Yep, I’ve been away for a while. I had some personal-life things to take care of. Nope, I’m not going to describe them here, because they don’t have to do with writing or fun stuff. This ain’t no LiveJournal or MySpace here, bub! (Aaaaand I just dated myself. Moving on.)

I was going to make my first post back be a book review, but instead I decided to get off my duff and start the worldbuilding series I’ve been meaning to do for months now. The reason is that two parts of my life have converged on the same topic very recently. The first is that my workshop at Christendom College has restarted; the second is that I play World of Warcraft on the side.

What’s the relevancy? you might ask, and rightly so. Warcraft players might be able to guess, of course, but I’ll address the workshop angle first. Most of my students are interested in writing fantasy, which is a happy coincidence for me as I fully expected the opposite even though all evidence of youthful interest in fiction backs it up. (Just glance through the Teen Fiction section at your local bookstore, or see what the most popular movies are among the teens-and-twenties demographic.) I tailor my workshop lectures to my audience’s interests, and when I mentioned I could do some lectures on worldbuilding, there was much rejoicing.

One of the things many people overlook when worldbuilding, however, is economics. That doesn’t mean Wall Street and esoteric ideas of bull and bear markets or how one makes money using other people’s money. No, I mean taking into consideration what is valuable to a different society, what constitutes that level of value, how you represent and trade that value, and how you go about creating value.

Oh, dear. I did promise non-technical, didn’t I? It’s right there in the post’s title. I guess I need to live up to that!

Here’s where the World of Warcraft reference comes in, and I’ll use that as an example even though I’m certain the vast majority of my audience doesn’t play.

In the game, there are three basic ways to gain gold to spend on items and services for your character. These are:

  • Questing rewards.
  • Loot rewards.
  • Selling items and services to other players.

In the first case, almost every quest you pick up will give you a reward that is worth some amount of gold (or a fraction thereof, represented by silver or copper). Quests will also often give you items, which you might not need at present or may use for a while and then discard later; your discards can usually be sold to an in-game vendor (such as an innkeeper, traveling trader, or shop owner) for a gold value.

Loot is gained from, most often, killing monsters and other enemies. This can be an immediate coin value, or it might involve items to sell to the above-mentioned vendors. You can also sometimes find these in chests and the like.

Selling items and services is where things get complicated, because it’s where the human element comes in. Economics is fundamentally about human interaction. Each character you play may have different professions, which provide different goods and services. Some of the items you make, or some that you gain from looting, can also be traded to other players for a gold value, usually on the in-game Auction House. Some items and services are easy to obtain or only save a little effort, but many players are so lazy they’d rather get someone else to do the work.

Write that down, class. “Getting other people to do it” is pretty much the driving force behind any economy, and it’s why looking at a game like World of Warcraft helps you figure out how to design your own.

See, in any real-world environment, each person has the basic ability to do just about anything. However, other people have an advantage.Let’s simplify it and say that you need both doohickies and thingamabobs to survive. (*cough* Bear with me . . .) Some people find making doohickies easier because they live closer to the resources needed to create them. Others find making thingamabobs more fun. Or perhaps doohickies require more physical effort, and thingamabobs are things that you can make sitting at a table.

There are many factors, but we’re simplifying things, right? Right. So let’s cut it down further and say that we’ve got a man named Bob and a woman named Sue. Bob is great at making enough doohickies each day to get him by, and though his thingamabobs are rather poor quality, he can stand it. Sue, on the other hand, is having trouble getting enough doohickies by herself, though she can churn out thingamabobs like crazy.

Let’s even add some numbers to it, shall we? Bob and Sue both need 10 thingamabobs and 10 doohickies to get through each day. Bob can get ten doohickies easily, taking about one-fourth of his eight-hour workday to complete the pile, but it takes the rest of his day to finish his thingamabobs. Sue, on the other hand, can practically make thingamabobs in her sleep, taking only an hour to finish, but it takes her most of the day to scrape up enough doohickies.

So that means Bob can make about 5 doohickies an hour, while Sue takes 7. Sue can make 10 thingamabobs in 1 hour, but it takes Bob 6 hours to make 10. If they each concentrate on what they’re good at, they can create more than enough to trade with each other and still have more to trade with other people! Everyone wins.


