Creating fantasy currency

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Tanydwr

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Okay, I have tried to find resources on the Internet, but it seems pretty hopeless, so I posit this question to anyone with more experience:

How do you create a fantasy currency?

My world also has a healthy system of exchange, particularly among the poorer classes for produce - e.g. one person provides eggs in exchange for milk or some grain. I do know that currency became more popular as trade increased, and wealth can be based on property of animals, such as cattle.

This world is used in a quartet of semi-standalone novels (i.e. you can read each one individually, but they are interlinked by character connections, setting and time period). In one novel in particular, there's a lot of travelling and, thus, the necessity of buying food and paying for inns. While my characters earn some money on the road, I really need to have a decent system in place for when I do the redraft and have to get this sort of thing accurate. A currency system that made too little sense would drive me insane.

So, any helpful hints, tips and links would be extremely useful. My plan is to use gold, silver, brass or something similar for coins (not copper - it's more valuable for pipes and stuff).

Thanks in advance.
 

Maryn

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My kids (who are adults) and I had a lengthy discussion about this, which includes some points you should probably consider:
  • Currency which is not valuable in and of itself, such as paper money, only works when there's a solid government backing it.
  • If government backing is absent or the government or nation is in turmoil or upheaval, only currency of actual value works--such as the precious metals you've already thought of.
  • Actual-value money can't be something easily obtained through hard work.
  • Representational currency backed by a government must be either minted or otherwise produced, or very hard to come by.
  • All citizens must accept representational money backed by a government, or it's non-spendable.
  • If you use a precious metal, the value of coinage must match the value of its actual weight.
  • People who trade using money need ways to make change--such as the "bits" of cast-off gold clipped when rounding coins, with phrases like "two bits" surviving.
  • Both coins and paper money need to look different in different denominations. Coins should also feel different.
There's an interesting article on wikipedia about shell money which mentions economic anthropologists in passing. If it were me with this detail to work out, I'd follow up on them.

Maryn, who lost her wallet recently--but it was only representational money
 
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Tanydwr

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Thanks. It won't be representational money because there isn't really a banking system in place - although there's probably goldsmiths and stuff. My plan is to have the coins specially-minted, or perhaps using a slightly 'off' colour made in a specific way.

In addition, with the weight-value thing, I'd still have to work out how many, say, silver pieces a cow was worth. As for change - the brass/nickel/cheapest coin would be a basic change coin, as well as paying for the staples in life like bread or eggs.

Hey, how much do you think an ale would cost?

Oh, if it makes any difference, they do have a decent sewerage system and a form of running water based on pump action to rooms. Hot water is done by building tanks into bathrooms and having a fire/heater beneath the tank. Generally this only happens in downstairs bathrooms, since the water itself has to be pumped into the tank.

If the Romans could have a form of running water and good sewage systems, so can I. Especially as this country is leery of most magic (so no option for magicking coins to prevent fraud - well, not publicly magicking the coins anyway).
 

DeleyanLee

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The other means for trade is work/talent: I clean out your stable and you feed me and give me a safe place to sleep. I share news/sing a song/tell a tale in exchange for food/drink/shelter/whatever people give me.

What does your society/culture value? Spices? Cloth? Fresh chickens? Whatever's valued will be good currency for the traveller to carry.

Just some thoughts, anyway.
 

Sarpedon

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the value of coins is basically government fiat. in general, you want your currency to be such where the small denominations buy small things, and the big denominations buy big things.

The best valued currency I've ever seen was in Bulgaria some years ago. They'd recently revalued it so it matched right. You had your Lev, and you had your Stotinki
There were 100 Stotinki to a lev. A couple of stotinki would by you a bun from a street vendor. One Lev would buy you a meal or something like that. Very good value system. Plus I just love saying Stotinki. Stotinki, stotinki, stotinki.

Then there's the reverse of that, like what Italy had, where you'd be spending 10,000 lira on a sandwich, and yet there'd be 1/10 lira coins floating around.

Both are gone now, thanks to the Euro.

