Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Money


Let's talk money. Apparently, in some circles there is the following saying: "There are two fundamental causes of madness amongst students: sexual frustration and the study of coinage." (A nice set of lecture notes on the subject is here.) A few points:

One major unfixable mistake is in using the gold standard for the D&D economy. It's bad history and it's bad game design. Historically, medieval money supplies were almost uniformly in silver coins, and the value was fundamentally based in how much raw silver metal was at hand. But more importantly for our purposes, in D&D PCs start out with the most valuable coinage, and will only experience currency going down from there. Clearly, it would be better to start with the cheapest metal, and then advance through more exotic categories. (In accordance with the central design conceit of D&D itself.) Even if some portion of us run games with a silver standard (for example, see Dragon #74, June 1983), the gold-piece premise has been reiterated in so many hundreds of RPG's and computer games that it's inseparable from fantasy in general in the public's mind.


Leaving that aside, let's consider the value of our ideal coins. The historical issue is enormously complex (see proverb above) because every principality used different mints, sizes, metal purities, units of weight, etc. But there are two principal issues that we're warned to keep in mind. One is the difference in units between actual coins versus moneys-of-account (i.e., units used in paper accounting only). For example, in the famous Carolingian money system (1 pound/louvre = 20 shillings/sou = 240 pence/deniers) only pennies/deniers were actually minted -- no shillings/sous or pound coins were created, and those units were used for record-keeping and ledgers only.

The second principal cautionary issue is that of debasement: Over the years, the princes and their mints would continually reduce the amount of silver content in their coins (by either mixing in more copper, etc., or reducing the overall coin size). For us, this makes it hard to compare the value of actual coins over the whole medieval period, because the values were constantly in a downward slide, in some cases causing inflation and the need to establish new, larger coins or non-debased currency. (In fact, this was one of the reasons to use "moneys-of-account" -- sometimes measuring raw silver bullion weight -- to keep a fair evaluation of one's worth, even when the coins were getting less valuable over the years.) One notable exception: England (see linked article), which kept the pound sterling mostly fixed over the years -- and therefore we might use that as the most dependable example of medieval coinage.

So, consider this particular historical example. View a list of English coinage in the 13th-15th centuries here. As our chief examples we'll take the "groat" (silver coin, worth 4 pence, i.e., 1/3 shilling) and "noble" (gold coin, worth 20 groats, i.e., 1/3 pound). There are smaller coins than these (half-nobles, quarter-nobles, etc.), but none significantly larger. So the noble:groat:penny coin ratio is 1:20:80.

I think this would be excellent from a game-design perspective, assuming that we used the silver standard as a basis. Two notable advantages: (1) The copper/silver pennies, at a 1:4 ratio, are not so cheap as to be entirely worthless and left in the dungeon by our adventurers. (2) The gold nobles, at a 1:20 ratio provide a nice geometric increase in the value that can be carried at higher levels, without having to resort to omnipresent bags of holding. Once again, the historical solution could serve as our game-design solution: copper coins for peasants, silver coins for the daily trade of freemen, and gold coins for transactions between kings.

Note also how close this historical coinage is to the OD&D system in Vol-2, p. 39, which stipulates a gold:silver:copper piece ratio of 1:10:50. It's basically a quasi-decimalization of the 1:20:80 ratio that we're finding in our research. In addition, it fairly represents the medieval valuation of gold bullion (about 1:10 to 1:14 of silver), assuming that all of our coins are the same size. The OD&D numbers are both reasonably good history and game design.

So, coming back to our game's history, why change those numbers in the AD&D Player's Handbook? In that work, Gygax establishes a 1:20:240 valuation for our game coins, while maintaining a gold standard. That turns all of our advantages into disadvantages: (1) Players start at the top value with nowhere to work up, (2) PCs are unable to carry much value in coinage at higher levels, (3) Copper pieces are effectively worthless. While using the classic Carolingian value ratios for the pound:shilling:pence, it overlooks the historical fact that those were not coins, but rather moneys-of-account only. A highly questionable change to the game, when the Original D&D system was so eminently reasonable in both historical and game-design terms.

