was gary right about gold coin weight?

In Gary Gygax D&D, coins weigh 1/10 of a pound. In WOTC D&D, coins weigh the more historically plausible 1/50 of a pound. Gary’s giant coins have been widely mocked as absurd dinner-plate coins. Imagine a pound of gold only being worth 10 GP! Imagine how big that coin must be!

But hold on. Let’s put aside copper and silver and concentrate on gold. Gold is heavy. Exactly how big would a 1/10-pound gold coin be?

Let’s take the largest widely-used American coin: the silver dollar. The Eisenhower dollar (which is copper/nickel) and its silver predecessors (like the Morgan dollar, which is 90% silver) are one and a half inches in diameter. The Morgan dollar weighed .058 of a pound. Gold is 1.84x as dense as silver. Multiply gold’s density by the silver coin’s weight and you get: 106/1000. In other words, a gold coin the size of an Eisenhower dollar would weigh a tenth of a pound – a little more even.

The silver dollar is a big coin, but it’s not dinner-plate-sized by any means. It fits in your pocket. It was legal tender and it was reasonably common. Even if it weighed twice as much as it did, it would still not have yanked your pants down by their pockets.

If you want to get a sense of how big a silver dollar, and thus a 1/10# D&D gold coin is, look at a poker chip. That’s about one and a half inches in diameter.

OK, all very well and good, but historical gold coins do weigh much less than a tenth of a pound. They tend to be thin little slivers, more like a US penny. Shouldn’t we match historical reality, in which gold coins tended to be about 1/50 of a pound?

holmes_basic_boxI say we should not. D&D economy really doesn’t line up with Earth history to begin with. For one thing, prices are about 10x too high. For another thing, every dragon is sleeping on a bed of gold, even though on Earth, the total gold mined before 1950 would fit in one Olympic swimming pool. Gold is clearly much more common in D&D than on it was in medieval Earth.

Accept that premise and a lot of problems go away. You don’t need to go to a silver standard to match Earth historical prices. Just accept that a pound of gold buys you a longsword; laborers earn a gold piece a day instead of a silver groat; even in a back country tavern, you don’t cause a riot by flashing gold; and for larger transactions, higher currency must be used, like platinum and gems. None of this is absurd. It’s only fantastical. It assumes that, for whatever reason, D&D worlds ended up with heavier elements than did Earth. In such a world, gold coins would be large and heavy, just as silver coins were large and heavy at the time of the Morgan silver dollar.

Of course, my weight calculations only hold true for gold and platinum. Silver coins of 1/10 pound would be bigger than an inch and a half, and copper coins would be bigger still. But that doesn’t really matter. Silver as a currency disappears from D&D at character level 2, and even first level parties disdain hoards of copper coins. It’s not worth the rules weight to assign them specific lighter weights. Just say that coins are 1/10 pounds and all your calculations will be easy.

17 Responses to “was gary right about gold coin weight?”

  1. Rhenium says:

    Quick question.

    I know you’ve tackled the economics of D&D previously, but what basis do we have that the prices are ten times too high for common items? I would be interested in comparing it with the various prices for services for the first Ed. DMG.

    I mean does anyone hire limners anymore? :)

  2. Sean Holland says:

    Go with what works for you. Personally, I find tenth of a pound coins and gold based economies silly, so I do not use them, but I can see your line of reasoning here.

  3. Using weights for gold tends to bog down gameplay and add another element that Players need to keep track of to make sure they don’t go over their weight limit and take those annoying penalties. Sometimes it’s more about then fun than the mechanics, and what isn’t fun about a party of adventures hauling around golden dinner plates for currency?

  4. paul paul says:

    Here’s one price list: http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html

    The medieval british “pound” was literally a pound of silver, and there were 20 shillings to a pound, so a shilling coin would be 1/20th of a pound (and in would thus be the same size as an American silver dollar). According to the price list above, a warhorse cost 50 shillings, a man at arms earned one shilling a day, etc. Prices are way low by D&D standards.

  5. Felipe says:

    Although worrying about the weight of gold seems to detract from casual play, I feel like it actually complements the game well because D&D can also be about the challenges of navigating the game world.

    “Dang, we needed to have brought a wagon. And horses. Maybe we can use magic here.”

    I’ve even marked gold coins with seal of certain powerful figures making it quite clear that as far as the law is concerned, the party is not authorized to have it or use it. Plundering stolen gold also means using it in places not necessarily of high esteem.

  6. 1d30 says:

    I’ve used 1000 coins per stone (70ish per pound), 10 per pound, 25 per pound, and I like them all for different reasons. If you want to care at all about encumbrance logistics, use heavier coins.

    Comparisons to reality are pointless when I’d rather play a game that’s fun and 70% historically accurate than one that’s a big lame headache but 90% historically accurate. Two main ideas that I believe flow into that: (1) bigger treasure is more fun than smaller treasure but is less realistic, and (2) internal consistency is more important than historical accuracy for a game.

