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D&D and many similar fantasy settings use a (perhaps unrealistically) simple system of currency consisting of silver and gold pieces. (These are, of course, roughly analogous to pence and shillings.) I was thinking of spicing this up a bit with additional items of currency. One idea I had was a medium sized gemstone perhaps acting as an intermediate between silver and gold. Does anybody know of a material that could perhaps fill this role? Otherwise, I would love to know about any other items (valuable or practical) that you think could represent larger or smaller denominations.

(Also I should add: please give me what their approximate values would likely be, if you can.)

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    $\begingroup$ You could extend the range of currency by adding 3 units copper silver gold coind with 100 copper = 1 silver and 100 silver = 1 gold. That way an infantry mans pay might be 1 silver per month leaving bread, meat, beer, lodgings all priced in coppers. Silver for major items and officers pay and gold for the affairs of state in building ships and army's $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 28 '19 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ In my days, we traded goods for pieces of animal hides with the King's stamp on it. Now we can only exchange blows... sad. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Nov 28 '19 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ Other common metals used in currency include electrum, bronze, tin and platinum. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 28 '19 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ See Fritz Leiber's world of Nehwon for a world using a wide range of coins and gems as currency. The Mouser keeps one of the least valuable coins, sharpened, for emergencies. $\endgroup$ – Adam Eberbach Nov 28 '19 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ Gemstones won't work all that well for currency. The think about metal coins is that they can be stamped into pieces of uniform weight & purity, whereas every gemstone is unique. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 29 '19 at 2:44

14 Answers 14

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Modern coins and paper bills are a promise that they can be exchanged for something of value. The fancy material and engraving prevent people from simply creating more of these promises.

Ancient coins are items of value themselves. They are stamped to reassure the users that the shape has not been "shaved" and that the material is not diluted.

Gold and silver were (and are) seen as valuable because they are an useful metal. You can make rings out of it, goblets, spoons. It does not tarnish as much as iron or copper and it looks better. A gem looks fancy, but it can't be re-shaped that way. Each gemstone is unique, possibly with flaws, and must be valued individually.

So what can be done?

  • Copper, of course, with copper being less valuable than silver.
  • Coffee beans of roughly uniform size and quality. They won't last forever, of course. (The difference to gems is the average size and quality.)
  • Black pepper corns, with the same limitations.
  • With magical/alchemist metallurgy, how about aluminium?
  • "Cold iron" or meteorite iron, if that differs from ordinary iron in the setting. Forgery would be a big issue, of course.
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    $\begingroup$ Another benefit of metal is that you can divide it by cutting if you need a smaller denomination. Doing so with gemstones would be disruptive to their value, to say the least. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 28 '19 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Coffee beans" IIRC, Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency. If you were rich, you could even use them to make a drink out out of them. Although, it's not the hot chocolate you'd think of today - it was not as sweet, so something a little more like coffee. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Nov 28 '19 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on your setting, gems may be of value. The question mentions D&D - in D&D, various gemstones are required to cast certain spells. In some cases, the spell requires gemstone dust, so crushing a gemstone to dust would provide a way to divide it into smaller denominations without ruining its value. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Nov 28 '19 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Modern coins and paper bills — not just modern, but all currency is and was that. They used gold/silver because it was rare and relatively easily recognizable, thus preventing people from creating more currency from the thin air. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Nov 29 '19 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ @anaximander: Gems certainly are valuable, but they aren't currency. Like silks, spices, coffee beans, and whatnot, they're trade goods. You'll have to find a merchant who wants gems or whatever, then haggle over the price. The idea of currency is that it's standardized, so anyone would be willing to accept it without haggling, and without considering whether they actually need that particular good. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 1 '19 at 18:26
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Salt

enter image description here It is commonly believed the Roman soldiers were paid in salt, although this belief has met some recent challenges. Per the same second link, quoting Marcus Livius in 204 BC, the typical price of a pound of salt is $1 \over 6$ pieces of copper. Through the middle ages, a single piece of copper was equal to roughly a day's wages for most unskilled and semi-skilled labor (peasants, foot soldiers, through lower-tier house servants). Although, precise conversions are disputed, with the some sources inflating the daily wage to as much as a shilling (roughly equal piece of silver = 12 copper pennies)

One measuring cup full of salt is about 0.6 pounds, so 6 pounds of sale paid this way for wages would be 10 cups of salt (a little over $1 \over 2$ gallon), per day.

