Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "How Many Coins in a Coffer?"

Another preview of the Silver Age appears in issue #80 (December 1983) of Dragon, in the article "How Many Coins in a Coffer?" by David F. Godwin. The article's premise is that the way AD&D abstracts encumbrance with regards to coins makes no sense, since the Players Handbook states that all coins are relatively the same size and weight (one-tenth of a pound or 1.6 ounces). After quibbling over the meaning of "relatively," the author points out that, for example, platinum weighs 2.5 times as much as copper. Given that, how can these two types of coins be the same weight or the same size? He goes on to note that this problem isn't unique to AD&D. RuneQuest doesn't talk about the size of its coinage, but it does talk about its weight and does so in a way that Godwin believes is nonsensical (he points out that silver does not weigh twice as much as copper). Tunnels & Trolls also includes coins that weigh one-tenth of a pound each but without any reference to size.

Having presented that prolog, the author explains why this matter concerns him:
The easiest way out is to reiterate that it's only a game and isn't supposed to be totally realistic. What's realistic about fire-breathing dragons or alignment languages? How does that accord with the laws of biology and physics? There are quite a few of us out here in the boondocks who feel perfectly comfortable with basilisks, fireballs, illusions, the fact that a spell called "continual light" produces continuous light with nothing intermittent about it, and even the rule that clerics can't use edged weapons, but who balk at the idea of a world where platinum, gold, electrum, silver and copper all weigh precisely the same for a given volume. And if we do say that all coin metals weigh the same, we are still faced with the volume question.
The bulk of the article that follows then concerns not so much the weight of individual coins, which Godwin admits would give the referee a nervous breakdown to track, but with the size of coins. His interest in this question is in how many of a given coin will fit into a given container. So, if a chest is 18" x 30" x 18" in dimension, how many gold coins can it contain? How many silver? What about a mix of gold and silver? By recourse to formulae involving the specific gravities of each metal, Godwin is able to offer a small table that gives the weight, volume, and thickness of typical coins of precious metal in AD&D. Armed with this table and the size of any container, the referee can, with comparative ease, determine how many coins of any type can fit within it.

As these kinds of articles go, "How Many Coins in a Coffer?" isn't very math-heavy. Godwin kindly saves most of the math for himself, but, even so, the idea of having to spend much time calculating how many silver pieces actually fit into an adventurer's saddlebags seems a needless complication. Working the other way -- figuring out many and how large the containers holding a given volume of treasure must be -- is not better in my opinion. But then I prefer to keep most things in Dungeons & Dragons fairly abstract, from hit points to experience points to encumbrance. Worrying about such things has never been an obsession of mine (I'd prefer to obsess about other things), but, back in 1983 and beyond, such obsessions became commoner in the pages of Dragon. The drive toward "realism," whether in encumbrance, weather, linguistics, population density, or some other area, was the tenor of the day and Dragon's content reflected that.


  1. Huh. I actually liked that article a lot. It was very influential on me - to this day, my first questions about treasure are, how much does this weigh and how big is it? I see dead adventurers in a module with 1000 coins on them and I'm wondering how they are toting 100 pounds of coins and where they are.

    So I found the idea that you could figure out what size chest that "locked chest with 1000 cp" was, and how much it weighed, to be a useful one. I still think about that.

  2. I was always fascinated by these sorts of articles (this one in particular), and I read them voraciously. Yet despite my interest in them, I never actually used any of this information in my game.

  3. "...but, back in 1983 and beyond, such obsessions became commoner in the pages of Dragon. The drive toward 'realism,' whether in encumbrance, weather, linguistics, population density, or some other area, was the tenor of the day and Dragon's content reflected that."

    As a long-time Harn fan, I can't help but note that the first Harn product was published in 1983, offering up its own kinds of realism (more focused on a social and economic realism). It was definitely something in the air.

  4. I always thought the idea of 1oz coins to be stupid beyond belief. Alert I got Harn I quickly adopted a system of 250 coins to 1 lb and left it at that.

    Years later after reading so many accounts of the beginning I realized that this was one of the few instances of Gygax creating what I call a dick rule. A rule that just dicks over the players for no good reason other than the DM got bent out of shape. Sure make sure that coin weight is accounted for but not so extreme as only ten per lb!

  5. I remember enjoying that article and actually using it. Not surprising: most of my early-80s group was composed of engineers, mathematicians, and other hard-science types. (I was the only Humanities type.) It was almost inevitable that someone would say "such and such" doesn't make sense, and then we'd try to "fix" it.

    (Although abstract, inflating hit points were one of the things that annoyed me enough to eventually migrate to other games. Now? Meh.)

