Matters of money and SFF

And no, I’m not talking about the delusional nonsense sort, either. I’m talking about the place where the panel on Fantasyland Economics at Lunacon ended up going – something of an exploration into the lack of anything resembling economic commonsense in so many science fiction and fantasy books (and movies – but those are usually afflicted with handwavium maximus issues anyway: how often does a movie archer run out of arrows? And that’s not talking about the transdimensional rift that provides Hollywood guns with an endless supply of miracle bullets that nobody ever has to buy) and some commentary on doing it right.

The thing is – and I said this at the panel – doing it right really isn’t that difficult. I might be a little on the extreme side, having done things like work out how much a gold coin about the size of an old British sovereign would weigh, how many of them would fit into a wooden chest with an interior that was about the size of your average Hollywood pirate treasure chest, and whether a couple of fourteen year old kids could carry that much (the answer – unsurprisingly – was hell, no). Then figuring out about how much several hundred of them would weigh. And how much space they’d take if they weren’t stacked tight. And whether said kids could stash that much on them without being overburdened or overflowing the assorted pouches they had on them.

Okay, okay, I’m obsessive.

The thing is, gold is pretty bloody heavy. That’s one of the reasons paper money got popular really quickly. A piece of paper signed by a trusted authority (this part matters) guaranteeing that you will receive a pound of gold when you present the paper weighs you down a hell of a lot less than the pound of gold. Or equivalent value in silk, or spices, or whatever. And that is part of how the economy works everywhere and always has and always will. It’s pretty much a guarantee that even in the far future SF with galactic empires (we’ll argue about the viability of those some other time), there will be some form of more or less agreed-on currency, and even in a situation where you have replicators and fabricators capable of nuclear-level atom rearrangement to produce anything people need, there will be things that people want to pay extra for and there will be a means of paying for it. Which also means your characters need to have a source of income.

By the same token, in your fantasy world, your characters need to eat and sleep buy supplies for whatever adventure they going off on, and again, they need a source of income. In a fantasy world even the most basic weapons are relatively expensive (since metalsmithing is a specialized job that takes years to learn, and swordsmiths are even more specialized). A basic sword that a man at arms would use is moderately expensive. A really good sword is extremely expensive. Balance matters – a good sword feels weightless in the hand, a bad one… doesn’t. And wears the user out much faster. And in a fantasy world, chances are there isn’t a particularly organized system of paper or other fiat currency because if you’ve got a bunch of smallish countries arguing with each other, they’re not going to agree on an exchange rate so traders will operate in hard goods (preferably small, lightweight hard goods – see “gold is heavy”).

This is where history can be really fun. There are spices that were worth considerably more per ounce than gold because they were extremely rare in Europe and it was difficult to bring them from (usually) India without spoiling them. Chinese silk fell into this category for a long time, too. Another interesting bit of trivia is that it was hundreds of years after the Western Roman Empire fell before gold coins returned to circulation. For most of the so-called Dark Ages and a good chunk of the Medieval years, Europe operated on silver coins. Then there’s what happened when a country couldn’t dig up or otherwise get its hands on enough precious metal for coins (yep. This is the original form of inflation – some ruler would decide that in order to have enough currency to actually keep trade moving along, he’d adulterate his coins with something else (usually lead). The result was always that the cost of things went up in that area and trade went away because nobody trusted the coinage to be what it said it was. And this was on top of the problems that came with everyone having different measures – there’s a reason why scales are the age-old symbol of the merchant. As often as not precious metals got traded on weight only, and not on face value of coins). Of course, if you’re trading on weight and your silver coin is adulterated with another heavy metal like lead, there might not be much difference in a very small coin (such as was normally used). And kings tend not to appreciate being accused of cheating, funnily enough).

Okay, that diversion went kind of wild. In any case, your characters in any environment, be it fantasy, SF, urban fantasy, whatever, need to have a source of income. They need to be able to acquire the things they’re going to use, and they need to run out of stuff. Otherwise the piece goes past handwavium into bullshittium which isn’t nearly as much fun. You don’t need an advanced economics degree for this – just a few bits and pieces Heinliened into the narrative at the right moments will build the illusion of a lot more – consider Sarah’s Darkship Thieves and Darkship Renegades. Kit doesn’t harvest the pods just because they’re needed. He gets paid for it, and paid fairly well at that. He and Thena wind up deeply in debt for a number of reasons. Thena sells a ‘borrowed’ broom on the black market in Darkship Thieves in order to buy other things she needs. These aren’t economic lectures, they’re just part of the way things are and they’re slid in as part of the narrative.

