Exchange, Encumbrance, Experience: Reconstructing D&D's Economy

I think 90% of people take for granted that Dungeons & Dragons (1974) has a market economy totally unlike whatever predominated in medieval Europe, i.e. rent and social credit. Then, 9% of people acknowledge that D&D has a market economy because the setting is really a fantastic reimagining of the early modern period, in particular the American (Wild) West. That is totally correct on the level of cultural criticism, but it does not tell us much about how that economy factors into D&D at large. Let’s start with a new set of questions: how does the market economy impact play, especially as prescribed by the classic TSR books?

In this post, I’m going to take a systematic look at the role of gold pieces in D&D between different contexts of play: exchange, encumbrance, and experience. Then I will see how, despite this symmetry, D&D fails to be fully consistent or intuitive in practice. Finally, I will develop an alternative to D&D’s economic system, that retains the same mechanical symmetry as the original D&D while incorporating contemporary rules for abstract inventory management.

The CC-BY art above is by Emiel Boven! I don't know why it's sized so big here lol, I tried to make it smaller.

The Setting of D&D

Adventurers might deal with coins because they are untrustworthy. Maybe they are strangers from a faraway place, or they are just kinda unsavory in general. Graeber talks about how, in premodern societies, commodity exchange (in the most general sense of “commodity”) mostly took place between strangers who could not guarantee that a gift would be compensated in the future [1]. Unlike gift exchange, commodity exchange is an instant transaction; you get something in return right then and there. In other words, even if gift exchange were central in the world of D&D, adventurers would not have access to that social “institution”.

But the market economy of D&D does not seem to be the exception to a norm. There are vast stockpiles of gold coins in the Underworld. Taxes are paid in coins rather than in kind (that is, as goods or services given to the state). Goods and services, likewise, are purchased using currency. Various bloggers have written about how D&D’s setting is thoroughly “modern” in its social structures (political and economic), and I suspect that anyone familiar with medieval Europe would look at D&D as anything but [2] [3] [4].

Yet knowing that D&D is a Western, as blogger Paul Hughes argued in his post “d&d is anti-medieval”, does not give the whole story [2]. There are many conveniences afforded by a predominant market economy (that is, capitalism) that are not possible or widespread in feudal society. These conveniences for characters in the game-world translate to conveniences for players who, through their characters, are expected to engage with the economy of the game-world throughout the course of the game. We have understood for a while that D&D is barely medieval despite its aesthetic pretense; next we should strive to understand how its world’s modernity is central to its play structures.

The Structure of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons, at early stages of play, is a dungeon-crawling game where players’ characters explore an Underworld in order to seek treasure. Treasure carried thence translates to experience points. As characters accumulate experience points, they advance and become stronger or otherwise more capable in their class (fighter, mage, or cleric). Meanwhile, the treasure they acquire is spent on tools, arms, retainers, henchmen, strongholds, and armies.

The gold piece is the lynchpin of the game serving as a unit across multiple contexts of play. It is a unit of currency, used to buy all kinds of goods and services. It is a measure of weight, equal to one tenth of a pound, used to calculate the encumbrance of a character carrying treasure while (potentially) wearing heavy armor and carrying large weapons. It is the most common or typical form of treasure found in the Underworld. Finally, it is the basis of the experience point: one gold piece’s worth of treasure is worth one experience point—and let’s be honest, what kind of treasure would you expect to find the most anyway?

The entire game is oriented around the gold piece as a unit. There are other denominations of currency or other kinds of treasure, but they all weigh the same as a gold piece. This means if you have some quantity of copper pieces, in order to find their true value in exchange or experience you divide their total weight by 50 (since 1 gold piece is worth 50 copper pieces). The early game is literally an optimization problem of weight versus value, with the additional complication that if you equip too little protective gear or carry too much stuff you will likely die. In any case, weight translates to value which translates to experience and purchasing power, and in terms of gold pieces all the values of each stage are translated at a one-to-one ratio.

Here we find an interesting analogy between the game function of gold pieces (in its multiplicity) and the function of currency in the real world. Money is a measure that translates the value of different objects into relative values of exchange. Even in economies where commerce does not predominate, money serves that same function if it exists [1]. Marx argues in Capital that money, by signifying the exchange-value of a good or service, suggests an equivalence between two or more such commodities that cost the same. There is an underlying value of commodities which money obscures by expressing that value as a ratio to itself. Thus, despite the particular use-cases of any commodity, money serves to translate its value into one comparable with another for the purposes of exchange or account (these are not really dissimilar). Likewise, the gold piece translates different qualities into one unit which is transferable between those different use-cases (exchange, encumbrance, experience). The gold piece is the unit that ties all of D&D together and translates value between its specific systems or situations.

