Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Fantasy Economics (p.1)

Let's get right to it:
36. Tharkadan Treasure Vault

Having detected the secret door, locating the concealed latch is a simple matter. It releases with a soft click, and a section of the stone wall swings silently inward. The room beyond is fairly large, and nearly filled with yellow, brick-like objects that glitter through a layer of dust.

Stacked 25 high, 25,000 gold ingots line the walls around the room. Each contains the equivalent of 1,000 gp of the metal. Gold was valued highly by the dwarves of Pax Tharkas in the Age of Dreams, but it is of little use to the current adventurers.
[from DL2: Dragons of Flame by Douglas Niles]

25,000 gold ingots, each containing 1,000 gold pieces worth of gold. A total value of 25 million gold pieces, and absolutely worthless (by DL campaign rules) in the Seeker Lands.

NOT, however, in the case of lands conquered by the dragon armies. From Appendix I ("Rates of Exchange") in DL1: Dragons of Despair:
In the lands conquered by the Dragonlords, no coinage is used; the gpw [gold piece weight] of the metal is used for exchanges. Steel is the basic metal, but gold does have some value...  
1 gpw of steel equals 10 gp
[emphasis added]

So...25 million gold coins are worth 2.5 million steel pieces (and thus 2.5 million experience points) in the lands occupied by the dragon highlords. Places like, for example, Tarsis on the southern continent (encountered in DL5 I believe)...or even Haven and Solace after the events of DL2.

Of course, that's not how the hoard in the secret treasure vault is supposed to be handled. Presumably, the players are supposed to discover a pile of gold bars, stand in awe and wistful sadness for a few moments, and then leave to get on with the "glorious adventure story," rescuing an elven princess from durance vile.

Such trash.

In my estimation, elven princesses are much more conducive to rescue by wealthy, well-dressed heroes who can afford a bevy of servants to wait on her every need and provide fine meals prepared by expensive chefs. You know...the kind of hero that lives in a palace? Does the princess really want to be returned to her soon-to-be-ashes forest home, just to become a hunted refugee with the rest of her people?

[yes, yes, I've read DragonLance...I realize Laurana is made of sterner stuff than that, going on to be the Golden General and all. I'm just saying: this is what the adventure is telling you to do. The novels are a different deal]

Anyway, since my campaign world is a bit"pragmatic," these gold bars mean a bit more to me. Time to do some math.

How much does a "gold ingot" weigh?
Well, it doesn't say, so one might simplistically figure that having "1,000 gp of [gold]" means it weighs 100 pounds, since in AD&D 10 "coins" of weight is the equivalent of 1 pound. 

However, while I know gold is heavy and all, 100# gold bricks do seem rather excessive. Per Ye Old Internets, a standard gold bar (as used by central banks and traded by bullion dealers) contains 400 troy ounces of gold. A "troy ounce" is a bit heavier than a standard ounce, there being only 14.58 to the imperial pound. Thus, a standard gold bar weighs about 27.5 pounds...heavy, but each freed slave from Pax Tharkas could probably shlep one or two on their way out the door to freedom. 

"But wait...if the bar only weighs 27.5 pounds, than how can each have a value of 1,000 gold pieces?" Simple enough: because a gold "piece" (aka "coin") need not be composed of 0.1# of pure metal. Let me give a few examples:
  • The gold sovereign (worth 1 British Pound) has 7.32 grams of fine gold...less than one-quarter of a troy ounce. A standard gold brick thus has enough gold to make almost 1,700 gold sovereigns.
  • The Spanish gold doubloon ("double shield", worth 4 Spanish dollars or 32 reales at the time) contained .218 troy ounces (about 6.8g) of fine gold. One gold brick could thus make more than 1,800 such coins.
  • The American gold eagle (largest size) has 31.1g of pure gold...1 troy ounce. Only 400 such coins could be minted from a standard bar, although the half ounce size could (obviously) increase that number to 800 coins; that's pretty close to 1,000, no?
"But, JB! We are talking about D&D here! The rules are explicit that 10 gold coins weigh one pound! Clearly one gold coin (value: 1 g.p.) must weigh 1/10th of a pound (1.46 troy ounces) with a pretty close amount of fine gold being the base of its substance. These bars MUST weigh 100# each."

Okay, first off let's all remember that the AD&D encumbrance system is an abstract game system, measuring not only weight but bulk. Why does a folded robe have an encumbrance value of 50 while a worn robe has a value of 25? Did the thing lose 2.5# of lint when you shook it out from being at the bottom of your armoire? No.

Presumably, this is why a long sword...a weapon whose average weight is 2.5 to 4 given an encumbrance value of 60 to 100 (the latter being the given value of a bastard sword which - surprise! - is usually just another name for a long sword). This doesn't mean the weapon weighs 2.5 times the weight of a real world equivalent, but the thing has bulk...and a cumbersome scabbard sloshing around as well!

