Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Copper Standard

I understand the reasoning behind the gold piece standard as presented in various forms of D&D but I don’t think it fits with the Lowlands setting as I imagine it. The low-value and easily attainable gold pieces in Gygaxian D&D exist primarily to allow the existence of non-game-breaking dragon-hoards of a scale similar to that of Smaug’s. This convention has a few effects which I don’t really like.

- The first unfortunate side-effect is the immediate redundancy of the lower denomination coins. Conventionally, a copper piece is worth, on average, one-ten-thousandth of a PCs starting cash and not worth the bother of bending down to pick up. Consequently no amount is going to be sufficient recompense to tempt dungeon-delvers into dangerous depths.

- The second, related effect is that of quickly making items of mundane equipment comparatively cheap and easily attainable such that a PC can be equipped with whatever they want by the time they reach second level.

- The third effect is the consequent inability to spend the riches. Assuming the acquisition of piles of bloodstained gold is necessary to gain levels, PCs are going to have significant quantities of the stuff by the time they advance a few levels. This effect leads to the delightful silliness of carousing tables which are fine for emulation of picaresque pulp-fantasy wastrels but not so emulative of the Crapsack World approach.

- Five different types of coin is too many.

The solution I am proposing for the Middenmurk setting is a single unit of currency – the copper groat. My investigations into Mediaeval coinage indicates historical groats to have generally been a silver or billon (silver/bronze alloy) coin, but I am content to say the Imperial Groat is made of bronze or brass or copper (or possible pewter, tin or lead) with just a little silver in it sometimes – it’s a grubby little tarnished coin with little gleam about it. It is significant in that it is the only commonly encountered unit of currency, it’s what starting PCs get 3d6 x 10 of when they start out and it’s what you get experience for when you bring it out of the hole. Real silver and gold is very special and extremely valuable. Coins of lower value (half-groats are of little consequence, sub-groat transactions are usually resolved with barter and hand waving)


- Starting PCs get 3d6 x 10 groats
- 1 groat = 1 XP

Beyond the groat, there are the Guilder (80 groats), Stiver or Bawbee (2 groats), Obolus (6 groats) Ducat (64 groats), Florin (20 groats), Half-Crown (12 groats), Shekel (24 groats), Noble (80 groats), Sovereign (100 groats) Solidus (120 groats) et cetera, as well as ingots of gold and silver and Quartermaster’s Tokens and Commissary Writs and various other trinkets and baubles of precious materials which can stand in for coin in most situations. It should be noted in a mediaeval paradigm all values and all prices are approximations and players can keep track of the specifics of what they are trading or not as the case may be.

The effect I’d like to achieve when this is done is;

-To have PCs forced to make do with cheap and shoddy equipment and shifty hirelings initially. Finely crafted swords and armour should perhaps arrive a little further down the line. The effect of making a fine hauberk of mail 500 groats rather than 70 gp is to challenge the players to find different ways of conducting themselves, perhaps to rely more upon hirelings and missile fire than to wade into carnage unmindful of the danger.

-No longer to require 200 lbs of gold to reach 2nd level.
-To have cheap and shoddy equipment on the equipment list; ungainly agricultural tools, rusty old keepsakes, patched gambesons and rotten rope that fail regularly (on a roll of one) is potentially more evocative of the setting.
-To make crappy treasure like well-trained mules, pewter votive figurines, sacks of grain and captured weapons significant. Historical epics have been written about cattle raids – D&D characters never stoop so low as this, perhaps they should.


  1. I like it. In one of my old D&D campaigns, I went with a "silver standard" -- the common unit of currency was the silver penny, but most items were listed at their gold piece value. This helped restore a felling of specialness to gold, which I felt was missing from the "by the book" way.

  2. I feel the same way that you do on most of this, though I myself like a lot of coin types. I use a copper standard, and I use the following coinage system lifted from Gary's Gord novels:

    "The lowest form of currency is an iron drab. Five of these are equal to one brass bit, and ten bits comprise one bronze zee. The copper common is the next most valuable, equal to five zees, and four commons make up the value of one silver noble. An electrum lucky is equal to five nobles, and ten luckies are the same worth as one gold orb. Atop the pyramid is the platinum plate, equal to one gold orb plus one electrum lucky. Thus, for comparison, a silver noble is worth one thousand iron drabs, an electrum lucky equates to one thousand brass bits, a gold orb has the same value as one thousand brass bits, a gold orb has the same value as one thousand bronze zees, and a platinum plate is equal to fifty five thousand iron drabs."

    Most people have never seen an electrum, gold, or platinum coin. The sight of a silver coin is remarkable. Virtually everyone uses copper (and less valuable) coins. Roughly think of it like this:

    Silver coins are like 100-dollar bills.
    Copper coins are like 20-dollar bills.
    Bronze coins are like 5-dollar bills.
    Brass coins are like 1-dollar bills.
    Iron coins are like quarters.

  3. I love that Gygaxian system, it has that nice touch of complexity characteristic to ancient systems of coinage. I'd like to have a system when there were 11 Molybdochalkos Halbengroschen to the Hepatizon Bloat-mark and 31 different kinds of coin but I forsee certain difficulties with that system :)

    I'm really trying to wean out the idea of worthless treasure so that piles of copper don't get left behind. This is also a reason why I didn't go for the silver denarius standard, variations of which were the standard in Europe for ages.

    I also like very much the idea that the common people don't often see the more valuable coins. Coins of any denomination were probably a fairly uncommon sight for the average serf. Ideally, a Gold Sovereign minted in the reign of Emperor Quasimundus would be a rare treasure.

  4. "Welcome to the Turnip Economy ya pack of spoilt little bitches!"

    Nice one Tom. It may be my inner WFRP GM speaking, but it's fun watching new characters ambush Orcs for the resale value on their chainmail.

    (silver economy IMG. Money is silver: treasure is gold.)

  5. @ Chris

    The turnip economy and the notion of koku is brilliant. I like the idea that the base unit coin is about equal in value to the amount of food consumed in a day (LL has standard rations at 5gp/week).

    It's also a good basic wage for hirelings. Starving peasants might risk their lives for a full belly but most people would want several times this.

    Gold teeth and quality boots should be looted from bodies. Historically there were thieves called Blue Pigeons who stole lead from rooftops as well as those who specialised in the theft of handkerchieves. Life is cheap.

  6. Very sensible and "period."

    I also heard on television that while there was no guarantee of increasing value previous mintings of commemorative bloat-marks have become highly sought collector's items. So I'm going to order today! ;)

  7. Very evocative, and grubby to have copper be the "basic" coin.

    Always good though, to remind the players that no one can make change for them in some little hamlet, as no one uses cash. Having to take their change for a silver coin in chickens and a goat could prove expensive when they attract that owlbear...

  8. I've been thinking about the silver standard, both for money and XP but keeping GP prices for most equipment.

    My big complaint is the whole "every fighter has plate at second level" thing. I realize I'm running a fantasy game and don't want complete history but being name level should mean something.

  9. That would be quite a good idea. Any thoughts on how it was accepted?

    Cheap international calls

  10. Its more fun when mundane wares are actually worth something. I fondly remember a group of players trying to figure out what to do with the thousands of gallons of booze they just found in the smugglers cave.