Ever wondered how many coins could fit in that pirate chest, or make up the bed of the red dragon? Or maybe just how big your coin purse has to be in order to fit the 2,000 gp you currently have on you? To help both DMs and players manage their fictional wealth, we’ve written this article.
Before we get into it, we’d like to give a quick shout-out to our wonderful sponsor, Wyrmwood. Wyrmwood are a talented team of craftsmen who make all sorts of gaming accessories from dice trays to card boxes. They currently have Game Master Screens available for pre-order. They are a wonderful bunch of people who are active in the gaming community and, if you use our coupon code ‘DMW’, will give you free domestic shipping on your order!
Now, let’s dive into the strange world of D&D currency…
The first note that must be made in an examination of the fantastic numismatics of Dungeons & Dragons is that they are just that: fantastic. Not a single thing about the coins you will encounter—their size, their value, their frequency—is solidly based in any real-world medieval analogue. [If you aren’t interested in a very brief history lesson on currency, you can skip ahead.]
A Brief History of Currency
While there have been many times in history where gold, silver, copper (or, rather, orichalcum), electrum, and even platinum coins have been in circulation, they never once all appeared together and, even when a few of them did, their relative values were drastically different than what is presented in D&D. Platinum, for instance, only first started to be used for coins after the Spanish colonized the Americas, when our technology had become good enough that we could get the metal to its very high melting point and actually make coins out of it. Additionally, platinum was worth less than silver (in fact, counterfeiters would substitute it for silver or alloy it with gold, debasing the local currency). Likewise, in ancient Greece when silver and electrum (a silver-gold alloy) circulated concurrently, a single 14.1 gram stater made of electrum was worth ten 14.1 gram pieces of silver (instead of the 5:1 ratio between silver and electrum in 5E). Finally, no single coin (of any type of metal) has ever had a universal value, so the idea that you can take your gold coins minted in the Kingdom of Westland and use them normally 3,000 miles away in the Eastplace Caliphate is patently … well, you get the idea.
The point that must be made is: there will be elements of the rest of the article that will sometimes smack as being anachronistic (at best) or impractical (at worst), and it is important to remember that the game developers opted to use the current mechanics because they are simple and do not require that players concern themselves overmuch with the minutiae. Having to remember to trade gold coins where the exchange rate is more favourable before heading where the coins will be spent may be something your players would find interesting the first two or three times before it simply becomes a chore. And for the DM to have to remember that gold coins from Nordicland and Frenchia are only worth 2/3 and 5/8 of the local gold coin in Romeplace (respectively) is often too much hassle when you are pressed for time and your players just want to buy the supplies from the patrician merchant before heading out on the adventure. So, with that said, let’s dive into the basics of D&D coins.
The Dimensions of Coins
Some existing campaign settings specify certain shapes for certain coins. For example, in Faerûn (the main continent setting for Forgotten Realms) the Sembian silver coin is known as a silver hawk and is triangular in shape, while the city of Waterdeep has the harbour moon, so-named because it is in the shape of a crescent moon. This section is intended to provide the dimensions of standard-shaped coins if DMs wish to use a more regular system based on real-world analogues that wouldn’t tear apart your bags and coinpurses with sharp edges.
Regardless of the denomination or metal type, all coins in 5th Edition D&D weigh a little under a third of an ounce (0.32 oz to be precise). To put it in other words, there are fifty coins to a pound, regardless of the type of coin. Given this basic fact, we can use some reasonable assumptions and some math to get a picture of what the coins actually look like.