  6. It was definitely something in the air.

    Yep. The '83-'84 period really does mark a shift in something within the hobby. Puzzling out why it happened (and indeed what it was that actually did happen) could make for an interesting topic of discussion.

  7. Years later after reading so many accounts of the beginning I realized that this was one of the few instances of Gygax creating what I call a dick rule. A rule that just dicks over the players for no good reason other than the DM got bent out of shape. Sure make sure that coin weight is accounted for but not so extreme as only ten per lb!

    10 per pound is a bit extreme, I agree, but I'm curious as to what you might have read that gave you the impression Gary came up with the rule just to be a jerk about it.

  8. "The '83-'84 period really does mark a shift in something within the hobby. "

    Wasn't this when Kim Mohan took over Dragon as EIC? Maybe he had a penchant for realism in the game?

  9. This biggest thing I got from this article was the "continual" vs "continuous" usage which I still remember almost 30 years later.

  10. In my games I long ago shifted over to the 50 to 100 coins per pound instead of 10. And when I describe a grand treasure horde I like to say you found 200 pounds of gold coins instead of 10,000 gold coins. I have used this article several times I admit to help give inspiration in determining how many coins are in chests, lockers, bags, etc.

  11. Using a US Morgan dollar as a benchmark for weight (26.73g = 0.0588 imperial lb/ea.), there are almost exactly 17 US silver dollars per pound. While 10 coins/lb seems like an unreasonable figure unless the coins are extra large, 16 coins/lb or 20 coins/lb would not be an unreasonable rule of thumb.

  12. Most gold and silver coins from the Middle Ages actually weighted something like 4 to 8 grams, so 50 to 100 coins per pound would be fairly accurate.

  13. The British shilling of the 19th century weighed roughly .2 ounces. So, five to an ounce, 16 ounces to a pound, 80 shillings to a pound. (Or whatever standard coin you want to use. I use "silver pennies" just because I like gold to be less common and more special.)

  14. 1) There's a reason is is called enc. and not lbs. A 5lb sack of coins is much more awkward to carry than a 5lb sword, because of how the coins shift about.

    2) from a game perspective, keep cn/enc. keeps the focus on what's important--gold! And how many coins you can carry. "you are carrying 145cn in enc. you can carry 400 more etc". Stones/lbs/weight is a needless nod to realism in a game which focuses on getting gold.

    3) this is part and parcel with the resource management mini games of stocking enough torches or rations and the reason you can only move 24" in 10 minuts of exploration--elsewise there is no need for buying more than a single torch. Does anyone complain that park place only costs 4000$ in monopoly? Everyone knows park place is worth like 25,000,000 dollars, how unrealistic!

    4) the silver age is all about d&d not being a "game", but becoming re-enactment and opportunity for frustrated actors.

  15. Not once have I ever heard, "Dude, remember in the Tomb of Abyzthor and that necromancer was coming after us with his ghouls? Man! I'm so glad that the coins were weighted realistically with realistic weather that made sense for southwestern Keoland's micro-climate!!!!!!!!!!!"

    "That was SO BOMB. Man, did you see the latest issue? REALISTIC TAX COLLECTION FOR DOMAINS!!! *JUST* what I was waiting for!!!!!!!!!"

    The fact that so many trees died to print such stupid rules like that makes me and my druid sad.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. I'm curious James as to what you thought of the other half of that article, the Silver Standard?

  18. I remember this article from a collection of the best of Dragon. I think the most effect it had on us was that we started to think about the treasure horde sizes.

    After all, even in a dragon horde there won't be much more than a couple of hundred of thousands of coins. That isn't a big pile, at least not for an old dragon to sleep on.

  19. I can't speak for the writers of that period, but my personal revelation about weight came as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. Stuff weighs a lot, and even with cleverly-designed things like LBE and rucksacks, it will slow you down. Looting a dungeon properly would require porters and mules.

    When it came to the actual monetary system, I used the pre-decimal British system.

    1 pound = 1 gold piece/20 shillings

    1 shilling = 1 silver piece/20 pence

    1 penny = 1 copper piece

    Historically, coins in the medieval period would commonly weight between 10 and 20 grams. (.53 ounces on average, about the same as a nickel in the USA.) So a sack filled with 100 GP would weigh 3.3lbs. That adds up quickly.

    I've always been a realistic, mainly because it adds adventure opportunities. OK, you've killed the dragon. How are you getting the treasure out without tipping off the local lord and setting off a gold rush?

