The Absence of Coins: Developing the Economics of Khamaz

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.

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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

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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.

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Featured Image: Hoard of Ancient Gold Coins, used by Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons.

Designing a Civilizational Hexcrawl

When originally designing First Cities, I knew right away that I wanted to structure the campaign as a hexcrawl. For those unfamiliar with the term, a hexcrawl is a RPG campaign approach where the DM builds a setting; maps it to a large hex map; keys the hexes with locations, lairs, and encounters; and then let’s the players go wherever they choose — like playing in a sandbox really. There are a lot of great resources on the Internet for tackling your own hexcrawl, including a series of posts at The Alexandrian and a round-up of Old School Fantasy Hexcrawl Resources at Gnome Stew, both of which I found very useful.

However, I also knew that I wanted to do more than a straightforward hexcrawl. I wanted to add a twist that gave the players something more to accomplish than merely discovery for discovery’s sake. What I settled on is a campaign structure I’ve taken to calling a civilizational hexcrawl. In it, I’ve merged the traditional planning, procedures, and game play of an old school fantasy RPG hexcrawl with a goal-driven resource management component one typically sees in digital games like Civilization or the Total War series.

As I noted in my previous post (“First Cities Campaign Premise”), I’ve structured First Cities around a tribal exploration dynamic where the players run the Sakas tribe as it moves into the river valley of Khamaz, home to the First Cities of Humanity. The players engage the premise on two levels: 1) they control the elder moot, made up of various tribal elders who make the key strategic decisions for the tribe (e.g., how are new resources divided up, where should the tribe move for the season, where should the tribe’s rangers and outriders explore this season, etc.); and 2) they control the key rangers and outriders for the tribe that carry out the objectives determined by the elder moot.

Now the rangers/outriders component is pretty straightforward; it’s the D&D PC play time — dungeon crawling, wandering monsters, chaotic combats, and all that. Thus, at the moment, I don’t need to focus too much on this part. What I want to explore more fully is the elder moot component.

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During game time, the elder moots have usually been great excuses for the players to flesh out the personalities and relationships of their tribal elders as they shoot the shit and decide what the tribe will be doing for that evening’s session. However, there is a more structured role for them as well; they must manage and develop the tribe’s material wealth and prosperity. It works as follows.

There are two main metrics for measuring the prosperity of the tribe: Resources and Assets. Under Resources, there are three sub-categories (Food, Tech, and Security), which are represented by abstract points measured against a tiered-scale. Under Assets, there are also three sub-categories (Wealth/Material Goods, Military, and Herd), which are represented by actual items and traditional RPG conventions (e.g., we recovered ten lion pelts and eighteen goats from that Gutian camp we raided).

While adventuring, the ranger/outrider PCs find rewards that include not only mineral based wealth and magic items, but also technology, food resources, mundane items, and so on. If the PCs turn this material over to the tribe, it’s converted into points using simple conversion rates I deveoped and added to the appropriate resource category. Conversion is also one way, meaning that once some item has been converted to Resource points, players can’t use it later as a tangible item during game play. Other wealth and material goods not converted into Resource points, along with herd animals and human military assets gained by the tribe fall under the Assets category, which serves as a pool of wealth the elder moot can use for trade, gift exchange, or whatever.

The Resource points, which can range from zero to forty-five, represent the tribe’s growth or decline in a particular area vital for its survival. As the numbers change, they fall within a series of tiers, which break down as follows: 0 / 2.5 / 5 / 15 / 45. Each tier has a benefit or penalty attached to it, which affects the tribe depending upon which Resource category point total is in which tier. The first two tiers represent sub-optimal conditions for the tribe; the middle tier is subsistence; and the last two represent advanced development.

Mechanically, the benefits and penalties are attached to die rolls, ranging from a -2 penalty in Tier I to a +2 bonus in Tier V. For Food Resources, this modifier affects all physical ability checks, skill checks, and saves. For Tech Resources, the modifier affects all knowledge-based skill checks, including mundane and magical crafting. For Security Resources, the modifier affects all combat attack rolls.

In terms of the goal for this strategic resource management component, the players need to develop their tribe enough for them to change from a nomadic tribe to a permanent settled community in Khamaz. To do this, they must reach Tier V in all three Resource sub-categories. After that, they can permanently settle their tribe, and the campaign shifts into a more traditional D&D campaign (either with the same tribal PCs or new characters from a different area). Conversely, if the tribe’s Resources all fall to zero in Tier I through disaster, disease, and/or bad decisions, the tribe collapses and disbands, with the remaining PCs becoming a troupe of adventurers.

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I came up with this mechanism after reading a pretty cool, post-apocalyptic RPG called Other Dust by Kevin Crawford, or more specifically the rules for developing and managing Groups and Enclaves in that game. As should be obvious to anyone familiar with Other Dust, I loosely adapted elements of those rules for First Cities. Prior to stumbling across Other Dust, I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how I was going to integrate resource management into the campaign. Other Dust helped me break through the conceptual logjam and slot everything into place.

Thus far, after nine game sessions of the campaign, this mechanism for tracking the tribe’s macro progress has worked pretty well. Those players who are into Civilization-type games have taken to it, while those not so interested seem content to let the others take the lead in managing it.

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Featured Image: “The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and Surroundings, 1000 AC” Hex Map by Thorfinn Tait, used under Creative Commons license.