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D&D 5E Barter Economy

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Ah the gold piece. The staple of the RPG economy. But why?

Because, while your fictional characters live in their world 24/7 and know the value of the things they have and need, your players are at the table for a few hours every week or two, and have day jobs. Money is an abstraction so we don't have to keep a huge table of relative values to check on.

Plus, the barter system works when you are within a fairly small domestic agrarian community. Trading chickens for other food or everyday home goods works. But the PCs are not generally part of such a society, and they do not have, or need, many things that exist in a small, domestic agrarian society. Nor do most of the things you'd trade in a small, domestic agrarian society travel particularly well. How long is the party rogue going to try to keep 27 chickens alive in their Bag of Holding, do you figure?
 

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Dausuul

Legend
Plus, the barter system works when you are within a fairly small domestic agrarian community. Trading chickens for other food or everyday home goods works.
Actually, as @Charlaquin noted, that is precisely where barter does not happen. People's day-to-day needs don't arise in neat pairings. When Fern the Farmer breaks her plow blade, what are the chances that Bob the Blacksmith wants Fern's chickens on that exact day? What if Fern doesn't even have any spare chickens that day? Fern can't wait for a convenient need to arise; she needs a new plow right away so she can finish spring planting.

Within the community, with people you see every day, there are repeated interactions and high levels of trust. This makes various arrangements possible which are far superior to barter--credit (which is the basis of currency), or a gift economy, or what have you.

Trading outside the community is a much better scenario for barter. On the one hand, you aren't relying on it for day-to-day necessities. On the other hand, trust is low, so you can't use credit or "gift economy" arrangements. You want to do the deal right there and walk away with tangible goods.

It still doesn't make much sense for PCs, though, because the PCs are not farmers and have little to gain beyond a night's shelter and a hot meal. A village blacksmith has neither the skills nor the tools to outfit you in full plate. Hell, you'd be lucky to get a decently made shortsword. Anything the PCs are likely to want to buy is going to require a reasonably large civilization which will certainly have, and accept, gold.
 

aco175

Legend
How long is the party rogue going to try to keep 27 chickens alive in their Bag of Holding, do you figure?
27 days unless the rogue is a halfling, then 9 days. I wonder if keeping them alive is exponentially easier as the number shrinks. I stink at math, so I like to round off and would roll a check.
 

jgsugden

Legend
Not necessarily. Small communities often resort to a gift economy. If somebody needs something, and you have some extra, you give it to them. When you need something later, somebody--not necessarily the same somebody--will give it to you. It works because everybody knows everybody else, and people who accept gifts but never give any will be noticed and frozen out.

Such a community might rely on barter for outside trade (and trade with the PCs would certainly qualify). But that assumes, not only that the community itself does not use money, but that nobody in their entire trade network uses money. That's a fairly extreme assumption in a typical D&D setting.
Which basically boils down to saying that small villages would resort to using coin for most transactions. You might have some truly isolated places where they do not get enough coin to their settlement to form a currency based economy, but that would be an oddity, not a trend. Which is what I said...
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
Ah the gold piece. The staple of the RPG economy. But why?
Because Dragons hoard Gold...not wheat, wool and nails.
;)
((snip))


Has anyone tried using barter instead of (or in addition to) GP in their games? I like the idea of it, especially given that GP is kind of worthless in 5e anyway.
I find the question...a bit odd. I mean, it's not an either/or thing, is it?

If you were a commoner living in a village, say, you were the cooper. You build barrels and such. Your neighbour is the town's tanner. He needs a new barrel for some "tannin' liquid" (whatever it's called). Well, chances are that neither of them have much gold...so it's just easier to say "Hey, Coop...build me a new barrel for some tannin' liquid, and the first deer hide to go into it is yours. Fair trade?".

