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Old 04-24-2021, 08:03 PM   #1
Prince Charon
 
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Default Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

Something I ran across recently is the idea of grain-based local currency - money that is backed by shares of the recent harvest (more details in the link, including some gaming ideas). You can't really save this money for long, since it's only good for the current harvest of this village (or town), and once it's either rotted or been eaten, it's gone; it's only redeemable locally, so it's less valuable the farther you are from where it was issued. So, you need to spend it locally, and often on something that'll last longer: better roads, new or repaired bridges, fixing the local church or buying stones and such for the nearest cathedral, building a better mill, and so on. It leads to a different economy than we're used to, where you have little to no money for nine months out of the year, and then a lot of money that must be spent while it's still good.

Obviously, this died out eventually with national currencies and such, but the periods that most 'medieval' fantasy game settings are loosely inspired by include the eras when this would be occurring. In a fantasy setting (at least, one where magic is unlikely to destroy grain-based currencies), some of the long-term items one might pay for are magic items to defend the village from monsters, brigands, and general disasters.

I find myself wondering if anyone has used this in a game, and if so, how it went. Likewise, if anyone is likely to later on.
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Old 04-25-2021, 09:49 AM   #2
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

I've never seen this used as such in a game, but various campaigns have implied something like it, in that they had much more money available around harvest time.

One PC project that was related was an attempt by a D&D orc who was fairly civilised and accomplished to set up a more-civilised orc society. They sold bonds to raise capital, but got the timing wrong so that their annual pay-outs happened a few weeks before they had the cash from exporting part of their harvest. Finding excuses to delay payments became a regular problem.
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Old 04-25-2021, 10:11 AM   #3
Fred Brackin
 
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

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Originally Posted by Prince Charon View Post
I find myself wondering if anyone has used this in a game, and if so, how it went. Likewise, if anyone is likely to later on.
In Land of the Rising Sun a game from FGU about medieval Japan there was some mention that the actual most used currency was the "koku" which was based off the value of a bale of rice but the game would mostly use some silver coin I forget the name of.

I think there was a little space given to a mechanic for varying the value of the koku due to the size of the latest harvest but it was only a little bit.

This was probably because any currency based off a commodity has some problems but currencies based off of perishable and consumable commodities have _lots_ of problems.

This is first cousin to the medieval problems of basing economies off of trading landing for sworn oaths ("feudalism"). That had a lot of problems too.

Confronting all these problems of running a society in the historical era B. R.M. (Before Real Money) would be very realistic but might not be all that antertaining. The sad truthg is that all of these Not Real Money systems didn't work that well.
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Old 04-26-2021, 11:53 AM   #4
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

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Originally Posted by Fred Brackin View Post
In Land of the Rising Sun a game from FGU about medieval Japan there was some mention that the actual most used currency was the "koku" which was based off the value of a bale of rice but the game would mostly use some silver coin I forget the name of.
Looking more into this, I really like it as an idea from a world-building perspective, albeit more in the form of the masu (enough rice to feed a person for a day). It gives the players - and the GM - a more concrete idea of what things are worth than "gold points" can (or even GURPS $, given inflation). Instead of a sword being worth 100 gp, you can say it's worth 1000 masu - roughly enough to feed three adults (or maybe a family of four) for a full year (technically ~50-100 masu shy for three adults, depending on how long you set a year). I've seen suggestions to treat other forms of currency like this, but rarely so explicitly.
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Old 04-26-2021, 12:51 PM   #5
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

I suspect the koku is a bit different, in that it's a persistent currency with a defined value of 1 certain quantity of rice, rather than a transient currency.

I suspect as a practical issue, being able to actually redeem the currency for rice was erratic. If you have currency nominally backed by something else, you have two choices:
  1. Actually store enough of the material to pay back the currency.
  2. Just keep enough on hand to handle the expected rate of withdrawal. This may result in the bank defaulting.
Option 1 sort of works with precious metals (though it's not great even there), option 2 is mostly what actually happens. The problem for grain is that the money supply shrinks in exactly the situations where you want the money supply to expand.
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Old 04-26-2021, 01:26 PM   #6
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

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I suspect the koku is a bit different, in that it's a persistent currency with a defined value of 1 certain quantity of rice, rather than a transient currency.
Oh, yeah, koku/maru is markedly different from the "local grain share" currency, only related in that both are set to be worth some quantity of grain. As you note, for the koku, this is a specific quantity (in fact, looking into it, the koku is explicitly a measure of volume). For the "grain share" currency, it's some amount of the local grain stockpile. Say there are 1000 tokens issued - each is worth 0.1% of the stockpile. Once they are turned in for grain, said tokens are taken out of circulation and each is worth a higher percentage of the remaining stockpile.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
  1. Actually store enough of the material to pay back the currency.
  2. Just keep enough on hand to handle the expected rate of withdrawal. This may result in the bank defaulting.
Option 1 sort of works with precious metals (though it's not great even there), option 2 is mostly what actually happens. The problem for grain is that the money supply shrinks in exactly the situations where you want the money supply to expand.
Yeah, the koku system runs into issues during times of serious famine. It works better for a setting where supply of the staple it is traded against is reliable - you can have fluctuation (such that in one region a sword costs less because rice or wheat or whatever is less available), but once your stockpiles start risking defaulting, you're in serious trouble.
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Old 04-26-2021, 06:31 PM   #7
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

In one edition at least of Chivalry & Sorcery the money was based on peasant income. A copper was a day, silver a month, gold a year. Helped make class differences easy to see and show just how expensive things like magic were.
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Old 04-25-2021, 10:12 AM   #8
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

I had considered something like this for an Ancient Egypt game but hadn't decided exactly how I'd implement it. In Pre-Hellenic Egypt, salaries were paid in quantities of grain maintained by the temple granaries, and the shares of grain traded for other goods.
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Old 04-25-2021, 07:13 PM   #9
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

Presumably the other place to use primitive economics is on the frontier - in this case the final frontier. It might be useful as local colour for some frontier colonial economy - probably founded by free settlers if such a thing exists.
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Old 04-25-2021, 11:55 PM   #10
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Default Re: Grain-based local currencies in medieval fantasy games

I read about in Alaska before banking was electronic so paper checks and cash that had to physically taken to a bank. Remote towns would have cash shortages because cash had to be used to pay outsiders for stuff so checks ended up circulating. Not writing a check but you owe someone $10 and give them a check from Bob for $4.50 and Mike for $5.15 and 35 cents in coin. They would then do the same for when they needed to pay someone.
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