Hordes of Hoards

The other day, Joe the Lawyer went off on Dwimmermount in particular (and probably mega-dungeoneering in general) in a humorous and scathing fashion. One of the targets of his ire was the pile of ‘exactly 2,000 copper pieces’ found in a rats nest. How did these rats come to possess such an exact number of coins? Not 1999 coppers, not 2001 coppers but exactly 2,000 coppers? What are the odds?

Back in the day, when megadungeons were not yet considered something ‘nostalgic,’ most treasure hordes were generated randomly.  Sometimes the book would tell you that each bandit might have 1-8 silver pieces (so if you slaughtered or robbed 5 bandits, you could expect to gather 5-40 silver for your trouble). But in many cases, you were given a treasure type that may or may not have involved , for example, a 50% chance of 1,000-10,000 copper, a 25% chance of 1,000-8,000 silver, a 10% chance of 1,000 to 4,000 gold and a 25% chance of 3 miscellaneous magic items + 1 scroll. Of course, rolling up the treasure the way Gygax (or Dr. Eric J. Holmes) told you to meant you ended up with huge numbers, usually multiples of 100 or 1000, of the same type of coin. Obviously unrealistic. AFAIK, in medieval and ancient times there were no places where a ‘single standard currency’ was in use (assuming what I have read on the subject is true).  Roman and Greek coins continued to be used by all nations long after the Romans and Greeks had fallen from power. Merchants used scales to count coins; since they were handling so many different denominations, you didn’t want to convert cistercii and drachmas and silver marks and god knows what else into a single value, you would have just thrown a bunch of silver coins on the scale and made a judgement as to how much was ‘enough’ by the weight. So, if ancient times are our model, a pile of 764 copper pieces, 357 silver pieces and 35 gold pieces (plus the odd pair of elven boots or whatnot) is still unrealistic because it assumes that all the coins of a given metal are all the same value (as well as the same size and weight).

Where can our pursuit of greater realism in treasure hordes end? I see several options. Option 1 is to make hoards more complicated, with coins of different nations, weights, etc., and then extrapolating some ‘central universal value’ from that. Option 2 is to stick with the copper pieces, silver pieces, gold pieces, etc., and avoid big, fat, round & exact numbers (the players don’t find a heap of 2,000 copper pieces, perhaps they find a mix of different coppers, silver and gold that add up to somewhere around 2,000 copper pieces in value) or option 3: “You find 2,000 copper coins.” Call me crazy, but when I look at the options, number 3 doesn’t seem to bad anymore.

In addition, in all the games I have been involved in, I don’t remember players taking the time to say they counted the coins. We have made jokes about how we could glance at a chest and see that there were 4,000 gold coins in it even though I have no idea how many pennies are in the change jar on my dresser that I walk past at least twice a day, but that was always just a part of the fun.  If one needs to rationalize, maybe the “2,000 cps” is just a simplified value for the hoard to make book keeping easier.

If I remember right, back in the day, no self-respecting dungeoneer bothered to pick up copper coins anyway. The weight-to-value ratio meant picking up used orc spears and goblin daggers was usually more profitable than picking up copper coins.  By the time we had a level or two under our belts, we weren’t bothering with silver coins any more either.  We left the silver and copper for the linkboys and henchmen to squabble over and went straight for the magic items first, the gems and jewelry next, the platinum third and the gold last.  The rest of the coins were worth less than the iron rations the adventurer would have to throw away in order to fit them in his backpack.

6 Comments on “Hordes of Hoards”

  1. Malcadon says:

    Yeah, so true with the dead-weight called copper pieces. The only benefit I can see with taking just the copper, is to avoid the hyper-inflation that comes with a huge influx of gold and silver into the local economy. Of course, games like this play by their own logic, so it would be best to take the high-value swag, as the cost of goods are always high by default. And somehow, merchants always have enough coins lying around to buy up all your gems and jewelry.