The Issue with D&D

The problem is that, although the above is really quite impressive, there are issues in how it is implemented in D&D, and it is a fidgety and unwieldy system in its nature. Here, I will discuss the problems with coin weight as a measure of encumbrance, and with the prices of commodities in D&D. I will also discuss the various successes and failures of the popular slot inventory method, which simplifies the problem of encumbrance but still leaves currency a pain in the ass.

The Issue with Coin Weight

Is the one-to-one symmetry between exchange, encumbrance, and experience beautiful? Yes. Wouldn’t it be fucked up if they weren’t symmetrical but the rulebook still asked you to convert between all of them? Yes. Isn’t it kind of handy that 10 gold pieces are 1 pound heavy, so it’s like a sneaky way of adding more granularity to weight measure without keeping track of pounds and ounces? Yes. Doesn’t it still suck shit to count pennies? YES.

You couldn’t pay me to use coin weight. Well, maybe you could pay me, but it’s a figure of speech. There’s a good reason why D&D would only ask you to measure the weight of your (worn) equipment and treasure, and relegated everything else to a “Misc. Equipment” category weighing 8 pounds or 80 pieces. If you had to keep track of every torch you burned through or every ration you ate, and then you had to subtract the weight of those items from your total encumbrance each time, that would be absolute hell. AD&D is even worse than its predecessor because not only does it assign torches coin weight, but specifically a coin weight of 25. Why? Seriously.

The Issue with Prices

This is related to the problem with coin weight. Typical coin denominations are way smaller than the quantities you would expect to spend at a time or for staple items such as resources or equipment. Often, too, prices are listed in a variety of denominations on the same “menu”. This is less of a problem with D&D than it is with AD&D, the abomination before God that it is. These problems are basically quality-of-life ones that can be improved just by thinking about what it would be like to sit at a table and use a calculator to buy individual torches at Bloodbath & Beyond or whatever.

The worst problem is when D&D seems to use the same coin denomination to refer to seemingly different quantities of value. Does it make sense that each villager pays 10 gold coins a year in taxes, but also the minimum wage for a worker is 1 gold coin per month? Even worse, compare that to the item prices earlier in Volume 1. One sword costs as much as your annual taxes, but also as much as ten months’ wages. Both of those kind of suck. More than being a quality-of-life issue, this is a failure to translate the same quantity of value between different stages of the game, but feeling obliged to use the same name for what are otherwise different units. You have early stage gold coins, tax gold coins, and wage gold coins. These should not all be the same thing, or at least not at the quantities given.

This problem could be solved by using actually different denominations between these different contexts of the game. I will explain this below.

The Issue with Cool Treasure

Slot-based inventories are what all the cool kids are doing today, popularized by blog posts from the G+ OSR circle and the rulebook Knave thereafter. Slots are an abstracted unit of weight and volume, representing some standard quantity of both measures. Some items are small enough that they can be bundled into one slot. Other items are large enough to take up the space of two or more slots. God, I sound like a fucking lawyer right now. Although many implementations do not account for movement speed, the version found on Nick L.S. Whelan's Papers & Pencils does [5], as does Arnold Kemp’s Goblin Punch [6], as does the rulebook Errant which also accounts for variable base movement rates and slot capacities [7]. Whew. Anyway, slot-based encumbrance seems to have emerged around the same time that resource management became a more prominent aspect of the dungeon game. Just look at coin weight to see why.

Gus L. of All Dead Generations has suggested a conversion from coin treasure to object treasure [8] [9]. Since treasure hoards in D&D are valued in thousands of coins (of different denominations), one can read each entry for its equivalent in experience points, and substitute the coin treasure for an object of the same value. For example, “1,000 copper pieces” can be treated as a “raw textile” worth 10 experience points (or 20 using D&D’s denomination ratios), and “1,000 silver pieces” can be treated as a “decorative statue”, worth 100 experience points. Since each item would take up one slot, of which a character has few, the player has to be mindful of which treasures are worth carrying over others. Thus, a slot-based inventory system would work better with object-based treasure than with coins.

