Gygax On…Duties, Excises, Fees, Tariffs, Taxes, Tithes and Tolls

As my players will tell you, I am generosity personified while running a game. They are often overcome with the amount of gold, platinum and magical items they uncover.* Their main problem is how to transport their almost boundless wealth from the dungeon!

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


*This is all somewhat untrue.

In reality, I like to run a low magic, gritty style of campaign and part of that atmosphere comes from limiting access to vast amounts of wealth. In turn, this limits the PCs’ ability to buy themselves out of trouble—the PCs must use their wits, cunning and innate abilities to prosper and thrive instead of buying tons of magic items to solve every problem.

That said, once I benevolently gift the PCs their treasures, I rarely take it away from them as they’ve earned it. However it now seems that accordingly to Gary I’ve been doing this a tad wrong!

So what did Gary have to say?

“It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters, and taxation is one of the better means of accomplishing this end.” 

AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 90), Gary Gygax

I think Gary wrote this for a couple of reasons—while the game is unabashed fantasy, Gary strove for a certain level of realism in his games and taxes are (sadly) a very real part of life. Indeed, Gary goes onto discuss how in medieval times, the average person suffered much higher levels of tax (proportionally) than we do now.

In game, it makes a certain amount of sense that greedy lords, scheming church officials and officious town officials would all want a piece of the PCs’ wealth—after all they’ve just liberated from the dungeon more wealth than most people see in a lifetime!

I think the other reason he wrote this passage was to give his PCs another imperative to adventure. After all, one of the major reasons to adventure is to gain loot and if you lose it as quickly as you get it, you’ll need to get more pronto! 1st Edition didn’t really embrace the concept of magic shops and I suspect Gary was reacting to PCs with relatively vast amounts of wealth who had nothing to spend it on. (Of course, wise PCs saved for the fortress they would eventually establish once they reached name level or spent much of their wealth on their henchmen and hirelings’ wages.)

I cannot recall if taxes and suchlike got much coverage in 2nd Edition, but by 3rd edition they were well and truly a thing of the past. Thinking about it, though, I think that’s a shame as taxes—and the people that collect them—are part of a living, breathing campaign world. While I wouldn’t want to set taxes at a level that impacted the players’ enjoyment, I nevertheless think they could be a fun part of the game: chaotic PCs are going to try and avoid them—gaining a sense of satisfaction when they succeed—while lawful characters will no doubt be delighted to pay because the various authorities receiving these taxes will look kindly upon those paying taxes and may even be a source of future assistance or adventure.

As an aside, we often joked how in Red Hodges campaign, we ended up working for powerful clients for no pay except we got to keep what we find. (Although taxes never really came up). Coincidentally, Red Hodges often runs us through old classic modules of yesteryear. It would be fascinating to know if the designers assumed PCs were normally taxed on their ill-gotten gains.

What Do You Think?

Do you use taxes, tolls and more in your campaign? Is this too much realistic details for you? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

22 thoughts on “Gygax On…Duties, Excises, Fees, Tariffs, Taxes, Tithes and Tolls”

  1. Lew Pulsipher did a very good article in Dragon #74 outlining all the ways to separate a player from his gold and I used some of them, upkeep, weapon repair etc. There’s a similar article in Imagine #17 that essentially adopts the Runequest approach – money can be used for training in an extra class / skill other than your ‘base class’.

    The latter idea has been superseded by modern design, but at the time – 1984! -, it was revolutionary to me, at least.

    I also have never place a ‘magic shop’ in any of my campaigns!

  2. There’s an interesting line in the DM’s Guide that I wasn’t aware of until recently. 100gp/level is assessed to the characters for various living expenses. I would assume that includes taxes, although Gygax did write about taxes separately.

    The point was not to simply take all the stuff the characters found, but to give an impetus to the characters to go out and adventure more. They live high, spend freely, eat well . . . when they have money. Like many characters in the stories found in Appendix N (Conan, Fafhrd/Grey Mouser, Cudgel), they frequently found themselves out of money, ready to pounce on any opportunity that came by.

    So I don’t use taxes in a realistic manner, but the tax-man is ever-present. Yes, he’s hated, and yes the players try to avoid him. But that in itself is a bit of an adventure.

