D&D Tips: Using Gold Rewards Effectively

How much gold is too much? It is a question that is asked quite often, and responses are invariably off each other by orders of magnitude. Some responses offer estimate ranges based on lifestyles or the cost of magic weapons. Others offer educated guesses based on what the party’s wealthy patrons can afford (or which their enemies can hoard). And, of course, there is the ubiquitous but unhelpful answer, ‘As much as the DM wants’.

Yes, the last one is the only factually accurate response, but facts alone aren’t enough; they must be put in their proper context and used to test different options. Ultimately, too much or too little gold is going to cause issues, but it takes some careful consideration to determine where those thresholds are. And that is why we’ve written this article to help you determine for yourself how much gold your players should be receiving.

A Short History of Gold in D&D

Drifting around the Internet, one might occasion upon a character sheet from way back in the first edition of the game. No small amount of shock is likely to ensue when it comes to the amount of money the character has—likely exceeding 1 million gp! What was the idea there?

Well, back in the day, characters used to earn 1 XP for each gp they collected, and this was a large part of how they advanced. On page 45 of the D&D Basic Rulebook (1981), Tom Moldvay estimated that characters might earn as much as 3/4 of their experience through accumulating treasure. And given that experience point thresholds for advancement roughly doubled for each consecutive level, things escalated. Estimates for the amount of money 8th level adventurers had to accumulate exceed 40 tons!

Of course, this money wasn’t intended to permanently sit as a figure on a character sheet. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax both planned their campaigns (Blackmoor and Greyhawk, respectively) such that the endgame involved becoming leaders of massive armies that would be played out with the original tabletop army battle rules that had led to the creation of D&D. And such leaders need coin to build fortresses, raise armies, amass fleets, et cetera. The original rules included prices for such massive investments like castles and ships, as well as to hire the men-at-arms to put in them.

The problem with this was, of course, that this ‘endgame’ play didn’t hold the same interest with most of the player base. It wasn’t even just new players who were more interested in the dungeons, it was the original players themselves who kept returning to the monster-filled underground labyrinths in hope of another score. Dave Arneson’s crew spent so much time in the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor—originally intended as a minor diversion to the war on the surface—that he eventually declared his players had lost the above-ground conflict by forfeit! D&D, it would seem, was to be a game of slaying monsters and collecting treasure hoards to make Scrooge McDuck blush.

As might be expected, in subsequent editions, gold rewards were slightly scaled back. But more significantly, we got bigger gold sinks. Much bigger gold sinks. In particular, the rules for magic item creation, which Gygax envisioned as an activity solely for high-level character, were expanded to the point that characters would constantly be dumping the wealth of a small city into crafting some new sword or wand. This, of course, led to a proliferation of magic items, meaning that they became less wondrous and more like commodities, much to the chagrin of many players.

To combat this, Fifth Edition went back to the drawing board with magic items, with new rules for their creation and a deliberate attempt to curb the so-called ‘magic item economy’. But by minimizing such a significant gold sink, many parties now don’t have too much to spend it on, meaning that Dungeon Masters are often asking their peers whether they’re doing something wrong, and if anyone can offer guidance on an appropriate amount of gold to give out.

Recommended Gold Rewards

So how much, then, is the right amount of gold for a Fifth Edition party to receive? This is a difficult question to answer, as each table and each campaign are very different. If you are running a low fantasy campaign, possibly one where actual money is scarce and most trade is done with bartering or jewellery (as was the case, for example, in early medieval England after the value of Roman coins tanked and people melted them down for their precious metals), then you probably aren’t going to want to dump an entire economy’s worth of coins on your players. On the other hand, if your campaign is of a more high fantasy style, finding tonnes of coin might suit the theme.

The official books, for all they emphasize that every play style and setting are valid, seem to keep at their core an assumption that campaigns are going to be on the epic side of fantasy, where every town larger than a few dozen people has at least one wizard or cleric; orcs, goblins, and trolls prowl just beyond every hill; evil cults infest the underbelly of every moderately affluent society; and great feats of magic-empowered heroism are regularly needed to save the day. The rules presented in the books all support this, including the recommended gold rewards, which far exceed most people’s expectations.

On page 133 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we are told:

Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0–4 table, 18 rolls on the Challenge 5–10 table, twelve rolls on the challenge 11–16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table.

That’s just the treasure hoards, mind you. If you fight 1,000 enemies along the way to claiming these hoards, those enemies might be carrying coins, gems, or art objects with values you can determine by rolling on the Individual Treasure tables (DMG 136). On 30 orcs you would find an average of 14,913 cp (497.1 × 30), much of it in larger coins and other more convenient forms of transferable wealth. With no way to determine how many enemies will be fought along the way, it’s impossible to say how much extra cash would be claimed this way, so it’s easier to think of it as simply covering the party’s lifestyle expenses.

So how much money is this? Well, if you average out the results (see the Methodology section at the end of the article), this is what a typical party is expected to get in a 20-level career:

Level Coin Gain (gp)
Coin Total (gp)
1 0 0
2 877 877
3 877 1,753
4 877 2,630
5 13,634 16,263
6 13,634 29,897
7 13,634 43,530
8 13,634 57,164
9 13,634 70,797
10 13,634 84,431
11 72,425
156,856
12 72,425 229,281
13 72,425 301,706
14 72,425 374,131
15 72,425 446,556
16 72,425 518,981
17 672,050 1,191,031
18 672,050 1,863,081
19 672,050 2,535,131
20 672,050 3,207,181

This means that, by level 20, a party of four adventurers will each have about 800,000 gp. That’s enough for each person to build a small castle and run it for 20 years (longer if they actually use such a resource to generate income by collecting tolls, charging rent in the surrounding lands, growing crops, raising cattle, breeding horses, and so on).

