This post was inspired by a discussion of currency in Dungeons and Dragons and similar fantasy roleplaying games.

I’m sure we all know the idea of a universal system of Copper, Silver, Gold and Platinum (or some other scale) coins, each conveniently incremented in powers of 10, is broadly ahistorical. Its use is justified because it’s convenient gameplay: players, used to decimal currency systems, would hardly find it entertaining to have to think about hapennies and shillings.

Diegetically, there’s a practicality argument, the argument for commodity money in general, that gold is a good commodity for adventuring parties to use as a form of wealth, because it’s compact, non-perishable, easy to transport, and commonly valued - much the same as why a trader would want to carry currency as well as trade goods.

Even with a gold commodity money, if players are interested you can introduce complications: it’s not going to be valued the same everywhere, and historically coinage has been intimately connected with the workings of states (as opposed to the kind of economic fable of small commodity producers introducing a common medium of exchange for convenience). There might be all kinds of laws and things demanding, say, the providence of gold must be established - if you think that’s an interesting side of a story to go down. Or, if the people at a place don’t have any need to trade with faraway places where gold is valued, why should they want a load of gold coins in return for something actually useful?

But really introducing complications to ‘gold pieces’ isn’t necessarily the richest vein of ‘oh shit cool’ ideas.

Graeber’s ‘Debt’

The circumstances of barter and money

The history of currency is way more deeply, fascinatingly complicated than you’d think from dry discussions about old rusty coins. One of the books I’ve enjoyed a lot on the subject, which goes a long way to make it intresting, is David Graeber’s book of broadly anarchist history/anthropology Debt: the first 5000 years.

After an introduction setting out his broad concerns with the notion of debt in human societies, his book begins with an extended critique of the economic fable of money as arising from systems of barter between small producers as being totally historically baseless, and describes the narrow circumstances where barter takes place and its ritualised methods:

Now, all this hardly means that barter does not exist-or even that it’s never practiced by the sort of people that Smith would refer to as “savages.” It just means that it’s almost never employed, as [Adam] Smith imagined, between fellow villagers. Ordinarily, it takes place between strangers, even enemies.

To elaborate on this, Graeber uses two examples: the Nambikwara of Brazil, and the Gunwinggu people of Western Arnhem Land, in Australia. The common elements of barter relations are, he argues:

What all such cases of trade through barter have in common is that they are meetings with strangers who will, likely as not, never meet again, and with whom one certainly will not enter into any ongoing relations. This is why a direct one-on-one exchange is appropriate: each side makes their trade and walks away. It’s all made possible by laying down an initial mantle of sociability, in the form of shared pleasures, music and dance–the usual base of conviviality on which trade must always be built. Then comes the actual trading, where both sides make a great display of the latent hostility that necessarily exists in any exchange of material goods between strangers-where neither party has no particular reason not to take advantage of the other-by playful mock aggression, though in the Nambikwara case, where the mantle of sociability is extremely thin, mock aggression is in constant danger of slipping over into the real thing. The Gunwinggu, with their more relaxed attitude toward sexuality, have quite ingeniously managed to make the shared pleasures and aggression into exactly the same thing.

One thing that’s striking is how playful, complex and elaborate these barter rituals are. There’s an awful lot of feasting and sex involved. But like, even though that’s probably not territory you’re interested in exploring in a roleplaying game, establishing that trade is handled through these kinds of elaborate ritual exchanges between large groups would be a pretty striking thing and a very interesting change from the ‘fantasy costco’ approach!

Graeber argues that the basis for the myth of barter is the artificial separation between the marketplace and the sphere of consumption, in actuality enforced by social institutions such as the police. Barter is, in general:

Swapping one thing directly for another while trying to get the best deal one can out of the transaction is, ordinarily, how one deals with people one doesn’t care about and doesn’t expect to see again. What reason is there not to try to take advantage of such a person? If, on the other hand, one cares enough about someone-a neighbor, a friend-to wish to deal with her fairly and honestly, one will inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account. Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift.

Elaborate barter systems, Graeber argues, tend to crop up only when people already familiar with the use of money are suddenly left without it - he names Russia in the 90s, Argentina in 2002, and prisoner of war camps as examples. He also says barter systems often give way to credit systems that keep accounts in the old coins without actually using it.

The more frequent solution is to adopt some sort of credit system. When much of Europe “reverted to barter” after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and then again after the Carolingian Empire likewise fell apart, this seems to be what happened. People continued keeping accounts in the old imperial currency, even if they were no longer using coins. Similarly, the Pukhtun men who like to swap bicycles for donkeys are hardly unfamiliar with the use of money. Money has existed in that part of the world for thousands of years. They just prefer direct exchange between equals-in this case, because they consider it more manly.

The Carolingian empire example is fascinating, and leads to a potentially interesting way that the you could approach the issue of money in a roleplaying game: rather than having players literally carrying stacks of gold coins around, they might instead manage their affairs through like an ‘imaginary’ system of coinage harking back to say, a past fallen civilisation. I feel like, this could be used to make the old fantasy standbys of old rulers and fallen empires feel much more concrete. The old empire has fallen, but we keep track of our obligations to each other in its coins.

