The Pricing of Magic Items in ACKS
Why are magic items so expensive to make in ACKS, and why is it so hard to sell them? That's the topic of today's blog post.
When veterans of other fantasy games, particularly D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder, begin to play Adventurer Conqueror King System, almost all of them express shock at how expensive and time consuming it is to create magic items. A simple potion of healing, for instance, requires 500gp and 1 week to create. The exact same item in D&D 3.5 requires 50gp and 1 day. Magical research in ACKS is 10x as expensive!
After noting the expense of magic items, players usually begin to scheme about selling magic items. They presume that, since magic items are expensive to create, they must be quite valuable to everyone, and therefore command a high sale price on the open market. This betrays a misunderstanding of "cost" and "value" which will be further elaborated below.
Why Magic Items Must Be Expensive
Before delving into economics, however, let's start by explaining *why* magic items are so expensive to create in ACKS. The high cost of magical research was a very deliberate decision, necessary to create a particular type of campaign setting.
First, ACKS aims at campaign settings wherein the majority of magic items are found as treasure while adventuring. If ACKS allowed magic items to be created cheaply, most magic items would be created on commission in town. A sword +1 wouldn't be something you find on an adventure - it would be something you bought in order to bring on an adventure.
Second, ACKS aims at campaign settings which approximate in tone, technology, and economics the historical world of Late Antiquity. Obviously, magic items were not cheaply available for sale in ancient Constantinople. Potions of growth were not issued to the Legions before battles in Gaul.
Third, ACKS aims at campaign settings in which pitched battles like Cannae and Agincourt can occur. Cheaply available magic items make this an impossibility. If each mage's apprentice can be issued a cheaply-manufactured wand of fireballs, warfare will resemble the Somme 1916, not Agincourt.
Now, if you disagree with these design goals, then ACKS' magic item pricing is wrong. For example, if you want magic-as-technology, like in Eberron, then ACKS' magical research is mispriced. If you want your setting's fantasy battles to feel like 21st century special forces engagements, with warriors in invisiblity cloaks guiding in aerial golems carrying wands of fireballs to destroy orc insurgents, then ACKS' magical research is mispriced. But then there are already games that are quite good at simulating such settings, whereas ACKS is an overall suboptimal choice for that brand of fantasy.
On the other hand, if you're tired of having to justify why all your world's cities aren't lit by continual light spells, then ACKS is the right choice.
Why The Expense of Magic Items Makes Them Unviable as Goods
Given that magic items in ACKS are expensive to create, why aren't they valuable economic goods? The reason lies in the often-misunderstood differential between cost and value. Cost is what it requires to produce a good. Value is what someone is willing to pay for the good. As an example, let's say that I'm an attorney who earns $100 per hour. Let's say that instead of doing client work, I decided to spend 8 hours sketching a drawing of my office. Being an attorney and not an artist, my drawing is not very good. Yet its economic cost to produce was the loss of 8 hours of my time, e.g. (8 x $100) $800.
Like my hypothetical office sketch, magic items in ACKS cost more than their value. Consider the humble +1 sword, which requires 5,000gp and one month to create. In the hands of a hireling, the difference between wielding a sword, and wielding a +1 sword, is identical to the difference between being a normal man (Attack throw 11, damage by weapon) and being a 1st level fighter (attack throw 10, damage by weapon +1).
The cost to buy a 0th level slave-soldier in ACKS is 415gp. The cost to buy a 1st level slave soldier in ACKS is 830gp, for a net difference of 415gp. An overlord might be willing to pay 415gp for a sword +1, the difference between the cost of a 0th level slave-soldier and a 1st level slave-soldier, but he wouldn't be willing to pay 5000gp. For that price he could have 6 more 1st level slave-soldiers!
Why, then, might a sword +1 ever be created? Only a few reasons would justify its production:
1. Conspicuous consumption. A lord might commission a magic sword in order to show off his wealth. Such a sword would almost certainly be decorated lavishly and bear his house sigil and other markings.
2. Need to fight enchanted monsters. An adventurer facing, e.g., undead might need a magical weapon in order to harm them.
3. Performance at any price. A fighter of sufficient means, taking extreme personal risk, might be willing to pay virtually any price for an additional edge.
Now, consider the sword +1 extracted from a dungeon. It is of uncertain purview and ownership history. While finely decorated, it is unlikely to have precisely the decorations that a lord would seek to expend resources on. A lord might buy such an item as a curio -- "Ah, yes, Fritz, this is that blade that was found in the Ruins of Zahar! Charming work, what?" -- but he would pay much less than he'd pay for a commissioned item of his choice.
Other adventurers might buy the sword - if they don't have one of their own, and if they have spare cash, and if they trust their rivals enough to do business with them. This is a fairly small market, and an unefficient one. The likelihood of another adventurer of around the same level being in the same area and needing the specific item is low.
Finally, a mage's guild or other broker might buy the item at a steep discount, hoping to re-sell it later when there is an urgent need for it. Perhaps the mage's guild recognizes that the ancient sword belongs to a particular, distant noble house that would pay for it. They might buy it from the adventurers at a deep discount, absorb the cost of identification, authenticizing, and transport, and then sell it at a mark-up.
But in all of these cases, no one is buying the magic item because of the value of its bonus, per se.
The Industrial Revolution Will Not Be Magickified
It's worth remembering that the ancient engineer Hero of Alexandria invented the steam engine two thousand years before the industrial revolution. The engine was considered to have no practical use. Slave labor was so abundant in the ancient world that there was no economic need to industrialize - why build machines when human labor is cheap and plentiful? A steam engine might be a fascinating toy for a conqueror, but it would never become a capital good in the age of Rome. Magic items in ACKS fill the same niche. They are simply too expensive to create to be effective in changing their world.
This does raise the question of "where did the magic items in the dungeons come from"? The answer will, of course, depend on the Judge's campaign setting, but in general ACKS assumes that conditions were different in earlier days. Many campaign settings will assume that magic was stronger "in the old days" (a common trope seen in A Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Conan, The First Law, and more) and thus magic items were cost-effective to make. Another assumption might be that long ago there was an industrio-magic revolution, with mass production techniques. It may be that the ancient items were created by the gods. Or perhaps the items are simply detritus of generations of adventurers. Whatever the case, it's not happening anymore.
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