I cheat (shamelessly) in the con vampire books by giving Jim a fortune accumulated over many years so he doesn’t have to worry about money. He does have to worry about modern bookkeeping issues and making sure his paper trail is impeccable because for him a discovery audit leading to bankruptcy would be the least of his worries. In Impaler, Vlad uses loot to pay his armies but by the end of the book he’s thinking seriously about the finances of his kingdom because if he can’t pay his people he’ll lose his throne and probably his life as well. And so it goes.

Then of course, there’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, particularly the ones set in and around Ankh Morpork, and extra-particularly the Watch books. Vimes and his theory of why rich people are rich. These things don’t just ring true, they make the whole thing feel much more real because the question of how to pay for the things one needs is an integral part of the story. When you compare that to certain books (no, I am not mentioning names. I’m quite sure everyone here has a whole list of names they can use) where everything is available everywhere even in itty bitty villages in the back of nowhere or you get a fantasy piece where there’s no reason for gold to be valuable – intrinsically the stuff is worthless. You can’t eat it or screw it, it’s too soft and too heavy to use as a weapon or building material. It’s only viable as a decoration, and a decoration that’s that easily damaged or lost isn’t going to cut it unless the society’s got past hunter-gatherer – but it’s still the most important thing there is, or… well, you get the idea. It’s a bit like the guns that never run out of ammunition in the movies where nobody ever has to buy ammo or even go collect it.

So yeah. If you want your SF and fantasy to feel like there’s a larger working world in there (and it works with the plot – I’m the first to say that sometimes it doesn’t), throw a bit of the mechanics of money in there. If you really want to go all-out, you can have your fantasy kingdom suffer a variant of the tulip mania and the crash that followed. Have the characters who don’t have money barter things – but do so using the money amounts. For years after the Romans left, large chunks of Europe still ran on Roman currency. They just took payment in kind – taking X amount’s worth of wool in payment for X amount’s worth of grain.

And of course, don’t forget that ultimately what decides the value is how much someone will pay for it. That beautifully gilded turd is worth nothing if nobody will buy it.


  1. One system I’ve played with (sci-fi) is to have a series of auction houses/trade stations run by a cartel (more or less) or that use similar accounting rules to those the cartel has. This makes the luxury trade fairly easy to develop in terms of rates of exchange, appraisals, transportation arrangements, and related matters. Bulk goods shipping I’ve not really fooled with.

    The Azdhagi use their own internal currency within the Empire, but use the regional “credit” system. The Imperial Household has a monopoly on luxury textiles, and grants licenses for other textile imports and manufacture. There’s a mercantalist streak in the Azdhagi that’s kind of interesting to observe. At least, it is if you are not Rada and Zabet trying to run an import/export business. 🙂

  2. If your imaginary world, future, past or weird, has a stable government there will be (unless you’ve got really strange aliens) some established money. Then it’s just a matter of how the characters go about getting more than their fair share. Until they cross a border and have to convert the coinage/bills/letters of credit or whatever.

    But in your classic fantasy over-throw-the-evil-overlord situation, the writer may have trouble figuring out how to feed his army without starving the peasants he’s claiming to free. And fueling one’s spaceship could be challenging if the owner of the Galactic Gas Stop only takes PsychicCreds and you haven’t clue what those even are.

  3. This – and especially the mention of the Tulip Mania – reminds me of an excellent book which explores this in a SFF world. Check out George Phillies’ Mistress of the Waves.

  4. I have to take issue with the statement that gold is intrinsically worthless.

    It’s rare, it’s naturally-occurring, it’s shiny, and it’s easily worked.
    Despite being soft, it’s resilient. It will never fade, crack, chip, or break.
    I don’t find it at all surprising that tribes used to using bones, shells, feathers, paint, and the occasional shiny pebble plucked from a streambed for decoration would regard gold with nearly supernatural awe.

    I’m not aware of a civilization that evolved anywhere that failed to highly value gold. Which seems to me, an argument that its value pre-dated civilization.

    1. You might have to postulate a group who does not value appearances in their articles, and only consider utility. Until you get technology beyond a certain level, gold has no utility. After a certain tech point, things like malleability, resistance to chemical attack or corrosion, and eventually electrical conductivity (although at that point, the REAL value is still in corrosion resistance).

  5. EverQuest originally had money weigh you down. Unfortunately they messed up the money system so that you had to have thousands of platinum to buy the expensive stuff so they had to create a “money has no weight” bazaar zone or no one would be able to carry the money from the bank to the guy who would sell you a horse.