MaterialValue     Weight    Volume                         
Salt      1 copper6 pounds10 cups (medium bag)

Obsidian

enter image description here

No one disputes that the Aztecs built their economy on obsidian, owing to great natural reserves of beautiful green obsidian in the Yucatan peninsula. Obsidian is hard, can be made sharp, very useful for tools or all kinds, and can be very pleasant to look at. But the Aztecs actually used several currencies including metal, cloth and cocoa beans.

Using the Medieval Price List's (MPL) price for an axe is 5 shillings. A typical axe head is 3-and-a-half pounds. If we assume the axe can't cost more than the raw materials it's composed of, we can calculate an upper-limit value obsidian is worth about $7 \over 10$ths of a shilling per pound. Obsidian is 50 pounds per gallon dense. So, a typical daily wage of 1 shilling, per the MPL - paid in obsidian - would be: 1 pound of obsidian, taking a volume of about $1 \over 3$rd a dry cup.

Whether that daily wags is 1 silver/shilling, or 1 penny/copper, depends on your personal choice of inflation between the Medieval Prices and Wages (MPW) (which seems to be 1 silver/shilling MPL = 1 penny/copper MPW)

Material Value          Weight    Volume                         
Salt        1 copper    6 pounds10 cups (medium bag)
Obsidian$7 \over 10$ copper 1 pound  $1 \over 3$ cups (small bag)    

Cinnibar (Mercury Sulfate)

enter image description here Moving past the more pedestrian materials, into luxuries, is mercury fulminate. Also known as Cinnibar. It has value to high-end professions such as alchemists, healers, scribes, dying, and manufacturing.

The price for cinnibar was limited by Roman law to 70 sesterces per pound. Two and a half sesterces was the typical Roman daily wage, so we can quickly calculate the value of Cinnibar as 27 copper, according to Medieval Prices and Wages (MPW)

Material Value                            Weight    Volume                         
Salt        1 copper                      6 pounds10 cups (medium bag)
Obsidian$7 \over 10$ copper                   1 pound  $1 \over 3$ cups (small bag)    
Cinnibar 2$7 \over 10$ silver (27 copper) 1 pound  2 tablespoons ($1 \over 8$ cups)

Roman Vitriol (Copper II Sulfate)

enter image description here

Blue vitriol / Roman vitriol / Copper Sulfate has much the same high-tier uses as cinnabar in medicine, dyes, and other high-end items. I can't find medieval prices for the stuff, but the current price for copper sulfate online is about triple cinnabar. That would calculate to about 115 silver, or about 1 gold.

Material Value                            Weight    Volume                         
Salt        1 copper                      6 pounds10 cups (medium bag)
Obsidian$7 \over 10$ copper                   1 pound  $1 \over 3$ cups (small bag)    
Cinnibar 3$1 \over 2$ silver (35 copper) 1 pound  2 tablespoons ($1 \over 8$ cups)
Blue Vitriol1 gold (115 copper) 1 pound  4 tablespoons ($1 \over 2$ cups)

Jade

enter image description here Jade has a hardness between 6 and 7, rivalled only by flint for hardness. But jade is much more beautiful. It is useful industrially for carving hard rock, or any other application where hardness is appropriate. Also, its delicate appearance - in seeming contrast to its great strength - lend to belief jade possessing divine abilities. Medieval prices for jade are also hard to come by, so I'm measuring the price of jade by it's modern comparison to cinnabar. In this case, pedestrian-grade jade comes in at about 16x modern cinnabar, which is our medieval point of comparison. It should be noted that gemstone grades of all of the above are worth a lot more.

