But At What Cost?

Eric Lis

The revised edition of Insults & Injuries has been on sale for a few weeks now, and a reader posted a great question to one of the sites where it’s being sold. I quote for posterity, even though I find myself wondering if this violates the site’s copyright or something:

“So I'm totally loving this book but I have to ask, what are the prices supposed to be on the medicines and drugs? I want to incorporate them but I'm wondering what the price range you assumed for them is supposed to be.”

This is a question which crossed my mind a few times during the writing of both the original OGL book and the revised Pathfinder edition, and in the end I made the conscious decision not to put in prices for most of the medicines and drugs. In some cases, there was no way to set a practical price; how do you set a price for “alcohol” when every beer, scotch, and vodka has a different price? In a few cases, I did set a price, as with belladonna drops, and the “elixir of fearlessness,” in part because these are preparations with immediate in-game utility but also because they’re processed versions of the original which are specifically likely to be available in “civilized” regions. Most other drugs and medicines didn’t get prices, though, and in part, this was simply a bit of a cop out. I don’t like rules, and largely consider them to be an unfortunate necessity which mostly get in the way of, rather than facilitate, good gaming. A lot more passion went into writing the flavour text for Insults & Injuries than went into writing the game mechanics, which I’ve always imagined is pretty apparent to anyone reading it. I didn’t feel like figuring out what “official” prices for them might be, so I allowed myself to be lazy. In retrospect, I feel a bit bad about that. Not because I like the idea of putting still more mechanics and numbers into my book, you understand, but because the pricing of medicines and drugs is an incredibly complicated topic, economically and politically, and that complexity can itself be used to make a game more interesting.

Consider the “natural” medicines from the book, such as crown flower, St. John’s wort, and willow bark. It goes without saying that these substances can be made more potent and more predictable by extracting the active ingredient and putting a predictable dose into each pill. On the other hand, for untold centuries, humans got pretty good benefit from willow bark just by ripping it right off the tree and boiling it for tea. How much should it therefore cost? Well, that depends on if your characters are buying strips of bark, or tablets of Aspirin, I guess. It might also depend on whether some powerful merchant house knows a good thing when they see it and seize control of a region’s entire supply of willows, then inflate the price by a thousand times.

Similarly, you have plants such as hemlock. Purified coniine will probably cost your characters a fortune, but they can almost certainly collect enough hemlock to kill a man just by looking alongside the road for an hour… unless they don’t live in a region where hemlock is found, in which case a few leaves might be worth more than their weight in gold.

Of course, even if a substance is natural, it might be very challenging to get your hands on it. In many parts of the world, you can get as much snake venom as you want for free, as long as you don’t mind it being delivered into, say, your leg, instead of a vial or something.

Then we have the “unnatural” medicines, of which cyanide is a great example. The cost of cyanide probably depends tremendously on its availability. If cyanide is a jealously-guarded secret of Dwarven poisoners, then its price is probably kingly, if it can even be found. On the other hand, if cyanide is a commonly-known chemical easily obtained at any mining site, or readily available in every rat-catcher’s shop, then it can probably be purchased for coppers. The price of the poison tells you a certain amount about the world in which it exists.

Then you have the drugs. In regions where it grows naturally, coca is probably quite inexpensive and easily harvested oneself. Pure cocaine, however, is probably much more expensive, because of the labour involved in producing it and the much more powerful effect that comes from taking it. If the supply of cocaine happens to be controlled by your medieval fantasy version of the Hell’s Angels, who methodically kill anyone who tries to cut in on their business, that’s going to affect the price.

As an aside, I suddenly want to set my players up against a gang of bearded, leather-wearing drug-dealers riding nightmares or something.

In our next update to Insults & Injuries, hopefully due out in just a few short months, we’ll probably have some basic prices set, to make life as easy as possible for the storyteller who doesn’t want to have to work out the biopsychosocioeconomic implications of the criminalization of marijuana in their game world. Generally, though, the prices of these substances should probably just be driven by logic more than anything else. Willow bark, and even purified acetylsalicylic acid, is probably cheap, because the people who sell it want it to be affordable to people other than just adventurers. It might be tempting to say that a drug costs a thousand gold pieces per dose, but quite realistically, a drug dealer might make a lot more money selling it for one silver piece. None of the mundane drugs in a fantasy setting should have the bank-breaking prices of some modern chemotherapies or monoclonal antibodies because they don’t cost that much to make and because magic, the price of which we already know, is much more effective. Every substance described in Insults & Injuries is probably sold for coppers or silvers only, at least in places where it’s available, and where it isn’t available most probably people simply don’t know it exists unless the local equivalent of Faerun’s Aurora’s Catalogue has a pharmacy section (which it very well might!).

Naturally, above all else, any drug or poison should cost whatever best serves your story, and a good story will naturally explain why it costs what it does. Any number I give you is just unnecessary rules. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on October 10, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system