Assuming that each coin has a thickness of 1/16”, and is made purely of that type of metal (as opposed to simply containing a certain quantity of that metal, since trade bars have the same value-to-weight ratio as coin and therefore the coin must be pure), we arrive at the following diameters for the different coins:
By comparison, a U.S. dollar coin has a thickness of about 1/13” and a diameter of 1.043”, roughly equivalent to a silver coin. In a way, this is fitting as the silver coin is the standard unit of currency for almost everyone in the D&D world, in spite of what the Player’s Handbook will tell you. Only merchants and skilled tradesfolk will generally be handling coins of higher denomination, such as the gold coin (which is approximately three quarters of an inch in diameter, or slightly bigger than a U.S. dime). Everyone else gets paid in silver, buys things with silver, and keeps silver in their coinpurse. They would use silver as the measure of wealth, not gold.
The Dimensions of a Hoard
Now that we have established the size of the individual coins, let’s look at how large a pile of them would be.
Say that you recently made off with a haul from the duke’s treasury and you are carrying your share of the treasure—10,000 sp—to some merchant house to convert it to gold. First of all: that’s 200 lbs of coin, so it’s unlikely that you are going to carry it around on your belt. It’s probably in a sack. Or several sacks, given that the maximum weight a sack can handle is about 30 lbs (see chapter 5, “Equipment” in the Player’s Handbook). But let’s say that rather than having seven sacks that you’re carrying, you instead have a single magic sack that can hold the weight; how big would it have to be?
Well, given the density of silver (0.379 lb/in³), we can determine that the volume of the coins comes to 528 cubic inches, or one third of a cubic foot. However, this isn’t a hunk of silver you’re carrying, it’s coins—round coins, if our dimensions above are to be followed—and round coins don’t tessellate. Therefore, we need to consider the packing density.
To save you some math, the ideal packing density of coins is 78.6% (if neatly ordered in stacks) or about 60% if loose. This means that an unorganized heap of coins (like those stuffed into a sack) will contain about 40% empty space. In other words, the 10,000 sp would overflow a bag with a volume equal to that of the coins themselves because they don’t neatly fit together and therefore take up more room. So, to hold all 10,000 coins would take a sack at least 880 cubic inches in volume, or just over half a cubic foot. So, if your sack was magically reinforced and wouldn’t simply tear under all the weight, then it might be able to do the job, though it could get a little bit stretched. And if you had a magic bag that was 1 ft³, you could carry approximately 19,600 silver coins (weighing nearly 400 lbs).
What about gold? Gold is almost twice as dense as silver, so it will pose a much more significant burden to carry a large quantity of gold coins. Fortunately, it’s worth ten times the amount, which is not far off what medieval standards actually were, so you will need to carry less of it. How much of it can you carry? A pouch, as described in chapter 5, “Equipment” in the Player’s Handbook, can carry 1/5 of a cubic foot of volume or 6 lbs of gear. Of course, it’s the latter figure that will be important, as 1/5 of a cubic foot of gold coins at normal packing density would weigh nearly 300 lbs. Therefore, the most gold you could carry around with you in a regular old, non-magical belt pouch would be 300 gp (6 lbs). This is why you invest in a bag of holding.
With the small-scale stuff settled, let’s examine the most common hoards found in fantasy: the treasure chest and the dragon’s bed.
The Treasure Chest
Your party has defeated the dread pirate crew and their infamous captain in a dramatic battle on the stormy seas and, from the captain’s cabin on the sinking vessel, recovered the map to where they have secreted away the spoils of their attacks these past ten years. Sailing through the treacherous, labyrinthine reefs surrounding the nameless island by aid of the map, you finally arrive at the deep, hidden harbour. Taking a rowboat, you enter the cave that eventually opens to a vast, rocky cavern. The light of your torches catches on thousands of metal surfaces—heaps of silver with gilded chalices, daggers, shields, and breastplates protruding here and there, all forming a mound upon which a heavy wooden chest sits open, its contents gleaming.
