With a lot in the news about Greece’s financial problems and whether or not it will be forced to leave the Eurozone and return to the drachma, it seems a good time to talk about money.

Specifically, what kinds of currency does your fictional setting use?

The obvious choice for any pre-industrial society is coins of precious metals – golds, silvers, etc. and these can be perfectly workable in everyday scenes. A knight handing over payment for a new set of armour might well do so in gold and silver coins (though always being wary of how much that’s actually worth – can you imagine a world where a loaf of bread costs 5 gold coins, the way it might in a fantasy videogame?) but what about on larger scales? Do empires trade with one another by sending around barrels overflowing with gold coins?

Example: The Kingdom of Arbika has experienced a time of rapid industrialisation, thanks to the new learning of the Southern guilds of the Maegi. Unfortunately, this has caused severe ripples in their internal politics as traditional craftsmen and communities are swept away and many of the citizens have begun an uprising as a result. Arbika is embroiled in civil war on all sides, the crown and its allies holding a huge amount of wealth, but increasingly few allies. Desperate, the Ruling House turns its vast stores of wealth to hiring men from the neighbouring kingdom of Boladis, across the Cedatian Sea.

So here we have a situation where hiring fighting men to keep the peace in an entire country is likely to be exceedingly expensive, and even transporting the gold across the sea in order to purchase them would be a great risk; what if the rebels were to take the ship transporting such great wealth?

What other options might exist here? One option, of course, is barter. Instead of sending gold, Arbika might send silks or spices or other valuable commodity – an advantage here is that the goods may be much more valuable to Boladian traders than gold. Other options might include deeds and land titles – though these may be worthless if they cannot be secured. If the society has a well-developed banking system, then another option may well be bearer bonds or other banking promissory statement.

What about individual trade with foreign nations? Do neighbouring political entities use the same currencies or different? What effects might this have? How might this change the way trade is conducted?

Example: The Dissian Star Empire has expanded its influence to the very edge of the sector. Its technological prowess triumphing over smaller claimants to territory, and easily gaining control over every planet on which humans might live. Its only major rival, the Etlin Hive, would have posed a problem, but not for one thing: Etlins have a wildly different biology to humans, and where the Dissian Empire values most strongly those “goldilocks” planets with oxygen/nitrogen atmospheres, the Etlin require warmer worlds rich in sulphur. Thus a great truce and trade agreement was formed, as neither side was interested in the other side’s territory. As a result, many space stations and trade ports are designed to cater to both human and Etlin physiology – but there remains one issue; the Dissian currency is electronic credits, transferable through computer systems. The Etlins, by contrast, distrust electronic computers, their own equivalent being heavily bioengineered neurological networks, and trade amongst themselves in living, jewel-like creatures called Fan, which cannot survive outside Etlin-friendly environments.

We can see here that trade between both sides appears impossible – Dissian currency has no Etlin computer accounts to be sent to, while Etlin currency will die and become worthless in oxygen/nitrogen atmospheres. One way for them to trade may be to set up a specific trade currency, one which either type of currency will easily convert to, but can easily be used by both groups.

In the Dissian example above, we find a further interesting result of instituting this trade currency: while the Dissian Empire could track the movements of its electronic currency, it cannot do the same for the trade currency. How might that fact affect how trading is done, what things are traded for, and how hostile groups within Dissian space might operate?