The villagers would know one another and they would all have access to stuff they and the other villagers need. It would just be much easier to trade/barter for anything significant... or even insignificant; "Olaf...I'm starving here. Feed me todays lunch and a simple dinner tonight, and I'll spend the rest of the day cleaning your stable". Using coins, especially Gold, is probably used for large purchases that take time or require large amounts of effort (re: buying a horse, or having a saddle made, or re-stocking the wine cellar). For small things, Copper and even Silver are probably used relatively often, pretty standard I'd guess. The farmers wife going down to buy some new hand rags for cleaning, for example. Easier to just toss a few copper or a silver to the tailor (?); the tailor would have more need for coin to purchase larger bolts of cloth when the merchant arrives from the big city in the spring...that merchant isn't going to want to travel with a dozen chickens, a piglet and a dozen loaf's of bread. ;)

Once in the bigger settlements, I think coin would be more prevalent, including Gold. Lots of people can't also be bringing in lots of goods to barter with...there simply would be NO ROOM in the city to hold it all! I mean, what are you going to do at the end of the day when your Inn is filled with goods from all over? The back yard of your fancy Inn would look like Old McDonalds! Then you have to get rid of them all asap...or have to start feeding them, housing them, etc. No...for the cities, gold is the way to go.

So... it's not "either/or". Barter between townsfolk would be common...but for travelers, they're more likely to use coin as it is easier to carry 10gp than 200 chickens. ;) Townsfolk might try and barter for things they see on the PC's person simply because the townsfolk isn't likely to be able to get a LOT of the stuff a PC is packing around. I mean, it's not like a village has some guy making fancy belt buckles, or purple dyed cloaks with silk inclining, or metal flasks, etc. Maybe, sure, but probably not.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Dausuul

Legend
Which basically boils down to saying that small villages would resort to using coin for most transactions. You might have some truly isolated places where they do not get enough coin to their settlement to form a currency based economy, but that would be an oddity, not a trend. Which is what I said...
No, it doesn't boil down to that. The small village might well continue to use a gift economy internally, while using currency for outside trade. Currency is the superior option at a large scale, but not necessarily at a small one.

A barter system is inferior to currency in pretty much every way. A gift economy is a different system, and works quite well on its own principles.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
No, it doesn't boil down to that. The small village might well continue to use a gift economy internally, while using currency for outside trade. Currency is the superior option at a large scale, but not necessarily at a small one.

A barter system is inferior to currency in pretty much every way. A gift economy is a different system, and works quite well on its own principles.
Heck, gift economies persist in the modern day. Folks at my work buy each other coffee, spot each other for lunch, etc. all the time, on the understanding that they’ll get you back at some point. Or pay it forward to someone else in the department who will pass it on and it’ll get back to you eventually. When I used to smoke, there was a sort of unwritten code governing the bumming of cigarettes; charging a quarter for a cigarette or whatever was frowned upon, but so was only ever bumming smokes and never having one to spare for someone else. Artists I know do art trades all the time rather than each commissioning the other. I’m sure most handy folks would rather help a friend or neighbor out in exchange for a future favor than charge them. Currency tends to start getting involved when the interactions start getting too complex to easily track, and/or when you don’t know the person you’re trading with well enough to trust they’re good for the debt.
 

Horwath

Hero
1st.
Even in PHB it is stated that most wealth is not in coin but in good.
And prices for trade goods are more or less fixed unless it's shortage of some goods.

So you can trade that for same way as currency.

But, as people stated, coin is just so much simpler. We did invent money for just that thing.

2nd.

We should really get to the silver standard in prices, and have gold-silver-copper value be multiple of 100 not 10

1GP = 100 SP = 10.000 CP

So prices in CP stay the same, prices in GP are now prices in SP, and prices in SP are now in CP multiplied by 10.

I.E:

Club is 10 CP,
Dagger is 2 SP,
Breastplate would be 400 SP or 4 GP
Fullplate 1500 SP or 15 GP


Much more practical to have few hundred GPs as an adventurer, rather than lugging around chests of gold.

Certain gems(diamonds) can be cut to be standard valued at 100 GP or 10.000 SP or 1.000.000 CP
 

You could use something else as trade goods or several things, but it's generally easier to track them in gold piece equivalents.

So the PCs could have 50gps of Silk, 20 gp of jade and 30gps of Frankincense.

But unless you want to slow the game down with the minutia of haggling and price differentials of goods depending on their relative scarcity in particular places, you're going to need some kind of numerical exchange value.

If you want to have less currency around, you might present at least the element of exchanging different goods in order to make them more portable. For example, the PCs may be paid for a job in trade goods such as Horses, or bales of silk or Owlbear eggs and they may then need to find a way to exchange that value in gold for something more portable.

For my own purposes I tend to assume that no one in the setting has truly ludicrous amounts of actual gold coins. You will never find 100,000 GPs of coin and noone will ever pay for something in that. Basically to hold onto that much wealth you need a castle or something to keep it in.
 