This same abstraction can apply to the gold coins in one's treasure vault. Coins may be in lined boxes, neatly tied bags, sturdy wooden coffers...whatever!...and take organization and attention in one's backpack to make sure they're not getting loose and lost in various nooks and crannies. 1,000 g.p. may require 1000 coins of encumbrance...the equivalent of 100# of weight...but the actual weight of such a sum might be considerably less. 

SO...let's just call these ingots standard, shall we? 400 troy ounces a piece, which (by the way) we can then use to work out the math of just how much gold is in the Krynn-ish gold piece...about 12.4g of fine gold...making the DL gold piece about twice the size of a doubloon, giving you something like 36 coins to the (actual) pound.

Good to know. Now back to that vault: 25,000 ingots is a LOT of gold. At 27.5 pounds per, that works out to 687,500 pounds of gold...nearly 312 metric tons

Now here's something you might not know...there are a lot of gold mines in Washington State. A lot. Per U.S. Geological surveys, there's about 519 metric tons of gold in the Evergreen state. That's quite a bit...and many of those mines are in Kittitas County, which happens to be the location for the ancient ruined elven fortress that is Pax Tharkas. 

Thing is...many of them aren't. Not 60%. That 519 figure is for the entire state...and Washington has an area of 71,300 square miles. Kittitas is only 2,333 square miles in area...barely more than 3%.  Now, as said, Kittitas has quite a bit of gold...historically, there are records of nearly 50,000 ounces being pulled out of the Swauk district alone. 

50,000 ounces would make 125 gold bars.

So, methinks that this veritable Fort Knox fantasy vault is probably a wee tad bit overstocked, especially for my campaign world. Probably by a factor of 2,000. Especially considering it's only really guarded by a single wraith, a giant slug, and a few dozen zombies. Sheesh.

Of course, we don't know how long the gold mines at and around Pax Tharkas were in operation. My Pax Tharkas is a ruined, elven fortress (elves are still an "elder race" in my world, having a cultural history stretching back 10,000 years despite only human length lifespans). The ancient Egyptians are thought to have mined 6.7 million ounces (just shy of 209 metric tons) of gold from the Eastern Desert over their many-century history, with 120 ancient mining sites known. Although the desert dwarfs Washington State with its 86 thousand square mile expanse, Kittitas County still has more than double that number of mining sites.

[that's not to say they're on the same scale, or have the same ratio of gold to ore, or same quality of deposit or...well, you get the point]

Unfortunately, I could not find a county-by-county breakdown of mining information to find the proportion of gold that might be natural to the area...the closest I could get was this map showing density of placer mines in the state. Using the average numbers for yellow (30) and blue (5.5) squares, I can see that there's some 440 mines in the whole of the state...and 136.5 of them right in the region where I wanted to place Pax Tharkas (in the mountains just north of Lake Cle Elum). Proportioned out based on averages, I might thus say that the area could account for 161 metric tons of the Washington's 519 Mg gold total, which would amount to nearly 12,910 ingots worth of gold...which assumes every scrap of gold in the region had been dug up, smelted down into bars, and then stored in the dusty vaults beneath the crumbling fortress. Not likely.

How about 2%? That would be 258 bars. Still an incredible amount of wealth...more than seven thousand pounds (3.5 tons) of pure gold, a quarter million gold piece value to the adventurers that find it. Of course, getting out more than a handful of bars will necessitate doing away with the stronghold's patriarch and his pet dragon(s). And there's always the possibility some ancient curse has been laid on the gold by long-dead sorcerer elves...

Now, I'm sure there are Dungeon Masters reading this who quail at the thought of releasing so much wealth into their fantasy economy in one shot. Why? What's 258,000 g.p. split six or seven ways? 40K apiece? That spends pretty fast, assuming you're in a city large enough to exchange gold bars for cash. My world has three such major cities (pop. 15K+): Seattle (natch), Spokane (seat of the Red Empire), and Tacoma. The smallest (the city-state of Tacoma) has a population of 18,000 and a median per capita income of 1,447 g.p. annually. Median income is not, of course, the same as average income...but regardless an extra 14 g.p. per person added to the economy doesn't suddenly drive up the stock price of normal goods and services. It's not even a month's income!

[for the sake of the curious: I've got Seattle's population pencilled in at 24,000 at the moment, and Spokane at 21,000. Annual median per capita income for these rival city-states is 1,955 g.p. and 1,246 g.p. respectively]

All right, that's enough fantasy economics for now. Later, gators!


  1. Back in 2011 I set a campaign in an area roughly based on Lewiston Idaho as the home base.

    I switched some names, put some Dwarven Mines in Hells Canyon and Spokane was a ruined city. I changed wheat fields to pine forest but geography was roughly the same.

    Easier to

    1. Much, much easier.

      The Hanford nuclear plant near Tri-Cities would be an interesting dungeon to explore…

  2. Different median incomes for different cities? Interesting; I would probably have just gone with a 'city' lifestyle