This chest is exactly what you would expect. Knee-high to a man, an armspan wide and half that deep. Let’s say, for the sake of the math, that the inner dimensions are 5’ wide x 2.5’ deep x 1.5’ tall, or 18.75 cubic feet. Immediately, we know that if the coins are only loosely packed then they can’t have a volume exceeding 11.25 cubic feet (60% of the total). That means that there are 19,440 cubic inches of gold coins. Gold has a density of 0.698 lb/in³, so there are 13,569 lbs of gold, or 678,456 gold coins, in the chest. That’s more than 6 imperial tons. It would take more than twenty-five draft horses or ten elephants to carry all that. Kind of gives you a new appreciation for how much treasure you’re throwing at your players if you start measuring the loot in chests, doesn’t it?
The Dragon’s Hoard
If your inner rogue was salivating over the treasure chest in the last hoard, you may want to take a moment to recover yourself before continuing, because this is sure to test the strength of your heart.
It has been a long road since you first met the red wyrm. After you slew her son and thought you ended the reign of dragonkind over the kingdom, she came with an army of lizardfolk and wyverns. She toppled the castle, burnt the city guard to ash, and ate the king. You fled; you had to. No one could match such bestial might. In exile, you recovered powerful arms, gathered experienced allies, and learned the secrets of the dragon’s power. And then you returned home for a reckoning. Now her bloated carcass lies dead and the few survivors left can split the spoils. You descend into the deepest levels of the castle, those parts that still survive, where the wyrm has stuffed the wealth she has accumulated from her victory. Down you go until you arrive in the subterranean chamber that was the dragon’s lair, an ancient cave where the first people who settled here in the mythic age first painted the story of their journey on the stone walls. In the centre of the cavern, you find what you seek.
This gleaming mound is everything you expect of a dragon’s hoard. Coins almost beyond counting, centuries of accumulated wealth, all arranged in a mound suitable for a dragon to sleep upon. The imprint of the dragon’s resting form can still be faintly discerned where its incredible weight has pushed the hoard into comfortable contours.
The 3.5 resource book Draconomicon—still the definitive source of all things draconic in D&D according to us here at Dungeon Master’s Workshop—gives the overall length of a great red wyrm as 120 feet, 35 of which is the dragon’s actual body (the rest being neck and tail). From this, we can safely assume that the diameter of the treasure mound is around 150% the length of the dragon’s body, or about 50 feet—big enough for the wyrm to comfortably curl around or even partially bury herself in. For the sake of simplicity, let’s treat it as a slightly-flattened circular cone with a regular (pre-flattened) height of 8 feet and therefore a volume of 5,236 ft³. If we suppose that 2/3 of that is silver (mostly at the bottom), and that the dragon has kept this particular pile entirely of coin (and not, say, goblets, shields, armour, and other items that would take up lots of space and thwart easy calculation), then we arrive at the following figures:
477,695,617 silver coins
129,611,794 gold coins
Now, we said at the beginning of this article that there would be some elements that seemed completely impractical. This is certainly one of them. We are the better way to a billion coins being sequestered in a dragon’s hoard, which is more than 5,400 imperial tons of precious metal, including over 1,000 tons of gold. For reference, GFMS (the foremost consultancy and research company for the global precious metals market) estimates that the total amount of gold that humanity had extracted up until 1492 CE was about 12,780 tonnes (12,580 imperial tons). In other words, the dragon would have laid claim to a significant portion of global gold reserves on Earth, and probably would in your world, as well.
But what does this actually mean to your world? Well, we’ve seen what happens when the quantity of precious metals in an economy drastically changes, and it’s not pretty. When Mansa Musa, King of Timbuktu (Mali), went on a pilgrimmage to Mecca in the 14th century, he took an estimated 122-132 tonnes (110-115 imperial tons) of gold with him, giving much of it away to the poor as he went along. Just that much influx of wealth destabilized gold prices throughout the Mediterranean. For the dragon to remove more ten times that amount of gold from the economy would undoubtedly destabilize gold and silver prices not just in the kingdom, but throughout the entire continent. The fallout would be enormous. Economies would collapse as many nations would debase existing coinage with non-precious metals to increase the desperately-needed circulation of liquid wealth, possibly driving the government-determined value of the coin to below the intrinsic value of that coin’s precious metals. If that were to happen, people would simply melt the money down and separate out the precious metals for trade, just like in England following the Roman retreat, since their currency lost all value save the intrinsic worth of its materials.
