How some RPGs get coins wrong: they matter a lot until they matter not at all. It’s fun to play until your PCs are rich, but it’s even more fun to be able to buy things with those riches.

Absorbing Excess Wealth

At early levels, PCs lack coin and equipment, and they spend whatever coin they get on gearing up. Then eventually the coin no longer matters. There aren’t enough weapons, gear, luxury items or magic items to buy. You’ll know you’ve hit that point in 5e when PCs are spending gold coins on items with prices in copper because they can’t be bothered to make change anymore.

How different systems solve for this:

  • In 1970s and 1980s D&D, in the late game, you would spend significant amounts of coin to upgrade and maintain a keep or stronghold.
  • In OSR games, gold yields experience points; you need gold to level up.
  • In Freebooters on the Frontier, the primary goal of PCs is to stash 10,000 silver coins and then retire.
  • In Stonetop, with its more abstract system, amassing treasure (and skilled artisans) is about spending to improve the village.
  • In Impulse Drive, PCs go into debt to acquire their spaceship and then need to pay it off.

Wealth in D&D

In D&D originally (1974), 1 platinum piece = 5 gold pieces = 2.5 or 10 electrum pieces = 50 silver pieces = 250 copper pieces. But platinum and electrum were optional, and the GM could pick from two different values for electrum pieces. And then gems would have varying values (the gemstone wasn’t described, just its worth in gold pieces). The reason for this complexity was because of the rules around how much PCs could carry: with each coin weighing the same, regardless of its metal, PCs would make tradeoffs about which treasure to bear away based on its weight.

For instance, the Men & Magic booklet gives an example of calculating the weight of what someone is carrying: plate armor, 750 gp in weight; helmet, 50; shield, 100; flail, 100; (text missing in my copy), 50; dagger, 20; misc. equipment, 80; for a total of 1,200. Carrying 750 gp or less you could move 12 feet per turn, carrying 751-1,000 you could move 9 feet per turn, up to a maximum load of 3,000 gp.

The game only had a one-page price list, with the most expensive items being boats, from a small merchant ship for 5,000 gold pieces to a large galley for 30,000 gold pieces. Magic users, on the other hand, could invest thousands of gold pieces in a chance of creating a new spell. The highest price mentioned is spending 100,000 gold pieces to construct a castle.

Like many aspects of original D&D, wealth and encumbrance involved a lot of bookkeeping.

Common evolutions of this system were to standardize on one type of coin (e.g., silver), to develop much more detailed price lists, and to simplify encumbrance calculations.

Abstract Wealth Systems

In contrast, some systems handwave management of wealth. Two very different systems I’ve experienced are in Stonetop and Impulse Drive.

In Stonetop, prices are fluid and negotiable rather than exhaustively catalogued, and within the village itself commerce is rarely used. In the fiction, the gift economy of Stonetop the village made a great contrast to typical experiences (in the real world and in other fantasy TTRPGs); we played that up for those PCs who came from commerce-driven towns and cities. Mechanically, Stonetop uses tiers of wealth rather than tracking individual currencies. You’re not going to have 20 copper coins, 2 silver coins, and 3 gold coins: you’re going to have a coin, a handful of coins, and a purse of coins. The tiers range from Value 0 items (e.g., a few purses of copper coins, a few days of unskilled labor, etc.) to Value 4 items (1-4 purses of gold coins, a cartload of exotic trade goods, etc.). This was one of the few subsystems that confused my Stonetop players, as players were thinking two Value 1 items equal a Value 2 item, and so on (as the tiers are not easily interchangeable, perhaps it would be better if the tiers had been labeled Value A to E instead of 0 to 4).

In contrast, the abstract wealth system of Impulse Drive is implemented as a move that acts as a router, sending you to other moves where you can select choices that spend different tiers. The advantage of the router is that you don’t have to actually track the wealth. As soon as an opportunity (e.g., fulfilling a contract) produces wealth, you fire the move to spend that wealth. And there’s a lot you can spend it on: Debt (if you have the Smuggler ship playbook), Maintenance, repairing ship damage, buying a Ship Upgrade, acquiring a vehicle, getting cargo to trade, or getting gear for players:

Ship Payment - Payday
When your Crew successfully completes a Contract and collects their pay from the client or contact, roll+Contract Rating.
On a 12+, you make out like bandits, choose 4.
On a 10-11, you get a great deal, choose 3.
On a 7-9, you get the standard deal, choose 2.
On a 6-, it’s a set up or raw deal. You may either walk away with a token payment and choose 1, or choose 2 and deal with an enemy that’s found you and wants to settle things now.
»» You keep the wolves at bay. Reduce Debt by 1 and reset the Debt Fuse.
»» You pay the maintenance costs for your ship. Reset the Maintenance Fuse.
»» You get the Ship patched up. Remove all Damage from the Ship.
»» You purchase an Upgrade for your Ship.
»» You go shopping for a new Vehicle, roll Test Drive.
»» You fill your ship’s cargo hold with lucrative goods for sale elsewhere, roll Lucrative Exports to determine what Cargo is available.
»» You divide the spoils for some walking around money, each Crew Member rolls on Hey Big Spender.
After you’ve made your selections and resolved any follow-up moves [e.g., Debt and Your Creditor], you’re broke again and need to find more work.

One of the players absolutely loathes this system, to the point it became a running joke. There is a tendency to end up in barter situations, where you exchange cargo for different cargo.

But I liked it. You don’t have to figure out how many credits a tribble will cost. You just mark a use of “Liquid Assets: 3 uses, Expires, Basic Gear; You’ve saved some walking around cash. While on your next Contract, expend a use to offer a bribe as leverage or pay for a service. Liquid Assets expire at the end of the Contract, whether you spent them all or not.”

For a custom abstract wealth system in another system, I might come up with a move that gets engaged to spend wealth in ways specific to that type of play—e.g., political patronage, bribes, funding a religious mission, paying off a mortgage, adding an upgrade to a stronghold.

Wealth in My Campaigns

I’ve handled wealth differently in different campaigns.

  • In one of my 5e campaigns, we basically “solved” it by having a whole session around shopping for off-book items at fabulous high, high prices prior to the final two or three episodes confronting the BBEG. Magic items hadn’t been available for sale prior to that.
  • I didn’t handle it very well in my subsequent O5R campaign, and the PCs opened a store selling mirrors they’d looted from a medusa. I hadn’t given them a system of play for their extra loot, but they found an in-fiction outlet, so it worked out, though not by design. Which is of course always fine. Just a design flaw from the perspective of playing slightly grittier 5e rules and not having thought of it. Based on that, I adapted some simplified keep rules—a price list, mainly—but that didn’t interest them.
  • In Hard Knock World, I considered an abstract system, but I went with coins, just because money is such a universal to players that it doesn’t require any added explanation.
  • When I migrated my hexcrawl to Dungeon World, I ended up doing a detailed price comparison between 5e and Holmes Basic, then converting that into staters (electrum pieces) to come up with a price list. While treasure was only in staters, the physical details of the coins could differ, and were intended to provide clues about the ancient empire.
The imperial standard for coinage was the electrum stater, typically with an animal on the head and a geometric shape on the tail. Each city state had its own symbols: for instance, the Austci ep (electrum piece) has a horse head on the front and a spiral on the back. 
d20	City State	Hex	Head	Tail
1	Albotci	0909	Hawk	Two interlocking circles
2-7	Auspele	0607	Horse head	Spiral
8	Bl̥nhermo		Bull	Two squares, diagonally
9-10	Corospele	0403	Tortoise	4 triangles (top, bottom, left, right) pointing inward
11	Etenpr̥tu	0209	Cow	Large square partially overlaid by smaller square
12	Gwoucer	0509	Minotaur	Ø
13	Hajratci	0208	Dolphin	Wave
14	Jagund		Bird	Square in a square
15	Mehusti		Bee	Skew pattern
16	Naustreb	0308	Beaver	X
17	Petroequos		Winged horse	2 x 2 grid
18	Septm̥wesr̥	0205	Ostrich	Square bisected by 4 lines
19	Stoijwerd	0409	Ant	5-layered step pyramid
20	Zujocopa 		Owl	T shape

Clearly there are a wealth of ways to handle currency in tabletop role-playing games.

Update: Discussion on Hacker News.

Photo credit: A treasure hoard from Fargelanda in western Sweden, from the Wikimedia Commons.