Friday, June 9, 2023

Thoughts on AD&D Currency

I've been rereading the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It's full of inspiration for the world I'm building, as readers of the blog will know, and it's great for long and lonely trips. So much of the series, especially in the first book, revolves around money: Kvothe's near-constant struggle with poverty winds up making the setting's currencies very memorable and relevant. When a gold mark shows up in the second book, you feel the elation. I started wondering about that series various currency systems, and comparing them to AD&D's coins. The decimal system of the trapezoidal Cealdish currency, the iron drab, copper jot, silver talent and gold mark, the various pennies and half pennies, the partial Vintish coin, all of it adds some neat texture to the setting, with efforts to make currency legible and efforts to deviate from it both filling in the world. 


Then there's the AD&D, which doesn't specify currencies by names, but settles on a gold-based system, described in the 1e Player's Handbook as follows:
The basic unit of exchange is the gold piece (g.p. hereafter). There are coins of lesser and greater value, and these are shown on the table below. It is also common to use gems of various sorts and valuesascoin.
            10 copper pieces (c.p.) = 1 silver piece 
            20 silver pieces (s.p.) = 1 g.p.
            2 electrum pieces (e.p.) = 1 g.p.
            1 platinum piece (p.p.) = 5 g.p.

            200 c.p. = 20 s.p. = 2 e.p. = 1 g.p. = 1/5 p.p.
One gold piece is two electrum pieces, of which each is ten silver pieces, of which is ten copper pieces, and a platinum piece is five gold. I'm not wholly surprised that this got deprecated in favor of an entirely decimal based system later on. I'm not sure when, definitely by 5th edition, probably by third. 

I'd been accustomed to thinking of electrum as the odd one out. After all, the other coins used are single metals, while electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver. It makes sense that it should lie between those two in worth, and it always sounded to me like something weird and ancient, a remnant of times long gone, a currency out of favor in the contemporary setting which could be more readily found in ancient tombs. 

But now thinking about it, I realized that the weird steps of AD&D's money actually makes perfect sense... if we're not on the gold standard. 


Imagine instead an electrum standard. By excluding gold, we have ten copper to a silver, ten silver to an electrum, and ten electrum to a platinum. Perfectly decimal! Electrum fits perfectly, it's gold that's a strange addition! It seems obvious now, though I haven't seen it pointed out before, even in Anthony Huso's treatment of the subject. Maybe this was just obvious to everyone else? Maybe it was explained in some Greyhawk sourcebook? Looking it up now, apparently the Greyhawk books featured iron drabs, as well as bronze zees and brass bits, very likely Rothfuss' inspiration. Also, I had to do a double take when I found this page, which had five silver to an electrum. For a moment I thought I had been mistaken about the currency, but the PHB bears me out. It looks like D&D's currency must have undergone more than one change since 1e. That said, the page does describe electrum and platinum as coins not in regular circulation, more often found in tombs. That fits the exchange rates given there, which make it look like ep and pp are parts of another currency smashed into the copper/silver/gold trio. 

In any case, this has immediate implications for the implied setting of AD&D 1e. Copper, silver, electrum and platinum all fit together perfectly in a decimal pattern. Gold breaks the symmetry. It feels like an imposition, a foreign coin forced from without. At the same time, the player characters not only use, but think in gold: everything is converted into gold before leveling up. Silver is precious but tarnishes, platinum is hard to tell from silver at a distance. Gold is immediately recognizable, neither rusts nor tarnishes. It's synonymous with wealth. 

Assuming you even use AD&D's currency for your game, what this means for your game is up to you. I'm not exactly sure what it means for mine, but I can sketch some outlines. In this part of the world, silver and copper are the coins of the day for almost everyone. One is hard-pressed to find gold, and when it is found, it is mixed in with silver. Pure gold coinage never takes off, what pure gold exists instead being worked into jewelry and ornamentation. Electrum becomes the 'big coin' used for the storage of large values, high-level commerce and state economics. Someone finds a platinum mine. It's like silver, but it doesn't tarnish and is usually found chemically uncombined. There's not much of it and it doesn't look as nice as gold, so it probably finds a niche as a semi-representational currency in state vaults. 

If anything, the use of platinum as a very valuable coin might be the least realistic part of all this. Maybe there are very good magical uses for platinum, so mages seek it and its value is recognized that way. That could be a reason for platinum being non-representationally more valuable than gold. 


Then something happens. Maybe trade opens up with a faraway empire, where pure gold is more common. Maybe this region is conquered by that empire. The new rulers want to impose their currency, the locals want to keep theirs. Both currencies wind up being used side by side. Conflicting local exchange rates proliferate. Non-representational currency is debated and tried, sometimes successfully. But premodern societies really like having representational currencies. China managed paper money for a few hundred years, but with difficulty, and absent a really strong central government people want to be able to smelt down their silver without it losing value. Proposals for non-representative metal coins reads to the average person as a roundabout form of currency debasement. Nobody is happy. 

At some point, someone gets extremely tired of all of this, mounts a coup, and imposes financial regularity by force. I think in my own setting this happened under the rule of Starlis the Potentate about a century prior. A tyrant, but his financial policy stuck around, and nobody is confident enough to go meddling with that again. The representativity of the various metal coins and their exchange rates varies, but the system is stable enough (and maybe the punishments for melting down currency are strong enough) that people use the coins. Of course, this still has to be normalized to the financial policies of other nations. Gold is the main currency of exchange internationally, and having the local gold worth the same as gold elsewhere is the best way to avoid massive headaches with currency exchanges, so the local gold coin gets pegged to that and everything else is set around it. As a result, everything is a nice decimal system, except for the fucking gold

So in my setting, at least in the core adventuring region, gold is used in the big cosmopolitan port city, the major towns nearby and places up the river that regularly trade with it. The farther you go from these areas, the less people use gold and the more they use silver and electrum. Gold is seen as hoity-toity, electrum is seen as the bumpkin's coin. Little wonder adventurers think in gold and not electrum. 

If the players ever grouse about this, I'll have an obscenely old coot come out of the woodwork to tell the young'uns how good they have it, not having to worry about which of eight types of silver coins they got paid in. 


I'm also tempted, like Anthony Huso has, to move my game onto a silver standard. Silver is a bit more grounded and accessible, still precious and a lot of money (the silver talents in the Name of the Wind go a long way, and historical coinage like the Roman sestertius was silver), while gold becomes an aspirational amount of money, and platinum near-mythical as far as an ordinary person is concerned. Do I just set xp for silver and increase everything twenty-fold? Sounds awkward, but possibly rewarding. I like the flavor of it. But maybe it makes sense that adventurers should be looking for and thinking in terms of gold. 


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1 comment:

  1. I don't think Huso runs his game on a "silver standard" except with regard to training costs. His costs are otherwise the same as in the books.

    I like the idea of electrum and platinum being from an older my own campaign world, these are elvish coins, and they use a "platinum" standard (they also have a silver-green mithril coin worth 10 plats...) and tend to look down on gold (giving it an unfavorable exchange rate), as not wanting to associate with something so cherished by the more "barbarous" races (humans, etc.).

    Playing with currency and exchange rates and different price structures can be fun and can lead to all sorts of interesting challenges and adventure ideas...I recommend incorporating it into the game. However, players tend not to care a whit for whose crown is stamped on a coin when they're emptying treasure chests into their backpacks on the dusty floor of some ancient tomb or dungeon...they just want to know the metal's color.

    [and that's fine, too]