Gold pieces are absurdly huge: do you like it that way?

Each of these coin sandwiches is the size of a single D&D gold piece; shown next to a US penny and nickel for comparison. Click picture for link to waysoftheearth's explanation.

Do you prefer a silver standard for your fantasy economy, such that gold pieces are more valuable and the weight-to-value ratio of a treasure hoard is much reduced? Or do you like the situation in OD&D where gold pieces are huge and encumbering, and hauling a valuable treasure out of the dungeon is a difficult endeavor?

richardjohnguy, aka richardthinks, has a characteristically funny and erudite blog post about historical coins, some of which are almost as big as 1/10ths of a pound, some of which are even larger. But it’s clear that most coinage in the real world is nowhere near as outsized; here we’ll let the equally erudite and analytical Delta’s D&D hotspot give the rundown.

As part of thinking about Adventurer Conqueror King, I’m trying to decide which is more important: historical versimilitude or fidelity to the game’s legacy. Here is a comparison of what each implies:

Implied Setting

  • Historical: Common people and ordinary commercial transactions use silver pieces similar in size to most modern or ancient coinage
  • Legacy: The ahistorical practice of coins being minted in huge discs reflects a fantastic world with premises like “Lawful societies follow the god’s standard for coinage, and coins are huge because the gods made them for their own hands”



  • Historical:  95% of the adventures written for fantasy roleplaying games will require some degree of conversion – at least changing gold pieces to silver pieces, and also increasing the proportion of low-value coins if it is desired to make the treasure hoard as difficult to carry as would originally have been the case. (Castle Zagyg is an exception written for the silver standard, I know, and I bet Harn is too.)
  • Legacy: No conversion is necessary, and the designer’s intent need not be considered – although after playing Jim Ward’s “The Pharoah’s Tomb” adventure whose summary is linked above I am certain that making huge treasures difficult to move is a deliberate design feature, it’s one I’m not usually aware of.

I really like the White Sandbox approach of taking strange things about the game’s legacy and making them part of the fantastic premise; for example dungeons are on a N/S/E/W grid with 10′ granularity because the ley lines make excavating in any other way more difficult, and gelatinous cubes are so inherently formless that they are easily shaped by this essential regularity of the cosmos and fall into line.

On the other hand, part of the mission statement of Adventurer Conqueror King is economic naturalism:

the Adventurer Conqueror King System has been designed with the view that many gamemasters want to be able to simulate an ancient and/or medieval world in such a way that their campaign world makes sense. The income of peasants makes sense in relation to the income of kings. The cost of swords and the income of the swordsmiths who make them has some relation. Treasure exists in more forms than simply gold, gems, and magic.  The easiest and best way to achieve a world with versimilitude is to start with historical assumptions.

My own campaign is one in which lots of historical assumptions aren’t challenged, but there are a few places where I ask players to swallow some whoppers. So I’m torn on this one & hope your perspective will help me sort it out!


24 Responses to “Gold pieces are absurdly huge: do you like it that way?”

  1. July 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I personally very much prefer using a silver-based economy. Gold should be rare and wonderful.

  2. 2 richard
    July 31, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I was going to vote “compatibility” without having yet read ACKS, but I think your mission statement answers the question. If you’re taking an “economy makes sense” approach then I’d say historical precedent is a core value, inasmuch as “making sense” is actually a gut feel thing and such a feeling has no better referent than familiar history.

    I don’t consider D&D legacy a better referent exactly because it’s one of the points people get stuck over most often.

  3. July 31, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    I absolutely love the idea that coins in hoards are modeled after godly standards (and it explains the ridiculous 10 to the lb).

    However, even with 100 to the lb, it can be hard to haul treasure around if much of it is silver and copper (and you’re playing the encumbrance rules fairly).

    So I could see equivocating; human society uses a sensible silver standard, and 100 to the lb, and the kind of treasure most commonly found in hoards is from the dark times, or before the fall, when coins were 10 the lb. It creates some extra book-keeping, but captures the essence of both approaches.

  4. July 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Beedo, the Auran Empire has a double standard for coinage that I love: gold/silver/copper is minted by modern civilized societies, while platinum and electrum are relics of the old Zaharan empire and thus exotic and found largely in ruins etc. Conceivably we could map the different encumbrance ratios to these two types of coins.

    richard, I think all the second-wave retro-clones have to make choices between compatibility and their special concerns; thus just as you might say a cleric goes against the weird fantasy vibe of LotFP, we will certainly sometimes value fidelity to the history of fantasy RPGs over that of the real world. But you’re right that this something lots of people in the former kind of history have complained about!