  3. Instead of worrying about calculating taxes, tithes, etc, I determine living expenses randomly per week. Players must pay 1d10*100 gold pieces per week to account for all expenses except for adventuring gear and hirelings/henchmen. If they don’t have enough to cover the upkeep, they are in debt to an individual or organization of the DM’s choosing.

    1. Traditionally soldiers would get a few silver coins per day. Competent ones might end up in the teens of SPs per day. Aka from about 0.3 gp to 1.6 gp. For a week, 2.1 gp to 11.2 gp.

      So taxing your players an average of 550 gp per week would bankroll an army of about 100 mixed troop types.

      That’s a LOT of expense….

  4. I used taxes in one of my campaigns. Set in the City of Greyhawk, the pcs were plundering Castle Greyhawk. They made it abundantly clear to all that huge sums of treasure could be gained adventuring. People from all walks of life quit their jobs, bought weapons, and headed off to the ruins. The pcs found lines at the entrances to the towers. The influx of adventurers caused prices for adventuring gear to skyrocket, the city instituted treasure taxation to cover the added cost of extra patrols along the road to the ruins as well as city gates that had to deal with more traffic. Magic items were taxed the heaviest since many were considered weapons of mass destruction.

    1. After a particularly good haul, the party went back to their small town that was the base of their operations and set about spending lavishly to upgrade their equipment. Needless to say that once they spent a certain percentage of their funds in town they became quite popular! Roustabouts and beggars took interest, tax men and politicians did as merchants, legitimate and other “legitimate” business organizations. They could not walk through town without a parade of interested people willing to help them spend their fortune. They ended up leaving in quite a hurry and tossed a few bags of coins in their wake as a distraction to hasten their get away by lightening the load. Obviously they realized that they were “big boys” and needed to find a “big boy town” for their new base of operations. Shame that they didn’t get back to the town a few months later. Talk of wealth really brought a lot of immigrants to the town, doubling their population, which had a whole new set of implications (especially when the wealth source left town and the locals became inspired to become adventurers-whether they were trained or not- and made quite a lot of trouble for the local countryside). Regional politics became increasingly interested and concerned. It’s all a good ripple effect. Spend your loot wisely and in smaller transactions and more locations, and barter for equipment upgrades with local merchants by trading used, and now famous equipment, for something a little better (plus a boot). Discretion is the better part of vending.

  5. Excellent article. This makes complete sense. Why wouldn’t a local Noble, Lord, or King want a large portion of anything found within their lands? Also, this gives the party incentive to be tight-lipped about their business.

  6. Taxes live in my games even though I do add a variety of avenues for buying magic items. I use them for the obvious: separate gold from adventurer.

    The other reason is because there are some bad guys that live in castles.

    A great way to illustrate corruption and greed in a campaign is through heavy taxation. I don’t just use taxes either. A church can be corrupted leading to mandatory tithes. You don’t pay, suffer the deity’s wrath.

    PCs should see tax collectors on the road. Public shakedowns are a nice urban encounter. A bridge warded by a sanctioned wizard demanding exorbitant tolls. All of these help the players understand that the people in charge are not OK.

  7. I love to use taxes in my WFRP games. Taxes, tariffs, fines and fees are something addressed in the Core rulebook, WFRP Compendium, arms and armour book, and several other places. The recurring taxes range from place to place, but are usually 10%-15% of the PCs “income” (based on career/class), and are usually collected twice per year.

    Fees are something like 5 gold to carry a weapon inside a city, 3 pennies to cross a bridge, 10% (or more) of earnings to the local guild when plying any trade (miner, fisherman, merchant…). Fines of course would be if you commit a low level crime, bribes, or not paying your guild to get a licence to trade. All these are enforced by local bailiffs, constables, tax collectors, guilds, etc., who have long arms and longer memories.

    To hammer all this home, I use fantasy coins, gold painted rocks, glass jewels, and other items to represent the PC’s wealth… whenever something comes up; from a night at the local tavern, healing after that bar fight, or just your tax duties, the PCs find themselves digging into their literal pouches and saying “good-by” to their loot. They become astutely aware of their expenditures, and the strive to be cost effective AND look for ways to legitimately earn more.

