Saturday, 14 March 2009

Money in the Vaults Game

D&D has a long and dishonourable history of treating things that are rare and precious as little more than vendor trash. Bad comedy like coins that weighed 1/10th of a pound, and the effective worthlessness of low denomination coinage beyond 1st level (typified as “grab the gold and platinum, leave the junk”) resulted in ridiculousness of people having to spend a cartload of gold on their training and living expenses.

Some people (“Hi Jeff. Hi Sham”) are happy to embrace the absurdity for the sake of old school authenticity, but my preference is to throw out the stupidity of the D&D monetary system (and replace it with new and improved stupidity of my own devising).

“So that’s 200 pounds of gold for rent and training costs… WHAT?!”

First off the base coinage needs poking with the screwdriver. Back in the sepia-tinted days of 1E coins in D&D-land were supposed to be 10 to the pound. In fact this coin weight (abbreviated ‘cn’) was the standard measure of encumbrance. There were doubtless good game play reasons for this, but it sticks in my craw to imagine that a D&D copper piece is larger, and 60% heavier, than a £5 coin. 3E moderated the sheer gas-huffing insanity by reducing coins to 50 to the lb (a little more than the weight of a modern British 50p piece), which made them big enough to be visually impressive (see the illustration on pp 168 of the 3.5 PHB), but small and light enough to be used by humans.

3E’s simplification of the coinage system (“Bye-bye electrum, you screwy nowt-nor-sommat metal!”) did nothing to fix the sheer b0rkage of value scaling. Apparently in D&D-land a copper penny – the smallest small change available - has a purchasing power 1/100th that of gold.

Eh? Two cents worth of copper is worth 1/100th of $260 dollars of gold. That needs fixing.

So here’s my personal fix for phat lewts in D&D. It’s nice and simple, and retains a decimal counting system, so anyone intimidated by British old money needn’t flee the scene with their head afire, screaming that all is lost and a madman is on the loose. ;)

Copper coins retain their existing value

These new coppers are the same value as old coppers, but are shrunk so that there are 250 to the lb (about the weight of a British penny). This turns the copper piece into proper small change, which, even if it doesn’t redeem it from the status of ignored trash, at least redeems it from being the subtle encumbrance trap that OOTS talked about.
Historical aside: as late as the 19th century the British Royal Mint refused to coin in copper, deeming small change too lowly and fiddly to bother with. As people still needed copper coinage for low value purchases (food, beer, etc.) private local mints started to issue copper tokens of exchange that could be redeemed at nominated agents (banks, coin dealers, even breweries) for true legal tender. Selgin’s “Good Money”.

Bronze pieces replace silver
These are standard coin size (50/lb), which is a pretty big chunk of change. As a comparison a British reader might want to stack two 2p pieces; that’s what a bronze piece weighs.

Silver coins replace gold
I’ll state that explicitly: the sp is the new gp (waits for the uproar to die down). There are a couple of reasons for this grotesque heresy.

1) There is historical precedent for using silver as a primary coinage. Spanish pesos were silver, and they were the nearest thing to a universal coinage that the real world ever had.
2) Silver is a precious metal in its own right, and should be something more than yawn-worthy small change after the first couple of levels. Bear in mind that before the grotesque inflation of the 20th century a silver dollar or British crown was serious money in it own right.

Contemporary comparison: take a British 50p piece (or, even better, an old half crown), feel the heft of it. Now imagine that coin is enough to buy a decent meal for two. That’s a D&D silver.

Gold coins replace platinum
Historically gold has only been used for high value coins. It is not something that even the flashest of Flash Harries gives to a beggar. Increasing the purchasing power of gold by a factor of 10 puts it into something like the relationship that historical gold coins like the British sovereign or the French Louis d’Or had with their equivalent small change.

At the time of writing (March 2009) a troy ounce of gold is worth ~$900, or about $260 per 1/50th lb. Yes, your humble D&D gp really is a major store of value in its own right. When put in that perspective gold is a big deal again, and a chest of gold (you know, the proverbial king’s ransom) really is a treasure wholly worth talking about.

Amounts in platinum are divided by 10
Platinum is rare and noteworthy. It was only discovered in the real world in the 1550s (and not subjected to scientific analysis before the 1740s) and, even in D&D land, something 10 times as valuable as gold should be rare and precious. As a DM I intend to make finding platinum – a metal no longer minted by modern smiths – a significant event in its own right.

