This is the second half of a two-part guest article by Phil McGregor. To anyone who doesn’t know who he is, check the brief bio at the bottom of the article.

Silver or Gold

The other thing I find really interesting in almost all D&D descended/inspired FRPs is the 1/10th (45.4 grams* gold (or any other) coin that is the “standard” by which all value is measured.
* assuming a standard [~454g] rather than an avoirdupois [~373g] pound.

Now, to anyone who has any knowledge of history, or the history of economics, or indeed, of economics itself, this assumption is a surprising and unsupportable one… and, oh my, the problems that flow from it!

This makes gold coins, as such, and, indeed, coinage in general, almost worthless as a medium of exchange in your typical FRP game on a practical basis… assuming an average sort of character who can carry, say, 80 lbs (not unreasonably for a WW1/WW2/Modern grunt, so certainly realistic)… well, he has 800 gp, maximum, in walking around money.

Or, consider it another way, that 75gp Bow (or Sword, if you took the point) mentioned in Wood or Iron, well, you need 1.25 pounds of gold to buy it.

Hmmm. Current gold price is around US$1500-1600 per ounce.

So, in something resembling (if you don’t look at it too closely) real purchasing power, that bow costs US$300-320,000 (assuming a standard pound, or US$22,500-24,000 if pound avoirdupois)…

Sorry. Not even remotely believable.

Real Coins

So, what did historical (western european) coins weigh?

Well, the Romans typically coined gold at the rate of 72 coins per Roman pound (327g), making them about 4.54g apiece… around 1/10th of what D&D and its descendants would have you believe.

Roman silver coins varied, but 96 per pound was the late Republican/early Imperial figure, for around 3.4 grams apiece…

A Medieval silver Penny, English, was minted at the rate of 240 per pound (Troy), making them around 1.55g each, while a gold Sovereign massed 8.5g, and was worth ~392g (1.05 lbs avoirdupois) of silver.

What Price A Longbow?

So, let’s look at that Bow again – 75gp is about 1.7 pounds avoirdupois, or more than US$30,000! Even worse than before, cost wise, but now, at least, you can carry around about 4272gp in your 80lb pack. So a slight improvement.

Of course, you’ll also note that 1 D&D gp is worth only 10 D&D silver pieces. Typically a roman Denarius Aureus (aka a Solidus) was worth at least 20 silver denarii in late Republican/Early Imperial times. And the gold Sovereign was worth 21 shillings, or 252 silver pennies, making gold worth around 45 times silver by weight.

So, let’s try the Bow again. But this time, assume it is 75 silver pieces. Which makes it worth 1.667 gp by the above ratio. Which makes an 8.5g gold coin worth US$730 or so in relative purchasing power.

Better, but still way over the odds for a chunk of wood, whereas that 15gp sword costs only US$146.

Much better, of course, if you assume the $146 Bow vs the $730 sword.

Looking Beyond To The Wider World

What are some of the more obvious game related flow on problems from the economic tomfoolery of D&D and D&D descended or inspired games?

Well, many of them attempt to get around the problem of Player Characters needing to carry around their portable wealth, er, portably, by issuing higher value (but still 1/10th pound, as often as not coins, such as Platinum or they include gems as more or less standard and easily assessable means of exchange or some such.

The problem with Platinum is that it is even more rare that gold. So rare that it is not mentioned in any European source until the middle of the 16th century AD – and then only as a native alloy with gold that could not be refined. In fact, Platinum was not reliably smeltable until the late 18th century AD.

So, not likely as a coinage metal in a medieval analog world.

Gems? Not a sparkling solution.

Gems are even more problematic.

See, before the 17th century AD gems were not faceted, or, at best, had a single flat surface cut… they were either polished or simply left raw. Their value was much less, in absolute and relative terms, compared to bullion, than it is now… of course, faceting doesn’t require a lot of high tech tools, even today, so it is possible to assume that an FRP world could have faceting and that, therefore, the value of faceted gems relative to bullion would be something more like the modern relativities.

The problem is, of course, that what we regard as the really valuable gems are really uncommon, and not easy, as often as not, to mine or find – unless you do it on an almost industrial scale. But that has its own problems – the only reason diamonds, for example, are worth more than a fraction of their actual price is because the DeBeers Cartel (and its supposed competitors) release only a fraction of yearly production for sale each year in one of the oldest and most successful price fixing operations in modern history!

So while, yes, you could use gems as a means of exchange you would have to bargain, and bargain hard, each time you wanted to “cash one in”… and you’d have to haggle over the price of each and every single one! Not a role playing experience most of us are interested in!

So, where are we so far?

Well, it should be obvious that 1/10th pound coins are ridiculous. It should be equally obvious that prices for goods should be, at the very minimum, assumed to be in silver coins rather than gold – and that gold should be worth a lot more than 10 x 1/10th pound silver pieces for a 1/10th pound gold piece. This makes a direct conversion difficult, since there is no realistic way you can keep that 1-to-10 ratio.

Still, converting all gp values to sp values is a start – and it makes carrying around a significant chunk of the PC’s wealth much easier.

Ah. If ’twere only that simple.

Piles Of Silver, Hoards of Gold

That’s where we get into the other problem related to gold and silver in FRP games.

There’s too damn much of it!

It should be obvious but, in case it isn’t, let me explain.

Before the discovery of the New World, estimates on the total mined bullion stocks in the Old World are on the order of 5,000 tons of gold and 50,000 tons of Silver. The bullion stock of the New World was easily equal to that, eventually.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Step back a minute. Medieval Europe had, at the height of its population, around 100 million people. Now, assume all the Old World’s bullion was in Europe (it wasn’t, of course – India and China have been gold sinks since ancient times).

