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The Next D&D Homebrew: Fixing the 4E Financial Crisis

ancient coinsIf I had to guess, I’d lay equal odds that seeing the words “financial crisis” in my title had almost as much impact to the average Reader as seeing “D&D” and “4E” in there.  But I’m not here to wax political – which is darned hard not to do in an Election Year – but to take a look at a facet of the game that has been bothering me since I started playing D&D 4E: GOLD PIECES!

The value of common items and magic items have gone a little bonkers in D&D 4E.  Sometimes it seems that the authors strove for a paradigm of coinage simplicity in when designing the game, and made almost every item in the game cost some amount of gold pieces.  And while I cannot deny that making gold pieces the most commonly used coin makes it easy for record keeping and for buying and selling, it also makes things terribly unrealistic – particularly at the very low and the very high levels of play.

Historically, in older D&D editions, characters were supposed to be a bit down-at-the-heel at low levels, and lived a sort of “boom-and-bust” lifestyle, where they had cash after a big delve and lived well, but once it ran out, the heroes went back to delving.  This mirrored the stories of adventure from some of stories of Conan, Elric, and nearly all the tales of the roguish heroes Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.

And as most fantasy setting were at least loosely based upon either ancient or medieval societies, the use of gold pieces in such proliferation as we see in D&D 4E is probably bit disturbing to most students of history out there.  Gold was the currency of kings and nations, and not in the coins used by most folk in the kingdom.  Yet even in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, we have a common Level 1 valets, porters, and link boys demanding wages in gold per day that would ordinarily keep their common lives funded for the half a dozen years!

Of course, these simple folk have to live in an economy where a common meal with a pitcher of simple ale runs them 40% of a gold piece!  So it takes more than 1 gold per day just to have three square meals – and we haven’t even figured in costs for lodgings and taxes yet!

And at the high end D&D play, the economy is just insane!  Magic items cost hundreds of thousands to millions of gold pieces, making common items in the Epic Tier more costly than the yearly GDP of any civilized kingdom!  And even if heroes want to make a purchase from Ye Olde Magisters Guilde and convert their currency to the rare platinum piece, they would still have to transport over 500 pounds in coins just to buy one item!

While it appears that the D&D 4E economy is hopelessly broken, it turns out there is actually a fairly simple fix.  Instead of fixating on gold as the metal of choice for all transactions, it just takes a few adjustments to turn your 4E campaigns’ financial world from a gold standard to a silver standard!

Silver is the New Gold!

The first step on the road to financial recovery is probably the hardest – getting every player to agree to see something that’s not there.  In this case, everyone in your campaign needs to agree that if they see “gp” in an official book, in Character Builder, or in the Compendium, what they are actually seeing is “sp” instead.  And the second step proceeding from there, you need to see “cp” where sources list “sp” and “bp” where “cp” used to be.  This next part isn’t as hard, because VERY few goods and services in D&D 4E actually cost only silver or copper coins.

Please note, we are not talking conversion here, but simply renaming the value of gold to silver, silver to copper.  This includes both prices and the listing in Treasure Parcels, so that a 1000 gp gem is now a 1000 sp gem.  Obviously, it goes without saying that the platinum pieces “pp” in Treasure Parcels should be renamed as “gp” to make this all work out.

By the way, the “bp” stands for brass pieces, which you might also call “half-pennies” since they have about half the value and copper content of a “cp” (2 bp = 1cp).  This will inflate the cost of items like candles and drinking flasks by about fifty times, but that gets your players’ loincloths in a knot, just offer them five or ten of those items for the listed price.

After that, the last step is convincing your players to use a 100 coin conversion system for all other coins, and you’ve just solved the 4E financial problem!  That last is probably going to get some frowns too, because most D&D gamers are used to a 10 conversion system, but honestly, this really works for making coinage logical again in even the strangest fantasy setting.

So under the new silver-replacement system, we have the following currency rates:

  • 2 brass pieces = 1 copper piece
  • 100 copper pieces = 1 silver piece
  • 100 silver pieces = 1 gold piece
  • 100 gold pieces = 1 platinum piece
  • 100 platinum pieces = 1 astral diamond

This does not change the upper end of the financial system as platinum and astral diamonds have always been on the 100x conversion rate.  But this does introduce two decimal places worth of “change” in the lower end of the financial system, and that will help to actually fix the silliness at the upper end of play!

It All Spends

So now we have a system that makes a bit more sense, as far as the metals for coinage, amounts of coins, and the cost of items.  At the low end, characters are spending silver and copper to make most of their purchases, but their buying power remains unaffected.  Level 1 characters start with 100 silver coins, but Leather Armor costs 25 sp now, which is the same percentage of the starting money as it always has been.  A Level 3 Common Magic Item costs 680 sp now, which is still within the grasp of those Level 4 characters who have been splitting their Treasure Parcels up five ways, just as it did under the old system.

But magic items, buildings, and other services which currently cost hundreds and even millions of gold get to be brought down to numbers much more reasonable to most gamers.  That Level 22 Common Magic Item which used to cost 325,000 gold pieces, now costs 325,000 silver pieces, or more importantly 3,250 gold, or 32 pp and 50 gp – a much more reasonable amount of coins to cart to your local enchanter’s shop!