“Now, hold on, Mr. Editor,” you might say. “Aside from the fact that this is an economics lesson on a writing blog, this doesn’t seem right. We don’t go around trading things like this. We use cash. That makes things way more complicated!”

Indeed it does, Mr. Strawman Reader! And yet, it doesn’t. Cash, you see, is simply the way we substitute a shorthand for value. If Bob wanted to get some whatsits from Nancy, but she only wants thingamabobs, and Sue doesn’t want extra doohickies, Bob is out of luck unless there’s something that can represent wealth; something that each party can agree on for the purpose of value.

That’s how we invented currency, thousands of years ago. It’s been many things, but it’s necessary when you deal with a group of people larger than a small village. Sure, you can continue bartering over long distances and with unwieldy goods, but it’s a lot easier to get cash. (Unless, of course, you’re writing another episode of M*A*S*H where Radar has to scrounge up something vital by trading with a succession of ten other military units. That’s just comedy gold.)

That creates a problem with worldbuilding, however, because we’re just not used to anything other than our own currency.

Which can ALSO be comedy gold.

I once evaluated a novel for a publisher (which then defaulted on the contract on my recommendation) that took place in the early days of the American Civil War. One of the mistakes that the author made was not understanding the difference inflation had made in a century and a half. In one scene, his main character handed over the equivalent of at least $70 in today’s currency for directions down the street.

A simple glance at inflation tables online would have fixed a very simple issue, but even looking at that doesn’t tell the whole picture. For example, the price of bread and other food staples has dropped in comparison to their prices a hundred and fifty years ago (once you take inflation into account, of course), due to advances in farming and production. And yet the price of simple food staples like bread is pretty much the most basic, most common unit of value when figuring out a fictional economy. If the poor day-laborer can’t buy his bread and basic shelter with his wages, then he can’t work.

Wages tend to balance out to this, almost regardless of turmoil or gouging or price-controls, which always work out to be temporary or create a new normal that redefines value for the economy. That’s why you can find equivalent-value comparisons that show how “one dollar” is worth more or less depending on where you are in the United States, and how a family in Kenya can live on a dollar a day; there’s no such thing as one economy for everyone everywhere.

Still lost on the inflation bit, and how different people have different economies? Okay. Let’s get back to World of Warcraft.

Expansion Inflation

This is the real reason I decided to use World of Warcraft as an example, because it has a very large problem with inflation, and one that’s almost impossible to overcome because of the way gaming works.

See, your very first quest in the game will give you a mere 50 copper pieces. (It takes 100 copper to make 1 silver, and 100 silver to make 1 gold. Gold can scale up much higher.) If this is the equivalent value of a simple quest with low risk, then the average quest ought give the player somewhere around 65 copper pieces.

However, as you gain levels, you deal with progressively harder challenges that are intended to be equal to the level of power and skill you’ve gained over time. That means that, in order to still be worth it, you have to be paid more. This goes back to basic economics: if your wage is not equal to the time, effort, and cash you sunk into learning your skills, then either your training wasn’t worth it, or your current job has no bearing on what you learned.

This is, incidentally, a lesson many college students find out rather quickly.

Of course, it isn’t much of an issue until you get to what’s called “end-game content,” where you’ve reached maximum level and are going through challenges that only the most skilled and dedicated players are prepared to face. (Which is not me. Raid tonight? Sorry, have to work. I’m just here to have fun.)

Each chunk of the game tends to be balanced, within a ten-level range or so, but the higher you climb the more disparity there is. And yet nothing about the game-world changes; the peasants in Westfall are still destitute, and the citizens of Stormwind are practically living in luxury.

But here’s where the true inflation comes in. Every expansion (and we’re about to get the fifth in the series) hits a “reset button” of sorts, allowing players who never completed those end-game challenges to continue on with the new content. However, the gold value keeps climbing, which means a lot of cash gets piled up. Inflation spills over to the rest of the game as well, as trades between characters are affected; the value of a given item or service might stay the same, but the amount of gold needed to represent that value changes because everyone has more gold. Well, almost everyone; the new player just entering the game is pretty much out of luck.

Lessons for Literature

This isn’t limited to World of Warcraft; it shows up in most games, even in tabletop games that are played with just a few people at a time. As you gain levels, you accumulate enough gold to buy small kingdoms. The comparison to real-world economics falls apart.

