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Parkway Gold Pieces

Proof that even imaginary pennies are useless

On Monday, my wife and I were on our way home from a Labor Day BBQ at her dad’s, barreling south along the New Jersey Parkway (in point of fact, my wife was driving, due entirely to my being born in Pennsylvania and therefore lacking the will or ability to play real-life Spyhunter with everyone else on the road). When we got $4 in change at one of the toll plazas, I was surprised to receive it in the form of 3 one-dollar bills and a coin.

This was a new one–a 2010 Millard Fillmore dollar–which I didn’t know existed, essentially because (1) no one in America besides numismatists care about or want dollar coins, and (2) even fewer Americans care about Millard Fillmore, whose best and only contribution to American politics was to split the Whig party just before the Civil War. What whig party, you ask? Exactly.

Anyway, I get this coin and immediately suspect it’s a fake. Even more fake–I’ll wager–than the 2001 Sacagawea gold dollar I got from a vending machine in Manhattan. Absolutely more fake than that wretched Susan B. Anthony dollar people have been mistaking for quarters since the late 70s (and, seriously, a 19th century suffragist on one side and Apollo 11 on the other? Are we saying that, in terms of American accomplishments, letting women vote was just about as hard as putting a man on the moon?).

But I’m editoralising. There is a silver lining to this accidental discovery. Turns out that the American dollar coins (excepting Eisenhower’s) are pretty much exactly the size and weight I’d always expected of a D&D gold piece–something about the size of a quarter, but heavier. Understand that I’m throwing aside any historical convention here–this has nothing to do with actual coins in the real world, where actual coins really exist. This is all about what’s been stuck in my head since I started playing the Basic Moldvay edit in 1982. So you can imagine my wheels starting to turn when the Parkway toll-guy gives me a gold piece…

Size and Weight

I never subscribed to the B/X “measure-encumbrance-in-coin-weight” convention, mostly because it seemed to make encumbrance an afterthought whose sole purpose was to limit the amount of treasure you could carry. I also didn’t like the ten coins to a pound nonsense–everyone knows gold is, like, way more heavy than other metals. Still, lacking precision scales, I couldn’t have told you how encumbering, for example, a sack of quarters was. Nor did it matter, since quarters didn’t match my vision of a gold piece.

But thanks to my Millard Fillmore dollar and Wikipedia, I can finally apply some numbers and get down to it.

Here’s a matrix of American coins and their mass. I want to say up front that I’ve excluding metric only because of its alien nature–thanks to my American public school education and the failed initiatives of ex-president Jimmy Carter, I have no comprehension of what a gram actually is, aside from the metric equivalent of an ounce. For those to whom metric is appealing, please do your best to overlook my bias against your superiour measurement conventions.

Coin (American) Mass (troy oz.) Coins/pound Value/pound
Penny 0.08 182 $1.82
Nickel 0.16 91 $4.55
Dime 0.07 208 $20.80
Quarter 0.18 81 $20.25
Half-dollar 0.37 39 $19.50
Dollar (Eisenhower) 0.74 18 $18.00
Dollar (Anthony, Sacagawea, Pres.) 0.26 56 $56.00

Pennies Really Are Useless

Interesting figures. First off, if the D&D gold piece was about the size and weight of an American dollar coin, then 56 of them equals a pound. Fourth-Edition, wherein (I believe) 50 coins equals a pound, looks to be a lot closer to a realistic mark than B/X. That makes me feel like I made a sensible decision by balking the “10 coins = 1 pound,” but it also makes me wonder what Moldvay was thinking. Even the heaviest modern American coin–the Eisenhower dollar–is about half that mass. I have visions of D&D characters lugging about coins the size of drink coasters or Pringles lids…

Second, the matrix shows significant variation in coin weight as it relates to value. This is something you can make use of in your campaign. Consider the American penny–a pound of them equals $1.82. That’s a lot of weight for less than two dollars. Compare that to a dime, which goes for $20.80 a pound. That’s almost 11 and-a-half times more valuable than the penny (and, while we’re on the subject, only a little more than a third less valuable than equal weight of presidential dollars). A pound of nickels is $4.55, while a pound of quarters is $20.25. What’s the lesson? Only stingy GMs dole out treasure in nickels.

Applying Encumbrance

Making use of these figures is determining what a pound actually means in terms of your game’s encumbrance. Of course, some games actually use pounds to measure encumbrance, so you may be set already. But if you’re playing a game where encumbrance has no direct relationship to mass, you have to do some tweaking.

(Personally, I think it’s a good exercise, since encumbrance doesn’t always correspond to weight (try lugging a stack of lawn chairs–they’re light, but not at all wieldy). In fact, this brings up a good point: most systems let you improve encumbrance (or offset its penalty) via your Strength attribute. But that only matters for heavy stuff. If, instead, you’re stuck carrying lawn chairs from the shed to the patio, you’ll find that Dexterity is just as (if not more) important than Strength. Just a thought.)

Still, coins are supposed to be handy–they’re meant to be a convenient way to represent wealth–so if you’re translating the matrix above to encumbrance, you can feel free to err on the side of weight instead of bulk. Assuming you don’t want to simply assign a pound-weight-to-encumbrance ratio, it occurs to me that Chimera’s abstract encumbrance system, which is generally fast and easy to apply, is a workable approach. Note, however, that when you’re determining the encumbrance of small things, the abstraction works best with items (like coins) of uniform size. As a result, you may not get the most out of the matrix above, unless you take the time to customise the list, which threatens to negate any time-savings it was designed to provide.