    Actually… the whole D&D money system seems really dumb to me. Because sure, it’s going to cost you “a gold” to get a room at the Inn for the night and another gold for breakfast. It doesn’t cost anything near that *now* in real life. An ounce of gold is $1300 (unless I’m *really* reading it wrong) and an ounce of silver is about $20.

    Someone with a single gold coin in a fantasy setting ought to be freaking out over how they’re going to break it.

    1. I was wondering if someone was going to point that out. 🙂

      Because yes, gold is dense. Carrying large quantities of it by volume is a major project, and even lifting a pirate-movie-size treasure chest filled even moderately efficiently with gold would require a forklift. But a quantity of gold massing as much as a Costco-size canister of kitty litter (which an adult man in not particularly good shape can carry two of, one in each hand, from the trunk of the car into the house and up two flights of stairs to the attic without meaningful difficulty) would be worth meaningfully more than a million 2014 US Dollars, which even in our present inflated state still qualifies as a really monumental sum of money, to have just lying around, or find buried just under a nearby beach.

      If you walk into a medieval tavern and hand the proprietor a purse of gold coins, he’s less likely to think you want a bed for the night and a few drinks for your friends, than he is to think you’re trying to buy the building, the furniture, a month’s wages for the staff, and a serious opening bid for his immortal soul. 🙂

      Even in the modern world, convincing an average merchant to break a $100 bill can be a pain in the ass. Imagine if you had to convince them to break a $1300 bill. Yeah…that’s why we don’t use literal gold.

      1. Some gold and silver coins in real life were pretty small. For example, the Venetian “sequin” (zecchino). Bigger than a penny, smaller than a quarter, not super heavy but definitely had weight to it.

    2. Two things:

      1.) EQ coins v weight:

      You haven’t lived until you’ve had to pull out the old, “Hi, I really want to buy your E-Boots, but can you meet me at the bank? I have a strength buff and a SoW and I still can’t move.”

      (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky.)

      2.) Dungeons and Dragons currency was divided into different denominations. Most rooms at an inn wouldn’t cost anywhere NEAR a gold. You’re probably looking at 20-30 copper for a night and that would include a meal and a bath. 100 Copper = 1 gold. If that sounds a bit overpriced still, keep in mind that inns weren’t cheap and neither were baths.

      1. EQ was awesome in the ways that it was bad… meeting at the bank with SoW and a strength buff… near impossible corpse retrievals… that thing I forgot what we called it where you couldn’t log in without dying, and dying, and dying, and dying… getting stuck in walls… falling through the world…

        The D&D money thing might just have been something that my DM did. I complained that the cost of a night at the Inn was unrealistic and he said it was on the chart… I didn’t actually see the chart…

        1. Oh… and ice. The *ice* was fun. I had a habit of slipping into holes, or backing into holes, or otherwise ending up stuck in holes.

  6. When I was writing stuff for 1632 one of the things I did was an examination of the money supply in Europe at that time. It’s still around on the internets (e.g. ) and – worryingly – was cited in some academic paper a few years back.

    Gold is heavy but not *that* heavy given that an ounce of it can buy you many $$$. It’s certainly a lot more transportable than silver given that the ratio of weights of equivalent value of silver to gold is generally about 20:1

      1. That was under the 1930’s standard. In free floating markets for the last 36 years the Silver-Gold has gone between 18:1 and 85:1. For March 28 I see it reported at 65:1. The 20:1 was the official US monetary standard, which was very similar to the Latin accord on coinage (set up by Napoleon III and followed in Europe up to WWI), but it treated silver coins mostly as tokens, since by the standard they were priced above the value of the metal.

  7. My fae in a contemporary otherworld bring in certain bulk & tech goods from the human world as part of a trading network, but it’s tricky to pay for them. The fae send refined gold and silver thru portals to a human agent who sells it thru pawn shops in a wide network. The proceeds go to fund human world banks. Then the fae place orders thru the human agent who pays for them with bank drafts or credit cards, for delivery to low-tech humans (Mennonites who rent barn space for storage & delivery), and they cart it the rest of the way for drop off at remote rural locations, for the fae to pick up. The Mennonite storage & delivery is paid in human cash, and the fae bring back the goods.

    It won’t scale up to industrial sizes, but that’s part of the complications of the fae world in its current state of affairs, and true to the concerns of the story.

    I hate it when constructed worlds have no clear economics. That always bugged me about Star Trek.