    But these are values I care about in a game – other people may care a lot more about historical accuracy and find a game lacking it annoying and pointless. Or they might feel the effort of maximizing accuracy isn’t that much work.

  7. BPRoberts says:

    I rarely see PCs running around with enough gold that it’s a big issue. If they’ve got enough gp that it’s weighing them down, they should either be storing it somewhere (vault in their holdings, bank, etc.) or converting it to a lighter currency (pp, precious stones, etc.) Why would a band of adventures carry around 20 pounds of loose coinage?

  8. Dale says:

    I do not use the weight system at all right now. I do however remind my players that weight matters and bulk is a problem for other items. For example 100 coins wold not be that biga deal but carrying 3 sets of armor is going to slow you down. I try to keep the game as simple on math as I can so as to not bog down game play.

  9. Elthbert says:

    I have been running the game with a silver standard for years. However I am starting a new campaign, on a new world and decided a few weeks ago to go with the gold standard. The major motivation being it saves me work. I have not decided about how big they are going to be. I have been using coins the since of s done, or about 240 to the lb. A silver penny being the basis of the economy. . This system had advantages, not the least odd which is that silver is always valued and huge amounts of wealth are not that heavy. Still there is something to be serous for a world that just has a lot more gold.

  10. Rick says:

    sigh, Internetitis hits me. I need to correct things on the internet.

    the average gold coin is smaller than a quarter. not a ike, for sure

    the shilling, schilling, mark, franc and ruble (silver) were all about, give or take, the size of an American quarter. The US, for lack of trying, was on a silver standard, the rest on a gold standard, but traded heavily with the US.

    And who told you the total gold mined before 1950 was the size of an Olympic swimming pool? that seems small by a factor of 3-5/

    Rick

  11. Rhenium says:

    Rick @ 8:45 pm.

    Here one article. Estimates vary sure, but not by an order of magnitude.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21969100

  12. 1d30 says:

    Yes but what about the giant nugget of gold at the center of the earth?

  13. Rick says:

    @rhenium

    Well, “Fits into an Olympic sized pool” and a “Cube” are different things.

    Remember than the entire British Empire (functionally excluding India, which then and now seems to prefer silver for money) was on the gold standard, and all transatlantic trade was settled in gold until the ’30s. and all at a value of 20.77 per ounce. How would they handle this if there was so little gold?

    Rick

    p.s Nice link, this info is not very clear.

  14. Rick says:

    I am going to add some more…

    10 coins per lb means that each coin is bigger than an ounce (14.5 per lb). Until 1999, I had never seen a SILVER coin bigger than 1 oz, let alone gold.

    on a similar note, anyone else just blown away by Unearthed Arcana when it came out, and had PRICES for magic items? Blew my mind, nothing I had seen or played up till then had anything of the sort. so lets pick one:

    Staff of power – 60,000gp

    60,000 gp means 6000lbs, or 3 tons, which is more gold than my home country of Canada had in the bank BEFORE we sold half of it to pay for something or other. But Canada is hardly alone, in fact, it is middle of the pack. A top 40 list is here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_reserve

    now, that is in tons, but you can do the math.

    How would you possibly sell a permanent magical item? let alone stock a bunch of them?

    I went through something similar recently in a pathfinder game, I wanted to start on a keep, and wanted to know how much they would cost to get moving…my dm suggested 70k gp per ACRE of land, and when I balked, suggested I look at my gear, as I was wandering around with 10k or so in magical items, etc.

    Methinks gold is not getting the respect here it deserves….

    Rick

  15. Thejayde says:

    A benefit of moving to the silver standard isn’t just weight, or historical means. It’s also to save the copper piece and silver piece from obscurity. Yeah, It’s important upon character creation, but after that… need to bribe the bartender? Gold piece. Need to buy a room for the evening that costs seven silver? Gold piece, keep the change. Need to buy a beer for one silver? Gold piece.

    Silver in its current iteration is simply too little value

  16. Merc says:

    You answered your own economics question with your supply and demand. You said all the mined gold before 1950 would fit in an Olympic pool, where in D&D almost every dragon has one.

    Hence the supply is way more than one Olympic pool in D&D. If anything the prices might be too low, save for the scarcity of items due to there being no industrial production. I think Mr. Gygax got it right, and the WotC team has generally kept faith with the economy, and improved it by making platinum and electrum pieces oddities like the US 2 dollar bill.

  17. Charles says:

    The reference to the heavy American coin is interesting. It may well be where Gary got the weight. From a history of the game perspective, it’s insightful.

    But you’ve cherry-picked one of the largest, heaviest coins ever circulated as the model for all coins.

    Silver and gold coins, historically, are typically between 3-10 grams, or about .0066-.02 lb. Not .1lb.

    Modern coins are similar. I can tell you, the toonie (Canada’s largest coin common coin) is ~7g, and it’s a kind of annoying coin. It’s too big. A coin almost seven times the size would be laughable as a common circulation piece.

    Let’s all just admit that Gary messed this one up.

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