For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. — John Maynard Keynes, Nation and Athenaeum (1930)
The sin of Avarice is a bit more complicated that the rest of the lot. We are all familiar with pride, envy, and lust. Even wrath, sloth and glutton, though they sound a bit archaic, are concepts we readily recognize. Avarice, on the other hand, is not a term we use much these days and so this sin actually requires a bit of definition. The root of the word is the Latin term avarus, which is the masculine form of an adjective that is generally translated as “greedy” or “covetous,” or “craving.” What it really refers to, in both its Classical Latin and Catholic usage, is an inordinate desire to gather and hoard riches and wealth.
Greed is a good, common synonym, but it doesn’t quite capture the particularly destructive nature of avarice, which also entails holding onto wealth and a strong connotation of miserliness. The sin isn’t just about gaining wealth, but also about keeping it locked up and hoarding it for one’s own satisfaction.
One way to think about avarice that has a nice connotation within fantasy role playing games in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular is to think of a dragon’s hoard. Dragons traditionally acquire great wealth and treasure, by conquest, tribute or as spoils from would be heroes. Yet, what do they actually do with all that gold and all those gems? For dragons, and for people who are prone to avarice, the acquisition of wealth is an end in and of itself. It is also a fantastic villainous trait for more human antagonists, and is the sin of Ebenezer Scrooge, Shylock, and Volpone.
What makes it a particularly dangerous and insidious sin is that it isn’t entirely bad. Yes, it’s true that when fully indulged, avarice locks away wealth and prevents it being used for the greater good or even for any good at all. Sure, it stifles trade and commerce; it prevents good works from getting done. Yet, at the same time and in moderation, a certain amount of precautionary hoarding and calculated holding of reserves — saving and investing for future contingencies — can also be a very good and practical thing.
In truth, avarice really needs to be considered in relation to its close associate and possible diametrical opposite, gluttony, the final sin and the subject of the next and last article in this series. They are — forgive the pun — two sides of the same coin. Avarice is generally understood as the sin of over acquisitiveness, what we now normally refer to as greed, a desire to acquire wealth for its own sake. Gluttony, on the other hand, is the prodigal sin, over-consumption, a squandering of resources. Avarice has generally been associated with money and Gluttony with food in early modern times, but what the two sins are really getting at is that we need a balance between the hoarder and the spendthrift. The destructive potential of either extreme has been a common theme in literature. The fourteenth century Middle English poem “Winner and Wastour” is a personal favorite, coming down somewhat on the side of the waster.
Okay, So Let’s Apply Avarice to Gaming
You’d think that GMs must be immune to avarice at the gaming table. After all, as the GM you have everything already. However, an odd form of avarice can develop if you refuse to share some of that imaginary loot with your players. An avaricious GM is one who is stingy with the loot, not for the sake of keeping the game in check, but just to be plain mean — a word which, by the way, is a synonym for miserly.
GM avarice seems to happen a lot, judging from anecdotal experience and according to a large number of campaign complaint threads I’ve observed on the Internet — which hardly constitutes credible proof, I’ll admit. It seems strange that GMs would be so reluctant to hand out loot to PCs even when they’ve clearly earned it, especially when that loot is imaginary and of inexhaustible supply.
Yet, the avaricious GM may not be totally without reason. I blame GM avarice on the “Monty Haul” meme in role playing games. See, no respectable GM wants to be seen as a “Monty.” The notion that the GM must be responsible and keep all the dangerous shiny stuff away from the players until they’ve really, truly earned it is ingrained in so much gaming advice that it has practically become a mandate. There’s a sense you’ll be mocked in the GM locker-room (wherever that is) if any of your players is waving around a magic sword at too early a level.
Now, it’s certainly true that overly generous GMs devalue the magic and wonder of their own games rather quickly, and nothing is more depressing than a game in which the players no longer have any real motivation to adventure and find new and more powerful goodies. It is also true that in the early days of gaming, at least for me and many of my contemporaries, there was quite a bit of “Monty Haul” mayhem from GMs who felt the need to keep upping the treasure each session in order to keep the motivation coming.
That said, I think the pendulum may have swung a bit too far the other way. In today’s age, GM seems just as likely to stand for “Greedy Miser.”
For most of us, D&D and many of the other fantasy role playing games we enjoy are a form of heroic fiction, and part of the heroic myth is the finding of treasure. Fabulous hoards and great riches are part of the genre and players should, at least occasionally, stumble on them—even if perhaps they don’t keep the stuff for long.
The real trick for a GM is this: Your campaign should strike a balance between the two extremes of avarice and gluttony. Harness these competing sins to motivate your players. They should want to acquire riches and wealth and they should be able to do so, but they must also have things to spend that wealth on so as to perpetuate the cycle and reinforce the motivational paradigm.
Put another way, the trick is not so much to avoid avarice as to use it: Avarice in a GM is a potential problem, but avarice in a player is a potential asset.
Acquiring loot is perhaps the most basic goal of the characters in most fantasy games. There can be many other motivating factors, but the desire for treasure or resources of some kind is often entangled up with them. Certainly, it’s true that a good GM helps players find personal and task-related goals for their characters. Not only do motivations like revenge, love, and curiosity personalize the PC, they reduce the odds that players lose interest once they get treasure. Games that shift the focus away from the acquisition of gold also tend to make more of an impression on players, as campaigns take on a new sense of urgency when the goal is personal and specific. It’s also true that players with resources are more surprising and unpredictable than those without: When they’re loaded with gold and magic, you need to be more prepared than ever for them to find some clever way around your next encounter. But those moments are fun, particularly when they’re infrequent. Learning to let them happen is one of the finest tricks of GM jujitsu—you get to use the players’ creativity to make your game more fun, and all that’s required in those moments is that you play along, as though that had been the plan all along.
You can keep such moments thrilling and rare, however, if you give PCs lots of opportunities to divest themselves of that wealth. After all, people with lots of money enjoy a significantly higher standard of living than their fellow townsfolk—particularly when Swiss banks aren’t readily available for storing wealth. One largely overlooked fact of life in the periods our games emulate is the phenomenon of service. In this day and age even very wealthy people often do not employ servants, but in the days of yore, even the modestly affluent would have several assistants, hirelings, or slaves. People also tended to display their wealth with the giving of gifts, holding feasts, and other such staples of conspicuous consumption.
So get your players to spend their hard-won money on that one-of-a-kind yeti-fur scabbard, to buy a round of drinks for the entire district of the city in which they are currently carousing, or blow their wad on that fixer-upper keep that comes with the title of Baronet. Players love to spend their cash for the same reasons we do: status, reputation, and cool stuff.
If you allow them this opportunity, you can hook right in to the Avarice/Gluttony addiction cycle, using both sins to your motivational advantage. ♦