    This, I’ve found, is a nice (and modest) way to make the soul-crushing poverty inherent in the game something they can overcome. Besides, when they earn those coins (rocks, bits of glass, etc.) back… that jingle in their pouches makes it all worthwhile. 🙂

  8. I do use taxes, and bandits, and cutpurses, and hirelings (having spells cast for you is a very expensive endeavour). I recently had a 1st level PC acquire Find Familiar on a scroll. He desperately wanted to use it. Mind you, I am playing 2nd Edition AD&D, which is (I believe) the best version of D&D around. Actually, I think 1st and 2nd Edition are equally as important and interesting, but I wish 1st Edition had 2nd’s organization. Anyway, he wanted to cast Find Familiar, but the wizard realized he needed 1,ooo gp worth of exotic incense to do it. Being in a far flung part of the country in a time of imminent war makes gaining access to those herbs difficult. I like this because if the player really wants things like this for his character, he will have to do one of two things: 1. Quest for the herbs, or 2. Obtain them illegally. Unintentionally, I provided them with the means to gain the herbs via a traveling tinker and seller (and obtainer) of curiosities and (very rarely magical) magic potions, tinctures, oils, salves, and objects. He can be hired by the PCs (for a price) to find information and objects (within the limits of his power) to find what they need, given time. It helps relieve them of money and adds some flavour and danger. This character has a cousin in another village that runs an inn. Anything the PCs pay for will be found there. I also introduce magic items of great power, with only one or two charges. The PCs can identify it via hired spell casters (also rare, and expensive) or casting identify themselves. After they use it and discover it no longer works, they will have to be okay with that, or go on an adventure to have it recharged. I also make making magic items very difficult. They require lots of special preparation and ingredients that must be quested for or obtained only after much expense. I love the 2nd Edition description of how to make magic item creation whimsical and adventurous. Makes the commitment to such creation a harrowing task that will require an entire party to accompany their wizard out into the world, into dark dungeons, just to find one ingredient to make a magic sword. Such expenses also make using said magic items a rare and carefully considered event. ‘Do we use it now to blow a hole through the wall of this trap? Or do we hang on to it, because the evil witch is just around the corner? But we really need to get out of here (looking around worriedly at the skeletons).’

  9. As you must have learned last week, they could never carry around all their money in backpacks.

    1. Yep. I also like to teach through experience. Once a bulging backpack rips, spilling its contents at inopportune times, players begin to think about the things they carry and the stowage capacity of their bags and packs.

  10. I once had a group gain a sizeable amount of riches out of some catacombs. They also picked up a curse. The cleric back in the town charged them about half of what they found. One of them wanted to kill the cleric after they were cured, but our paladin wouldn’t have it. It was a good role playing experience, but my players were not happy with me. I’m not liable to try something like it again.

    1. Taxes are important. If there aren’t taxes on the import/export of good then how can their be smugglers> If you don’t have smugglers you close off a lot of potential adventures.

  11. Taxes are a great way to make a campaign more political.

    Unequal taxation and unfair treatment caused PCs to rebel from a good but weak lord and ultimately overthrow the king.

    I’d love to play in your campaign, btw. Low treasure makes those rare rubies a godsend.

    I remember one character of mine in a high grit first level dungeon crawl be ecstatic when at the end of the adventure he got a suit of normal chainmail, fine deerskin gloves, and a nice cloak. No magic. Just proper attire.’

  12. I think it’s a great idea not for gameplay and it keeps the players wanting more. When players get to a high enough level and wealth, then the treasure has no real feeling of worth. It’s also a great play as it allows the DM to open other adventures. What happens when the local constables, government, or religious order starts extorting money from the players? This just as a simple example can allow for deeper adventures and role play elements

  13. We had a ‘hookers & blow’ tax. It was implemented after getting back to town and spending money on things the allowed us to find/get/see (remember, some towns and villages won’t have a magic and such, so you can’t get the all powerful sword or potion from there). Whether this was the end of the game for the day, or the middle of our day didn’t matter. We’d go out, complete the task at hand (part of a larger adventure), then back to town eventually. Sometimes it was months in game time between when we left and returned to our home town. When we left town to start the next task or whatever, the tax kicked in and other than a small percentage of the take we had nothing left. If we took in 1000 gold for example, after the tax was levied we might have 2 or 5 gold each left out of the whole thing. Those few coins went in to the character coin purse to spend as the character saw fit, or not at all.

