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So, you've got a fantasy kingdom that has had the better part of its treasury stolen by a dragon. They tracked the dragon back to its lair and trapped it permanently inside... but the dragon refuses to die from thirst, starvation or old age. Going in after it would be a suicide mission, so how to get the gold back?

The kingdom hits on the idea of using the dragon's lair as a means of capital punishment (I cribbed this off of an old dungeon-crawling game called Dungeon Siege) where condemned prisoners are sent into the lair and told:

"If you bring us back (X) amount of gold, your death sentence will be reduced to life slavery. If you bring us back (Y) amount of gold, you get to go free. If you KILL the dragon, somehow, you get to go free and keep as much of the treasure as you can carry."

So, my question is, what would be appropriate values for (X) and (Y)?

This is a setting that I'm using to run a tabletop RPG in, so for convenience I'm using copper, silver and gold coins. As a reference, I told my players that a copper coin is worth about 5 dollars, a silver coin is worth about 100 dollars, and a gold coin is worth about 1000 dollars. I understand that dollar values don't exactly map hundreds of years back in time, but it gives a rough reference for value. Another way to think about it is that a copper coin will buy you a hot meal and a drink, a hard-working laborer can earn a silver coin in a day, and two gold coins will buy you a good sword (steel is more plentiful and easier to work with here than it has been historically in the real world).

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    $\begingroup$ I think it'd be wonderfully ironic if Robin Hood, jailed for stealing 10,000 coins, only had to bring back 1,000 coins to have his sentence commuted. He might even become a repeat offender! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon May 4 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ Your gold/silver ratio is pretty whack; even for medieval times, iirc. This year it's been 80-120x, and... well, we're living in strange times. Just like the aughts. $\endgroup$ – user3082 May 4 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @user3082 But it's a fantasy kingdom with dragons; they might have a different amount of gold and silves available than miedieval Earth did. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 4 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark True, but it makes gold much less valuable, thus you'd have incentive for jewels, platinum / other things, or you might just skip the silver altogether. If coins are same size weight, and value doesn't translate... Well, you don't carry 1s and 5s in your wallet. If 5s are all you have available, might not bother with 1s, and run beer chits at your pub. Or you'd have bank drafts, and not gold coins. $\endgroup$ – user3082 May 4 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ But why would you want to? Your gold is more secure than Fort Knox, with the ultimate protection. Like other medieval bankers with holdings of precious metals, you issue convenient certificates for gold rather than handing out ingots. The last thing you want is some character ruining your security, as you'd have to get another dragon for your FOrt Knox. $\endgroup$ – David Hambling May 4 at 8:40
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Our Intrepid Victim Looter is Severely Limited

Let's say the gold piece is the size of the U.S. Washington Dollar coin. According to good old Wikipedia, the coin is 26.5mm in diamter and 2mm thick. Volume: 1,103 mm3. Gold weighs 0.019 g/mm3 so the coin weighs 21 grams.

Now, there's some subjective parts to this. I'm going to assume that X and Y depend pretty much on the fact that the guy is running for his honking life. In other words, we're not carrying a maximum load. Let's assume a backpack, maybe even a sack or two. Heck, let's just pull one out of the hat and say your average murderer can carry 45 Kg at a dead run. I think that's a little high, but let's roll with it.

Y = 2,143 gold coins.

So, what's X? X is what you get after the guy has peed his pants but before he's actually awakened the darn dragon. He's panicking and isn't really thinking anymore. Slavery suddenly looks like a really, really, really good idea. So, since it's something less than Y but certainly should have some motivation to it, we'll pull the next rabbit out of the hat...

X = 40% of Y = 857 gold coins.

BUT!

Our looter doesn't have a lot of time to think, does he? Heck no! That dragon could pick its teeth with him any moment! So, thanks in no small part to Brobden, the High Priest of K'te'oth, the guy really needs a sporting chance and we don't care what kind of coin he brings back. And just to make things simpler, copper, silver, and gold coins are all the same size and weight — they just differ in color, value, and rarity.

Finally, the Royal Accountant, Bitmi, suggests that all that addition is far too much work. He likes round numbers. They remind him of his wife.

