Historical Costs Comparison

The following comes up regularly, and I think that it probably always will; given the incredibly kinked-up nature of the D&D economy, what's the best "correction" to bring it line with some kind of historical pricing basis? Or in other words: very generally, how do D&D costs compare to historical prices?

I'll look at this in three different categories: basic equipment, castle construction, and wages for men-at-arms. My primary resource for historical prices is the Medieval Sourcebook: Medieval Prices (MSMP), compiled by Kenneth Hodges, and currently hosted on a site at Goucher College. My primary strategy will be to run a linear regression between D&D price and Medieval Sourcebook prices and see if that tells us anything at all consistent.

First: Consider basic equipment. This may be the most tentative of the three classes, because it requires some subjective matching of item types, some of those have widely varying ranges and eras, there are many different possible horses and armor qualifications, almost no historical weapon prices, etc. While the D&D basic equipment list is fairly sizable, and so is the Medieval Sourcebook, there isn't as much overlap as I would have desired. The results are as follows:

As you can see from the chart, these prices are only vaguely linear related (R² = 0.57, moderate correlation). That said: the regression here suggests that if you take D&D price units and treat them, on average, as historically something like three-quarters of a shilling then you'll be as much in the ballpark as you can be (technically: 76% of a shilling according to this regression; feel free to round to a half-shilling or whole shilling according to taste, any of those could be fine). There's a lot of variation there -- the two outlying high points are the two armor types (mail and plate); those are distinctly undervalued in D&D. The two outlying low points are the prices for the medium war horse and the cart. Also removed from the analysis was the MSMP stated value for a 13th century war horse: "up to L80", which would be 1,600 shillings, far off the upper end of the chart here.

Second: Let's look at castle construction costs. There are a few values in the MSMP (a gatehouse and tower), and I've also found a number of documented costs for castle construction on Wikipedia. You can see here for the full detail on the first occasion when I looked at that. The displayed D&D prices are dependent on my assessing the constructions in question and pricing them piecemeal according to D&D (a task which I did before looking to convert the historical prices, to try and avoid as much bias as possible):

This regression seems to look a bit more dependable at first appearance (R² = 1.00, apparently perfect correlation). Note, however, that this is largely dependent on what I estimated for the D&D construction of the large Dover castle (an "influential data point"). That said, it has a perhaps surprisingly similar conversion to the basic equipment list above: each D&D "gp" converts to something like a half shilling (specifically, about 40% of a shilling's value). To me, that seems interesting.

Third: Consider wages for men-at-arms. Now, these values in D&D seem to be at a distinctly different scale than those for other things in the game (basic equipment, castles, treasure, specialists, etc.). Fortunately there are several classifications that seem reasonably easy to compare in D&D and the MSMP:

This also seems reasonably linear in relationship (R² = 0.92, strong correlation). Here if you take the D&D monthly "gp" and multiply by about 5, then you have something in the ballpark of actual medieval costs in shillings -- or in other words, the D&D units for men-at-arms costs are about a quarter of a pound sterling (i.e., roughly the value of an actual gold Noble coin; not something you can say about the units anywhere else in the D&D system).

In summary: With the exception of wages for men-at-arms, the money units in D&D seem to correspond (very roughly!) to historical units of a half shilling or something in that general order of magnitude. For me, it's been a number of years since I started interpreting the D&D price units in terms of historical silver Groat coins (one-third of a shilling each), and I'll probably continue to use that in the near future.

See also: my analysis of Support & Upkeep costs, where in the conclusion, we once again saw the gold piece → silver Groat conversion nicely matches up the OD&D upkeep costs for Name-level fighters with the incomes for real-word Barons and Earls circa 1300.

Download an ODS spreadsheet of the data and regressions seen above here. 


  1. I feel like your comment about there not being many historical weapon prices bears looking at a bit more. Considering how important and common they were in the past, why are there no prices for them?
    How did people get weapons?

    1. Fair question; maybe someone else has a solid answer for that. The Medieval Sourcebook has wages for a chief armor, other armorers, etc. in the 1500's (uniquely, one by name: "Old Martyn") but no individual weapon costs.

      Here's raw speculation by me: Weapons are monopolized by the lord/government (not for sale on the open market). They hire a team of armorers and say, "Make all the weapons as you can for my army". No one bothers to document the per-weapon total cost of supplies/labor.

      Would love to hear a better evidenced answer to that.

    2. One of the books I mentioned below says:

      "Supplies for a Tournament held at Windsor, England at 1278:
      - Sword (whalebone) 7d
      - Sword (silvered whalebone) 25s 7d
      - Sword (silvered whalebone w. gilded hilt) 28s 13d"

      And another table of supplies for various tournaments have this entry:
      "- Sword 1324 3s 4d" (1324 is the year)

  2. I've used the MSMP extensively in the past. However, now that I'm looking at doing a campaign set in 15th century South America, I intend to look at non-English sources...and a reader just sent me a link to an absolutely huge document in Portuguese (over 300 pages!). It's pretty fascinating stuff, though it will take a while to decipher (I don't really speak Portuguese). If you're interested in a "second source" you can check it out here:


    1. Extremely cool, thank you!

    2. Maybe it's about time to start a blog of my own... Hehehe

  3. D&D economy, a favorite topic.
    I moved to silver standard for my game years ago based on the convincing arguments made here. Though I must confess to sticking to a base 10 conversion rate.
    I separate out into Things that Factor into game stats, and "everything else."
    For "everything else" I used MSMP, and a bunch of other systems I took all the items I could, busted them down to the "copper piece". Everything abstracted "common crops, exotic herbs, beast of burden, trained mounts" etc. and priced. This allowed me to bypass issues around is something a "new world" crop or a fictional type of mundane animal.
    Arms, Armor, Spellbooks, etc. are priced with an eye towards game balance (gasp) and "if a commoner liquidated everything they had, what could they get as a first level adventurer" ~100-150 sp.