    The end result was that we’d get back in to town after completing a major leg of the overall adventure or campaign, have enough cone to buy better armor or patch up what we had, get spell components, possibly a new bow or sword and such, and then *poof!* the money was gone (all at GM discretion). We had occasions where we’d get back to town, to our tavern/inn (the characters owned it, and it was a source of income while they were away adventuring), and essentially spend some of the millions in loot we amassed on gear, with the rest going to wild parties, expansion plans for the tavern (“needs a bigger kitchen! And stables!”), donations to stay in the good graces of the church (we used ressurection a lot), keep the mayor and such happy, and whatever other things you’d think a good-hearted mercenary would generally spend sudden wealth on. Then we’d leave town for the next thing, and be back to having just a little coin again. Kept the characters from suddenly getting so rich that they didn’t need to adventure anymore (which would effectively stop the game cold), or that they could literally buy themselves out of any situation. But we still got to spend some of it on gear and things to improve the party overall, and it felt good to occasionally be rich for awhile. The townsfolk liked us, the people running the town liked us, the other merchants and things liked us because we both brought in good loot and items that we’d sell off (that they could in turn sell to others; think of it as restocking the shelves), and in turn we spent a lot of that extra coin on the stuff they were selling (supplies, potions, arrows, etc. etc.). So everyone all around town made out for the better when we returned, and they liked it.

    At least that’s how the GM explained it, and no I wasn’t the GM for that game. But we all liked the idea so much that year later, we still use the hookers & blow excuse for why we suddenly have no money.

  14. Taxes and moneychanging… argh.

    It reminds me of a comment I think was made by Marc Miller about Traveller: (I paraphrase)
    “It is meant to be grand adventures in space, not grand adventures in accounting in space.”

    (Vaguely ironic given how many iterations of gearhead construction systems and planetary system creation that system has spawned, but the statement has merit nonetheless)

    Administrivia is just… painful. We don’t even worry about how much money the characters have. They essentially are assumed after an adventure to have a surplus of money and then, depending how long the hiatus is or what they might want to buy, they get to or get told to go earn some more. We also don’t track every purchase of a flagon of Dwarven beer or every trencher of medium rare beef roast. Even encumberance is sort of eyeballed.

    Not every PC will be spendthrift nor will some be easy-come, easy-go about their money.

    The thing that offends me about some of the commenters suggesting multi-hundred GP billings or 3 gp costs to cross a bridge… what sort of economy supports that? Look at what the average peasant farmer makes in a week, month or year, and then try to figure out how they can buy the gear in the game or the services. Soldiers might get paid an average of about 5 gp/week. That’d need to cover food, gear meaintenance, and anything else. And 3 gp for a bridge crossing? Not feasible.

    Also, historically, you’ll find nobles liked taxes, but then they balked at taxes to the King. And the Churches collected tithes, but wanted to keep them, not remit them to their local noble or the King. And the average person just wanted to survive.

    If you create a system where wealth flows to nobility or royalty, and your characters are great heroes who will be awarded titles or marry into them, then suddenly you’ll create a portion of higher level play where they also can demand a large income in taxes.

    If it’s under 2 gp (or 10 gp later at mid levels, or 50 gp at higher levels), we just assume you can buy it. If you want to buy a big purchase, it will depend a lot on how many other cool toys you have for game balance reasons. At no point does tracking every coin do anything but waste valuable game time.

    Also in the category of annoyance from taxes, tithes, etc: Annoyance for encumberance calculation, annoyance from worrying about spell components, and annoyance about upkeep costs (beyond taxes).

    Also annoying is XP to the single XP tracking – and doing so with gold and monsters. Milestone based XP awards is just a much more effective system and really, most things that happen involve the party, so any partitioning is already problematic.

    The thing players hate MOST: Thieves that steal key items and it feels like the PC never had a chance to stop them. These ALWAYS come across as punitive DM actions.

    Would I rather be the quarterback with his teammates making great plays happen or their team of accountants who figure out how much money they get, when, and how to invest it? Unless your class is Accountant, one hopes the former over the latter.

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