One of the things that used to drive me crazy was finding, or figuring out, believable prices for stuff. If you're a scifi/fantasy author, gamer, or game designer, you can probably sympathize. Historical price lists are hard to find, and when you do find one, its either based in the wrong historical period or culture, or it just doesn't have the item. Web searches can provide good results if you're writing historical fiction or are using such a setting in your game, but again, the items on the lists are usually limited. Price lists in gaming source books can be a good starting point, but the price lists are usually small and the prices are often nonsensical. Think about it: Super Adventurer and Company straggle back to town from that conveniently located dungeon with a hundred pounds of gold pieces strapped to their backs. They hit the local tavern and belly up to the ol' bar to order a pint. The bar keep obligingly shoves foaming mugs into their faces and says, "that'll be a gold piece each, please."
A "gold piece" for a pint of beer? Really?
Suddenly, that sack full of gold doesn't seem like its going to go very far, does it? And that's the problem. While such random prices might be fine for a one off dungeon crawl, for ongoing campaigns, game designers, and authors writing in fantasy worlds, they just aren't going to work. We have a well developed sense of what feels right when it comes to the price of things, and paying in gold for a mug of whatever happens to be on tap just seems wrong.
At the same time, in any fictional setting used over a long period of time, any price list, no matter how inclusive, is going to fall short. Sooner or later, the plot will demand something that's not on the list, and the writer gets thrown out of the scene while they chase down that reference. In a table top gaming session, it can bring the game to a halt while a reasonable price is looked up or settled upon, and literally nothing is more disruptive for the game master than a bunch of bored players, who don't need any extra help or free time to find ways to derail a carefully crafted scenario!
There are several possible solutions, all problematic. One is to do an end run around money and prices by turning them into something else, or using other words for them, but weird economic systems take a lot of time and ink (or words) to explain, and are just really hard to do and do well.
Another answer might be to use a currency converter website. Those I looked at all did a pretty good job, though they were a bit clunky. The answers varied, depending on the economic model used, and most had to be set up with preliminary data before giving any answer at all. Unless you intend to devote some serious time to recreating your economies for these converter sites, this option is probably going to end up breaking your creative flow at some point, likely a critical one.
Lastly, you could just use modern prices. That's not a bad answer for the modern fiction, urban fantasy, and science fiction genres. Modern prices are familiar and comfortable, so when we hear that a small starship is going to cost the hero nearly half a million, it's an easily digestible fiction. Of course, this doesn't work so well any fantasy genre where commodity money is still the medium of exchange. It rubs up against our own recent history of commodity-based prices. A beer might cost $5 at the local pub today, but we all know darn good and well it didn't cost Joe Cowboy $5 a hundred years ago. To Joe Cowboy, $5 was a "half-eagle" gold coin, and nearly a quarter of his monthly wage!
It seems to me that what is needed is a system that's A) so easy to use the price of anything can be determined almost instantly if you know the modern price, and B) the price produced will sound credible (unlike the "gold piece" for a beer), and C) it will be possible to reproduce that price on demand, without having to write it down. Whatever the price of beer is today, it will be the same for next week's game session, next month's game session, and next year's novel.
Sound impossible? Oh ye of little faith. Let's show you how it's done, starting with a favorite topic of many of our readers: Beer. What should those pints of beer cost Super Adventurer and Company? The answer is 25¢.
In the next section, we'll dive into the details of how I came up with that price. If that's not your thing, and you just want a system that works, feel free to skip to the reference section that follows.
The first thing that must be known is, just what are those gold pieces Super Adventurer and Company packed out of the dungeon? The answer that's going to make it easiest on you, the writer/game master, is that they are 90% fine, quarter ounce gold coins. Throughout our history, gold coins have come in many weights and many grades of purity. So, why 90% fine quarter ounce coins?
Because, in the 19th century a couple of things came together that made it possible to create a stable fantasy money system that can have many different looks and feels, all based on the same coin weights and pricing formula. In the U.S, the "Liberty Eagle" weighed (roughly) a quarter ounce and had a face value of $10. In Great Britain, the "Sovereign" weighed (roughly) a quarter ounce and had a face value of £1. We're going to have to use both currencies in our formula, so we need both values. The easy 10/1 conversion ratio from dollars to pounds is an exceptionally convenient and happy accident.
With that in mind, if a quarter of an ounce of gold is worth either $10 or £1, and if each "gold piece" weighs a quarter ounce, then:
|100 pounds × 12 ounces||=||1,200 ounces|
|1,200 ounces × 4 quarter ounces||=||4,800 gold pieces|
|4,800 gold pieces||=||£4,800 or $48,000|
So Super Adventurer and Company packed a whopping £4,800 fantasy pounds sterling out of the dungeon. Multiply by 10 to get the "dollars" value of $48,000.
That rather puts the 25¢ mug of beer back into its proper economic perspective. It's is now just "two bits" in pocket change, as it should be, not a quarter of Joe Cowboy's monthly income.
That price, by the way, has been determined with the help of The Speenhamland System via the work of Thorold Rogers, who spent his entire professional life meticulously documenting six centuries of wages and prices in England. What Rogers discovered was that, since wheat is the food staple and has been since antiquity, the best measure of spending power at any given time was the price of a lowly loaf of bread. This is true not just because wheat is a staple, but because the production process that turns the wheat into bread encompasses many trades and professions. Ironically, perhaps, this is still true today.
The loaf of bread we're interested in is the Victorian "quartern" (four pound) loaf. The difference in price between a quartern loaf and the price of four pounds of modern artisan bread will give us a number we can use to compute a credible relative price for everything else in a fantasy world.
Obviously in the preindustrial world harvests could and did vary quite a bit. In 1865 four pounds of bread cost about 7 pence. Fifty years earlier it had been higher than that, and by the turn of the twentieth century the price would drop by nearly half. Purists can use the actual historical prices as a reference, if they can be found. For our purposes here, we want easy math that produces a good, reproducible simulation. To that end, we'll make the calculation easier by rounding up 7 pence to use 1 shilling as the base historical price for four pounds bread.
For the modern equivalent, we'll use the price of four pounds of artisan bread. In my part of the world, prices range between $8 and $16. The average would, of course, be $12; but again, we want to keep this simple, so we'll use $10 rather than $12.
Now let's pull these two prices, the quartern loaf, whose price we set at 1 shilling, and the modern loaf, whose price we set at $10 in modern money, together.
First, the shilling. In old pre-decimal times:
|1 shilling||=||12 pence|
So if there are 20 shillings to the pound, and each pound is worth $10, then each shilling must be worth 50¢:
|50¢ × 20 = $10|
Therefore in dollars, a quartern loaf costs 50¢. Dividing our quartern loaf into the price of our modern, artisan bread, we produce the divisor we can use to convert all other prices:
|$10 (modern price) ÷ 50¢ (quartern price) = 20|
To return to our beer example, if the modern price is $5:
|$5 ÷ 20 = 25¢|
So in fantasy dollars, our beer costs 25¢.
How close is that to the historical price of a mug of beer in 19th century America? Well, the west was full of what were called "two-bit saloons" because "two-bits" (25¢) would get you either a beer or a glass of "rot gut" whiskey.
Let's try another test. How about a horse? According to equinespot.com a saddle-broken riding horse costs between $800 and $3,500 in today's money. Divide by 20 and that comes out to between $40 and $175 in fantasy dollars.
How close is that to the historical price? According to this 1870 Catalogue (sic.) of Goods (pdf) the average work horse cost $150, whereas a "good" riding horse cost $200. That's certainly "in the money", and I didn't have to switch tabs or haul out a calculator to get it.
Finally, a word about the metallurgy of these coins because, like in the real world, it's complicated. The metallurgy moved around quite a bit as monarchs played with their money, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Some tweaking and averaging is needed to come up with a workable, simple baseline that we can use for our fantasy currencies:
|1/4 oz of Gold||=||$10 or £1|
|1/2 oz of silver||=||50¢ or 1 shilling.|
|1/4 oz of bronze||=||1 pence|
|1/8 oz of bronze||=||1¢; or a halfpenny|
The above was a long-winded explanation of three simple steps:
- Find the average price of four pounds of artisan bread in your area. Do not use mass produced breads, but rather breads made by local bakeries (preferable), or specialty breads made in the super market (acceptable). In fact, for all food items, using the price of locally grown, organic meat and produce is highly recommended. It will yield far more accurate prices. In this article, we used a price of $10 for four pounds of artisan bread.
- Divide the above price by 0.5, our conversion constant (see the above section on the methodology for an explanation).
- The resulting quotient is the divisor that is used to convert modern prices into fantasy prices in the original currency. Here we used modern prices in USD, so our results are in "fantasy dollars". If you were using euros, your resulting prices would be in fantasy euros. It doesn't really matter (unless you're working backwards).
If the average price of four pounds of artisan bread is $10, then:
|10 (bread price) ÷ 0.5 (constant) = 20|
This is the divisor we will use to convert modern prices into fantasy prices: 20. Therefore, if the modern price of a mug of beer is $5:
|5 ÷ 20 = 0.25|
The price of a beer in fantasy dollars is 25¢.
What 25¢ in fantasy dollars is equal to in your particular fantasy currency is entirely up to you. Most commodity money systems used similar coin weights, if measured by the amount of precious metal in the coin. For consistency's sake, if nothing else, this should be taken into account in the design of any fantasy or gaming currency. Because, by putting the pieces provided here together, fantasy dollars can be converted into anything you like: Royals, crowns, beads, or stones. By varying the weights of the coins, which in turn gives each a different value, the illusion of cultural prices emerges naturally. Thus, our 25¢ pint of beer might be 1 silver bar in one country and a copper shank in another. It all sounds very exotic, but its all sourced back to a single price, using common weights, anchored by fantasy dollars.
One of the many money systems we've developed for Menelon, for example, is the Cascadian pound, a money system designed to be more or less the same as the old pre-decimal British currency. So, how much is our 25¢ pint of beer in that fantasy currency?
Here the simplified conversion table:
|1 shilling||=||12 pence|
|1 pence||=||2 halfpennies|
From the above table we can see that one shilling equals 50¢, so 25¢ is equal to a half a shilling, which is equal to 6 pence. So in Fernwall our beer would cost 6 pence, or "6p".
A Word About Magic
Magic is tough because, in my opinion, there are no earthly analogues. It's not like technology and its not like manufacturing, though depending on its expression, it has elements of both. The smith making a magic sword, for instance, has the same inputs as any smith making anything: the cost of running and maintaining the smithy, the base metals with which they're working, and their labor. By that measure, a good (and real, as opposed to decorative) Japanese sword will run you around $1,000 in today's money. So far so easy: Divide by 20 and we know the price of the average battle sword is $50 fantasy dollars. Then there's the "magic," which could be anything from some superior and rare metallurgy to a preternatural power that's worked into the blade. That's where things get tricky.
In general, what must be determined is A) how rare the magical effect is and B) how much more time it takes to add that effect to the base object. If you assume, for instance, that the $50 sword is just a run of the mill battle sword, but it takes twice as long to make a really good (if non-magical) battle sword, then perhaps the really good sword should cost $100 fantasy dollars. Add magic and the price might increase ten-fold.
The same basic ideas can be applied to almost anything. A healing draft might cost a couple of bucks in modern money. Turn it into a healing potion and it might cost anywhere between $4 and $20 per dose, depending on how rare magical medicines are in your world. On Menelon, the $4 price (which converts to about 5 pence, in Cascadian money) is about right for most common magical medicines because they're, well, common. Your prices may well be different.
Finally, a word about credit and banking. Obviously, without a stable money system and reasonable prices, nothing else matters. Once those are known, the entire world of finance opens up, and characters may want to make use of it. A good carriage, for instance, costs $400 fantasy dollars; and, as we now know, $400 is a lot of money in a fantasy world. So, if Barbara Cole's parents want to buy one, they would probably have to borrow the money. How that works on Menelon is covered in this wiki article on money and credit. It may give you some ideas for your fantasy economy.
- Do not confuse the investment bullion coins of today, which have the same names, with the currency versions of these coins circulating in the 19th century. At that time, the Sovereign weighed 7.98 grams, and the Eagle weighed 8.48 grams. ↵
- Troy weight. ↵
- The 19th century shilling actually weighed 5.655 grams of 92.5% sterling silver, whereas the unclad silver quarter weighed 6.25 grams of 90% sterling silver. The latter is close enough to a quarter-ounce to be going on with for our purposes. ↵
- The actual historical weight of the bronze pence was .333 oz of bronze, made up of 95% copper, 4% tin, and 1% zinc. But again, a quarter ounce is close enough for our purposes. ↵