This post offers some advice on coins and currency in fantasy game or fiction settings. It responds to the way coins are described in Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) rulebooks, with specific reference to the popular and influential current fifth edition of the game (5e), but I aim to give enough information and references that you can use this for other systems.
DnD is very keen on tons of precious metal. Literally—it is possible to randomly generate a hoard of up to 120,000 coins on the top treasure table in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), which would weigh 2,400 pounds or over one ton. But historically, there wasn’t usually quite so much shiny stuff floating around. If you want to run a game more flavoured like medieval Europe or other historical settings, I have a few suggestions.
Named currencies and coins
It is fine that DnD rulebooks call money things like ‘gold piece’ and ‘silver piece’ and there were some historical coins named for their metal, such as the Roman aureus and the German guilder. But, as the rulebook points out, a name that is more obviously in-world than just the English words for the coin type is a first step in giving your setting’s currency more flavour.
Original currency names were often based on weight (pound, lira, as, talent, stater, drachm, shekel) and sometimes on numbers (denarius, sestertius, farthing). These names could outlast or outspread the language that gave them their meaning, so those using dinars as currency might not hear the meaning ‘ten’ from the sound of the name. Other coins were named for the designs they bore, like the ecu (shield), the crown or the angel. Some were named for their place of origin, such as the florin, the title of their issuer, such as the ducat or real, or for a whole range of other reasons.
DnD coins are all one-third of an ounce, 50 to the pound, or about 9 grams each. This is pretty heavy by the standards of medieval coins. True, the 14th-century gold noble of King Edward III of England was originally 9g of gold, but was reduced in weight after just a couple of years of production and declined to about 7g in the following century. The Roman gold aureus of Julius Caesar weighed about 8g but was reissued at lower weights by successive emperors and the late Roman and Byzantine solidus stabilised at about 4.5g; its late medieval successors the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat were of about 3.5g. The original Roman silver denarius was initially of 4.5g (half a DnD silver piece), but its main medieval descendants were 240 to the pound and the pound in that system was lighter than the modern general-purpose pound weight, so an English penny was officially about 1.5g of silver (in practice often somewhat lighter and/or of less pure silver).
There were a few larger coins: the Athenian silver tetradrachm of the 6th to 1st centuries BCE was about 17.2g and circulated widely, though it was a multiple of the base drachm unit of 4.3g. (And it was ancient rather than medieval.)
If economies were using lower-value metals like copper or copper alloys as metal-value currency, these might be considerably bigger. In the early days of the Roman republic, bronze pieces were cast with weights between 6.9g and 3.3kg. More advanced economies, using token cash for small transactions, used smaller coins of copper or other base metals for small change.
So I suggest that medieval-esque currency in fantasy settings should use smaller coins and especially smaller silver coins.
Higher purchasing power of precious metal
According to the 5e Player’s Handbook (PHB) 1 gold piece (9g of gold) or 10 silver pieces (90g of silver) is a skilled but not exceptional artisan’s daily wage, and 2 silver pieces (18g of silver) is a labourer’s daily wage. However, in the late 14th century in England you could hire a carpenter or mason for sixpence (9g of silver) a day and a labourer for 3½ pence (5.25g). And it was less before the Black Death when there was a much greater supply of labour: farm-workers’ wages rose from a halfpenny a day early in the 12th century to a penny by the end, and still only 1½ pence by 1300. (offline sources: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer, and Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Christopher Dyer.)
Also according to the PHB that wage, 2 silver pieces a day, supports a ‘squalid’ lifestyle for one person. Nothing left to feed a family and no room for days without work. Whereas in reality a labourer would often be supporting a wife and children (who would earn lower wages if any) and day-labourers would not get paid work every day. That is, as well as buying the employer relatively little labour, DnD silver buys the labourer less still to live on.
So I suggest that a medieval-style currency should be worth more, weight for weight, than the official DnD pieces. An easy way of doing this would be to reduce coin weight while maintaining the rulebook prices in number of coins, I’m slowly compiling the price evidence I have got, so watch this space, but my provisional finding is that many of the Player’s Handbook prices are indeed close to historical prices if you equate one silver piece in the PHB to one 1.5-gram penny in later medieval England.
This isn’t true in all historical periods or regions but, in most of Europe for most of the middle ages, silver, rather than gold, was the main form of currency. King Pepin the Short of Francia in the 8th century established the silver denier as an influential standard for the rest of the middle ages, acting as a model for the English penny, German pfennigs, Scandinavian pennings, Italian dinari, the Spanish dinero and the Portuguese dinheiro, among others. (The Carolingian denier itself was modelled on the Roman denarius.) Units based on the weight of silver were the denominations even for very large amounts: for example, the ransom of King Richard I of England in 1193 was set at 150,000 marks (about 35 metric tons) of silver, or 24 million silver pennies—two to three year’s income for the English crown.
