Inside the treasure chest are 3,500 gold pieces, a silver bracelet inlaid with ivory worth another 50 gold, and an amethyst gem worth 100 gold pieces.
That phrase, or others that are practically identical to it, can be found in almost every published Dungeons & Dragons adventure from the game’s first printing almost 40 years ago to the current edition. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that; if describing treasure in that way didn’t work, it wouldn’t have been standard practice for four decades.
The official D&D game has always based its economy on the gold standard, which Wikipedia.com defines as a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed weight of gold. Specifically, it operates on the gold specie standard, through which the monetary unit takes the form of circulating gold coins, as opposed to the gold exchange standard, which allows for other forms of currency (like paper money) to circulate in the place of valuable coins, and which could be exchanged for the coins at the owner’s request.
While this writer is not speaking for the game’s designers, there are good reasons for employing the gold standard in D&D, first among them being player expectations. After being exposed to fairy tales, films and novels of the fantasy genre and pirate stories which feature mountains of gold coins as treasure, someone playing D&D for the first time might be disappointed to find hoards of, for example, mere silver coins, even though virtually all Medieval economies in European history operated on the silver specie standard.
It is also important to remember that D&D rules from any edition never proposed to duplicate history or physical reality, only imitiate them in whatever manner would bring the most enjoyment to the players. In light of that motive, why would a DM consider switching from a gold standard to a silver standard, where the standard currency unit is a weight of silver?
The answer to that question is, “when it brings the most enjoyment to players.”
Switching to a silver standard can be a very attractive option in campaigns where:
- The players are as interested in Medieval life as they are in role-playing. For these folks, historical accuracy lends a degree of credibility to surround their fantasy, making the game more “believeable” and enjoyable by virtue of incorporating actual historical details into the game, not unlike the appeal of historical fiction.
- The game takes place in an actual historical setting and date, such as an alternative retelling of the Hundred Years War. In that type of campaign, keeping as true to history as possible is often a goal of both player and DM.
- Much of the game is set in more remote areas, where barter would otherwise rule. What rural blacksmith would accept gold as payment from a passing adventurer, when all of his neighbors barter for services and wouldn’t accept that gold in payment for the services he’ll need later? Using a silver standard makes coined currency accessible to the lower strata of society; in such campaigns, copper coins increase in relative value, and are more likely to fall into the hands of common folk.
- Kings, dukes and similar rulers are greedy. An interesting side note regarding minting coins from valuable metal is that it takes less money to make a coin than the finished coin is worth. Thus, by minting silver ingots into silver coins, a ruler will increase his or her fortune beyond the mere value of the silver with which he or she began. Rulers who decree that the coin of the realm is the only legal tender for transactions in that realm can charge a fee to change the coins of foreign governments into local currency, creating a second income stream.
Making the Switch
Converting a campaign to the silver specie standard is a very simple process. Whenever a rule book or module lists a price (or treasure found), convert the coin denomination downward by one, but keep the number of coins intact; for example, a sword that costs 25 gold coins would cost 25 silver, and a gem worth 100 gold found in a secret compartment would instead be worth 100 silver. Copper treasures can be valued at a tenth of their listed value, so 100 coper coins under the gold standard is worth 10 copper coins under the silver standard. Keep the relative values between coins intact (i.e., one gold still equals 10 or 20 silver coins, depending on the edition one is playing). When this conversion is made, copper suddenly becomes worth carrying again, and treasure in the form of gold and platinum becomes the stuff of legend.
Is converting to a silver standard right for every D&D campaign? No. But for the right group of players, it’s an easy way to make a game world more realistic and a campaign more enjoyable.