Material Value                                     Weight    Volume                         
Salt        1 copper                               6 pounds10 cups (medium bag)
Obsidian$7 \over 10$ copper                            1 pound  $1 \over 3$ cups (small bag)    
Cinnibar 3$1 \over 2$ silver (35 copper)          1 pound  2 tablespoons ($1 \over 8$ cups)
Blue Vitriol1 gold (115 copper)          1 pound  4 tablespoons ($1 \over 2$ cups)
Jade        0.5 platinum (560 copper) 1 ounce  1 teaspoon                  

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    $\begingroup$ Cinnabar isn't mercury fulminate, it's mercury sulfide. Mercury fulminate is an opaque white powder that is insanely explosive (it's one of the traditional primer compounds for cased ammunition). The rest of what you have is accurate though, however it might be worth mentioning that the reason it was valuable is because it can be easily used to produce elemental mercury (heat it and it decomposes into mercury and sulfur). $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Nov 28 '19 at 21:05
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I corrected the page. $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Nov 29 '19 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ Those minerals are valuable but not good for currency, they vary widely in quality are bulky, are often mixed with other minerals, and in the case of cinnabar is toxic when handled. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 29 '19 at 13:20
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What currency is and how it is different from other tradeable goods

Currency is a form of money. Money in the form of currency is represented by small lightweight standardized and durable pieces having uniform value. The advantage of using money in the form of currency is that the pieces are:

  1. Uniform.

    The uniformity of currency pieces allows for the value to be computed by the simple operation of counting, without the need of time-consuming weighing and expensive assaying.

  2. Small and portable.

    Currency pieces are small and portable, so that value can be transported relatively easily, and can be forwarded efficiently in economic transaction.

  3. Durability.

    Currency pieces serve as a store of value. It is important that they perform this function well, and for this reason they must be durable.

Currency is of two kinds: currency with intrinsic value, where each piece of currency trades at (or very close to) the value of the material from which it is made; and fiat currency, where each piece of currency has an arbitrary value asd decreed by the sovereign who put it in circulation. Nowadays we use only fiat currency, which has proven to be superior to intrinsic value currency in just about any respect; but, for a long time, from the antiquity up to well into the modern period, intrinsic value currency predominated.

The materials used to make currency with intrinsic value were almost always metals, and specifically one of three metals: copper (and its alloy bronze), silver and gold. These metals have the advange of being valuable enough in their own right, and of being sufficiently durable. Some cultures experimented with iron (way too cheap, and it rusts), cocoa beans (a bad joke), cowry shells (too cheap, not durable, bad joke) and other such inappropriate materials.

Nobody has ever even tried to use expensive pearls or gems as currency. They cannot be made uniform (thus negating the principal advantage of currency), they are way too expensive (nobody is interested in a piece of currency worth 10,000 man-days of labor), and their value fluctuates wildly.

Just about every state ever has used a system of currency where all three metals were used, with currency pieces of various denominations being made by varying the amount of metal in each kind of piece, from a small copper piece, to a large copper piece, to a small silver piece, to a mid-size silver piece, to a large siver piece, to a gold piece. (No currency system ever had more than one or sometimes two kinds of gold pieces.)

Generally you start with a defined reference point, for example:

  • The Roman republic used a reference point of 84 denaries per Roman pound of silver, and the early Roman empire used the reference point of 96 denaries to the Roman pound of silver. (That is, a denary coin contained 1/84 or 1/96 pound of silver.)

  • The English for a long time used a reference point of 66 shillings per Troy pound of sterling silver (= 0.925 fine); the value of gold being fixed at £46 14s 6d for one Troy pound of 22 carat gold.

Then you figure out the ratio between the values of the three metals copper/bronze, silver, and gold. For example, modern British coinage used a ratio of 14 1/6 : 1 for the value of gold and silver; in ancient times, they tended to use a ratio of 12 : 1.

For a practical example, here is a splendid infographic showing the Roman coins in circulation during the 3rd century:

Roman coins in the 3rd century

Roman coins in the 3rd century. Available on Wikmedia under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version.

The infographic gives the sizes and weights of the coins. The as and dupondius (2 ases) were copper. The sestertius (4 ases) was bronze. The denarius was the main silver coin, and the most usual coin for mid-size transactions; it was worth about one man-day of unskilled work. The main gold coin was the aureus; due to the continuous debasement of the denarius during the century, its value rose from 24 denaries at the beginning of the century to 833 denaries at the end...

And this brings the topic of debasement. A sovereign could always recall metal coins and recast them with a lower content of precious metal; this provided a rather crude form of inflation...

