Friday, November 13, 2020

Welcome to Bartertown!

 Let's talk about Krynn's steel-based economy.

Yes, I wrote (briefly) about this before...I've had more time to ponder it and more information with which to synthesize its sheer ridiculousness. 

First, we can talk about steel itself. Oh, boy...lots there. Krynn seems to have  a technology level at least equal to the late middle ages of Earth (plate armored knights means 14th to 15th century, yeah?). Humans on our planet started working steel from a couple thousand years before that. Why? Because they were fairly ingenious and the materials they needed (iron and timber) were plentiful. 5% of the Earth's crust is made of iron...that's a LOT. And it doesn't take huge amounts of heat to extract it...just heat in the proper amounts with the proper technique. 

[rather than spend a bunch of time writing a thesis on That Which I Am Unqualified To Explain, I will simply direct you to Bret Devereaux's excellent essays on the subject]

Even if the world of Krynn is exceptionally "iron poor," as has been suggested some places, the creation of a currency based on steel makes little sense. After all, steel wasn't a unit of currency before the Cataclysm; if it was such a rare and precious commodity on Krynn, why wasn't iron used as legal tender previously? 

And let's talk about these "steel pieces;" who's minting them anyway? And to what purpose? Do folks trade them to the local blacksmith? Again, the purpose of money is for a portable unit of exchange (instead of trying to buy a helmet with a bag of grain)...steel is a commodity, to be forged and shaped. And my understanding is that blacksmiths prefer to work in billets; why would one want to go through the trouble of forging the coins into something useful?

But, again...who is striking these coins and where? Old, used, and even rusty metal can be reforged...presumably there's lots of metal scraps left over from the pre-Cataclysm days. Maybe the Cataclysm just turned everyone stupid? Maybe that's's a passage from DL3: Dragons of Hope:

"Here, the flat plain shows scars of the Dwarfgate War. The blasted heath is punctuated by the rusting hulks of ancient, broken war machines. The wind howls across the plain. 
"Rusted, broken swords, shields, and armor litter the plain, obscured by sand and drifting snows. The great iron war machines stand draped in ice, a monument of destruction."
There is nothing of value here. 

Um, no...there's plenty of value there.  And the place should have already been picked clean by now: the Dwarfgate War occurred approximately 250 years before the events of the adventure module...plenty of metal (i.e. steel), broken or otherwise, worth looting. And considering the Dwarfgate War was a post-Cataclysm event (i.e. after the rise of steel as the currency of choice) an un-looted battlefield represents an obscene amount of wealth just to be left lying around (and keep in mind that the DL setting awards X.P. for the recovery of steel based on its "gpw," i.e. gold piece weight). We're all leveling up!

[and just for the record, failing to loot a battlefield is pretty strange...there were survivors (on both sides!) after all]

The idea that Krynn is some sort of metal poor world (like MZB's Darkover) simply doesn't make sense, and neither does the idea of minting "steel pieces." It's a poetic concept (and, again, I see the implied allegory here: Krynn moving from a "golden age" to an age of war), but it's nonsense.

That doesn't mean, however, that you can't have the bottom fall out of the gold market.

Krynn is a post-apocalyptic world. The Cataclysm messed it up but good.  And if you live in a large urban area like, say, Xak Tsaroth or Tarsis and suddenly have your food supply wiped out by enormously dramatic environmental catastrophe, then it doesn't matter how much gold you have. You can't buy bread when there's no bread to buy.

And here I can see the total (or near total) devaluation of the gold piece. Monetization of an economy exists to fill a need, that need being an easy exchange of goods between large groups of suppliers and demanders (yes, I'm over-simplifying). When civil society breaks down, though, and the population exists on the edge of survival, monetization is no longer necessary. You can't eat gold. And again, as an allegory, steel does become a form of currency: the pointy, sword-shaped type pointed at the farmer whose meager grain supply he hoped would feed him through the winter. Steel...war and murder...becomes the new method for "facilitating an exchange of goods" in a post-apocalyptic world.