  20. Wow. I think just about every group I ever played with had the same solution?

    "How many coins per pound? F-it, Bag of Holding"

    The Bag of Holding or portable hold was the FIRST thing that PCs would try to get.

  21. I agree with the bag of holding comment above - if the DM cared about this kind of thing at all the bag ranked right up there with +1 Swords and such.

    I read this kind of thing just as an interesting comparison of game to history, but not enough to start changing the money system of the game. The "realism" thing never really got ahold on me as IMO all that drive for "realism" goes out the window the first time the M-U throws a spell. Making the game "better" is always a worthy goal but making it more "realistic" is just a non-starter for me.

  22. I'm curious James as to what you thought of the other half of that article, the Silver Standard?

    I have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. Silver is just as arbitrary a standard as gold in a game, so I don't see any logical reason why one must adopt one over the other, but, by the same token, I can arguments in favor of one or the other depending on the nature of the setting.

  23. 1/10 gp weight allows you leeway on what exactly you're carrying out. 1/10 per gp lets you say that the hoard includes a small gold statue, a gold platter, and a couple of goblets, without actually getting into the minutae.

    So everyone who switches to a, "more realistic" 1/100 now needs to either start figuring out the weight of a golden goblet, or get totally unrealistic and and figure the the dragons hoard is 100% coins.

    So, 1/10 is a more realistic enc. system than 1/100!

  24. I'm increasingly thinking that boring treasure is just a waste of everyone's imaginative space. There's a certain purity to the Cugel stories, where money comes and goes and helps you through the week, but every important item of treasure is both memorable and thought-provoking. Not only is Cugel kept hungry and inventive, but each special item generates its own stories.

    Endless little satchels of interchangeable currency cheapen the adventure (which is OK as a flavour, but is it really why you play?). Much worse, they can be hoarded by players who dream of becoming proud lords of great castles, but who find themselves being subtly tied down by the coppers and instead turn into castellan-accountants.

    My next dragon will be lying atop a pile of beautifully preserved ashes of paper currency. Its only potential treasure will be its friendship.

  25. When I thought about money in T & T, I wanted coins that were fairly substantial--thus the rule that 1 gold piece would be the standard unit of weight and that 10 gold pieces weigh a pound. I figured gold was heavy--having a coin weigh 1.6 ounces didn't bother me. But that was only gold--not all coins. T & T does offer silver pieces and copper pieces, and nothing was ever said about them weighing 1.6 ounces each. Assuming we want coins to have the same weight, I figured silver coins were larger than gold coins, and copper was larger than silver, just based on the atomic weights table. The only limit T & T ever put on how many coins a character could carry was weight. If you have strength of 10 you could carry 1000 weight units or 100 pounds. That would max you out. I figure if you had 1000 gold coins to transport, you'd figure out a way to do it. Ain't no Bags of Holding in T & T. :)
    --Ken St. Andre

  26. "How many coins per pound? F-it, Bag of Holding"

    If I recall correctly, the Dragon article in question also discusses the carrying capacities of both the bag of holding and the portable hole.

  27. UWS guy - Your logic makes no sense. If a statue weighs 100 gp and is made of gold, then it is worth 100 gp and vice versa. It does not somehow weigh more, and therefore raise the average weight of coins/items in a hoard; for that to be true it would have to weigh 100 gp weight, but only be worth 1 gp, in which case it’s not made of gold.

  28. I remember 500lb of silver coin per 9 gallon firkin being hauled (along with the other fifty one tax firkins) from Parliament down to the river and on to the Tower of London.

  29. I wonder how come the need for realism expressed itself in detailing the weight (or encumbrance) of gold pieces (in a system that actualy defines the encumbrance unit as 1 gold piece... it's basically the electronVolt of encumbrance) and not on describing the different kind of money (expanding the brief paragraph in the DMG), to give more flavor to the game.

    What often lacks in treasure descriptions is not its weight, but rather its appearance!

  30. According to BullionSupermaket.com, a One Troy Ounce (31,1 grams) gold coin has a 32mm in diameter and is 2mm thick. A siver coin of the same weight has a 37mm diameter. I suppose then, 1.6 oz D&D coins could be 3.2mm thick.
    So , I guess that: "my magic-user throws coins for 1d6 damage" makes sense...

  31. From my point-of-view, D&D isn’t improvisational theatre, but it isn’t “just a game” either. For me, the fiction of the game is more important than the mechanics. A large portion of the fun is making decisions, and what makes decisions fun is being able to reason about the world the decision is being made in.

    Now, the world has both fantasy and common (i.e. mundane) elements. For me, a large portion of what makes the fantasy elements work is their juxtaposition against the common elements.