New Currency Conversion Table
1 cp =1/10 bp
10 cp =1 bp =1/10 sp
100 cp =10 bp =1 sp =1/10 gp
1,000 cp =100 cp =10 sp =1 gp1/10 pp
10,000 cp =1,000 bp =100 sp =10 gp =1 pp

No, stop looking at the gp column. Silver is the new coinage standard. Gold is the rare and precious treasure that you go rooting around in tombs to find.

Note: For ease of understanding these values apply in my own games only. On this blog I’ll use the values that we all know and love from the SRD.

Cash in Bulk
“Can’t we melt these stupid coins down into something more portable?”

Money can found in coinage (1/50th lb) or in 2,000 coin treasury bars (40lb, approx 3 stones) for major purchases. Bars are an old friend of mine from Birthright days. I don’t know about you, but I always felt that the figures in the Stronghold Builders Guide and the Epic Level Joke Book could do with a few zeroes knocked off them. Having gold and silver bars, and even bronze ingots, knocking about allows you to build castles and the like while keeping the numbers within the realms of finger counting.

"So that's 280,000gp at 12,000gp a month..." or "So that's 140 bars at 6 bars a month..." Which do you find easier? Remember folks: spreadsheets are for work; not for fun. ;)

Beyond the Gold Standard
"There's nothing here but money. What a waste of time that was!"

So what do you do around the mid-high levels when even chests of gold and foot-high platinum idols doesn't get the PCs excited anymore? That's when 'power as currency' comes into play. I know some 4th Ed players talk about ‘gold at heroic levels, platinum at paragon, astral diamonds at epic level’ and, although I for one think of this as the ravings of a world entirely divorced from any connection with either history or heroic fantasy (at least as I know it), there is something to be said for having incredibly costly portable stores of value in a high fantasy setting. Fortunately D&D has low bulk, high value lewts in spades.

Gems – 100-5K gp
These have been around since at least 1E. And nothing else quite says big score like a ruby the size of your fist.

Ioun Stones – 4K-40K gp
Gems with added extra-planar power. What’s not to like? You know a guy is hardcore when he has the value of a kingdom orbiting his head.

Gem of Rebirth – ~20K gp
A one-shot contingent resurrection effect bound into a gem of 10K gp value (thereby acting as its own material component). Even if you can only carry one, how useful…

Power Components – value varies
Let’s say you know that a player wants to create a particular magic item (eg: a staff of earth). Why not have him quest for the eyes of a basilisk, the heart stone of a Gelab Duhr, a handful of elemental True Earth, or the finger bones of a great dwarven mason? Each of these has an XP value that discounts that of the item he, or someone willing to trade for them, wants to create. In effect, character power in the form of loot. And what’s more D&D than becoming stronger by killing and looting?

Planar Currencies – value varies
Planescape had planar pearls, 4E has astral diamonds. The Tome Series gave us incomplete (but really quite obvious with a little thought about power components) rules for the use of soul gems, Hope, Inspiration, and Raw Chaos. One currency for each of the four alignments, each especially suited to the creation of effects that match its alignment. The reagents quests practically write themselves!

Wishes – 25K gp
The wish spell as written in the SRD is ludicrously exploitable. Recently I’ve started using the Tome Series version of wish as the Stone of Jordan benchmark of the high level economy. Basically the Tome Series version of wish limits summoned creatures like Efreeti to casting “no XP cost effects” only (it's here, under "No Wishing for More Wishes"), and big and important people are happy to use (planar?) binding promissory notes issued by extra planar entities able to cast these wishes as a medium of exchange with a set value.

“The Sultan of All the Efreet / The Infernal Throne / The Celestial Bureaucracy (delete as appropriate) promises to pay the bearer on demand the sum of one wish.”

note: Bat in the Attic talks about money in his games here. What do you know: looks like I accidentally re-invented the monetary system from Harn. Oops.

terminal note added 24/03/09

1 comment:

  1. I went this way at one point, putting the time and effort into rewriting the equipment charts, and even started down the path of currencies for modern and ancient kingdoms ... and then realized that my current set of players couldn't have cared less. I would describe a coin to them, and they wanted to know how many it would take to buy a new sword. So the question I now ask myself before I design anything for the game is - will the players care? If not, I put it aside and devote my time to designing something they will care about, and thus something that will see actual use in my campaign.


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