How Much is a Lot of Coin? Economies in Fantasy

Vito Pandolfo

Economies in fantasy games are complex, involving variables from the emulated time period, to metallurgy, to the uses of (and types of) magic, to the trade resource base. In this article I will attempt to make use of some references to provide a basis for those GMs trying to get a handle on economies in fantasy.

In our Metal, Magic and Lore Fantasy RPG we chose to use a snapshot of the high Medieval period in Europe as a reference for our economic choices, but this is easily done in many fantasy game settings. You can spin off this point if you are playing steam games or other hybrid settings. In order to create some sound reference, I will need to make a number of assumptions (1) that we are essentially looking at a City-state based world, largely agrarian in nature, where  barter is a staple in the economy of the general populace because substantial quantities of coin are unattainable for many (2) that magic use is not prevalent in the streets or that technology has not evolved to where melting iron is yet possible (call the tech up to much of the 1700s in Europe latest), and that (3) as such, we can use Copper, Silver and Gold as three metals which may rightfully be used as currency in some form, with the idea that other metals such as iron are about as available as they are in our real world.

Using some historical records to establish a trending average, we can assume the following ratios of value (coins, bars, bullion, wigiwhats or pentagonal disc-widgets, if you wish): 10 copper to 1 silver and 50 silver to 1 gold. Since these metals are different densities, each similarly weighted unit will be a different size. A copper coin is about 10% larger than a silver, and a silver about 200% as large as a gold. All that being said, if we look back into recorded history as a basis of trade, we can also establish a reference of item value, translating common items into copper coin. And SO; five (5) copper coins can buy any of these: a half-day of grain for a beast of burden, a night in a common room at a tavern, a day of rations (apple, jerky, hard bread, cheese, salt, watered beer, etc), a set of commoner’s clothing, a fist full of valued herbs, small jar of poultice, or pinch of common components for a spell, a day’s work from 3-4 laborers, a wood crafter’s time for a repair or a chicken.

With the above as a reference, suddenly silver becomes valuable! And gold – still valued in modern society – is truly treasure. Taxing unskilled laborers on their wages is futile if one hopes to accumulate any wealth – so instead they will at times give up their chickens. In fact, the disparities illustrated in these exchange rates begin to reveal the development of the caste system in society. If one is born of common blood on a farm, he or she will likely never be able to make enough money to ever buy even a scimitar. For further reference:

10 Silver Coins buys:

- a trained warhorse
- a 2 lb. hammer
- a supply of Rare components for a spell
- a fully-made spear
- a medium bow with 12 arrows

- services of a skilled artisan for several days

2 Gold Coins buys:

- 8 trained warhorses with associated gear
- 20 days of food for a hamlet of 100 people
- a finely-bound Scribner’s tome
- 2-3 average quality swords or maces
- 5 sets of spears and wooden shields

30 Gold Coins buys:

- 50 trained warhorses with equipment and riders for 1 week
- 12 Large Wagons with teams of 6+ oxen each
- 250 days food for a village of 200 people
- 80+ sets of spears, shields and iron pot helms
- 6-8 suits of mail armor including a hauberk, pants, hoods and gauntlets

So, as we can see that the caste system is an excellent reason for adventurers to become adventurers. In fact, it is consistent with some of the reasons for the Crusades in the 11th to 13th centuries – the second and third sons of lords needed to acquire wealth, and in order to do that they needed something to plunder. So, on that note I will leave you with some questions for you to consider: Will the local lord feed the hamlet or provide it with an armed guard of 4 men? Will a villager want a War Spear he cannot use, or will he prefer the hammer so he can mend his home? Will a captain risk the loss of his 10 cavalry in a fight if he cannot replace any losses with the booty gained? So truly, how much coin is a lot of coin? Hopefully this will help you in your campaigns to establish some great motivators for player characters and non-player characters alike.