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  • $\begingroup$ "experiment" is a bit of an understatement with cowry shells, they are the dominate form of currency in history. More common than gold or silver. the big advantage cowry shells had was they are impossible to counterfeit or debase. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 28 '19 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ @John: "Dominate form of currency in history:" Only if one subscribes to a post-modern definition of history. I am not very young, and for me history is by definition the period of time for which we have written records. Cowry shells were used either by pre-historic (or even a-historic) cultures, or else by advanced cultures who swindled the innocent natives. Anyway, they are but a footnote in any historical narrative following the main threads of human culture. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 28 '19 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Only if you consider the Indian, Arab, and Chinese peoples innocent natives. In India cowery were used into hte 1800's until the british conquest. Chinese use of the cowery was so prominent the word money in chinese is derived from the word for cowry and their currency prominently features cowery in its symbology, and this is not unique to China. Heck the cowery is still considered legal tender in two countries. You have a very eurocentric view of history. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 28 '19 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe it's the language barrier but I don't understand the distinction you make between money and currency. $\endgroup$ – guntbert Nov 28 '19 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @guntbert: Currency is one of the forms of money, specifically money represented by coins and banknotes. Think of you own money. How much of it is in the form of currency, and how much is in the form of an entry a bank account? In general, most money exists as written or electronic records in bank accounts or commercial accounts, or as various kind of securities (= "papers of value" in some languages), commercial credit and so on. In a modern country, the sum total of banknotes and coins would add up to maybe 5% of total amount of money; the rest is stored as records of some kind. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 28 '19 at 19:05
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Traditional Japanese currency was rice.

It stores well, it’s uniform size, and it’s directly proportional to the actual wealth: amount of land you hold and the number of people you can sustain.

Most farmers grew rice not to eat but to pay taxes. Instead they ate cheaper grains like millet. Eating rice was like eating money. Something for the rich to do.

Rice was packaged in a koku as one currency unit. The exact sizing of a koku isn’t known, and varied widely across time, maybe to reflect average yield of a standard rice paddy, or amount needed to sustain a certain number of people (nutritional value of the rice which changed due to natural circumstances). Tax brackets, social status, etc were measured in koku/year produced by your land.

I think this system is a logical and interesting (and fairly simple) way to do currency. It isn’t an arbitrary item traded for the sake of trading something. It reflects physical wealth/power, and is subject to natural inflation/deflation (drought, poor farmland, etc). It may not be as accessible to the common people, but they are likely to be bartering services anyway. That being said, everyone has the ability to literally farm money. It’s becomes very obvious how hard done the little people are when they grow a fraction of a currency unit every year on their patch of land, and then have to pay a lot of it in taxes.

It is also interesting that the mass production of rice for not eating led to different ways to use the rice sitting in a warehouse somewhere: rice wine, among others.

So if you have an agrarian society, rice or a similar staple that keeps well is a good idea. Little need for fancy conversion or metal cutouts.

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So you want a good way to divide a silver coin into small amounts ? divide the coin itself.

This idea is not mine, but is an historical exemple : Hacksilver.

Currency usually come from a high authority (the state, the church, the banks...), and while it can be made out of valuable metals, the value don't really come from the material itself, but from the trust to this authority. The best exemple are paper currency and even more scriptural currency.

The norse and germanic folks didn't use this concept, but only used the weight of silver object to trade. They didn't trade with silver coins, but with silver whateverYouWant.

Hey, you can even design the coin so that it can be easily cut in half or quarters!

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ coins only being worth their weight is actually fairly common. for a long time the stamp on the coin guaranteed purity not exact value. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 28 '19 at 18:52
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Tin

A large tin coin would be more valuable than a small silver coin. Tin is very valuable for making bronze and fairly rare. So it may be too valuable for use in coins.

Brass

Brass did not really exist in the ancient world but in fantasy world you could have brass, and brass is valuable and makes good coins.

Zinc

Zinc only shows up late in the medieval period, but a fantasy setting can have it much earlier, Zinc is used in modern coinage. Although it is such a pain in the @$$ to smelt I don't think you are going to see it being wasted on coinage prior to electricity.

Nickel

This was actually used in coins in antiquity, most often as a nickel copper alloy sometimes called white copper (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupronickel). It is still used in coins today. It is corrosion resistant and distinct in color (as long as the ratio of copper to nickel is similar) which makes it an excellent 4th coin. Pure nickel can also be used but you will need fantasy to justify it, not because it can't be smelted with medieval technology but just because without chemistry people did not realize it was not just a weird form of silver (even though there is no silver in it).

Shape.

