maandag 13 april 2015

Freaky Fantasy Funds

I've had imaginary money on the mind the last few days.
I recently backed a kickstarter for metal fantasy coins. The makers intend them as replacement/upgrade parts for boardgames. I however am thinking of using them as RPG props and maybe also as fun, physical "army building points/scenario rewards" for my Fantasy/dungeoneering/chivalry games. (While I never really did this before, I rather like the idea of prop-heavy RPG/game playing, I like the physicality and immersiveness of it. Once I start GM-ing again I would like to do this more, hence the investing in coinage...)
As I was figuring out how to get the most use out of the coins and extend the currency upwards, I was struck by how money is used/portrayed in many fantasy games.
If such meanderings of my mind interest you, there's more after the break.

First a little aside concerning the extending of currency. As the kickstarter offered only copper, silver and gold pieces of single denomination and adventurers usually earn and spend in significantly(obscenely?) larger amounts, I needed to look at larger values of portable wealth.
Looking at history there are actually several precedents one could use. There are such things as Letters of Credit, with a history going back at least to the Templars, which could be made by someone who is fairly handy with a graphics program. They however require a fairly stable travel and financial/legal network, possibly across several nations/cultures. Another option is something that stretches back even further: carrying your wealth as jewelry and gems. Or art.
Looking at such things "a certain international auction site", it should be fairly easy and affordable to get some cut glass gems (just look for cut glass gems or cabochons), if you want to go for obscene chunks of change, there are also cut glass paperweights in the classic diamond shape (I saw a ruby red one 15cm across!). Likewise (I haven't looked at this yet) it should also be achievable to find some affordable fake jewelry or art/statuettes.
Then there is the fun of trade goods, such as tea, coffee, silk, sugar, salt, pepper and other spices. Tell a player he will get a 100 gold reward and then dump a pound bag of unground black pepper in front of him!
Not all of this is equally practical, but the idea of loading down your players with random crud and seeing them figure out how to safely stow and transport all these items while dungeoneering really speaks to me. I guess it's equal parts immersion, sadism, too much tetris as a kid and, well a fair helping of realism as well.
If a village you loot has a combined total wealth of 1000 Gold Pieces, that won't be 10 convenient bars of gold bullion stacked in the town square. No, it will come in the form of several pouches of random loose change, the blacksmith's tools, three bags of flour, twelve sacks of grain, eight pigs, twelve chickens, an ox, the village elder's chain of office and his tax chest, the priest's gilt crucifix, eight pigs, two cows and an ox and the dowry chest full of silk of the wealthiest farmer's daughter, as well as the communal steel plow and the real glass windows in the town hall. Good luck hauling that off before the orc army you are fleeing gets here! Most RPGs totally ignore this reality, but I think it could lead to interesting/fun challenges for parties.

At the other end I have been pondering the usefulness of the smallest denominations, the copper pieces. As anyone who plays RPGs knows, most adventuring parties, after a few successes, "graduate" from the use of copper coins altogether. Instead of spending three copper for a night at an inn, they dump a bag of gold or a handful of jewels on the bar and hire the entire inn for a week. Or, why buy bread for a copper, when you have the funds to build and pay the wages for an entire village dedicated exclusively to supporting the physical needs of your party? Simply pick up all the bread you need from your bakery...
And this desire to extend the use of what will (and should) be the most numerous coin I have to use, the humble copper piece, is what got me thinking about fantasy game coinage and prices. It is remarkably easy to find threads on any RPG related forum about how disproportionately expensive basic items often are. Especially if you compare them to the wages for common folk those same RPG rules state, or those found in historical documents of a real world era said fantasy setting emulates.

From a gameplay perspective I can understand it, copper coins aren't very "rockstar" and there is a certain magic to the idea of silver and gold coins (which we are indoctrinated from very early age to consider the only metals/coinage allowed to live in a treasure chest). And, if you are aware of it, there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from realising you have graduated from the "copper stage" of an adventurers' life.  The experience of scraping together enough copper to keep yourself fed and alive is a major motivator for many an adventurer/gamer. And being thrown back to that poverty from a state of affluence makes for powerful drama. But still, I feel there should be more appreciation of the value and status of the simple copper piece (Let alone the fact that the even more humble pewter or tin coin is ignored completely!). It is after all the everyman's daily unit of currency and deserves more respect than "chump change".

