Money and coinage in RPGs

Dinar of Varahram III by Ashley Van Haeften

I recently read the book Debt: The First 5000 years by David Graeber, and as well as turning my ideas about money on their head, it got me thinking about the way that money is handled in RPG rules (I’m talking D&D-alike fantasy RPGs here, although I imagine that some of these points can be applied to other genres).

Firstly, here’s the pertinent stuff that I can (mis)remember from Graeber’s book:

There is a long-accepted belief, probably originated by Adam Smith, that all societies started as barter economies and, progressed to money once people discovered nobody wants to swap a chicken for a string of carved beads. Graeber’s book points out that there is absolutely no evidence for this, in fact quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Firstly, barter was never as primitive as “if nobody wants my beads then I’m screwed”. Within small societies, everyone would have a good idea of who owed what to whom, and it was not necessary to find somebody to barter with immediately: if somebody gave you a cow one year, you might then marry your son to their daughter three years later.
As societies grew, these debts were transferred to ledgers and promissory notes. There were even virtual currencies, so that a ledger might be kept in a common exchange unit such as “bushels of wheat”, where it was never actually necessary for there to be any bushels of wheat in order for people to trade, just a common standard for how many bushels of wheat a thing is worth. This puts me in mind of the way that many modern markets, such as the futures market, operate.

Coins only became necessary when most business was conducted between people who didn’t know or trust one another. Graeber demonstrates that coinage has arisen several times in history, and it always accompanies periods of war or upheaval.
War, upheaval, and D&D go hand in hand. And PCs are an itinerant, untrustworthy bunch. So I suppose it’s not unreasonable that a D&D economy is coin-based. Although coin availability in D&D is totally unbelievable. (I guess elves and magic-users and vorpal bunnies are also unbelievable, but those are the fun bits of gaming, I like my money to be less fantastic and more gritty.) It’s not uncommon, in fact it’s the norm, for D&D monsters to hoard hundreds if not thousands of gold coins. We’re talking around a Hoxne Hoard per goblin lair. Where does all that gold come from? How do folks carry it? (You know that gold weighs twice as much as lead?) What are the effects on the economy of having all of that high-value coinage sloshing around in it (actually, this is one thing that the rules do tend to get right: things in RPGs are ridiculously expensive). Why does everything have to be in powers of ten?
(And don’t even get me started on the rule that players get experience points by collecting gold. Don’t get me started on the ubiquity of powers of ten either).
All of which is fair enough in a totally make-believe world. I like to root my own campaigns in a little more reality. Here are the guidelines I’ve come up with for the campaign that I’m writing:
The common currency is called the Ote.  Ø is the symbol used to represent Otes. An Ote is a copper disc, beaten very thin, usually around an inch across, although their size, and the designs stamped upon them, vary from region to region.
Very few transactions are done using actual physical currency.  Between people who know and see each other regularly, everyone knows the score, everyone knows who owes them a favour and to whom they owe one back. Larger settlements will have a money lender or possibly more, who will assess your creditworthiness and lend you coinage or give you a stamped certificate which you can exchange for goods in other places.  
Where things do have prices, they are pretty cheap. Ø100 buys you way more than 100cp would in D&D. A night in an inn with food would probably be an Ote or two. 
Larger coins exist, but are rarely seen. Nobles use Sovereigns to pay retainers and to finance their grand ventures.  Sovereigns are coins made of real gold (usually), represented by the symbol $ 
The exchange rate between Otes and Sovereigns varies according to time, place, and person. 
A good rule of thumb is that Ø100 equals one Sovereign.

(I did also have a silver coin in there at one point, but I think two denominations of currency ought to be plenty for anyone) 







8 responses to “Money and coinage in RPGs”

  1. trollsmyth Avatar

    Ok, trying to wrap my head around your goals here. What I'm seeing:

    Flavor: this really hammers home that your campaign is not set in an analog of Western Europe during the High Middle Ages or the Renaissance.

    Poverty: the PCs are going to be constantly scrambling for wealth; finding an Ote or two some hobgoblin chief's concubine was using as earrings is going to be a red-letter day for them. Otherwise, they're going to be humping around large amounts of weapons and monster-made gear to try to trade for food and lodging. If you include encumbrance rules, this probably isn't worth it, which means the PCs will likely resort to banditry unless they can get in good with a community by doing services for them. If this happens, they'd be stupid to ever travel far from this community since they won't be able to trade on their reputation as heroes for free or cheap food and lodging. This is even more so if you make the PCs pay to train up levels.

