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The Color of Money: Revised Wealth Rules

by Incanus [incanus@bigfoot.com]

When one creates a character following the order presented in GURPS Basic Set, one of the first details after the basic stats is the character's Wealth level. It's taken as either an advantage or a disadvantage -- called Poverty -- and determines the character's financial and material assets.

However, Wealth levels are different in one aspect: while other (dis)advantages are fairly static, rarely being altered after the character's creation, Wealth and Poverty are extremely dynamic, and one character can easily go from Dead Broke to Filthy Rich in course of one game session. That means that that character's Wealth level should change each time he earns or loses a significant amount of money, and each of that changes should be covered by an adequate change in the character's point value. Or, according to the rules, the GM should alter the character's point value each time his wealth changes -- requiring him to pay points when he earns money or stripping him of them when he loses it.

Of all the rules in GURPS Basic Set, these seem most unrealistic and even unbalancing, since they give too much long-term privileges to wealthy characters, while strongly restricting the poor ones. Fortunately -- as a friend of mine is fond of saying -- all rules are optional, so let's see what can be done on that account (pun not intended).

Problems with Current Wealth Rules

Per GURPS Basic Set (page B16), there are three details that are governed by Wealth:

  1. How much money you start with;
  2. how much money you earn per game month; and
  3. how much time you must spend earning your living.
This means that a wealthier character have a higher starting Wealth, and that he works less and is paid more. These rules are obviously designed to cover the real-world examples of "rich" and "poor" people, who have more or less money than an "average" person, but it has an obvious flaw: being an advantage or disadvantage, a Wealth level usually sticks to the character and hinders him from earning more, no matter how capable he is.

Another problem with Wealth is that it is on no way related to Status (except for 5-point discount on Status for high Wealth). Thus, it is theoretically possible to have a Status -4 character who works as a court diplomat just because he has Wealthy advantage and a few well-picked skills. Of course, it's GMs job not to allow such occurrences, but the rules still leave a lot to wish for.

It is particularly illogical to let the Wealth rule the income from jobs: why would one merchant earn significantly more than another of the same skill just because he has higher Wealth level? Of course, it is intended as a way to simplify things for the GM, pretty safely assuming that a Wealthier character will invest more of his resources into his business, but it still doesn't work that way with non-freelance jobs.

A friend of mine once played a Dead Broke interstellar character who somehow got hold of a starship. The ship was not quite new or of a fine quality, but he nevertheless earned a fine amount of cash when he sold it. Now, what is a GM to do? Should he insist that the character pays 75 points for rising from Dead Broke to Filthy Rich? Or should he arrange that the character loses all his money just because he was Dead Broke? Neither solution makes much sense, as well as the rule, presented in the sidebar on page B16, which forbids rich PCs to "provide bankrolls" for their Dead Broke friends, just because this would render the Poverty disadvantage meaningless.

This sidebar is an example of "changing the reality to fit the rules" syndrome, which should be avoided as much as possible, especially when there are solutions that are at the same time realistic and playable. But first, let's see how the wealth acts in real life.

The Principles of Wealth

First of all, it must be emphasized that wealth isn't something that is inborn and a person has it wherever she goes, regardless of what she wears or have with her -- like Empathy, Danger Sense or Night Vision -- nor is it something that can be learned through experience -- like Literacy or Combat Reflexes. It is somewhat closer to social advantages and disadvantages like Status, Legal Enforcement Powers, Dependants or Enemies, with one significant difference: while one can expect that his Status or Military Rank will last for at least some time, the primary purpose of wealth is to change, growing as one earns money and diminishing as one spends it.

Most of the time, spending money won't actually change a character's wealth: if you buy a horse, a house or a spaceship, you have just transferred the value of the money to the value of purchased item. When you buy consumable goods like food, fuel or ammunition, though, you lose their value as soon as you use them (although you usually get something else in return -- satiated hunger, a distance travelled, or dead enemies). There are other ways to spend your wealth, and I won't list them here -- most gamers could probably think of a few themselves.

There is also a number of ways you can get to an amount of money significant enough to grant you a level of Wealth. But, all considered, there are only three ways how can one get rich or poor:

  1. You were born with it, or inherited it later. This includes being a child of rich and/or noble parents, or to have a long lost uncle who suddenly dies and leaves all his fortune to you; also, you can inherit your parents' debts. In any case, this wasn't your fault or merit, and you can't do much about it - except, if poor, you can try to earn more (see next entry).

