kill you all, or at the very least wound you significantly. But Lothar of the Hill People doesn’t pay us well enough. He treats us like dirt! Pay us 2,000 gp and I’ll take my guards elsewhere. Give Lothar my regards before you kill him!” This creates player choice. The party can pay the bribe, which would be a sacrifice of monetary resources, or refuse the offer and attack the guards, which sacrifices powers, healings surges, and other combat resources.

28 thoughts on “Dungeon Economics 101

  1. I admit that, when it comes to player magic items, I do a few things:

    1) I allow the players to choose the magic items that will come to them eventually, either through wish lists or through simply telling them “you get a magic item below level X”.

    2) For the most part, I do allow them to exchange magic items effectively at full price. Reason: I have fixed magic items in my campaign and don’t really use the parcel system as it is designed, so most of the time I have a magic item that nobody will use. I don’t want to penalize the players for carrying a useless item all the way back to town to get 1/5th the price, so I let them exchange it for an item of equal level no questions asked once they return to town.

    And, as a DM, I hardly ever look at magic item price. I wing it based on the party’s current wealth, masking the low prices with haggling.

    • It’s a “nuts and bolts” issue that is probably ignored in most campaigns. I think there are many assumptions any given DM and group of players are making about treasure parcels and the economy in a game. For instance, you have made some modifications that has changed the finances in the system. I assume your players are aware of the changes.

      It’s also quite possible that DMs are not basing their parcels on the guidelines outlined by the DMG and just “winging it.” That is also fine – to a degree – but the players should have an understanding of what to expect. Will gp be scarce? Will magic items appear frequently?

      It’s not the sexiest conversation to have with players, but it would seem important for the DM and players to be on the same page in terms of the expected economics during a campaign.

      Also, I had another planned section for the issues of when players exit the party and new players join the group. However, it seemed off track; I might return to that idea in the future. To sum up my thoughts: It’s complicated for DMs!

  2. I think your analysis is interesting – although the data crunching didn’t need to include acquired items; it’s the gp rewards that are the issue. You have discovered that with even money split the treasure parcel system will never allow a PC to buy anything as good as the stuff they can find while adventuring. I’m sure that’s intentional.

    The GM can always hand out big monetary rewards instead of items, but even then you’d be surprised how little impact it makes. Handing out 1,000 gp is not the same as handing out a level 5 item; it becomes 5 dinky 200gp rewards per PC (this is also true if you allow item sale at 100% instead of 20%). For PCs to be buying level 5 items, you’d have to hand out a whopping 5,000gp!

    So, I agree, gp rewards are not there for PCs to be commissioning big-ticket items. The money is far better spent on lower-level utility stuff. It can help ensure that 5th level PCs have +1 items in all slots, not that 5th level PCs have 5th level items.

    • Currently, my Level 12 Rogue is tapped out of gp because I needed to buy a new weapon. In the future, I will likely target the lowest-level item that would be useful to me on a consistent basis and buy that as soon as I have enough gp for it. At the same time, I’ll hope for gear that my character can claim from parcels. Our group just found a nice bounty, but none of the items really matched my needs. I was the only character to have a Ring already, so I wasn’t about to say, “Ooooh, I want the new Ring too.”

      The DM could increase the gp given out to the party drastically to offer the players more options for shopping. Or could give out less gp but more lower-level items. I’ve been on both sides of the screen when an item is included in a parcel and falls with a thud – not one player is terribly interested in it and they immediately discuss selling it or reducing it for residuum. It’s not a fun moment for the DM or players. Asking for wish lists is a good option if the players will follow through on the request. 🙂

  3. Greg Bilsland of WotC had a post on his blog (“Haggling with the Blacksmith”) not too long ago in which he discussed his Dark Sun game. He instituted a rigorous inventory management system while also slashing monetary rewards by a factor of 10 but left costs the same. It’s a good read and something I would perhaps explore myself with the right mix of players.