Object-based treasure would simplify the counting of experience points. All we have to do is find the greatest common factor of the different 1000s-of-coins categories, and divide them all by that factor. The lowest common denominator is 1,000 copper pieces which earn 20 experience points. A “copper-grade” treasure would then equal 1 new experience point. 1,000 silver pieces earn 100 experience points, so in our new scheme a “silver-grade” would earn 5 (100 divided by 20) experience points. Finally, 1,000 gold pieces earn 1,000 experience points, so a “gold-grade” treasure would earn 50 new experience points. If a character required 2,000 experience points to advance to the second level, now they require 100 new experience points.

Here’s a handy-dandy table, based off of Gus L.'s except with the new experience point values and using D&D’s original coin denominations:

1,000s of Coins XP Values Object-Based Treasure New XP Values
Copper Pieces 20 Copper Grade 1
Silver Pieces 100 Silver Grade 5
Gold Pieces 1,000 Gold Grade 50

The problem with object-based treasure is that it does not interface well with money. Within the game-world, first of all, the characters have to sell any treasure they recover before being able to reap the benefits thereof. This introduces a whole logistical problem that simply did not exist when treasure was simply coins ready to exchange hands on the market. Also, slot-based encumbrance is not intuitive when one has to also keep track of coins or other small items. You end up reading rules that say you can hold 100 or 200 or 500 coins in an item slot. No bueno.

Best solution I’ve seen is something like in Macchiato Monsters where, rather than counting coins in a slot, you keep track of discrete “bag of coins” items. However, ignore the part of that rulebook where you roll dice representing the bags. Instead, I will have them represent standard prices of significant items, like if you had an item called “wad of ten dollars” that let you buy a meal or a movie ticket. I will elaborate on this later!

Starting From Scratch

That was a lot, wasn’t it? We know what D&D was trying to accomplish in its gold piece system by interfacing between three important contexts of early stage play: exchange, encumbrance, and experience. We have also looked at certain issues with D&D’s implementation, from having inconsistent commodity values to being simply difficult to count. We have also compared the typical slot-based inventory system to classic D&D, in how it does manage to simplify encumbrance but does not often do the same thing for exchange or experience. Now, let’s take all that and reconstruct the D&D economy from scratch, taking into account what is reasonable as well as what is practical.

Adventuring Expenses

What items you would expect an adventurer to purchase before doing whatever they do? They would probably some need rations (2-3?), some torches (2-3?), a weapon, some armor if they’re so inclined. A standard slot inventory system would prescribe each character to have about 10-12 slots, so we’re looking at maybe 3-7 slots taken up depending on what items you bundle up. This is pretty nice, easy, and typical.

The more difficult question is: what do those items cost? Certainly, many books now will start you off with equipment so you don’t have to spend time rolling for your starting pennies and buying stuff at the store. But when your character runs out of rations or breaks their weapon, how much will it cost to replace them? I’m starting off by talking about this instead of any fictional world issues because it’s a trick question: they should cost whatever is the least frustrating amount of math to do. If you can distinguish between things that cost 1, 2, or 3 money units, that is the best possible way to handle it.

I recently edited FLEE by my friend Emmy Verte [10], and I suggested a pricing system to her along those lines because her rulebook is centered on an abstract resource called “supply” that is converted into torches, rations, and usage points for all kinds of items. Since this meant that supply would probably be the cheapest item in the game, I suggested that 1 unit of supply cost 1 coin. This represents a large enough quantity of value to also simplify the price listings of other items: weapons cost from 1-3 coins depending on size, and 1 day spent healing in town costs 1 coin. I’m very excited to play FLEE if only because it will be the first D&D-like I’ve played where money is not a headache to count and use.

So, honestly, I will just steal some version of that system wholesale (it’s my math!). Keep numbers low. One ration, one coin. One small weapon, one coin. One night at an inn, one coin. These won’t be individual coins by the end of this post, but it’s those kinds of numbers that I want to stick with.

What’s in your Pocketses?

When our money unit seems to represent a decent amount of value, though, maybe it makes less sense to treat it as individual coins. This is especially so if you are using a slot inventory system where, again, keeping track of individual coins is even more of a pain in the ass than if you were keeping track of nothing but coins! Fuck coins. We’re not counting coins anymore. We’re not vampires. Well, y’all aren’t.