So at this point, I'm personally a bit torn. If we were to establish a reduced-value system of coinage with a silver standard, which is preferable? The 1:20:80 ratio we see in historical England, or the 1:10:50 ratio we see in OD&D Vol-2? Poll completed; follow-up over here.

23 comments:

  1. Excellent article. I've been going over my notes on previous monetary/economic systems that I've used in order to sort out what I'm going to do for Riskail and I have found your post very helpful in making the decision to not only have varying sorts of competing and debased coinage from various venues, but to include the debasement of privately minted coins and to bring back the "moneys-of-account" as you called paper money.

    Great blog! Keep up the excellent work! And Thanks for the help in sorting some of this matter out.

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  2. The D&D gold standard is a hard one to break.

    I've often been tempted to re-price everything using a silver standard, but never implemented that change.

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  3. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

    NetherWerks: "...bring back the 'moneys-of-account' as you called paper money."

    Careful, I wouldn't want to call it "paper money"; more like "records of money". Like a bank account statement.

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  4. GURPS uses a copper standard and a 1:20:80 rate.

    It's what i'd use if it weren't for the treasure tables and the fact that they're rated for a 1gp=1xp rate. Converting the treasure tables seems something useful to do. Convert:
    - platinum pieces 4:1 to gold sovereign/orbs/florins/marks/luis d'or (as the relative value goes from 5 to 20)
    - gold 1:1 to silver coinage
    - silver 1:1 to copper (as the amount of xp contributed was marginal at best)
    - old copper bits just vanish (same as above)

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  5. and obviously now 1 silver = 1xp, and all prices are in silver coins.

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  6. I've been using Rob Conley's coinage system--which is silver-based--with some minor tweaks. It seems consistent with your observations here. Here is Rob's original post:

    http://batintheattic.blogspot.com/2009/10/variant-coinage-system.html

    I did have to create new price list, but that was not a bad thing in the long run.

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  7. Tsojcanth: That's interesting about GURPS, I didn't know that.

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  8. Very interesting discussion. I implemented a silver standard some time ago - basically I just said 1 GP in a normal game = 1 SP in my campaign. I also tweaked the exchange rates a bit, added a bronze coin, made a campaign--specific table for treasure types, etc. So far, it seems to have worked out just fine - it is easy to tweak price even more for equipment and say it is a reflection of the local economy. It was not too terribly time-consuming, either.

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  9. I guess I see everything as being so abstracted that there is no real reason for change IMO. I voted OD&D standard, but it seems that the poll won't help you make a decision - it's ~50/50!

    Interesting post and good points anyway, as is Rob's post linked above.

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  10. Hmmm, you've got a point, but I think that shifting the money paradigm will really only effect poor (new) characters anyway.

    90% of D&D wealth is usually hoarded to eventually build a castle, or funneled through the magic user to get magic items, depending on which edition you play.

    I don't think adjusting the scale will have much profound effect here, but what you are proposing makes sense for what it's worth.

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  11. I'm curious what ended up happening here? The poll is gone, and it was about 50/50 anyway...

    Did you decide to move to a 1:20:80 standard? Did you go over the price lists to convert them to the silver standard?

    Cheers!

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  12. Right, David, a follow-up is coming at some point (I've got such a writing backlog it got pushed off for a bit).

    To cut to the chase, the poll wound up 55% for a 1:10:50 ratio, and 45% for 1:20:80 (81 total votes), so I'll actually start gaming with the former (i.e., by-the-book OD&D).

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  13. Since I didn't see this till today, and didn't get the chance to vote, I'd have voted for the 1:20:80 ratio. But I'm still looking forward to the follow up post.

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  14. 4e tries to address the problem of having nowhere to go if the players start with gold currency by using platinum and astral diamonds to replace gold at high levels, and when carrying around over 1 million gold coins becomes physically impossible.

    Money in 4e, however, is almost entirely used for the purchase of magical items. The mundane stuff of living life is almost all so cheep that an adventurer can retire after a few good dungeon crawls and live in luxury for the rest of their life.

    If you're running an itemless campaign, the massive amounts of gold that are present become overkill, and you can instead make most transactions in silver and copper. I like to use the ahistory, but simple, 1:100:1000 Gold:Silver:Copper ratio, using copper for meals and inns, silver for most goods, and gold only for the most expensive items, such as a full suit of new plate armor.

