Gift economies

This post is a reaction to someone asking how to run a gift economy on r/osr.

The gamist answer is to say just stick with the presumption in Player’s Handbook that there’s a Target in the Keep on the Borderlands. Modern people are very used to markets which is why D&D has always had an anachronistic capitalist economy.

If you want a simulationist approach, you’ll need to do something more extreme. As tends to be the case with simulationist approaches, it will be more crunchy than just pointing to the little catalog in the rules set. One thing to appreciate is that gift exchange is not just one thing but comes in various forms. For instance, the anthropologist Alan Fiske lists four types of exchange:

  • market pricing — explicit commensuration of goods based on ratios of value, often expressed via a common unit of account. i.e., markets and barter
  • equality matching — reciprocity in goods based on one-for-one tit-for-tat. the gifters are presumptively equal.
  • communal sharing — everyone can freely draw on communal resources. the gifters are presumptively intimates and/or the goods are of low value.
  • authority ranking — asymmetric duties and obligations between patrons and clients. At a minimum, patrons owe protection and clients owe deference. The gifters have a clear hierarchy.

Each of these models provides gameable hooks but to understand how you need to deal with them one by one. Let’s start with market pricing. This has a role even in non-market societies since it also encompasses barter since what really characterizes market logic is not cash payment but explicit commensuration by ratios of value expressed in terms of a unit of account. (The unit of account in pre-monetized societies is only rarely precious metals and more often cattle, buckets of beer, or slaves). Barter tends to be very rare in primitive societies but there is the important exception that barter can be used with foreigners who have neither the reputations nor the potential for long-term reciprocity to make gift exchange work. And murder hobos who are only passing through the wood elf village on the way to sacking the Lost Tombs of Author’s Name Spelled Backwards are the perfect example of fly-by-night foreigners. But if you’re thinking “I was hoping for gift exchange to make my campaign’s economy weird and barter sounds disappointingly normal,” don’t worry because barter can be really fucking weird. You want to trade some iron rations to the cannibal gnomes of the Yar’skloth wasteland for a few 50′ bundles of rope? No problem, just get wasted and do it with the chieftain’s wife to seal the deal.

Now consider equality matching. In this model you give a gift and then at some point in the future I reciprocate that gift on a tit-for-tat basis. We can easily think of game mechanics for this. Players can do favors for specific NPCs. This then gives them favor points proportional to the size of the favor. When they need something the NPC might plausibly have, they hint that they want it and then make a reaction roll. Their total # of points modifies the roll. You don’t just spend points but roll because by its nature, reciprocity in gift exchange is uncertain. If the roll is successful, the PCs get the favor and a number of points commensurable with the size of the favor gets subtracted from their stock of points. The GM should also periodically roll that the socially indebted NPC reciprocates with something the PCs never wanted but which still counts against favor points. It will be possible to have negative points but players are then in the NPC’s social debt and must kiss his ass until they make good. Moreover, it’s rude to return the favor too quickly. Anthropologists enjoy the Inuit proverb “gifts make slaves like whips make dogs” so if the PCs owe at least 3 favor points to an NPC, they are clients in a patronage relationship with that NPC and no other NPCs will let them go into the social red as everyone knows clients can only be clients to one patron.

A particularly aggressive form of equality matching and one of the most famous gift exchange institutions is the potlatch. This was a custom of competitive feasting practiced by native peoples of the Northwest coast of North America, from the Columbia River to Alaska. The way it worked is a big shot threw a huge party and made sure to invite his frenemy and all his frenemy’s cronies. Then he fed everyone until they were stuffed, gave everyone all the salmon and trade goods they could carry, and then burned or threw into the ocean a ton of wealth, maybe even sacrificed a slave. Now that’s a party. The potlatch was effectively a challenge to the frenemy to throw an equally magnificent potlatch himself within a reasonable amount of time or else be humiliated. And while that may sound very exotic, bottle service in New York City night clubs is effectively just a douchebag potlatch.

