ALL THAT GLISTERS IS NOT GOLD

Gold coinage is widespread in WFRP1. A brief review of the ‘Consumer Guide’ shows that gold coins are required to purchase items as modest as shirts, tunics, saddlebags, cooking pots, cutlery and even small but vicious dogs. These items seem to place a surprisingly low value on a gold coin.

In fact, I wondered if the value was so low that some items might be worth their weight in gold. A set of metal cutlery costs 3GC. The historical equivalents of gold crowns in mediaeval and Renaissance Europe weighed around 15-25g. If gold crowns are assumed to be pure gold, that means 45-75g of gold is required to buy a knife, fork and spoon. It turns out that the weight of a metal cutlery placement is more like 200g, so cutlery is not quite worth its weight in gold. Likewise, a suit of plate armour costs 301-310GC, which is somewhere between 4.5 and 7.8kg of gold coinage. This again falls short of the weights of historical suits of plate armour, which were around 40-50kg.

Although the undervaluation of gold coins is not so egregious that items are worth their weight in gold, it is nonetheless very far from the historical situation. I obtained some data on prices in England during the mediaeval and Renaissance periods and compared them with the prices in WFRP1 (assuming £1 equals 1GC and adjusting for some inflation in the later Renaissance period). There is an enormous range of disparities, with WFRP prices at levels between 1.2 and 543.9 times their historical equivalents. The median price difference is such that WFRP1 prices are 44.1 times their historical analogues.

Variances.jpg

Distribution and median of price variances

This could, of course, just mean that gold is more widespread in the Old World than in historical England. However, in all aspects other than coinage, the distribution of gold is not evidently different. Were gold many times more abundant in the Old World, we should expect it to appear in utensils, statues and buildings. We should also expect it to be common to wear gold jewellery. Yet there is no evidence of any of these things in the Old World.

A better explanation is that the Old World’s currency is debased. Currency debasement was a problem in many historical economies. The difference in prices could be attributable to greater debasement in the Old World versus England. English gold coins were 92% pure (22 karat). Assuming the median price discrepancy of 44.1 times is due to currency debasement, we can calculate that gold crowns are only 2% gold. They are barely gold at all! Such a level of debasement would be far beyond historical norms, but not entirely unprecedented. European coins were often only 50-60% pure and sometimes only 20% pure, but in the extreme case of the Italian denarius silver content fell by 97% between 800 and 1150.

There are even advantages of debasement. The high purity of English coinage meant the need for fractional coins, such as the farthing (a quarter of a penny). Even the farthing was too high a denomination for many transactions. Coinage was also often in short supply.

The debasement explanation of price variances can also be supplemented by different assumptions of coin size. If we assume Old World coins are one quarter of the size of their English equivalents, coin purity can be assumed to be roughly 8%. That would make Old World pennies, shillings and crowns equivalent to English farthings, groats and half ryals.

So WFRP1‘s prices are explicable if we assume currency debasement and possibly smaller coin sizes. The alternative, of course, is to adjust the prices in the ‘Consumer Guide’. This can be done by dividing all prices by 40, roughly in line with the median price variance, so that 1GC becomes 6d. However, the price disparities between the ‘Consumer Guide’ and historic English prices vary significantly by category. For most items that characters are likely to purchase (clothes, armour and weapons) the difference is more like 20 (1GC conveniently becomes 1/-). For other categories, the differences are much greater. The table below provides a list of approximate divisors by category, should the GM want to adjust prices more finely. In order to simplify the arithmetic it rounds divisors to multiples of twenty for gold crowns and twenty-four for shillings and pence. So for clothing 1GC becomes 1/-, 2/- become 1d and pence become fractional.

The implied values of coinage did not change materially in WFRP2, which used essentially the same prices as WFRP1, and so the same analysis applies. This is also true of the fan-made Universal Price List for WFRP2.

WFRP3, however, completely overhauled equipment prices, and even changed the currency system. The currency changes make exact comparison with prior editions difficult, and I only have a small sample of prices, but it appears that prices in WFRP3 are roughly one fiftieth of those in prior editions. This makes them close to historic levels.

WFRP4 does not follow WFRP3‘s prices, but prices have still been lowered substantially from the levels of WFRP1 and WFRP2. WFRP4‘s prices are a little less than one third the level of those editions. This still implies an extremely debased currency (7% pure if coin sizes are the same as English sovereigns, shillings and pennies, and 28% pure if coins are a quarter of the size of English coins).

Zweihänder, the WFRP retroclone, seems to set prices at a similar level to WFRP4, roughly one third the level of WFRP1 and WFRP2.

Variances

I have provided the historical price data below (adjusted in some cases for inflation), in case it is of use to GMs.

Price List 1Price List 2Price List 3Price List 4Price List 5Price List 6Price List 7Price List 8Price List 9Price List 10Price List 11Price List 12

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12 thoughts on “ALL THAT GLISTERS IS NOT GOLD

  1. That’s some deep (and excellent) analysis of, frankly, a giant turd. The economy in 1E was clearly poorly researched and broken in its final state. No point in trying to reverse engineer any sense into it. The only options are to embrace the absurdity or houserule some logic into it. Also, I highly recommend the system-agnostic Orbis Mundi 2 to anyone interested in medieval economics. Now there’s an item that’s worth its weight in gold!