Over time, fantasy literature has been influenced by people who play these games, leading to books which skew the value of a single gold coin. TV and movies also have had their influence, where “bigger is better” often gives us large gold coins and enormous gems, the better to be seen on camera. And then, to show how something is even more impressive, we get piles of gold and gems as big as our heroes’ heads.

So it’s important to go back to that earlier example of the loaf of bread. When you design your economy, keep the day-laborer in mind. Scale your value accordingly. If a simple dagger costs 1 gold sovereign, then why isn’t your whole economy based on daggers?

You also have to keep in mind how goods get from place to place. In medieval England, you were rarely twenty miles from a town (and a town had a simple definition: any place with a market). The reason was that farmers and tradesmen needed to get from place to place, farm to market or from one town to the next, in a reasonable amount of time. Twenty miles is a leisurely day’s journey on foot, or half a day if you’re pushing it. The farther you travel, the higher the price has to be, or else the trader wouldn’t make the journey. It also means it has to be rare enough to be worth it to the buyer as well.

Terrain matters. More trade can happen on navigable rivers or along the coast, while mountain villages are going to be more isolated unless they’re on a major trade route. Some regions will produce things that others can’t; the British Isles used to be more known for their wool (which they still produce a lot of), and cotton was so valuable in the American South because it was a lot closer to European markets than India, the only other region of the world that could compete in such volume.

Above all, though, the backbone of an economy is the creation of wealth, and the transfer of that wealth from one person to another in payment for goods and services. One may trade labor to someone else who can gain a benefit from it, and both come ahead compared to what they would have done on their own.

Putting it in Practice

The first step is to figure out your currency; determine what the smallest amount someone will pay for something, and then start adding other coins. Remember that decimal-based currencies (divisible by ten) are very new; take a look at the list of historical British coins and try to imagine making change in medieval England!

The next step is to figure out what the local economy is like. What drives it? Who are the richest people around? Why do they have their wealth? How many coins does it take to be considered wealthy here?

The third step is to determine what goods go in and out of your area, and why. Unless you’ve got a reason for survival (such as with Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive), cities grow up because they’re at a major crossroads of trade and travel. Merely being the place the king lives usually doesn’t do it; in fact, the king’s court usually winds up going to whichever place is the most prestigious, rather than the other way around. Just look at how often the Kings of England moved around until London became much more important, while Washington, DC wasn’t important as anything more than a place to park politicians until 20th century technology made it a communications hub.

In a medieval setting, most places are self-sufficient, simply because they have to be. Cities tend to draw on nearby farmland, and can’t grow very large if food can’t get to them before it spoils, and cheaply enough for even the poorest to feed themselves. Cheap refrigeration changed things for the world; before that, salting and drying were the most common preservatives.

The final step (at least for the basics) is to consider the effect of change. I spent so long on the World of Warcraft comparison because game mechanics tend to shape a lot of expectations among fantasy fans, whether most people are aware of it or not. If a character in Warcraft gets a lot of gold, he could destabilize the kingdom’s economy (at least, if the game allowed for that). However, it’s not realistic to just find a lot of gold lying around, so if your novel’s hero becomes rich, how did that happen? And what are the consequences? Remember, Spain became fabulously wealthy with gold from the New World . . . until its economy collapsed due to rampant inflation, that is.

Final Thoughts

It wasn’t that long ago that famous philosophers wrestled with a problem that no one could solve, a problem that seems ridiculous today. It was known as the diamond and water paradox. The problem, put simply, was that water tended to be cheap, yet it was vital to life; diamonds, on the other hand, were useless to survival, and yet they were expensive.

It seems silly today because we understand that rarity and labor are important, but “supply and demand” is a relatively new phrase. Less than three hundred years ago, however, it was considered something that very smart men were fully justified spilling much ink in order to answer.

What are the diamonds of your setting? What is as cheap as water? How hard is it to get something to the point of its use? And if it’s as useless as a diamond, who is buying such luxuries? If something common in our history (such as copper) is rare in your setting, how does that change things? If gold is plentiful, what is your hierarchy of precious metals?

Worldbuilding is a complex task, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. It’s often a matter of knowing what happens when you mess with reality. That’s your task as a fantasy writer, and never forget it: you’re telling a story that never happened in a world that never was, and your audience is expecting you to play with the pieces.