As far as fantasy coinage goes, I confess to hijacking the old english system, before they decimalized (decimated?) it. Then they had pence, and 12 pence would be a shilling, and then you had 20 shillings to the pound. (or was it the other way around?) Anyhow, I picked some different names, and called it a day. Historically, I believe that the shilling was silver, the pence was copper, and the pound coin was actually a gold coin that had the same value as a pound of silver. A shilling was considered to be a substantial amount of money.
 

MGraybosch

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Okay, I have tried to find resources on the Internet, but it seems pretty hopeless, so I posit this question to anyone with more experience:

How do you create a fantasy currency?

Start by learning a bit about economics. I'm serious. When you create a fantasy currency, you're getting into the economics of your setting, and it can get very hairy if you don't know what you're doing.

And if you only know enough to be dangerous (like me), you can still get in trouble. I use gold in my science fantasy setting. A milligram of gold will get you a cup of coffee. Five milligrams will get you an Agni Burger with fries and a bottle of water. Fifty grams is enough for a comfortable middle-class lifestyle if you live within your means. Of course, you don't actually carry gold around; instead, you carry banknotes issued by your bank or use a card.

Of course, in my setting, the government isn't allowed to fuck around with the currency or even meddle with the banks.
 

Mr Flibble

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No, the OP.

All I mean is you don't have to have everything down to the minutest detail if it isn't vital. Method of payment isn't normally vital to the story ( and from the sounds of the work in question, it's not at all vital - all you need to show is that services have been paid for)
 

Capital

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Couldn't you just say:

They paid for the room and made for their beds

Simple is sometimes best

I agree. One of the recent books I've read, Name of the Wind, had ALOT dedicated to currency and money talk in general. It sort of worked, because MC was always on the edge with finances for school, home, etc, so this was obviously a big issue for him. Other than that... why bother?
 

Sarpedon

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Personally, I think any government currency will eventually outcompete a private currency, if only because the government already has the expense of having goons in its budget.
 

Lhun

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consider:
  • Currency which is not valuable in and of itself, such as paper money, only works when there's a solid government backing it.
  • Nope. The earliest examples of paper currency in (western) history were actually not government backed money, but money backed by private banks. Representational currency only needs a a third party that is accepted by both trade partners as backing the currency.
    [*]If government backing is absent or the government or nation is in turmoil or upheaval, only currency of actual value works--such as the precious metals you've already thought of.
    Nope. See above.
    [*]Actual-value money can't be something easily obtained through hard work.
    Nope. In south america cocoa beans were used as currency. Commodity value money cannot be something that's easier to obtain by creating the commodity it's based on than by performing other work. Which is just a fancy way of saying that it's commodity value has to be the same as nominal value. Which is obvious, because otherwise it'd be representational currency.
    [*]Representational currency backed by a government must be either minted or otherwise produced, or very hard to come by.
    Yep. Forgery has to be hard enough to occur only in numbers that don't endanger the currency as a whole.
    [*]All citizens must accept representational money backed by a government, or it's non-spendable.
    Nope. Especially in societies without a high mobility there's no need for a currency to be widely accepted. Simple examples are feudal village communities which pretty much don't use money. As long as it's being used by enough people to stay in circulation, a currency works.
    [*]If you use a precious metal, the value of coinage must match the value of its actual weight.
    It works as long as the nominal value is as high or higher than the commodity value. If the commodity value is higher, people will obviously stop using the currency. If the nominal value is higher, it works fine. This was actually the case very often, and the right to create coins from metal would be granted by kings as it was very profitable.

    In addition, with the weight-value thing, I'd still have to work out how many, say, silver pieces a cow was worth. As for change - the brass/nickel/cheapest coin would be a basic change coin, as well as paying for the staples in life like bread or eggs.
    One thing to figure out first is the shape of your society. In a basically feudal society, there's not much need for money among the vast majority of the population. What really creates a need for money isn't so much trade, as specialisation. In medieval times, people were generally self-sufficient, at least within their community. Noone left the village and with a completely immobile society there is no need for transportable value. And trades within a village didn't need money. Cities changed that, since craftsmen needed a way to exchange their goods for whatever goods they needed.
    Hey, how much do you think an ale would cost?
    Well, figure out what the worth of precious metals in your world is, and work back from there. I.e. how much work does an average craftsman need to do to get x coin.
    Keep in mind that medieval style (and renaissance style) societies are extremely stratified. A normal worker would never see a coin of the highest denomination in his whole life, while that'd be chump change for an aristocrat. I.o.w. human labour is extremely cheap. Consider how many servants and other employees the average aristocrat can afford. That gives you some idea as to the money they earn.

