Saturday, October 9, 2010

A brief meditation on fantasy economics

Note: I am SO not an economist. I don't even claim to be good at math. Therefore, this is not a serious discussion of fantasy economic viability vis-à-vis reality.

If you've played fantasy RPGs for any length of time, you have certainly collected a fair amount of gold coins. Gold is the coin of the adventurer's realm, as it were, with silver relegated to being pocket change and copper worthy only of a sniff of condescension. I want to a little bit of mental re-alignment here to show how skewed that mindset it.

Peruse the equipment lists of your preferred fantasy RPG. Ignoring specific numbers and certain oddball outliers (flint & steel, I'm looking at you), we begin to notice certain trends:
  • Subsistence-level items, like a loaf of bread or a mug of ale, cost copper pieces. 
  • Sustainment-level items, like tools, basic clothing, and nightly shelter cost silver pieces. 
  • Things which cost gold pieces are either truly expensive tools or luxury items (and if you're a peasant, a sword or a suit of armor is a luxury)
So let's do a bit of role-playing and put ourselves into a magical medieval society.  Since we are all reading this essay on a computer, it's reasonable to assume you have a regular supply of food, shelter, education, and entertainment. That immediately puts you well ahead of 90% of the fantasy populace, who eke out a living in what we would consider to be third-world conditions. They aren't illiterate because they're stupid; they're illiterate because they are too busy herding or farming or otherwise keeping their family fed to have time to study books, and when they get home in the evening they are too exhausted to do much of anything except eat their dinner and go to bed. They aren't dirty because they're slobs, they're dirty because they toil at jobs which make them filthy on a regular basis, and water is too precious to be wasted on daily bathing when they're just going to get dirty tomorrow.

For these people, copper is the only kind of money they use on a daily basis. They may occasionally see a silver if they have a particularly lucrative business (like a smithy) or if they sell livestock. They have never even seen a gold piece, much less touched one, and if you gave them one it would likely be more money than their family has ever had before. You, however, would be closer to a well-off merchant: you see silver all the time, occasionally some gold, and maybe once in your life you've seen a platinum piece.

Now let's apply this to the real world. A copper piece is worth roughly a dollar. We buy (cheap) meals for $5 - $10 all the time, and think nothing of it. It's disposable money to us, but to the lower classes -- those below the poverty line, on welfare and food stamps -- a dollar can make the difference between eating and going hungry.

Silver pieces aren't quite worth twenty dollars, but the $20 is so ubiquitous (as a result of ATMs) that it suits our purposes. This is where we, the middle class, spend most of our wealth: clothes, entertainment, quality food, entertainment, and either fuel for our cars or bus/train/cab fare. These things cost tens, but not hundreds, and while we may buy a lot of them we typically don't spend this money frivolously. A twenty, to us, is like a one or a five to a panhandler -- a basic unit of currency worth getting out of bed for.

Gold is for things which cost hundreds. Now it's important to note that in fantasy games, society does not yet have advanced metallurgical techniques and super-efficient assembly lines, so prices are often what we could consider exorbitant for consumer goods because of the cost of the raw materials and the time spent crafting them. But skip the Goods & Services table and look at the prices for armor and weapons. My father bought a handgun last week, and I came along because I think guns are neat. I did a lot of looking and window shopping while he picked out his gun, and I came to this conclusion:

Expect to pay $300 - $500, baseline, for a gun. It doesn't matter if it's a rifle, a shotgun, or a pistol, they simply don't go lower than $300 unless you buy used -- at which point you have to wonder if you're getting a discount because of a downward quality adjustment. The really, really good items, like a Desert Eagle .50 or a tricked-out AR-15 with a scope and a laser and a forward grip and all the other bells & whistles, can run over $1000. These would be roughly equivalent to a masterwork weapon.

And then there's this beast, which might be considered a +1 BFG of Ass-Whupping. Puts the price of a magic sword into perspective, doesn't it?

So in conclusion: fantasy games should run on the silver standard, not gold. The fact that adventures don't get out of bed for anything less than gold should serve as yet another indication that they are not, in fact, normal people, and their attitudes and goals are extraordinary rather than baseline. 


  1. HackMaster Basic shifted things to a silver standard, and boy are weapons and armor expensive. Expect a first level fighter there to strap on leather armor and like it.

    Also, might I add that education isn't readily available for the general populace due to the fact that books were uncommon and expensive to make. It wasn't until the printing press that literacy started take hold in the world.

  2. Expect a first level fighter there to strap on leather armor and like it.

    One of these days I'm going to run a game where everyone starts off as a 1st-level NPC (Warrior, Expert, or Adept), and they're all dirt poor villagers. They have NO starting gold, but if they have appropriate Craft skills, they can start off with whatever they can reasonably make.

  3. Actually, I have no food or shelter. I put everything I have into my gaming laptop. Everything I am is online. The rest is just meat. ;)

    J/K, though I've had a couple close calls when unemployed.

    In Warhammer FRP 1e you were poor out the door. If you were lucky, you started play with mail armor (because of your profession), but that was very, very rare. I had a guy go through about five adventures and his big goal during that time was to get a chain shirt.

  4. One of the telltale signs of gonzo fantasy is the involvement of millions of gold pieces. No matter how extensive the collection of polearms is or how intricate the firearms rules are, calling your game "realistic" is kind of ridiculous if the characters routinely pass bags of gold over the counter to buy potions. PCs aren't exceptional because they kill hundreds of monsters without breaking a sweat, it's because they're either very rich or very dead.

  5. Yeah, the core 3e economy rules are actually pretty good as far as this goes - gold isn't SUPER rare but it's unlikely a random laborer will have any. I am a big realism wonk so am always doing things like reading "HarnManor" and "Life in a Medieval Village/City" for D&D society use...

  6. Not sure if I agree with that. While the DMG lists limits on purchasing power depending on the size of the community, it doesn't take into account what happens if a bunch of the adventurers flood a local economy. My one group did that when we played out the "Ruins of Castle Greyhawk" module. People were using +1 weapons as doorstops.

  7. Yeah, I haven't even touched on the devaluation of currency that occurs when adventurers come to town and drop tons of gold into the local economy. Hyper-inflation runs rampant, and then when the PCs leave, the demand plummets and suddenly the market crashes...

    Man, adventures are just BAD for towns in general.

  8. This sums it up...


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