How to Run Wealthy & Magical Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns
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What’s the point of playing a low magic and low wealth campaign? That’s the everyday life we all live and are playing D&D to escape from, right?!
This is a personal Double Bladed War Axe of mine that I want to grind. I hate low magic and low wealth campaigns and I think, given the choice, most players would prefer tons of magic items and lots of gold. Hopefully I can put DM fears to rest and help you run high magic and rich campaigns.
I get it though. From a DMs / GMs / Narrator’s perspective, it’s MUCH EASIER to run low magic and low wealth campaigns. But I really want to challenge you to break out of that mindset and really open up this fantasy world for your players to actually be A FANTASY.
This is especially true if you are running a Ptolus campaign. This will not be entirely about Ptolus, but the City by the Spire is certainly meant to be a high magic and high wealth campaign. Thus, I’ll be addressing some aspects of that here since I focus a lot on Ptolus and that’s where I run my game. BUT, if you don’t do anything in Ptolus, that’s totally fine, everything to follow will still be relevant to you.
Fifth Edition (5E) D&D completely changed the way magic items work with the Attunement Mechanic. Third Edition, 3.5 and Pathfinder plan for characters to have magic items in the challenge rating math. First edition Dungeons & Dragons even gave out experience points for how much gold you got.
No matter what system you’re using, I still want to challenge you not to lean on the crutch of running a low magic and poor campaign. Will it make your job as a Narrator harder? Maybe. Will it make the game way more fun for your players? Absolutely!
Again, I reiterate, most of us live in a no magic and low wealth reality. We engage in role playing games because we want to escape reality and live in a fantasy world for a little bit. Let’s overcome any fears you might have about making your players’ characters glow with magic and fill bags of holding with countless gold coins.
Fears which lead to runing Low Magic & Low Wealth Campaigns?
- Too many powerful magic items will break the game
- High magic will make everything the characters face too easy
- Buying and selling magic items shouldn’t happen, right?!
- Too many magic items in the world will cheapen the existence of magic
- Lots of wealth will make everything too easy
- Too much wealth will make the Characters simply retire
Basically these are all the same fear, it will break the game and make everything too easy for the characters.
How to run a High Magic & High Wealth Campaign:
- You’re the Narrator. If things are too easy, simply make them harder.
- Having piles of gold doesn’t mean much when you’re in the middle of a fight.
- Having three +1 weapons also doesn’t help much, unless one gets destroyed. You only have 2 hands after all, well, depending on what race you’re playing! haha
- While realistically, if a real person had a Scrooge McDuck tower of gold, they wouldn’t likely put their life on the line regularly. BUT, this is a game, and those characters are controlled by your players who want to keep the game going. Tons of wealth isn’t going to make them want to stop.
- Bottom line. It won’t break the game.
Wealthy D&D Campaigns
Let’s talk about high wealth first, because I feel it’s the simplest to address. Having a dragon’s hoard in gold and gems does not automatically make your characters’ life easier. You cannot kill a monster with gold pieces. Actually… That’s an interesting idea… Ha. Moving on!
To paraphrase A Knight’s Tale: A gold piece is good for nothing. You can’t eat a gold piece. A gold piece can’t keep you warm.
As we already said, the character might think about retiring, but the player wants to keep going. So… What can mountains of wealth do for your PCs? They could buy +10 magic armor and weapons, limitless wish spells to bring all their stats to 30. They could hire mercenaries to do all the work for them. They could buy out the monarch and take over the entire kingdom!
Okay… So what?
I’m not trying to be flippant. Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen? All of those sound like amazing story arcs to me! Embrace the scary. Your characters do every day. Wink wink.
Let’s say you’re screaming at your screen right now, “I don’t want to do that!” No problem. You’re in control of everything in your world…
Don’t want them to have +10 magic items? Don’t make them available in the economy. Don’t want them to cast wish constantly? First, if they can’t cast it themselves then they have to find someone capable of, and willing to, cast it. That wizard probably doesn’t want gold, but wants the group to complete a quest. If they can cast it themselves then you’re running an epic campaign and they are probably already filthy rich. Haha. But even then, in some editions there are very specific material components which aren’t readily available. In others there is an XP cost. And in others you can burn out your ability to even cast the spell ever again.
The point is, you control the entire world. What they want to buy might not be available. Or that person might not want money. Now all that gold is useless.
What about hiring people to do everything for them?
First, adventures are clinically insane individuals and incredibly rare. Mercenaries are NOT going to want to go into dungeons and face dragons! Pay doesn’t matter if you’re dead.
Second, doing that means the PCs get way less XP. They won’t level up and the mercenaries crazy enough to help might surpass them or even turn on them. Your players want their characters to do the stuff. Plus, managing an army is a nightmare.
Maybe they buy an entire country? Cool! Again, this is a lot of work. Your players aren’t going to sit around the table and write out contacts for trade negotiations, or peace treaties, or listen to nobles complain about serfs not producing enough grain. They want to adventure. Fight. Explore.
