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)