Ragnarok Development Diary - Wealth and What It Means in the Ragnarok!

Clint Staples

Last night's episode of D-Infinity Live was on monetizing your gaming experience. While I can't really tie Ragnarok to that concept, I can use it as a bridge to talk about the economics of the Nordic world and what it means in the Wolf Age.


In the Ragnarok RPG, one of the things we are working on right now is a monetary/ wealth system.

Obviously, just about any RPG needs some sort of economics system. Some might be based on barter, though this is often unwieldy in play (as it tended to be in real life - hence: Coinage). Others use coin or another medium of exchange, more or less based on actual weight or amount of a valuable substance (whether that is gold, cowrie shells, beads, cattle, etc).

The medium of exchange can tell you a lot about the way a culture defines wealth. If the basis of exchange is cattle, then even if a coinage system "evolves", the chances are good that it will be related to the price of a cow. If a culture values beads, or woodpecker scalps, or human scalps, that is a hook on which the culture hangs, or at least used to hang. Take a second to consider what an Orcish culture whose trade medium was human scalps would do to a region. Even if the culture had “moved on” to a representative of the medium, it would probably have far-reaching consequences on how Humans and Orcs interacted.

Back to Ragnarok:

The cultures and peoples of early Scanderna entered into the historical record via Roman documents. Germanic folk across the Rhine traded with Roman merchants and settlements, and raided them too, when opportunity presented, or needs must. Over time this trade filtered further north to peoples who had little direct contact with the Empire. So the earliest coinage found in the North is Roman. Archeologists can tell a lot about how isolated or integrated, and how commercial, a particular site was based on the amount of Roman coinage, as well as Roman and other imported goods. Obviously this is an incomplete record. We are able to track coinage far better than knife blades, for example, because gold, silver, and bronze (or copper) do not rust away like iron does. Other more ephemeral goods, like cloth, leather, foodstuffs, medicines, leave even less a record.

So we can say that there was trade, at least with Roman suppliers, and in the Viking Period proper trade towns, like Haithabu (Hedeby), begin to appear. Prior to this, there seems to be little in the way of settlements focused on trade. Instead, they were arrayed around an obvious political power. For the present purpose, we will call this the jarl (though in practice, it might as easily be a king or chieftain, or in Ragnarok, even a monster like a giant, troll, or dragon).

Most settlements grew up around the hall of the jarl, so it usually is central, with other lesser halls and houses arrayed around, and if possible, below it. The whole might be walled, though a surprising number of settlements, even large, wealthy ones, appear not to have been fortified.

So how does this affect gaming:

For one, you would not find anything like a Market, or a Market Square. This is as classic a notion in an RPG as the Thieves Guild (which you also would not find, because - NO Guilds, either, but that is a topic for another day). Where would traders set up when they came to town. Let's assume, because of found trade goods, that they did come to town (the fact that the concept of a town is based on trade in a fundamental way will be left aside for the moment).  Chances are good they would set up in one of three places:

The Shore: If the settlement was on one, because boats and ships are far more effective at carrying trade goods than horses, donkeys or people.

The Outskirts: The area beyond the settlement (and any walls), where traders would pitch tents, and often not be allowed into the settlement proper. 

The Jarl's Hall: If the Jarl (or king or chieftain) was smart enough, he would be interested in trade goods, and want to control who got access to them. So he would get first offer on all available goods. He would might also charge a "fee" for the right of a trader or traders to operate, effectively taxing them for the opportunity to sell in his region. The traders would be over a barrel to some degree, but most are likely to see the benefit of the arrangement, given that it means their journey was not wasted, and the canny ones would see some or all of the "fee" come back to them in what the jarl purchased. It should also be noted that a jarl might do all of these, and situate the trade area at the Shore, or the Outskirts, out of convenience, or a desire for security.

