Upsetting the Money Cart (or the After-denier Mint)

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Twilight Jack
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Upsetting the Money Cart (or the After-denier Mint)

The monetary system of Dungeons & Dragons sucks; we all instinctively know this.  Sure, it’s a game, and sure, Gygax designed it this way for ease of play, but it’s always been a hot mess. 

  • It’s flavorless. 
  • It requires a lot of completely absurd assumptions in order to make even nominal sense—the assumption that all coins minted by all societies everywhere throughout history have always had the same fixed weight, for instance (even if that weight has fluctuated wildly between the various editions of the game—a character can carry a maximum of 3,000 coins’ weight of encumbrance in OD&D, 1,600 coins’ weight in Moldvay/Cook, or 2,400 coins’ in Mentzer; coins weigh 10/pound in 1e, 50/pound in 3.x, and 100/pound in ACKS). 
  • It massively undervalues the precious metals themselves, such that their use as a system of currency ceases to make much sense, as it becomes very difficult to transport enough of a given coin to transact business at the higher levels (in ACKS, a large ship costs 200 pounds of gold, and every other version of D&D is at least twice as bad). 
  • Finally, it’s not as easy to track in play as it first seems, since you need to record exactly how many coins of a given denomination are being carried at all times, and track their weight separately.

 

Alex and the other creators of ACKS have gone to extraordinary lengths to revise the economic system of D&D, in order to create a viable model across all levels of play.  They left the monetary system alone, however, continuing to track wealth in arbitrary gold, silver, and copper “pieces”.  That’s bugged me right from the outset, as they had such a magnificent opportunity to rebuild the system from the ground up.  I understand the reasons for their decision, but I’ve never really agreed with it.

 

Even so, as much as I’ve always wanted to futz about with the system of coinage, too many of the game’s assumptions are based on the gold piece standard to allow for it to be done lightly.  If I was going to go to the trouble of designing a new monetary framework, it would have to fulfill at least 6 criteria:

  1. It would have to provide enough interesting flavor to the campaign to be worth it.
  2. It would need to do away with the most ridiculous assumptions of the classic D&D system (uniform weight of all coins across all civilizations being the most egregious example).
  3. It would need to value the metals appropriately, and allow for business to be done at high levels before the invention of paper money.
  4. It would need to leave the larger economic assumptions upon which ACKS has been based largely intact.
  5. It had to remain easy to track for accounting purposes, both in terms of value, encumbrance, and XP granted for treasure.
  6. The conversion couldn’t “punish” the players’ characters in any appreciable way (by reducing their actual wealth or the amount they could carry, for example).

 

Even so, I’ve finally taken the plunge, and I believe all 6 criteria have been met.

 

In putting a new monetary system together, I began by identifying the most basic bedrock(s) of the ACKS economic model.  After looking at the system from every angle I could devise, I was able to determine that there are two foci around which the rest of the economic system has been built: the fact that 1 sp equals one day’s wages for an unskilled laborer, and the fact that 1 gp of treasure equals 1 XP for an adventurer.

 

Interestingly enough, if I look at the standard of 1 silver piece = 1 day’s labor, I see that it has historical precedent in the Roman denarius, Greek drachma, French denier, or the Anglo-Saxon penny. 

 

That gives me two data points that I can use to anchor my system to the ACKS economic model, but I need a third.  While I now know the value of labor in the game economy and the value of experience in the meta-game economy, I need to tie both to a fixed quantity of precious metal in order to build a monetary system.  Given a choice between gold and silver as the standard, I choose silver.  Since the base value I’ve assigned to one silver piece (a day’s labor) is relatively concrete, whereas the base value I’ve assigned to a gold piece (1 XP) is completely abstract, this seems the sensible choice.  Now I just need a unit of weight in silver to which I can assign a solid value.  At that point, I’ll have all three dimensions I need to build outward.

 

Enter the Libra (aka Livre, Lire, or British Pound).  Historically, this is the unit of weight/value attached to a given quantity of pure silver.  The unit of weight in question is somewhat lighter than our 16 ounce Avoirdupois pound; it’s usually called a Troy pound nowadays.  As it turns out, I can compare the Troy pound to the ACKS stone and wind up with nearly 12 ½ Troy pound to the Stone, almost exactly.  That makes math easy.

