Fantasy World Economics 101

Since we got out hands on Pathfinder’s Ultimate Equipment (and very well endowed it was too) I wanted to write an article of sheer frustration about the pricing system which, for so many years, we have had to put up with. Prices in role playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, make no sense at all and even worse, there is the amazing simplification of “merchants buy stuff at 50% of the listed price” – NO, just no! This monetary system does not take into account supply and demand, wholesale prices, bartering, transportation, taxation, hazards, political status, kingdom treaties, quality of goods, how magic would affect prices, and last but by no means least, the production process of items.

In addition, the price of raw materials and the price of manufactured products seem to have instances where the raw material costs more than the final product, and there are even instances where the final price is 100 fold higher than the price of the raw material.

Having vented our frustration now, let’s talk about how we can make this more realistic whilst keeping it simple, and give our heroes a way to enjoy the game even more. In this short series of articles we will create a new system of economics that you can use and modify for your own worlds.
Welcome to Fantasy World Economics 101.

Coinage

To make things easier, for the purposes of these articles we will be using a decimalized Gold standard with Gold/Silver/Copper coin, though our initial references will come from sources drawn from 1000 – 1450 AD England and France which used the Silver Livre (Pound) non-decimalized standard. We are converting using the penny (denarius) as the equivalent of a copper coin. This means that the Shilling will be roughly equivalent to a silver coin and that the gold coins will be roughly equivalent to a Noble/Angel.

Fantasy world economics: Guild workers

A common misconception is that the weight exchange of gold:silver and silver:copper is 1:10; that is to say, some misunderstand that 1g of gold would equal 10g of silver in value. This has been driven by the simplification of coinage that we’ve have seen in the aforementioned role playing games, but this is far from true. Coin size and the difference in density of the material (kg/m3) mean that even if the coins had a decimalized relation they would look and feel very different.

Values in oblique are assumed via extrapolation based on the equivalencies table and the gold:silver, silver:copper exchange calculations below. 
Table 1.1: Material and weight
Coin Abbreviation Weight (gr) Material
Fantasy
Copper cp Copper
Silver sp 9 Silver
Gold gp 4.5  Gold
Medieval England
Penny (denarii) d 1.8 (1/240lb) Silver
Shilling (soldati) s 22.65 (1/20lb) Silver
Noble n 9 (1/50lb) Gold
Both
Ingot,Copper clb 453 (1lb) Copper
Ingot,Silver
(libra, lira, livre,Pfund)
lb, £, L, 453 (1lb) Silver
Ingot,Gold glb 453 (1lb) Gold
TABLE 1.2: Equivalency of Fantasy and Medieval coins
Fantasy Copper Medieval Pennies Shillings
Copper 1 Penny (d) 1 1/12
Silver 10 Shilling (s) 12 1
Gold 100 Noble 102 8.5
Platinum 1000  –
Ingot,Silver 5000 Pound (L)  240 20
Ingot,Gold 100000  4800 400
  • All ingots weight 1lb / 453g (1 pound)

Metal densities

Copper and silver density is quite close, but the density of gold is almost twice as high as silver. This means that our silver coin weighing 9 grams will be our biggest coin, followed by the copper coin at roughly the 3/4 radius of the silver coin. Finally our gold coin will only be about 1/4 of the size of the silver coin, since it will have half its weight and twice its density. In many occasions the shape of the coin was altered in order assure its authenticity or give it a bigger size. Polygonal patterns or holes in the middle could make the coin look bigger and more significant, whilst keeping its weight correct.

TABLE 1.2: Metal densities
Metal Density (Kilogram/meter3)
Copper 8930
Silver 10490
Gold 19320
Medieval fantasy economics: Medieval fantasy coin sizes

If you want to create your own coins using these as a template, you can find the PSD file attached at the bottom of this article.