But what most real civilizations did in this circumstance was come up with a different shaped coin made of more silver, usually scale or rectangular plate shaped coins. one option is to even make your gold coins segmented so they can be split into quarters easily. This is desirable even before the coin is standardized. this is even more common in bullion since it makes debasing the bullion harder (you can't just stick a bar of a different metal in the center). Of course this can start with people doing this themselves, hacking up coins into smaller denominations was surprisingly common.

enter image description here

Keep in mind in most real world historic coins did not have set values they were worth what they weighed, standardized coins are easy to debase and counterfeit.

Why not gemstones

gemstones are a bad idea, they vary greatly in value becasue they vary wildly in quality. worse they can be difficult to distinguish from one another, quartz and diamond look very similar one is incredibly valuable the other is worthless. this two very bad qualities in a currency. Worse gemstones also lose value as they break, If coin breaks you still have the same amount of gold if a gemstone breaks the pieces are worth less than the whole. If you have a few diamond in your pocket for a while they will damage each other, chips, scratches, ect which all make them loose value.

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If you look back at history and to why we started using gold, silver and other valuables as currency, is because they were rare, hard to get and therefore coveted.

In general, the reason we use metals instead of gemstones as currency is because we can melt the metals down and cast them into a consistent shape, so we know the value is also consistent. So, depending on if your story takes place in fantasy, you might want to create a special type of gemstone that naturally forms in the same consistent shape, but needs special conditions to form and is therefore hard to find. That would make it perfect for the role of currency.

If you're interested in more unconventional types of currency, you might want to look into the giant rock coins used on the island of Yap or maybe the more simple cowrie shells.

The reason fantasy settings like D&D use such a simple system, is to make it easy for readers or players to comprehend and use. They're not part of the story, they're merely a system designed for convenience. While most types of currency in our world evolved from trading goods. So you also really have to think about if you actually NEED a special type of currency. If your story or world goes really in-depth on trading, it might be really interesting to see an unconventional type of currency the characters need to deal with. Otherwise it's just better to keep it simple for the sake of usability.

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    $\begingroup$ Additionally, gemstones come in grades based off of clarity, shade, and the level of blemishes present. Metals sre much easier to gauge purity based simply off of alloy content. It takes a skilled eye to tell you just how much a diamond is worth, but basically anybody can learn how to tell you the value of gold or silver. $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 Nov 28 '19 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ "silver and other valuables as currency, is because they were rare, hard to get and therefore coveted" which led to an interesting situation when the colonisation of America began. It was Spain (I think) which had gained access to a lot more silver mines in the new world, so the influx of silver de-valued currency across Europe. Interestingly, it's one large factor of the Ottoman empire starting to have troubles - officials were paid the same amount but due to inflation, that wasn't worth the same, which led to more aggressive taxation and more corruption. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Nov 28 '19 at 8:42
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Glowstones.

The problem with gems is that they are not intrinsically useful. But a gem that emitted light would definitely be useful in a world otherwise lit only by fire. Cool, smokeless, permanent light is worth a lot. You could make these gems small, so you would need a fair number of them to equal a candle. But they are durable as well as useful, so could serve as money as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Like Brandon Sanderson does in his The Stormlight Archive $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Nov 28 '19 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Gems are far more common there, though. $\endgroup$ – Gloweye Nov 28 '19 at 14:57
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Pearls

In the real world, all but the smallest pearls are fairly expensive. A strand of Akoya ('standard') pearls can cost from USD 300 to more than USD 10,000, while other varieties may be more or less valuable.

Obviously, pearls come in different sizes, but if pearls are used as currency, scales can be used to determine value - which needs not be linear with weight. Rare-colored pearls will be worth more, and you may need to go to a broker to exchange them for more ordinary pearls.

It is worth noting that once upon a time, pearls were the most expensive jewelry in the world. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings. In your world, however, you can decide how rare they are in order to fulfil the required gap between silver and gold.

Electrum

Electrum or "green gold" is a naturally occuring alloy of gold and silver, and electrum coins with roughly equal parts silver and gold were used ancient Lydian coinage, and in fact, the first metal coins ever made were of electrum and date back to the end of the 7th century or the beginning of the 6th century BCE. A problem is that it is easy debase coins by adding more silver, which caused some trading problems, and eventually electrum was phased out in favor of pure silver and gold coins.