Gold was more plentiful in the east: the Byzantine solidus was that empire’s primary unit; the common small denominations were of bronze, and silver was minted only intermittently to fill the gap. The solidus was later imitated further west by cities such as Venice and Florence that wanted to support their high-value and international trading and banking—these coins circulated internationally among the elite. I think they did use silver for more everyday transactions though.
In northern Europe gold coins were also issued later in the era (leaving aside some transient failed coinages, the French écu came into circulation at the end of the 13th century, and the English noble in the middle of the 14th). I think they operated as prestige currency and enabled very rich people to carry plenty of cash without weighing themselves down, but they did not replace silver as the backbone of the monetary system. The gold coins were from time to time either altered in weight while retaining their value in silver or altered in value with reference to the silver standard. Gold did not become the basis for English currency value at least until the issue of the gold guinea in the 17th century.
So, if you want a western or northern European flavour, I suggest that you could convert price lists in your game to a silver currency, and have silver coins be the most common form of cash for all but the richest people. Silver coins would exist in greater numbers, and would make up treasure hoards and cash deposits put together from many small amounts (or intended for dispersal in small amounts, like a pay chest). Gold would be used mainly by (very) rich people, and for large sums cashed in one go by someone with access to a money-changer, bank or similar.
Edit: No small change
I’m not sure why I missed this out originally, but I feel it is a key difference between the typical fantasy game world and medieval England (and much of Europe) so I’m slipping it in. There is little or no currency of lesser value than a small silver coin, and that can buy hours of labour, or significant goods like a hot meal. Things that are individually cheap, like eggs, nails, pots or pints of ale, are priced at a certain number to the penny (or whatever coin is in use). You either buy at least that number at a time, or you find a trader willing to open you a tab and take payment when you have had that many. Or you pay in goods – villagers might pay for the baker’s services by providing the flour and letting the baker keep a fraction of the bread, or swap some eggs for some firewood.
Small change, in the shape of small coins of low metal value like copper, bronze, lead, tin, iron, etc. was mainly a feature of more advanced economies. They existed in early times in regions like the Mediterranean lands and China, but in England were introduced only from the 17th century.
Platinum has rarely been used for coins, and was not used in legitimate currency anywhere before the 19th century. (It was so cheap in colonial Latin America that it was used to fake silver coins though.) It was in fact entirely unknown in medieval Europe; its early occurrences are in South America and a little in ancient Egyptian artifacts. In both cases it is found alloyed with gold: in Egypt possibly as an impurity unidentified at the time; in the Americas as a deliberate alloy. Neither society made platinum money.
I’m aware that platinum has a function in DnD of allowing large high-level treasure hoards to be portable. But if you increase the purchasing power by weight of gold, you’re a long way to achieving that anyway.
DnD rulebooks rarely if ever mention paper money, and you might think it too modern to feature in a fantasy game. I haven’t space here to go into the detail, but forms of paper money have been known since ancient times in civilisations like China and Rome, and it was also known in medieval Europe from the 10th century. It wasn’t quite government or central bank currency notes as we know them today, but there existed both paper, cloth or leather tokens or notes that would be redeemed for coinage by banks, and some more secure letters of credit that could be paid either to a specific individual or to any bearer if they also produced corroborating credentials to a bank partnering with the issuer.
Until the 18th century, and longer in most of the world, currencies were not structured primarily around powers of 10. Powers of 2, and multiples of both 2 and 3 like 6, 12, etc. were more common.
I realise that decimal currency is far easier to use since we count in base 10 and so non-decimal currency needs us to learn almost another counting system. So I won’t hold it against you if you keep your setting’s currency decimal. But if you want real historical feel you might consult your players about other systems. I’ve got a few examples in my next post.
Historically, there were attempts to price gold coins at the tempting 10:1 ratio, but it resulted in the coins often being melted down and converted into bullion worth more than their face value. In an invented setting you can tweak metal values to your convenience so you might use a stable 10:1 value by weight ratio. Or you could have a higher value-by-weight ratio and larger gold coins, with the principal gold denomination worth 20, 50 or 100 of the silver one.
In my next post, I offer a few usable coinage systems based on historical models from western Europe. I may later add some from other areas of the world.
Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on these subjects, or about the flavoursome systems of coinage in your games.