There have been a few discussions recently over on Discord talking about money in 1879, specifically about converting over to the decimal system. It’s a topic that gets into history, game mechanics, and mathematics, which makes it a natural fit for one of my blog posts. So since currency events have shown the interest has suddenly accrued, let’s check out the topic and make some cents out of money.
First, I’m going to touch very briefly on the mathematics involved, just for anyone who may not have given any thought to the structure behind the decimal system. We got on the money topic from the feedback over the recent preview I released of my initial look at starting to redesign the character sheet (which by the way, I was very pleased to see that feedback, and extend my thanks to everyone who took the time to comment), in which I included a conversion table for British currency. So that you don’t have to flip back to it, that conversion is 1 Pound = 20 Shillings = 240 Pence. As you’ll probably notice, this is a more complicated conversion than 1 Dollar = 100 cents. The latter is a decimal system, or a conversion rate based on powers of 10, and is the base number system that most of the world is raised on today. This is because it’s easy for our human brains to comprehend moving between different orders of magnitude, or to put it more simply, 10 is ten 1s, a hundred is ten 10s, a thousand is ten 100’s, so on and so forth. In a decimal system, you rarely need to deal with fractions, usually just moving a decimal point around on occasion. This should hopefully give at least the basics of understanding for what’s needed here, but if you want to know more about number bases, ask me elsewhere – it’s a fun topic for me.
So if decimal is so easy to use, why would you ever use a different number base? That usually comes down to something physical you’re measuring where decimal units aren’t as convenient to work with. Time, for example, is more difficult to measure in a decimal system due to the less convenient divisions of units (though historically it has been done, or at least proposed, on a few occasions, with France being one of the main proponents close to the game’s time period). In the case of the pound, it was based off of the price of a pound of silver (so yes, the simultaneous meanings of the word for money and weight aren’t a coincidence). The lesser divisions for the base unit are arbitrary, so you could pick any number base you like, but as with most things where the numbering system got wonky, the lesser divisions were mostly derived from the ancient Roman system and the sidesteps it took along the way.
Historically, there were some rumblings of converting the British Empire to a decimal currency as early as the 1820’s, but the idea didn’t get a lot of traction until the 1960’s, until finally Britain fully converted in 1971. Given that we’re writing an alternate history for 1879, we aren’t stuck to a strict adherence to actual historical events and have the freedom to move things around. When we do so, however, we want to fully explore the idea to determine why we’re changing it, what the change will look like, and what impacts it will have, and go over these aspects from both an in-game and out of game perspective.
Originally, we kept the historical system largely as a matter of immersion into the game world – it was meant to be a little bit difficult for players as they adapted to the old, antiquated system because the world itself was old and antiquated by comparison, and we wanted it to maintain that feel. As the years have gone by both in and out of game, however, we’ve expanded the depth of the world in other areas, and the world in-game has continued to progress. One major development in-game already established that departs from real world history gives all the justification we would need for why the British government would want to move their currency to a decimal system so much earlier: the Analytical Engine. Babbage’s engine was built to be coded in base 10 natively based on the positioning of gears within the store, and given how prevalent Engines have become for the financial industry in-game, it makes sense to convert in order to vastly simplify the code that has to be written to make them work.
So that gives us the why for both in-game and out of game justification, but then the question remains, what would such a conversion look like? Taken from the real world, Britain did have a very smooth conversion to decimal largely because they spent years slowly implementing it, so that people would have a chance to get used to it and they could gradually phase out the old currencies and mint the new ones. There was also plenty of time after the cut over where the old currencies were still accepted by stores, and prices marked in both standards. For our game world, this would also make sense, and it would be most desirable to reduce the amount of minting needed as much as possible.
Fortunately, there is already at least one decimal currency in circulation with the current system; the florin, which is worth two shillings, or 1/10th of a pound. So if the florin gets pushed to greater prominence, that would mean it’s primarily the pence and below that would need reworking. Not that that’s an easy thing; for the time period, most day laborers are more likely to measure their income in pence than other coinage. A decimal replacement for pence would have to be 2.4 times the current value, and if that were set at the smallest minted coinage, it would reduce the lower class’s ability to distribute their income among their expenses. In modern equivalence, it would basically be like no longer having currency that’s worth less than $100; not as much of an impact for the rich, but would be tough for most people to deal with.
We can’t increase wages across the board to a level where a decimal penny would be workable for the lower class; aside from the the factory owners balking at that kind of mandate, that sort of sudden influx could destabilize the economy. Inflation would eventually make currency that small redundant, but for the time being, we’d need to extend it to a third decimal point to have coins minted for tenths of a penny. Coinage worth less than a penny isn’t a foreign concept for this time period, so it’s definitely doable. A new decimal half penny would be somewhat close to an existing pence in value, so that would likely become the primary coin circulated by the lower class.
Of course, from a player perspective, they’d be unlikely to actually use denominations that low on a regular basis. Even player characters belonging to a lower class tend to find themselves in the middle of risky jobs and plots that are more likely to measure in pounds, and will often be taking part in similarly larger value transactions. Indeed, most prices for goods listed in the books as it is only go down to shillings anyway. This means for all intents and purposes, there’s really nothing to stop you now from thinking of money in your games using decimal terms by simply halving the value in the shillings slot to use florins instead (for the Americans out there, think of florins as dimes and shillings as nickels). So for example, a bolt action rifle that by default costs £2/12 using the £/s/d format would be £2/6 if you use florins instead of shillings.
As far as actually implementing the official game rules, we would likely make a formal start to such a change in a 2nd edition release; that would just make the most sense in terms of both the in-game time frame and consistency in how our information is printed. We would take a page from real world history and list prices for goods and services in both standards, using a £X.XXX format for the main price, and have the old conversion for £/s/d in parenthesis behind it. So that above example of the bolt action rifle would be listed in the book as £2.6 (£2/12). For a conversion involving pennies, a bayonet would cost £.468 (6/7). This would not only keep things immersive as for how the system would realistically be implemented, but would also help ease the transition for players and GMs using the older material. It also gives those who prefer to run a game closer to real world history to still have those values presented.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think you’d convert your game to decimal as soon as you can, or do you prefer the immersive charm of an older but less efficient system? Do you think the layout for a decimal conversion that I’ve discussed here sounds logical, or is there another method you think would be more likely? Let us know on in the comments and on Discord, and maybe just like with this post, your feedback may spur on another post to dive into the topic further.