  2. You earned it or lost it on your own. This is the way how the majority of people gets money to pay their bills, and it includes regular and freelance jobs and various investments (even if you have a broker who invests the money for you -- it's still up to you to choose a good one), as well as some special cases of above (like when you can inherit your uncle's fortune only if you do no harm to any living creature, even a mouse). It's almost entirely dependant on you and your abilities, and follows a simple logic: if you're good, you earn money; if you're not, you lose it. Of course, reality is more complicated, but at the end it boils down to it.

  3. You got it by luck, either good or bad. Here you also don't have much influence, except for that old saying that "luck goes with the bold". Examples include winning at lottery or finding a chest full of gold coins in the attic of the old house you just rented, but also, to some extent, good old RPG adventuring and dungeon crawling.

All three ways can be combined in one person with no restrictions: a rich tycoon's daughter who earns a lot as an actress, or a bankrupt broker that loses at casino, or a wealthy self-made entrepreneur who regularly loses on horse races are all viable examples.

Let's now translate those three sources of wealth (or poverty) to GURPS terms:

  1. Advantage or disadvantage. When you inherit wealth, it is usually because you were born to a family with certain Status. If not you, probably have had the Heir advantage or something like that. It is not necessary to take any advantages if you inherit money -- it is up to you and how you spend it whether this will reflect on your Status and other advantages.

  2. Competency in a job, usually through a skill or group of skills. Jobs listed in GURPS Basic Set and other sourcebooks have well defined prerequisites and success rolls. The income you get from a job depends on two things: how good you are at it (i.e. your skill level) and how "classy" is the job itself -- the latter will heavily depend upon your Status.

  3. Mostly, GM's fiat. However, Luck or Unluckiness, and especially Serendipity, can have a say.

From all said above, it is clear that the rules in Basic Set don't fit into the reality. Status advantage or disadvantage should have much more influence both to the amount of starting wealth and to jobs open to the character, while the Wealth advantage and Poverty disadvantage, as they are written, are unnecessary.

The Revised Wealth Rules

Instead on a Wealth level, a character's money and other possessions are based on his Status. Each Status has a different starting wealth, which depends on the monthly cost of living for that Status (see p. B191). This can be modified using the Temporary Wealth rules (see p. CI18): for half the advantage or disadvantage cost of a given level of Wealth (including Very Wealthy, Filthy Rich and Multimillionaire), you can get its effects on your starting income only. This Wealth level, though, doesn't influence the cost of Status.

This tables list all the possible levels of starting wealth, depending on the monthly cost of living (MCL):

Starting Wealth Level Starting Wealth Point Cost
Dead Broke MCL x1/5* -12
Poor MCL -7
Struggling MCL x2,5 -5
Average MCL x5 0
Comfortable MCL x10 5
Wealthy MCL x25 10
Very Wealthy MCL x100 15
Filthy Rich MCL x500 25
Multimillionaire MCL x500 x10/lvl 25 +25/lvl

* GURPS Basic Set states that a Dead Broke character has "no job, no source of income, no money, and no property other than the clothes he is wearing" -- that last item is represented by this modifier.
For example, sir Lothar is a medieval (TL3) knight-errant (Status 2, monthly cost of living $800) who has taken a Vow of poverty (Struggling, modifier x2,5) and is wandering through the kingdom with nothing but his horse, weapons and armor (worth $2.000). On the other hand, Greg is a modern (TL7) San Francisco street beggar (Status -2, monthly cost of living $150) who is Comfortable (modifier x10) compared to his peers, and even has a small shack at the outskirts of the city (worth $1.500 together with his other possessions).

After the character creation, this Temporary Wealth level has no effect at all. The Status, though, is much more important regarding the jobs, as explained below. It is still possible to calculate a character's Wealth level at any time if needed: just add the value of all the character's possessions (don't forget real estate, vehicles, investments etc.) and divide that with the cost of living for his current Status.

