Game Design Lineages
Playing with Money (2): Space Trading

Playing with Money (1): The Adventurer Shop

Dragon Quest ShopIf you’re anything like me, you've spent a rather disturbing amount of your life in videogame shops, making purchasing decisions or selling the piles of weapons looted from the corpses of your imaginary enemies. This three-part serial traces game design lineages for videogame money and shops, focussing on the key titles that established shopping as a central feature in contemporary videogame play.

The two key lineages in the early days of videogames are the arcade games and the descendants of TSR’s hugely influential Dungeons & Dragons. The player practices of the arcade, however, being based around fast-paced play that ended suddenly to encourage further coin drops, rarely involved shopping – although Atari’s 1986 top-down racer Super Sprint is a notable exception. Tracing the lineages of money and shops in games always suffers from the general problem that the imaginative practices of money are something we are all embedded within every day, and thus game shops could appear anywhere, in any kind of game, with no clear influence of a preceding game. Nonetheless, even with game money and shops, the conservation of player practices remains the norm, even if our everyday money is not considered a game (which could certainly be argued: we are required, after all, to imagine the value of objects that have no value apart from what we collectively imagine).

A game design lineage is a historical tracing of an element within games that shows both the conservation of player practices (which give us the patterns that become labelled as genres) and the hallmarks of creator vision, which subverts those player practices to create variations on the established patterns, often conditioned by the material constraints applying to games at the time of their creation. These lineages can spread beyond games: plenty of book and film influences create imaginative patterns that are then sustained in the fictional worlds of games – from the utter dependence of Halo: Combat Evolved upon James Cameron’s Aliens to the massive debt Dungeons & Dragons owes to Tolkien, Moorcock, and the other twentieth century fantasy writers.

However, the Adventurer Shop seems to be purely the invention of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The preceding rules, Chainmail, designed by Jeff Perrin and given a fantasy supplement by Gygax, were purely a wargame – and this martial theme carried over into D&D’s preoccupation with ethnically cleansing goblins, kobolds and such from underground lairs for money and experience. What the monsters did with the coins they were hoarding is never made entirely clear, and no D&D module has a weapon shop purely for the enemies (which, logically, would be an excellent place for belligerent players to attack, since it would hold both money and weaponry). Adventurer shops, however, are present from the beginning, most notably in the scenario that shipped with boxed versions of the game from 1979, Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, which already shows the division of the game world into a village with shops (the keep), a wilderness (the overworld in CRPGs), and a dungeon (the Caves of the Unknown).

In addition to the Adventurer Shop, D&D also creates a vast range of coins to give out as loot. While the Gold Piece (or GP) is presented as the standard currency, treasure tables for the original tabletop role-playing game specified rewards in Copper Pieces, Silver Pieces, Electrum Pieces, and at the top of the scale Platinum Pieces. This final currency eventually got a starring role as currency in 1999’s pioneering (and rough around the edges) MMORPG EverQuest, although historically platinum currency was generally worth less than silver (when the Spanish invaded South America and found it in use there, it was largely considered a nuisance as it got in the way of their obsessive search for gold). Mostly, these different currencies merely tied players up in conversions into Gold Pieces, although in campaigns where encumbrance was enforced (mostly in the later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules) it also led to incidents of ‘treasure dumping’, as players discarded that pile of Silver Pieces they had pilfered to make room for better coins they found later. Regardless of what was found out in the dungeons, shopping prices remained set in Gold Pieces, which remains the primary currency in Dungeons & Dragons even now. 

While it is Tolkien’s Moria that gives D&D its dungeon template, the act of shopping never directly appears in the stories of his legendarium, and neither does it appear in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, although Fritz Leiber does have a shop of magical treasures in the 1963 Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser short story, Bazaar of the Bizarre. Even this case, however, doesn’t parallel the Adventurer Shop concept, since it is more a source of adventure than a means of supplying the expedition. Horses and supplies do feature in stories by Moorcock and Tolkien, especially in The Hobbit where the company of dwarves never manage to hold onto their food and ponies for more than a few pages, but buying weaponry, wooden poles, and near-endless yards of rope is not a part of any fantasy story prior to D&D’s publication, and no shopkeeper gets even one line of dialogue outside of Leiber. Even in D&D, the shop was mostly elided into backstory – part of kitting out ‘heroes’ (I use this term reluctantly in this case) with weapons and armour before setting off on the next cash-earning pogrom.

