Thursday, July 14, 2011


The development of banking begins to mark the outer edge of what would usually be considered 'fantasy' vs. the cold, hard reality of the modern period.  Tolkein certainly never mentioned banking.  Glenda the Good Witch did not have her funds in an institution earning interest.  Xanth had no consortiums that I can remember.  When people conceive of fantasy role play, banking is mostly off the radar.

(radar doesn't exist either, but that is for a much later post)

I have for some years now encouraged my players to make use of banks, to no avail.  I have pointed out that with the credit advanced by a bank, they could set about building the castle in the middle of their fief, they could preserve their coin against attack and they could arrange payments to persons in other cities to buy difficult-to-find products for them.  They could even make arrangements to have ready funds waiting for them in such and such a location once they arrived, if they chose not to carry lumbering pounds of gold with them as they traveled.

To date, I have not had one player use a bank in any way.  I presume they do not trust me.  I presume they feel they will have to pay through the nose in order to obtain all this safety and convenience.  I have never indicated that they would - in fact, to the contrary.  I have also attempted to reassure them about the reliability of banks, that they had no reason to feel concerned.  Besides, if there is a certainty that the bank would fail, why not borrow the money with the expection of never having to pay it back?

I am convinced that players, as a matter of course, do not trust banks on principle.  I am further convinced that they would view taking advantage of the existence of banks as a sort of cheating.  I shall try an example, hoping that the video game I quote is popular enough.

If you have played SimCity 4, you know that the way to make your citizens use a parking garage and a subway is to remove all the roads between the city and the industrial park you've built.  It makes no sense that any people anywhere would allow a mayor to zone a distant industrial region, connect it up with a monorail and subway and provide no roads whatsoever for people to get there, but you can in the game and sure enough, people will use your subway system.  It's pretty good for your transit budget.

But if you are like me, you won't do it.  The game may allow it, but it feels wrong and it feels like cheating.  Just because the game designers are stupid enough to make it possible, doesn't mean I think that's a rational way to build a city.

There are power gamers in the world, of course, who see it only as a game and who will respond to the above argument with catcalls of stupidity and shooting myself in the foot and so on ... but I get a kick out of seeing my cities progress in the game and I get a personal feeling of satisfaction knowing I built them up without using a programmer's game glitch.  It is the way I am.

For a lot of D&D players, I think that building up a castle is an important esoteric part of the game, and on some level they'd feel cheap and even a bit ripped off if when the castle was up and functioning, they had to admit to anyone that in fact their equity on said castle was a mere 17% ... but that they hoped it would be paid off in fifteen or twenty years.  There's something very creepy about that, something that smacks much too much of reality, to have any place in D&D even if the DM allows it.  Most of us with house payments or car payments or credit card payments don't want D&D infiltrated with the least little bit of that mindset.  In general, I think most players would rather had three orcs pop out of the bushes and get away clean with the 347 gold pieces they had in three backpacks than to know the money was safe and sound in a bank.

Particularly of late, banks do not have what might be called any status of 'fun.'  If, at the gaming table, players could confidently cease to think of banks altogether, I think they could be happy.

But I suppose I have enough fondness for more modern fantasy games that I don't feel quite so bad about working out with the mythical banker how my agent in a city four thousand miles away is being sure to send me a bag of ostrich feathers once a month.  I need those feathers for my research, they are terribly expensive here, I can never get enough, and having the feathers arrive on spec is a great weight off my back.

Heh heh ... feathers ... weight ...

That's funny.


Eric said...

Here's one thing I've seen that made players put some money up in a bank:

Allandaros said...

Interesting! I've had my current players very rapidly decide to put their cash with a moneylender/protobank, because they didn't want to be carrying around large chests full of coin everywhere they went. (Plus the town guards levying taxes on their cash every time they would be entering the town made them dubious about keeping it with them.)

Carl said...

My players sought out a bank as soon as they had two denarii to rub together. They've sought to invest their money and re-purpose their loot almost from the moment they started getting it.

They haven't tried borrowing yet. In addtion, they have an attorney (advocate), bankers (yes, multiple bankers), a business manager, and a promoter in the case of the gladiator who has his own attorney, business manager and banker.

For my players, banking is very much a part of the fantasy experience.

I'm a little sorry your players haven't taken more advantage of banks and banking over the years. I was hoping to learn some clever new stuff to introduce into my game. :-)

Alexis said...

If I had more gas about the wonderful world of finance, I'd write about it. Given that I have no need of it - clearly - I'm not looking for ideas myself.

Anything ideas to do with banks, Carl, are probably available at your local bank. They provide dozens of brochures, any one of which could probably be hammered into a medieval/renaissance framework (and adventure, if it comes to that). I don't know about Romans, though ... but flexible is flexible.

Adam Thornton said...

I think it's in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Samuel Delany has written a fascinating argument about how traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy happens at the interface between a barter and a cash economy.

And although he didn't read Delany, Charles Stross's Merchants' War is largely fantasy set at the interface between a cash and a credit economy--which is basically what's happening with the Renaissance-shading-into-Early-Modern (Neal Stephenson's _Baroque Cycle_ is playing in this space too).

There's a lot you can do with both macro- and micro-economics in D&D (although unearthed hoards are pretty destabilizing once you're taking it seriously). I guess given what you've written you didn't need me to tell you that, did you?

Anyway, things open up a lot when you don't need to cart precious metals or jewels from place to place, when you can cart a note (and some mechanism of attestation of trust, which is to say belief, which is to say credit) from place to place.


kelvingreen said...

If you load the debt at the other end -- yes, we'll raise your comrade, but it'll cost 6000gp, so you'd best go and get it -- players don't seem to mind, and it even serves as a spur to adventure, so there is something odd going on there.

My players are quite happy with banks in the game, but then they tend to see them as big boxes of gold waiting to be robbed, so they're probably not the best exemplars.

Alexis said...


You could probably mitigate the 'big box of gold' issue by having the gold actually kept in a cell hundreds or thousands of miles away, in an undisclosed location, maintained by a 9th level mage with teleport and a crystal ball, who could ascertain how much gold needed to be sent on a particular day and then do so ... and not do so if the bank is being held hostage for the gold to arrive.

5stonegames said...

My game world has early versions of banks, insurance and paper currency but its never been something thats come up.

I tend assume PC's are high functioning sociopaths, outlaws or sometimes religious fanatics of all stripes anyway and as more than average casual killers they basically have no place in society nor do they want one.

Resurrection too is mostly impossible so they live hard and die quick.

Real wealth is in magic power or land anyway and those are harder to buy.

Also as this is a dangerous world (fully 1/3 of people die by violence) its also mostly low trust.

Basic exchanges with strangers if guarded (anyone might be a shape changer) are fine, simple magic exists to test gold and such but more complex financial instruments or investments or insurance is while technically understood and available in a few places are just not something people want.

Being an S&S world its also hard to keep money for long. Many people will kill for a GP and life is cheap.

That being said, banking and real estate can be great fun with the right sort of players

dramorak said...

Instead of using a bank, I created one. It is now 250 years into the future in game, and I control an immeasurable amount of wealth.
Nobody in the party, with the exception of the DM, knows about it.