This is a nearly painful post for me to write. Why? Because I know what money is. It is those small pieces of paper with dead presidents on it. It is gold, silver and sometimes copper (though I refer to pennies as litter). It is jewels, jewelry and sometimes watches (if they aren’t plastic or rubber). So what’s the point? Well, I think I already hit it.
Who are you asking the question? To modern folks, money is paper currency and electronic signals. To fantasy folks, it is precious metals and jewels. While we will recognize and appreciate their money, they would think us complete morons for chasing our money. There is no possible way a fantasy person could see the value in paper currency.
But it doesn’t stop there. I was reminded of a rather interesting point recently. The Zulus saw cattle as wealth. Imagine the culture shock of a Zulu trying to talk to a British soldier or diplomat: How many cattle do you have? None. Oh, so you’re poor. No, I have a very nice home in London. But no cattle. No, no cows. Are you married? Yes, and I have two sons. How will you marry off your sons when you have no cattle with which to pay the brides’ fathers? I don’t need any. So you’re broke, a bum, a guy who will marry off his sons to the ugliest, most barren women in the city of London because you have no cattle with which to buy wives for them.
OK, I’ll stop that, but this seriously had to be culture shock, and it’s just one example. There is an action movie I really enjoy due to its campiness where the hero says, “These are desert people. They value water, not gold.” OK, they probably valued both, but there is a point in there. If water and food are really rare, you’ll pay anything for them.
This is the point of trade! If I have food and you have silver, let’s trade. If I have silk and you have emeralds, let’s trade. The point is to move goods from where they are cheap to where they are valuable.
To make this worthwhile for the gold farmers - here’s an unexpected consequence to this cultural / role-playing concept: A lot of games allow holy spell casters to cast summon water spells (or whatever you call it). Imagine this: You show up in a desert. The desert raiders are willing to barter with you, and you set up your tents at one of their oases. Then they see your cleric cast a bring water spell and you all drink it. The desert raiders will now do whatever is necessary to buy or steal that cleric from you. They will kill the entire rest of the party in order to get that cleric. You have to see it from their perspective: What would your characters do if they found an elf who actually pooped out diamonds? Would they not kill everyone else allied with that elf and take him/her hostage? From their perspective, it is basically the same thing (but without the pooping).
Let’s reverse this: The party is trading with folks they know to be less than legit, and find they have a “slave” kept alone in a cave. These guys have lots of slaves for sale, but this one is obviously different, and she’s not for sale. Maybe they figure out that she is a cleric with summon water. It usually doesn’t take much for a party of adventurers (aka murder hobos), to kill a band of desert raiders, especially if they can explain it away by saying they were bandits and therefore deserved to die.
Want to make it more than a simple combat? How about this: They are crossing a desert, and the only way across is to be led from oasis to oasis by someone who knows exactly where he’s going. Along the way your guide leads you to one of his family’s main bases, where you find the slave cleric girl. Now what? If you fight the raiders, even if you win, you lose your guide and may not survive the desert (even with a girl who can summon water). If you leave her in the hands of these “savages”, you are condemning her to a horrible fate (at least you imagine it as such). Especially if you’re playing a game with alignments, you are in a bad spot!
It’s fun to mess with the players’ minds, and even more fun if you can mess with the characters’ minds as well!