Gold In D&D Is Boring - What's Wrong With Gold Part 1

Want free D&D adventures? Get them in our Discord, every month.

When I run D&D, my players don’t care about gold. Why should that be? 

Gold is at the heart of the game, isn’t it? 

It’s the whole point of delving into dungeons. But for modern play, is dungeon delving that popular?

Here’s some questions:

  • If the PCs got their hands on a huge treasure hoard, would it change the campaign?
  • Is there a meaningful difference between awarding 100 and 1000 gold pieces?
  • If the PCs ran out of gold, would it be a problem? Would it even be noticed?

Too often, the answer to these is no.


Why should this be? This is Part 1 of a series where we try to understand What Is Wrong With Gold in 5e?

Let’s take a step back and look at economic game design principles. 

There are 4 basic concepts to understand economic game design. 



Taps are sources of resources. They spawn new resources, generating gold or other valuable things, into the game world. 

Taps are often located where the players should focus their actions, because it’s where players can obtain resources for progression. Game designers will often put taps where they want the players to go and do something i.e. in a monster fighting game, monsters drop loot, because that’s what the game is about. 


Inventories are self-explanatory. They’re stores of resources for players, used to limit what the players can carry and use, so that they’re encouraged to make meaningful decisions about what resources to have on them, or store. 

Converters and Traders:

Technically these are different, but for simplicity they’re similar enough. This is where you exchange resources for something useful. Conventionally these are shops, or another common example is crafting. 

Converting resources that players obtain from taps into something useful for continuing to play the game, is the reason for collecting the resources in the first place. They give the player engaging choices to make about spending their resources. 


Less common in D&D, drains are mechanisms by which resources are permanently destroyed. It might be a fight that forces players to consume non-renewable resources, equipment breaking or a monster that eats gold. 

A note on resources: Gold is not the only resource in D&D. Keep in mind that experience is also a resource to be gained from taps, and converted into levels. 

So where do these mechanisms exist in D&D?


Taps in D&D

Anything that gives you gold or experience is a tap. Treasure hoards and monster loot is an important common tap, but anywhere you find items or something with a gold value can be a tap. 

And we’ve already hit a big difference between video games and tabletop RPGs. Video games hardcode what can be valuable and what can’t. TTRPGs are not software, anything with a feasible value can be a tap. 

In Skyrim, you can’t tear up the floorboards of an inn or sell the greybeard’s organs. You can steal from them, but only the things that are defined by the game as objects with value. In D&D, anything can plausibly be a tap. The simulationism of D&D to give the world verisimilitude means that… yes, you can tear up the floorboards and start selling wood, I guess. Just like you could in the real world. With consequences.

That means there are infinite taps in D&D, because everything you can imagine existing can be something of value. Why go into a dungeon and fight a dragon for gold, when I could dropship wands of magic missile? 

Because dropshipping doesn’t give you experience points. 

Experience points are not materially real in the game world, usually. This means they don’t have to abide by the same rules of simulationism as gold. Instead, experience points are a proxy for an abstract concept; competency, skill and heroism. 

Milestone experience does something very interesting though: it makes story progression the tap. 

But standard experience progression is a more conventional resource. So where do we get experience from? Killing monsters and… well that’s pretty much it. Sure, maybe you get some experience completing a puzzle or a quest, or even “defeating” a monster rather than killing it. But regardless, you’ve got to fight monsters to access the experience tap. 

That’s what shows that D&D is a game designed to be about defeating monsters. The rules of 5th edition encourage you to do this behaviour. And unlike a video game, we’re trying harder to attain a suspension of disbelief, so a group of wolves can’t spew out gold when they die. 

Gold can’t be the only resource to encourage you to go out and defeat monsters, because it’s busy simulating real currency. 

But what if it could? More on this later, but old school D&D had rules for giving you experience for every gold piece! Combining the two resources, so that gold became a stepping stone to progression and had a more central role in the gameplay. But that’s for a later post!

But in modern D&D, the tap for gold is anywhere you can find something of monetary value. The tap for experience is beating encounters, which is where the gameplay lies. 

And what’s going to make characters more successful in progressing through the adventure? Experience or gold? Well, obviously experience, because that’s where they get their real abilities. 

