Setting a Gold Standard

We’ve spoken before about how Pathfinder portrays the economy. However, while it’s useful to look at that in terms of an individual’s earning power over time, there’s also some merit in looking at the value of Pathfinder’s currency.

Good for your character, hell on the stock market.

On the surface, this is fairly self-explanatory. Pathfinder runs on a gold piece-standard, with greater (platinum) and lesser (silver and copper) denominations; if you want to judge how expensive something is, its price is measured in gold pieces. Easy enough to understand, right?

But what if we wanted to express that in more familiar terms? What if we wanted to measure something’s cost in terms of real-world currency?

Many readers are probably rolling their eyes at this, expecting things to devolve into a dry set of extrapolations based on the weight of gold coins (in troy or avoirdupois) and the current value of gold on the world market. Don’t worry, we’re not going to delve into such dry minutia…much.

Realistic Abstractionism

In order to develop a baseline for how much gold coins are worth in United States dollars, there’s a much easier rubric. Game Room Creations’ book The Modern Path – Heroes of the Modern World 2.0 has, among other things, a chart that compares Pathfinder currency to USD. This holds that one gold piece is equivalent to $10.

By itself, that’s not a bad conversion guideline, if perhaps a slightly prosaic one. But let’s try and lend this just a little bit of economic context. In order to do this, we’re going to need to make a comparison between a particular measurement for a given economic condition in Pathfinder and one in the real world.

Luckily we have just such a condition to compare: the poverty line.

Take a look at the cost of living breakdown for Pathfinder. This measures how much a PC – that is, one person – must pay per month to maintain a given standard of living. The base minimum that a person must pay to be “average,” which is just above “poor,” is 10 gp per month. That’s 120 gp per year, which with the above calculations is $1,200 per year. Hence, Pathfinder’s poverty line is $1,200 USD.

Now, let’s compare this to the poverty line for a single person living in the United States in the year 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This lists that for a single person (in the lower forty-eight states) the poverty line is $10,980 – much higher than the Pathfinder standard!

Now, let’s divide one into the other – real world America’s poverty line is higher than Pathfinder’s by a factor of 9.075. What does that mean? It means that if you wanted to calculate how much a Pathfinder gold piece can buy, in terms of today’s money, you have to multiply its standard USD equivalent ($10) by this number.

In other words, one gp is worth $90.75 USD.

Hence, someone earning only 120 gp in a year in a Pathfinder game is making the same amount of money as someone earning $10,890 in contemporary America; just enough to get by.

Think about that the next time your character off-handedly slaps down 315 gp for a masterwork longsword. That’s the equivalent of putting down almost thirty thousand dollars for a purchase; buying a masterwork longsword is your character’s equivalent of buying a new car.

And that's before you start adding bling.

The idea of a character who quits being a humble farmer to go out into the world and make it big is a trite one, to be sure, but this makes it a little easier to see why they’d do it.

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8 Responses to “Setting a Gold Standard”

  1. Neruz Says:

    You’ve used the wrong baseline. Given the descriptions of the wealth levels in PF, the poverty baseline in America would match the Poor level (Unskilled labourers), which is 36 gp a year.

    The 120 gp a year line you used is “the lifestyle of most trained or skilled experts or warriors” which sounds like middle-class, not baseline poverty.

  2. Neruz Says:

    In addendum, with that in mind 1 GP is in fact equal to approximately 305 USD, that 315 gp Masterwork Longsword is actually 96,075 USD, which makes sense to me, a -Masterwork- Longsword is about the equivilant of buying a sports car.

    • alzrius Says:

      Hey Neruz, thanks for the comments!

      I disagree on the guideline; I think that using the “average” baseline rather than the “poor” one was the way to go.

      Besides the self-evidence of the poverty line being the minimum amount of income necessary to stop you from being “poor,” as well as how you can be poor without being destitute, I think that the description for the “poor” standard fairly well supports my take on it here – you can’t afford normal housing on your own, and so need to focus on low-cost housing or methods of reducing housing costs.

      Ultimately, this one is a matter of opinion, but I think the baseline I’ve set is a reasonable one.

  3. Robert Autery II Says:

    I think you both have some very good insight. I hope you find a happy medium with this issue because it’s very useful in so many ways. Not only that. it keeps some logic and balance in the game. i guess you might say, I agree with both of you and want to learn from you.

    • alzrius Says:

      Much thanks for the kind words, Robert!

      The beauty of the system here is that it’s very easy to tweak, depending on exactly where you want to set the in-game poverty level. To come up with the real-world standard, just divide the in-game poverty level into the real-world one, and that gives you the multiplier to use on the gp:dollar ratio, and presto!

  4. Chris Stevens Says:

    Very well said, everyone. I found this article very interesting, as I commonly have issue with how often a group of adventurers try to sell off millions of dollars worth of loot in any little village.

  5. Damien RS Says:

    Looking at the goods and services list, and keeping in mind medieval conditions, I get more like 1cp=$1, 1gp=$100. 2 cp for 1 lb chicken, 2 cp for 1/2 lb bread, 2 cp for 1 lb potatoes, 10 gp or $1000 for a cow. 1 sp/day for unskilled labor, which could plausibly be either $1 or $10, but 1 gp/day for a doctor.

    OTOH a lot of the weapons and armor prices feel too high at $100/gp.

    OTOH again, $100/gp and 50gp/lb leads to gold being 1/4 the value of modern gold by weight. At $10/gp it’s more like the value of real silver.

    Either way… at third level we started with 3000 gp, which is enough to stay in a good inn for 4 years. And weighs 60 pounds…

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