TL;DR

Y = 2,000 Coins

X = 800 Coins

And the kingdom will probably feel lucky that they get anything more than the satisfaction of hearing a booming burp from the dragon.

NOTE:

It should be noted that 800 copper coins + the productivity of the slave for life is likely a greater value than 2,000 gold coins. So the goal here really isn't to slay the dragon, or to set people free. It's to pay for the cost of paperwork.

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    $\begingroup$ How about gambling? Would the local bookies be making money? (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Running Man".) Is the government in on it? How intelligent is the dragon? Is the experience (e.g., being a winner like "Hunger Games") valuable in itself? Is the prisoner rehabilitated by the experience, or are they more likely to offend again because now they get all the gold they can carry, again? There's a lot of potential here, and focusing only on the fiat value of the coins might be limiting your worldbuilding creativity. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 3 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, the idea of a career coin-gatherer is amusing. What's a person's life really worth in your world? Would the government put up with the idea that every time master thief Bobo offs someone, he gets another shot at the dragon's gold? What if he sells that knowledge (how to get the most money) to another criminal? Does it become a cottage industry, offing peasants to get a crack at the dragon's horde? There's a lot of potential here. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 3 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the idea is that the looter only gets to keep the money they bring out if they KILL the dragon. You wouldn't intentionally get caught after offing someone in order to a crack at the loot, because you wouldn't get to keep any gold that you managed to pilfer from the hoard. If you kill it, sure, you get to keep however much you can carry... which is a relatively small amount compared to the overall size of the dragon's haul. $\endgroup$ – FlyingLemmingSoup May 3 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ Well, there's nothing saying that someone couldn't intentionally take a crack at the dragon's hoard. They'd probably have to give a cut to the government, but if you can get out with a cache of gold coins and have to give half to the government, you could probably still live comfortably for a couple of decades. $\endgroup$ – FlyingLemmingSoup May 3 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ I think a big part of the weight problem could be solved if the Dragon also stole jewels. One diamond weight next to nothing compared to its value and there's no reason to think that the kingdom treasury didn't contain any. $\endgroup$ – Echox May 4 at 4:41
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X and Y vary in relation to the crime for which a death sentence has been earned.

If the would-be dragon slayer is a murderer and a days wage is 1 silver piece, then their victim's life value can be calculated as...

300 silvers per year (assuming a six day work week) times 50 years of productive work (exaggerated but possible) equals 15,000 silver or 1,500 gold.

Then there are the court fees and fines which usually add up to about the same as the restitution.

Call it an even 3,000 gold.

Multiple murders must pay for each victim, so they should bring a donkey and a cart with them into the dragon's lair.

Mass murders better just stick to trying to kill the dragon.

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Many trips down the mine

There's no reason a given condemned person can only go in once. After all, this is their life we're talking about here. Meanwhile, the deterrent effect has to be as big as the deterrent effect of capital punishment, while at the same time encouraging prisoners to try their luck instead of giving up.

Maybe one in three prisoners survives to live out their life in hard labour, and one in twenty or one in a hundred prisoners survives to get free. So, suppose your dragon kills half the people that go into its lair, and another quarter survive but don't get anything, and only a quarter get away with loot (for example). Then the a life of hard labour should cost should be whatever one person can carry, and freedom should cost three or five times that amount. I'm sure your RPG setting has rules for this, and bear in mind that the kingdom might task a mage with casting a spell of carrying or a floating disc on the prisoners to increase the amount they can carry.

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If this is for a tabletop RPG, then the appropriate amounts of gold should be determined by game balance.

If you want the game to continue afterwards, then X and Y should be enough to be a reward which allows the players to buy a couple nice magical items or resolve a plot point, but not so much that it makes the players so wealthy that the rest of the game becomes ridiculous.

Yes, I know you intended for the players to give that money to the government and not keep it for themselves. But if it is a freeform roleplaying game in the style of D&D, then there is a good chance that the players will find a way to keep the money. And if you are a fair DM you might have a hard time to stop them.

If the game has an encumberance mechanic which applies to money (most RPGs handwave the logistic problems of transporting money), then X and Y should be chosen so X does not impair the players mechanically while Y does. So picking Y over X means a higher reward for a higher risk.

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