Using PC investments as adventure seeds

The Republic of Darokin Gazetteer quantified PC financial savvy by allowing heroes to gain levels in a merchant class. Image Copyright TSR Hobbies/Wizards of the Coast, 1989.

While amassing a personal fortune is a goal of many Dungeons & Dragons heroes, few of them engage in financial investment as a means to that end; this is an unfortunate circumstance, since heroic investments can make fine starting points for adventures in which player characters (PCs) have strong personal stakes.

This post does not propose that heroes drop their swords, wands, holy symbols or lockpicks in favor of taking up the abacus. To do so would give a D&D game all the excitement of insurance underwriting. But what if the dungeon master (DM) entices the heroes to invest some of their hard-earned coin, and encourages them to help ensure the success of their investments? By doing so, the DM can combine the heroes’ love of (or need for) gold with the hazards of mercantile ventures to place the heroes in the dramatic position of facing grave danger in order to move forward, and losing their investment if they retreat.

The heroes may decide to engage in mercantile activity of their own volition; in these cases, all the DM needs to do is define the investment opportunity and move forward. If this is a goal of the campaign, the D&D Gazetteer detailing the Republic of Darokin in the Mystara setting is invaluable; it even describes how characters can take multiclass levels in the merchant class.

At other times, though, the heroes may turn to investing as a means to obtain funds for another purpose, such as for paying for a necessary ritual or component, buying a non-player character’s freedom from debt or slavery, or even to raise funds for an expedition against a villain who lairs in a distant, inhospitable place.

Creating the investment opportunity

Regardless of the reason for investing , the DM needs to create an investment opportunity promising a high reward which, of course, entails a high risk; a risk high enough, in fact, that the heroes will become personally involved to ensure the success of the enterprise. These opportunities can include:

  • Purchasing and delivering high-demand items to a market located on the far side of a hazardous route;
  • Buying haunted or monster-infested land at a very low price, which can be sold at a profit when the resident threats are neutralized; or
  • Patronizing an inventor, engineer or alchemist who needs to finance the final phases of ground-breaking research, who agrees to share the financial rewards of his new discoveries with the heroes – but who also needs protection from those who would steal his secrets until products inspired by or created through the new knowledge can be brought to market.

Designing the encounters

The nature of the investment will dictate the types of challenges the heroes must face in seeing the venture through. For example, consider a party of heroes who plan to carry precious medicinal herbs to a market located only a week’s journey distant, traveling by land. Locally, the herbs are abundant and cheaply obtained, but they never reach that market, since the week-long journey requires a mountain crossing through gnoll-infested hills. As a result, the market obtains those same herbs from a more distant source located on the far side of the mountains, a source which can’t really keep up with the market’s demand. Due to the low supply and high demand, the asking price for the herbs is very high at the market. Anyone buying the herbs cheaply could make a financial killing at the market – but they’d need to get those medicinal plants through some very dangerous territory to do so. In fact, since none of the locals would attempt such a journey, he heroes will have to personally buy and transport the plants in order for the venture to have any chance of success at all.

For such a journey, the DM might design several encounters around the gnolls defending against the heroes’ trespass, such as skirmishes with gnoll patrols, a skill challenge to avoid detection by an overwhelmingly powerful gnoll war party, or even a role-playing skill challenge with the gnoll war chief if the heroes are captured. Additional encounters can round out the adventure, such as combat with other monsters common to the terrain, such as giant scorpions or kruthik, or perhaps a environmental skill challenge based around cold weather that could freeze the delicate plants or require the heroes to maintain a certain pace to reach the market by a certain day.

Getting the payoff

If  the heroes succeed in their venture, it is important to make the return on their investment commensurate with the risks they overcame. It’s also important to know that heroes may decide to undertake a similar mission for the purpose of repeating the process. If they choose to do so, make sure to reduce the payoff for “repeat performances” of the same quest, so that players will be less tempted to engage in grinding. Reduced payoff is also a logical consequence of the heroes’ actions; after all, if the heroes travel often enough to make the gnolls leave humans passing through their territory alone, anybody can carry those herbs, dropping the market price for the product.


