Since many of us have just gotten through tax season and a patron question last month had to do with currency, let’s talk about money.
In fantasy games and quite a few novels, money almost always consists of copper, silver, gold, and (sometimes) platinum. Ten coppers to a silver, ten silvers to a gold, etc. While this is easy to remember and use, it is phenomenally inaccurate to how money generally works in the real world.
Sure, in the U.S. we have copper(-colored) coins, silver(-colored) coins, and if you get a Sacagawea dollar, gold(-colored) coins. But we don’t call them coppers, silvers, and gold: we call them pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, dollars. The names of our coins only partially overlap with the actual units of currency they represent; a dollar coin is worth one dollar, but a dime is worth ten cents, not ten pennies. And while our currency is decimal, our coins aren’t; there are ten dimes to a dollar, but twenty nickels, or only four quarters.
Let’s back up for a second and talk about what money actually is. Trade originally happened on a barter system: you give me milk from your cow, and in exchange I’ll give you grain from my field. We’ll probably discuss barter more later, but for now let’s skip ahead to the stage where people started using quantities of Valuable Substance as markers for the value of other things. I phrase it that way because the Valuable Substance in question can vary wildly. It isn’t always gold, or even metal. Cowrie shells were used as money for centuries in a wide swath of Africa; cocoa beans served the same purpose in Mesoamerica. In speculative fiction, the Valuable Substance could be whatever “unobtanium” is relevant to the world you’ve built. In a desert post-apocalypse, it might be water. Basically, as long as people agree that a thing has value, and as long as it’s neither so rare that nobody can get hold of it, nor so ubiquitous that there’s no reason to value it, you can say people use it as currency.
Metal does offer some distinct virtues in this regard. It’s relatively durable; it’s also malleable, which means you can make units that are bigger or smaller or more stackable or different shapes, instead of just having to pile up more beans or shells to represent greater value. You can alloy it with other metals, too, and once you get scientifically advanced enough, you can assay things to figure out their composition, which helps when you need to determine the “real” value of the coin. As for that composition, I think gold and silver have historically been the most common, but copper and bronze are also fairly frequent, and any metal or alloy can theoretically work: iron, tin, etc. These days aluminum is cheap and disposable, but obtaining it in pure form requires fairly advanced technology; we didn’t figure out how to do that until the nineteenth century, and in the late Victorian period it was more valuable than gold. So in the right setting, you could easily have a society where your D&D-style murderhobos kill the villain and are rewarded with a treasure chest full of aluminum coins!
The rabbit hole of “value” and how it’s calculated is a deep one, so rather than falling down it right now, let’s get back to that question of coinage and its organization. I am reminded of the following footnote from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens:
Two farthings = One Ha’Penny. Two ha’pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.
If you wade through the math, you’ll find that a shilling is worth twelve pence, and there are twenty shillings to a pound. Even laying aside the lack of decimalization, you might ask, why all the intervening elements? Why not just have coins worth one penny, one shilling, and one pound, and dump all this nonsense of thrupence and sixpence and florins and half crowns and guineas — not to mention the groats and nobles and angels that fell out of use along the way? Lots of reasons, ranging from the influence of foreign money (florins were originally minted in Florence, and caused other countries to mint their own equivalents) to the gradual creep of inflation (a penny used to be a meaningful unit of wealth; now it’s an annoyance) to the utility of having finer gradations of value. But underlying all of those is the fundamental fact that this system is the end product of centuries of accreted revisions, most of them made with an eye toward concerns other than “what’s a nice easy system to calculate?”
Narratively speaking, decimalized currency is the most plausible when it’s found in a culture that is well-planned and well-organized in other respects. (Or any other consistent numerical approach: Mesoamerican societies were vigesimal, i.e. base 20.) The French revolutionary calendar was so determined to decimalize everything, they not only made decimal currency but also ten-day weeks and even ten-hour days. Systems that have just grown over time, on the other hand, are more likely to be ad hoc messes, as seen in the British example above.
But there’s a virtue that comes with the “ad hoc mess” approach — at least from the perspective of a writer. If I say that my character buys a meat pie from a street vendor for a cent and then a hat for ten cents, there will be some readers who immediately trip up on the question of whether those values make sense relative to one another: should the hat be more expensive, or less? Whereas if I say that she spends a rasade on the meat pie and three farinzes on the hat, you have no way of checking my math. I still have to pay some attention to it, because if later on I say she obtains a horse for one farinze, then either that was a bloody expensive hat, the horse is a swaybacked nag that will keel over one block down the street, or I screwed up. But I have a lot more leeway in naming the prices of things and how much wealth the characters have to throw around, because the conversion rates could be anything.
So: not only is the ad hoc approach more realistic, but it’s also more forgiving on a narrative level. Ditch your ten coppers to a silver, and come over to the far more interesting world of farthings, sixpences, and guineas!