  5. July 31, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Personally the size of the coins and value of all that gold bothers me a good deal.

    I am somewhat in between though when it comes to altering the rules. I certainly waffled more than a bit in design of the Domain Game and then in Borderlands. Ultimately the gold standard won out as I thought continuity with older edition D&D was more important (though I do play around the edges by bringing wage prices down for hirelings.)

    In my own home campaign though I have debased all the coins, making them alloys with zinc and lead–and reducing the weight to a 1/10 of by the book. Kind of gives me the best of both worlds, I don’t have to alter prices and I don’t have to live with those monster coins

  6. July 31, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I’ve gone in a weird mix of both:

    Prices for most things are still at their GP level and it is a GP economy but I’ve dropped coin sizes to historical levels and changed the XP reward from 1XP/1GP to 1XP/1SP. I now scale treasures to have one tenth the GP value they previously did. I want buying field plate to be something name level characters, not third level characters do.

  7. July 31, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I don’t have an opinion. Carrying around treasure is what the squire’s do.

  8. 8 Redmold
    July 31, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Coins in my campaign are 50 to the pound, which is low enough that nobody questions why they’re so heavy while still being high enough that moving large treasures is difficult, considering how much of it is often in silver.

    Whether to use the gold or silver standard is a matter of flavour. I use the silver standard occasionally. It depends on what feeling you want to evoke. Is it your intention to make a historically accurate medieval roleplaying game? Or to emulate D&D? You can’t do both.

  9. July 31, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    I like the idea of the god-mandated enormous coins. It’s fun. At the same time, it seems awfully setting-specific, which is something that often rubs me the wrong way. Sure, i could come up with alternate explanations for the giganto-coins, but that’s kind of beside the point. So I guess I’m opposed to Ding Dong-sized coins, but not because their lack of historical accuracy bothers me. They’re just too weird to be the default. I generally want the default to be vanilla, not sea salt-studded gummi sour jalapeño.

  10. 10 Bargle
    August 1, 2011 at 12:11 am

    D&D is conan and gandalf fight blah blah blah. Dont take the fun and wimsy out of the game.

  11. 11 Victor Raymond
    August 1, 2011 at 12:28 am

    I’m pretty much with Herb, though if I do make that change in Aldwyr, my players might get cranky with me. Fortunately, we haven’t made that transition yet. For my high medieval, semi-historical Albion campaign, I’m using 1st Ed. C&S, which uses a silver standard.

  12. 12 richard
    August 1, 2011 at 3:22 am

    …you’re too kind with the erudite thing, though. Ima blush

  13. 13 zhai2nan2
    August 1, 2011 at 3:36 am

    Personally, I like economic naturalism. I like silver coins about as big as historical coins.

    Whenever I give players inconvenient loot, it’s not 60,000 copper pieces, it’s seventeen sets of (bloody, dirty, damaged) kobold-sized chainmail, sixteen kobold-sized glaive-guisarmes, one short sword, and 37 copper pieces.

    The challenge of getting a heavy treasure out of a dungeon can be fun. That doesn’t mean the treasure has to be coins.

    Another relevant issue is the bag of holding economy. Arneson and Gygax gave early players bags of holding from a very early date. This means that the heavy treasures were never carried exclusively by pack mules and porters.

    I think Spycraft did a very good job of giving referees a set of parameters to tweak in order to customize their campaigns, e.g. give fewer hitpoints for a gritty campaign, etc.

    It’s possible for one rulebook to give rules ranging through (a) bags of holding and swimming pools full of gold, to (b) pack mules and swimming pools full of gold, all the way down to (x) the pack mule got eaten and the adventurers will be lucky if they don’t die of dehydration.

  14. August 1, 2011 at 8:37 am

    I don’t see why you need to switch to this “silver standard” stuff. Just change the weight of coins. The Moldvay Basic book lists two weights for coins: 0.1lbs each, and the size of an American half-dollar, which are about 40 to a pound. Meanwhile, the list of equipment weights in coins are completely wrong for either weight. And silver doesn’t have to by synonymous with historical either–Greece used silver coins in antiquity because they were dirt poor.