That brings me to my next point. Find ways to drain their resources. I don’t mean take away what they’ve earned, I mean give them a way to spend it that’s fun! In Ptolus there is a restaurant where one can easily spend 1,000 gold in one night. Maybe your players want to buy a castle? Great! It costs a lot to pay staff, guards and a majordomo. My Ptolus players are all going to wind up with real estate… But more on that later.
My first attempt at running a filthy rich campaign was two paladin brothers. They were incredibly wealthy even at low levels. They had an entire retinue that traveled with them! They had wagons, servants, cooks, grooms, and more! It was a blast. And it provided tons of extra story opportunities because it wasn’t just two guys camping, it was dozens of people. Now, none of the people adventured with them. The players just thought it would be funny to never sharpen their own swords, have an assistant don their armor, and have professionally prepared meals rather than eat trail rations.
Create ways to drain your players’ wealth which they will find fun. Talk to them. Ask what would be entertaining to them to blow mountains of gold on!
This next one is rough and should be used very sparingly. One way to drain your players gold and other wealth is to steal it. Robbery is a constant threat to the wealthy. Why do you think everyone is going after dragons? If it’s well known your characters have huge sums of gold, you better bet criminals want to help relieve them of the burden. Again, don’t do this often, but it can certainly be a constant threat. And guess what that makes your PCs do? Spend more money on security measures to protect their wealth! Haha
Another form of robbery which is completely legal and seldom discussed in RPGs is TAXES! You think your players accumulating tons of gold won’t catch the eye of local lords and ladies? The monarchs and powers that be will want a cut. Or perhaps some favors instead of gold. Plot hooks!
To sum up, gold is basically useless unless someone wants it. You control the economy and what exists for purchase in it. Having a million gold pieces is pointless in a tiny town where the most expensive thing is a horse. Plus you can also mix it up! Wealth doesn’t necessarily mean countless gold pieces. Throw in art pieces and strange stuff. Throw in a solid gold statue that’s ten thousand pounds! Make items unique. Now you’ve got a whole adventure just moving the thing. Some of this wealth your players might not even want to sell. If you can’t think of weird art objects, just Google “random treasure generator.” I’ve put some links below to my favorites.
- donjon Treasure Generator: https://donjon.bin.sh/d20/treasure/
- Kassoon Treasure Generator: https://www.kassoon.com/dnd/5e/treasure-generator/
One fun thing I’ve done in my Ptolus game for a while was not treating a gold piece as JUST a gold piece. Just like the money you hold today, coinage has changed countless times throughout history. Coins were traditionally stamped with the Monarch’s face who was in power at that time. I even had some fun with certain gold coins being worth less than others, some being cursed, and some people refusing to accept old coins as payment until they was re smelted to match the modern mint. Which they had to pay to have done. Just some ideas.
That said, let your players be rich. Give them things to blow money on. Castles. Air ships. Extravagant parties. Significant others. Fancy clothes. And yes, magic items! Extremely powerful magic items are rare and not available on the open market. Those who do have them will want more than just gold. Even in Ptolus where the dreaming Apothecary exists to make custom magic items, they will want large sums of gold, long amounts of time to create them and potentially favors from the PCs in addition to coin.
In my Ptolus game Vogh & Talin built an entire three story shop. Had to buy all the materials. Bought a lyre of building. But your PCs could hire people. They bought furniture and decorations for the place. Plus they had to pay to clean out the basement dungeon which was there before.
Deacon the wizard is about to buy a wizard tower which will need lots of renovations.
Julia might be getting an abandoned mansion which will take lots of work.
Bharash will wind up with a castle, the Pythoness House from Ptolus, which will require fixing and furnishing.
All these places will take paid staff to maintain and have upkeep costs because the PCs will be off earning more gold!
Any stronghold will also require security and magical protection to keep out the ne’er-do-wells.
There are two great books which can help you with things like this. One is an old 3rd edition book called Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook which has very detailed instructions and costs on building a home base for your players. Then Matt Colville of MCDM’s Strongholds & Followers. One cool thing about this book is that your characters can get powers and benefits from having a stronghold. I’m using both these books in my Ptolus campaign.
In addition I’m also using the Stronghold and Followers Intelligence Organization rules for my DMPC turned NPC Belie. He is building a network of people to provide info an the goings on in the city. I want him to be like a Human Jaraxle. Organizations can be a lot of fun.
High Magic D&D Campaigns
Now, let’s move on to discussing high magic campaigns. The fear is the same, breaking the game. The fix is also mostly the same as wealth. You control the world. If your players do wind up with +5 everything like weapons, armor, stat increasing items, etcetera, you can just make the challenges harder.
Instead of 5 orcs, now it’s 20. Instead of one red dragon, it’s mommy, daddy and two babies.