    On another note, for a very long time lead was used for water pipes, not copper. Since noone knew it wasn't quite that healthy.
 

Giovanni_Spada

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If you want to keep things simple, you could always steal the old Dungeons and Dragons currency system:

1 platinum piece = 10 gold pieces = 100 silver pieces = 1000 copper pieces


If you want to do something a little more complex, here is a fantastic article on the cost of living in 17th century Rome:

http://www.yongchen.com/news52.htm


Seventeenth century Rome is a lot more economically developed than your world seems to be, but it should at least give you some ideas about how much basic items cost using a currency system based on actual gold and silver coins.
 

Sarah W

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One of my current WIPs is set in a time and place not dissimilar to Moorish Spain--if Moorish Spain had magic and a sudden influx of American immigrants.

Barter for the poor, writs backed up by the guild system, and some coins of precious metals starting to trickle down, though they're weighed, rather than trusted.

Someone is counterfeiting gold coins (American ingenuity at work) and is disguising them through glamour, or I wouldn't have bothered with specifics.
 

Lhun

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If you want to keep things simple, you could always steal the old Dungeons and Dragons currency system:

1 platinum piece = 10 gold pieces = 100 silver pieces = 1000 copper pieces
While simple, it's also pretty unrealistic. Especially platinum is difficult to produce with medieval technology.
A pretty common, and easy, method of producing coins of different commodity value is to simply use gold alloys with different gold contents. That way, the value of the money is still based on gold (or silver, or whatever) but it's easy to produce coins of widely different value and still similar size. Cause grain-sized coins are annoying. ;)
While a system like the D&D system can make the currency really strange, taking real world prices as an example, for one platinum coin to be worth as much as one hundred silver coins, it'd have to be just half the weight, which makes it one fourth the size, while copper coins would be more than ten times the size of platinum coins. And gold really screws with coin sizing because a gold piece would be around one tenth the size of a platinum piece.
Much easier to have different gold concentrations in different coins. ;)
 
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Tanydwr

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On another note, for a very long time lead was used for water pipes, not copper. Since noone knew it wasn't quite that healthy.

I have a good answer for that - not a lot of lead. Copper's a better choice. :) Lead's used in stuff like pewter and rarely on its own.

Thank you for the post, though. You've given me a few things to think about.

My issue with requiring a currency system is because my travellers worry about money. If I can work out a system, I can work out how much money they might have started with - or, alternatively, what they were carrying that might have been worth money (i.e. jewellery) and how much money it might have been worth.

I suspect a silver coin as my primary coin would be the best option, since gold would be reserved for truly valuable items.

In terms of work, I would expect it to pay for that day's food and shelter (comparatively speaking - if they own their own home, it would pay for firewood, etc.). As for servants, most aristocrats already housed and fed their servants so they could use that as an excuse to pay them less.

For craftsmen... standard work like making nails or buttons or hinges or wheels - practical, everyday stuff - would probably make up their basic income. They would charge more for items like decorative cradles or plates, and more for weapons and such, although every man has a right to carry weapons and most know how to use a sword.

Songs and news are also worth money - this works in Crisiant's favour since she's from our world and therefore has songs and stories no one has ever heard before. A bard would be willing to pay the most for these, to extend his repertoire, but I imagine some villages would too, right? Or give a night's bed and board in exchange for new songs?

Ugh, I hate working out stuff like this. I'm great with timelines, but there's a reason I didn't take Maths past GCSE... (Okay, I got an A - because I was a swot - but English Lit and History were *so* much more interesting... *sighs*)

Sarpedon, it was indeed twelve pence to a shilling, and I suppose if I used a system inspired by the imperial system at least I'd be able to dig up some old charts regarding how much bread/cheese/beef cost - if I hadn't shredded all my old history notes due to lack of space. Bother.