Gift economies and throwing out money

This also segues into the discussion of gift economies. In the ‘standard assumptions’ of D&D, parties tend to have this distant, hostile relation with people, reminiscent of life under modern day capitalism: they do a job because they are paid for it, they negotiate for better pay and take their money to shops to buy goods to support their adventuring. There is relatively little capacity for lasting relations of obligation and care to be built, or if these things are present, they are tracked separately - such as D&D 5e’s ‘bonds’ system.

Could we do away with currency entirely? Could the party be outfitted as needed, and have their activities fit into a less formal economy of gifts, obligations, and IOUs? This seems entirely possible, but it would be interesting to try and convey that the entire world is working like that, and that you can’t just ‘go down the to the shops’ to buy a product.

Perhaps currency is a thing, but it’s held in common by a community for dealing with outside traders. As far as owing things between individuals goes, we have the following observation about gift economies:

In most gift economies, there actually is a rough-and-ready way to solve the problem. One establishes a series of ranked categories of types of thing. Pigs and shoes may be considered objects of roughly equivalent status, one can give one in return for the other; coral necklaces are quite another matter, one would have to give back another necklace, or at least another piece of jewelry-anthropologists are used to referring to these as creating different “spheres of exchange.” This does simplify things somewhat. When cross-cultural barter becomes a regular and unexceptional thing, it tends to operate according to similar principles: there are only certain things traded for certain others (cloth for spears, for example) , which makes it easy to work out traditional equivalences.

So… coins might be useful for trading with travelling merchants, but in dealing with the local people, a much less formal system of gifts and obligations might be established in which things in categories are given to each other and people keep roughly in mind who owes who what. It would be interesting to try and get into a mindset where players do not act with an immediate reward in mind, but occasionally receive gifts from others with a surplus, and perform their adventuring in a neighbourly spirit of helping out. Instead of tracking what NPCs might owe each other in money, it’s more a question of like, she made me a sword and I owe her something sword-equivalent.

In this regard, situating the PCs in a complex web of social relations, we can step away from the deplored murder-and-loot style of play. It’s not about going into dungeons and seizing loot to get rich; it’s about fulfilling your obligations to other people?

I think this kind of thing is dealt with quite heavily in Sagas of the Icelanders, which has a very specific historical basis for it and a very different narrative style to the ‘wandering adventuring party’.

War economies and chartalism

Graeber goes on to make an extensive discussion of credit theories of money and the marginal economic position of chartalism, which sees money as being instituted by states based on systems of IOUs and obligations…

What credit theorists like Mitchell-Innes were arguing is that even if Henry gave Joshua a gold coin instead of a piece of paper, the situation would be essentially the same. A gold coin is a promise to pay something else of equivalent value to a gold coin. After all, a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will.

In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.

But a system of IOUs between individuals in a village cannot expand into a full-fledged system of currency - instead, that requires the intervention of a state. Graeber has a pretty cool way of introducing this:

But systems like these cannot create a full-blown currency system, and there’s no evidence that they ever have. Providing a sufficient number of IOUs to allow everyone even in a medium-sized city to be able to carry out a significant portion of their daily transactions in such currency would require millions of tokens. To be able to guarantee all of them, Henry would have to be almost unimaginably rich.

All this would be much less of a problem, however, if Henry were, say, Henry II, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Ireland, and Count of Anjou.

He describes the chartalist view of how money came into existence, as arising from states attempting to establish a uniform system of accounting, and the reason for doing this, in a simplified model, being the problem of feeding an army:

If nothing else, this approach helps solve one of the obvious mysteries of the fiscal policy of so many early kingdoms: Why did they make subjects pay taxes at all ? This is not a question we’re used to asking. The answer seems self-evident. Governments demand taxes because they wish to get their hands on people’s money. But if Smith was right, and gold and silver became money through the natural workings of the market completely independently of governments, then wouldn’t the obvious thing be to j ust grab control of the gold and silver mines ? Then the king would have all the money he could possibly need. In fact, this is what ancient kings would normally do. If there were gold and silver mines in their territory, they would usually take control of them. So what exactly was the point of extracting the gold, stamping one’s picture on it, causing it to circulate among one’s subjects-and then demanding that those same subjects give it back again?

This does seem a bit of a puzzle. But if money and markets do not emerge spontaneously, it actually makes perfect sense. Because this is the simplest and most efficient way to bring markets into being. Let us take a hypothetical example. Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men . Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem-unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and animals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions. On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.

This is a bit of a cartoon version, but it is very clear that markets did spring up around ancient armies; one need only take a glance at Kautilya’s Arthasasatra, the Sassanian “circle of sovereignty,” or the Chinese “Discourses on Salt and Iron” to discover that most ancient rulers spent a great deal of their time thinking about the relation between mines, soldiers, taxes, and food. Most concluded that the creation of markets of this sort was not just convenient for feeding soldiers, but useful in all sorts of ways, since it meant officials no longer had to requisition everything they needed directly from the populace, or figure out a way to produce it on royal estates or royal workshops.

