Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dearth

Some readers may have noticed a fault in the post that precedes this – regarding the distribution of grown cereals among the peasants and their caloric intake. That error would have been that a certain amount of the grain, above and beyond what they would eat or give to the Lord of the manse, would have to set aside for next year’s crop. In fact, yields during the medieval period were sometimes less than 2:1. 3:1 was more common. This means that fully a third of the grain would have to remain in storage throughout the winter until the following spring, if the community were to survive.

It is almost incomprehensible to us that yields could be that low. Typical yields today can range from 30:1 in the worst depressed areas of the Third World to upwards of 200:1 in the West. But without mechanized equipment, a proper knowledge of biology or fertilizers, this was the best a farmer could do – grains could not be willed to produce more.

(As an aside, you could argue higher yields from a D&D world, due to arcane knowledge available to druids or others, and generally I tend to predict higher yields with regards to my crops).

There are numerous, similar limitations on food supply in the Medieval world that an unfamiliar DM may fail to take into account: the size of livestock, for instance. Cows rarely exceeded more than 500 lbs. Sheep, swine and horses were all smaller – though efforts to breed larger horses, such as Percherons, Clydesdales and Belgians were started in the late medieval period, they did not achieve quite the success we are familiar with today (though local myths would testify that they did).

Added to less food on the hoof and less food from crop yields is the bizarre notion that many perfectly edible foods were avoided in the belief that they were either poisonous to the body or harmful to the spirit. Fruits in particular were eaten with considerably less frequency than they might have been. Then of course many cultures avoided foods for religious reasons.

All of this makes for both a limited and a scant diet – which in turn disavows most arguments that the typical manse might have existed amidst plenty. It is a usual DM’s belief that if a party were to raid and seize an isolated castle on the borderlands of a kingdom, it would be rich in gold and spoils ... when in fact such a castle would probably have traded such spoils with the more affluent central areas of the kingdom in order to obtain seeds for planting, animals to restock their herds and all manner of tools and handicrafts just to keep the castle running.

D&D also assumes that every castle is managed by a first-rate accountant who apparently never makes a foolhardy mistake in understocking the necessary materials. Every castle is equally under the sovereignty of a Lord who does not gamble, is not a wastrel or otherwise incompetent. No castle in the D&D realm is in debt, nor overextended in lending their coin to others, or “house-poor.” There is always a treasure room; it is always full to the brim and no one present would ever think of spending that loot on anything except more soldiers.

We know from experience that this is a false perception of reality, one which I have been guilty of myself up until perhaps two weeks ago, when I began to conceive of this series of posts. Look at the balance sheets of most corporations and you will find their assets extend to land, permissions, structures, money owed and equipment. Rarely does a balance sheet indicate that the company has billions of dollars in a bank account – this would be foolish, since excess money invested promotes more money to be earned in the future. This was no less true during the Middle Ages – if anything, it was more true, since excess capital tended to disappear whenever a blight destroyed the local seed, or animals began dying of plague, or a long winter demanded considerably more fuel and stored food than had been laid aside. Periods of starvation were more common, demanding expenditures whenever expenditures were possible ... and if something bad hadn’t happened to you, it had to your neighbor, and the polite, politically expedient (and practical) thing to do would be to lend, lend, lend.

In other words, the castle you’ve just plundered might have enough floating capital to survive any immediate threat, but beyond that they are probably dead broke. Guess what? They owe the castle next door 4,000 gold coin, and since the castle next door just suffered the onset of the plague, they needed to collect yesterday. Oops.

Which helps explain why groups such as the Vikings, Pechenegs, Magyars and so on didn’t stop at one castle, or ten castles ... they were living continuously on what they could grab, so that next month if they wanted to eat they better be able to seize two more. All it took was one hard-core castle that could hold out for four of five months, such as that at Brescia, to spoil their fun.

By extension, you might consider that most “lairs” in D&D would have similar problems, from the guild-invested artisan deep in the bowels of the city to the underground lair of orcs twenty miles past the kingdom’s border. Any extra coin could be traded with less than savoury humans who were willing to run tools, meat, ale, leather – what have you – in exchange for whatever the orcs might be able to come across, coin, gems or border guard weapons/armor. Orcs must eat also, and even if they raise herds of giant rats in their underground lairs for meat, those too are occasionally touched by pestilence. Yes, that might encourage the orcs to raid a nearby village, but that assumes the village is stocked to the gills with food ready for the orcs to eat. What if the village is starving also?

While we’re on the subject of plenty and the lack of it, consider at what time of the year your party might decide to seize the local castle: is it late Winter, when most stored goods will have been eaten, the populace waiting in anticipation for the local water sources to open and allow fishing, or for the return of birds which can be caught for food, or for the first shoots from turnips or potatoes? Is it mid-Summer, when the crops are still green, when the coin has run out for good until the sowing can be done and the August festivals will promise good sales? Is it Autumn, after the crops are taken in, after they’ve been sold and the money used to pay off creditors – the party finding hundreds of sacks of beets and turnips to mix with the barley the manse grew this year, ready for the long cold season to come?

Such things matter.

Some weeks ago I questioned the valuables which might be found on ordinary people in my world. Since that time I have been considering the question of payables, and the redistribution of wealth, with the recognition that, by and large, in that time period what the “rich” possessed for the most part was the opportunity to create wealth for temporary periods, which they would then spend on luxuries which themselves would degrade and spoil. Maintenance on the Lady of the Manse’s bedroom could suck the coin right out of a Lord’s purse.

