Taxation Representation: Money Sinks in RPGs

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One of the first times I ever thought about money the players have from a Gamemaster standpoint was after reading a blog entry by a Shadowrun poster at Dumpshock, Blackjack, in his Blackjack’s Guide to Bitter Gamemastering. I feel he is one of my inspirations to get into blogging, actually, with the other being Game Designer John Wick. Their no-nonsense attitudes of challenging the preconceptions we have about gaming, coming at things in ways beyond just a set of numbers on a character sheet, it really got me thinking.

Now, about this post by Blackjack. It was titled “Blackjack’s Law Of Having Money Without Spending It On Anything”

The law’s properties are simple: The more money you have for no reason, the more shit happens to you requiring that you spend it. Although ethically misguided, this is my favorite GM power. The runners are more than welcome to go on runs and stockpile new yen and never do anything with it. And I am more than welcome to give them many hints regarding what they should be doing with it in the form of destroyed vehicles and medical bills. Now please understand that if the runners somehow inform me, usually through good role playing and distribution of funds, that they do indeed have a goal in mind I don’t touch them. If the runners go out, come back, and sit on their butts drinking Soyweiser and upgrading their hotel reservations and pastry snacks they may have a problem.

This is brought up because something that had come up with some stuff that I was seeing on Twitter where people were talking about what to have players spend money on they were stockpiling. I was then reminded of the old Hackmaster books. Sure ,there’s the fact that the gold standard may not be used everywhere the same way, or even having money being their way of deciding wealth. Then we have a list of various types of fees and charges you can give your players:

  • Duties: Goods such as furs, lumber, tapestries brought into a country, province, town, or other governmental unit.
  • Excise: Membership fees, application costs, etc. for joining a profession or professional occupation.
  • Tariff or Surtax: Goods not covered by duties or additional taxes on certain items already covered by duties.
  • Taxes: Land, income, property, services, luxuries, existence, anything. Used to pay cost of roads, walls, gates, lamps, administration and municipal expenses. Typically charged against residence (not merely citizens, but anyone living there). Can also be levied against foreigners in general. Levied annually, monthly or whenever needed.
  • Fees: A catchall that can be levied whenever you want. Upon leaving or entering a walled city, visiting with the mayor, etc.
  • Tithe: Religious taxation on the followers of the religion, or the entire local populous if the church in question can get away with it.
  • Tolls: Payments for crossing a bridge, entering a gate, using a road, byway, waterway, ferry, etc. Based on number of individuals, mounts, pack animals, carts, goods and items transported.

An example of this can be seen here in this list of 30 examples of Taxes, Fines, Tariffs and Fees. You could also make it quite a hectic system with as many laws and bylaws as seen in Jupiter Ascending with this clip of their Bureaucracy.

To see exactly what the players may deal with on a daily basis, here is an example the way one town would operated taken from the Hackmaster Gamemaster’s Guide.

Hagleytown charges a 1.5% duty on all normal domestic goods brought into the place for sale – foodstuffs, cloth and hides, livestock, raw materials and manufactured goods. Foreigners pay this duty but at a double rate (3%). Luxury items and precious goods – wine, spirits, furs, worked or refined metals such copper, gold, etc., jewelry and the like pay a 6% tariff in addition to the duty if the items are to be sold. Entry fee into the town for citizens is 1 copper piece each head (man, demi-human, animal or beast) and wheel, 6 copper for non-citizens, unless they have papers bearing the seal of the Mayor or the High Priest of Luvia to allow free entry (such a seal can also provide immunity from duties and tariffs paid on personal goods and belongings falling under the above categories). Taxes are paid per head, annually at 1 copper for a peasant, 1 silver for a freeman, and 1 hard silver piece for a gentleman or noble. Most foreign residents are stopped frequently and asked for proof of payment and if this is not at hand, they must pay it again. Note that proof of payment is never offered at the time of payment; the smart character will ask for the necessary stone marker. In addition, a 12% sales tax is charged to all foreigners, although no service tax is levied on them. Religion is not regulated by the municipality, but any person seeking to gain service of the temple of Luvia must typically pledge to tithe. Finally several tolls are extended in order to gain access to the main route from the municipality – including to the route to the dungeon, of course (wherever you decide to place it).

Citizens of the town must pay a 5% tax on the value of their property in order to defray the costs of the place. This sum is levied annually or ad hoc in times of need. Foreigners can obtain citizenship after residence for one month and the payment of 12 gold pieces (plus many bribes). Make sure the annual property tax is levied shortly after your players gain citizenship.

Hagleytown does not encourage the use of foreign currency. In fact, they hate it. Merchants and other business people must pay a fine of 5% of the value of any foreign coins in their possession plus face confiscation of the coins, so merchants will typically never accept them. Upon entering the town non-residents are instructed to go to the money-changers in order to trade their foreign money for the copper, silver, gold, hard silver and platinum. Exchange rate is a mere 90%, so for 10 foreign platinum pieces, 9 domestic platinum are returned. Any non-resident with more than 100 silver in foreign coins in his possession is automatically fined 75% of their total value, unless he can prove that entry into the town was within two hours, and that he was on his way to the money-changers when stopped. Transactions involving gems are not uncommon, but a surtax of 12% is also levied against sale or exchange of precious stones or similar goods.

Now, to be extremely cruel to our players, let’s borrow the idea from the video game Beholder, like this trailer showing you being one of the secret police monitoring everything going on in the community. This adds blackmail, raids, the need to keep secret things secret and so forth. Imagine living in Nottingham when Robin Hood was about, likely almost a martial law state at times as the sheriff would do anything to catch this outlaw band. Perhaps it is a Papers Please style changing rules border community that must be navigated to even get into the city. But at least whatever you do, you’ll have some ideas of how to make your characters always have a drive to need more money for things.