Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Use a Gold Standard?

There have been a few posts lately where people talk about using silver standards in their games rather than the default gold standard for coinage/prices.  I'm too lazy to look them up right now (too many other links below).  They're not rare, hard to find things, though, so I'm sure most of my readers have at least come across one or two before in the past.

Now, first off, there's nothing wrong with doing this in my opinion.  You just switch a few notations, and decide which items on the equipment list will still be priced as-is in gold (usually armor, mounts, ships, castle construction costs), and everything else gets the same number but read as silver, rather than gold. 

It's more 'historical' because most historical coinage was silver, not gold (although most historical transactions were barter/trade/credit affairs, from what I understand--this is all beside the point, however). 

So what are some reasons to stick with the game's default assumption of a gold standard currency?

I've been thinking about this from two lenses.  One is the recent posts by ckutalik and Trollsmyth about here and here.  They discuss the inherent anachronism of the 'standard D&D setting.'  The game is set up to purposely distort the historical influences, as it seems.

Second is the old idea of trying to figure out interesting setting details from oddities or curiosities found within the game text, inspired by this old post on The Forge by Rich Forest (Superhero Necromancer) and Ben Lehman, which I've blogged about before

So, what does the way D&D is written, with gold coins being the default currency, tell us?  What other game assumptions influence this?

First off, the basic premise of the game is that there are monsters living in the wilderness or in dungeons, and those monsters have amassed treasure.  This is an influence that comes from old Norse myths and legends, where kings would be buried with treasure hoards*, and then legends would spring up of monsters protecting these hoards.  See the dragon episode of Beowulf, or the Volsung Saga/Nibelungenlied for two classic examples of this.  Tolkien popularized this in The Hobbit (not so much in Lord of the Rings).

How the monsters get the treasure in D&D is not explained, though.

Next, adventurers go out to take that treasure from the monsters.  This is an influence of the Pulps, primarily.  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser adventure because it's in their blood to do so, but their objectives are usually treasure.  Again, The Hobbit also gives us a good reference for this aspect of the game.

Now, the final assumption of the rules is that because monsters have all this gold, and adventurers are out there killing monsters and taking that gold, that gold is the standard coin of most realms.  Gold flows into civilized areas not from mining operations, but from adventurers looting it from the monsters (who aren't given any source for the gold, leaving it for each group to make up as they like).

And so we have a gold standard in D&D.  And while it isn't realistic in a historical Earth sense, it does make sense within the premise of the game.

So what insights can be drawn from this? 

First, gold is probably much more common in a D&D world than it is in the real world.  There's more gold out there, so it's not as much of a stretch to see gold as the default coin metal.  Or if it's not more common of a metal geologically, it's at least easier to get at, because of all the subterranean races carving out dungeons and lairs and cities beneath the surface of the world.

Second, do rulers bother to mint their own coins?  With the massive influx of old specie coming up from the dungeons, why bother with making their own?  I'd guess that yes, they do still have mints, where they melt down old coins and re-stamp them.  This would be done for the same reasons it's done in the real world--to assure people using the coins that they are of the value the government says they are, and to prevent counterfeiting.  There's likely a lot less gold mining going on, though.  Why take all the effort to mine or pan for gold 49er style, when you could just send a team of experts to kill a basilisk instead?

Third, could gold have once been plentiful in the world, but is now disappearing?  Creatures like the rarely used aurumvorax, portable hole+bag of holding disasters, wizards building planar strongholds...there are likely a lot of ways that coins and gems and stuff are disappearing from the world.  Could that make gold more valuable again?  If you want a good verisimilitudinous fantasy reason for a silver standard, why not consider something like this?  Adventurers go for the gold because everyone else is running out? 

In conclusion, I'd argue that there's nothing wrong with using the game's assumed gold standard in your game.  If you want to switch to a silver standard, that's fine, but historical precedent is not necessarily relevant to some of the game's base assumptions, while the gold standard it presents does seem to have a logical basis within the game world.

* Other cultures have buried kings or other important people with grave goods/treasure, but I've come across few legends of monsters then coming to claim that loot as their own, and heroes then coming to slay the monsters in other mythologies.


  1. Nice post. I've often wanted to switch to a silver standard, but now I believe a gold standard better portrays what the game is all about. Because it's not a game about medieval Earth but with monsters, it's about a wild and magic world that has some passing similarities with Earth.

    Anyway, apparently only 161,000 tons of gold have EVER been mined on our planet, which is about enough to fill 2 Olympic sized swimming pools. And over half of that has been mined in just the past 50 years. Doesn't seem right, but that's what the National Geographic says.

  2. I think the urge to switch to the silver standard has more to do with silver and especially copper than it does with gold. I think another viable alternative is to just be rid of copper and maybe even silver!

    I guess it depends on what you want out of your game.

  3. @Lord Kilgore: I disagree with that figure. How many stories have we heard about lost, golden cities, Incas hiding gold from Pizzaro, that kind of stuff. Surely they can't all be legends. I suppose it's irrelevant, though, as there isn't a lot of gold out there anyway.

    As far as the "gold standard" goes, does it really matter? D&D has platinum, which is more analogous to historic gold. Sure, we can use a silver standard, but you're essentially just changing the names. And D&D coins are huge: 1/10th of a pound. Real coins were very small, right? But it's probably necessary for the big coins from a gamist view, it makes it hard to haul around a ton of money. Thus you spend it as fast as you get it, which encourages proper S&S-style play.

    For a historical RPG, using gold is awful. For fantasy, I don't think it matters. I tried to implement a C&S sort of economy into a D&D game once. It was a pain in the ass and honestly not worth worrying about. Just increase the mortality rate of the PCs and money doesn't become nearly as important.

  4. What you're describing is a world functionally similar to WoW and other MMORPGs: monsters spawn with gold attached, and "mining" is questing. And the result is "gold farms" IRL, which would certainly be replicated in the gameworld's economy by NPCs if they had agency. Prolific spawning dungeons would be gold mines, subject to rushes.

    I had an idea about games like James M's that are beset by a Chaos threatening to unmake them, pouring monsters out of the Dungeon Dimensions. My idea was that either one day adventurers will deplete the supply of monsters (leading to mass adventurer unemployment and civil unrest) or monsters are quickly recycled through the Hells to rise and fight again - a fast-track karmic reincarnation path - and that if you really wanted to reduce the numbers of monsters you would have to convert or imprison them. But what if monsters always come with gold? Then what is gold? Is it Hell-placenta/lubricant (the root of all evil)? Is that why it ends up decorating churches and palaces?

    ...and pretty soon it seems like the gold itself is in charge.

  5. Your view of gold production seems valid for a standard D&D game, where gold flows like water from the veins of slain monsters, but it feels wrong to use the PRICES as set in the various gold standard gaming books.

    Fixing the prices is the other side of the coin (no pun intended). That is why I plan to use a sliver standard. Dragons and what not can still have gold, but not as much.

  6. How many stories have we heard about lost, golden cities, Incas hiding gold from Pizzaro, that kind of stuff. Surely they can't all be legends.

    Well, surely they all CAN be, even if some of them could be true. I suspect that they aren't. Either way, the National Geographic numbers seem low to a layman like me anyway.

    For our homebrew, we're using a different advancement system which decouples huge numbers of XP requiring huge numbers of GP to attain, and have therefore cut all treasure sizes by about 90%. And left the price list (mostly) as is. Each GP recovered is much more valuable and we don't have the "leave those 15,000 silver pieces behind, they're worthless" going on.