If most people are living hand to mouth, from the lower strata of peasants and laborers, right up through adventurers and celebrities, and even Lords and Kings, then where is the money?

6 comments:

Chgowiz said...

So if it wasn't about the money, then what was it about? To me, it seems more about the land and the ability to survive through armed combat and ability to subsist - moving towards more land/political power.

Money is an instrument to represent wealth. Gold may be worth something, but only if someone else deems it so.

If the real instrument of wealth in these times were land and people power, then the money was in the dirt itself.

Why do I hear James Earl Jones saying "Steel is not strong. Flesh is stronger." ? Because it's true.

Chgowiz said...

... which, in a weird way, takes us to the "endgame" that original D&D had - the ownership of castle, the ability to muster armies to fight other armies and so on.

Interesting.

In a strange way, the endgame that lurks in my head for my Dark Ages campaign centers around concepts that wealth isn't what the players think D&D wealth is. 9 games and they still count wealth in tens, not hundreds. I think many of them were used to 3E style of play.

Alexis said...

For most lords, it wasn't about power at all, it was about comfort. Strange as it many seem, it is enough for many just to have enough wine, food and sex. Many are scrambling just to get that much control over their lives. Poor party that they should choose one of these individuals to plunder.

Chgowiz said...

You know, in a strange way, the most logical "end game" in that situation is to not adventure unless you're already part of a bigger organization with funding and support - you're liable to not ever get enough to really make adventuring worth it unless you really found a lead on something that would put you in a position of power.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl said...

Where indeed? You've produced some evidence that my hypothesis about total coinage available in a fantasy setting was a good one. When I first stumbled upon (staggered into?) your blog it was the posts on the economy that piqued my interest. I set about trying to "systemize" your economic system so that it could be applied to any fantasy world using a spreadsheet and your own map. In the process I discovered some very interesting things.

First, garlic is the most produced vegetable in the world. It grows or is grown nearly everywhere and there's more of it produced by volume than any other vegetable type. I thought it would be onions or maybe corn, but it's garlic. Also, I think corn is considered a grain. I won't go into how all my assumptions about grains, pulses, vegetables, fruits and berries were shattered. Living in a highly-mechanized world has warped my perceptions not only about where food comes from and how much of it there really is, but how it's produced, categorized and sorted. What are pulses? Oats.

Second, when trying to calculate the amount of coins produced I started running into some puzzling problems. I had to figure out all of the metals produced in the world before I could start coining them. Then I had to come up with a suitable metal to use as an alloy because no one uses pure bullion coins except as show pieces. That's a serious economic mistake because what happens is the value of bullion coins themselves begins to exceed the value of the money they represent and people stop spending their money. This usually leads to economic collapse, or war or both.

The problems began to multiply, or should I say became much more interesting as I continued my work on the system. With an estimated population of about 2 million sophants in my fantasy kingdom, metal was too valuable to use as a filler for anything. When I started using gold as my standard for determining value I found something very strange: silver was worth nearly as much as gold was. In AD&D there's an assumed conversion rate of 20 to 1 for silver coins to gold. I found, with real numbers and research, this relationship was more like 1.8 to 1. So more valuable, yes, but not 20 times more valuable. The D&D money system, even the metric-system perfect 3.x money system, collapsed without even a puff of smoke before my eyes.

When I finally found my base metal for coins (and it turned out to be adamantium, but mithril was a close second) I started figuring out how much of the gold mined in the world would be used for coins. Traditionally, 1/3 of the income of the Kingdom goes to the army, 1/3 to the church and 1/3 to the King. In this case, I chose the King to represent the Treasury and he would coin 1/3 of the platinum, gold, silver, copper, iron, mithril and adamantium produced in the kingdom. That money would then be used by the Kingdom to pay salaries, purchase commodities, make loans, et cetera, ensuring that the kingdom could continue on in a healthy fashion. I discovered a problem when I figured out how much coinage we were talking about: around 200,000 per year. That's 200,000 coins per year! If you're not stunned, then see above where I name all the metals that were used as coins and note that the first three on that list represented less than 5% of all coins produced. And this was to represent a "good" year for the kingdom when the king opted to mint new coins. He wouldn't always do that, as good leaders don't just fire up the printing presses to fix their economic woes. Sometimes, more coins are not needed or desired and so they aren't produced. Regardless, that put the total amount of coins in the largest kingdom in the world at around around 2,000,000 after adjusting for population growth, wars and so on.

There wouldn't be very much coin anywhere. No one would be hoarding it, unless a dragon wiped out a kingdom and carefully piled all their coins into a cave somewhere. The few coins that were out there would be in circulation, being used to exchange for goods and services in the more developed areas. Most trade would be done by barter, all the way up the ladder to the king himself.

The "economy" that D&D presents in every edition is complete bullshit. It's designed to fire the greedy imagination of a kid with piles of gold and jewels, magical swords and bizarre arcane wonders. It has no basis in reality than to act as a partial sink for treasure accumulated. No designer has ever given serious thought to the economy of the game. "That's not fun!" they'd say, "People want to kick down doors and get piles of gold and treasure!" Yeah, sure they do. And when they've kicked open the door to the 10x10 room and killed the orc guarding his treasure for the thousandth time they're going to want to do the same thing again with no thought as to where the gold came from or why the orc was in the room to begin with. I guess using the game to tell a story would help distract people from this glaring absence, since you'd never have to worry about a player who wanted to run his own tavern or perhaps have his own 10x10 room with an orc to guard his treasure. And since you never have to worry about that, who gives a shit what it costs?