    1. With Star Trek replicators, kinda like 3D printing, is that what’s valuable is not the THING, but the template. So IP laws might be stricter, but if they’re not, we’d live in a world full of crap.

      The problem with an artistic meritocracy, were everyone is free from economic worries, the “trap of employment” in Pelosi-speak, and free to be artists is, well, a lot of people are really not very good.

      A Meritocracy is hell for the worthless. (Maybe that’s why certain people are opposed to them….)

      1. I’m fond of old sci-fi. The Venus Equilateral stories of George O Smith, specifically Pandora’s Millions, deals with the distruption a true matter transporter/duplicator causes to a civilization. Also what has value when practically anything can be duplicated. And he wrote it in 1945.

  8. When you compare that to certain books (no, I am not mentioning names. I’m quite sure everyone here has a whole list of names they can use) where everything is available everywhere even in itty bitty villages in the back of nowhere or you get a fantasy piece where there’s no reason for gold to be valuable – intrinsically the stuff is worthless. You can’t eat it or screw it, it’s too soft and too heavy to use as a weapon or building material. It’s only viable as a decoration, and a decoration that’s that easily damaged or lost isn’t going to cut it unless the society’s got past hunter-gatherer – but it’s still the most important thing there is, or… well

    Not necessarily even if a society is well past the hunter-gatherer stage. Fans of the Dragonlance saga are, or at least should be, aware that the only form of coinage accepted across most of Krynn is steel. Why? Because the world is a war-torn horrible place and the only metal of worth is steel, because it can be turned into weapson. A terrible place Krynn. But it works because it fits with the story and the milieu. It just makes sense.

    That, to me, is the key to any fictional economy. It has to work within the framework of the story without any glaring flaws. I’m not an economist, I’ll just play one on the internet, but no fictional universe is going to be able to duplicate the real world insanity of conflicting financial forces. It’s just not. Yes, it’s good to have it in there, but I think it’s important to keep things simple.

    1. I have to say… I think that hunter gatherers really really really like to decorate themselves.

      1. Yup, decorative items are one of the first things that cause humans to develop trade networks across continents. It’s hard to ship grain even from roving band to roving band, but it’s easy to pass around a bag of ochre or shells or shell beads. Flints and worked flints are useful of course, so is copper, but they’re both lightweight compared to food.

  9. Love it! Someone who figures out the actual mechanics of a fortune in gold. I did too, but different. I spent much of a chapter in Wizard at Work with the hero determining (via an assay kit) how much a 35# bar of gold/silver was worth. And then how you dispose of it for money, since it’s provenance is, um, questionable. And what various government snoopies think when you suddenly show up with money that can’t be lawful (i.e, having been taxed)!
    Kudos for making the effort.

      1. At that, how about jewels? I have one discussion between a thief and love interest about jewels vs gold, and that he likes jewels, like diamonds, a lot better and will take them and leave the gold any time he can choose because they are easier both to transport and to hide. The presumption is that he has several trusted fences in different cities for the time he wants to change those diamonds, rubies and whatever into something less conspicuous he can use with the law-abiding part of any local populace.

        Heh. Those news stories about cops confiscating cash from motorists because they had ‘too much’ and that made it suspicious…

  10. “Spice and Wolf” is an anime about being a merchant in a relatively medieval fantasy society. I’m only a few episodes in, but the first major plotline is about a place’s currency being changed over to have different metals in it and the people who want to use this secret to profit by buying up the old currency before it gets changed out for the new. There is also a lot of discussion about the positives and negatives about certain types of merchandise and bargaining and so forth.

  11. I think art coins would be a dense form of currency in a low tech world. Whether jewel encrusted, beautifully crafted or ancient they would have a value greater than that of the material used to make them. The labor and craftsmanship needed to produce, say a beautifully crafted gold coin inlayed with semi precious gems would be great compared to what is needed to produce a normal coin. The value of materials plus the value of work involved, rarity and perceived beauty would make it a convenient way to buy ships, small armies and the like.

    1. Well, in a lot of societies the regular coins were “art coins.” You wanted to have a beautiful design that stood out, and preferably one that showed your city/state as being lucky and blessed, squared away, and with good leaders and good mints. From the Scythians on, coinage designs were a matter of great pride and skill (and teensy tiny drawings and etchings to make the mint stamps).

      Inlaying gems into a coin is stupid. You stack coins and carry them in bags. The gems would either scratch each other or the soft gold and silver. They’d look like a mess in a matter of days.

      If you want to trade in jewelry, trade jewelry instead. There are different storage and treatment requirements.

