Friday, December 14, 2018

Unique Currencies Can Add A Lot To Your Game World

Hargrave sat nervously at the table in the rear of the tavern. He'd been told to wait, and wait he had, nursing a tarred jack of sour wine and trying not to grimace. When the man in the black hood entered, Hargrave pretended not to notice him. The man didn't speak, but Hargrave told him what he'd seen in a low whisper. When he'd told everything he knew, the man nodded, stood, and went the way he'd come. Sitting on the scarred tabletop, gleaming dully in the firelight, was a single, thick coin. Heavy as only gold was heavy, Hargrave saw the profile of an old man in a tall hat, and smiled.

Golden bishops were rare in this quarter, and now that he had one, he could afford to drink something a little sweeter than this cup of vinegar.

A Gilded Wraith? Friend, I'd sell you both my sisters, if you had one of those to pay.

What's Currency Like In Your Setting?

Most fantasy games out there use a pretty familiar system of metal coding to determine the value of a currency; copper, silver, and gold. Sometimes you use platinum for something even more valuable than gold, and sometimes you throw in weird metals like electrum, but those Olympic metals are the baseline for most in-game currency. And why not? They're easy to remember, and they happen to correspond to a system we're all pretty familiar with.

But if you've been looking for a way to add a touch more detail to your world, consider adding a few details to the money your players see, handle, and spend.

A golden mother? Where did you say you were from again, stranger?
Every kingdom and country is going to have their own, unique currency, even if they're made of the same material and have roughly equivalent values. After all, gold is gold, and you can still buy a fresh sword and new armor with it no matter how old it is. But can the money in someone's pocket give you clues about who they are? Or tip you off about something you should have noticed?

For example, say your party has just been given a job, and were paid up-front to take care of a small matter. Some might just tuck the coins away sight unseen, but one party member might notice the coins are stamped with a peacock and an elephant. Not only are these coins from far away, they also come from the nation this country is currently embroiled in a cold war with. While it will spend just as well as any other gold, it might draw suspicion, and get you marked as enemy agents. It might also tip the party off that their employer is either very far-traveled, or may be embroiled in deeper affairs than they can see.

Alternatively, say that you see someone paying for services with very old coins. Not just decades, but centuries old. Gold is still gold, but that minting date, the stamp, and the wear indicates that these coins likely came from a treasure hoard, rather than from daily labor. Where did it come from? An old pot dug up from a field that is unknowingly atop an ancient ruin? Found in the shallows, washed up from the sea? Or is this person a strange, fey creature in disguise who doesn't know that this gold is suspicious to those looking for such details?

You don't have to change up the money people are using by switching from copper, silver, and gold to magic gems, or trading the bones of particular beasts (though feel free to do that if you want to). You just need to fill in the details of what makes the coins from one place different from the coins from somewhere else.

Themes, Appearance, and Style

The other day I was browsing, and saw a conversation about currency. One of the suggestions was to make coins based off of chess pieces... and that is a perfect example of how you can craft a small detail that immediately makes your setting feel that much more real.

Coppers are called pawns, while a five-piece would be a rook. Silver knights are worth ten pawns each, and golden bishops are the most expensive currency most are likely to see in their lives. Platinum queens might be carried by the very rich, while a king is less of a coin, and more a measure of wealth used to pay bills by governments, and families of extreme wealth. The kind of money you'd use to cover an army of 10,000 soldiers, or to pay a debt for that season's grain purchase.

You could even use the coins as pieces, gambling with them in a game of strategy... long as you have a king stand-in.
Those coins immediately give this nation a personality, and allow you to start making flavorful associations.  It also uses a system that's simple to learn, and if you want to have some extra fun, you can use physical chess pieces as a way to keep track of bennies in your game. More about how that might work in If You Haven't Tried A Bennies System, You Should Give It A Shot.

There are all sorts of hierarchies you could use to tie your currency to the themes of a given country to make their money feel more unique. You might have a system based on animals, with gilded lions at the top, and copper hares at the bottom. You could have coins that look more like poker chips, with the suits just as important as the metal in determining their worth in the Four-Winds Nation. You could even have coins that feature monsters, gods, and heroes if you want to put a little lore into each transaction, or give players a hint that certain coins are out-of-the-ordinary, and might be a clue to something deeper.

And that's before you even get into strange and unique coins, like the Coin of The Realm, which legally excuses the bearer of any crime short of regicide, and is detailed in the supplement A Baker's Dozen of Rumours (And The Truth Behind Them) from Azukail Games.

It's Just One More Option

Since I know there will be some DMs out there who feel this is somehow calling them out for not paying attention to which imaginary figures have their imaginary portraits stamped on imaginary coins that only exist as a metric for who can buy the most powerful imaginary stuff, let me be clear. If you have no interest in putting extra detail into the coins, gems, or other currency your party comes across, that's fine. You aren't committing some grievous sin of world building.

However, it is one more aspect of the world that you can use to get information to your players, and to make the world they're in feel that much more unique.

That's all for this Fluff installment. Hopefully it got a few gears turning out there! If you'd like to see more of my work then head over to my Vocal archive, or click my Gamers page just to see my tabletop stuff. You should also check out Dungeon Keeper Radio, a YouTube channel where I get together with other gamers to make videos for dungeon masters and players alike.

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  1. In my home-brew world I confess I haven't given much thought to this. Most of the setting I have is in a single country which does have a currency. I made the Elven currency the dominant trade currency though.

  2. I've thought the exact same in the pic adt. I wanted to really give a bit of detail to the setting but I found it caused greater hassle than it was worth. It's a neat touch but required more attention to keep that detail going than it was worth.