Friday, June 8, 2012

"Money flows like water"

Last week I introduced a discussion of the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

In the first part of the discussion, I went over how Social Rank is measured and achieved. One of the means of increasing a character's social standing is wealth, so I want to delve into this a bit further.

Awhile back I posed a question on the Tabletop Roleplaying Open forum at in order to suss out a bit about player expectations from cape-and-sword roleplaying games. The first reply was so perfectly spot-on it's stayed with me for years now: "Money flows like water."
Money flows like water

The heroes can always rely on their wits and their swords. All other resources are transient. They may win fortunes with some ease, but lose them even more easily. The Musketeers gambling away the horses and saddles Buckingham gave them, Cyrano de Bergerac throwing away his life savings just because it was an impressive gesture, and so forth. This is partly a thing for the players to keep in mind, but as GM there's a responsibility as well: replenish what's freely spent, as appropriate.
With this excellent observation in mind, let's start by looking at sources of income.

In Flashing Blades, characters begin with a yearly allowance, randomly determined based on background, reflecting an inheritance or annuity, or perhaps a remittance of some sort; this may range from as low as fifty livres (silver coins) per year for a character with the Rogue background to up to 500 livres annually for a Nobleman. The Wealth Advantage may increase this by an additional 200 to 1500 livres each year; characters with the Title and Land Advantages also gain an bump to their annual allowances as well.

Most annual allowances don't cover a characters yearly expenses, however. Each month a character pays upkeep equal to three times his Social Rank in livres. A Nobleman with a starting Social Rank of 8 must therefore pay 288 £ per year in upkeep, but two-thirds of the time the starting allowance for Noblemen is just 300 £ or less. That leaves just a dozen silver pieces to pay for rapiers and daggers and pistols and horses and carriage rides and bottles of wine and bribes and mistresses. It also doesn't come close to covering taxes and tithes, which for that same nobleman come to another 135 £ per year, so unless one's running a debtor's prison sandbox, the yearly allowance won't cut it.

Careers provide additional income, but as careers elevate a character's Social Rank, the character's cost of living rises, and - as may be all-too-familiar to many gamers - the character's income struggles to keep pace. Take the career of a bureaucrat, for example. Annual pay doesn't approach cost of living, here defined as monthly upkeep for one year plus taxes and tithes.

Position AnnPay SocRank CoL
Minor Official 70 £ 5 258 £
Official of the Realm 100 £ 7 362 £
Magistrate 300 £ 10 525 £
Royal Official 300 £ 11 576 £
Court Minister 800 £ 13 858 £

This disparity between income and upkeep is no accident, of course. Like Traveller merchants and their starship mortgages, Flashing Blades uses personal finances as a means of motivating players and their characters to seek out adventure. In cape-and-sword stories, this is a familiar trope, which the game seeks to emulate. Alexandre Dumas devotes whole chapters to the exploits of the Musketeers to secure their kit for the campaign to La Rochelle, while Alatriste and Balboa turn to capturing slaves in Pirates of the Levant.

Beyond allowances, careers, and jobs, adventurers may seek to reduce their expenditures or increase their incomes by other means. For example, soldiers pay no taxes and priests pay no tithes, so military and ecclesiatical careers offer an appealing option to reduce a character's cost of living. Titled nobles pay only half-taxes, and bishops pay neither taxes nor tithes - again, a career in the Church can be lucrative.

Soldiers on campaign may come home with booty to add to their wealth (and may I add that any game with a booty table clearly deserves its props), and after mustering out may receive a retirement benefit and, at high ranks, a pension.

Corruption offers an opportunity to increase income as well, with some risk. Squeezing the peasants for additional taxes and pocketing the money, or embezzling from the crown, can pad a bureaucrat's fortune. Club treasurers, parish pastors, or the chancellors of bishops' curias can all borrow money to invest, keeping the interest and returning the principal at the end of the year.

That financial investment features so prominently in a cape-and-sword roleplaying game may seem out-of-place, but in fact it's consistent with the period and the historical romances of the genre, in particular Paul Féval's classic Le Bossu (The Hunchback), second in popularity only to The Three Musketeers in France. The riotous speculation surrounding the Mississippi bubble in the early eighteenth century figures in the plot of the story, and Flashing Blades' rules for bankers and investing are inspired by the novel.

The period of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries is the era of tulip mania and the South Sea bubble. It's also the time of the great trading companies like the VOC and the East India Company, and Flashing Blades opens up this avenue to adventurers as well, with rules to build ships and establish trading companies in the pirate supplement High Seas.

Finally, adventurers may take out a loan from a banker, an important option to consider if, for example, a position is available but the character fails the roll for promotion and has the option to purchase the position instead. Borrowing is ubiquitous and a key to maintaining the lifestyle of the wealthy, and adventurers need not be unduly penalized for carrying debt. Per the rules, loans are for one year, but most bankers should be willing to allow the debt to roll over as long as the interest is paid; to make it variable, roll 3D6 against the character's Social Rank to determine if the lender demands that the loan plus interest must be repaid in full at the end of the year.

A character carrying too much debt, however, may find it difficult to obtain additional loans. A character must be able to pay his total cost of living expenditures plus the interest on the loan out of his established sources of income - allowances and careers - to be considered eligible for a loan. A character may attempt to get around this by seeking out different lenders, or by turning to usurous moneylenders, of course.