But once everyone's armed up (and the weakest have gone about the business of dying) you can move back to barter. And here "steel" (as a matter of currency) might be a stand-in term for "goods" or "useful items." The closer the timeline is to the catastrophic event, the more reliant one is on straight trading of goods and services (as opposed to money of any sort)...because you really don't know when the iron mines and Pax Tharkas are going to get up and running again, and you could really use a helmet and a sword for the next time those bandits try raiding the village granary. Winter is coming!

I'm reminded of various bits of post-apocalyptic fiction here. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (of course) with Tina Turner's Bartertown, but also The Blood of Heroes (Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen) with its ritualized banditry in the form of jugging. Their money tended to be bits of scrap metal, too, but it was pretty obvious from the landscape that no one was going to be opening any iron mines in the near future. Krynn doesn't have to deal with that type of radioactive wasteland.

Additionally, Krynn is pretty far removed from its Cataclysm (by the time of the novels anyway). It's 350 years later. People are living in treetop villages, surrounded by fields of rich farmland (farmland later burned and destroyed by invading dragon armies...what's up with THAT? How is the army going to eat?!). Nation states are forming up, diplomatic relations forming between new cities like Solace, Gateway, Haven, and the plainsmen (plainsfolk?). Trade is taking place! Half-elves are wearing feathers! All that jazz.

And there are plenty of places where life is going on much as it did before the Cataclysm. The dwarves of Thorbardin are unchanged. Qualinesti is still a city of towering, crystalline (elven) spires that have stood since before the "fiery mounted" impacted with Istar. Palanthas is mostly unchanged, as is the insular culture of the Solamnic knights (though the same can't be said for their prestige and standing within the Krynnish community). The kender didn't sink into the ocean (much to the rest of Krynn's chagrin). The tinker gnomes remain on the same island they have for thousands of years. 

While Krynn has suffered an unnatural disaster of impressive scale, it is a world well on its way to recovery. The people have adapted to the new landscape, hard as that may have been. And other than the invasion of an evil goddess-backed army led by dragon riders and soldiers that explode or turn into acid when you kill them...well, life would seem pretty close to idyllic.

Which is why I keep thinking I need to change the setting to something closer to the apocalypse...something like 100 years after the Cataclysm

I was thinking that I'd call this little project, "B/X Dragonlance;" now, I'd just settle for "reasonable Dragonlance."

All right, that's enough for tonight. It's my birthday and the family is trying to fete me and whatnot. Makes it really tough to write blog posts (I started writing this morning). Ugh...all right, all right...I've got to go. 


  1. It was just window dressing that was never thought out. But because its a railroad collecting wealth doesn't really matter in the adventures anyway.

    But all that being said D&D economics never realy make sense. I do my best to justify things in my current campaign, which takes place 18 years after the orc horde ravaged half the borderlands. This explains why they have so much loot.

    For DL I would go closer to the cataclysm. Say 60 years. Old Man Edwin still remebers the splendor of the old times and yammers on about the great temples and strange fruits brought in from far away lands when trade still existed.

  2. I suspect Steel Dragons are being farmed for scales which are about the same amount of steel per coin.

  3. Happy birthday! :)

    Yeah, nothing annoys me more than a setting that doesn't pay attention to its lore. ;p

  4. I have heard it said that the "Golden Age of Sci-fi/Fantasy is 14." That always rang true for me because I was 14 when I read these books and I was more interested in the exploits of the novel characters and not the ins and out of Krynn's economy.

    Now of course the whole steel piece makes no sense what-so-ever. Even in interviews Weis and Hickman felt it was not well thought out and wanted to get the RPG characters away from the idea of hording gold.

    I frankly never used it for the one or two games I ran in Krynn.

    1. Yeah. And it's fairly easy to convert the treasure hoards from "steel" to "gold."

      A more interesting question is what PCs are going to do with the wealth they pull out of such places as Skullcap or Pax Tharkas or Xak Tsaroth. Even without an impending dragonarmy invasion, there's no cities to sell various treasures and luxuries (1500# gold doors and whatnot). How many spiced potatoes can you buy for a handful of rubies?

      Treasure is more useful in a world set up to take advantage of and appreciate treasure.