Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Value of a Penny


What can a single copper piece buy in your game?

Adventure Gaming was the generalist game nerd magazine that Tim Kask started after he left editing The Dragon and woking for TSR.  It only lasted 13 issues, but the issues that got made are pretty sweet.  Issue 4 (October 1981) contains Diplomacy variants by the ever-awesome Lewis Pulsipher.  A generic fantasy adventure called "Pyramid of Light" by Kathleen Pettigrew notes "This adventure was originally designed for and run as an AD&D tournament scenario at GenCon XIV.  TSR Hobbies has in informed us, however, that to publish it in its original form would violate their copyright."  Bastards.  There's also part 1 of a two-part piece on playing out the First Romulan War in Star Fleet Battles.

Lots of other good stuff in this issue, too.  But my favorite article is "How Much is That Bearskin in the Window? Rational Economics in FRP" by Glenn Rahman of Divine Right fame.  The bulk of the article consists of a two and a half page price list for ordinary objects and services in the Roman empire.  Clothes, grain, transportation, footwear, and real estate all have multiple entries, for instance.  Most prices are listed in denarii, the silver piece of the Roman world.  Campaign economics aren't really my bag.  And I don't know if Rahman's basic premise that Roman prices were stable enough over the the history of the Empire to serve as the basis for rational economic thinking in D&D is true or not.  But I do like having supplementary price lists handy.

Rahman notes that the Romans also used a smaller value coin than the denarius, called the sestertius, valued at one quarter of a denarius.  As I was looking over Rahman's list, I started to wonder what a sestertius could buy me.  Here's what I found.  A single sestertius can buy one item from the following list:
  • 1 large snail, suitable for eating
  • 2 small apples
  • 1 garden-grown asparagus stalk
  • 2 wild asparagus stalks
  • 1 small cucumber
  • 1 reed pen of second quality
Those aren't exactly earth-shattering choices for how to spend one's money, but a nearly broke person with just one sestertius to their name can at least get something to stave off starvation for one more day.  Keeping the reaper at bay is the first and most important use of money, after all.  Ol' Robert Anton Wilson used to call paper money "bio-survival tickets."

Rahman's article and the sestertius got me thinking about what the smallest value coin, the copper piece, might be good for in D&D.
Paizo will gladly sell you a
dozen fake CP for 12 bucks.

My precious BX D&D, like OD&D before it, lists all costs in gold pieces, so none of the coins smaller than a gp are very useful.  Of course, the BX and OD&D price lists focus strictly on adventuring equipment.  And with BX aiming for a younger demographic, I can see not wanting to muddy equipment purchasing with different denominations of money.  However, if you visit the tavern at the Keep on the Borderlands, the menu there includes items for less than 1gp each.  A single copper can only buy you one thing, a slice of bread.  Still, that's better than nothing.

The first edition AD&D Players Handbook has prices in gold, silver, and copper pieces, but a single cp can only buy you a few things.  You can get a tallow candle (wax costs a whole silver piece-fancy!), a single iron spike, or a single torch.  A 10' pole costs 3cp, so I guess you could get a  3 and a third foot rod for 1cp.  That's all useful stuff, I guess.

2nd edition AD&D has several items available for one copper piece:
  • a meal of "egg or fresh vegetables"
  • a day's worth of firewood
  • a candle (type unspecified)
  • chalk
  • a torch
  • a live pigeon (non-homing)
  • hiring someone to do one load of laundry
  • a sling bullet
Page 12 of Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets (still one of my favorite supplements for the game) indicates that a copper piece is the appropriate pay for 5 hours of labor.  I find that to be a handy guideline.  Incidentally, this means that, under City State coin values, a gold piece can buy 250 hours of labor.

Dragon #117 has a great two-page article by Robert A Nelson called "Dungeoneer's Shopping Guide" that does a good job expanding the AD&D price lists to include more everyday items.  I highly recommend it.  I was hoping to find more ways to spend my single copper penny in it, but no dice.  Still, I recommend DMs get a copy of this article and slip it into their campaign materials.

First edition Oriental Adventures has a copper coin called the fen, which is a real unit of Chinese currency.  It is roughly equal to the occidental copper piece in value.  A single fen coin can buy you the following things:
  • a jo stick
  • a straw hat
  • a loincloth
  • a torch
  • a blank paper prayer strip
  • the services of a lantern bearer (per day?)
  • the services of funerary mourners (per day?)
Though I'm not sure what mourners (plural) are going to do with a single fen between them.  Maybe they can buy a fraction of a standard measure of rice.  Still, it doesn't sound like a lucrative career.

The Hackmaster 4th edition Player's Handbook has a quite robust goods and services chapter.  One cp in Garweeze Wurld will get you any of the same stuff you can get in 2nd edition AD&D (not surprising), but you can also purchase a pint of watered down wine for your wineskin or a "shoddy" garment to hide your nakedness.

The DCC RPG has 3 one-cp items: candle, piece of chalk, torch.

Middle-Earth Role Playing isn't really on the same coin standard as D&D.  Starting characters get 2 gold pieces and that's fairly sufficient to buy some starting gear.  The smallest coin in MERP is the tin piece, which will buy you a pint of cider of the Prancing Pony and not much else.

James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only modern D&D variant I try to keep up on
nowadays (though there are lots and lots of other good ones out there).  Below are all your options with a single copper piece in Raggi's messed up world.  LotFP actual gives two prices for each item, one for shopping in the city and one for rural settings.
  • a belt pouch (rural)
  • a drink, cheap (either city or rural)
  • a meal, horrid (rural)
  • a night's stay in a barn (rural)
  • a candle (either)
  • a piece of chalk (either)
  • a bulb of garlic (rural)
  • a wooden holy symbol (rural)
  • a vial of ink (city)
  • an unknown quantity of lard (presumably enough to cause trouble)
  • some nails (city)
  • soap (either)
  • a wooden spike (either)
  • a torch (either)
  • a sprig of wolvesbane (rural)
That's a great list.  It helps that, like MERP, Lamentations isn't on the gold standard.  Most transactions are by the silver piece and 1sp of loot equals 1 experience point.  A single gold piece is actually a pretty decent treasure in LotFP, worth 50 bucks.

Anyway, what's the point of this analysis?  Whatever your campaign's money system, you should give a little thought as to the function of the lowest-valued coin.  What can a down-on-their-luck murderhobo get for a single such coin?  If the answer is "nothing" then maybe you want to think about why that coin even exists.  From a DM's point of view, I feel like copper pieces mainly exist to give logistical hassles when found in great quantities.  But those coins should have a function in the campaign.  Perhaps before the collapse of whatever Roman empire predates your campaign's current dark ages a copper piece had real buying power, but runaway inflation has depressed it to near worthlessness.  No contemporary political point is being made here, honest.

I'm going to conclude with half an idea, which is a terrible way to end a post, but here we go anyway.  What if prices were wide enough in variety that you could have a viable copper piece price list, a silver piece price list, a gold piece price list, etc.  Then for each new campaign start you could decide how toney you want starting PCs to kit out.  A copper campaign would begin with clubs and wooden shields.  A silver campaign would have more metallic weapons, but be less cool than the standard gold lists.  And the platinum list would have all sorts of fancy boy equipment on it.  Because why play a pseudo-medieval setting if you can't have some class conflict?