Just holding all 16,000 lbs of their gold would require 32 bags of holding or an enormous 22 ft³ chest (for more about how to calculate the dimensions of a hoard, see our article, A Guide to D&D Coins). Moving it would require more than 12 elephants! And never mind that the richest man in medieval Europe, Jakob Fugger, only had about 11,370 lbs of gold when he died, which was a whopping 2% of Europe’s GDP and more than sufficient to buy the election of an emperor.

Caveat: Magic Item Poverty

Of course, the standard treasure hoards are very unreliable as far as magic items are concerned. We did several sample rolls for random treasure over an adventuring career as part of writing this article, and until we reached the Challenge 17+ table, we rarely accumulated more than 10 non-consumable magic items (typically only one or two being a weapon, shield, or staff), with the vast majority of magic items overall being healing potions of varying strengths.

This, of course, doesn’t bode well when you start advancing in levels. As you begin encountering more and more enemies who are resistant or even immune to nonmagical weapons or certain energy types, it becomes all the more important to have the right tools. Unless you get lucky with what you roll for loot (or, equally validly, choose the items to give out), your players will probably start looking for places to purchase magic items to meet their needs, or else try looking into how to make such things themselves. If a Dungeon Master wants to keep their players happy and the game running smoothly, it bears worth considering what solutions work for your campaign to resolve these issues.

Adjusting Gold Rewards

The most important thing to do when adjusting how much gold you want to give out is to talk with your players. Try to ascertain their expectations of the game. Do they want to become lords of mighty castles? Do they want to own an inn franchise with locations in all the major cities of the campaign? Do they want to build an elaborate deathtrap dungeon to guard their hard-won treasure? Do they want to craft magical items for use or sale?

From here, you want to figure out which expectations are viable and try to work out what is needed to achieve them. The cost of an inn is far less than the cost of a castle, and there’s no point in giving the party hundreds of thousands of gold pieces if 90% of it is simply going to sit in the secret vault until the party dies. In fact, drowning the characters in a proverbial sea of wealth risks disappointing them because they can’t put it to good use, or inviting them to use it in ways that screw up your own plans. Consider again Jakob Fugger, wealthiest man in medieval Europe, buyer of emperors. If you have an elaborate plot that involves adventures to undermine the supporters of an evil prince and the party decides they’re happy to simply buy the allegiance of the individuals, then you’ve got a recipe for disappointment all around.

Gold As A Tool

Now, at last, we come to the real crux of the matter, and that is the most effective way to determine how much gold to give out.

Up until this point, we’ve really been looking at gold the wrong way. In fact, if you want to figure out how much gold to reward the players, you should stop thinking of it as a reward at all. It’s not a reward, it’s a tool, useful in letting the characters achieve those things they can’t do with a sword or a fireball. It might be packaged as a reward to make your players feel like they’ve achieved something, but the most strategic use for it is as a way to guide the campaign.

When you get down to it, practical needs are almost always the most compelling motivation for characters to leap into action. They give a sense of urgency and direction to otherwise nebulous aims that come with philosophical goals. Gold is a Dungeon Master’s best tool to guide those practical needs so that the players can engage with the plot.

Once you establish the party’s goals and determine what is needed to realize them, you can use gold rewards to help steer them, using their own desires as incentives to hook them into the plot. Break out their goals into steps and give them opportunities to invest, and plan the dangers accordingly.

If the players are starting out wanting to just get established with an inn, putting them on the path to breaking up an organized bandit group might get them upwards of 1,000 gp, enough to buy a derelict building an start refurbishments. Breaking up the evil cult that was sponsoring the bandit activities might let them claim 20,000 gp, enough to get their business up and running. By now, the party would have enemies among the surviving cult members, so when word reaches them that the cult is on the move again, they’re invested and ready to leap into action. And if they happen to lay their hands on treasure worth 100,000 gp, well now they’re looking at being able to franchise into other cities and start putting teleportation circles around to speed up travel. And so on and so forth as the scale of the threat gets larger and the goals of the party become more expensive.

Conclusion

Very often, Dungeon Masters struggle to work out adequate gold rewards for the party, treating money as a toy for the players to use rather than as a tool to drive the campaign. While gold rewards shouldn’t come earmarked for certain expenses, figuring out what the players want can help to figure out how to use gold rewards as a way to motivate the characters without overwhelming them. If you are having trouble deciding just how much you want the players to find in the dragon’s hoard, think about what the party wants and try to figure out what amount would enable them to take the next steps toward achieving it.

Bonus Section: Wealth/Level Methodology

The following steps lay out the methodology of how wealth per level is determined.

Averages

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a range of possible results and amounts based on dice rolls. In these occasions, we have taken the average result of the roll. For example, if the characters could obtain 3d6 coins, they obtain 10. The average results for the value of gems and art objects was determined by multiplying the average of each possible reward by the likelihood of its occurrence and adding together all the sums.

Full Sale Value

A small but significant portion of the gold in the table is in the form of gems and art objects. It is assumed that these items are converted to gold at full market value.

Lifestyle Expenses

This table does not account for lifestyle expenses and presumes that the treasure found on individual monsters covers party lifestyle.

Timing & Progression

It is assumed that treasure from a specific tier is earned at that tier. In other words, treasure from the Challenge 0-4 Table is earned during levels 1-4. Additionally, it is assumed that the total earned in each tier is divided evenly by the number of levels in that tier.


Feature Image: “Dragon Treasure” by Chris Seaman


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