I'd like to note here that the table on p. B191 either omits MCL figures for the lowest Status level, or just repeats one figure on the few lowest levels. Some of the sourcebooks do the same (e.g. GURPS Imperial Rome), while others don't (GURPS Cliffhngers) -- it's up to the GM to decide if any figures on the table should be changed (like I did in the above example: table on p. B191 lists no cost of living for a Modern Status -2).

Another element that has to be taken into consideration is that each Status should have a top limit of starting Wealth level; for example, it should not be possible to create a Multimillionaire street beggar -- if he had the money in the first place, why would he be begging? This limit will vary according to an individual campaign's circumstances, but it can be taken as a rule of thumb that (if we imagine Wealth as numerical levels, with Average as zero, Poverty as negative and Wealth as positive levels) a person can't begin with a Wealth which is more than two levels above his status -- e.g., an Average person can start as Wealthy at most. Someone with the Misery disadvantage can start with one level of Wealth above that limit.

Since it's much easier to beacome poor than rich (while retaining the Status), there is no lower limit for the Starting Wealth level.

There are several new advantages and disadvantages related to the above rules:

Fixed Property (10 points)

This advantage solves the problem that the average Starting Wealth isn't enough for a character to have a castle or a ranch, although his Status would not only allow, but in some cases require it.

A character with this advantage has, in addition to his regular Starting Wealth, up to ten times that amount tied in various properties such as land, buildings, investments etc. Possessions that can be directly used for adventuring -- such as a car or a carriage -- as well as those that can easily be converted to cash -- like rings, gems and other simple jewelry -- isn't considered property and should be purchased with the regular Starting Wealth.

There are two main drawbacks connected with the property: they are not easy convertible to hard cash, and they are subject to calamities such as natural elements, theft or war. Due to that definition, it can be argued that for instance some jewelry can be considered property, and it would be right -- it's pretty hard to just walk into a jeweller's store and sell the Koh-I-Noor or the British Crown Jewels, but you might be able to sell it if you acted smartly. As always, it's up to the GM to determine what can be considered property, and what should be purchased with starting cash.

If a property is lost or damaged in such a way that it loses value (e.g. a flooded land, or a war-torn castle), the cost of the advantage is appropriately reduced, by 1 point for each full 10% of reduction in property value. Sometimes a property may go up in value (e.g. if oil is discovered on the character's land), but the character can't take advantage of it until he pays for the advancement in points, at a rate of 1 point per an increase of 10% of the original value.

The property can be beneficial in the way that it provides income -- for example, a farm can provide substenance for a whole family, or a business investment can bring you a regular dividend. However, this income is in no way related to the Fixed Property advantage, and should be either purchased as a Regular Income (see below), or earned through work.

Regular Income (variable cost)

A character with this advantage receives a steady amount of money each month without having to do anything to earn it. That money can come from any number of sources: inheritance, alimony, lottery, royalties, monthly allowance, investments, social security help etc. The exact amount of the income should be determined; the cost of this advantage is 1 point per 10% of the value of monthly cost of living (as defined by the character's Status) received through it (round up). For example, a character with monthly cost of living of $200 and a Regular Income of $140 should have to pay 7 points for it.

This advantage assumes that the character receives the money in some way usually to a bank account or, in socie-ties with no banks, to a house address. What happens with the money if the character is unable to collect it will depend on the circumstances; in most cases especially in case of a bank account, or if the character has a reliable person that could collect for him the money will wait patiently to be used, although the GM has the final word (it can even ac-cumulate a small interest, if the GM feels generous).

It is possible that the Regular Income isn't fixed, but varies a bit each month; this is especially true if it comes from book royalties or investments given to a professional broker to handle. In that case, the base value is selected as a per-centage of the monthly cost of living, as described above, but it costs 5 points more. Each month, the actual value re-ceived is determined by rolling 2d-2 and multiplying the result with 10; this is additional percentage of MCL received that month. For example, our character with $200 MCL selects a base value of $100, which is 50% of his MCL; this month, he rolls a 6, meaning that his Regular Income this month is 110% his MCL, or $220.

It is possible that with a high Regular Income the character becomes able to live as if he was of a higher Status level, but he still has to pay the points difference to actually have higher Status. If a character insists in acting like he actually belongs to a higher social class, GM should consider giving him the Extravagance disadvantage (p. CI90).

