Thursday, September 24, 2009

Treasure and Mesopotamia

"Currency evolved from two basic innovations: the use of counters to assure that shipments arrived with the same goods that were shipped, and later with the use of silver ingots to represent stored value in the form of grain. Both of these developments had occurred by 2000 BC. Originally money was a form of receipting grain stored in temple granaries in Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia, then Ancient Egypt."
  - Wikipedia, currency.
"In the earlier second millennium there are references to kaspum kankum "sealed bags of silver." Sealed silver is also noted in texts of the late third millennium and the Old Assyrian documents from Cappadocia mention silver "marked" (uddu) with its weight (CAD s.v. idu 4.a). Copper might be packed into purses called (c)hurshianu (CAD s.v.; Dercksen). "
  - ANCIENT ECONOMIES I, Morris Silver
"The ancient economy was mainly based on subsistence farming. The Shekel referred to an ancient unit of weight and currency. The first usage of the term came from Mesopotamia circa 3000 BC. and referred to a specific mass of barley which related other values in a metric such as silver, bronze, copper etc. A barley/shekel was originally both a unit of currency and a unit of weight... just as the British Pound was originally a unit denominating a one pound mass of silver."
  - Wikipedia, Economy - Ancient Times

My research into Sumerian history and Mesopotamia for the Tombs of Hulkursag has taken me into some really cool mental exercises. Part of the module will be to introduce my take on an alternative history of Mesopotamia, where the Gods really do walk the Earth. (This, by the way, has made me very aware that I don't have a single source book on Deities - no OD&D or AD&D books). Reading up on the culture and viewpoints makes me realize how cultural D&D really is. I know this is no surprise to the smarter of my readers, but it's the difference of "hearing" it and really seeing it.

One such area is the concept of treasure. We, as players, are used to gold pieces, gems, scrolls and things that "feel" right - we're not that far removed from reality in how we view wealth and things of value. Taking a step back into history means that we're winding back the clock and our conceptions on how wealth was collected and distributed. The above quotes really point that out - coin currency wasn't widely used until maybe late in the Mesopotamian era, more likely in the early Greek era. Trade was based on barter and a rough conceptualization of the value of commodities against each other. Silver was the standard and it's use wasn't a "coin" but a weight equivalent. This means that our intrepid band of adventurers exploring the Lands between the Rivers aren't going to be finding chests of gold.

Wealth was also expressed in jewelry and adornments, as well as possessions. Mesopotamian tombs (what few have been found) are not filled with coins, but with rings, necklaces, crowns and headdresses and items of value like musical instruments, oxen carts and even slaves. Now everyone seems to love finding lots of gems and jewels, but what is the very first thing the vast majority of the adventurers do? They go find a fence in town and get gold coins. That's not going to happen in Mesopotamia.

This brings me to a design issue - how far to do I "break" the conventional wisdom of D&D? When players sit down for D&D, there are expectations based on previous play and based on what we perceive D&D to be. Presenting a module and setting that breaks those expectations too much makes it possible that people are going to get frustrated and give up. Do players really want to buy equipment based on trading 5 shekels of grain that they have to store and carry somewhere? I doubt it. I know I wouldn't want to do that - and that's a metric I usually use on my first decisions about a game - would I like it?

I think I may change the terms, but leave the basics the same - gold is now "silver (ingots/shekels)" (same diff), silver becomes "copper" - there is no equivalent to copper pieces in my game. Players won't find mounds and mounds of gold, but if I cast it right, the difference is more in the names, not the feel.

Treasure is going to be more about finding the jewelry and gems and things that can be traded. I'll give equivalent values (in silver) but players won't be able to fence the 3 rings and 2 copper helmets into coins - so they'd better find a secure place to hold their stashes.

Another interesting point is that metal is rare - so much so that finding a metal weapon is equivalent to finding a +1 to +3 weapon.

Does breaking the convention too far limit what you can do, especially in terms of the "rewards"? I think we're all used to strange settings and even limits on classes and races, but the treasure and methods of economy in D&D? I'm not so sure.

What do you think?

(Picture from


Will Douglas said...

I think you're fine. Just explain that

a) jewelry is used for trade like they traditionally think of coins, and

b) it's far more portable, i.e,; they can carry a lot more value without becoming encumbered.

Jay said...

I agree with Will. Plus, jewelery can often be sold and traded for coinage or other currency (a side-quest?).

It stands to reason that servants/slaves of royalty buried with their masters would be adorned with jewels and maybe even be keepers of conventional treasure. Especially since they're not getting out of the tomb alive with it!

Chgowiz said...

@Jay - your comment is exactly why I pause in my efforts - there is no coinage or currency! The concept of coinage wasn't developed until very late in Mesopotamia, more likely during the early Greek history.

If you are an example of players thinking there's some sort of exchange possible - then my fears have a basis in reality. There is no "conventional" treasure or conventional economics. How do I present it so that players can become comfortable with it?

Alex Schroeder said...

I think you're better off with a weird amalgam of Mesopotamia. Replace gold treasure with jewelry of the appropriate amount and that's it. I would not bother with explaining how steel provides a magic bonus and all that. A sort of Mesopotamia-light like the fantastic Asian mix for Ruins & Ronin. D&D has always been about the historically inaccurate mixing of things. It just plays better at the table for most people.

Zzarchov said...

A better thought is, how important is "currency" in a civilization where you can't really buy much you need.

If you don't like gold jewellry..and you have enough food...what is the coin good for?

earlier history means less to buy as well (earlier history also means land is cheap, fewer people and an unlimited frontier)

Anonymous said...

I'd try being historically accurate. It will make your setting that much weirder, which (IMO) is a good thing.