More than likely what will happen is players will wind up with redundant items. Five +1 swords. Ten +1 chain shirts. So what? They can’t use all of them. Maybe they give them to their home base guards? Maybe they sell them? Great! Your players love loot. They want to level up. Let them. Don’t be afraid. Or gasp… What if the magic armor they sold had special markings and they later see it again worn by the foes they are facing?! Dum dum dum…
You can also mix up the magic items. Rather than a bunch of +1 swords, use a random weapon generator to get custom descriptions of every item. You could also have weapons which each have different properties. A +1 trident which gives the player a swim speed. A +1 longsword that grants fire resistance. This gives your players extra tools in their bag which means they will want to keep the items instead of just sell them, and it makes them feel special and prepared.
- Weapons (Sword only) Description Generator: https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/weapon-descriptions.php
- Weapon Description Generator: https://springhole.net/writing_roleplaying_randomators/fantastic-weapon.htm
Another book I love is the old 3.5 Weapons of Legacy. Three of my Ptolus campaign characters have weapons of legacy which get more powerful as they gain levels. This is a great way to have a player start with a low power weapon at the beginning and keep the same weapon as they gain power rather than always looking for the next highest bonus item.
Characters often wind up with iconic weapons, armor or magic items. See my other video about Fame and Infamy. These personally identifying items will be more valuable to your players, making them feel special, and making them less likely to always just want the next highest modifier. Everyone knows Vogh in my campaign by her twin Purple, Crystal Echo Blades. Everyone knows Talin by his reforged lion sword. Everyone knows Jaraxle by his feathered hat. Name the items like in the stories of old. Vogh’s swords are serenity and clamor. Talin’s is SolarSong. Drizzt carried Twinkle and Icingdeath until it was destroyed and then it was a whole quest for him to get Vidrinath. If you were like me, you even mourned the death of the blade like a beloved character died! The idea here is still a high magic setting, but making the items special and not just a +1 sword.
Here are two more good articles about unique and special feeling magic items:
Next, if your monsters have magic items in their possession, they should be using them! How much more painful is it when that bad guy is using the wand of fireballs against the party when they know he’s literally using up their loot? Every time he chugs a potion of healing, that’s one less for them to get! Consumable items are a great way to give your bad guys magic which won’t permanently unbalance your characters’ power.
Even if they wind up with huge caches of magic items, they can only use so many and there is only so much of a market to sell them. If they do sell all of them see my previous points about managing lots of wealth. The point of this section though was to talk about running high magic campaigns and having fun with it.
Magic is one of the biggest components that makes D&D so… Well… Magical!
Remember that high magic doesn’t have to just mean your characters are laden down with magical arms and armor. Read through the dungeon master guide and the panoply of magic items from all the sources through the ages. There are so many cool wondrous items which aren’t even combat focused. Immovable rods. Deck of many things. Decanter of endless water. Handy haversacks and bags of holding. Most of this stuff just makes the characters’ lives easier and more interesting.
One of my favorite parts of the Ptolus campaign setting is how much magic is in the city. If high level wizards existed in the real world, you better bet there would be some amazing marvels. Let your imagination run wild. Spectral horse drawn carriages. Levitating transportation. Magical lights. Ooze filled sewers that eat everyone’s waste. Flying ships. This is one of my favorites because my first ever character built a flying viking longship. High Magic means the world is simply more exciting and fun and filled with fantasy. In Ptolus I’m constantly mentioning how a wizard is flying overhead, a flying ship, a floating carriage, or an NPC laden with gear. Let your imagination go crazy. Don’t hold back.
Thinking about spells. Whatever the characters have, the bad guys have and more. Their lairs should be protected from divinations and teleportations. Just because your characters get more magic doesn’t mean they can just walk through every encounter. There is always a bigger fish, or in our case, dragon! Plus, bad guys usually have a LOT longer to prepare than your PCs. Dragons, Liches, Elven Wizards, Vampires and more live for hundreds or thousands of years. They aren’t just sitting around, waiting for the characters, unprepared. They are constantly layering protections on their lairs. As your PCs should be doing…
Higher wealth and higher magic in your campaign can potentially make your job as DM a little harder, but I guarantee your players will love it. Give them lots of stuff. Make them use the stuff. Take some of the stuff away. Let them feel like heroes. That’s why we all play isn’t it?
Earlier in my DMing career I got really discouraged when my players just blew through encounters. I felt like they would get bored without being challenged. But it was the exact opposite! My players loved feeling like bad-out heroes mopping the floor with bad guys. Think about your favorite movies, the main characters blow through dozens, hundreds of minions without taking a scratch. If you have a few blow out encounters because your folks have a lot of resources, just smile and ratchet up the next one.
For today, I just want you to embrace that it will be okay to run a wealthy and powerful campaign. I guarantee your players will love it.
If you think I should share more specifics about how to handle higher wealth and high magic, let me know in the comments. Often when I watch other videos I’m left thinking, “Great, those are good ideas but I still need to know HOW to apply them.” There are so many systems out there it’s hard to be super specific, especially since I play Pathfinder 1st Edition and not D&D 5E. But if you ended this video saying, “You didn’t tell me anything!” Let me know and I’ll do a deeper dive with more specifics and tell you how I’ve done stuff in my campaign.
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Until next time, stay out of the Shadow of the Spire.