IdiotsRUs, my concern with creating a believable currency is three-fold:

a) there are four novels written covering this exact time-period, each in a different area of the country - the rest of the girls are fairly static and spend most of their time in the same place; only the one journeys. Thus I need a coherent system that matches the rest of the novels.

b) I want a system in place if I continue to write novels in this universe.

c) I am just that pedantic.

On the other hand, I suspect the rewrite will be a touch less precise, because I suspect I will need to reduce my word-count. I'm already at nearly 95 000 words and I have between five and ten chapters to go, all at between 2500 and 4000 words long. It's more about having that background there so I can use it when necessary - which, ironically, will probably result in said changes to the minor aspects of the story.

Or would it be easier if I just had the prince or king have a few expensive pieces of jewellery that they sell when they pass through big cities and therefore give themselves plenty of money, while additional work is taken more for insurance than necessity? I prefer them struggling, but it would certainly work, and Crisiant (female protagonist) is definitely practical enough to suggest it...

Anyway, I'm still open to links and suggestions.
 

DeleyanLee

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While simple, it's also pretty unrealistic. Especially platinum is difficult to produce with medieval technology.

And what if your Fantasy novel doesn't have the default medieval technology? None of mine do.
 

Judg

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In your kind of setting, value would not be dictated by anybody. The coins would have an inherent worth, and the market would set prices. A truly national currency is a pretty recent phenomenon. Through much of history, you could use any currency that the seller would accept. In frontier areas, like the Americas, you could have any number of currencies making the rounds. In fact, our habit of calling a quarter "two bits" comes from the Spanish pieces of eight. The term dollar ultimately hails from the German "thaler" (from the valley) because there was a famous mine set in a valley (whose name escapes my memory at the moment). This gives you a small idea of how international these things could be. I just watched the Bourne movies again the other day and the Russian cabbies were asking if they'd be paid in rubles or dollars.

So forget the idea of a centrally imposed currency with a centrally decreed value. That is totally unrealistic even in today's world, let alone in a world where the government had less practical control. A widely used national currency, on the other hand, is quite believable.

If you're ever in Ottawa, we've got a currency museum here. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Having blathered all that, I really doubt it's important enough to your story to spend much time on. Give your currency a name, decide on its rough value, and don't make too much of a fuss about it in your story, unless it has some direct impact on your plot. I've written a book and a half without even stopping to wonder about my country's currency. I mentioned gold coins at one point, and that was as specific as I got. It just doesn't matter.
 

MGraybosch

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In your kind of setting, value would not be dictated by anybody. The coins would have an inherent worth, and the market would set prices.

Wouldn't the coins be of a standard weight (or as close to standard as practicable given available technology)? If so, then the easiest way to debase the currency would be to file 'em a bit after they've been minted, or alloy the precious metal with a base metal.

These days, American coins are mostly zinc, with a coating of copper, silver, or nickel. I doubt that even the gold dollar coin is pure gold.
 

Salis

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I agree. One of the recent books I've read, Name of the Wind, had ALOT dedicated to currency and money talk in general. It sort of worked, because MC was always on the edge with finances for school, home, etc, so this was obviously a big issue for him. Other than that... why bother?

Because it's fascinating.

It also says things about the settings. Coins (or actual value currency) set a certain atmosphere. For some people, that might be archaic (witness how "homey" it feels to pay for a whole meal in Britain with a single coin). Things arise out of the type of currency: if they are actual value coins, you can have criminal operations that work by shaving coins even further (but minutely enough to avoid detection). Try that with a dollar bill.

I suppose the more similar to our own norm the economy is, the less you need to mention it, although even then it can be a tool to provide familiarity.
 

MGraybosch

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Other than that... why bother?

For my part, I try to work stuff like this out for my own reference even if I don't show it in the story. I may need the information later, and would rather pull it from my notes than from my ass. I'd like to avoid being compared with Dan Brown or accused of not doing the research.
 

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The gold dollar coin is most certainly not gold. With gold trading at 1500 dollars an ounce, a dollar gold coin would be very, very small.

Even the nickel isn't nickel anymore.

and of course merchants would have scales so they could verify coins weren't clipped, though that would only be useful for larger transactions.