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  15. Thanks a lot for a very helpful post. I've been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how the money system in D&D actually relates to real world (current time) money. What I found out, was that a copper piece roughly equates £4 of todays money. This was done by consulting The Medieval Sourcebook and Measuringworth.com.However, trying to use this when figuring out the price for something as simple as a leather armour… 10 GP = 100 SP = 1,000 CP = £4,000. A full plate armour is even worse. 1,500 GP = 150,000 CP = £600,000. It's ridiculous, and it clearly shows how the monetary system in D&D is flawed.

    However, using the information you've provided, I'll actually be able to figure out the relative amounts easily. When doing it, I'd prefer using the historically correct system, since I'll be making a change anyway, and that would be 1:20:80 (GP, SP, CP) with SP being the common coin. (Why not use 1:20:240?)
    What should I do to get the correct relation between the books' prices and this historical one?

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  16. I've got another question, or more of a clarification:
    To get it all correct, should I change all the prices in the book to their SP value, and then substitue the SP value with silver pence (Sp) (1 Sp = 1 20th Gp) and then go on from there on?

    I have, if any one's interested, created a spreadsheet to calculate what your money's worth, based on the system described in Rob Conley's post (as referenced by Rusty).

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  17. Hey CM -- I'm hoping many of your questions are answered if you see the later follow-up post over here. I've got some specific examples of item price conversions there, etc. (Admittedly I just tonight put the link in over there, should've done that sooner.)

    If you still have questions, put them in under the newer post?

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  18. "I'd prefer using the historically correct system, since I'll be making a change anyway, and that would be 1:20:80 (GP, SP, CP) with SP being the common coin. (Why not use 1:20:240?)"

    In the unlikely event that anyone sees this: I think the final question is confusing issues. 1:20:240 is how a (troy or normal?) pound of silver was divided. One pound, 20 shillings, 240 silver pennies. Totally independent of how many pounds of silver it takes to buy a pound of gold.

    I do wonder how a ratio range of 1:10-1:14 gold/silver turned into 1:20 in the 1:20:80 thing.

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  19. The reason I chose to include gold coins in the 1:20:240-system, was to have those wonderful treasures of gold included. I wanted the players to get the feel of gold being "the bestest" things to find. Therefore, since gold is valued to roughly 20 times that of silver, a gold penny being worth 12 silver pence: if it is the same size, it would be 14.4 carat gold.


    Now for the coin I called a gold crown (not to be confused with the English crown coin – being Norwegian, I chose it since krone (our coin) = crown, so it gives a nice touch to the game). If it is the same carat, it would simply be twenty times larger than the gp, but that would be dull (having the numero-uno coin being the same dull 14.4 carats), so I've upped it to 20 carats, which makes it 14½ times heavier and larger than the gold penny.

    So, my reasons for using the system is in other words: gold is treasure! Let it be so.

    Oh, the face of the players when a pick-pocket managed to steal to gold pence from one of them – priceless!

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  20. Damien (definitely still reading this): "1:20:240 is how a (troy or normal?) pound of silver was divided... I do wonder how a ratio range of 1:10-1:14 gold/silver turned into 1:20 in the 1:20:80 thing."

    Agreed the 1:20:240 shillings/pounds thing started as a division of a pound of silver, but it was a logical/abstract division only (moneys-of-account), and not actual coinage. Or, as I say on my Primary House Rules page: "Shillings and pounds were not coins!"

    Commonly you'd have: A small silver pence, a silver Groat (~5 grams weight; 4 pence value); and gold Noble (~9 grams weight; x2 size, x10 metal value as you say; thus 4x2x10 = 80 pence).

    So 1 gold coin = 20 silver coins = 80 pence. Which is (again) totally separate from the shillings/pounds units used in bookkeeping.

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  21. CM, sounds like it works for you, cool.

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  22. You say twice as big, but Gold is almost twice as dense as Silver, so same size, but twice as heavy.

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  23. Michael, agreed, when I said "x2 size" 3 posts up it was referring to amount-of-metal-by-weight. Good point that the coins would be the same diameter & thickness.

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