When is a gold piece not a gold piece?

There’s a common assumption of interchangeability of OSR adventures and systems. Pick your favourite system, then draw from the vast array of adventures written for the vast array of systems (or just labeled as “OSR“). This works, for the most part, due to the unique features of the playstyle such as de-empasizing the rules and a core of shared assumptions. The GM can easily figure out how to represent the monsters and traps of a given adventure in their system of choice. What can just as easily go overlooked is treasure. A gp is a gp, is it not?

Turns out it’s really, really not.

Equipment lists vary greatly between game systems, and there’s never any thought put into actual economics of the fantasy worlds we inhabit – which is fine, that’s not what the games are about, and any attempt to extrapolate how those worlds actually function is futile yet hilarious (see the Dungeonomics articles). For my part, I’ve previously looked at what money are used for in games, and why they so often don’t “work”.

What we actually care about right now is the buying power of a gold piece, and how it differs from system to system. Real world has “Big Mac index“, so I’ve compiled a Ration index, the relative price of a week’s worth of rations, as it is a baseline item every adventurer needs, and therefore every system specifies. I’ve tied the computed value to OD&D, but it’s trivial to calculate a different conversion.

Without further ado, here’s a table of a bunch of OSR and fantasy systems I had or got my hands on. There may be errors (please correct them in comments!), as some of this was compiled from SRD documents and other information available online. Feel free to suggest other systems and their values, too.

SystemRation (GP/ week)Ration Index
AD&D 2e30.6
D&D 3 & Pathfinder3.50.7
D&D 43.50.7
D&D 53.50.7
Pathfinder 2e0.40.08
13th Age3.50.7
Shadow of the Demon Lord0.010.002
Dungeon Crawl Classics0.350.07
Swords & Wizardry3.50.7
Electric Bastionland35*7
Ultraviolet Grasslands102
Best Left Buried2**0.4
Basic Fantasy102
B/X, OSE51
Labyrinth Lord1.4.28

*Electric Bastionland doesn’t have a price for rations, but it does have a “canned eel” for 2 new pounds, so I’ve extrapolated to 5/day or 35/week.

**Best Left Buried doesn’t have ration prices either, at least not in the core book. In the Beneath the Missing Sea adventure, which is how I’ve learned about this system, there’s a price of 2 affluence points/week for food (and 3/week for water, but the whole adventure is about a disaster zone, so we’ll ignore that component).

Two square meals a day is not all an adventurer aspires to, however. Full plate armor is a common high-end equipment. In some games, that’s the pinnacle an adventurer can achieve, in others you can start with a full set of armor, so it’s tricky to use for direct comparison between systems. Also included is the Ration-Plate index, a within-system comparison of prices, or how many weeks of rations a full plate suit costs.

SystemFull PlateFull Plate IndexRation-Plate Index
AD&D 2e4008133
D&D 3 & Pathfinder150030429
D&D 450114
D&D 5150030429
Pathfinder 2e300.675
13th Age50114
Shadow of the Demon Lord250.52500
Dungeon Crawl Classics1200243429
Swords & Wizardry100229
Electric Bastionland10002029
Ultraviolet Grasslands150030150
Best Left Buried50.12.5
Basic Fantasy300630
B/X, OSE601.212
Labyrinth Lord4509321

With Ration index, three outliers stand out: Shadow of the Demon Lord and Dungeon Crawl Classics on the low side, and Electric Bastionland on the high. All prices are a game design decision, and the likeliest explanation for low prices of SotDL and DCC is that players in these systems aren’t meant to sweat the “small stuff”, they have demons to fight. On the other hand, the relatively high price of food in EBL serves to push PCs into adventuring, as debt is the primary motivation for starting PCs in that game. Or it would, if that system wasn’t so focused on minimising the rules it actually included living costs.

However, if starvation is an actual threat in a game, it’s usually because the party didn’t bring enough rations with them, not because they’re too poor to afford food. Unless you’re playing Red Markets, that is. The one exception here is Best Left Buried, which, despite having the Ration index of 0.4 (seemingly making rations more affordable than in D&D), has the lowest Plate-Ration index of 2.5, meaning a BLB character can get a fancy suit of armor for the prices of 2.5 sacks of potatoes. I suspect this is the combination of the relatively unexceptional nature of full plate in that system (that is, it isn’t something you aspire to, it’s just something you wear if it fits your character) and actual possibility of starvation in the adventure that provided ration prices.

Overall, the relative Ration index is only useful when converting starting level adventures. Full Plate index is perhaps more indicative once you move past that stage. As for the Ration-Plate index, it is mostly a curiosity. The lower the value, the easier it is to afford full plate armour in that system, likely indicating, as with the BLB example above, that it is a character build item as opposed to a luxury item.

What can we conclude based on this little collection of data? Only that one game’s GP has nothing to do with another.

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