It seems the players would merely have to think in terms of "shekels" (with 1 shekel being about 10 grams) of gold instead of "pieces" of gold:

1. a necklace worth 300 gold shekels
2. a ring worth 200 gold shekels
3. a crown worth 5,000 gold shekels

That seems just as easy and straightforward and hardly different at all than:

1. a necklace worth 300 gold pieces
2. a ring worth 200 gold pieces
3. a crown worth 5,000 gold pieces

(And just as 1 gp = 1 xp, so 1 gold shekel = 1 xp.)


Joseph said...

I would love to see this conversation:

DM: "You kill the vampire and then open the door beyond the tomb. Within you find a hundred buldging sacks."

Player: "Sweet! I open one up to see what sort of treasure it is."

DM: "Wheat falls out."

Player: "Wheat. Where's the treasure?"

DM: "That *is* the treasure."

Alex Schroeder said...

Another thing to remember is the reviews to Necromancer Games' Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia (“It’s a bit misleading to say the book is the Mesopotamia setting and two/thirds of it is one adventure module”). Thus, make sure you don't suggest something it's not regarding historical accuracy.

Alex Schroeder said...

BTW, the author went on to write XP1: The Spider-God's Bride and Other Tales of Sword and Sorcery containing minimal rule additions and lots of small adventures that can be strung together.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to play it. And it has stats for D&D 3.5.

Chgowiz said...

@Alex - I'm making it VERY clear that this is a fanciful take on an alternative possibility of Mesopotamia. There's no way I'd claim historical accuracy - at the same time, I want there to be a high degree of verisimilitude to early Bronze Age.

Erin said...

Coinage is rare because, until your economy gets grows beyond what barter can cover, coins are more trouble than they're worth.

I've also run a few campaigns outside of the "gold" standard. Converting the canonical prices from gold to silver has a *major* impact on the setting - as you say, you just need to cast it right because it's more about feel than substance.

Here are some links you may find interesting:

* Coinage:
* Silver standard:

Andreas Davour said...

I'm with Geoffrey. Go all the way and make it weird and mysterious. If somebody see an adventure about Mesopotamian fantasy and wont stretch their mind to make it mesopotamian, I don't think much have been achieved.

That being said, just making it silver based, note that there are not fences and make the big treasure hoards not coin should get some of the message across.

Evernevermore said...

Another thought is when the players slip up and ask about coinage play up the merchant looking at them oddly and asking what they are talking about or why people would bother with that.

Jay said...

@Chgowiz, yeah I dunno. It's a neat concept though. It's more of a trade/barter system then, huh?

I think it's the idea of denominations that's tripping me up. Say, I have a bunch of rings, but the value of even the smallest ring I have is still fairly high. Do I really want to spend that ring on a sandwich? How do I avoid over-paying?

BigFella said...

Something else to consider is what was considered wealth in those times.

Our values in modern times are kind of different because our manufacturing economy makes it possible for us to accumulate all sorts of objects. In ancient Greece owning a horse and purple dyed cloak put you in the upper classes, nowadays even someone classified as poor can own a car and a nice suit.

Armor and weapons would probably have a LOT more value in a pre-coinage campagin. (Why do you think the Spartan wives told their husbands to "Come back with your shield or on it."?)

In a lot of pre-industrial societies, it seems like the amount of livestock you own, number of servants you employ(or slaves you own), and maybe wives/husbands you support if the culture allows it, seems to be the measure of wealth.

What if an ancient setting's dragon hoard was a herd of cattle instead of a big pile of gold. (This makes more sense for a big carnivorous lizard to keep around than a heap of inert metal, if you ask me.) Livestock raids seemed to be a pretty popular pastime for warriors in a lot of cultures.

Anyway, just a buncha random thoughts.

taichara said...

I can't speak to Mesopotamia directly; but I can offer observations on Egypt: while there was no "true" currency, the deben and related weights were essentially used as "virtual currency".

A chest or mule or a given weight of grain had an established worth in deben of silver or copper; one exchanged equivalent worth, or the proper amount of metal, or both. It was an interesting half-way-between system. I could hunt up better details and sources ...?

Hm. The Amarna Letters have transactions of a sort (royal trade and bride-prices and gifts) between Egypt and the Middle Eastern kingdoms. I could check there too? :3

Alexis said...

If you want to get past the hassle in defining everything's value in g.p. (which don't exist), you might try defining it in X.P. or some other universal standard of your own creation. Whatever the standard is (measures of silver, horses, sacks of grain, pretty rocks), as long as the party can get used to it as a measure they'll stop thinking only in terms of coin. Oh, and no fair using imperial measures. They didn't exist. What's smaller than a shekel?

I'd also like to point out that part of what made the cultural barter system practical was a healthy dose of D.I.Y. Most of what one might have for trade came directly from one's own manufacture ... which built up steady, regular arrangements for barter. Such as, I'm a potter, so I'm always going to make pots, and certain groups are always going to need pots, so bartering with pots isn't a problem. Samuel will bring me a cow every spring, Jakob will bring me a bowlful of grain every morning and Abraham will keep my stock of charcoal ready. It was that consistency that kept people from tearing out their hair.

But adventuring is another thing altogether. The time wasn't well known for its plethora of "adventurers." Gilgamesh, yes, but that's pretty much the gamut. The rational thing would be for the party to arrange someone to take whatever off their hands before going out to grab it from the guys at the third oasis on the left.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a module I wish I'd had back when I ran my AD&D-with-a-light-coating-of-Bronze-Age Aura Storm campaign, it would've helped a lot better than GURPS Egypt and the other pseudo-historical gaming sourcebooks I had at the time.