Also, it should be remembered that the Regular Income is determined by the actual amount the character receives monthly (or the base value in case of the variable version), and not by its value relative to the monthly cost of living. This means that, if the character goes up in Status (and his MCL goes up accordingly), his Regular Income advantage will probably cost less character points; the GM is advised to use the difference to lower the cost of the next Status level. For example, our $200 MCL character wants to go up one Status level, which would cost him 5 points and increase his MCL to $400; his $140 Regular Income would in that case cost 4 points; using the 3 points of difference, the character would have to pay only 2 points for the higher Status.

Wealth Access (Varies)

This advantage is similar to Regular Income, but it works differently: instead of getting a fixed monthly amount of money, the character with this advantage has access to some source of money which belongs to someone else. However, this access is usually limited in some way, enabling the character to take only a stated amount each month (it's up to GM to decide if the character has access to all the amount at once, or there is a daily or weekly limit).

Unlike the Regular Income advantage, Wealth Access doesn't accumulate the money -- if the character doesn't use his monthly quota, he can't ask for more next month. A good example of this advantage is a teenager's allowance, or a spy's mission funds.

The cost of the advantage is related to the amount the character is allowed to take each month, which on the other hand depends on the character's monthly cost of living:

Amount Point Cost
Cost of living x1/2 5
Cost of living x1 10
Cost of living x5 15
Cost of living x10 25
Unlimited 50

Special Limitation: Illegal. This advantage can be obtained illegally, which means that the character doesn't have approval of the owner of the wealth he has access to. Good example is a hacker who breaks into a big bank's computers, transferring little amounts each month to his account, or a low-level salesman who steals a little from the cash register at the end of the day. The drawback is that the character has to roll vs. an appropriate skill or attribute (GM's choice) each time he draws the money, with failure indicating that his work is somehow noticed by the authorities; on a critical failure he is discovered and arrested. -50%.

Increased Cost of Living (Varies)

An opposite to the Regular Income advantage, this disadvantage increases the amount a character has to pay each month to maintain his Status. This increase can be due to various reasons, most notably various loans and debts, alimony, regular hospital expenses (either for himself or for his Dependents), educational expenses etc. The cost of the disadvantage depends on how much the cost of living is increased:

Cost of Living Point Cost
x1,5 -5
x2 -10
x3 -20
x5 -30

Even more is possible, but will usually hinder a character too much to be playable.

Jobs Rules, Revised

GURPS Basic Set (page B192) groups the jobs according to their Wealth levels. This revision suggests that, instead, jobs should be listed according to their "class", which consists of one or more Status levels that logically and historically go together. There are five job classes, which directly replace the five Wealth levels given in Basic Set:

Job Wealth Level Job Class
Poor Jobs Lowest Class Jobs
Struggling Jobs Low Class Jobs
Average Jobs Middle Class Jobs
Comfortable Jobs High Class Jobs
Wealthy Jobs Highest Class Jobs

There is another, somewhat more complicated way to convert jobs from Wealth Levels to Social Classes. It is not necessary to convert all the jobs in the table at once, though; the GM can do it as the need comes.

First, calculate the job's average income, according to the job table. If the income depends on some prerequisite, calculate it as if the prerequisite is just at the lowest required level (except for Status; see below), and the income for freelance jobs is calculated as if the success roll was made exactly. Second, the income is compared to the monlhy costs of living for the Statuses, and the job belongs to the same Class as the Status whose monthly cost is equal to or lower than the job's income. If the job lists a specific Status prerequisite, though, the job can't be of a lower class than the listed minimum Status.

For example, Master Artisan (see p. B194) would have an average income of $3.400, which makes it a High Class job (the first lower monthly cost of living in the table on page B191 is that of Status 4). Also, the Ruling Nobility job from GURPS Swashbucklers (which uses the same table to determine cost of living) has income of $3.000; however, since the minimum Status requirement is 5, this is considered a Highest Class job.