Or, more likely, a group of neighbouring countries would band together to devise a permanent solution to the draconic menace and avoid this disaster. And if a group of heroes were to emerge as capable of dealing with the dragon… well, they could ask for anything they wanted in return.
Putting It All Together
Through this article, we have looked at the nature of D&D coins—from a single copper piece to a pile of gold pieces. We’ve considered how big a sack is needed to carry half a lifetime of wages for an ordinary person and just how unfathomably valuable a dragon’s full-sized bed of coins would be. Likely, you may have made a mental note to be more conservative when describing the scale of your treasure chests, or begun to consider large items that could bear the physical stress of being ‘filler’ in the bottom of a dragon’s bed. We know we did. In fact, we’ve come up with some sample treasure parcels for you to use or adapt for your campaign. You can find them below. Enjoy!
Parcel 1: The Thieves’ Den
This treasure parcel would fit well within the hideout of a medium-sized city’s most successful thieves’ guild.
Lifting the old, faded rug in the centre of the floor, you at last find the elusive trap door you have been seeking. Fitting the two keys into the locks, you lift the door and carefully descend into the cellar. The space is cramped, with enough room for one person to walk down a short aisle that provides access to shelves along three walls. A dozen or so small coffers rest on the shelves. Most are filled with silver coins or jewelry—but one has a stash of newly-minted gold coins.
There are 11 small, chest-like boxes (worth 5 gp each) ranging from four to five inches in any dimension (average inner volume of 60 in³). Four of them are entirely filled with silver coins—an average of 680 sp each (2,720 sp total). Six others contain various pieces of jewelry—rings, bracelets, lockets, and the like; sixty-two pieces in total, all worth 25 gp. The last coffer contains 1,250 gp in gold coins.
Parcel 2: The Castle Vault
The following treasure parcel is appropriate for use with a powerful magnate—someone important enough that they have one or more full castles to their name (as opposed to simply owning manors throughout the kingdom), but not necessarily a member of the royal family. A count or earl would be most likely, but some magnate (baron) whose family was never granted such honours could still feasibly have accumulated this wealth through mercantile endeavours and tolls rather than by collecting on a share of tax revenues.
With the magic of the dispelled sigil rapidly fading, you slip the key into the heavy door, eager to get your hands on the treasure before the guards return. Inside the vault is everything you could have hoped for. Silvered goblets, pitchers, and trays rest on tall shelves with chests of fine silverware, small coffers are stacked in a neat pile in the far corner, and a large, ornate chest sits in the very centre of the room.
There are thirty-two table sets including four silvered goblets, a pitcher, and a tray, all worth 100 gp per set (or 10 gp for each piece). Each of the three boxes of silverware has ten place settings, including two forks, two spoons, and a butter knife. The silverware in each box is worth 150 gp and weighs 30 lbs with the box. In the chest are several sets of noble outfits (8 sets of fine clothes worth 15 gp each) as well as four ermine pelts (100 gp each), two fox pelt hats (25 gp each), and the prize of the wardrobe, a full winter wolf cloak with a silver clasp (250 gp). The chest itself is worth another 100 gp. Finally, there are eight wooden coffers (worth 10 gp each) with a lock (DC 20 to pick with thieves’ tools). Six contain 750 sp each, and two contain 1,000 gp each.
Parcel 3: The Chancellor’s Office
We have arbitrarily chosen to assign the room’s occupant the title of chancellor, but the following treasure parcel is appropriate for the office of any sufficiently high-ranking official who maintains a residence at a permanent centre of administration such as a royal court or university.
