n apothecary's hovel, on the edge of the city of Manford. A transaction is taking place.
"That will be 14 Ladies please, m'lord."
"What? But that's outrageous! I could buy a fine sword for that!"
"Well, you can always take your business ...elsewhere."
"No! I mean, no, that's quite all right. I didn't... I mean, I was just surprised, that's all."
"The payment, then?"
"Well, all I have on me, besides loose change, that is, is this coin bundle."
"Greenmercer's, I think... yes. Greenmercer's."
"I'll take that then. What's inside?"
"Um... says here, '2 Eagles'."
"Alright, then. I'll give you your change ... 9 Ladies"
"Thank you, kind sir."
The young man leaves the hovel, and strides off into the night, hand protectively covering his new vial.
Ever get bored of every commercial transaction in your game world taking place as though the player just stepped into your local convenience store? Why, even in convenience stores, the teller occasionally runs out of change, and usually can't take $500 bills.
Well, I've become bored of this state of affairs, and so propose some ways of spicing up commercial transactions in fantasy game worlds.
Throughout most of medieval history, most countries were perpetually short on specie (that is, actual coins). Because the idea of token-based currency (where the metal in the coin was worth less than the value of the coin) hadn't caught on yet, if there wasn't enough precious metal to make coins, you didn't make coins.
The principle consequence was that coins just weren't used for most small transactions. Alternate schemes were needed, such as barter, described in the next section.
Even if the transaction wasn't being conducted with barter, it was very unlikely that a merchant would have exact change for a transaction. You would end up making a one-time agreement for the purchase price, based on coins that you had, and coins that the merchant happened to have. A receipt (or bill of sale) was a good idea.
Probably the easiest way to spice up a campaign's economics is to introduce barter.
Introducing barter is easy: a merchant can refuse payment in coins, or the characters may not have enough coin to make a purchase. The merchant suggests something else, and haggling begins. Relative values of items are straightforward: the list price of the item sets its value.
There are many reasons why a barter transaction may be preferable to a merchant. One is fear of the use of counterfeit or foreign coins, which is compounded in rural areas where few coins are ever seen. Another is the sheer lack of currency. Whole communities might forgo the use of coins as a matter of course, because no coins are ever seen, and trying to use one in the community is just wierd.
Haggling with barter is a lot more interesting and exciting than haggling with money. Characters can suggest items that they have, the merchant can suggest items that they see, or throw in extra items. Contrast this with sterile coinage, which always follows the same pattern: the buyer climbs numerically, the seller descends numerically, until the midpoint is reached. <yawn>
Another advantage of barter is that in many (and some would say, the most successful) transactions, both the buyer and the seller can walk away, each thinking they got the best of the deal. The same item can be worth differing amounts to differing people.
Whenever there are coins, there are those who try to take criminal advantage of the coin system. Here are some ideas:
There are various means by which counterfeiting is detected, but most commonly, the merchant uses a scale or balance to weigh all coins used in a transaction.
The introduction of bills of sale can make an economic environment very interesting.
Keep in mind that most merchant-types are motivated by greed, and many of them wouldn't think twice before cheating a customer, if they felt they could get away with it.
Note also that counterfeit and underweight coinage might not be unusual (see above), and so merchants always eye any coinage they receive with suspicion.
Bills of sale protect everybody involved in a transaction from foul play. With a bill of sale signed by both parties held by both parties, either can approach a magistrate or local law official with the bill of sale and the goods and declare foul play.
Without a bill of sale, false claims can be made, false bills of sale can be forged, improper trade can be conducted: and it is very difficult for a judge to do anything about it. Caveat emptor.
We have become accustomed to the late twentieth century, in which all goods are branded, and large corporations can be held accountable for poor quality merchandise. We may complain about the quality of goods going down year by year, but we at least have the safety of accountability.
One of the oldest ways for merchants and craftsmen to cheat their customers is to sell low-quality merchandise for a high price, claiming that the merchandise is high quality. Without a bill of sale, little can be done.
Stale fish made rosy with sheep's blood, dry cheese made moist again by soaking it in wine, gray hairs on a horse darkened with ink and charcoal dust, all of these scams have been perpetrated on customers in the past.
Thus, for a really good time, make a bunch of things that the players purchased without bills of sale be of less-than-ideal quality. That rope they bought to scale the castle wall frays and snaps. The harness they just bought wears through. Iron is rusted out in the center, making it brittle. When they demand justice, inform them that without a bill of sale, there is little they can do.
One step along the historic road to token-based money was the idea of sealing money into a bag using the seal of a well-known personage. As long as people recognize the seal and trust that he would not cheat anybody, the bag can be passed from hand to hand without ever being opened.
There are advantages to this. One is to protect the coins from excessive wear, thus maintaining their value. Another is to keep the money safe from those who would 'dust', or 'skim' it.
It also, of course, opens the doors to abuse. A well-known and wealthy merchant may plan a long-deserved vacation in a distant country after issuing a large number of sealed bags of coins containing lead, rather than gold.
In practice, however, this happens rarely, since a man's reputation is on the line. Thus, the system works remarkably well.
When travelling to far-off countries, a common anachronism for game masters to allow is that these countries either use the same currency, or that their merchants are willing to accept foreign coins.
Historically, however, this was not the case, and coins would have to be traded in at a loss at a moneylenders. Merchants may also accept foreign coins, if the characters are in a hurry, but at an even more exorbitant rate.
Some countries also allow foreign coins to be stamped for circulation within their domain. A fee is typically charged for the stamping, however (usually not more than 10% of the value of the coins)
Keep in mind that many of the people in a Medieval society dislike foreigners on principle, and wouldn't think twice about cheating them. This is even more likely if the local law enforcement has similar opinions about foreigners.
An easy tactic to use is after a transaction is completed, the merchant accuses the character of having failed to pay. If the character refuses, she finds that nobody is willing to stand up for her. She must either pay again or be punished by the law.
Some governments levy a tax on all trade within their kingdom by placing a tax on every transaction. This can come as an exciting surprise for characters in a new country.
A good source of ideas for taxation can be found in our own world. Taxes for carrying goods across borders, taxes on every purchase, taxes on income, ... all these are common, and can be made part of a fantasy roleplaying world.