Once I read a few of the aforementioned pricing threads, I realized something odd, which I have always overlooked. Especially from those threads that try to draw parallels/conversion rates between the Gold Piece and modern dollars or pounds: We seem to automatically accept the Gold Piece as the default, basic unit of currency in any fantasy setting. Which is, frankly, bizarre if you really consider it. Fantasy worlds must have had either a massive inflation in their past, or an abundance of precious metals that nobody bats an eye at comparing gold coins with dollars or pounds. You see, the dollar started it's life as the American Silver Dollar and the British Pound Sterling is literally that: a coin worth one pound of sterling silver! So comparing the value of a Silver Piece to dollars of Pounds seems the logical thing to do.(To be honest, Pounds would be more suitable to compare gold pieces, as a pound of silver makes a fair few silver coins and is actually a significant chunk of wealth... But still, it's value is linked to silver, not gold.) But instead we default to Gold Pieces.Which, looking at our own planet's past aren't exactly everyday tender. Gold Pieces are trade coinage or used for the larger purchases of the nobility. To further complicate matters, there is also something of class divide in currency that most fantasy settings take into account. Tin bits and copper coins are very much "commoner money", where a commoner would rarely see a gold coin, a noble would rarely see copper or tin coins, or even consider them. (For example, if a Sir Cumference loses 3 or 4 silver shillings through a hole in his pockes, he would likely be more upset about his damaged clothing. While Rube the farmhand walking a mile behind him, that finds the coins experiences a major, potentially lifechanging, windfall...)

In that regard it is enlightening and/or interesting to look at the relative value and use of the various coins and the metal they are made of. British money is interesting to use for this, at is has been fairly consistently named, and documented for a long time, and it neatly uses the various metals in neat layers of worth. There's Pounds Sterling, which represent a multiple of silver coins and were often minted in gold and so can be comparable to gold coins, in a way, Shillings; nice silver coins, copper Pennies and tin or pewter divisions of the penny, such as ha'pennies and farthings (quarter pennies). I'll roughly compare them to 14th century and 18th century use of these coins (Why these? Because the 14th century is bam smack in the middle of the middle ages which a lot of fantasy is modelled off, where the 18th century seems closer to the elevated wealth/economy of said fantasy settings. Additionally the 18th century is closer to the Iron Kingdoms setting, which I quite like. Also, I could easily find neat lists of prices and or wages for these eras... I'm not doing exact economical science here.)