 

Interestingly, the Romans, French, British, Dutch, and other European nations of the early Middle Ages based their system of coinage around the Libra, with an added serendipitous bonus.  A Libra could be split into 20 smaller units called Solidii (or sous, or shillings, or stuiviers, etc.).  A Solidus, in turn, could be broken up into 12 even smaller units, called denarii (or deniers, or pence).  We now have a direct link between the Libra and the silver piece.  Which means we also have a precise formula to tie the value of a Troy pound of silver to a day’s wages.  That in turn tells us how much a traditional D&D silver piece should weigh.

 

The only problem now is that 12 pence to the shilling, 240 to the Pound, is a mess to calculate.  Although 12 makes way more sense as a base for a system of counting (splits evenly more ways, which makes multiplication and factoring a breeze), we are all far too accustomed to base-10 as a matter of practice.  No matter.  It’s an easy enough thing to adjust the system so that 10 deniers make a sou.  Keeping 20 sou to the Livre, that gives us 200 day’s wages for every Troy pound of silver (which devalues silver just a little, but I think I can live with it).  As an added bonus to that adjustment, the new Solidus is now worth exactly what a gold piece was in the old system.  That means that Libra, Solidus, Denarius now tracks perfectly to my three essential data points.

 

I think the word Libra is evocative, so I’m keeping it.  I’m going to name the other two denominations sols and deners, respectively, but call the latter pennies or pence as a matter of convention.  At which point I can adopt the pricing conventions of the old £.s.d. system of Europe wholesale.  All values can be expressed as follows: 10 Libras, 2 sols, and 7 pence can be written £10.2s.7d. or even £10 2/7 (I’ll generally stick to the former, for ease of understanding).

 

The next thing to ensure is that the value of other coins is fixed by weight relative to silver.  Compiling information from various ancient and medieval sources then rounding off the edges to simplify conversions, I’ve created the following chart to summarize a set of (reasonably) fixed values for precious metals typically used as currency, relative to one another.  To allow for ease of play, presume that the Lawful powers-that-be (kingdoms, trade guilds, churches, etc.) make special effort to hold these values steady.  Other metals have value as trade goods, but are subject to market demand modifiers as normal. 

 

 

Gold

Electrum[1]

Silver

Copper

Gold

1

½

1/20

1/2,000

Electrum

2

1

1/10

1/1,000

Silver

20

10

1

1/100

Copper

2,000

1,000

100

1

 

At the end of the day, the raw value of each works out like this:

  • A stone's weight of gold = £250. (enough to buy a magic sword)
  • A stone's weight of electrum = £125. (enough to buy a pair of townhouses)
  • A stone's weight of silver = £12.10s. (enough to buy a light war horse and scale barding) 
  • A stone's weight of copper = 2s.5d. (enough to buy a night in a superb inn and a pint of rare wine)          

 

Or another way:

  • An “item’s” weight of gold ≈ £42. (enough to buy a heavy war horse and chain barding)
  • An “item’s” weight of electrum ≈ £21. (enough to buy a medium war horse)
  • An “item’s” weight of silver ≈ £2.1s. (enough to buy a composite bow and a quiver of arrows)
  • An “item’s” weight of copper = 4d., 2 ounces (enough to buy a night in an average inn, with a bit of haggling)

 

This holds true no matter what particular coins (or even mixtures of them) are contained in a given hoard.  Find a bag full of gold coins of mixed sizes and weights, and you can determine its value by weight alone.

 

And no matter the coins or the weight, 1 sol = 1 XP​.

 

Platinum has no hard value as currency, as no human civilization of an antique or medieval tech-level has ever minted coins or traded in it as a primary mode of exchange—it is too hard to strike into coins and too rare to fix a stable value.  I would imagine that it is highly regarded for jewelry and other adornments, however. 

 

Listed below are the common coins of Ranzeal, a kingdom in my homebrew world.  Ranzeal forms a loose confederation with four other kingdoms, all five of which mint and circulate the three basic denominations at agreed upon weights, although their names and the values of all other coins may vary.

 

  • Gold sovereign (Libra) = £1. = 20s. = 200d. = 250/stone = 1 1/16” diameter  (smaller than a half dollar)
  • Gold crown = 5s. = 50d. = 1,000/stone = ¾” diameter (about the size of a nickel)
  • Gold florin (half-crown) = 2 ½s. = 30d. = 2,000/stone = ⅝” diameter (about the size of a dime)
  • Silver noble (sol) = 1s. = 10d. = 250/stone = 1 5/16” diameter (slightly bigger than a half dollar)
  • Silver star = 5d. = 500/stone = 1” diameter (slightly bigger than a quarter)
  • Silver penny (dener) = 1d.  = 2,500/stone = ⅝” diameter(about the size of a dime)
  • Silver sparrow (halfpenny) = ½d. = 5,000/stone = ½” diameter (about ¾ the size of a dime)
  • Silver scale (farthing) = ¼d. = 10,000/stone =  5/16” diameter (about half the size of a dime)
  • Copper ounce = 1/12d. = 300/stone = 1 ¼” diameter (about the size of a half dollar)

 

For a PC, all that usually needs be noted is the total value of each metal being carried (and even separating by metals is only necessary if enough is being carried to begin to comprise “items” or “stone” of weight).  Most of the time, it’ll be a mix of the various denominations minted in that metal, and can be spent without concern for the particular coins involved.