From a gaming perspective, a potlatch isn’t a substitute for a market since the same types of goods tended to circulate. Rather, a potlatch is a cross between a carousing mechanic and social combat. There are a few ways to handle this. One is that whenever the PCs use a carousing XP mechanic, they must take whatever consequence is already on the table and acquire a rival who felt humiliated by not being able to match their partying. Or you could flip it. While the PCs are in town, a rival adventuring party could blow their own loot rolling on the carousing table. The townsfolk will then give the PCs negative reaction rolls as they think of what a bunch of cheapskate losers the PCs are because they’re putting all their wealth in a bundle of 401K to save for eventual strongholds and domain play instead of blowing it all on a huge party that culminates in throwing a bunch of gold pieces into a sphere of annihilation. Eventually someone takes the PCs aside and explains that if they ever want to get respect, they need to throw an even crazier party and wouldn’t you know it, the vernal equinox is coming up …

Communal sharing is a practice where people can freely draw on resources. Typically there is a strong relationship between the intimacy of the relationship and the value of the goods you can draw on. But it doesn’t just work that value=f(intimacy) but that a relationship can be established by sharing goods. Hence all the cultures in which a guest is offered a symbolic meal, such as the Russian custom of offering a guest bread and salt. The host does not offer the guest bread and salt because he is a guest, rather he is a guest because he has eaten bread and salt from the host’s table. A particularly famous example of communal sharing in the literature is the ancient Greek custom of xenia (guest-host friendship). The Odyssey is only incidentally a poem about cyclopes, witches, and sea monsters and is primarily a poem about guest-host relationships both good (the Phaeacians) and bad (basically everywhere else Odysseus goes, as well as the suitors in his own household). Xenia established a strong bond that could even be hereditary, as in the passage in book 6 of the Iliad where two warriors meet and give the customary pre-deathmatch speeches only to realize they are hereditary guest/host-friends and decide to swap armor as a symbol of friendship instead of killing each other.

Communal sharing isn’t just about guests and hosts but more commonly applies within a community or within families. And this is actually one of the problems with communal sharing, that any time any one accumulates any wealth, everyone in the community or family feels entitled to demand a share of it. There are a few ways for the wealthy to handle this. One is to strive for wealth in a futile attempt to satiate the needs of one’s community (a common reason for both corruption and piracy). The simplest is to fatalistically accept that one’s wealth will be dissipated by infinite need. An alternative is to just prevaricate and make excuses to one’s supplicants. A more extreme strategy of exit is to be an outsider exempt from communal sharing obligations, either because one was born a market minority or because one has converted to a religion that makes one an outsider. All of these strategies have the potential for game hooks. The player characters may seek treasure primarily to support dozens of peers who will become dependents or they might prefer to accumulate wealth, in which case they will soon find they must leave their community either physically or socially.

The last major type of gift exchange is authority ranking, aka patronage or hierarchy. There are many forms of hierarchical relationships but a common form is establishing a household with non-kin dependents who do not get paid wages but instead “eat at the master’s table.” Giving a gift can establish one as a patron and accepting it can establish one as a client. Hence how Beowulf uses “ring-giver” as a kenning for “patron.” By giving gifts and offering protection, the patron establishes a claim on the clients’ loyalty. When Henry II wanted the archbishop of Canterbury dead, he didn’t actually say “will no one rid me of this troublesome priest.” The actual passage in Becket’s hagiography is “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!” Sounds rather like your mom complaining about 12 hours of labor and drove you to soccer practice to guilt you into bringing her grandkids by for a visit. This is actually something RPGs do pretty well with two established mechanics. One is patron mechanics, where patrons and factions act as mission givers to low-level PCs. The other, much older, mechanic is the old notion that the end game for D&D is to establish a stronghold and shift to domain play.

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  1. Taylor Lane

    I made a reply to this post, here:


  2. John

    It would be interesting to design a hireling system around this, with an attempt to minimize gold pieces as a diagetic mechanism entirely. As you mention, Beowulf handed out jewelry and held feasts, he didn’t pay salaries.

    Instead of players taking treasure and immediately efficiently liquidating it into hard currency accepted everywhere, what if they had to keep it as hoards to gift and trade. Maybe they could find coins minted by ancient civilizations, but nothing would be priced in them, and they’d be handed out as effectively jewels.

    Would this be more fun for players? I think if the DM was willing to do the bookkeeping and tracking of debts behind the screen, and rolled for the effects of gifts, it could actually make the experience of becoming a warlord more immersive and driven by relationships, and less accounting-centric.


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