The rules of D&D operate under the assumption that the economy of the game setting is more or less like the real world’s - that the PCs’ culture values money, and in fact really revolves around it. Acquiring it is one of the primary character motivations, and it’s directly connected to gaining experience and leveling up. But what would D&D look like if we stripped this component out of it and replaced it with something else?
I started thinking about this last year when considering an island hopping campaign with the PCs being fairly “primitive” natives, rather than typical D&D characters from a medieval and European background. I was reminded of it later when I thought about running D&D in a prehistoric or ice age setting, and then again more recently when I thought about what it would be like to play solely as Native Americans or some kind of equivalent, in a world where Europeans never show up and technological innovation is glacial.
What would we use to replace the monetary system that we’re so familiar with in our games? Is D&D even the same game if we remove that, or are we playing something else with certain D&D mechanics?
Barter isn't unknown to those other cultures, and there would definitely be items with greater value due to relative scarcity. Take for example a good horse. Also, things tend to wear down quickly - so new furs need to be acquired and successful hunting takes time and isn’t guaranteed.
Rarer and more valuable still would be those things that have a symbolic value and are dangerous to obtain. The scalp of an enemy, for example. Or perhaps something similar to an eagle feather, instead derived from a monster. I’ve explored this just a bit in my current games, with monsters themselves being the treasure (see Claude de Sarlat, monster eater) - though in that case they’re commodified by being turned into gold pieces when sold to Claude’s chef. A better example might be the Makemanu, undead parrots whose feathers of different colors might easily fill in for gold, silver, and copper.
One issue with using these kinds of replacements is that they likely aren’t anything that can be hoarded, or rather, nobody in those cultures would want to do such a thing. In a hunter/gatherer or early agrarian society, what does one need to amass wealth for? Food to last a winter or in case of crop failure maybe, but not excess wealth - of what use is too many sheep? They’re just more difficult to guard and one can only eat so much mutton. But if there’s no giant treasure hoard, how am I to build a castle or establish a guild? My end game is buggered.
In these pre-capitalist societies, probably what’s more important is your status within the tribe - how high up on the totem pole you are. There may be beads and trinkets traded, especially with outsiders, but it seems like people of stone age cultures would be much more aware of the transitory nature of life and possessions (and place a greater value on relationships accordingly). Defending family and tribal honor, earning a good reputation amongst the tribe, or spiritual interests might all stand in as game incentives. Maybe the end game is helping the tribe find the perfect, peaceful, and fertile valley - maybe level progression involves achieving certain tasks and overcoming enemies that prove one’s bravery and honor without the need for shiny metals.
Looking back now, when I started playing D&D as a kid, I had all the time in the world. Marathon late night sessions could easily happen with friends staying over. I think a part of the game’s appeal was in the adult-like aspect of our characters having responsibilities and jobs (albeit as monster killers), as well as our ability to manage sums of their imaginary money - to spend as we saw fit without any parental supervision. Now that I’m older, I wonder if my interest in playing in a D&D world where money doesn’t figure so prominently hinges on the real life pressure of having to earn and manage it. Playing a caveman protecting the clan from cave bears and not worrying about paying for medical insurance or taxes on a castle would occasionally be a pleasant diversion.
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