Wizards of the Coast posted a very interesting excerpt today on the new Economy & Reward system in 4th Edition D&D. It is a change that will infuriate certain players and delight certain Dungeon Masters (and visa-versa).
Basically, D&D has given up even attempting to simulate a realistic economy. This probably makes a lot of sense. After all, there are a million different expenses that PC's should have that they don't have to worry about. Unless it's a plot point for a specific adventure, they never have to buy new clothes, repair their weapons and armor, worry about most meals, pay taxes, etc. This is for the best, after all what DM has time to keep track of all of this?
Previous editions would use the concept of "upkeep" to account for these miscellaneous expenses. Upkeep was a monthly amount of gold that was automatically deducted from the characters to represent these expenses. The problem is, this rule was a pain to keep track of and was almost never used. I used it in some of my 1st & 2nd Edition games, but once it became (officially) optional in 3rd Edition, I dropped it and never looked back.
4th Edition D&D has dropped the idea of attempting to simulate an economy entirely. They recognize that gold and magic items in D&D are a reward system for heroic adventuring, and not intended to turn the PC's into penny pinchers who haggle with merchants over the price of every chain shirt found in the dungeon.
Under the new paradigm, the DM is encouraged to divide the gold and magic items the PC's will acquire during the course of a level into "bundles". These bundles are then divvied up among the various monsters, hazards, etc that the PC's encounter during the course of adventuring.
The bundles are considered the "notable" treasure recovered after the encounter. In other words, if you defeat a group of orcs and gather the loot, the DM is not going to list every axe, spear, suit of leather armor, pouch, and pair of boots among the treasure. Instead, he will only list the notable items: perhaps a masterwork sword, 20 gold pieces, and a potion. The rest will be assumed to be generally unusable, beneath the notice of the characters, or not worth anything in resale.
This is designed to allow the DM a lot tighter control over the loot entering the campaign. The DM doesn't have to figure in the value of every +1 rapier he gives to drow elf raiding party any more than he needs to determine the "value" of an owlbear's beak and claws. If the +1 rapiers would just be carted off and sold anyway, they can just fade into the background. It can be assumed that the PC's either ignore them, realize they would have too much trouble selling them, or even just assumed to be sold in the background and subsumed into the gold awarded for the encounter (i.e., the PC's didn't actually find 500 GP on the drow, that's just what they were later able to sell some of the rapiers for).
This is bound to drive some people crazy. If diagonal movement can whip gamers into a frenzy, I hesitate to think what this will do to them!
As to my opinion, well I think I like it, but I also think it will be a hard sell. Frankly, being a treasure pack rat is pretty ingrained in D&D players. I am pretty sure that many players will see this abstraction as an attempt by the DM to keep them from getting "what they having coming to them".
In reality though, I think it may actually increase the quality, if not the quantity, of magical treasure that DM's give out. One reason is that if is done correctly, it will help DM's keep better track of what is out there. Since many DM's lose track of exactly what magic items the party has, they tend to be conservative with what treasure they put out there. This should help alleviate the anxiety that they are giving too much.
Another advantage is that it should actually help offset the inadvertent loss of treasure. To many times, I have seen cases where players will notate a list of items like "ten +1 rapiers, 4 suits of masterwork chain, one fine cloak", only to completely forget about them next session once the action starts. This is natural. After all, we are playing Dungeons & Dragon's, not Merchants and Misanthropes! We aren't turning up at gaming sessions saying "Man, I really hope I get a chance to haggle with that merchant in town tonight!"
Still, everyone wants to get that cool magic item. They can recount when their paladin got his first Holy Avenger +5 or when their wizard crafted his first Staff of the Power. Hopefully the new system will encourage these moments without the needless book keeping.