Every aspect of this room drips of opulence. Oak panelling covers the walls all the way to the vaulted ceiling. The furniture is made from wood of the deepest red, with the table waxed and polished to a mirrored finish and the chairs upholstered with overstuffed leather cushions. A blazing hearth dominates one side of the room, above which is hung an oil portrait of a man with a somber expression holding a legal codex in one hand, while the other hand rests on a map of the known world stretched over an adjacent table. The wall opposite the hearth is dominated by several tall bookshelves, the upper reaches of which are serviced by a nearby ladder on rollers. Various engraved plaques adorn the walls at eye level, each declaring a greater honour bestowed on the incumbent chancellor. At the far end of the room, next to a solid oak cabinet and backed by tall, leaded-glass windows in steel latticework, is an enormous oak desk, behind which a high-backed, overstuffed chair is set.
Everything in this office is of some intrinsic value. The two chairs near the hearth are worth 100 gp each and the one behind the desk is worth 125 gp. The cabinet itself is worth 250 gp and, if you can open the lock (DC 20 with thieves’ tools), is filled with seven cloth-of-gold tunics (worth 25 gp each), a spare set of fine clothes (15 gp), a gold chain of office set with moonstones (500 gp), candles, incense (50 gp), a small coffer with 200 sp and 500 gp, and a silver tray (5 gp) with two silver goblets (worth 10 gp each) and a silver jug (15 gp). The desk is mostly full of ledgers and writing implements, but the bottom drawer (locked; DC 20 to open with thieves’ tools) contains twenty-five notes of credit for 50 gp each from the royal treasury.
The real treasure in this room is the books. There are 510 books on the shelves, ranging in value from 5 gp chapbooks and folios to 500 gp 1st-edition illuminated tomes. The entire collection is worth 18,500 gp, weighs 385 lbs and occupies 48 cubic feet if perfectly stacked.
Parcel 4: The Dragon’s Cache
The following is an appropriate parcel when the party has defeated an adult dragon that maintains several lairs in a region, keeping a portion of its hoard at each lair for some added security.
With the dragon slain, you make your way deeper into the cave in which it laired. No mere den like that of a bear, this cavern is wide and tall, perhaps not big enough for the great beast to spread its wings, but certainly large enough to allow it to sleep comfortably with the mound of treasure that you find yourself looking upon with wonder. The periphery of the pile is littered with golden goblets, gilded breastplates, and other such fragile items best kept from underfoot, while the main portion, still bearing the faint imprint of the dragon’s head as it used the mound as a pillow, is gleaming coins.
This mound of treasure includes, along the edges, a dozen gilded goblets (worth 50 gp each), a two-foot, acid-etched golden plate (500 gp), eighty-six pieces of gold and silver jewelry (worth 50 gp each), four complete sets of full plate armour (worth 1,500 gp each), a silvered greatsword with a stylized, gold-leaf hilt (see below), three gilded shields depicting the symbol of an extinct noble house (150 gp each, see below), and a wooden coffer containing 15 emeralds (worth 50 gp each), 8 sapphires (worth 200 gp each), a glass vial with faintly blue water (see below), and a jewelled pendant with golden hands enclosing a faceted ruby (see below). The main coin pile includes, roughly in layers from bottom to top, 10,000 cp, 5,000 sp, and 2,000 gp, and is sprinkled with three hundred and fifty-eight pieces of gold bullion (worth 1,074 gp in total).
Magic Items. The silvered greatsword is a magic +1 greatsword that never needs to be sharpened or polished as per the gleaming property (see chapter 7, “Treasure” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and seems to faintly glow as though with an inner light. Additionally, one of the shields is a +1 shield that grants the bearer +2 to initiative while they aren’t incapacitated as per the guardian minor property (see chapter 7, “Treasure” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). The glass vial contains a potion of greater healing and the jewelled pendant is a periapt of wound closure.
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Feature image: Treasure mound, artist unknown (please contact us)