Monday, September 7, 2020

Money and Prices in Post-Apocalyptic Settings

 I've been puzzling over this one for a while.  The standard D&D money system with set price lists really doesn't feel right for a post-apocalyptic setting.  A good post-apocalyptic money (or barter or whatever) system should have two qualities:

First, there should be no set price list, because prices are going to vary dramatically in a world where trade isn't safe or regular, and shortages are frequent.  Also, I'm constantly going to be introducing new things for sale and I'd rather not obsess over finding the "right" price for it.

Second, whatever people use as money needs to have clear practical value as something other than money.  No fiat currency, obviously, but also no shell money.  Ain't no patience for fancy money in the wasteland!

So that leaves three options that I can see, and I'll show you what I settled on in the end, including how I set prices.  


Barter seems thematic for the fucked-up remnants of a fallen civilization on a blasted planet.  Trade animal pelts for lodging, a gun for some gasoline, some doodads from a ruined city for bullets.

The only problem is it gets incredibly tedious.  And imprecise.  And makes it hard to accumulate and store wealth.  Okay, barter sucks, which is why money is one of the first things humans invented.

Commodity Money

By commodity money, I mean the common expendable items everyone needs are now money.  Something like:

Cup of water– copper piece

Bullet- silver piece

Ration– gold piece

Can of gasoline– Platinum piece

This makes a lot more thematic sense.  Using bullets as money is metal as fuck.  It has a few problems though.

First, it strains realism, if you care about that.  Gasoline actually only keeps a few months.  Bullets might keep for years if they're well-made and stored properly, which they probably wouldn't be.

Second, what if the value of these commodities changes?  That's always true for money of course, but seems a more likely issue when the money is perishable.

Third, and most importantly in my mind, it negates one of the main challenge vectors of an OSR game: managing resource depletion.  As an expedition goes on, you should run low on food, ammo, torches/batteries and the like, while accumulating treasure.  At some point you have to make the hard decision to head back to town for rest and supplies.

So if the treasure you gain largely consists of the same resources you deplete during an adventure, much of the resource management aspect of the game is lost.

Alright, So Actual Money Then

But like I said before: no set prices that are consistent from village to village– or even month to month.  And the money has to be useful stuff, which after all money originally was.  Here are the coins I'll use in my campaign:

Copper penny– used for wiring, cookware, cups and plates, making bronze and brass

Scrap (or titanium– decent-quality pre-apocalypse alloys anyway) dime– used as a structural material for things that need to be tough like weapons, armor, and certain parts of vehicles and buildings.

Silver dollar– used for mirrors, jewelry, batteries, electrical contacts, weapons for use against supernatural threats, dental fillings, certain medicines, etc.

Gold pound– used for electronics, dental fillings, jewelry, or electroplated over other things to rust-proof it.  So-called because it's usually worth about a pound of scrap metal.

Platinum crown– used for catalytic converters in vehicles, high-temperature applications, certain electrical parts, and certain medicines.  And extremely fancy jewelry. So-called because you're rich if you have a few platinum coins.  

Like most games, each coin is worth ten of the next cheapest one, so a crown is worth 100 dollars, or 10,000 pennies.  

Items cost d4 coins by default.  What kind of coins?  Depends on the item.

Basic consumables like food, water, lodging, bullets and torches cost copper pennies.

Basic low-tech gear, minor luxuries like wine, and low-tech weapons and armor cost scrap.  By low-tech, I mean anything a pre-industrial culture could make, not withstanding that more advanced alloys may be used since there's pre-tech scrap metal lying around.

More specialized gear, small animals like cats, dogs and chickens, low-tech vehicles like bicycles, rowboats or wagons, and modern tech weapons and armor cost silver.

Land (in town– land in the middle of nowhere is free to whoever can hold it), cobbled-together modern tech vehicles (motorcycles and small buggies), and small futuristic tech devices, weapons and armor cost gold, as do really fancy luxuries

Magic items and small futuristic vehicles cost platinum

Move up a coin size if it’s particularly fancy, i.e. fine food rather than cheap food, a private room in the inn rather than the common room, a custom car rather than a beater, a decent sword rather than a spear or dagger, chainmail rather than padded.  Move up two coin types if it’s really fancy, i.e. plate armor, a rare vintage of wine, or a bazooka.  

Move up a coin type for every order of magnitude of size above personal items– car, house, ship, fortress, etc.    

Move down a coin size if it's a piece of shit– a care that might break down any time now, spoiled food, a rusty weapon, etc.  

Items cost d4 coins.  If size is relevant like with armor or meals, d4+1 if sized for someone big, d3 if sized for someone small.  Double, triple or quadruple the price if there’s a shortage.  

If there's a glut of an item, you might get a small discount on one, but you can get much bigger discounts for buying in bulk.  In other words, if there's a surplus of something it's meant for export to other towns.


Plate armor: low-tech armor is scrap, but custom-made plate armor is extremely fancy and expensive, so that's gold.  If you can't afford that, mass-produced 3/4 plate is silver. 

A modern sniper rifle– modern weapons are silver, but sniper rifles are kinda fancy, so gold.  If you can't afford that, a lower-quality bolt-action hunting rifle could be silver.  

A crappy modern-tech motorcycle would cost gold.  A big all-terrain van that can hold the whole party plus hirelings, gear and loot would cost platinum, as would a really good motorcycle.  A really good big ATV would cost tens of platinum!  On the other hand, if you really want a ride for the whole party at cut-rate prices, you can get a sketchy battle van for gold.  Your funeral.

Whatever price you roll, that's the price in that town for the near future.  Yes, the same item might cost 4x as much in the next town over.  If so, there's a reason why prices haven't equalized, like bandits preventing regular trade between the two towns, or the towns just don't get along.  Figure out what the reason is, and turn it into an adventure seed.   

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