When early commercial computer role-playing games come onto the market in 1979-1980, the Adventurer Shop was part of the design because it was also part of D&D’s design, and the creators of these games were inspired by the practices of the tabletop game when putting their software together. Both 1979’s Akalabeth and its 1981 successor Ultima have a shop for buying food and weapons, with Ultima splitting up the full list of items for sale such that each shop has half of the total items on offer. 1980’s Wizardry goes as far to give its shop a name – Boltoc’s Trading Post – and adds to buying and selling the capacity to identify magical items and remove curses. In all these cases the player practices of D&D are conserved, with only minor tweaks. The ambiguous qualities of magical items, for instance, was a part of D&D’s original play, and paying someone to identify items (since they could be cursed...) is a simple twist on this, which also has a role in Rogue, from the same year of release as Wizardry.

In all these games, including D&D, the shop is rapidly superseded in practical terms by the magical treasure looted from the poor unfortunate denizens of the depths. Getting better weapons through accumulating money is not part of the Western RPG lineage at all. It is when early CRPGs like Ultima and Wizardry spread their player practices to Japan (which had almost no experience of D&D) that we get the idea of later shops holding better weapons. Both Dragon Quest in 1986 and Final Fantasy in 1987 – the latter inheriting Wizardry’s D&D-style multi-character parties, the former copying Ultima’s lone adventurer – have a series of shops, each offering better armaments and armour than the last. This concept, along with the episodic, chapter-based storytelling that facilitate it, became foundational to the Japanese RPG lineage, because their creators were riffing off fantasy adventure stories for inspiration and not D&D’s imaginative practices of player agency, where letting the players seem to be in charge of what is happening was an important part of the appeal. (The cultural biases of Western individualism versus Eastern collectivism must surely be another factor here, however difficult it might be to adequately expose such influences in any tangible manner).

Thus videogames took a player practice that formed just a small, peripheral role in tabletop RPGs and transformed it into a central, structural conceit for the Japanese CRPG lineage. Equivalently, the Western CRPG created a variation of D&D’s practices where the player becomes, as former International Hobo stalwart Ernest Adams quipped, an “itinerant second-hand arms dealer” – since in the absence of encumbrance rules (largely not inherited from tabletops into CRPGs) looting and selling weaponry became more of an in-game business model than simply stealing the supply of coins monsters had been squirrelling away for their never-to-be-attained retirement. Partly this is a consequence of inheriting the treasure table design from Dungeons & Dragons, but accelerating the rate of play such that fighting is happening every minute rather than (say) every half hour of play – this produced so much treasure that players from the 70’s might have to consider almost all the Western CRPG games that followed a ‘Monty Haul’

It is worth remarking that the Adventurer Shop can only be an invention of the tabletop RPG, because the adventurer itself has its origins there, despite the evident and acknowledged influence of the aforementioned authors. Having developed from tabletop wargames, combat was baked into the player practices of role-playing games from the outset, but the move towards narrative meant playing until victory ceased to be the basis of game structure and became supplanted with the gradual accumulation of power, the first step of which was going to a shop to acquire weaponry. It is worth noting that in a historical Medieval, Bronze or Iron Age context, weapons were not sold as over-the-counter goods, but either made as required by a village blacksmith or produced in large numbers for a nobleman’s armory. It is back projecting our contemporary shopping practices into a simulacrum of such historical worlds that makes sense of the idea of killing monsters to take their money and buy weapons to kill yet more monsters. It is patent nonsense. Yet, at the same time, it is tremendously entertaining.

Next week: Space Trading

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