    • Thanks for the link; I hadn’t read that before. I agree with you, it’s a very interesting suggestion and I think you’d need the right setting and buy-in from the players. It fits with the gritty nature of Dark Sun, but shifting my players into that constricted economy during an ongoing campaign would be a jolt. But I might try it in the future. I ignore rations and ammunition as well. I assume that if you can survive attacks from monsters and demons, then you can probably scrap together a decent meal.

  4. As a player, I discovered the #1 most efficient use of “saving your gold” is for enhancing one you already have and like through Enchant Magic Item. Unlike like buying a purely new magic item, you’re saving the base cost, so the ability to actually have the money to afford this is more real during the course of a tier.

    I did it with my Sun Blade recently in a heroic Shadowfell-based campaign, going from +1 to +2 through Enchant Magic Item. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it near the end of the heroic tier otherwise.

    That said, you’re right – gold doesn’t appear meant to be a way to Christmas Tree yourself up anymore, either. Gold *does* feel weird in 4e – especially when I DM, where I give out droves of monetary wealth yet players don’t seem to be able to want or be able to do much with it.

    I wrote about gold-spending ideas for 4e in July, including a few lists, in Got Coin? How to Best Spend Your Gold in 4e right here: http://www.leonineroar.com/?p=2042

    • Thanks for the link to the post. I don’t know how I missed that!

      My Rogue hasn’t had a party member with the ability to use Enchant Magic, but we just got a new Wizard onboard, so I will certainly be looking into that option in the future. Well, when I get some gold, at least.

      I like many of your ideas about how to spend gold in the world. It’s a bigger challenge for DMs and players to get creative, but the results can be quite enjoyable and profitable. For example, my party – in the game I DM – hired a NPC to run a tavern and another NPC to run a merchant ship. When they return back to that town, they will be able to collect a profit from a rather modest investment. That makes sense on multiple levels, but it took the players initiative to make it happen.

      • Thanks – yep, some of the gold spending ideas are story-level, though several are quite crunchy. Just like with everything in D&D, a healthy balance is good for your game.

        Remember that your rogue – and every character – has access to every single ritual through *scrolls.* Ritual magic scrolls can be bought and used by anybody, not just ritual casters.

        I usually throw down a few favorites on my wish list, no matter what character I’m playing, such as Cure Disease, Remove Affliction and of course, Enchant Magic Item 🙂

  5. And then WoTC wants you to bolt on ghetto rarity system, so if the item you want is uncommon or rare you have to go on a special quest to find it. I like it better when the DM just says pick an item of x level, or pick an item of your level 1 or lower. I can then just browse before the next session and add item in character builder.

    • There are certainly merits to that approach, but I think a mix of questing for specific items and shopping for items is best. I have avoided the rarity system up to this point. That reminds me, I need to ask for a Paragon Item Wish List from my players . . .

  6. Kilsek, I’ve completely ignored Rituals as I’ve assumed they are not accesible to me as a Rogue. I will have to investigate to see if I can find some useful rituals that are cheap. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. I’ve been looking at this a little more seriously recently, ironically because I’m playing a bit more now rather than just DMing.

    I believe what’s causing the apparent problem is hang up’s coming across from 3rd edition. If we look at 4th Ed in isolation, dividing gold even amongst the party makes less since, as over the course of the level, 1 poor shlob has missed out on getting a magical item. While this will even out over time, lets just pretend for a moment that after your party’s first adventure together, they decide to part ways. I’ll use level 1 as an example.

    720g, Level 2 item, level 3 item, level 4 item, level 5 item.

    No character in their right mind is going to say “Cheers for the 144g guys, enjoy your magic items, maybe see you again sometime!”

    To keep things any kind of fair, the character who goes sans magic item should get at least 50% of the monetary cash treasure. Perhaps 60% for the player who misses out on the item, and 10% for the rest of the party? And the only reason I’m no saying 100% to the player who misses the item is that A) everyone needs some gold to love and B) the poor shlob then becomes the guy who walked away with the level 2 item.

