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A House is a House is a House!

Over at EnerlaNet a response to the Safety Rails vs Sandbox series of blogs was posted here. The article is overall something I wasn’t particularly inclined to say anything further to than what I’ve already said here. Yet one sentence in the EnerlaNet article leapt out at me as stunning, “when some player prefers a house over a magical item”.

Immediately I thought “What? You never make a player choose between those things. They aren’t remotely equivalent.” Which immediately prompted a series of tweets between myself and @EnerlaNet and a few others about the matter. One of the first things that became apparent was that there was an edition disconnect: EnerlaNet was referring to 3.XE rules and I was thinking 4E (and BECMI for unrelated reasons), the other was that we apparently fundamentally agreed. The two things were not equivalent.

Two particular points were raised that prompted this blog:

  • plays2much_DnD @ObsidianCrane Houses fall into different categories related to character wealth, depending on the exact details of the game it occurs in…
  • Dustin_00 @ObsidianCrane If the players sell the house to buy magic items, balance is lost. Be sure they can’t sell any large assets you give them.

First I agree with plays2much_DnD, houses and such do indeed fall into different categories related to character wealth depending on the exact details of the game they are occurring in. My initial response was very much geared around a very standard “adventure” model where having a house was essentially insignificant, instead of returning to the inn the characters could return home. In a sense having a home in such games is, in part, an extra motivation for players to “defend” their land from the “enemy”. It certainly isn’t something that is going to factor into the resolution of stories directly; having a house isn’t going to make you hit the goblins better even if it is what makes you want to hit the goblins. In less “typical” DnD adventures a house might well matter, it might be a measure of your standing in the community and provide leverage etc to grant you bonuses and such in dealing with some people, and maybe penalties when dealing with others (“oh you live there?”). In these sorts of games however traditional magic items like a +2 Viscous Weapon are likely less important than the house, so perhaps having it count as an item is not unreasonable. Even in circumstances where the house matters to the game in a direct sense though I still do not think I would be forcing a player to choose between a magic item and a house.

Then there is Dustin_00’s reasonable comment, what if they sell it after you give it to them? Well I guess the first thing is I don’t think a “house” is worth the hundreds or thousands of gold pieces that magic items are worth. I’m not thinking about a mansion or a castle, or even a wizard’s tower when I say “house”. I’m thinking of a typical dwelling such as the commoners of the setting live in, the sort of thing that 300gp (ie 4 horses) and some change is probably a fair exchange for, not the sort of dwelling you are spending 1000’s of gold on. In part this is a problem with “DnD Economy”: adventurer’s deal in magic items and things worth 1000’s or 100000’s of GP, but the common farmer is dealing with things that cost copper and silver pieces, and a few gold – under the Adventurer Economy a farmer could never buy a house. Under Farmer Economy adventurer’s are billionaires. Consider how much castles cost in the real world, and how that relates to the craziness of Adventurer Economy. The short version is that Epic level characters have the budgets of nations, not individuals. So this whole idea of the value of a house being worth magic items is something that I really hadn’t considered. But there is a solution to it, so fear of the players selling a house you give them isn’t something that you should be worried about.

What is a House Worth?

Before giving the players a house of their own (as against a house they can use that ultimately belongs to someone else like the King), you need to decide how much the house is worth. I would suggest that a simple house that commoners and such live in can be acquired by a party for less than 300gp, or just be granted in a character’s background if appropriate. This is the sort of house that a character might sell to “top up” their cash a little, but it isn’t going to get them more than a few potions in reality, and is certainly worth less than a warhorse (or 3rd level item).

Of course a “house” might be far more than that, and if it is starting to be something that characters are spending money on like a magic item, and something they could essentially sell for what it cost, then I think there is scope for treating the house like a magic item.

Sometimes a House is a Magic Item!

Consider the Fragrance of Authority (DDI required), it is worth 13000gp, that seems like a reasonable sum for a good house in a town, the sort of house that garners the owner political influence and makes them known about town and beyond. Instead of the item taking the form of the Fragrance it takes the form of the house and works by the character invoking the name of their house to gain the benefit of the item! But wait, a 13000gp house could be sold to get a level 12 or lower magic item if you let the PCs sell it for full value. Well the answer to this is that “if you sell it in a hurry, you get 20%, if you take a long time to sell it you can get full value”. Now the “long time” will depend on how quickly your characters are leveling, if they are leveling relatively quickly in your game world’s time they might well reach level 17 where the 13000GP is only 20% of the value of their current level magic items, so the injection of cash is going to be much less significant.

Sometimes it is Just a House

All of that said if the house is just a house, and it is only important from a role-play perspective the best solution is to tell the players up front that if they keep the house it will not impact on their magic item selection, but should they try to sell it for its full value they will loose that value from the treasure found. The reason for this is that the house is for story and role-play, while magic items are gained (largely) for a mechanical effect on the game.

An example of how this can work appears in the Pathfinder Adventure Path: Rise of the Runelords, where a character (actually happened to mine) can inherit a mansion, and an estate! (What does a gypsy need them for?) Now if the PCs wanted to sell the properties and turn them into cash that cash would come out of future cash awards, after all these are valuable properties. However if the PCs keep them, the houses are really little more than set dressing, a way of avoiding inns and such in limited locations, and a place for the DM to hang plot hooks off. In fact a major driving force for my character in that campaign right now is getting rid of the hold others have over the properties so she can use them how she wants, some of those things will just cost gold, some will further (well they have so far) the plot of the module. Spending the incidental gold she gets as she levels is something I’m entirely happy to have her do to gain the properties as hers and then further improve them how she wants. Now strictly speaking that is costing me a Magic Item, but as long as I keep parity with the party for the “big 3″ of Weapon, Armor, and Neck slots in 4E the character will work just fine. Sure I give up some wondrous items for a mansion and estate, but sometimes the role play says that a mansion and estate is more important than Golden Lion (DDI Required).

4E Balance Makes It Easier

This is actually where the disconnect in systems is a problem. In 4E to keep game balance the PCs really only need a level appropriate weapon, armor, and neck slot items for them to function on par with each other. All the other item slots are largely optional excepting certain specific builds and items. In older editions of DnD there items needed came from all over the place and had widely different effects. Consider if the choice in any pre-4E edition for your fighter was Gauntlets of Ogre Power or a House you would likely have been unwise to choose the house. In 4E the house is a solid bet, because the 4E Gauntlets of Ogre power are not going to make or break the character one way or the other, both choices are more thematic than mechanically needed. This makes it far easier to “have a house” in 4E.

Conclusion

Now because I’ve waffled for long enough, I’ll just wrap up buy saying that I remain certain that PCs shouldn’t be trading magic items in to get a common dwelling like a basic house. A house should be readily available to them, either owning one before they start adventuring, or easily getting one as part of a reward for doing an adventure without ever impacting their “expected wealth”. Further even large dwellings can be granted to PCs should such dwellings be part of the plot or utterly irrelevant to the plot. However if the PCs are going to be gaining some tangible benefit from the dwelling (other than a place to sleep and store their stuff) it is not unreasonable to count it as an item, or to use up the party’s “extra” gold to pay for it, as long as the party is not denied access to the critical 3 item groups in 4E of an appropriate level in doing so (ie weapon, armor and neck).

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