    With the fantasy elements, sometimes we work to learn the rules that govern them in game, which can be a lot of fun. Sometimes they’re enigmas. It can be fun to have enigmas that we have to reason around, but too much of that gets frustrating. The common elements give us a good grounding point. Stuff we can reason about fairly reliably and that we don’t have to discover the rules governing first. (Which is also why the fantasy world tends to work better when many of the common elements are closer to the modern world than to medieval history.)

    The problem with coins is that the game gives us mechanics for something common, and those mechanics don’t seem to fit our experience very well.

    The simple solutions have been mentioned. (1) Treat is as abstract. (2) Replace it with something that fits our expectations.

    To me, though, one of the “side benefits” of this hobby has been the way it encourages me to learn more about various topics. Whether it is the history of coinage or the physics behind the weight, volume, and how efficiently objects pack into a container.

    To me, this article isn’t really about trying to make the game more realistic or taking the fantasy out of the fantasy world. It’s about investigating a topic at the prompting of the game, sharing the results, and considering whether we’d like to incorporate some of what we’ve learned back into the game.

  32. Pardon the "me, too" entry, but what Robert says above summarizes my own view nearly perfectly, not just for the article in question, but for almost all those cases wherein someone would ask "How would this really work?"

  33. Rob Conley said: "I always thought the idea of 1oz coins to be stupid beyond belief... Sure make sure that coin weight is accounted for but not so extreme as only ten per lb!"

    Totally agree. It's the extreme brokenness of the original rule that opens up wild extrapolations like this.

  34. James Maliszewski said: "I have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. Silver is just as arbitrary a standard as gold in a game..."

    For me, one of the main issues is that it allows you to "level up" into gold at a higher play/value level. Taking a gold (top-value coin) standard is somewhat analogous to a game that started PCs at 20th level, and the only possible movement being downward.

    That switch is one of my "Top 5" house rules for D&D: http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/p/primary-house-rules.html

  35. Gridlore said: " When it came to the actual monetary system, I used the pre-decimal British system... 1 pound = 1 gold piece/20 shillings... 1 shilling = 1 silver piece/20 pence... 1 penny = 1 copper piece"

    But: Shillings and pounds were not coins.

  36. If you abstract the coins to just weights then 100 silver pieces becomes "10 pounds of silver" and you can forget about the actual number of coins. This leads fairly quickly to just using pounds, shillings and pence since the ratios are very close.

    While shillings and pounds were not coins in the middle ages, they were amounts that were discussed and used. Again, the issue of whether "a shilling" meant 12 coins or one big (though not as big as a D&D sp) one wasn't very important since the coins were made from sterling silver (hence pounds sterling). Throw in D&D-sytle inflation and actual shillings as coins actually does start to make some sense too.

  37. Whilst a "shilling" was not a coin, there were coins valued at one or more shillings, that was after all where Charlemagne got his nomenclature from [i.e. the gold solidus or sous, though in fact closer in value to a gold tremissis].

    Anyway, as Nagora says it is easy to abstract away or just plain ignore.

  38. But it's even easier to just stick with the OD&D valuations of 1gp = 10sp = 50cp, which is actually on the order of real-world medieval coins. Making a switch to shillings/pounds just so one could thereafter ignore it would be curious at best.

  39. We almost always used weight of coinage for their value. Merchants would use weights and scales rather than actually counting coins, especially since milled edges had yet to be invented. Which meant that counterfeiting could apply to the coin itself or the weights used to measure them. The Merchant's Guild policed these matters, with extremely harsh penalties for anyone caught.

    Of course most coinage was actually sterling silver rather than pure silver. And certain currencies tended to become worth less as time went on as they reduced their silver content whilst still claiming that they had the same value (in the jurisdiction of whichever mint made them you were often forced to take them even if you knew they were worth less). There were a lot of mints.

    [In my games coins were the outgrowth of "coyns" which were alchemically pure medallions of gold or silver created by the Wizard's Guild. A set of 12 or 13 silver coyns represented the months of the year (solar or lunar calendar). The gold coyn was made by the mint. These were larger than coins, but set the value of each. Traditionally money changers were able to use either the lunar or solar rate in their transactions, to their benefit. Thus when converting silver to gold they would use the lunar rate (13sp = 1 gp), and the solar rate in reverse (1gp = 12sp). This became the standard rate for financial transaction surcharges.]

  40. "Making a switch to shillings/pounds just so one could thereafter ignore it would be curious at best."

