Unearthed Mundana: Cheese for the Poor?
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty on 27 January 2021.
(loud rock drilling)
Ryu (shouting): LENNON!
Ryu: Oh thank goodness. You realize nobody can hear anything? Also you’re getting rock dust all over the place.
Lennon: I’m investing in our future, Ryu, you need to get on board here.
Ryu: You’re carving a gigantic…triangle?…out of a rock. How is this investing in our future? Are you going to sell it as a sculpture?
Lennon: Look, I heard from one of the research beholders that the Shaleshatter clan stumbled on a huge gold vein in one of their mines. There is so much gold there it’s going to crash the market, and gold coins are going to be worthless. These, now, these babies are where it’s at. Pretty soon everyone will be hauling these to their grocers when they need bread.
Ryu: I think Lennon’s been hit with a confusion spell or something again.
Lennon: I have not! I’m telling you, this is going to be the new pocket change.
Ostron: Well he’s not entirely wrong.
Lennon: See? I already made a short term investment with the clans and soon I’ll be swimming in rocks.
Ryu: Wait, he’s right?
Ostron: Oh, not about that. The Shaleshatter sediment analysis and magnetic data are being way overblown – there’s no way they have as much gold down there as they’re claiming. They’re just trying to get seed money to open up a new mine in another location.
Ryu: Okay, great, I understood none of that, but will it help us stop Lennon from claiming rocks are going to be the new money?
Ostron: Well, that’s where he’s right because it has happened.
One of the things that often gets mentioned when discussing out-of-combat gameplay in D&D is money. Usually the fact that the characters have a lot of it. If you’ve got a DM that’s following the treasure suggestions from the DMG or most official modules, it will be a very short period of time before the characters have an overabundance of gold and very little to spend it on. Even if you have a wizard and a cleric in the party, eventually the spellbook gets full and the cleric either runs out of room for the diamonds or stops caring enough to keep them on hand…I think Gath got into my notes again.
Coming up with ways to get the characters to spend that gold is a topic we’ve covered before, with things like making them buy rations, providing more shops and items to purchase, or giving them downtime options that require investments of cash. But another way to do it is to change the money on them.
If you have ever played D&D with an economist, apart from possibly being the most boring conversationalist at the table if Ostron’s not there, they may have brought up the idea that everyone walking around with gold coins is a little odd. And they are correct; while gold has been a fairly universal currency for thousands of years in the real world, it was very rare that everyone dealt with it the same way.
Anyone who’s done international travel without just staying in Europe is familiar with the concept of exchange rates; the United States dollar isn’t worth the same amount as the British pound, and neither of them are worth the same amount as the Euro. That isn’t a concept unique to modern society. People who’ve read stories or played games set in the European medieval period will have heard of the gold florin and might have assumed that was a sort of universal gold currency of the era, but in reality several different countries minted their own versions of the florin with slightly different levels of quality and gold content, so weighing and comparison calculations had to happen.
Similarly, those who’ve got an affinity for pirates will know about pieces of eight. They were never an official currency, but rather a supplement used by pirates and some colonies in the Americas because they all came from different countries with their own coins, and nobody usually had the ability to compare exchange rates. Fortunately for them, at the time the Spanish peso was minted from pure silver, so cut that down to eight pieces and you have enough that regular people can use it for trading.
So how does this apply to D&D? Well as with many other concepts that’s entirely up to you. If your campaign is in the major areas of Faerun the DMG implies that currency is pretty much standard (the “gold dragons” of Waterdeep Dragon heist). However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine instead that Waterdeep, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter all have their own coinage, with different values. That can introduce some more minor hiccups to players’ actions if, for example, they only have Waterdeep currency in Baldur’s Gate. They might have to be careful they aren’t getting swindled out of a deal by paying with Waterdeep coins by making insight checks or having someone ask around to determine what the exchange rate is. Also, some critical merchant or location may not accept foreign currency, forcing them to find someone willing to exchange the coins for them, again bringing up the issue of fees and fair exchanges.
However, all of that sounds like math and we all know how people feel about that. Another option is to do what Wizard’s did with Descent into Avernus; just change the money on them.
When the characters get to the Nine Hells, it quickly becomes obvious that the devils don’t usually deal in gold. Everything is working on the soul coin economy. There are a few instances where gold comes in handy, but for the most part if you stroll down there with a large sack of shiny metal, all you’re doing is weighing yourself down. There are a lot of real world parallels to this; gold florins, for example, were really only used for large transactions, like buying large pieces of land or ransoming nobles. Even the Spanish pesos had to be divvied up so commoners could use them, as Lennon said. The reality is, in most places they weren’t trading coins around.
As economists and anarchists will tell you, currency is only worth what everyone agrees, either explicitly or implicitly, it’s worth. People who scour estate sales or yard sales rely on that concept; the seller may not see any value in a Star Wars toy from 1982, but a good number of people know that if it’s in good condition they can turn a 2000% profit on it by finding the right collector online.
That’s what Wizards simulated with Avernus; devils don’t have any use for gold, but souls are what everything runs on in the nine hells, so naturally that’s what people are using for currency. History buffs will know that at various points, in various times, people could be trading in goats, tea, salt, or even tulips. In Northern Italy it’s still possible to offer cheese as collateral for a loan. And that’s with legitimate banks.
Implementing that in your game can open up a number of quest or sidequest possibilities. If the characters are visiting a remote village or island in a Saltmarsh campaign that has little or no contact with outsiders, they may not see any value in gold coins. All their trades work on the giant shark tooth standard. Now the characters either have to convince someone to trade them some teeth for gold, or get hunting. This is something that’s fairly easy to scale based on how difficult it needs to be as well; if it’s going to be a minor inconvenience, the currency can be something that’s relatively easy to acquire, like hunting the sharks. On the other hand, if it’s a resource that’s harder to get, like possibly money enchanted by only one or two individuals in the area who guard the ritual closely, that may require more effort.
It’s also worth mentioning the barter system at this point. Most people know that places without a lot of wealth or need for coin usually just trade favors or actual useful items around. Apart from trying to get the village on the gold standard or hunting down prehistoric water beasts, the bards, artificers, and spellcasters in the party can try to offer their services to the locals in exchange for some local coin.
As we mentioned before, it’s probably not worth making this a huge part of your campaign or game session unless you have a bunch of economics majors in your play group or you for some reason need everyone to fall asleep, but it can help curtail the “moneybags” problem of higher level groups of characters or help to reinforce the foreign-ness of a new location for them.
Ryu: All right, fine, you’ve convinced me. I mean, I’m going to have to completely rethink pickpocketing now, but you can’t stop progress. Someone get me a block of granite and a chisel.
Lennon: I think this is limestone actually.
Ostron: Okay, before we try to set up a stonecutting operation in the guild house I think we should see how this gold thing plays out. Also we need to check the scrying pool anyway.
Ryu (innocently): …What?
Lennon: I see you eyeing my boulder. Keep your fingers to yourself.
Ryu: I’m not touching anything. Just walking.
Lennon: Uh huh.