I think people are overestimating how unfamiliar with coins your average medieval citizen would be. Rome had introduced currency across most the Mediterranean and beyond, and even after the empire crumbled, the denarius was the foundation for the currencies of the barbarian successor states and the Arabs. (check the etymology of dinar, pfennig, penny, dinero etc). Coins could travel very far, and because of their basis in precious metal, were widely interchangeable. Coins from the caliphate have been discovered in England, for instance.

So yes, while your basic peasant would probably barter or (more likely, as others have pointed out) do favours for each other, they wouldn't turn down coins made of precious metal if they got it. There would always be some avenue for their use, usually they were able to spent during the big medieval fairs. If nothing else, the church would take them, and if you made good with them, you could expect a lot of good things in return.
 

What isn't reflected very well in modern D&D is the main way you'd earn big in medieval times. Land ownership. This is something 1st edition did better than the latter ones. No one got rich in medieval europe from fighting bandits or plundering Roman ruins...
 

Heck, gift economies persist in the modern day. Folks at my work buy each other coffee, spot each other for lunch, etc. all the time, on the understanding that they’ll get you back at some point. Or pay it forward to someone else in the department who will pass it on and it’ll get back to you eventually. When I used to smoke, there was a sort of unwritten code governing the bumming of cigarettes; charging a quarter for a cigarette or whatever was frowned upon, but so was only ever bumming smokes and never having one to spare for someone else. Artists I know do art trades all the time rather than each commissioning the other. I’m sure most handy folks would rather help a friend or neighbor out in exchange for a future favor than charge them. Currency tends to start getting involved when the interactions start getting too complex to easily track, and/or when you don’t know the person you’re trading with well enough to trust they’re good for the debt.
Coinage has the same advantage as jewellery - easy to transport and nearly everyone agrees on the value.
 

Most places are going to have both barter and coinage. Locals would mostly deal in barter, perhaps using coinage for smaller amounts or to smooth out unequal barters. Barter is meaningless to outsiders, so everything is done with coinage.

From many years of playing Skyrim, what it comes down to is weight-to-value ratios. There's no point in carting barrels, crates and sacks of ordinary produce all the way back to town if they're only going to earn you a relative pittance compared to something relatively far more valuable and less cumbersome like a jewelled necklace or a finely crafted longsword.
Didn't need Skyrim, just played AD&D. A lot of treasure has to be left behind because it just wasn't worth taking; copper was notorious for this. Gems and Jewelry were prized for being easily transported treasure, and I still try to keep as much of these as we find, rather than selling them.

Most of the players in my games today would totally wreck local economies when they walk into towns. It is like someone won the lottery and knew they were dying next week. Anything less than gold is almost given away. Some cross all their silver off as beer, gambling, and partying expense for the the time in town. One always buys the tavern drinks as soon as they walk into the bar. Mostly leads to friends and hangers-on, but sometimes leads to alley fights. To haggle with someone over giving change being a carrot, 2 turnips, and an old brass chain from grandma in exchange for dropping 10gold for a new backpack would not happen. Most of my group would just say keep it, or maybe you can pack me a trail meal to go.
My players have done this, and rather than ruining economies, the locals have learned to milk this fools for as much as possible. It's not that the PCs have won the lottery, the town did! My players eventually slowed the bleed, and rather than tipping 10 gp for a meal, now leave more reasonable amounts.
 

nomotog

Explorer
I am generally in favor of doing weird sub systems in games. (The current Idea I am toying with is village building.)

After thinking about it, I think way to do it would be to have like 5 types of goods, each one focused on a trade. So like footstock, metals, textiles, treasure, and say magic. Then you have each over corresponding to specific goods or merchants. Like a village will only let you barter with food stock, but you can't buy a deed without treasure. It gives a bit of texture to each resource and lets each one unlock different gameplay elements. It's not really full barter though just different currencies.
 



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With that out of the way, I use barter in roleplaying efforts to trade magical items (seeking out a retired adventurer, a mercenary rumored to have found the Wand of So and So) since there's no good way to assign a specific value.

Otherwise, it's too much nuance for my games for players to barter for day-to-day gear. However, my NPCs barter for background flavor. The party met hunters and trappers who trade a frontier outpost pelts and meat in exchange for things like boots and nets. Coins are a rarity in their world.
 



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