Each of the classes encompasses one or more Status levels as defined for the gameworld; here are three examples based on the tables given in GURPS Basic Set (page 191) and GURPS Space (page 37):

Class Fantasy/Medieval Modern Western Space
Lowest Class -4, -3 -2 -1
Low Class -2, -1 -1 0
Middle Class 0, 1 0, 1 0, 1
High Class 2 -- 4 2 -- 5 2 -- 5
Highest Class 5 -- 8 6 -- 7 6 -- 7

A character can only look for a job that belongs to the same class as himself, or one class above and below that. The rules to find a job are the same as described on page B192, with the Scarcity modifiers referring to the job's class relatively to the character's class (i.e. if a character looks for job of a class lower than his own, he rolls at -1).

Another element of jobs which is determined via Wealth levels is the amount of time spent at it each week. The primary flaw of the figures presented in Basic Set -- besides being based on Wealth levels, of course -- is that they revolve around a 40-hours working week. While this is the norm for the most of the twentieth century, in previous eras it was a lucky person who could afford to work only 8 hours a day, five days a week. In most cultures during the history, only one day in seven was reserved for rest and non-working activities (usually religious and communal), while on other days people worked as much as necessary -- usually from dawn till sunset.

Actually, how much time a job takes daily isn't related to the worker's wealth, or even Status. It depends on the job itself, and should be entered into the Jobs table. It also varies with era and tech level, but for some jobs this factor is minor: a twentieth-century farmer sometimes has to work almost as much as his medieval predecessor, depending on technology and manpower he can employ.

Since these possible variations in working hours are numerous, I won't go further into estimating various figures for various works. For simplicity we can assume that in modern (TL6+) western culture most jobs average to the 40-hours working week, while in earlier eras (TL3-5) assume an average six-day working week with ten to twelve working hours. You might also calculate the number of working hours per month to get one's hourly pay, which is most handy for temporary jobs -- either those taken by PCs or if there is a need for short-term hirelings.

Some characters might have special treatment on any work, but this is not limited to their wealth -- this could be so because of any number of reasons. Such characters should take a special advantage:

Privileged Worker (5, 10 or 15 points)

A character with this advantage is allowed to spend less time to work than required, while still being paid the same. The reason behind this privilege should be explained, and in accordance with the character's other characteristics: it could be because of a physical handicap, social status, personal (or Patron's) influence or wealth etc.

The point cost of the advantage depends on the working time reduction:

Reduction Factor Point Cost
x0,75 5
x0,5 10
x0,25 20

A Note on Status

These rules give much more importance to a character's Status than was intended in the GURPS Basic Set. Originally, the only effect of status was to grant a Reaction modifier and, in case of high Status, a significant default to Savoir-Faire skill. With the rules presented above, though, high-Status characters are provided with much more starting wealth, while the low-Status ones are even poorer than before. This implies a higher cost of a level of Status -- 10 points for high, -10 for low -- but there is also the case of monthly cost of living, which depends on Status.

Status is, actually, rarely much more than the ability to maintain a certain way of living. You don't have to be a successful businessman or a member of aristocracy to live like one, just if you can afford it. This means that a person can have any level of Status, as long as he can pay the monthly cost of living required for that level (although, in GURPS, he still has to pay the point value). On the other hand, a person who inherit millions doesn't have to take any high Status -- a miser can easily have mountains of money in his attic, while he lives like a pauper.

If the monthly cost of living is strictly applied (as it should be), the high Status includes almost as many restrictions as benefits, and the standard 5-point cost for a level is still appropriate here.

But, what if the character -- due to his newfound wealth, or any other reason -- effectively attains a higher Status, even though he didn't yet pay for it? A good example would be the situation from the movie "Wheel of Fortune", where Eddie Murphy's character gets from a street swindler to a wealthy broker literally overnight. In that case, he should be given a "Temporary Status", which costs no points but the GM can withdraw it whenever she sees fit (through roleplaying, of course). The character can still use the points earned in play to increase his Status, and when the Temporary Status is revoked he still doesn't fall back to his old Status. For example, an average person (Status 0) gets lucky and wins ten million dollars on lottery, which enables her to spend extravagantly, comparable to, say, Status 4. She is not stupid, though, and invests some of her fortune to various businesses, and when the disaster strikes she is not left with nothing -- instead, through her investments she have earned enough to live quite comfortably (Status 1).

Savoire-Faire and Status: While I agree that high Status generally grants one a head-start in knowing manners, I don't like the defaults it gives (see p. B18): use (IQ-3 + Status) instead.