    Perhaps the fairest way to look at it is a sort of “small blind, big blind” system that they use in poker. (Once the party has established ofc to avoid A being an issue).

    So 80% cash, 20% cash and level+1 item, level +2 item, level +3 item, level +4 item?

    Changes the whole money situation, because one character just got enough cash to buy an item of his own level in one go- which I believe was very near your best case scenario at level 11?

    • Thanks for posting! That is a side of the gp splitting that I didn’t consider. In the long run, the allotment of magic items should equal out. But that takes a great deal of management from the DM to ensure everyone is getting the proper number of magic items. I’ve had items keyed for one player but they decline it so then it throws things off for a while.

      I like you you related it to poker, but that requires some player buy-in (no pun intended) and extra management. And how will the players know who will be the odd-player-out will be at the end of any given Level?

  8. Yes- I guess I’m lucky that my players are so lazy when it comes to splitting items, they’re unlikely to split treasure more than once a level, so they are always splitting relatively large pools of loot, often with more than 1 magic item per player.

    I was originally asking for wish lists, but it was quite a chore getting them to keep it up to date, I have switched over to saying “..and a level 16 item of your choice” which works well with my player tendencies.

    We were discussing this last night actually, and we decided its time for a “magic item audit” where all the players submit a list of all their items too me. Thanks for pointing me in that direction, I think its long over due 😉

  9. WotC expects you to be using your cash to buy items many levels lower than your current level, since yhe rest should come from your DM…

    Here’s a fun quote from Andy Collins:
    If you’re lucky, your DM keeps track of the enhancement bonuses of your armor, neck slot item, and weapon or implement and makes sure you have a reasonable item in each of those categories…
    Use your other item slots to improve your strengths, shore up your weaknesses, and add variety to your character. In addition to the needs you identify in play, keep these specific issues in mind when purchasing or making magic items.
    Don’t focus on items near your level; you probably don’t have the gold to afford them. Instead, drop down five or even ten levels and look for bargain purchases. The battlestrider geaves (level 12) might have been too pricey when you were at 10th level, but a 21st·level character can easily afford them.

  10. For the game I run, the characters make very little gold (compared to the amount suggested) and are probably getting four magic items every three levels. However, I’ve gone about balancing it by using inherent bonuses to put more emphasis on the extra abilities and properties than on the enhancement bonuses. So, our Fighter can wield his +1 Frost Hammer into the epic tier and never worry that it has +1 tacked onto it, because it would be treated as a +5 or +6, as appropriate.

    The other thing I’ve started to do is create my own magic items to give to the players. This allows me to customize them to a high degree, but also lets me try out some interesting new mechanics. One of those is a recent item I rewarded the players with that can be worn on the waist, feet, or hands, and works differently (this one varies in whether it targets Will, Fort, or Ref) depending on where it’s worn. Currently, the Invoker is wearing it around his waist, but if he finds a waist item he likes more, he might hand it off to the Barbarian to wear on his hands. I’m not aiming to make every item like that, but at least the occasional one makes for an interesting dynamic item that the party actually debates over and helps ensure that at least one player will be interested in it.

    As for gold spending… they throw keggers, run political campaigns, outfit their room at the inn with bear rugs, fund an upstart goblin empire, and buy (questionable) sausages. None of them have ever expressed interest in buying a magic item. Don’t ask me why; I’m surprised myself.

    • I should also expand that I removed the cost for casting most rituals. One’s that are intended to be prohibitively expensive or restricting (Raise Dead and Make Whole, for instance) are still costly, but Tenser’s Floating Disc? They can cast it freely without cost. I usually try to stress some sort of roleplay side to the ritual (like supplying some mundane components), but the players are happy to describe themselves casting rituals.

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