 

To convert your current coinage into the new system, note the current value of your platinum and gold coinage together, then divide the value by 20 to convert into Libras.  Note the remainder as sols.  So a current stock of 24 pp and 1,275 gp is now represented as £69.15s., all of which is now being carried in gold, and weighs approximately 2 “items”.  A similar operation is conducted on the silver coins, with a single sp worth a penny in the new system.  Ten pence make a sol, and 20 sols to a Libra, so 746 sp converts to £3.14s.6d.  Copper pieces are expressed in pence and fractions of pence, so 99 cp becomes 8 ¼d.  At your discretion, feel free to dispense with the copper coins entirely, adding the balance to your silver total in the form of halfpennies and farthings.

 

The upshot for PCs is that gold and electrum are worth 5 times what they were by weight.  Silver has also had its value increased, by a factor of 2.5.  Alas, copper has taken a hit, now worth only 25% of what it once was.  As a result, the coinage listed in the conversion example above, which weighed in at over 2 stone in the old system, now weighs only a little over two “items.”  This reduction in encumbrance from coins will hold at any denomination, unless characters elect to travel about with large amounts of copper coin.

 

[1] Electrum is an alloy of silver and gold, which value is set by the proportion of each contained in the metal.  Since no electrum coins are minted in the Five Kingdoms, this estimate of value is set based upon the 47.5%/52.5% ratio of gold to silver that appears in all coins minted by the Old Empire. 

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bobloblah
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Looks solid, at a glance, and pretty cool from a Judge's perspective. Thanks for posting it! Having said that, from your original six points, I can't imagine imagine my players seeing #1 as worth it. I assume by this post that your players would (or do). I've tinkered with different coinage in the past, and there has always seemed to be pushback against anything that isn't the standard, base-10, D&D-coinage system. Some other minor downsides I can see to this are large treasure hordes being somewhat underwhelming, as they now probably consist of far fewer coins, and an elimination of some of the logistical challenges that come with that size. Can you comment out how that's played out for your group in-game?

EDIT: Oh, and am I reading it correctly that a silver Sol has the same value as a gp, both monetarily (per ACKS' price lists) and for XP?

Twilight Jack
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My players have greeted the changes with enthusiasm so far.  I think part of what makes this work is that I've kept all the important math unchanged.  1 silver penny = 1 sp, and 1 silver Sol = 1 gp, both for prices and XP (you read it exactly right).  Nobody cares about the other denominations in the old system, so the base-10 D&D coinage has been preserved in just about every way they care about.  The introduction of the Libra (and the corresponding increase in the value of gold) makes accounting a little easier at the higher levels, since it reduces the actual numbers you're throwing around by a factor of 20.

Some other minor downsides I can see to this are large treasure hordes being somewhat underwhelming, as they now probably consist of far fewer coins, and an elimination of some of the logistical challenges that come with that size. Can you comment out how that's played out for your group in-game?

I think of this as the "Smaug Fallacy."  Almost everyone who's ever run a game of D&D read The Hobbit as a kid, and remembers the sense of wonder that accompanied the dragon sleeping upon his massive hoard of gold and gems.  We want to create that sense of excitement in our players, so we want treasure hoards to be massive: piles upon piles of gold such that you need servants, wheelbarrows, draft horses, and a dozen baker's dozens of apprentice wizards casting Tenser's floating disk to haul it all away.

But I'd like you to consider this: Smaug's hoard was the entire treasury of an ancient dwarven kingdom, the wealthiest and most powerful of its day.  Thanks to both the mining and crafting skill of the dwarves, as well as their unquenchable greed for the precious things deep beneath the earth, this hoard made beggars of every other human or elven kingdom in Middle-Earth.  It was so great and so fabled in its greatness that the very last Ancient Wyrm Red Dragon in the whole damn setting abandoned his previous home (and whatever treasure he'd already accumulated in centuries of pillage) to come take it for his own.  That dragon, a being of incalcuable lust and avarice, then called it a day, curled up for a nap, and doesn't appear to have done aught else to add to it since.  After the dragon was dead, the wealth of the place was so vast that five armies went to war with one another in order to secure just a portion of it.