    Community: the PCs are going to be very excited about their reputations since this is how they will eat. (Unless they resort to out-and-out banditry. Which is what they will do once there is any sort of static between them and the locals, especially if their skills are in any way uncommon.) This will work great for a Robin Hood/Zorro campaign, provided nobody can drive a wedge between the PCs and the downtrodden; the moment the downtrodden turn on the PCs they will likely go scorched-earth on everyone, which would be awesome if you're going for a 30 Years War/The Last Valley vibe.

  2. dansumption Avatar

    Flavour: yes, this is more dark ages than high-fantasy.

    Poverty: things are cheaper, the players will have plenty of money to get by on. If they want to become wealthy, yes, that will take a lot more work. As I feel it ought to.

    Community: sounds great to me!

  3. trollsmyth Avatar

    I get that things are cheaper, but that seems to compound the issue; unless the monsters have some jewelry stashed in their lairs, there's nothing the PCs can loot and turn a profit on.

    Now, if they're always on missions for people who do actually pay, they should be ok. But that severely limits their field of action. I knee-jerk see that as a bug, but if I stand on my head I can see how that could be a feature for some groups.

  4. dansumption Avatar

    I mean… my main desire is to inject a little realism into my games. The crazy amount of gold in fantasy world offends my sensibilities.

    I didn't say that monsters don't have any treasure, and certainly it's not uncommon to find jewellery on an adventure, but if PCs want to turn a profit they may find that there are other easier ways of doing so, or they may just find that the goal of adventuring doesn't always have to be to make a profit.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "bug". I just see it as a different style of game. Like I mentioned, I really don't like high fantasy. I don't have a problem with other people playing in a high fantasy style though, if that's their thing.

  5. trollsmyth Avatar

    By "bug" I mean something that actively hinders the type of experience I want to create at my table. (Which, of course, might have nothing at all to do with the experience you want to create at your table.) In my case, I want to create as few limits on player choices as possible; tying them down to existing power structures is antithetical to the sort of experience I want to create.

    I'd also worry a bit about "…if PCs want to turn a profit they may find that there are other easier ways of doing so…" If you're cool with the PCs spending their time running a general store or developing a triangle trade network between elves, orcs, and dwarves, then this is absolutely the way to go. But this is one area where YMMV; I'm more interested in preserving genre conventions and verisimilitude than realism, which is why it's taking me some effort to wrap my brain around what your goals are.

  6. Dick McGee Avatar

    Late to this party, but an obvious approach to "fix" this (if you think it needs fixing) would be to assign bounties to monsters (including human-ish baddies like bandits and outlaws). Bring in a few goblin ears and you can swap them for goods and services in small settlements, or real coinage in larger ones if you prefer. Bring in the heads of Notorious Bandit Chief Oswald the Overvalued and his chief henchmen and you've got pretty close to a blank check in the villages they'd been preying on, or a significant boon from the local noble, or maybe just a royal bounty in cold hard cash if you go all the way to the capital – or wherever the king's currently staying.

    Similarly, intelligent monsters might offer ransoms in exchange for not being slaughtered. Maybe they've got coin, maybe they've got other loot, maybe they can provide info or transport or favors in the future.

    Plenty of ways to reward players that aren't monetary if you can get past the gp=xp mindset D&D promulgated for far too long.

  7. dansumption Avatar

    I like the idea of bounties – especially as they don't need to be in coin, could be a you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours type arrangement, which ties the party closer to the townspeople and could be the spark for further adventures.

  8. Dick McGee Avatar

    Also makes it perfectly reasonable for a party that draws the ire of someone important to wind up with a bounty on their own heads. Sets up for:

    – desperate fights with bounty hunters
    – treacherous contacts
    – ambitious yokels trying to drug your ale in backwater inns
    – and of course some other VIP offering to get the bounty removed in exchange for doing a "simple little job, nothing very dangerous at all"

    Bounties also set up for climbing the social ranks as players reach "name" levels in D&D terms. At the end of the day, all those fairy tales where the king offers his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever rids the kingdom of Legendary Terrible Monster #4006 is just an odd kind of bounty on the monster.

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