A/D&D isn’t a game about scraping a living through mundane paid employment, or attempting to run a small business. It shouldn’t even intrude on the play, in the way that scrabbling for a few coins might form part of a WFRP game, or mixing adventuring with management of the clan stead might be the yearly rhythm of a game of RuneQuest. But the standard economics of a game system paint a picture of the implied world, and in A/D&D’s case, the economics of the implied game world are not just a case of massive salaries for a few and grinding poverty for the majority, but something much stranger than that. In A/D&D, gold IS experience, and for a character to gain any kind of power he or she must accumulate (through robbery, mainly) treasure to the value of hundreds of thousands of times the average monthly wage. To get to second level, a Fighter must win, by trickery, combat, or stealth, more or less 2,000GP. If he or she had instead served as an average footman, it would take them over 2,000 months – just over 166 years – to save that amount of money. More, much more than that – as 1GP a month is what the 1e DMG suggests is the cost to the hiring character – including housing and feeding – not the gold received by the footman. Given that 4 weeks of standard rations are 12GP… er, whatever, we can assume that the footman is able to set aside far less than 1GP per month. So an adventurer who achieves anything has already accumulated, or had pass through their hands, a fantastic amount of wealth by comparison to the average person in the implied game world.
Which is why, in D&D, awarding XP for GP spent on carousing and conspicuous consumption are a great idea, but they do tie the game both to a very particular playstyle and idea of ‘the adventurer’. But the rewards of adventuring are also why the early levels of D&D should be a meatgrinder, eating up PCs nearly as fast as they are created. If the rewards for being a pretty mediocre adventurer are so high, only very real fear of death (and very real actual death) should keep anyone in the implied game world at a forge, working in a field, or even soldering in an army that might have to fight dragons and giants! Kill the 1%!
For the sandbox game that is on the horizon – I can see it, but it is no closer than it was yesterday – before I settled on WFRP’s colourful career system I had been toying with systems that have mechanically determined advancement. It does, after all, say to the players, ‘You go out and pursue your characters’ goals and the game will reward you. I’m not going to give you 200 EP just for turning up.’ But mechanically determined advancement rewards certain ways of playing, and if these don’t mesh with the goals of the PCs… well. Alternatively, I’ve always been taken by earlier BRP-based systems of experience checks against skills used [successfully], but later games built on the BRP engine seem to favour a number of player allocated improvement rolls per adventure. Maybe an option would be to play a game with no character [ability] advancement at all – such as Traveller – with character advancement entirely in terms of the achievement of goals, the accumulation of political, social, economic or military power, or simply reaching their next birthday.