Low Level Loans: Begin by Borrowing?

Can a player taking a loan at character creation be good for a game? Should the GM even entertain the idea? Yes! (But only with the right player, for the right character, and for the right kind of campaign and setting.) In truth, when carefully managed, a loan can pay out huge gameplay returns.


First off, loans already exist in many game systems, although you may not recognize them immediately. Systems that allow you to buy advantages/disadvantages, merits/flaws, backgrounds, and other augmentations and adjustments often include some method of obtaining more “wealth” than the average starting character. Most of these systems are perfectly acceptable, although a wise Game Master ought to keep the concepts demonstrated below in mind when approving such options. After all, even rules written with the best of intentions can be exploited or misused.

But what happens when your player wants a particular something and the rules simply don’t allow it at the start of the campaign? Consider a loan.

The central question is this – will this something make the character better for the story? Consider Han Solo from Star Wars (Episode IV). He’s a lovable rogue who bicker-flirts with princesses, he knows his way around the underside of the galaxy, and he’s ready to fight impossible odds (as long as no one tells him the actual math). But when he is introduced to the Star Wars universe, his most important feature is that he is a pilot – and he has a ship. This is not only better for the story, it’s critical. And if it were a game, the GM would be right in saying yes to Han’s player’s idea of starting the game with a ship, even if a normal beginning character wouldn’t be able to afford it. It fits. It’s good for the plot. It’s a yes.


A loan can be in the form of money, although I would caution that this can be too open-ended and uncontrollable. Instead, consider giving out a “thing” in the form of a magic item, particular special weapon, a map, a vehicle, a building (like the party’s HQ), a cybernetic part, etc. Whatever the “thing” is should be important to the character’s concept and fit into the story. If it seems problematic, just say no.

Alternately, the “thing” might not be a “thing” at all – you could take out a loan for some sort of power or special ability; something just beyond the scope of the standard rules. Folk stories and fairy tales are chock full of assorted mystical beings trading legendary powers for some kind of monkey’s paw style curse that teaches a moral lesson. (In my games, the players just murder Rumpelstiltskin and keep the gold – nobody learns anything, ever.) As long as it isn’t too overpowered or unbalancing, it might be worth some thought.

Alternately, instead of borrowing something of value, the character might have stolen it and is now on the hook for reimbursement or revenge. The same ideas about loans apply to this sort of arrangement, although the culmination of the “loan” might be slightly more dangerous.


One important detail to think about is that the player ought to know what they’re getting into. Futuristic games like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk have loan options to get some of the best tech – but the player knows going into the deal (if they’ve read the book) that their corporate sponsors own them after they sign on the dotted line (well, they own the shiny metallic parts, anyway). It is explicitly understood that the loan has a cost and that they cannot escape the consequences easily. The same goes for any outside-the-rules loan. For the sake of fairness: the player and GM should be very clear on the details.



When should the GM say no? Ask yourself these questions to avoid a pecuniary pitfall:

  • Why does this player want the loan? Will it make their character more interesting or just more powerful? Does the player have a history of rules-exploitation at the cost of fun? Do they hog the spotlight to the detriment of other gamers? Will this loan make their bad habits worse?
  • Will this loan make another character in the group less fun to play? Does it replace or render one of their special qualities obsolete? Will it do so in the future as they level up?
  • Does the loaned item or power go against the theme or the feel of the story? Is it anachronistic? Does your game depend on a resource-struggle to push the plot? Does the story require the party to be “stuck” for a while and this loan would automatically defeat that obstacle? Is your game about poor vs. rich?
  • Can the loan be repaid very early in the campaign? Will this lessen its importance? Is the loan too small to be worth the effort? Does the loan accrue interest over time or is it fixed?
  • Is the loan impossible to repay? Or will it take so long that it isn’t interesting anymore? Is the loan simply too large? Will it become frustrating enough for the player that it will no longer be a fun addition to their character’s storyline?
  • Is the loan-collector strong or influential enough to collect the loan if the character refuses to repay it? Can they track the debtor down even if they run away? Can they leverage something or someone to force them to pay? What is their plan to fulfill the contract (or betray it)? If the loan becomes troublesome, can they sell it to a more powerful entity who can deal with the character better?
  • Is the loan within the law of the land or is it illegal? What issues does this cause for both sides of the deal? Are there loopholes in the contract?
  • Is the loan going to be too much of a hassle for the player or the GM to keep track of? Is it worth the effort?
  • Will this loan break some part of the game? Does it make a future challenge unchallenging? Does it make an important enemy trivial? Does it cause a plot point to become meaningless?


The best part about a loan is that the GM can use it as part of their storyline. In the Han Solo example, Han is in debt to Jabba the Hutt, which leads to a great rescue adventure. Debt-collectors as enemies or quest-givers are very handy because they have a clear goal, they can extract some of that excess money off the party (which helps push them to the next adventure), and – very importantly – they usually want the debt-ridden character to live so they can continue to make payments. Such an antagonist might even show up to save the life of their favorite cash-cow if the party gets in a real bind and the GM needs an excuse to save the day!

So, do your homework, run the cost-benefit analysis, and think about a well-reasoned loan in your next game.

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