  • 5000 tons of gold = 50 grams of gold per person. Or about 6 gold soveriegns.
  • 50000 tons of silver = 500 grams of gold per person. Or about 320 silver pennies.

Double those figures to add in the New World allocation. Sound like damn all? Right….

One of the major problems facing pretty much all ancient and medieval (and renaissance and even pre-20th century) societies was the lack of enough bullion to represent economic activity. In short, there wasn’t enough cash to go around. The inevitable result was periodic, nasty, economic crises.

Now, consider the average Tomb, or Monster Lair – multiply by the number of Tombs/Monster Lairs that you think is likely in the typical FRP world.

Now do you see the problem?

A Dire Prognosis

Almost all of the entire world’s supply of bullion is likely tied up in such gold sinks. Which makes gold and silver coins far, far, far more valuable than they were historically… and, well, it means that economic crises are far more common and far, far worse in such a typical FRP world.

And that doesn’t even begin to consider the inflationary pressure that all that ill gotten bullion the PCs found in the Dragon’s Lair will put on the entire Kingdom/Empire’s economy.

If you want a really nasty picture of what happens in such a case, have a look at Spain. All that New World Bullion right royally stuffed the Spanish economy – to the point where she slumped from being a world power to an also ran has-been that is barely a regional power. And it was pretty much inevitable – though, yes, the Spanish nobility were complete screw ups when it came to rationally spending the money. They beggared the peasantry and middle classes largely and spent the money on art and, mostly, failed imperial/military adventures for which they ended up with… well, some really nice art. And a totally stuffed economy that is really still stuffed compared to the rest of Europe, the rest that didn’t have all that gold.

And you really think the local FRP nobility are going to be any better?

In search of solutions

There is a sort of solution. One that Europe was grappling with from the 14th century AD onwards.

Paper money. At first it was Bills of Exchange, sort of like a cross between a Promissory Note and a Traveller’s Cheque. But they fell down because, in the end, they had to be redeemable, and the economic crises caused (in large part) by the above mentioned bullion shortage and noble mismanagement meant, inevitably, the whole arrangement was a giant economic house of cards.

Only when governments started to issue paper money, or backed private or semi–private banks who did, and only when they learnt that it didn’t have to be redeemable in bullion, but had to be acceptable by the government at something close to face value, did these problems become, well, lessened (look around at Global Financial Crisis 1.5 at the moment and see the mess that you can still make!)…

Still, this doesn’t help us with what’s in all those Tombs and Lairs, does it?

One suggestion? Artwork. Artifacts (no, not like the Head of Vecna… just really old and really sought after artworks). That sort of thing. An ancient Ming (or local equivalent) Vase. A handful of coins from a forgotten empire worth a small (or not so small!) fortune way over their actual bullion value.

This brings us back to the haggling issue, doesn’t it? So, either the PCs have to have a reliable agent who can, slowly, turn their gains into cash (or land, or whatever) or they need to have the appropriate market related skills (and have lots of time) to do it themselves.

That, plus realistically valuable and realistic weight coins, plus Bills of Exchange to keep the wheels of commerce turning at something like a reliable level and you’re set!

Suggested Reading

To get an overview of life in the Middle Ages:

Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval Castle, and Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Francis Gies are, though dated and very much centered on England, a good start.

Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon

Civilisation & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel in three volumes (!) is more than you’ll probably ever want to know about, well, Civilisation and Capitalism!

Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon Click to purchase from Amazon

More focussed, and more easily digested, are (shameless commercial plug) the following, from Phalanx Games Design (me) -

Farm, Forge and Steam: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Civilisations by Phil McGregor which provides some of the underpinnings – the limits, if you will – that applied (and have to apply) to civilisations at various levels of technological development). Written specifically with GMs as worldbuilders in mind. Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Orbis Mundi: An Annotated guide to Aspects of the Medieval World by Phil McGregor which contains a more focussed examination of the real Middle Ages, at least for the British Isles and, to a lesser extent, France. Includes something approaching a realistic(ish) and detailed price list where you won’t find 75 gp Bows! Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Displaced: Lost in Time and Space and Displaced: Survival and Rebirth by Phil McGregor which, though focussed on one-way time or dimensional travel, has all sorts of useful nuts and bolts things about how things work that easily and valuably supplement FF&S and Orbis Mundi. Click on the link or cover illustration below to visit the product page at RPGNow.

Click to purchase from RPGNow Click to purchase from RPGNow Click to purchase from RPGNow

About The Author

Phil McGregor is a moderately well known (if you’re old enough!) writer of Role Playing Game material who started wargaming in the early 1970′s, moved on to the very first edition (White Box) of Dungeons and Dragons when it came out in 1975 and was hooked!

Being in the right place at the right time, he managed to get a co-author gig with Ed Simbalist and Mark Ratner writing Space Opera (1980) as well as a couple of supplements/adventures for it, and for Chivalry & Sorcery while being published by Fantasy Games Unlimited.

Along the way he wrote the very first Rigger Black Book for FASA’s Shadowrun (1st Edition) and, in recent years, has published a number of RPG books on RPGNow under his own Phalanx Games Design imprint, including Farm, Forge and Steam, Road to Armageddon (for BTRC’s EABA), Orbis Mundi, Displaced and Audace ad Gloriam (2d6 based Exploration/Survival Gear Catalog for SF RPGs).

In real life he is a History teacher (Years 7-12) of over 30 years experience, currently teaching in a High School in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney, is semi–active in union politics for the NSW Teachers Federation, plays RPGs most Saturdays and Computer Games (mostly wargames) many other nights.

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