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<   No. 563   2004-08-11   >

Comic #563

1 Lambert: {to the blacksmith} 2000 gold pieces?!
2 Lambert: You do realise gold is incredibly scarce and medieval societies mostly used debased copper coinage?
3 Lambert: Even the existence of monster-guarded treasure caches plundered by heroes and redistributed can't sustain such rampant hyperinflation!
4 Smith: So you're skint, then?
4 Lambert: Yeah.

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Most medieval fantasy roleplaying worlds seem to have a lot more gold floating around than our world. Everyone's buying stuff with hundreds or thousands of gold coins!

And if you make the assumption that those are heavily inflated prices caused by adventurers running around looting evil temples and dungeons and spending thousands of gold pieces in the nearest towns, you end up with merchants being astoundingly rich and everyone else unable to afford anything. This leads to a situation similar to Spain in the early 16th century, when American gold and silver started flooding into the country, stirring up sweeping social upheavals and setting the stages for riots and revolutions.

Basically, your average medieval fantasy RPG world economy and society should be in a right mess.

2013-08-16 Rerun commentary: Not to mention the fact that, at least in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, all coins were described as weighing a tenth of a pound. Given the density of gold (and silver and other metals) is known, this allows you to work out the size of a canonical AD&D gold coin.

It turns out that a gold piece is about the size of one and a half Australian 50 cent coins, and a silver piece is the size of two Australian 50 cent coins. If you're Australian, your jaw has already dropped. If you're not Australian, then you need to know that our 50 cent coins are really big. In general our coins are ridiculously big compared to the coins of most other countries, and the 50 cent coin is the biggest of them all.

Rather than just describe it, here's a photo I took comparing an Australian 50 cent coin to the largest coins I had handy from some other currencies:

222/365 Coin sizes

(Sorry about the mangled state of the 50 cent coin - it was the only one I had on me right now.) It's also substantially thicker than any of those other coins.

Anyway, now you have an idea of how huge a gold or silver piece must be according to the first edition AD&D rules. They contain vast quantities of gold and silver. In contrast, historically real gold coins have been really, really tiny. Here are some real Roman silver and gold coins:

Silver and Gold

Unfortunately you can't easily tell the size, but those black things holding them down are pins and you can see the grain of the cloth they're resting on. These coins are about the size of a little fingernail. And they're thin, almost paper thin.

Later editions of Dungeons & Dragons fixed this somewhat by specifying that in fact coins weigh 1/50 of a pound, shrinking them by a factor of 5. Although that's still very big compared to historically accurate gold coins, and an awful lot of gold to be circulating in a medieval-style economy.

Of course for game purposes it doesn't really matter either way. The only real issue with coin sizes is how much loot you can carry. Perhaps someone should try running a traditional fantasy campaign where the currency is made of giant carved stones.

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