Bags of coins. Coin-bags. Like I said, I’m stealing the abstract money system from Macchiato Monsters, except without the part where you have to roll in order to buy things and thus spend your bag of money. We don’t need that. We know that things cost a relative amount of money, so we can spend that amount. One ration costs one coin-bag. One night at an inn costs one coin-bag. One dagger costs one coin-bag. One sword costs, get this, two coin-bags! Numbers stay as low as we need, and they are abstract enough to fit in our abstract item slots just perfectly. Because we decided so. Behold my table of simple item prices:

Bags of Coins Example Commodities
1 Day’s rations, small weapon, room & board, shield
2 Professional tool, medium weapon, day’s service, helmet, light armor
4 Chain armor, large weapon, basic mercenary service
6 Plate armor, expert mercenary service

This works very well with our abstract treasure that we discussed earlier. Bag-coins will probably be common enough sources of treasure that you can hide them in your world like candy (“Woah, you found… three bags of coins in this trash can!”). And they would be immediately spendable! Other sources of treasure would be valuable enough that they would warrant having to make special trips to sell them and reap the profits. Finally, the experience point thresholds can match one-to-one with coin-bags! Behold my final table of experience points:

XP Values Example Treasures
1 Bag of coins, rations, used tools, cheap alcohol
5 Professional tools, nice furniture, fine alcohol
50 Furs, paintings, sculptures, tapestries

I did it, motherfuckers! I unified slot encumbrance with one-to-one experience points and simple exchange values for items! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Just keep in mind that you are basically converting dungeon treasure from a gold standard to a copper standard. Now gold is super rare. Now treasure means something.

Please, No Accounting

Originally I wrote a section here about extrapolating living expenses and annual revenue from the costs of typical items described above. If you care about that, here’s the only decent part. It costs 2 coin-bags to hire someone for a day, or 10 coin-bags for a week. They spend 7 coin-bags a week on living expenses because that’s 1 coin-bag a day, and they give 1 coin-bag each to the church and the state so they have 1 coin-bag leftover. So, if your character works between adventures, give them 1 coin-bag per week of work. You can multiply these values to represent more “skilled” (i.e. valuable) labor or higher standards of living, and even restrict certain qualities of jobs (and thus weekly gross earnings) to certain character backgrounds.

No one likes domain accounting. If you really had to do it: take your area’s working population, and divide by 10 to get tax revenue in terms of periodic productivity (10 people yield 1 tax unit). That’s how many minimum wage soldiers you can afford to employ at a maximum, assuming you aren’t spending tax revenue on anything nice like healthcare [11]. If you want to convert to different war game scales, divide by how many persons one troop unit represents. Please, God, don’t bother with converting these values to actual prices whether in coin-bags or something else. A month’s wages are probably 50 coin-bags, and a month’s taxes are probably 5 coin-bags. That does conveniently match up to D&D coin denominations if our usual coin-bags were copper, and a month’s wages were like a bag of gold coins. But that is a distraction. You don’t need that.

But, fuck it, I’ll enshrine it anyway. 1 bag of silver coins is worth 5 bags of copper coins, and 1 bag of gold coins is worth 10 bags of silver coins. See? That matches up perfectly with experience point values of treasure, so you could be a lazy referee and populate your hoards with nothing but coin-bags of varying denominations just like Gary did [12]. Retvrn to tradition!


My friend Warren of Prismatic Wasteland told me that it seemed like most posts about D&D economics either try to design a new economic system based on how D&D fails (to be medieval, to be abstract, etc.), or they try to take seriously the economics of D&D and extrapolate what implications it has for the campaign setting. My hope here is that I’ve killed two birds with one stone, by taking seriously D&D’s design constraints and trying to make something that is more abstract, while still interfacing between the major contexts of classic play.

So, some caveats or suggestions. The money-units don’t have to be bags of coins. They could be something like tally sticks, which are literal sticks that people in Britain used to use as debt records and currency. They could also be giant ingots of metal or, hell, just super-sized coins. The point is just to use units that make sense to fit nicely into standard-sized slots, rather than counting tens or hundreds of little coins in one container. But you could also just ignore that part and use the small numbers, like FLEE’s simple coin currency. That in itself is an upgrade to keeping track of huge numbers of currency, because the numbers are easier to work with. Literally anything would be easier than counting not just hundreds but thousands of coins.

The larger point is that you can bend the rules of your fictional fantasy world to make it easier to play with. The game-world is totally made-up, at least if you're playing D&D as typically envisioned. Why not orient the fiction towards your needs, rather than sticking to an old idea of what the fictional world should be like? Trying to transform the economy of D&D into something more historical might relieve you of some cognitive dissonance, and it might be a fun experiment to explore what a "realistic" version of D&D's economy might look like, but it won't make life any easier for you.