    Right now, in ACKS, an iron dagger costs one pound of gold, and a silver dagger costs three pounds of gold, both of which come with all sorts of assumptions. Since you’ve already worked out the economies of agricultural production and hiring soldiers, you might as well figure out a way to NOT have to pay each of those soldiers their weight in gold.

  15. 15 Charlatan
    August 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    My initial observation is always the same in this conversation: “Makes sense” and “is faithful to history” are orthogonal concerns. You can have a perfectly logical economy predicated on the assumption of traditional gold piece sizes, if you want to. What that means for the value of labor, demographics, and campaign-historical access to gold falls out of your decision there. On the other hand, if you want to codify medieval Europe as the basis for ACKS campaigns, I think Delta has done your work for you- but you need to be willing to convert hoards. I personally don’t suffer the cognitive dissonance others do when a rule suggests that D&D world is different from 13th C. Europe, but I’m sympathetic to the plight of others.

    You could always take a third path: You won’t convert hoards, you won’t use silver standard, you will make coins smaller. That will have implications, too, but so does every other arbitrary decision you make about the setting.

  16. 16 Keith418
    August 1, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I like the whole, “We don’t make change here1” attitude in either Vornheim or the original City State. In other words, the characters were forced to carry appropriate amounts all the time. I suspect that in rural areas, barter was more common than it often is in the game.

  17. August 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    It was like that in Krakow; people really hated to part with their coins, and would look at you with barely suppressed outrage if you wanted them to make change.

  18. 18 Keith418
    August 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Part of the issue has to do with hoarding and the way things functioned in pre-banking situations. I have yet to see a lot of interest/loan-sharking issues come up in D&D, but part the reason is the risk of death that existed all around, all the time. Who would loan money to anyone who could get killed by a wandering monster at any moment?

  19. August 1, 2011 at 9:07 pm


    Interesting. So I’m almost unique in attempting to set up loans in as a PC?

  20. 20 Keith418
    August 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    I don’t want to get into a classic economics discussion here, because aside from reading a few books my wiser friends think are on the crank plane, I don’t know too much about it. That said, one of the criticisms of the “gold standard” is that it would encourage people to just create huge hoards of wealth that would be, relatively speaking, non productive. Isn’t that what we find in D&D? There’s a dragon with a lot of gold that isn’t out there making anyone any money. You have to kill him and take it away, but once you have it, what are you going to do it with except either hoard it, or build with it?

    The monsters, after all, often function as the guards of the hoard. If they don’t have the gold themselves, they are guarding it for the person who does own it. I mean, if I had 10K gp, i would want at least one subdued basilisk standing watch over it as a kind of last-ditch security guard/burglar deterrent. Has anyone else considered this? Who is going to help guard all your stuff in the end game? Who is going to be trustworthy?

    I always thought there was a certain kind of irony involved with D&D having a “gold standard” combined with the innately “conservative” personalities of many of the people involved with the scene – myself included.

  21. 21 TrentB
    August 2, 2011 at 9:21 am

    That Dodecahedron bastard is Australian. We are so dumb.

  22. August 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I’m hoping that my next game will at least partly use hacksilver as the currency (in some regions anyway), “silver pieces” being a kind of abstraction for the weight of metal exchanged. It’s both historical and flavourful. I think that the ease of carrying coins at 1/50 or 1/60th of a pound is an OK trade-off for having to weigh all of the treasure before trying to buy things or constantly ripped off.

    The name “hacksilver” comes because some Norse groups had no respect for the coinage or jewelery of others and would actually cut them up into smaller pieces to be traded by mass. Then again, maybe it could be a work-around for giant coins too.

  23. August 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I’m sure you guys can come up with something that is at least somewhat faithful to history and/or makes better sense than massive gold coins… and is also fairly compatible with old publications. Something like “divide hoards by ten” or “gold becomes silver, silver becomes copper” and some random tables for whipping up some non-portable treasure for those massive hoards that are meant to provide that sort of challenge (“roll on the “20,000+” table to find out what to convert your pile of gold pieces into”).

    We don’t need fidelity as much as we need sanity and utility.

  24. 24 Invincible Overlord
    August 3, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    I found wrangling with the Pharoah’s treasure sort of interesting that one time, but essentially it feels more like fan-servicing the D&D legacy. It’s pesky and intrusive. If you’re interested in the challenge of dealing with cumbersome treasures, use big clumsy art objects. These have more character anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,056 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: