Friday, October 19, 2012

Dealing with Coins

Over at the RPG Circus, Jeff questioned the value of encumbrance, specifically with regard to coins. It's a worthy question, with no right or wrong answer, but it's worth thinking about in the context of your campaign.

My regular group used to be firmly in the count every bit of gear camp. Everyone knew what their character was dragging around, down to the ounce. As we got older and various people joined and left the group, the basic attitude changed. A running joke about the what's on the mules game started up, because pretty much any major game session started with 20 minutes of detailing out what was carried where.

These days we're a lot more relaxed. We use an encumbrance system that's based off armor and a general bag of stuff metric. We still play what's on the mules but it's a lot faster and less complex. All in all it's a good thing, but there are a few things lost when you stop worrying about the coins, and not all of them are related to encumbrance, in fact, most aren't.

Where Are They From?

Coins don't just grow on trees, at least not in my world. Carrying around a bunch of strange coins can have a big impact on your play. How? How about:

  • The coins were minted by a rival nation. Trying to use them earns the party scornful or hostile reactions from merchants, and might draw official attention. Unfriendly official attention. After all a rival nation is going to pay their spies or agents with their own coin right?
  • Strange coins aren't trusted. Sure it might look like a gold piece, but if it doesn't have the local stamp of approval, who's going to believe it?
  • Big coins don't spend. Depending on the locale, a peasant or tavern keeper might have no use for a gold coin -- and might even get in trouble for having such a large denomination. If all the players have is a bunch of strange gold coins, they might have difficulty paying for life's basics.
What Are They Worth?

A gold piece is a gold piece is a gold piece, right? Wrong. Different coins have different sizes, shapes and markings. There's no guarantee that a local gold piece is going to be the same as that foreign gold piece that's a square with a triangular hole in the middle. That's what money-changers are for, and they're a great source of plot hooks. When people use their services, money-changers find out exactly how much their customer is worth. Guess who wants to know that? Thieves. Muggers. Tax collectors. Merchants. Coin collectors. The next time your players are about to hit a town, plant three money-changers, each with a different information hook, and see how things play out.

What Do They Say?

Coins are generally marked with symbols, words and images. Use these to your advantage. Throw a handful of odd coins into the treasure and note whose face appears or what words are written on them. If the players bite, you have a little bit of depth you can add to their world. If not, you can still make use of this information as part of your world-building. Maybe the same face appears on an ancient bust in the next adventure, or the same motto is inscribed over a magically sealed vault entrance, and the password is the name of the person pictured. Maybe the current ruler greatly resembles their predecessor, and that fact allows the party to avoid embarrassment when they meet the current ruler traveling incognito on the road.

Weight Matters

Yeah, it does. It's hard in the modern age to realize how much coins really weigh, so here's something to think about. A US dollar piece is about an inch across and under a tenth of an inch thick. There are about 50 coins per pound. The next time you're in a grocery store, pick up a couple 5 lb. bags of flour or sugar and heft them. Each bag is about 250 coins, albeit in a much bulkier form. Now tell me again that counting coins doesn't matter!

When Is A Coin Not A Coin?

When it's something else. Treasure doesn't have to be coins. In fact I've gotten away from coins as treasure in my Daruna game. Here's the party's current group loot list, which details the stuff they've found on their last couple adventures but haven't divvied up or sold off. You'll note that a lot of this is in the form of gems or jewelry, but that there's a scattering of random stuff too. You may also note that various items have a character name or a source note listed next to them. That's how we deal with who's carrying what. As you can see, we don't much worry about random coinage in this regard.
  • 306 GP
  • 36 SP
  • Gold ring set with blue quartz (60+ GP)
  • Smoke bomb (Sula)
  • Noxia bomb (Orca)
  • Gems: 1 amethyst (250 GP), 1 onyx (250 GP), 1 moonstone (1000 GP)
  • Crystal vial with gold/platinum inlay (350 GP)
  • Radiant bright green tourmaline (250 GP)
  • Blue jasper (250 GP)
  • Murky deep blue lapis lazuli (10 GP)
  • Cracked gray smoky quartz (50 GP)
  • Blue jasper (160 GP)
  • Gold necklace set with black onyx (600 GP)
  • Clay mask with a Lost Kingdoms mark (75 GP)
  • 5 ancient coins from Beneath the Villa Site (the caverns, 6).
  • 3 pieces of jewelry (scepter, choker, circlet), platinum and gold set with tiny rubies (600 GP each)
  •  Relics?
    • Fragment of bone in a crystal vial
    • Shard of reddish stone in a verdigris-covered, bronze casket
    • Piece of brick
  • 12 small silver bars (100 GP each)
  • 6 small gold bars (1000 GP each)
  • A bundle of scrolls / parchment from Beneath the Villa Site (the ruins, 7).
  • Ring of Resistance (magical) (Lister)
  • Sash of the Golden Mind (magical) (Ramone)
  • 5 Temporal Pendant (one per character)
  • Great Healing Potion 3 doses (Sula)
  • Black Spider Potion 3 doses (transformation) (Sula)
  • Burning Aura Potion 2 doses (unknown) (Sula)
  • Ramwall (magical) (Ramone)
  • Sun Globe (Lister)
  • Two Enhancing Glyphs - Rejuvenation, Feather's Grasp (Orca)
  • Twin Stone Ring (Sula)
  • Stagger Time (Torin)
  • 1 normal short sword
  • 1 heavy mace
  • 1 short spear
  • 2 studded leather armor
As you can see, there's a lot of valuable stuff listed that's not coins. There's also a listing for 5 ancient coins that are wide open for a plot hook. I don't even know if I'm going to use that yet, but it's there.
    Bagging Up The Loot

    Giving coins meaning and history means opportunities for plot hooks, economic complications and political intrigue. Using them in this way doesn't mean you have to detail every last coin and record weight down to the half-ounce. Instead, use common sense and as a GM, keep notes on the oddball and ancient coins in your party's possession, even if they don't. Think about how you can bring the game world to life by providing a bit of history with the images struck on your currency, and imagine how merchants will view the coins of another nation hitting their counter. Doing so is sure to bring a bit more life to your game.

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