[1] I reviewed Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (“David Graeber’s Debt: An Informal Review”, 2022-08-02). It’s mid.

[2] Hughes, Paul. 2016-11-02. “d&d is anti-medieval”, Blog of Holding.

[3] B., Marcia. 2022-07-05. “On Thieves: A Trifunctional Analysis of OD&D”, Traverse Fantasy.

[4] B., Marcia. 2022-09-19. “D&D’s Obsession With Phallic Desire”, Traverse Fantasy.

[5] Whelan, Nick L.S. 2012-03-18. "Making Encumbrance Work", Papers & Pencils.

[6] Kemp, Arnold. 2013-11-13. “Armor and Inventory”, Goblin Punch.

[7] Islam, Ava. 2022. Errant, p. 27. Online reference.

[8] L., Gus. 2019-09-09. “A NOTE: On Encumbrance, Treasure and Session Structure”, All Dead Generations.

[9] L., Gus. 2021-11-01. “Classic Vs. Treasure, Part 1”, All Dead Generations.

[10] Verte, Emmy. 2022. FLEE.

[11] Imagine a domain minigame where you allocate tenths of your income to military, infrastructure, welfare, industry, or some such handful of categories. These could inform random events or how well your domain can respond to them, like in the mobile game Reigns, without too many fiddly bits. Probably for a different post!

[12] Gary wasn’t that bad, but I remember him being very particular about preferring pirate-ass treasure.

Other Readings

B., John. 2012-05-02. "Abolishing Money", The Retired Adventurer. An explanation of how to incorporate debt-based or gift-based economies in campaigns, as opposed to money economies.

B., Marcia. 2022-03-15. "Coins & Calendars, Redeux", Traverse Fantasy. An earlier post of mine where I develop an economic model and currency system based on the notion that D&D takes place in a semi-modern or developing world. Apparently ACKS did this first.

Dwiz. 2022-02-06. “Alternative Economics (Part 1: Money)”, A Knight at the Opera. The first in a series of blog posts that explore alternative economic models for tabletop games.

Skerples. 2017-09-14. “Medieval Price List”, Coins and Scrolls. A list of prices for goods and services using D&D's currency system, but based off of relative values from medieval times.

Smith, Warren. 2021-04-01. “Bury Your Gold: On Abstract Wealth”, Prismatic Wasteland. An abstraction of wealth through a certain ability score (attached to the party rather than to individual characters) which indicates what goods or services are affordable, and where.


  1. This feels like an actualization of the coin system within slot-based inventory. Having one coin be one slot and equal one supply makes my designer brain do that cat back-stretch thing. Definitely hacking this into my od&d system, and will be questioning how I can minimize maths on the unsuspecting player. And as a bonus, these smaller denominations make pricing as a Referee so much easier!

    I would like to propose units of cp, sp, and gp (copper, silver, and gold pouches).

    I was reminded of The Black Hack's Common/Rare/Expensive item categorization. This lines up very well with Copper, Silver, and Gold as currency denominations.

    For example, perhaps copper is the default early game reward, and if it costs coppers it may probably be found in villages (torches, rations, donkeys, etc). As adventurers reach "Heroic" and begin to travel the overworld, they usually acquire silver, and if it costs silvers it can probably be found in towns (mail, holy water, riding horses, etc). Finally, as they become super-heroic to leaders, gold becomes far more common, and if it costs gold it can probably be found in cities (plate, spellbooks, war horses, etc).

    I feel your system is better in regards to minimizing inventory math. But if inventory management is a bit more granular (such as The Alexandrian's "Encumbrance by Stone"), this may be a fun implementation. I think dealing with 10 coins to a slot, coins exchanging 10:1, and having items cost 1, 2 or 5 coins per denomination, would be very implementable.

    1. hello, thank you so much! :D i think that 10 coins per slot is very handy, and it also brings to mind the 10 coins/lb of the original books.

      also being able to use different currencies in different levels of settlements is really clever!! i am going to keep that in my brain :)

      i think stone encumbrance is very handy and, if you treat 1 stone as 10 lb, it interfaces in very interesting ways with typical 1/10 lb coins. a 10-strength character carrying 10 stones, 100 lb, or 1000 coins? the math makes me happy!


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