8 comments on “Using PC investments as adventure seeds

  1. max.elliott says:

    This shows up in games I’ve played a lot.

    Thomas Crown (no relation) Heir-Appearant to the Crown Enterprises fortune, leading a double life as SoulTaken the computer hacker, was ordered by his father, head of the Board of Directors, to join an adventuring party and to monitor them closely. During one escapade, T.C. purchased a subway system in another city in order to ensure it closed down at a time when the people evading the party with an item of… questionable ownership… were in a tunnel far from stations. It was faster to execute a hostile takeover via the phone than to travel to the distant city. The character had far too much money at the end, but his wealth was held in check by not being wholly under his control. He had to answer to the board…

    Galen the Cleric of Fharlanghn, Epic Level, produced a series of identical magic items in order to fund his temple and hobbies. They were small plaques of platinum with a lens of diamond inset in the corner. At any time, one could cover the diamond with their thumb and become the card holder, whose name would appear on the plaque. The card holder could press the diamond and intone “There’s no place like home.” and be instantly transported to the nearest temple of Fharlanghn on the current plane. No effect if the god held no power on that plane. These cards featured in a couple adventures. Once, when the Dwarven master smith who made the plaques accidentally became a cardholder. Part of the price of the cards was that they carried an epic level gease to visit somewhere you’d never been before once a year. The dwarf just packed up and disappeared one day. Several adventures went into researching and making the cards.

    Erin Zoolander, accidental immortal, ended up heading up a star system sized research organization. Adventures revolved around exotic materials, crises of morality, or mortality. All taking place in the context of keeping the planet full of scientists going and inspired. Rescuing stranded crews, and keeping the bills paid. That kind of dreary, everyday activity.

  2. Oz says:

    This kind of activity occurs often in games I run and is a central theme of my current D&D game. The players acquired a ship in the course of their adventures, used it and some capital to set up a trading company, and now or working on building their fortune.

    This takes them to new places, leading to tons of traditional and social adventure hooks. They’ll often ride along on one of their two ships, giving an opportunity for seaborne adventures.

    A good way to keep them from amassing too much coin while still feeling successful is to make sure to give them plenty of opportunity to reinvest in their venture. In my game each new port they set up operations in means buying or leasing buildings (not to mention more RP as they recruit a local staff), and ships cost quite a bit (they are working on number three).

    I keep a lot of the nuts and bolts behind the business pretty abstract, so the game doesn’t become Accountants & Abacuses.

    • Alric says:

      An outstanding example, Oz. And good form in mentioning “Accountants & Abacuses,” as that is probably the greatest pitfall in using this technique.

  3. It one campaign I was GMing, I had sketched out a conflict of light and dark elements. But . . . the characters decided to assassinate the local magistrate and take his place and then build a bridge to reestablish trade. It was awesome.

  4. These cards featured in a couple adventures. Once, when the Dwarven master smith who made the plaques accidentally became a cardholder. Part of the price of the cards was that they carried an epic level gease to visit somewhere you’d never been before once a year.

    • max.elliott says:

      That is, perhaps, the weirdest comment I’ve seen.

      OOooooo challenge coins! For those of you who don’t know how this works, challenge coins are normally used as a reward, not high enough for a national honour, but more than a certificate, to indicate some sort of “above and beyond” service. Like saving a family from a fire, or crossing the Atlantic the first time. Then if you ever meet someone claiming a membership in your organisation (for example: the US Army Signal Corp.) you whip out your challenge coins. For every coin the opposing person cannot match exactly, they buy the next round of drinks! So if I have a coin for (and I’m making these up) Crossing the Atlantic, Crossing the Pacific, Diving under 1000 feet, and crossing the Equator, and you have coins for the Atlantic, Pacific, Crossing under the polar ice, and diving… then the first round is on me for the polar ice and the next is on you for the Equator.

      That being said, I suspect that that comment might be some odd form of spam.

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