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Where Do They Get Their Money, Part One

Today I want to talk about a subject that is near and dear to adventurers. Yes, we’re talking about money. Money is a medium for exchanges. It is accepted in payment for goods, services and debts. Different cultures handle money and currency differently, however, and what is accepted as currency can change with time, so let’s do a little digging and see what we turn up.

Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash

The typical unit of trade in a D&D game is the GP, or gold piece. 1 gold piece is equal to 10 silver pieces, 1 silver piece is equal to 10 copper pence. This is a nice, regular decimal breakdown of value. Historically systems of coinage are sometimes rather more interesting. For example, the pre-decimal English system was based on a standard that went thus: 4 farthings made up a penny, 12 pennies made up a shilling, and 20 shillings made up a pound. There was also the guinea, a unit of account made up of 21 shillings, and in use even after 1799, when the coin was no longer being struck.

What does this mean to an enterprising GM? Well, say a party of adventurers finds some ancient platinum coinage in a dungeon, and they bring it back in sacks. Will the cabbage-seller in the market accept coins that he no longer recognizes? Spending your loot can be a bit more difficult if you have to go all the way to a major city to find an assayer and money-changer and get those platinum pieces broken down into spendable coin that tradesmen and burghers will accept.

What will adventurers say if they find a hoard of shining metal discs in a lost dwarven ruin, and then find out that the coins were minted from zinc, not silver?

There’s another aspect to coinage that many GMs elide or ignore. Weight. Precious metals are all quite dense. It isn’t so bad if someone’s carrying around a small purse of silver and copper pieces, but an ancient vault of gold pieces might actually require pack animals to transport out of the ruin once the monster-slaying is all said and done. A heist game may have to take that into account as well — how are PCs going to empty out that bank vault full of gold pieces without getting caught? Let’s hope the thieves in question have a bag of holding or portable hole to hand.

While nitpicking about arrows, rations and coinage can often slow down a game, such a fact may clue PCs in to say, a sophisticated coin forgery operation, or the widespread debasement of currency in the form of clipping and shaving. If the coin’s value is based, after all, on the weight of precious metal it’s made of, then what happens when a coin has been shaved to the point where it’s half its minted weight?

A campaign could be made out of a group of PCs recruited by the royal treasury to hunt down counterfeiters flooding the market with forged coinage stamped from adulterated alloys or base metals. Or, if the players prefer rather less law-abiding PCs, they could play the forgers instead and risk grisly executions. This installment can’t quite cover the existence of non-metallic money, gift and fiat economies, and paper money, because it’s too much to cover in 600 words. Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll discuss money that doesn’t come in the form of coinage.

contributed by M.W. Simmes



First Post
Excellent point. Dragonlance tried an alternate system as well, with "steel pieces" - steel was rare, and a longsword was literally worth its weight in steel, the very steel that would be smelted to make the blade (plus the smith's time, as a sword is not actually all steel). A dragon's hoard -- and, similarly, the wealth of a mid- to high-level adventurer -- makes all other economies irrelevant. However, I try to liken that to the difference between "real people" and "rich people".... real people spend $2 to $10 on lunch, worry about the $50 it takes to put gas in the tank, and get excited about winning a car on Wheel of Fortune ($38k). Rich people drop $250k on a car, a million on a yacht, and think nothing about $1000-a-plate fundraisers. Two different economies clearly going on there....

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Dusty Dragon
This has been discussed before. I've tried complex coin systems and all it does is annoy/confuse the players. It's not really worth it.

If you insist, then you need a "unit of account" - in my game that's the Rupee (a large silver coin worth 1/5 of a gold coin). So the party may be offered a 10 000 rupee reward, they might find a gem worth 500 rupee etc etc. But the actual coins they get are a mish mash of stuff. It doesn't matter what they are exactly, UNLESS it becomes a plot point - a specific coin is being forged and the players must discover the source, there are logistic issues due to weight, etc etc.

Otherwise... small gains for medium annoyance.


I had run a "spies/tomb raiders" Scarred Lands campaign for about a year and it played around pretty heavily with rules for languages, accents, coinage, exchange rates, and encumbrance.

In the end though, I think that I enjoyed setting up those systems more than my players enjoyed playing with them. People appreciated that it was there, and felt like it definitely made the campaign stand out, but I don't know if it was ever really worth the extra hassle and book keeping.


Back in the day, I used to have inflation kicking in when PCs started bringing major hoards up from the dungeon. Lots of charts and bargaining. There were money exchanges, taxes, etc.

I pretty much hand waive economics these days.


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