However creative the players are in managing their characters' finances, however, the campaign should provide alternative sources of wealth for the adventurers to pursue. The published adventures for Flashing Blades provide numerous examples of rewards. Consider once again the 'adventure path,' An Ambassador's Tales.
Upon returning to Paris, the surviving player-characters will receive their final rewards from the Cardinal. First, all characters will be paid normally, as agreed. As [sic] expenses paid by the characters (such as the fee for the Channel passage) will be reimbursed. A special bonus of 200 to 400 Livres will be paid to each character if the secret list of Geheimebond spies is given to the Cardinal (the Gamemaster should gauge the exact amount of this bonus for each character depending upon his participation in the theft). In addition, any character who performed a particularly heroic deed (in the Gamemaster's estimation) to further one of the five missions, will receive a bonus of up to 500 Livres (the exact amount is to be determined by the Gamemaster).
Again like Traveller, Flashing Blades includes encounters with potential patrons and as noted under the rules on influence, services performed on behalf of someone of higher Social Rank should be accompanied by a gratuity commensurate with the task. Patrons may also be persuaded to provide monies for expenses as well by cagey adventurers, as in the example above. As Brad Ellison wrote in the post quoted above, it's on the referee to keep this tap open for the adventurers.

"The Rumormill," a collection of rumors in the adventure collection Parisian Adventures, provides examples of patronage and rewards.
One of the finest horses owned by the Viscount de Bouvard (an NPC first introduced in The Fencing Master) has been stolen. It is apparently valuable for breeding purposes, and the Viscount is offering 600 Livres to anyone who can find and return it. He is also offering 400 Livres for the head of the thief. (This rumor could lead the party off in search of the stolen horse; remember, the horse could've been taken anywhere - Germany, Italy, England, or even the New World - for breeding).
Chevalier du Vallier has fallen upon hard times, and is offering to sell his prized Small Country Estate in Bordeaux for only 9000 Livres. (Characters who are interested in buying land may wish to grab this offer while they can; other characters who have large property investments may also be interested in the estate; it is possible that the estate may be in bad disrepair).
Don't forget a good ol' fashioned treasure hunt. Indeed, if a referee doesn't want to deal with finances at all, simply give the adventurers a map to the treasure of Spada and let them set themselves up as counts if they like.

Well-heeled mistresses and suitors may also be sources of income for adventurers. Indeed, a character may choose lovers based on their pecuniary possibilities as readily as their other charms for this reason.

Last but not least, there are the wages of sin. Corruption has been addressed already, but don't forget blackmail, kidnapping, smuggling, highway robbery, piracy, gambling, cutting purses, extortion - all manner of criminal enterprises are open to less-principled swashbucklers. (This will get a blogpost all its own at some future date.)

As noted in the earlier post on social standing, characters in Flashing Blades may improve their Social Rank by accumulating fortunes, as measured by the value of the character's cash and property. Increasing Social Rank also means additional expenditures, not just in cost of living as described above, but in the trappings of status as well.

The ostentatious display of wealth is both historically appropriate and frequently featured in cape-and-sword romances. This was touched on earlier in posts on servants and staff for player characters. It also appears in property requirements for high-ranking nobles as well as in Flashing Blades adventures, such as "The Royal Hunt" in The Cardinal's Peril.
The characters must have at least one riding horse per player character,and a carriage (bought, borrowed, or rented) or they will be laughed at. Next, each character must have a tennis racquet and ball (at a cost of 10 Livres). Those who are not acquainted with the game might wish to take some lessons (for 5 Livres) so they won't look too silly on the courts of Fontainebleau. Each character should have a musket or arquebus for shooting and hunting. The party should have at least two falcons (at a cost of 60 Leach) for the falconry event, and a pack of six hunting dogs minumum (at a cost of 70 L each). All of the player-characters should wear fine dress.
Court life is alo expensive in other ways - characters on the hunting trip to Fontainebleau are also expected to pay a pourboire (baksheesh or bribe) "of 5 to 10 Livres daily" to the chief steward of the lodge or risk being left out of events.

As in the cautionary tale of Nicolas Fouquet, a certain amount of discretion in amassing of a fortune is in order. Wealth that vastly exceeds one's income - and in particular the amount of taxes and tithes paid - may attract the notice of royal magistrates and ministers.

The cape-and-sword endgame may feature rich characters accumulating vast wealth, but a more likely situation is a (sometimes uncertain) flow of money passing through the characters' fingers. This will become even more apparent later on with the discussion of building a clientele.

But first, among the rewards mentioned many times in Flashing Blades are Contacts and Favors, and their role in the endgame is up next.


  1. I think it is the question of how to make money available, particularly when the PCs won't seek out patrons or mistresses, attempt to do favors, find jobs, etc.

    They are happy to gamble, but none of us are happy with the way gambling is simulated FB.

    Several immediately looked to "cut expenses" by eliminating servants, etc. When I pointed out that this would result in lower social status they declared that was fine, "we can live cheaper that way".

    Upon reflection, I'm wondering if it's just the wrong game and the wrong group, rather like a disastrous AD&D game I tried to run years ago.

    They're all still interested in FB...maybe I should find out what about it intrigues them.

    1. It sounds like your players have a very different understanding of the cape-and-sword genre than you (or I) do.

      I'd be very interested in hearing what it is they expect from the campaign.

  2. I have always found the extravagant lifestyles and devil-may-care attitude toward money to be part of the appeal of this game. Especially as compared to treasure-hoarding D&D games. The constant need for income or debt forgiveness can motivate many an adventure. Perhaps a creditor will forgive a debt in exchange for the PCs performing some bold service. Didn't d'Artagnan get relieved of paying his rent that way?

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