And switching over to the “silver standard” creates an added benefit: Huge hoards!

Hoards of coins now contain even more coins should a DM desire piles of coinage strewn about a dungeon!  Under the old “gold-silly” system, a 10th Level Dragon sitting on Treasure parcel #5, with a mere 2800 gold coins under his scaly arse, might seem a bit lame.  But under the new silver-replacement system, that dragon might have only 2800 sp value in his  lair but his treasure pile can be humongous!  Assuming he’s been busy stealing from rich and poor alike, he could be sitting on a pile of 10 gold coins, 1200 silver coins, 30000 copper coins, and 60000 brass coins!  Now that’s a hoard!

By the way, that also means the dragon’s hoard of coins weighs about 1400 pounds, so you’re going to need some strong back to cart if out of the lair.  Maybe some of those porters might be handy to get your cash home then?

For flair, you can name coins too, using similar names to European medieval coins like:

  • Brass Coin = Half-Penny
  • Copper = Penny
  • Silver = Shilling
  • Gold = Crown
  • Platinum = Imperial

I don’t know what you’d call an astral diamond except astral diamond. Let’s face it, most folks response to seeing one used as currency would be “Wow… you’re going to get murdered flashing that around here!!!”  Maybe they should be called Reapers?

Bringing Home the Swag (Variant Rule)

One other oddity of the 4E system is making all coins fifty to the pound.  Common sense should tell us that it is not quite right, but for most gamers, a fifty to the pound weight for coins is easy math so you don’t have to change it unless you want a more “simulationist” experience.

So really how much does coinage weigh?

The weight of coins really depends on how big your coins are, and the specific density of the metals in them.  And since I can already sense eyes glazing and eyelids dropping, I’ll try and keep it simple.

If you want to use U.S. quarters for your coin size, you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock trying to lug it out of the dungeon.  Brass and copper coins weigh about one and a half pounds for every hundred, while silver coins weigh in at about 2 pounds for the same number.  But 100 gold coins of quarter size weigh about three and a half pounds, while the like amount of platinum exceeds four pounds per 100!

U.S. nickels are much more reasonable in weight for most metals, and are still represent a decent sized coin.  For nickel-sized brass, silver, and copper coins, these weigh in at around 1.5 pounds per 100 coins – although that’s fudging a bit on the brass just to make the math easy.  Gold and platinum coinage made at the size of a nickel weigh about 3 pounds per 100 coins.

But if you want everything to weigh the same – 1.5 pounds per 100 coins – then gold and platinum should be about the size of a U.S. dime, instead of a nickel.

So that’s one way you solve the D&D 4E “financial crisis” and make the economies of many a fantasy world so much more reasonable to handle.  It solves the problem of the numbers of coins laying around the world, and even makes the high cost of end game items a bit more palatable to handle, all without changing the buying power of a Treasure Parcel.  For gamers using Character Builder, you’ll have to use the “Add Item” button while keeping to your silver standard, but the new monetary system won’t be impeded by the programming.

I know, I know… if only the real financial crisis could be solved so easily…

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


5 Responses to “The Next D&D Homebrew: Fixing the 4E Financial Crisis

  1. Yong Kyosunim says:

    Yeah, I always thought 3e’s economy was wonky, but 4e took the cake. 3,250,000 for a magic item just was insane. At least with your system, it’s now a manageable 325 pp. I should adopt something like this for Pathfinder when I get back to playing again.

  2. Jack says:

    I like it, I think. I usually try to make sense of the game economy by converting the price of goods to real-world equivalents, since most people I play with understand $15 better than they understand medieval currency. I think my most recent kludge for Pathfinder was 1 gp = $50, 1 sp = $5, and 1cp = $0.50. The numbers come up reasonable if for things like horses and meals, I think, but I haven’t done any real work to figure out what reasonable living expenses for a commoner would be (and that’s really the baseline we need to have).

  3. Martijn says:

    A horde is a large number of barbarians. A hoard is a large number of coins.

    Other than that nitpick, I’ve been thinking along similar lines. My only worry: do you need a lot of recalculating of prices of common items (some of which are in sp or cp), or would widening the gap in prices by simply replacing sp with cp and cp with bp be a good thing?

  4. @Martjin – Crud, I knew something looked wrong with my spelling – thanks for catching it – and fixed! I’m fairly certain that widening the gap is a good thing in that items which currently cost silver and copper (turned to copper and brass in my system) are fairly minor items, and are what one would expect a peasant to be able to pay. For instance, the common meal and pitcher of beer I mentioned at 4 sp in the PHB is now 4 cp under the silver-replacement system. I think it’s easier to imagine a commoner NPC paying 4 coppers for his lunch, which is 1/25 of a silver, as opposed to 4 sp which was 40% of a gold!

    @Jack – Yup, we really need a baseline for a commoner, and I’m working on that now. Unless the research gets long, I’ll likely amend this post with a post-script about commoner wages and prices in medieval society.

  5. Marco says:

    Our group has been using that for a long time, but I’m glad someone finally put it out for everyone to see. Good stuff!

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