In your world, you can decide that natural electrum has a lower gold content - perhaps 20 or 25 percent - and that there are heavy fines for debasing electrum coins.

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Some inspiration...

After WW2, people in germany bought 'lucky strike' cigarettes with their silver, because they could trade cigarettes more easily against food.

Cigarettes were the best currency at the time, because they were all the same, came in packs, were inflating naturally, people were already adicted and you couldn't produce them yourself.

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In medieval times, not all places used minted coins for all transactions. Some still used trade and taxation in kind. This is to say barter and otherwise offering goods and products. So, somebody could go to the market and use grain or livestock to trade for other items, or products of these, such as bread or milk.

The same might be acceptable as taxation, although not everything produced would be worth it for the country. Usually, it's something like food, which would go towards feeding an army, or perhaps horses which would go towards the army, again. It would vary regionally as well as in time. For example, the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) did require a certain number of soldiers to be produced, per taxable area. Say, for a village/community this might be one soldier soldier including their equipment (armour, weapons, etc.). Just to demonstrate how messy this was, some elected to just pay the money equivalent to "one soldier", as they didn't want to send any sons to war. This would provide more tax revenue but less people for the army.

So, the point is that not everything was coins, nor does it need to be.

For a fantasy setting, you could have other goods that make sense in the setting. These could be universal, or regional depending on how you want to structure it. Here are some examples:

  • Some harder to obtain items could be roughly equivalent to herbs. Let's say "fairy dust" which is collected from flowers that fairies slept in. Let's also further say that said dust could be used for some universal purpose like curing (relatively) minor diseases on livestock and humans, or anything else that makes sense. You can then trade fairy dust instead of coins. Adventurers might be able to more readily acquire it through some means (e.g., they have more run-ins with fairies or their habitats), so you can position the rarity and value as you see fit - a small bag (assume, one that can hold 10 coins), might be more valuable than 10 silver coins but less valuable than 10 gold coins. Or you might prefer to make the commodity more readily available, to bring its value down to more than 10 copper coins but less than 10 silver coins. You can vary this according to your needs, of course.
  • You could have a regional commodity being used as currency. For example, there is a wizards' academy near this village(s), and wizards need spell ingredients. These would be item without much value to locals. Let's assume it's herbs not used in cooking or medicine - yet that do have value to the wizards that live nearby. So, therefore through proxy, the commodities have value to the community. If the university is reasonably far away (e.g., half a day to a day's journey) not everybody would be going there to sell what would otherwise be treated as weeds, however they can still trade it between themselves.

Alice might offer a bag of "blue beardroot" (made up plant) to farmer Bob for a basket of eggs.

Bob then uses the bag to pay smith Carol for shoeing Bob's horses as well as a new shearing scissors.

Carol can pay with the blue beardroot trader Dave for general goods like twine, metals, and clothes.

Dave then goes to the university once a week and sells them all the ingredients gathered.

So, in the region of the university, blue beardroot has some value, but elsewhere not as much. You can again vary how much value it has. It can even change the community. If it has too much value, then you might have people specifically growing it. If it has very little, then it's not going to be a big part of the local economy but accepted payment nonetheless. Again, adventurers might be better off here, if they can get access to more, or rarer, ingredients.

  • You can also have token representing services. This is not very usual in real life but it exists - you can have a coupon for a free massage, for example. I'm not aware of how these were handled in the medieval world, but I imagine it existed in some capacity in some places. If you can make the tokens more reliable, then you can use it in the economy. In a fantasy setting, this should be easier to do: of some sort of favour from the fair folk and it is guaranteed to be honoured. Or . And so on and so forth. Basically:
    • The tokens might be imbued with some sort of magic to ensure their validity. For example: tokens issued by wizards with some form of fairly weak "geas" spell on them. The tokens might represent, say "the bearer of this token is entitled to a minor enchantment from a member of the Spell Overflow wizarding community" and can be turned in for said service.
    • They could rely on honour, duty, or other sort of inherent obligation that means that the token will not suddenly lose its value. For example: an elven token that represents an elf honour bound to grant the bearer some sort of favour. Since elves live very long, and value honour a lot, you know the token would be valid for a long time and the favour (of sufficient complexity) would be fulfilled. Or dwarven token the dwarves from the nearby mountain are duty bound to accept in return for some metalwork (e.g., making superior quality tools). The token relies on the dwarven community to be present and the community is enduring. Even if the specific dwarf who issued the token is not there, it will still be fulfilled by any dwarf metal worker who lives there.