      1. I was thinking that such coins would be used as tokens of greater wealth. A specific kind of coin that could be exchanged for so many ounces of gold at a later date. Possibly a convenient way to move large sums of money around without attracting too much attention.

        I see your point about the jewels though.

  12. Nobody, nobody ever does stories based on the ancient Irish stock market, and the hierarchy being driven by amount of cattle ownership versus sharecroppers who raised other people’s cattle, and pastures being assigned by lot every year; and then later on in time, the big cattle drives and the nomadic hired out “cow boys” of Ulster, which determined a lot about American and Canadian cattle drives and cowboys. Even though it drove the economy and the clan system. (We don’t know as much about Scotland’s early early medieval economy.)

    I’ll be honest, I don’t know enough about cows and cattle to write it, but I want to read it! I mentioned it at Worldcon in 1990 on purpose, in a roomful of writers, and nobody wrote it for me! It is killing me!

    Anyway, the two ancient Irish currencies were the generic cow (a real cow could have all sorts of ups and downs in value) — and the cumal, or female slave. However, a real cumal could have a different value depending on her worth and origins (a cumal of 3 cows, 6 cows, all the way up), and land could be described in terms of “land of a cumal” or “land of a cumal of X cows.” It was not a very satisfactory currency except for being nitpicky, or for spinning things out to sound better. It worked well for fines for killing people, though, because the fine for killing a male or female slave (daer, unfree person) was 1 cumal (the 3 cows kind), and the wergild fines went up from there according to social status/caste.

    The generic cow had a standard value, however, which was 24 silver screpalls/scruples, or putting things differently, 1 ounce/uncia of silver. A screpall was worth 3 pinginn (silver pennies/pence), and the weight of a pinginn was equal to 8 grains of wheat. (So that’s 576 grains, 192 pinginns, 24 screpalls, 2 seds or samaiscs, or 1 cow, in an ounce.)

    1. Re: the price of an inn, they didn’t really have them in Ireland except in the port cities/Norse areas in old old medieval times, because there were monasteries and hospitality by the locals, and then there was the secular bruidean/bruighdean (hostel/guesthouse) system if you didn’t get hospitality the other way. The Irish kings paid low-level nobles to run bruideans in high-traffic areas, to provide free food, drink, baths, and lodging to travelers. (Probably because it was seen as so humiliating and so bad for the land and people, if any failure of hospitality should inadvertently occur.)

      Anyway, one of the great Irish legends is the Destruction of Da Derga’s Bruidean, in which revenge-crazed idiots attack someplace that’s supposed to be neutral ground. It also reveals that the brideprice of Etain, a fabulously beautiful and wealthy queen of the Sidhe, is 7 cumals or 21 cows. (Ireland was not a superduper wealthy society, even with all the crazy imagination stuff factored in, like a fabulous legendary bruidean with a staff of 150 warriors or giving a friend a hundred horses. So I guess a brideprice of more than 21 cows was just too hard to imagine!)

    2. Anyway, the point is that in old old Irish society, you were noble and free if you owned cows, you were unfree if you didn’t own cows (even if you weren’t a slave who belonged to somebody), and all the professions that were free were people who were paid in cows or the equivalent of cows.

      (Poets were never paid in cows, because it was seen as kinda declasse or beside the point. But they owned horses and sheep and other livestock galore, and giving them gold and art objects and clothing was okay too.)

      The original way they did land ownership was to divvy up the pasturelands every year by lot among the local clanmembers, trying to make sure that everybody got equal chances to use the good pasture instead of the bad. People who owned lots of cows would then arrange for poorer people to raise their cows. If there were plenty of calves, the person who raised them successfully would get maybe a few as pay. This was one way that people could go from unfree to free — good luck in the pasture choices and then in keeping other people’s cows alive. (Picking up a profession that was solely composed of free persons was another way to move up in the world.) OTOH, bad luck could leave you owing somebody cows.

      However, cattleraiding was also a thing, so basing your currency and nobility-hierarchy on cow ownership had its problems.

  13. Re: coins and gold, St. Eligius/Eloi was a goldsmith before he became prime minister. He was hired to make the king a throne and given gold and gems to do it with. So he designed and produced _two_ fabulously beautiful thrones for the price of one — and then he gave back the excess gold and jewels. This impressed the king so much with his skills and honesty that he started depending on St. Eligius to run other stuff too.

    1. Anyway, St. Eligius apprenticed at Limoges under the master of the mint, Abbo. He was of good family, but I guess his parents were openminded about STEM and the trades, or they didn’t have land for everybody.

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