Sunday, 12 May 2013

"I Loot the Bodies!" II: Orcish Pocket Change

One of the main things encouraging corpse-looting in D&D  is the unquestionable fact that troop-type monsters - orcs, goblins, the occasional bandit - each carry a small personal stash of low-value coins, something to tide you over while you're looking for the main lair.

But what's behind this assumption?

Superficially, it seems silly that a horde of goblins or gnolls out on a raid would value coins at all. After all, what would they spend it on? No human town would trade with them. Desperate raiders just look to get by, day to day. They'd be much more likely to loot ornaments, clothes, weapons and armor, supplementing their own lack of crafts, and of course they'd value food, drink, slaves, livestock and edible corpses. But going around with a pocket full of pennies like some kid on the way to the grocery store?

Here are a few interesting ways out:

Trampier's Wormy.
1. Between raids, humanoids are bored stiff. They have few stories, jokes or songs, so gambling is their main vice. They find human coins useful tokens; prestige is had by accumulating the most of these, but individual humanoids don't like to go weighed down, so really big winners often throw their piles of coins up in the air, giving them even more prestige. Hobgoblins, it's said, have developed the standard variety of crude dice games into a kind of wargame using bone pieces, with which they hone their strategic thinking. Kobolds favor a game with elaborate rules that the non-kobold mind finds hard to pick up. Goblins play a dumbed-down version of the kobold game. Orcs, gnolls, ogres and so on play a game called "same or different" using knucklebones, or dice that have only one or two spots on each side.

2. Individual humanoids don't find coins useful, but their leaders do. Individuals only carry coins when the whole tribe is on the move, to lighten their load. A tribe-level economics of brute force prevails beyond the pale of civilization. To save face and lives, confrontations that would likely end with both sides weakened are decided instead by a contest of dominance, and an offering of coin from the weaker group to the stronger. The weaker group sends an expendable member hauling the coins to a distant place, where the stronger group goes to collect and claim victory over the one unfortunate, while the main body of the weaker group makes an orderly retreat. Humanoids have found that humans also respond to extortion or tribute, and savvy adventurers know what to say and do to set this kind of negotiation in motion.

3. Humanoids do have an economy, just not as we know it. Behind the front lines of the wilderness is a shadowy market in arms, provisions, and the finer things in life, run by renegade and half-blood traders. The amount of negotiable coins found in any one humanoid purse or lair is highly variable, because this market produces its own tokens out of bone, shells and sand-glass; some amount of the humanoid's "wealth" will in fact consist of these trinkets. It is a very obscure corner of the black market, indeed, that will let you convert these finds to human currency (and, of course, at coppers on the gold piece.)


  1. Yep, the same thing started rolling around my head as I was devising a Gnoll camp: How do the Gnolls really benefit from collecting coin? I just decided on an inherent tendency to horde the fruits of their equally inherent drive to despoil, in keeping with my characterization of them as the descendants of ancient dedicated demonic shock troops set against human societies.

    I definitely find inspiration in this article though!

  2. I was going with the idea that precious and semi-precious metals dissolved in the equivalent of aqua rega are needed as catalysts for orcish spawning pits. But the use of loot as koboldic and goblinoid gambling tokens certainly captures the imagination more viscerally.

  3. In many worlds, the evil powers made the demi-human races in mockery of men. As a result, the demi-humans do many of the same things the humans do, for no reason beyond imitation. So their desire to collect shiny things, including coins, is just an imitation of the human desire to accumulate wealth.

  4. Unscrupulous merchants will always trade with the bad guys...nough said.

  5. I wrote a while back that the fact that in standard D&D humanoids are carrying around money as treasure (and the treasure tables are specific enough to have them carrying jewellry or gems) raises some interesting questions about the implied D&D setting:

    It's not that a humanoid lair might have a chest full of gold - as Epic Prime says, 'unscrupulous merchants will always trade with the bad guys' - it is that random goblin #6 has 1d8SP in his purse. What is he going to spend it on? Either the setting is more Blacksand! than Greyhawk, and you are about as likely to bump into a humanoid 'monster' in a 'human' settlement - in a tavern or market, for instance - as you are to meet them down a dungeon, OR monsters such as goblinoids have relatively advanced economies, as demonstrated by the fact that even the common folk appear to conduct transactions using currency.

    1. I run with both of those in our home game. A local settlement of goblins has a trade relationship with the nearby human town, and finding a group of goblins at the local tavern or setting up a stall in the market square isn't uncommon (at least not anymore).

      On the other hand, they just routed a large group of orc raiders in the area, who also carried gold. Which makes a little less sense, except where they attempted (and to some extent did) bribe the PCs.