Developing a D&D campaign based on the Bronze Age Ancient Near East comes with a particular set of problems when dealing with historical fidelity and economics. Dungeons and Dragons, like most medieval fantasy tabletop RPGs, relies on a gold-backed coinage system, where players purchase their equipment with gold coins they find trolling through underground dungeons or earn from nobles and kings for murder-hobo jobs done well. In terms of historical realism, this is fairly ridiculous (can you imagine the local inflation every time adventurers rolled into a small village and spent the loot they found in a dungeon?). However, it is also damn convenient, establishing easily understood metrics for value in equipment and treasure. After all, if you need an economics degree to play a game, something’s amiss.
However, for campaign settings inspired by societies and cultures that predate Ancient Greece and Rome, this coinage shorthand is a problem. In Bronze Age Mesopotamia, nobody used coins for economic transactions and transfers because coinage had not been invented yet (Iron Age Anatolia, most likely the Kingdom of Lydia, around 600 BCE, if you are curious). In looking through certain RPG products inspired by Bronze Age societies, it seems that most designers have merely waved their hands and grafted on coins for simplicity’s sake, although there is sometimes an attempt to acknowledge the issue. For instance, in the Biblical era inspired RPG Testament, the author Scott Bennie dives into the coinage issue before moving on to suggest that GMs wanting to maintain historical fidelity should adopt a barter style economic system when running Testament, complete with procedures for adjudicating opposed skill checks while bartering. This has its own problems in that pre-coinage economic systems most certainly didn’t use barter systems either (go read chapter two of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years for more on the myth of barter).
So in designing the First Cities campaign and developing the world of Khamaz, the problem of the economic system was a pretty big roadblock for me. What exactly was I supposed to do? Give up and use the standard D&D campaign and hope it didn’t affect the verisimilitude of my game world? Or try to find some way to simulate Bronze Age economics more accurately while not bogging down game play?
The solution came from a source that was one of my original inspirations for developing the First Cities Campaign. Some time last summer, I stumbled across a blog detailing information about a homebrew campaign world for AD&D 1E called simply ERIDU. Described as an “AD&D Fantasy RPG Campaign for a Bronze Age Weird Mesopotamia,” the short-lived blog has a number of entries detailing place locations, character classes, and art inspirations, all of which helped me consider various aspects of the First Cities campaign. However, what really caught my attention was a blog post on using a silver-based non-coinage economic system for the setting, which you can poke into here. This was exactly what I was looking for in terms of verisimilitude, so I cribbed the hell out of it (as you will immediately see if you compare ERIDU’s system and the one below). The following are the notes I made for myself, using the ERIDU system as a base and then adding in some other details as I grappled with making a base-60 sexadecimal economic system work for my campaign world.
There are no coin-based money systems in the First Cities campaign. While most exchanges are through either limited barter (i.e., the swapping of like goods) or payments in kind (e.g., workers being paid in rations of grain), there is a system based on standardized weights of precious metals that will form the basis of game exchange when it comes to player activities. It’ll work as follows.
Silver and copper are the standard metals of exchange, usually denominated by a system representing weight (again, not actual coins). The key denominations are the shekel, the mina, and the talent. In terms of how much these denominations physically weighed, 1 shekel is roughly 1/3 oz, 1 mina is roughly 17 oz, and 1 talent is 66 lbs. The conversions are:
- 60 silver shekel (ss) = 1 silver mina (sm)
- 3600 shekel (ss) = 60 mina (sm) = 1 talent (st)
- 1 silver shekel (ss) = 3 copper mina (cm) = 180 copper shekel (cs)
Silver is most often found in standardized, coil-shaped rings called hullu, usually in 1, 5, and 10 shekel coils, as well as 1/2 mina and 1 mina coils. Copper shekels and mina are crude, unworked lumps.
Gold exists in this campaign world as well, but tends to be used for static or large wealth (e.g., kept in temple vaults) and not as a medium of common exchange. Gold is most often found in hack bar format or as ingots. The conversions are as follows:
- 1 gold shekel (gs) = 20 silver shekels (ss)
- 3 gold shekels (gs) = 1 silver mina (sm)
- 60 gold shekels (gs) = 1 gold mina (gm)
- 1 gold mina (gm) = 20 silver mina (sm)
In terms of volume, ancient Mesopotamia used various terms denoting the size of a container holding an item, usually barley, that then became standardized over time. The sizes and their approximate conversions are as follows:
- 1 sila (bowl) = ~ 1 liter
- 1 ban (vessel) = 10 sila
- 1 bariga (bushel) = 6 ban or 60 sila
- 1 gur = 30 ban or 300 sila
Standard values for treasures, gems, and all other loot will normally be given in silver shekels. A quick conversion for D&D 3.5 is:
- 1 3.5 gp = 3 ss/540 cs
- 1 3.5 sp = 54 cs
- 1 3.5 cp = 5.4 cs.
What follows is a short listing of base commodities, culled from ERIDU and a number of historical sources, which were used to peg the 3.5 conversion above:
- 1 gur of barley = 1 ss
- 1 goat = 3 ss
- 1 sheep = 6 ss
- 9 talents, Asphalt = 1 ss
- 1 bear pelt = 15 ss
- 50-100 bricks = 1 ss
- Building plot, in town = 8-16 cm
- 1 talent, unworked bronze = 36 ss
- 2 mina, worked copper = 1 ss
- 3 mina, unworked copper = 1 ss
- 1 bariga, dates = 1 ss
- 2 mina, glass ingots = 15 ss
- 1 year rental, small house = 4 ss
- 1 small house in city, purchase = 2 sm
- 1 mina, lead ingot = 23 cs
- 1 lion pelt = 18 ss
- 1 year rental, orchard = 5 ss
- 1 ban, sesame seeds = 1 ss
- 3 ban, sesame oil = 1 ss
- 1 slave = 20-40 ss
- 1 slave family = 1 sm
- 1 mina, tin ingot = 5 ss
- 6 mina, wool = 1 ss
- 6 shekel, purple-dyed wool = 1 ss
- Plot of land, with fields, a house, and some slaves = 5 gm
From here, I set to work doing quick conversions for all the items in the equipment section of the 3.5 Player’s Handbook that fit technologically in my Bronze Age-esque setting. Actually, I was originally going to use AD&D 1E for the campaign, so I did the first conversion for that. I then changed my mind and considered using the Adventurer Conqueror King system (ACKS) for the First Cities Campaign, so I converted all that as well. Then I settled on 3.5 using E6 rules and did the final conversion. Needless to say, I was a little converted out at that point.
In terms of gameplay, this system has worked pretty well. One of the reasons for that is I have largely kept all this complexity behind the curtain, so to speak. As the conceit of the campaign involves the players coming from the steppe into the settled river valley, I hid all this from them during character creation. As such, they’ve only had to start grappling with it as their characters encountered NPCs using it. I think this has added an additional sense of exploration for the players, as they haven’t been able to fall back completely on simply knowing both the standard D&D prices and when a merchant might be robbing them blind. That I also use dice rolls to muck with the base prices from time to time (rough equivalents for inflation and price fluctuation by region) also keeps them on their toes. It has been fun watching the players deal with this.
Featured Image: Hoard of Ancient Gold Coins, used by Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons.