When it comes to fantasy currency, it seems to be a little too easy for authors to fall back onto vague, undeveloped forms of money. “Gold pieces” and “silver pieces” are the kinds of meaningless names that an awful lot of writers seem to go for, but they can also be very sterile, unrealistic sorts of terms for characters to use in everyday speech. Of course, you don’t need to spend a week creating an entire economic system — don’t let your worldbuilding become such an elaborate exercise that it keeps you from ever starting on the actual story! — but a moment’s consideration of how money works in your world can help you add the kind of touches that make your world more authentic and tell your readers something about your setting. In this post we’ll dive into some considerations for coinage.
Metal coins are a common-sense go-to form of money for fantasy settings, for the same reasons that so many ancient societies also used them: they’re portable, durable, can easily be made uniform in design, and can be consistently measured by weight and divided to form smaller denominations. There’s a certain charisma inherent in characters trading in mysterious coins earned and pillaged through quest and adventure. Most of the advice here applies to coins, but can also provide you with some things to consider for paper notes.
Establish your basic unit of currency
If you do want to go for a formalized currency, the simplest way to start is with a basic unit. This will make your system easier to understand for your readers, and pretty easy to manage for you. For instance, in many countries today the dollar is the most basic unit. All other forms of currency are either multiples of the dollar ($5 bill, $20 bill, and so on), or fractions of the dollar (a US quarter is 25% of a dollar, a dime is 10% of a dollar, etc).
Once you’ve got your basic unit, you can create a few multiplications and divisions to give you a little array of coins for your characters to use. You don’t need a ton of complicated options; a half dozen is probably more than enough for any fantasy story, unless it’s some sort of medieval accountancy story, in which case you probably know more about this subject than I do.
Determine your materials
You might also be considering creating money from materials other than metal or paper. There are a number of things to consider in that scenario, including:
Could your currency be mass-produced sufficiently to meet the country’s currency needs? Metal is easily stamped, and paper is easily printed, with the right equipment. Currency made from materials like jade, ivory, or bone would probably need to be individually carved, which would make each coin particularly time-consuming and potentially costly to make.
How scarce a material is it? Scarcity is one of the things that can make a material valuable enough to form currency, but exactly how hard is it for your country to source the materials used in the creation of their money? Does it depend upon good relations with a neighboring territory where the material is actually mined? Does the money require some sort of magic to finish it, which gives the local magicians’ guild disproportionate power in the kingdom?
How easy would it be to counterfeit? If your money is made from a material that’s freely available, and it doesn’t have significant anti-counterfeiting measures, fake currency would quickly run rampant and destroy the value of the currency. How can your citizens tell if the currency they’re passed is real or not, and what lengths would counterfeiters go to to create a phony version of your country’s currency?
How difficult is it for a lay person to determine the value of the money? If your currency is made from intricately faceted gems, for instance, does everyone carry around a jeweler’s loupe at all times to examine the quality of all currency that’s passed to them? Have all of the people had to become gemologists just to get by? How do blind people get by in a society that requires measures like these?
How hardy is the material? A coin made of wood could quickly and easily become brittle and snap, or warp and crack due to weather. A material that would be heavily damaged by water, or an ink that runs, would all make unsuitable forms of currency. Bear in mind that whatever your money is made of, it will undoubtedly be handled roughly. A material light enough to scratch, or delicate enough to break, would probably cause more problems than it would solve.
What is the cost of both the material and the conversion of it into money? If a coin costs many more times to produce than it’s worth, or requires too specialized a skill to finish, it won’t be economical for the government to use.
Naming your nation’s coins
When you’re naming your nation’s coins, and wanting to go beyond the simplistic “gold pieces” (thank you, bless you), you have plenty of options. Coins are named for all sorts of things, including:
Some coins are simply named for their value. A few easy examples in US currency are the quarter (worth one quarter of a dollar) and the dime, whose essential root comes from the Latin decima pars, or “tenth part.” (It wound up as dime after being filtered through both Old French and Middle English.) Similarly, the word cent comes from the Latin for “hundredth,” so one cent is a hundredth of a dollar, five cents is five hundredths of a dollar, and so on.
The designs stamped on them
Early coins were essentially tangible items of value — small measures of precious metals that were in themselves considered to have monetary worth — of a very precise weight. So the designs stamped on early coins were most often royal seals, certifying that the coins were genuinely made from the correct metal and were the proper weight. Later designs became more interesting and intricate, and depicted all sorts of subjects: rulers, temples, animals, commemoration of battles and victories, slogans, and culturally significant symbols, among other things.
The common names of these coins often come very simply from what is depicted on those coins. One example you might recognize is the Canadian loonie, the one-dollar coin, so named because they feature a bird called a Common Loon on one side.
Your own fantasy nation’s coins could be named after just about anything! And the imagery depicted on a nation’s coins might also help show the priorities of the nations or rulers in question. Has a vain, tyrannical king plastered an idealized version of his own face on every coin in his kingdom? Are the people so dedicated to agriculture that their currency is all stamped with different types of crops? Are most of a region’s coins little odes to the god of war?
A coin’s common name might also come not from what is literally pictured on the surface, but by the public’s impression of the coin’s artwork. The British King George III “Bull Head” coin, which was simply called a “bull” by the public, didn’t picture any form of bovine at all, but the portrait of the king did look very thick and bullish. This half-crown only lasted a couple of years; the king found the portrait — and probably the nickname that came with it — offensive, and had new artwork commissioned for a replacement coin.
The specific commodities they were designed to signify or redeem
The shekel was the name for both a specific weight of barley, and the coin which could be used to collect that weight of barley from the city’s warehouse. Shekels eventually became a form of coinage used in several different nations, which could be used simply as a currency to purchase all sorts of things, and was no longer exclusively a “redeem for one bag of barley” token.
Other currency might be known specifically for what it most frequently was used to purchase. At a certain point in English history, horses were mostly bought with guineas; there are still horse races called the 1000 and 2000 Guineas Stakes, and horses are still sold in the UK and Ireland with a price in guineas (though in modern times the standard currency is pounds), for historical reasons that I’ll refrain from spending a few paragraphs on. If a coin is used almost exclusively by horse traders, it wouldn’t be a surprise for it to end up with a horsey nickname, either.
The country from which it originated
Coins may also be named for the country or government that produced them, or the authority which issued them. This is where names like sovereign and crown come from — the coins were issued with the authorization of the crown. The Spanish real, Iranian rial, and Saudi Arabian riyal all come from the words for “royal,” for the same reason.
While the citizens of the country that issues the coin might not refer to it with their own country’s name — Americans aren’t likely to start calling any of our coins “muricaners,” although that would be hilarious and we should — it’s entirely possible that citizens of another country that traded with us would refer to our currency in reference to what country it came from. Muricaners it is. Spread the word.
A related category might include currency whose name comes from the region in which the metal used in the coins was mined. The British guinea is one of these, and so is the South African rand. (Even the word dollar has its origins in the region in which the original silver for dollars was mined.)
The material the coin was composed of
A simple example of this before modern currency was the Roman rough bronze, which was a roughly weighed nugget of bronze; its worth was in the bronze itself, which could be used to make quality tools. This was essentially still a barter system, in which an item of value was exchanged for some other item of value, with the bronze just being accepted as something generally useful in that society. Later developments of Roman bronze gave the “currency” a standardized weight, and eventually resulted in bronze coins that weren’t meant to be anything other than coins: so their value as a material to be melted down changed over to their value for use in exchange as formalized money. Apparently historians still get into fisticuffs about exactly where in the development of this system the use of bronze switched from a system of barter to a true system of money.
Similarly, some coins have also been named by their weight, or the weight of other coins to which they were equivalent. The English pound, Italian lira and Spanish peso all have names that essentially mean “pound” or “weight.” (Obviously the coins themselves don’t weigh a pound… in the case of the English pound, it was worth the equivalent of a full pound-weight of pennies.)
Shape and size
One important feature of coins is being able to differentiate them, and this can also provide a little extra richness for the way you handle currency in your world. Coins will usually vary in size, as they were originally made with precious metals, and using different sizes gave them each literally a different value. But it’s also incredibly handy for coins to have other unique features: a center hole, a variety of shapes, a textured or notched edge, raised text or numerals, or varying thickness. These kinds of features help people tell coins apart, whether they’re visually impaired, or just inclined toward making deals at dark crossroads in the dead of night. Not that I personally know anything about that.
These differences might be used in a single nation or city to create variety in their own coinage, or you might see squared coins from one nation and octagons from another. It’s just one more way to add unique details to your world’s coins, and another potential source of common names for your coins.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match!
In a single country or currency system, it’s very likely that the names of coins will be drawn from a combination of these naming conventions, so don’t be afraid to mix and match! For instance, the US quarter and dime are named for their value; nickels are named for the metal they were eventually made with, and pennies come with an etymology so complicated that no one seems to be quite sure where the word even comes from.
Nickels are actually kind of an interesting example all on their own, because they weren’t initially made with nickel: they were pure silver, and were called the half-dime. After the American Civil War threw the nation’s monetary system into absolute chaos, and created a shortage of the precious metals that had previously been used to make coins, the nickel wound up being made of a combination of nickel and copper, thus the name.
A single type of coin might also have different names for what era or design of coin it is. To use the US nickel as an example again, there’s the Shield nickel, Liberty Head nickel, Buffalo nickel, and Jefferson nickel, all named for their various designs and depictions. While the general public might still just refer to all of these as just a “nickel,” the common parlance could just as easily have turned to calling the nickel a “shield” or “Liberty head” instead, if the design had remained unchanging.