There is no Treasure Table result that yields a haul like that, even if you multiplied all the numbers by 100.  This is not a king's ransom, nor even an emperor's.  This is fantastic, staggering, unimaginable wealth.

But hey, we want treasure hauls to feel "impressive," so we pack rooms with 1,000s upon 1,000s of gold coins and make players overcome logistical challenges in order to cart it all off, as a matter of course.

And in doing that, we make the gold itself less impressive, because we devalue it so that we can give our players "more."

So I ask what's more impressive:

  1. A roomful of the same gold coins seen in the hands of every yeoman in the realm, wherein the PCs must cart away every last one in order to cover the costs of hiring the wagons they needed to cart it away; or
  2. a chestful of gold coins that are only ever seen in the hands of nobles and wealthy merchants, each one of which would feed a peasant family for a season, and a single sackful of which would make a man wealthier than the local viscount?

I've decided that I can get more mileage from the second state of affairs, and it seems to be working out well so far.

I still have the option to present my players with a logistical challenge, I just don't usually do it with gold coins: in our last session the party had to devise plans to liberate half a dozen expensive rugs, numerous tapestries, a crate full of wyrmling dragon horns, three chairs, and a chaise lounge from the dungeon lair of an evil cult.  It's a good thing I told them the canopy bed was made of inferior wood, or they'd have spent an hour figuring out how best to carry that down a 10' corridor.

 

bobloblah
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Yeah, I get what you're saying there. Mind you, I wasn't basing my thinking on Smaug's horde, per say - I agree with your read on that - but on "hordes" I've given out in play where logistics does become an issue. That can be quite a bit smaller than a dragon's bed! Since we started playing ACKS, my players have struggled with that a great many times. And, to be clear, I don't just mean with trade-goods and the like, but the actual coins. At low- to mid-levels, a large stash of coins can still be a real burden on encumbrance, never mind the trade goods (which my players are wont to ignore due to logistical issues). Particularly when they have to flee for their lives, which has happened several times recently.

I'm thinking I may try this out in my next campaign and see how it goes. Or maybe I'll force it on the PbP I have running here on the site...

devil

Twilight Jack
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Yeah, I get what you're saying there. Mind you, I wasn't basing my thinking on Smaug's horde, per say - I agree with your read on that - but on "hordes" I've given out in play where logistics does become an issue. That can be quite a bit smaller than a dragon's bed! Since we started playing ACKS, my players have struggled with that a great many times. And, to be clear, I don't just mean with trade-goods and the like, but the actual coins. At low- to mid-levels, a large stash of coins can still be a real burden on encumbrance, never mind the trade goods (which my players are wont to ignore due to logistical issues). Particularly when they have to flee for their lives, which has happened several times recently.

I'm thinking I may try this out in my next campaign and see how it goes. Or maybe I'll force it on the PbP I have running here on the site...

devil


-bobloblah

Yeah, I wasn't meaning to suggest that you were specifically using Smaug as your basis, just that the notion of big, grand piles of gold as a requirement for emotionally satisfying treasure (even if you have to ruthlessly devalue the gold to preserve game balance) seems to have a psychological tie-in to that story and others like it for many judges and players.

In play, the encumbrance issue still crops up just fine with coins.  At lower levels, plenty of treasure will still be given out in silver pence and sols.  Although a silver penny weighs much less than the old sp for the same value, the silver sol actually weighs more than the gp it replaces (250/stone instead of 1,000/stone).  So they'll get plenty weighted down as they accrue treasure.  Whenever they find gold, they obviously get to cart around a lot more lucre for the weight, but now the value of the treasure is such that they would strip off and throw away their weapons, shields, and armor before considering leaving a sack of gold behind.

That sort of sensibility suits me fine. 

 

bobloblah
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Stop, stop! You had me at "strip off and throw away their weapons!"

Twilight Jack
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Oh, one other thing that's implied but not explicitly stated in my original write-up.  The fact that I've indexed the value of silver and gold to weight not only allows for diverse nations to trade in coins of different sizes and types, but even allows me to do business in hacksilver and know the precise value of a silver goblet that's been chopped into pieces with an axe.  Hooray for my viking-analogue cultures!

Jard
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Looked up "Hacksilver" on wikipedia.
Now the Viking part of my imagination is firing.
Gonna have to go listen to some Turisas.