Finding the Gold / Silver exchange rate

Note that the exchange rates of these metals varied during the 650 years of the Middle Ages and also, although close, different regions had different rates. For this article we gathered data mostly from France and England during the high middle ages (1300s)

From the above we can calculate that:

1 Noble (9g of Gold) = 8.5 Shillings (22.65g of Silver)

=> 9g of Gold = 192.525 g of Silver (8.5 x 22.65)

=> 1g of Gold = 21.39 g of Silver

The rounded exchange value of Gold to Silver in weight is
Gold 1:20 Silver

with the same method
50 Shilling (22.65g or Silver) = 1 Farthings (3.1g of Copper)

Silver 1:7 Copper

The Bread Constant

Fantasy world economics: Luis Meléndez (1716–1780), Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle

Luis Meléndez (1716–1780), Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle

Without a constant and stable source of food there can be no location specific (non-itinerary) civilization. In order to even begin to talk about an economy we have to establish its base, and the primary source of nutrition is just that. This source had to be commonly available, highly nutritious and provide satiation. Wheat bread ticked all of those boxes for most of central European civilization since the dawn of agriculture. For colder climates (i.e. Northern Europe) oats, rye and barley replaced wheat, because of their ability to withstand lower temperatures.

The price of bread is a constant for the economy; as a dietary staple it becomes a measure of the cost of living. In many medieval kingdoms bread price remained the same, even if in times of war or drought the size of a loaf became smaller. It is easier to keep your constant as simple as possible in matters of price and, since the most commonly used coin is the silver coin, the constant can be set to be that:

Local market selling price
1 silver piece  = 1 8 oz. loaf of white wheat bread (1750 Kcal)
OR
1 silver piece = 1 lb loaf of brown barley bread (1500 Kcal)

Keep in mind that the price of bread as the most basic product also defines the average wealth of the kingdom. Simply put, a wealthy kingdom’s price of bread would be higher than a poorer one.

Grain surplus as the economy driver

Since prehistoric times humans came together in order to survive. Survival was a matter of nutrition and safety, both from the weather and from other threats. With the discovery of agriculture humans no longer had to rely exclusively on hunting and foraging, which allowed for permanent housing; this in turn gave rise to the first settlements. Each farmer strived to be self-sufficient and produce as many of the required goods as possible, but nobody could have the knowledge and the time to produce everything that was needed. This was, in fact, the reason that even when a family was almost self-sufficient it would keep strong ties with the families around it. In order to nurture these relationships, each family unit had to be able to feed themselves and produce a surplus of some of its products; this surplus could then in turn be used to barter with other families for products or services they could not produce themselves.

As farming grew more efficient, surplus became greater. When surplus was so great that it could support people who did not produce their own food (and who traded for services they were able to provide) this gave rise to the first non-agrarian settlements – towns. Towns in many cases would rely, almost exclusively, on the surrounding villages for their source of food, whilst the villages relied on the nearby towns in order to sell their products on a greater scale than local barter, giving rise to trade. Trade became the lifeblood of civilizations since it opened the doors for cross-civilization exchange of products, knowledge and ideas, and also fueled the advancement of local and regional economy, as well as scientific and cultural progress.

Read next

Fantasy World Economics 101: Labour and Wages

Medieval land measuring units

Fantasy worlds and their place compared to written history

Coming up next

Next week we will be talking about taxation and the price of raw materials such as wood, stone, iron, lead, tin, charcoal and coal etc. and how their cost can be calculated.

Coming after that we will start discussing which are the modifiers which affect prices and how magic also can modify the cost of production.

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Assets

Fantasy world economics: Medieval fantasy coin sizes

Click to download PSD file

 

About Dimitris Romeo Havlidis

My name is Dimitris Romeo. I am a dyslexic one-eyed, web architect, developer and designer with a passion for photography, User Experience and telling stories.I spend my free time taking photos, watching tv series, cooking and watering my plants.I love lemon tarts, audiobooks, top hats, fantasy and science fiction in all its forms.

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