There are many other ways to make non-money substitutes of buying stuff. You, as the creator of the world, can dictate their price and make them more or less valuable. An ongoing story might even have interesting application of these

  • You could fluctuate the price. This shouldn't happen often, since it will make the item not very reliable for trade. However, this could have a big impact on a community or realm. It might even totally re-shape it, whether something happens a lot more valuable or a lot less.
    • Fairy dust could go in price.
    • Tokens given from a given dwarven community are more valuable.
  • You can fluctuate the availability or demand.
    • There is an outbreak of a disease fairy dust cures.
    • The wizarding school demands a lot more of the redleaf duskglory.
    • Harvest season is coming and farmers want to get dwarven forged tools that are more efficient and durable.
  • You can use it as a plot hooks
    • Because of the disease outbreak, a village decides to start gatheringfor a lot more fairy dust. The disease is conquered but the fairies are now not happy and cause other problems.
    • The redleaf duskglory is applications in black magic. Asking for more is normally troublesome, especially since the demand comes from a school but nearby villages don't really know or care what ingredients are for as long as the wizards buy them.
    • A powerful elf who lives in the nearby woods owes few people favours - they go to collect but...the elf is nowhere to be found. The tokens are worthless for now until somebody could figure out where the elf has gone and if he returns.
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Anything in limited, stable supply

Things or materials that cannot [easily] be created and don't easily break down have a reasonably stable value because if everything suddenly became cheaper, everyone would start buying more stuff and vendors would just raise their prices again. If a few people started creating more currency and spending it, it would eventually flow to everyone, so everyone would try to buy more stuff, and so prices would rise, devaluing the currency. When this happens too fast nobody knows how much anything costs anymore and the currency is useless.

Gold is not valued because you can make things out of it. Gold is valued because it is a status symbol. It's hard to get. In the early 1800s, aluminium was more expensive than gold. Although the ore was plentiful, refining it was terribly expensive.

Importantly, gold doesn't easily break down, either. It would be no good as a currency if the supply kept decreasing or if it degraded faster near the sea.

You also need:

  1. Something that can easily be portioned into fixed quantities or units
  2. Something convenient to carry
  3. Something that you can tell is "probably genuine" by looking at it, and can be subject to further simple tests (like a balance scale)

Crystals and gems generally fail (1) and (3). Gold dust fails (1) and (2).

Pearls aren't a bad choice if they are produced in small quantities if at all in the area (e.g. dug up in a dried-up sea bed).

You can of course manufacture a reason for all sorts of things to be in short supply. A gem that for some reason (perhaps a particular accumulation process, or an ancient civilisation) is always roughly the same size. Skulls of an extinct animal (less likely to be a status symbol). Sea urchin shells washed over in an ancient tsunami.

Sea urchin shells

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The OP refers to D&D... and it is obvious to me that the OP is familiar with some version from 3e onwards, since 2e and earlier contained exactly the concept that this question seeks, namely that of a currency of intermediate value between Gold and Silver: Electrum, a natural or artificial alloy of gold and silver.

In D&D 2e, an Electrum piece (ep) was a coin with a value between that of Silver pieces (sp) and Gold pieces (gp), where 1 gp = 2 ep = 10 sp.

Apparently D&D 3e completely decimalised the fantasy currencies, as the value ratio for coinage became 1 pp (Platinum) = 10 gp = 100 sp = 1000 cp (copper), and electrum was no longer mentioned.

While this is a convenient allocation of value for a game, historically the value of noble metals varied according to availability, and in certain places and times (such as in ancient Egypt) silver was more highly valued than gold, and the conversion from one currency to the other - even discounting moneychangers' fees - was rarely if ever exactly 10:1.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be fair D&D has a god of money so value may be actively managed. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 29 '19 at 13:23
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To stick with the D&D theme, how about mithril? The mithril coins could be quite small and light. All the other coin metals have intrinsic values, so your new intermediate coin should too. Sure, your players may start hoarding the new coins in hopes of melting them down into a new piece of armor. That’s okay. Just fiddle around with the coin’s size and weight until you get something that works with your world’s economy.

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