For a more concrete historical case, Graeber looks at European colonialism, particularly the French colonisation of Madagasgar, but I think that’s enough long quotations.

Graeber doesn’t exactly come out as a chartalist in the course of this, though it’s clear he finds some value in this; ultimately he describes money as having a dual character, as both a commodity and a state-backed system of managing debt. I don’t want to act like I’ve given a full account of his analysis of money, just throwing out some concepts I found fascinating in the book.

Still, this line of argument seems to be a really really fascinating way that the way we deal with currency in a role-playing game can express a broader story.

Say, a region has recently been conquered by an imperial power. The Empire is demanding taxes paid in their own coins, so now everyone wants these coins and that becomes the de facto currency of the land. Gold isn’t valuable unless it has the seal of the Empress on it or something, and Imperial minted coins can first only be acquired by selling resources to her armies. Perhaps also there’s a prior system of communal resources that’s being eroded by the new empire’s marketisation. The Empire is turning the region into an engine for provisioning armies, but even if their armies are defeated, the transformation of the economy will be far harder to escape from and tie the people to the Empire long after. In this case, the Empire’s currency becomes a way of conveying the broader story of the oppressive intrusion of this imperial power into everybody’s lives and the lasting effect of colonialism.

Suppose - in a traditional adventuring party setup - the party does some work in this land and get paid in Imperial coins, and then sails away to another land. Do these people trade with the Empire, and are they willing to take these coins at face value, or will there be some premium on converting them to local currency? Has the Empire debased its currency, and does that mean these coins will not be accepted at face value in the new location? Are there only some people - travelling merchants, perhaps, who have an interest in taking Imperial coins?

Perhaps the party deals with people who can see - much as the people of Madagascar could - what the Empire is trying to do to them, and are trying to resist the use of Imperial coins. Graeber cites an anecdote from Madgascar in relation to this ‘moralising tax’ designed to forcibly transform the society into a market one:

Most people are not stupid, and most Malagasy understood exactly what their conquerors were trying to do to them. Some were determined to resist. More than sixty years after the invasion, a French anthropologist, Gerard Althabe, was able to observe villages on the east coast of the island whose inhabitants would dutifully show up at the coffee plantations to earn the money for their poll tax, and then, having paid it, studiously ignore the wares for sale at the local shops and instead turn over any remaining money to lineage elders, who would then use it to buy cattle for sacrifice to their ancestors. Many were quite open in saying that they saw themselves as resisting a trap.

This could be a fascinating thing to engage with in a game.

Outside of the adventuring party setup, a game about colonialism such as Dog Eat Dog could engage with this subject of the transformation of a society through imposition of market relations very much more directly.

Some other thoughts

This is really only the tip of the iceberg, not just in terms of systems of managing obligation and resource-sharing, but also possibilities in terms of economics in storytelling. every time I read Federici’s Caliban and the Witch there’s some new example of class struggle throughout the history of Europe - in the first chapter alone we’re moving from the heretical movements promising a better world and threatening the structure of feudalism and their brutal repression by the established Church, the legal battles between peasants and lords and the various subtle and overt forms of resistance, the power gained by peasants and early proletarians in the wake of the Black Death, the authorities’ attempts to contain that by fostering sexual divisions and sacrificing proletarian women to contain the threat of proletarian men…

I haven’t read nearly enough of Caliban and the Witch to really be able to flesh out how its view of history could be relevant in roleplaying games. But, I feel like there’s a lot there.

In terms of economics and fantasy, I think a lot of people will think about Daniel Abraham… it’s been ages since I read them, but iirc Abraham’s Long Price Quartet does much more interesting things than his later Dragon’s Path books, the latter sort of having a character whose job is to give economics lectures on occasion, whereas the former has like a really fascinating fantasy society whose economy is based on the industrial capabilities of living poems. So that’s all well and good, but it’s not really about like, class struggle. In the first book of the Dragon’s Path series, one of the main characters is a daughter of merchants, who uses her ability to play markets and knowlege of economics lessons to get ahead. It’s about like, significant individuals doing dramatic things like burning down a city - a startling moment but also like… idk, I don’t want to write the stories about the ruling class.

I think like, while sure maybe Marx’s view that class struggle is the engine of history too grand and totalising a view, even so that’s where a lot of the real meat of interesting history lies. I don’t fully know how to explore that kind of thing in a roleplaying game, especially within the usual framework of a ‘small party of adventurers’, for whom the struggle between peasants and lords is a sideshow to the question of where they can get a better magic sword. But like, that’s something I’d really be interested in going for, stories of peasant uprisings and the anti-feudal struggle; sure it can be a bit overly romanticised like, Robin Hood type stuff but that’s kind of where I’m wondering about focusing?

Anyway, there are some ideas.


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