So here we go:
-Like I said, the copper piece (penny) is more like the basic unit of currency for common folk. With the tin/pewter half and quarter(ha'penny and farthing) acting as what we now call "small change". For example, in the 18th century, one copper gets you a loaf of bread, two copper gets you drunk out of your mind on cheap gin, three copper gets you a supper of cheese, bread and beer. Ten copper gets you a pound of greasy bacon. A private in the army makes between 8 copper and one silver ( the Kings shilling) per day, but after deductions for materials, food and lodging only actually receives a penny per day usually. In the 14th century, 5 copper gets you an axe, 3 farthing (.75 copper) gets you a gallon of ale, a pair of shoes sets you back 4 copper. An apprentice armourer makes 6 copper a day, a master carpenter makes 3... A weaver makes 5 copper a day, buy has to buy his own food, where the armourer and carpenter can expect to get fed by the boss.
-The silver piece (shilling) is paycheck level of money, it's what wages for longer periods and major purchases are expressed in. 18th Century: 1 silver equals a steakhouse dinner (steak, bread and beer, yay!), a pound of soap or a pound of imported parmezan cheese. Two silver is a week's rent for a tradesman's furnished room. Whereas two silver and six copper (2.5 silver) makes you the owner of a whole pig, or gets you a tooth pulled. Seven silver gets you a pound of low quality tea, where 16 silver gets you a pound of the good stuff. An unskilled labourer makes about 9 silver per week.
In the 14th century, a cow costs 6 to 10 silver, a pig 2 to 3, pepper goes at 4 silver per pound. Fencing lessons cost 10 silver per month, while half that rents you a farmer's cottage for a year! Silk is  is 10 to 12 silver per yard. Two buckets cost you a silver. A mercenary knight makes 1 silver per day, and a master armourer 26 silver per month, a kitchen servant however, makes 2 to 4 silver per year!
-The gold piece (Pound sterling) is the currency of businesses and large purchases by nobles and other wealthy folk. Common people would rarely, if ever, see one of these coins, let alone own them.
Again, some examples: 18th century: 1 Gold gets you a square yard of carpet, toss in a silver as well and you've got a fine Beaver hat or twelve french lessons. Two gold gets you shaved and your wig dressed for a year. Five gold makes you the owner of a fancy silver hilted sword. Ofcourse a ship's boy only makes a bit under 3 gold per year, whereas you have to be Major or Colonel to make more than a gold per day. In the middle ages, 2 gold gets you a year of education in a monastery or the very lowest grade of university teaching for a year (If you are of noble birth, expect to pay 4 to 6 gold per year...) or a 2 storey cottage. Five gold gets you 7 books.  8 Gold earns you either a chariot or a knightly brass funeral effigy on a marble slab.... For an off-the-rack suit of full plate, you'll fork over between 8 and 9 gold. (But if you're the Black Prince and want your armour custom fitted and pimped out with one off engraving and guilding, prepare to cough up 340+ gold!) Somewhere around 14 gold gets you a complete set or armourers tools, that's four gold more than two knight's horses will set you back. As a laborer, you won't make more than 2 gold per year, ever. As a chantry priest you'll comfortably earn more than double that. But as a Baron, expect to rake in 200 to 500 gold pieces per year. The annual crown revenue, at peacetime, is averaged around 30.000 gold.

Now, keeping the above information in the back of your mind, take your favorite fantasy RPG rulebook and look up the price table for tools and equipment... Don't even look at the magic item prices. (A single +5 armour or a +4 sword in DnD 3.5 will utterly bankrupt even a powerful kingdom!)
Now, I don't want to turn my RPG into a full fledged economy simulation, but the prices do seem to need a bit of tweaking, don't they?
So I think a quick fix that at least partially corrects this and lets me get more use out of my copper coins is to simply downgrade each coin listed in the rules by one grade, so gold becomes silver, silver becomes copper and copper becomes tin/pewter. (But then I would need a stash of tin bits as well. Oh, well.) Actual prop  gold coins can then be used as large denominations of silver (or as platinum/other exotic coins, if the setting in question has those).

As a final bit of fun/mental exercise, let's try to see what those coins would roughly be worth in modern money. To keep consistent with the above comparisons, let's use the Pound Sterling as the gold piece equivalent. (Note that my calculation is not actually economically accurate, but I opt for the fun, evocative view over tracking centuries of inflation/coinage transitions, differing economical/societal systems and other, to me, boring economics stuff.)
As it is equated to a literal pound of silver, we just need to look up the average current day value of a pound of sterling silver. Which at the time of writing is: $ 219,61/ €208.41/GBP150.54*
As there are 20 shillings (silver) to a pound, a single one would be worth: $10.98/€10,42/GBP 7.53
With 12 copper pennies to a shilling, one copper values: $0.92/€ 0.87/GBP 0.63
With a farthing (a quarter copper) being valued as: $ 0.23/€ 0.22/GBP 0.16
Which would seem to support my supposition that the copper piece is actually the basic unit of everyday currency, seeing how close it is to the dollar and euro...
Now I feel like taking these values and holding them next to my favorite fantasy RPG price lists and seeing how it pans out. Time to step away from the computer and hit the books, I think. :)
See you again soon!

*: This just feels so very meta: Comparing the price of a pound sterling to pounds sterling to get the value of a pound sterling. :D
(As an aside, modern 1 troy ounce gold coins are actually 5 times as expensive as a pound of silver. But that is not the particular rabbit hole that I chose to go down. Especially as historical gold coins were significantly smaller than the modern ones. A Guinea for example is a quarter ounce and thus closer in value to the Pound Sterling at 1Pound1Shilling as "official" value.)

(For those who like to see more period prices, I gleaned my comparisons from these sites: and )

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