    As for the exacting number of coins found, I usually write that off as abstraction. You would tell the players that their PCs found a pouch of 50 gp, but when the PCs actually count the cash, they would a mix of coin types. You might find some silver and electrum coins, but you might find gold doubloons (2gp each), platinum coins, aluminum coins (both 5 gp each), and even gold plates (5+ gp) along with it. It all balances out! As for a bag of copper, you'll typically find stuff worth much less then a copper coins (brass, bronze, tin and such), with some good stuff (gold, silver, and the like). But all this abstraction is to cut-down on needless paperwork.

    If a player gets whinny about finding *exactly* 2,000 coppers, just tell him “More or less. Its a mixed-bag of coin types, and that is the general value by weight. Do you really what to bean-count this shit, or do you what to keep playing?” That's how I role!

  2. Stephan Poag says:

    Malcadon saidIf a player gets whinny about finding *exactly* 2,000 coppers, just tell him “More or less…”
    Yeah. And if that doesn't satisfy them, start giving odd numbers (generated downwards) in the name of realish (so, instead of 2000 cps, give them 1237 cps, 135 sps, 2 gps, a brass button, 2 glass beads, a worthless necklace made of goblin teeth and some lint) AND, since they want realism, make them calculate the exact weight of everything. If they burn a torch, recalculate encumberance. They pick up a rusty iron spike: recalculate encumberance (and list exactly where they are keeping that spike… if they say they put it in their backpack, make them roll to see if the spike pokes a hole into the waterskin they also have in their backpack, etc. Fight an insistance on extraordinary levels of book-keeping and what not with retaliatory demands for perfectly detailed character sheets with encumberance audits every half hour.

  3. Stephan Poag says:

    add: I remember jokes at the game table about the big numbers easily divisible by 10 that all coins were often found in during adventures — but we were always just riffing on the funny things in D&D (like “If there is an owl-bear, is there also a bear owl?” and “Could you make a dungeon hallway 'gelatinous cube proof' by building it 9 feet wide?” and similar).
    These jokes were (and remain) part of the fun. We joke because we love the game, warts and all.
    I can't say if Joe-the-Lawyer was serious in the 2000 cp thing; I think he was just riffing at that point, but maybe I'm just inserting myself into the situation. Plus, there are also things that can break the sense of suspended belief, and they can vary for person to person. Some people could think, “Fire breathing dragons and elves; fine — 2000 coppers in a rats nest? WTF?”

  4. And they killed the rats that shit copper. Those're pretty rare, you know. A real shame.

    One of the things I've decided to houserule, from the start, is dropping down to a silver standard. I'm using Delta's rules, slightly modified, and eliminating electrum from the list of metals. However, I can see your point. It may be that the electrum is there, but treated as roughly equivalent to silver or gold, and called either one of those, but not by its proper name. After all, coins are, in themselves, an abstraction of value. Fantasy coins are abstracted value, abstracted once more, and possibly (in the sense of abstract art) there are some elements of impressionism needed to make it playable. After all, this is Dungeons and Dragons (or whatever you're rolling), not Accountants and Ledgers.

  5. Stephan Poag says:

    I remember being really dissapointed when I found out that electrum was worth less than gold. “How can that be?” my 13 year old self probably whined. “Electrum must be rarer than gold because I've never heard of it!”

  6. Malcadon says:

    Making silver the standard, and setting the coins into three types (cp, sp and gp) could help adjust the local market. That is, spending a lot of silver would mean that prices of goods and services remain the same (if inflated), as seen in the rulebooks. If the party spends a lot of copper, then prices will lower greatly to more 'normal' levels, but it would be harder to find or keep henchmen, and copper would also loose value. The only benefit to this would be to keep a low profile, or they want to save the best stuff for later. If the party spends a lot of gold, then prices will rise greatly, but henchmen will swarm them for work, and their moral will suffer if they are forced to go to silver – more so with copper – as they would become spoiled to all that sweet, sweet swag!

    Naturally, establishing silver as standard will move all the names a grade up, but what was cp is ether removed or renamed to something more fitting, like “worthless deadweight pieces of shit” or wdps.

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