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  2. Apologies, I hadn’t read the article to the end when I made my earlier comment (you lost me when you started discussing debasement, and it seemed you were trying to justify the WFRP1 prices). You have clearly addressed the issue, and I applaud the effort. Feel free to delete these comments.

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  3. I am reminded of the British pound coin, which is designed to appear like a gold coin, but of course is nothing of the sort.

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  4. An excellent post as always!

    I’m a long time reader, first time commenter, but I can provide a little bit of insight on WFRP3 prices. It’s not easy to find exact equivalents though because so much is abstracted/left to the GM’s discretion (or the writers weren’t as interested in the nitty gritty of economics).

    “Cloth armour” (i.e durable clothing) is 12 brass, and robes are 5 shillings, so I would put a cloak somewhere between the two. Maybe 1-2 shillings depending on quality.

    There isn’t a price for destrier specifically, but a warhorse costs 10(+) gold (again depending on quality). Based on the price conversions for other things it looks like a destrier is a particularly special warhorse (sorry, I don’t know much about cavalry), so maybe around 15 gold?

    No prices for cutlery, cooking pots or saddlebags, but “abundant” camping/survival goods are 3 brass and “plentiful” goods are 2 shillings. I’d price these items individually somewhere in that range (probably towards the lower end,

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    1. The rest of my reply got cut off!

      … <1 shilling).

      Sorry, no idea about the price of a dog! I hope at least some of that is helpful though.

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      1. Thanks for this. I will update the table. A destrier is a warhorse, and the 10 GC price is 1/50 of the WFRP1 and WFRP2 prices, in line with the other WFRP3 prices. It sounds like the other prices don’t convert very accurately.

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  5. Thanks for this. When putting together price lists for my Enemy Within remix campaign, I quickly noticed the WFRP price lists were bonkers. Even after adjusting the general level, there are also some quite odd internal disparities. Most obviously, perhaps, gunpowder weapons are ridiculously expensive, while historically an important reason they became ubiquitous was that they were relatively cheap and easy to mass-produce compared to the more complex machinery of crossbows.

    I’ll revisit the price lists during the holiday break and this data and analysis will come in useful. 🙂

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    1. Theo Axner, I suspect those over-priced gunpowder weapons were written that way because the game designers in charge of relative costs were afraid that some players might prefer to roleplay trigger happy types; perhaps their reasoning was gun-toters are great for a one-shot adventure but harder to endure for whole campaign. 2nd edition with its availability mechanic and unreliable qualities tried to give GMs an easy way out of “Bandit player-characters dun kill everyone”, or “Shoot first, roleplay later.” Just a shot in the dark, really, not sure if you agree.

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      1. I’m no expert on prices in the late medieval and early renaissance world, but I wonder if the costs of firearms are quite as out of line as they might appear. As I understand it, firearms really developed as a mass weapon because they could be cheaply deployed on the battlefield but this different to the costs of the weapon. One of the major issues here was the relative cost of paying the men using handguns as opposed to crossbows or longbows. To be an effective user of crossbows required significant training – for this reason they were often highly paid mercenaries. The English (and Welsh and to some degree the Scots) were unusual in that they could field a significant number of archers but this was because of a national obsession with archery (which the law sought to reinforce such a military advantage it gave). When employed as mercenaries they again commanded good wages because the longbow was easily a much more effective weapon than any other personal missile weapon available. That’s why the English hung to their use for so long. The problem was that it took a lifetime to master, with training required from childhood.

        By contrast, the handgun could be taught to anyone in a relatively short period. That meant that the levy could be armed with it and so the cost of deploying it on the battlefield was lower.

        Another aspect of the surprisingly high cost might be that most historical handguns used were matchlocks. These were fairly simple devices and easy to use on a battlefield. They would be useless for an adventurer and, indeed, the rules assumption is that handguns (pistols or arquebus style guns) are not matchlocks. This is reasonable as walking around with a lit slow match means that any suprise or concealment would be impossible and there would be a lot of unwanted attention. The guns described therefore are, presumably, either wheel locks or flintlocks (or more likely their predecessors the “snapchance” or “snaphaunce”). These were much more intricate locks. In the renaissance they would be found in high end expensive pieces. These are the sort of things that aristocrats might have owned, not the common man. They required greater skill to make and must have cost accordingly. Higher cost guns may have been more accurate too. This is something that the PC would also be interested in – they want to hit a particular target; on the battlefield all that needed is that the gun can be fired in the direction of a large body of men, along with many others – fire enough at enough men and some will hit.

        Perhaps the real issue is a lack of rules for less complicated type of firearm and a lack of appreciation of the real difficulty in using both crossbows and longbows.

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  6. just curious what time frame or area did you use for your pricing? were there other factors like war, famine, plague, shipping routes discovered or anything else you can supply to help. I’m asking because typically the prices are set over a great many years because of the lack of easily available historical records and so much can interfere with prices.
    I’m glad you were able to find some social classes for some items, and in a city, out of a city things. It would be interesting to see a Dutch list from the 1650’s and an Italian list from a comparable time then set that against the Germans and English. Thanks for the work.
    Was this based on a publicly available data set?

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    1. It was based on several publicly available data sets for England between 1237 and 1575. The values were adjusted for inflation, based on time series of prices and earnings, which are also publicly available. (Note, however, that for most of the period inflation was de minimis).

      I am planning to share all the data and calculations in follow-up posts that will look at this further, but I haven’t finished them yet.

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