Of course, an abstract customisation might not hurt. Based on the above, you could have three general coin sizes: small, medium, and large. Using the container types from Chimera’s encumbrance system, you might end up with something like this:

Enc (full) Capacity (sm.)[1]
Capacity (med.)[2]
Capacity (lrg.)[3]
Belt pouch, small 0 100 50 25
Belt pouch, medium 0 200 100 50
Backpack, rucksack 1 800 400 200
Backpack, frame 2 1,600 800 400
Sack, small 0 400 200 100
Sack, large 1 800 400 200
Chest, small 2 1,600 800 400
Chest, medium 3 2,400 1,200 600
Chest, large 4 3,200 1,600 800
1. Penny, Dime; 2. Nickel, Quarter; 3. Half-dollar, Dollar

Final Words

Nothing exceptionally creative here, but the exercise does surface two things: (1) coins in your game should be of different sizes, and (2) size and value aren’t necessarily proportional. The difference does much to instil realism in your campaign, and it’s not as hard to handle as you might think.

So, any Millard Fillmore fans out there? How do you handle coin weights in your campaign?

  1. deimos3428
    September 8th, 2010 at 16:54 | #1

    Fun fact: Nickels were designed to be worth precisely $0.01 per gram (they weigh exactly five grams), 200 coins per kilogram.

  2. September 8th, 2010 at 21:38 | #2

    @deimos3428 Ah, but $0.01 per gram of what? And don’t think I didn’t notice you trying to slip in some metric, there.

  3. deimos3428
    September 9th, 2010 at 11:35 | #3

    Yeah I did slip some metric in there, but I also had to research the American coins as the Canadian counterparts are *completely* different even though they have the same dimensions. What I find very interesting is that they purposely tied the coin’s value directly to its weight, and kept that valuation over the years against all reason. The composition has changed to try to cut costs, but the nickel is heavily undervalued even after that is taken into consideration. I felt like doing some math this morning…

    The 5g coin contains 3.75g of copper and 1.25g nickel, and is worth five cents. If a coin of the same size as the nickel with the composition of the dime, quarter, or half-dollar were made, that coin would have 4.583g copper, and 0.417g nickel and should be worth approximately 22 cents scaling the value by mass. That tells us that if nickel is considered a completely worthless substance, the 3.75g of copper in the actual coin should be worth about 18 cents alone! (To get it down to $0.05, nickel must be going for a whopping negative 14 cents per gram…I find that highly unlikely.)

    Back nearly on topic, I suspect Moldvay coins were meant to be a whole lot larger/heavier, and that the equal encumbrance thing was merely an abstract to handle the worst-case scenarios of gold and platinum.. With the exception of copper, the metals used (silver, electrum, gold, platinum) are all far more dense than cupronickel. Gold is about twice as dense as the cupronickel in the Eisenhower dollar, so 9-10 gold or platinum coins of that size per pound doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

  4. Swedmarine
    September 11th, 2010 at 06:35 | #4

    Quick metric conversion:

    1 gram is 1/1000 of kilogram.
    1 Kilogram is the weight of 1 litre of water.
    1 Litre is the volume of a 10 centimetres X 10cm X 10cm box.
    10cm is (sort of) 4 inches.
    (Or to put it another way
    1cm is 1/100 of a metre.
    1 Metre is 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole)

    And to justify posting this here: Interesting, I think I’ll try to apply some of this coin-thinking into one of my future games.

  5. September 11th, 2010 at 08:58 | #5

    @Swedmarine Thanks – I do understand the math – my stumbling block is the lack of practical reference points to these measurements. I couldn’t tell you how many kilos my cat weighs, or how many metres long my driveway is, or how many litres fit in my favourite coffee mug. When you tell me a gram is 1/1000 of a kilogram, it’s like me saying an ounce is 1/16th of a pound – unless you have a good conception of what a pound is, derivative units are hard to picture.

    Maybe I need a total immersion, like a foreign language course, but in metric units…

  6. deimos3428
    September 13th, 2010 at 09:56 | #6

    Well, how many nickels does your cat weigh? Just divide that by 200!

  7. September 13th, 2010 at 10:37 | #7

    @deimos3428 Genius. From now on, all measurements are in nickels. Mass, distance, volume–all of it. Nickels.

  8. Greg MacKenzie
    September 16th, 2010 at 12:24 | #8

    @Erin D. Smale

    You must have one large mug Erin! For those of us suffering under the tyranny of metric t’s 250ml in my tea mug :) On these weighty matters the solution was the Dungeon Donkey to carry the sacks of loot away, or a bag of holding which makes all weighty matters irrelevant. I suspect that is why it was invented; to allow everyone to forget bean counting. When it came to it, if you really applied the encumbrance rules in the old game, you’d be throwing gold/copper/silver down a bottomless pit just to make room for the jems and platinum you’d be carrying. Depriving the monsters of their treasure to line your own pockets was the point of the whole thing for most, and the more you took out of the Dungeon, the greater the XP award. No story was necessary, “where are the Orcs and their big heap of treasure?”

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