Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Money Issues

So today I've been researching medieval and ancient currencies in prep for my posted world setting. Ugh...what a freaking nightmare.

I won't say it hasn't been worthwhile reading, but it's a total pain in the ass trying to bend a fantasy game equipment list to anything historically accurate. And the conclusion I came to in the end is, it doesn't need to be "historically accurate." This isn't history we're talking about, it's fantasy.

Why does B/X D&D use a gold standard of currency instead of a silver standard? Because it's a damn fantasy world, that's why. While I can see that Gygax's AD&D currencies are based in large part on medieval England (with the pound substituting for the gold piece, the schilling for the silver piece, and the penny for copper...all in the appropriate rate of exchange of 1=20=200), who's to say what might be more (or less) valuable in an alternate (i.e. self-devised) fantasy setting? I'd want to build my fantasy economy on the silver mark, personally (the coins were a lot more portable)...but would a dragon want to sleep on a horde of guilders or florins?


I have seen, in more than one writing (and not just the internet) people complaining about the "unrealistic" costs of armor in the B/X system (for example, 60gps for a suit of plate mail, 40gps for a suit of chain). Per wikipedia (sorry) a hauberk alone cost the equivalent of 12 dairy cows and a full suit of mail might cost "as much as a small house." Well, okay then...how much would a dairy cow have cost in the 11th century?

Well, per one web site, the cost of a good cow in the 12th century would have been 10 schillings. If we use the AD&D Gygaxian conversion (pound = GP, schilling = SP, pence = CP) then a cow would be 10sp and a chain hauberk about 120sp (6gp, using AD&D conversion of 20sp to 1gp). The same site lists a 14th century merchant's house to cost from 33L to 66L (that's 33-66gp in conversion)...although a 14th century cottage is only 2L = 2gp. Guess it depends on your definition of a "small house."

The same site lists the cost of a suit of chainmail (12th century) as 100 schillings (sps); the equivalent of 5 pounds (or 5gp with D&D conversion). A complete suit of "lance armor" (plate & mail) as 3L 6S (that's 3gp and 6sp), while "ready-made milanese armor is L8 6S 8D (8gp + 6sp + 8cp), and "armor of proof" (plate tested against pistols and such) being L14 2S 8D. Under 15gp seems pretty good for firearm-sturdy plate armor, right?

As I said, it's enough to make your head spin. 13 schillings converts to about 1 silver mark. A silver mark is (or was rather) the value of half a pound of silver. In D&D terms, that's 5 silver pieces in any edition due to the giant-size of coins in the Gygaxian universe (10 coins = 1 pound). So if I do a straight conversion from real world to fantasy world (rather than just have the Gygaxian stand-in of 1=20=200 or L=gp, S=sp, D=cp), then you get this in real world terms:

Chainmail = 100 schillings
100 schillings = 7.69 silver marks (we'll round up to 8).
8 silver marks = 4 pounds of silver
4 pounds of silver = 40 silver coins in D&D (40sp)

Which means chainmail in D&D should be either 4gp or 2gp (in AD&D).

Now the cost of chainmail in B/X D&D is 40 gold pieces, not 40 silver pieces. Can we do a straight across conversion (i.e. real silver = "fantasy gold")? I mean it IS a "fantasy world," right? Sure you can...in which case, the costs in the B/X book seem just fine without blowing up the costs. I mean, the average cost of plate and mail is about 60 silver (i.e. 60 fantasy gold pieces). There may be an issue with the amount of starting wealth characters have (and some of the other equipment seems a bit over-priced), but I don't think inflating the prices makes the game more "realistic."

Interesting that "armor for the Prince of Wales, gilt and graven" cost a grand total of 340 L in the 17th century. Even converting pounds straight to gold pieces, I've seen an awful lot of "plate mail" listings post-B/X in the 400+ gp range (even DCC lists half-plate as 550gp and full plate as a whopping 1200gp!). Totally ridiculous!

All right, that's enough for now. My new world setting is going to be on the gold system, and costs will be fairly equivalent to B/X, but I plan on doing some weirdness with starting wealth (and I may also reduce the cost of some items...or not). But if anyone's wondering why I don't up the price of armor, well, this is why.


