Got questions about the economy? Play Dungeons & Dragons, says economist
William Huggins studies the economy by day and leads adventurers by night
William Huggins isn't your typical Dungeons & Dragons game master. He's also an economist, and says the game — set in a fantasy world with mythical heroes and creatures — can actually teach players valuable financial lessons.
Going from dungeon master to macroeconomics wizard wasn't that big a leap for Huggins, who teaches finance and business economics at McMaster University in Ontario.
"I've got this very long tradition of role playing games built into me from long before I even knew what finance or economics were," he said.
The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (often shortened to D&D) was published in 1974. Since then, over 50 million people have played the game. Wizards of the Coast, the company which owns D&D, has seen sales for rulebooks and merchandise soar, especially during the pandemic.
- The Cost of Living ❤s money — how it makes (or breaks) us.
Catch us Sundays on CBC Radio One at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 p.m. NT).
We also repeat the following Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in most provinces.
Last fall, Huggins gathered four players for a game he's prepared himself. The party is tasked with capturing an evil wizard spotted in a treacherous mountain hideout, guarded by goblins and a dragon.
This seems like a classic game of D&D, but economist Huggins has embedded five real-world financial lessons into the narrative.
Lesson 1: Specialized and complementary skills
Before the game can begin, each person decides what kind of character they want to play.
Players can take the role of one of many fantasy characters: from elven druids, who specialize in magic that channels the power of nature, to fighters who take a more direct approach with swords, axes and other weapons.
Games are usually played with a party of three to five players, with the dungeon master guiding them through the adventure.
Party members will usually realize early on that their odds of survival are much better if they have different and complementary skills.
For example, a party of five sorcerers "would be like trying to play a hockey game with five goalies," said Huggins.
The four players in this game decided on a balanced mix: First, a hill dwarf barbarian and a half-orc warrior provided the necessary muscle to fight off the wizard's hired goons.
A human ranger provided important tracking skills, and an elven mage's spells could counter the evil wizard's magic.
Lesson 2: Labour and capital
Labour and capital are often described broadly as people and things. Economists like Huggins point out that to get a job done well in any industry, you need highly trained people with the right tools to do the job.
"For instance, if we had to dig a ditch," explains Huggins, "you could get 10 people with shovels or, say, one person with a backhoe." Clearly, the kind of kit you have influences how many people it takes to do a job.
In D&D, wizards aren't known for their physical fighting ability, and therefore can't do much with a knife or sword. But give that wizard a magic staff and a crystal ball, and they can do a whole lot more — like casting a fireball at enemies more than 100 metres away.
Lesson 3: Optimization
We see results of optimization in our supply chains: factories get just the right amount of parts, at just the right time, to meet the amount of production required at that moment.
But even small interruptions in that supply chain — such as the recent blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont. — can cripple it, shutting down factories and costing the economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
LISTEN | Why cutting off a single bridge to Detroit was so expensive:
"It's kind of like having a high-speed train going 400 kilometres an hour down the track," said Huggins.
"It's great as long as nothing gets in the way, but as soon as there's a rock on the track … that high-speed train can be derailed and go flying off into the countryside."
In D&D, you have limited resources, such as a set amount of magical spells or arrows in your quiver. You need to decide how best to best use your resources and win the game before you find yourself staring at a mob of enemies with nothing left in your satchel.
Lesson 4: The barter system
Cold, hard cash isn't always the best form of payment.
In Huggins' game, the adventurers head to a town known for raising a lot of goats. The villagers desperately need help dealing with a dragon that attacked their town. But they don't have coin to pay the adventurers.
They do, however, have a lot of goat cheese.
"This highlights some of the complications that come up in the real world," said Huggins. "What I have to offer is not always what you need."
The adventurers accepted the cheese as payment, which soon proved fortuitous. With some shrewd thinking, they used it to bribe a gang of goblins, who then revealed the location of the evil wizard's secret hideout.
Lesson 5: Inflation
Inflation is the increase in prices of goods and services. According to Huggins, it can reduce your purchasing power whether you're in a make-believe tavern or the local grocery store.
In Huggins's D&D campaign, the adventurers successfully captured the evil wizard and vanquished the plundering dragon. In return, they were rewarded with a massive amount of treasure.
In their exuberance, they showered the town with gold and rubies. Unfortunately, this created sudden inflation within the tiny, imaginary village.
"If I go to a village of 400 or 500 people with my 10,000 or 20,000 gold coins … the prices of things are likely to rise because there will be a lot more money all of a sudden in this little village," said Huggins.
Canadians in the real world are seeing this today, as prolonged low interest rates have created access to lots of cheap money, which in turn contributes to rising inflation.
Economics through fantastical storytelling
One of the enduring qualities of Dungeons & Dragons is its infinite variety and the ability to weave themes — even financial parables — into the heart of the story.
- For more "charmingly nerdy" explanations of the Canadian economy and business world, listen to The Cost of Living podcast each week. Click here to subscribe for free.
"You end up making a lot of choices about how to do something in the best or optimal way, just like in real life." said Huggins. "Except in game play, no one actually gets hurt from making mistakes."
"This makes role-playing games excellent ways to explore complex topics, like day-to-day economic trade-offs, or how best to deploy your spell slots."
Written and produced by Andrew Nguyen.