  4. I recomend these books that I have in hands:

    - Fief (and also Town) by Lisa Steele. The preview show some of its tables. Example of contents are prices of cattle from many years and many places.

    - The Armourer and his craft by Charles Ffoulkes. I admit didn't read entirely but it has everything about blacksmith except weapons because the book already has 300 pages. It has prices for many tools and materials used in blacksmithing.

    A book I could find/afford was Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer. This book seems to be the main source of many price lists. It's on Lisa Steele bibliography of both books aforementioned.

    1. Edit: I couldn't find/afford*

    2. Thanks for the recommendations! I see I actually already have Steele's Fief and Town books on my "to get someday" list. This bumps them up in priority. :-)

  5. Great stuff, Delta.

    I've been wanting to do something similar with the data from the Edict on Maximum prices for a late-antiquity period.

  6. What do you think of the idea of interpreting the standard D&D equipment costs in silver pieces except for the cost of armor, which are treated as standard gold piece prices?

    Possibly with a couple exceptions (helms and/or leather armor in silver pieces, or armor bought at chargen gets a discount price in SP to represent a beat-up set of armor from an inheritance or war experience.)

    1. Totally reasonable take on it. They're the two things on the list that I uniquely scratch out and scribble in "50" and "200" as the new costs. I think for game purposes I don't mind fighters being able to start with chain and need to adventure to afford plate later on.

  7. It seems like some of the prices in AD&D might be hewing closer to this relationship as well. For example, the increased price of chain and plate armor, and the reduced price for leather - though chain still enjoys a hefty discount, almost certainly for gameplay reasons. Ditto for the unreasonably high price for bows, though the real gameplay fix for those didn't come until 3rd edition nerfed them to 1 attack per round like every other weapon.

    Another thought I had is that the peasant's sword might better correspond to the OD&D dagger, since there is no designated "short sword" and in any case the distinction between short swords and long knives has historically always been somewhat blurry.

    The OD&D helm probably also is a better match for one of the cheaper helms from the price list, perhaps the morion, especially in light of AD&D's equipment list offering a small helm for a similar price, but then alternatively a large helm for a higher price. Helms might also be a good way to reconcile the "Base AC 9" vs. "Base AC 10" dilemma - let helms count for 1 point of armor class, so leather/padded is AC 8 alone, AC 7 with helmet. Or a magic-user with no body armor but a sweet headdress or skullcap can be AC 9 due to the helmet.

    1. Yeah, I've done the helm for 1 AC point rule in the past. Somewhat wierdly I've recently switched (back) over to the AD&D roll-d6-to-hit-in-head rule, since I'm already rolling a dedicated hit-location die routinely just for descriptive purposes.

  8. Regarding horses specifically, and most of the prices in general:

    There are two large jumps in prices from 1200, to 1300, to circa 1370. The first is caused by improved economy, technology and some inflation, the second by the Black Death, which doubled labor wages in a generation.

    The "War Horse" price you list (50s) is "12th Century" which is even before 99.999% of the rest of the prices; whereas the document lists a draught horse (10s-20s) from the late 1300s.

    The better price for a knight's horse is L5, with a "high-grade" horse at L10, for the same period from which most of the prices come.

    Additionally, the "Milanese" armor figure comes from 1441, by which plate armor's price has come down significantly (qv "Total Armor owned by a knight, L16 6s 8d, 1374), due to dissemination of water-wheel driven trip hammers to form large plates more regularly.

    And any armor prices from 1500 onward are going to have the benefits of those economies of scale multiplied.

    1. Indeed. It is clear to see these trends in the two books of Lisa Steele I said above (Fief and Town) where is presents prices of some goods through the years.

    2. Found a chart which indicated the real wage of a Flemish journeyman fuller went from ~5d/piece in 1351 to ~14/piece in 1450 (here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277882814_Doctrine_of_Fair_Price_by_Thomas_Aquinas_Background_Laws_of_Development_and_Specific_Interpretation )

      At the same time, the price index for a "Basket of Consumables" fluctuates from .61 up to 1.41 then down to 1.09 over that century.

      It's a living economy. We GMs tend to prefer static ones, as we're only gaming at one particular point in time with any one group of characters.

      Still, fun!

    3. You're totally right that there's a big time differential there that personally I just hand-waver away in my analyses. I love the point about the water-wheel driven trip hammers for manufacturing plate at a later date. :-)

  9. Great post! I linked folks over here last week. Keep up the good work!