  1. I only skimmed your article, but that's entirely because I had the same problem: money is complex enough in the modern day without having to figure it out in the medieval ages.

    Really as long as prices have the right "bellyfeel", nobody's going to look twice.

  2. Maybe of interest, though you've probably already seen it, I bet:


    There is no question that the prices and costs of the game are based on inflationary economy, one where a sudden influx of silver and gold has driven everything well beyond its normal value. The reasoning behind this is simple. An active campaign will most certainly bring a steady flow of wealth into the base area, as adventurers come from successful trips into dungeon and wilderness.

    -- Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide page 90

  3. I looked into all this for Redwald, based on Anglo-Saxon currency the silver pound is worth about $7,000.


    I rounded things down to simplify, but it's close to the historical value.

    Here's my source material . . .


    They list the cow as 88.5 Shillings, so about 21 pounds of silver. At $7,000 a pound a full suit of chain, per the 12 cows, would be worth the equivalent of $148,680 would that get a small house (apartment?) in the states these days?


  4. You know, between monetary systems and Bards it's hard to tell which one is more of an Old School pit of despair when one tries to make it either more realistic within a pseudo-Medieval setting, or more mechanically justified with the rest of the game. Of course you learn a lot just by trying to address the problem and researching history, but, well ... can somebody explain to me why a silver standard is something other than an aesthetic choice? Raggi (e.g.) thinks it's more gritty, some say it's more realistic to Medieval Europe. So what? If you're also pegging XP to SP on a silver standard, what have you done to game play? It doesn't seem like a substantive change.

    Sorry for being ranty. I'm writing a diss chapter about estimating ancient population in an ancient Maya city and am overwhelmed by the futility of trying to model something with utmost precision while you're aware of the multiple compounding errors that make it educated guess-work. It is far less fun than just playing D&D in a world where full plate is 1000gp, sp, sheep , cows, dogs, lizards, eggs, snot balls, or other currency. If I need 10000 snot balls to reach the next level, where is the Lair of the Snotball King/Queen?

  5. @ N.: Yeah, I was mostly just fooling around anyway.
    ; )

    @ Brendan: I had NOT seen that...thanks! Makes me feel a bit better, but I figured that ("fantasy inflation") was part of it.

    @ Lee: Depends on where you're buying the real estate. Location location location!
    : )

    @ Spawn: Get all ranty...I know what you mean and am on pretty much the same page. I'm hoping sleep deprivation will get my brain fuzzy enough I can just write up some psychadelic-fantasy hash that looks cool to the naked eye (even if it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny).
    ; )

  6. A stimulating post. I prefer a more historically accurate medieval economy, with a silver standard.

    In the passage Brendan cites, I dislike the economic assumptions Gygaz makes--that adventuring is a common profession, that there's a perpetual Dungeon Rush boom economy in action. Following that line of thinking, you get a society where magic and monsters are so commonplace that the culture becomes unrecognizably different from historical medieval societies. To cite an especially silly example, you might get a city where the authorities use gelatinous cubes to clean streets and alleyways (in Paul Kidd's novelization of White Plume Mountain).

    Those settings feel unaesthetically artificial to me. They make magic and monsters mundane.

    I prefer to keep adventurers, monsters & magic rare, to maintain the medieval moorings of my fantasy world, and to preserve the sense of wonder that should surround the wilds and dungones where magic and monsters dwell. Finally, it allows PCs to be more special, and to have a larger impact on the world around them.

  7. @ Brian:

    I suspect Gary's "explanation" was a bit of post-design justification/rationalization.
    ; )

  8. Currency can be really cool in a fantasy world, just take our own history there were so many variations. The Chinese had paper currency, the north had hack silver. I can visualize elves with rune inked parchment. The Dwarves using gold links or hack silver. This gives a lot of character to a campaign world.

  9. Anytime you want some advice, JB, we can sit down at length and talk.

  10. @ Alexis: Thank you for the generous offer...I know this is a subject you have plumbed in depth!