    I think you missed the point - what is being ignored is the issue of how many coins are involved not the divisions of value. People still need to buy things and talk about prices and value. So, an AD&D longsword costs £30 sterling and the PC pays thirty pounds, or pays 10 shillings for a javelin, or a penny for a torch. What we don't really care about is the specific form that those thirty pounds or whatever takes, except perhaps if it is copper, silver or gold, and even then only on an adventure where encumbrance is being tracked.

    "But it's even easier to just stick with the OD&D valuations of 1gp = 10sp = 50cp"

    You perhaps assume unfamiliarity with the system. I can (just about) remember using £sd in shops and in fact I find that for mental arithmetic it is superior to the base-10 system with its many recurring fractions, so it's no bother for me and most players seem to find likewise that, amazingly enough, a system that was in use by illiterate peasants for a thousand years actually isn't terribly hard.

  41. @Robert Fisher: Good comment. I pretty much agree. For me and for my players (who ask these kinds of things), it's the realistically modeled mundane stuff that makes the unrealistic stuff seem so cool. One unrealistic element (magic) doesn't wave away the need for realistic stuff (say, size and weight) that lets you suspend your disbelief. If everything is unrealistic, it's hard to get a handle on it as a game IME.

    And FWIW, my players long ago asked about coin size and weight. One of them took all the coins we could find to the high school lab, weighed and measured them, and we used that as a basis of setting coin size and weight in the game. It was very cool because if people asked, that player would hold up a real coin (say, a quarter) and say, "it's about this big, and X of them weigh Y ounces if it's Z metal." Because we knew, it was tangibly checkable, and it added to the verisimilitude of the game.

  42. I use 100 gp to the lb, seems to work and mostly gives prices that are not too ridiculous for a wealth-rich environment.

    For jewelry, I tend to divide the 1e DMG listed values by 10 for something reasonable.

    If you actually stuck with 1e AD&D 10 gp to the lb and jewelry as listed, well a typical piece of wrought gold jewelry averages 300-1800 gp in value; if that came from weight alone it would average 1050/10 = a little over 100 lbs...

    Make it 30-180gp and 100 gp to the lb, things start to look sane.

  43. I generally agree on the jewellery front. But on the other hand: Liz Taylor's jewels sold for nutty prices although they mostly had gems. Lots of gems.

  44. Rob Fisher makes a valid point. Coin weight's a sadly chauvinistic place to choose as the vital fulcrum where fantasy should be grounded, though. Here, I pimp my blog:

    ridiculous big gold pieces.

    Re Delta's point about keeping gold special - GURPS Goblins, as usual, dances all over this topic: it comes down to class. Kings and dukes deal in gold and probably never handle anything else - beer is for lackeys, they drink only champagne. You find silver in the hands of the professional and moneylending classes. Copper is for rat-catchers, pie-peddlers and aspiring first level adventurers. Holding the wrong kind of coins for your social class is bound to lead to awkward questions.

  45. Not neurotically wedded to pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European settings? Consider high-fired ceramics as an underused alternative coining material for your centrally-controlled lowtech empire. Porcelain was historically hard enough to manufacture that the Chinese were able to make a near-monopoly out of it for over a thousand years, and if it's stamped with the mark of the dragon throne then it should be good enough for you, soldier. And they could weigh anything from say a pound each to a fiftieth of a pound, depending on how impressive they're supposed to be or how specific the information on them needs to be.

    What if metals are officially controlled, and everyday transactions are done in cowrie shells, ceramics and paper? Then if you dig up a horde of silver, you have to figure out how to fence it or otherwise convert it into safe, exchangeable currency.

  46. I never cared about this when I was a DM. I just kept track of the total treasure carried by the whole party, assuming it was more or less evenly distributed. Once it started to look excessive, I would say "You guys are getting weighed down with the stuff you're carrying." That was their cue to head back to town before I started assessing combat penalties.

  47. Nagora:
    "I generally agree on the jewellery front. But on the other hand: Liz Taylor's jewels sold for nutty prices although they mostly had gems. Lots of gems"

    The 1e DMG system already allows for pieces of exceptional value, up to 600,000gp (a lot more than the value of an Artifct!); the 300-1800 is for the default, gold-only, piece. Like I said, divide those numbers by 10 while also dividing the weight of gold by 10, and the numbers start to look ok.

  48. jewelry that weighs as much as a grown man tells you something about the culture that produced it. Emergent story, man!

  49. I first balked at Gygax's coin weights when running adventure A3 (Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords). There's an NPC in that adventure who'll only tell you about a secret passage if you give him 50 gp. My players couldn't get their heads around the idea of giving this guy five pounds of gold.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.