This is RPG-ology #70: Value, for September 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Value, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
The man at the counter dropped a coin. I knew from the chink of zinc that it was a penny even before he casually glanced toward it to identify it. He made no motion to recover it as he waited for his food.
The four-year-old girl standing behind him slipped free of the hand of her distracted mother and scurried over to recover the copper-clad treasure. This was worth something to her. It was money.
As someone who has always been at least a bit weaker in income than in expenses, I’ve come to have some insight into the value of money. Specifically, I’ve come to perceive that it has no fixed value; its worth depends on the person to whom it is presented. Someone [
has once] calculated that it would not be worth his time for Bill Gates to stop in the parking lot to pick up a stray one hundred dollar bill; he would make more than that by getting in the building to start work that much sooner. [I have since suggested that it would not be worth it for me to pick up that hundred dollar bill, because it would not cover my medical expenses for the injury I thus inflicted upon myself.] But for that little girl, that penny probably makes this one of her peak income weeks. Only nine ninety-five, nineteen ninety-five, ninety-nine ninety-five–the value of the dollar depends very much on how many of them you have and what you need to get with them. For some reason a seventy dollar console game cartridge is cheap, but a thirty dollar role playing game book is expensive; and we in the industry complain about this discrepancy constantly. But could it be that money is worth more to those who play role playing games than to those who buy console game cartridges?
Once upon a time baskets were woven by women to meet the needs of the family. They were useful primarily because they were cheap. Even if you couldn’t make your own pots, you could still make your own baskets. You could get the materials for nothing but a bit of effort, and with practice you could weave perfectly practical and even good-looking baskets. Today you can buy them. Longaberger™ will sell you one of theirs, just large enough to hold a stack of business cards, for twenty-eight dollars. They tell you it’s also good for safety pins and paper clips. Or go for the large reinforced two foot by one foot work basket, only one hundred seventy-nine dollars. These, incidentally, are the basic basket prices. Accessories, such as the cloth liner or the workload protector, are extra. Thirty-five dollars extra. Each. No, actually, thirty-six for the liner.
And I am in the wrong business. Seriously, would you carry kindling wood in a two hundred dollar basket? That’s one of the recommended uses. That and storing iced beverages at summer gatherings. Right. And fifty dollars is too much to spend on a game. Again, people who buy role playing games value money more highly than people who decorate with wicker.
But this isn’t about why gamers don’t support their hobby. It’s about the perceived value of things. I’ve run some games in which successful characters became so wealthy they did not think it worth their trouble to carry copper or even silver coins out of dungeons; there were others so poor they seriously considered rolling bums for pocket change. In The Dancing Princess, in Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds, the character is tempted to give up his quest to save the girls first by silver leaves, then by gold leaves, then by clusters of gems growing as fruit on trees; and many a player will fill his pack with the silver and then empty it to replace it with the gold, only to empty it again to fill it with gems, all while the princesses are in danger. In The Ice Pirates, the only thing of real value in the universe is water, a precious commodity on which all life depends (never mind that it can be easily manufactured from two of the most common elements in the universe, and releases valuable energy in the process, it still makes a good point). Somewhere in Multiverser’s rules it suggests that there are worlds out there where gold and silver floes are an annoyance to the indigs, who will gladly pay you to remove them. Value is not inherent in an object; it is attached to it.
One of the most highly valued investments of our age is stock. When you buy stock, in theory you are buying a share of the assets of the company. In theory, the company is worth whatever the sum of the value of all of its shares is. But watch how the prices fluctuate. If shares in a company with a hundred thousand shares of stock issued moves “an eighth”, it means that investors believe its total net worth has changed by twelve thousand five hundred dollars in the previous hour. Obviously that’s silly; and of course it’s not entirely true. Companies have real value, fixed value of their assets, but investors are more interested in the potential for future value, not present value. The value of the company has not changed, but the perceived value of owning it tomorrow has changed, so people are buying or selling it today.
But what of art? A painting by Van Gogh has little value but that he’s not going to do another and he did some very good work. But the price of a Van Gogh is based on the simple fact that there are not very many of them and people want them. Had Vincent painted a lot more great paintings, they probably would not be worth as much. Scarcity has a lot to do with value; but scarcity is nothing without demand.
In an earlier century, there was a very hot item, a commodity which European investors eagerly sought. They bid the prices up into quadruple digits for single samples of these objects. These were a secure investment, something which would be worth much in the days ahead. Then the market collapsed, and no one wanted to buy them; those who paid exorbitant prices for them were stuck with stock, and took the colloquial bath. It is almost beyond our understanding today why they put so much stock in tulip bulbs. But it was the investment of the age.
Somewhere in the back of the [original] Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Dungeon Masters Guide there’s a collection of lists giving values for everything from spices to tapestries to furs and more. It’s very useful for the young dungeon master; I found it handy for creating unusual treasure hordes, such as the booty on pirate ships. But ultimately those lists are almost worthless. The values of the items listed are an attempt to estimate such value in an imagined medieval European swords and sorcery realm. It would be different from country to country, and far different beyond the familiar lands of kings and kaisers. The value of each precious object springs from who wants it and what they’re willing to pay, balanced against who has it and how willingly they will part with it. Tapestries don’t have to be worth more than salt (probably aren’t in some parts of the world), and salt could be more valued than diamonds.
And the beauty of a role playing game is that you, as referee, can control these values quite easily. If something needs to be valuable, it’s rare, or at least rare around here. Imports are insufficient to cover demand, and traders are not willing to make the dangerous journey to deliver more unless they are well-compensated for their efforts. On the other hand, everything is worthless if nobody wants it. We’re told that fire beetle glands glow for a couple days and are worth fifty gold pieces each immediately; but they’re only worth that if there’s someone in the area looking to buy them, because by the time you can deliver them to a better market they’ll be worthless. So maybe the one prospector in these parts is willing to give you ten for one of them, take it or leave it. What makes you think it’s worth more than that, if inside of a week it’s going to fade and fail? Diamonds have tool uses, but not in low-tech worlds. In a sword and sorcery campaign, they are used either for jewelry or for magic. Don’t want diamonds to have value? People think they make ugly jewelry, something really only peasants would wear, and magicians don’t have much use for them apart from a few silly potions. Now you can’t sell them for more than a few coppers; and the market isn’t even flooded–they’re still rare, they’re just not wanted.
If you are the referee of a role playing game, you are charged with creating an experience of being in another world. If that other world is a moment in earth history or a published story, your assessment of the values of things within it must make sense within the context of that universe. But if you are creating a fantasy realm or a science fiction setting, value takes on an entirely different set of logic, a logic which allows you to warp it in unexpected ways, varying drastically from locale to locale (one of my characters once stood to make a lot of money on a trade route between an Oriental trading company and a drow kingdom because of those disparities) and from year to year. As long as the supply and demand can be explained, you have complete control over value. It’s one more aspect of a universe that can color your world.
Next week, something different.]