Inventories in D&D

I don’t think I have the energy to complain about inventories in D&D more than a few words. The encumbrance rule is so forgettable, barely anyone uses it, and the using weight to track carry capacity is a misguided attempt at simulation over gameplay. 

It made more sense in older D&D, where gold was more important, and therefore, we tracked how much you could carry, and transporting 10,000 gold pieces out of the dungeon was its own problem. Nowadays, does your heroic paladin saving the world from Vecna, really ponder on whether to leave behind 8 pitons to carry 50 extra gold pieces? No.

If you find out the barbarian is carrying 8 shields, 3 battleaxes and a barrel of water, how likely are you to tell them they can’t? I don’t, because what are they going to use them for? Sell them? For what?! More gold that doesn’t even mean anything? 

Converters and Traders in D&D

That brings us to Converters and Traders, which we usually find in D&D are shops. This is where the PCs spend their gold. 

What do they spend it on? In my experience there are 2 common ways players get excited to spend their gold:

  1. Niche roleplaying specific items - e.g. some fine purple silk because a player has been unexpectedly inspired by Weaver's Tools
  2. Magic items. 

Magic items in shops are fine, sometimes some potions are a much needed resource. Running a shopping session without magic items seems rather boring, so there's a pressure to put some magic items in a variety of shops. 

For modern heroic D&D games though, does it really evoke the heroic fantasy to purchase a +1 sword? I don't think so, and I think that's why 4e played it more fast and loose with getting the magic items you asked for. 

There's a better way to do converters in D&D, and it doesn't have to be a matter of roleplaying every shopkeeper like a Gary Oldman persona (though there's room for that!) I don't know what better converters look like, but I do know that I dread running shops because my players aren't given a solid obvious way to spend their gold, and I have to improv it. 

Remember, converters are useful for making gold gathered at taps, meaningful. 

Drains in D&D

Does D&D have drains? Does your equipment break, or gold disappear into thin air? Well we have rations and consumable magic items like health potions, but really... drains aren't a big part of D&D these days. 

In a more survivalist gritty game we might count rations, and have to spend gold to survive, but nowadays we don't see that squeeze on resources that makes drains dangerous and exciting. 

But that's fine! We don't need to have drains that slowly deplete the PCs items if it doesn't fit the fantasy. And the fact that they're rare means we have room for something I call... exceptional design. 

Game design that is the exception to the status quo... e.g. "my sword and armour doesn't break". When the status quo is broken, it is especially impactful to players! The perfect example: The Rust Monster!

Players aren't used to their equipment breaking, losing their weapons, and when that starts to happen because of the horrid abilities of The Rust Monsters, players begin to panic. This is unprecedented! That's what makes these encounters memorable and engaging. 

Not all economic game design needs to be a system that pervades the whole game, sometimes we can deploy a new economic mechanic to throw a curveball to the players.

Ok, so that was all interesting. What's the lesson?

Simulating economies can be a design dead end (tracking rations in lbs! Why?) And this is why gold is so limited as a driver for narrative and character progression. While experience is an abstract value we can manipulate to drive narrative and character progression, gold is busy simulating a real currency. 

If you want to drive player engagement and behaviour, you need to put a rare tap in the place you want them to go. Look where the most valuable resources are in a game; that's where the game designers want you to go play the game. 

Gold is dietetically real, experience is abstract.

Gold is abundant and experience is rare.

Gold has infinite taps. Experience only has one; playing the adventure.

Here are some thoughts to get the game designer in you thinking:

Why don't we have converters for experience points? Could you add one? How would it affect the game if the players got to choose how to spend their experience, and it wasn't only character levels?

What if you did away with gold, and told the players that they could have any item of a certain rarity based on character level? Could we do without shops, converters, and traders? 

If you players are comfortable with their resources in the game, and have stopped caring about their equipment, what could you do to change that? Add a drain? 

Subscribe Here for the monthly newsletter where we release these blogs, updates on our upcoming crowdfunder, and free adventures! 

Yes, fully produced D&D adventures at no cost, just sent straight to you. Either via email or in our Discord!

Next time we’ll talk about what is in the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide that tries to solve these problems!

Special thanks to Game Maker's Toolkit for this video about economic game design that provided the springboard for this. 

Free adventures! Every Month! HERE!

Back to blog