Twilight Jack
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Glad to be of service!

You haven't really played D&D until you've stripped the silver armband off a slain foe, then chopped it into thirds with an axe to buy a new spear and shield.

Alex
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You'll be gratified to note that the underlying assumption of ACKS is in fact that 1 silver piece is the equivalent of a Greek drachma, Roman silver denarii, or English silver penny. Specifically:

  • 1 copper piece is the equivalent of a Greek copper obolus, Roman copper ass, or English copper farthing
  • 1 silver piece is the equivalent of a Greek drachma, Roman silver denarii, or English silver penny
  • 1 electrum piece is equivalent of approximately a Greek silver tetradrachm
  • 1 gold piece is equivalent of approximately a Roman gold quinarii (half-aureus) or English shilling [exactly 1.2gp per shilling to be precise]
  • 1 platinum piece is approximately an English crown (5 shillings)

When using the pound, shilling, and pence, there are technically 240 silver pence to the troy pound, and 12 troy pound to the stone, which should yield 2,880 silver pieces per stone. ACKS sets a weight of 1,000 silver pieces per stone. So on that basis silver pieces in ACKS are worth only 34% of its historical value by weight. 

However, the Roman silver denarius and Greek silver drachma both weighed about 96 to the pound or 4.3 grams, approximately 100 per pound. On that basis silver pieces in ACKS are correctly weighted.

In ancient Greece, there were approximately 6 copper obols to the silver drachma. In the Roman Principate, the copper ass weighed 11 grams and was valued at 1/16th of a denarius. 11/4.3 x 1/16 = 0.15, so each 4.3 grams of copper was worth 0.15 denarii, or 6.25 copper pieces to the silver piece. I rounded from 6:1 to 10:1 for simplicity and compatibility with extant D&D content. 

Finally in the Roman principate, the gold aureus weighed 7.9 grams with a value of 25 denarii. 4.3/7.9 x 25 = 13 denarii per 4.3 grams of gold. I rounded from 13:1 to 10:1, again for simplicity and compatability.

So ACKS's ratios and weights are quite reasonable, albeit slightly simplfiied (100:10:1 compared to 72:12:1 historically), during Antiquity.

Since the difference in the value of silver during Antiquity and the Middle Ages is thus very large - in both cases, 1 silver piece was a day's wages, but during the Middle Ages the coin was 33% the size of that in Antiquity - there is now way to be true to both.

One of the oddities of ACKS is that for most prices I have often used the silver penny rather than the denarius as my benchmark. That is, ACKS prices relative to weight are based on the ancient world but relative to coins tend to more closely correlate to medieval prices. There are a variety of reasons for this, among which are (1) greater availabilty of historical prices, (2) better gameplay outcomes, (3) a presumption of debasement and inflation during my own campaign setting's era, and (4) a presumption that more gold and silver have been mined during my campaign setting's era due to dwarves.

 

Antiquities
Joined: 2013-07-05 19:55

So, instead of "a wizard did it," ACKS Economics are based on "a dwarf did it."

Alex
The Autarch
Joined: 2011-06-30 18:10

It takes into account the socio-economic implications of a mining-oriented race capable of more efficient subsurface excavation than was historically the case. So there.

 

bobloblah
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Well, when you say it like that, it almost sounds believable!

Twilight Jack
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All of that information is indeed gratifying, Alex, thanks!  It looks like all of your own math is of a piece with mine.  The primary difference is that my world is still based in the struggle out of darkness after the collapse of the ancient empire (read Middle Ages), while yours is invested in the attempt to hold back that darkness in the first place.

So we wound up answering the same questions from different historical starting points.

It's nice to know that the system I've devised still fits within the framework around which you built the game.  It minimizes the chances of a major unanticipated consequence down the line.

Alex
The Autarch
Joined: 2011-06-30 18:10

I think what you wrote up is awesome - it was actually really gratifying to see that someone could review the game and reverse-engineer the historical basis of the pricing I used. I'm sure it'll be fantastic!

If you are ever inclined, you should do a write-up in a more formal manner about the price system and medieval settings that we can include in Axioms one day.

Twilight Jack
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I'd be happy to do so, once I've playtested the system a bit more and made sure I like the form it's taken.

Beragon
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Hmm... how does that saying go? Oh yeah...

"Just follow the money."

Nice work by the way and an enjoyable read. You just don't get conversations like this in other RP systems.

moorcrys
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I just want to second, third, or fourth how awesome this thread is.

Blackwarder
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This thread is brilliant :)

Warder