Local slang and accents
It’s also a good idea to imagine how local accents and pronunciation can change the names of your coinage with time. For instance, the British two pence coin is often pronounced as “tuppence,” and the three pence as “thruppence.” They’d also be abbreviated as 2p and 3p, so they’re often also called “two pee” and “three pee,” for that reason. You could end up with all sorts of versions and abbreviations for any common form of currency.
To return to our previous Shield nickel example, a coin called a “shield” because of the shield on its face could easily over time become a “sheld” or “shild,” or meld two separate words together. Say your country uses a guilder coin, but it’s a specific colonial version with a shield on it. “Shield guilder” could easily become “shilder” with the local accent over time.
There’s really no limit to where the names of your coins could come from, or what they could become. Perhaps the most important things to consider in the narrative is that your readers understand you’re talking about currency (and not like, a literal shield) and that they understand the relative value of that currency well enough to know the situation your characters are in (which is usually done easily enough with context). For example:
Ysolt flipped through the coins in her palm, her fingers curled over to keep the quantity of her currency from the sight of the innkeeper. “I’ve got five shilders,” she said, and if it wasn’t all she had, that was her own business.
The innkeeper scowled, waving his meaty hand like he was shooing her away. “Colony money ain’t worth but half a real guilder. You give me ten, and you can have your room.”
What I think works well in this example is that you know a shilder is a coin, you know it’s worth relative to the guilder (or at least how certain people view the value of that currency and the people who hold it), and it’s incredibly easy to see that “shilder” is some kind of derivative of “guilder.” So you can pack a good amount of info into a pretty brief exchange.
Figured out what sort of names you want to give your coins? Bust out the thesaurus (dot com) to come up with some potential names that connect to your coin without also confusing your language. The knight-decorated coin heading this article is a great example: if your story features actual knights, calling the coin a “knight” could be confusing (and maybe a little boring). You could always call it a gallant, errant, cavalier, or banneret. A coin with a ship on it, like the one in the photo above, might become a galleon, barge, brigantine, frigate, clipper, or xebec. Maybe the locals have a low opinion of sailors, so they call the coin with a mighty battleship on it a dinghy. Go nuts!
The relative worth of a coin
Like anything else in your fictional world, currency is heavily impacted by war, conquest, and colonialism. You might find coins called “sovereigns” in places that had never had kings, because they’ve been conquered by people who do. (Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II still appears on Canadian coins. Make of that what you will.) Changes in regime can lead to changes in currency, changes in community values, devaluations of old currency, and other complications for your characters.
Your characters’ coins wouldn’t necessarily be turned away, though, even by merchants in a far-off land. Spanish coins (like the infamous “pieces of eight,” so called because they were worth 8 reales) were a worldwide standard for awhile, not just because the Spanish were sailing all over the place conquering things and buying things, but also because their coins were known to be properly weighed and to actually contain the amount of precious metals that they were supposed to, which made them inherently valuable. (Pure silver would always be good for buying power, no matter what nation’s stamp it had on it.) So your fantasy nations might easily trade in another country’s coins, just because of their reputation for purity. Or your characters’ coins could wind up being worthless once they’ve traveled beyond the boundaries of their own land; it’s all a way to complicate your plot and layer your worldbuilding.
Alternatives to a system of cold hard cash
Of course, you don’t have to build your model on metal coins or paper bills at all. Entire trade systems have revolved around beads, cowrie shells, and other items that people just find attractive, items that are particularly useful for making something valuable (like the Romans and their bronze), or items that are prized because they’re scarce or difficult to obtain. Your society could be a barter system, in which items of value are traded for items of similar value. There’s also “money of account,” a system based on accounts and ledgers, in which “I owe you” becomes a much more formalized affair. (Today we all know this as “debt” and are buried to our collective necks in it.) Even for actual money rather than barter, there were plenty of options throughout history, particularly for the wealthy and merchant classes. Paper currency was already in use in 11th-century China, and all over the world bank notes, promissory notes, bills of exchange, and credit notes provided merchants with ways to make large transactions without the risks of transporting large quantities of coins and precious metals.
It would also be realistic for different societies in your world to have completely different systems, not just of local currency but of buying and selling in general. If your main character comes from a land with a very clear-cut system of coins and currency, where no one has ever in their entire lives haggled, and they find themselves in a land of bartering where everyone else is a hard-core negotiator, that’s going to complicate their life!
Worldbuilding for fun and profit
You might not be interested in writing a medieval bank heist (although now I think about it that absolutely sounds like a movie I’d watch the hell out of), but even a little bit of extra thought or a single line in your story with a slightly more detailed view of the local money can do an awful lot to enrich your worldbuilding.
I’ve used a lot of American and English coin examples here — colonialism and Western-centrism in action, y’all — mostly because I don’t know a ton about the common naming conventions of coinage from other countries. I’m really into coin art but I’m not actually a coin collector. I’d love to hear about the coins where you’re from (or just coins you like to collect, or random facts about coins you like to share…) and where their names come from. Hit me with a little coin knowledge in the comments!