What does all this mean to PCs:

Chances are: Unless the PCs are loyal thegns of the jarl, they will not get first pick of goods and services. The Jarl will have that sewn up – if he doesn't he is not much of a jarl. Even if the PCs are thegns, or loyal servants of the jarl, they still may not get what they are looking for, because the jarl probably has other concerns that keeping the PCs happy. This motivates PCs to cultivate the favor of the jarl by being useful, loyal, giving good counsel, etc. In practice, this could allow a PCs to make a roll on a Social Skill like Influence (bending the ear of the Jarl), a Renown roll (Being highly enough placed, and sufficiently well thought of), even Luck (yup, in Ragnarok Luck is a skill) to manage being in the right place at the right time, instead of the usual reliance on bargaining and such that you see in other games.

Additionally, in a region in which the jarl is forward thinking about trade, maybe he WILL set up something like a market area. At first it might be the Shore, or docks, or just beyond the settlement or walls, But if the settlement prospers, it might become enveloped by new construction, becoming a Market Square in a generation or three, and the settlement becomes a town in the medieval sense.

Alternatively, the Thing, sometimes called the Althing, a meeting ground to settle disputes, law cases, etc, could become a seasonal market, simply because it is a gathering place for peole who are normally more isolated. In such a case, the thing would probably still be under the control of the most powerful person in the region.  

There is another side to wealth (which has been alluded to repeatedly above), or lack thereof, that we have been dancing around. It has long been said that Money equals Power. In the North, this was true, but in a way that might take a little getting used to. We have looked at how the powers-that-be (jarls) would control trade for the benefit of themselves and their most loyal followers. This generally resulted in these elites having the best stuff. The best stuff might be imported glassware, jewelry, fine clothes, armor, weapons, horses, etc. All of which would be tempting targets for seizure, but since there is no Thieves Guild, seizure probably meant raiding as much or more often than it did theft. Yet many of the things that wealth affords makes one better at keeping the wealth that has been accumulated.

This is another central concept to the notion of wealth and economics in the North: If you have wealth, you are demonstrating that you are able to keep it. This is a tacit challenge built into the society. If you have a sword (a prized item), you a tacitly proclaiming that you acquired the sword AND that you are capable of holding on to it. The same thing goes for a house, a strand of amber beads, a mailshirt, a fine horse, or an arm or finger ring.

Rings of various sizes and values are common gifts, given by a jarl for any number of deeds of note. They are useful trade items, to be sure. But the gift also signified the favor of the jarl, proclaiming that the wearer was valued. And if the wearer retains the ring, this suggests that he or she is capable of defending it.

The same goes for all the other signs of wealth. So when the player characters see a warrior equipped in a mailcoat, with a gilded helmet, a brightly painted shield, with a sword and spear, and maybe a few retainers, they should not necessarily be thinking about how nice it would be to have that mailcoat. They should be thinking about how many people before them though the same thing just before they died. And they should think about what the death of so obviously important a personage would affect the local jarl, or whoever bankrolls this fellow. In Ragnarok, if you act like Murder Hobos, you will likely run afoul of the most powerful creatures in a region, and will probably wear out your welcome quickly.  

OK. So how does all of this boil down to a monetary system.

-       The economics in play in the North were not sophisticated even by the standards of the medieval town. This doesn’t mean that the people were not shrewd traders, simply that the culture had not adapted to trade sufficiently to internalize it.

-       Trade probably centered around political/military power (as personified by the jarl and his army).

-       Wealth equaled power in the eyes of the culture – in that, if you had it, you obviously were capable of keeping it – which meant you were probably a bad ass, or had bad asses at your beck and call.

So what were such bad asses worth? They appear central to the economy, moreso than cattle anyway. Well, we have a handy measure of the worth of people throughout the region in the form of their Wergild.

Wergild, meaning literally, “Man Gold” is the price that must be paid for various offenses against one’s person. They varied from place to place and in different times, and some law codes were more expansive than others in this, and other, regards, but we can derive a consistent measure for purposes of the Ragnarok RPG.

What the above fifteen hundred words boils down to is this: In Ragnarok, the medium of exchange – upon which trade, and much of society, is based – is Life itself.

Starting money for characters is based on their Wergild, which is the amount they are worth legally if wronged – valued in Silver Marks. The Mark is the medium of exchange because it is easier to carry around than people, AND because it was used historically. Prices are based on a certain weight of silver, of a certain purity. But the bit, a more or less standardized smaller chunk of silver than a Mark, would be used for more humble transactions.