Hello world building frens!
Welcome back to another installment of World Building Wednesday!
I feel like it’s high time we start exploring the more urban aspects of world building, so our next few posts are going to center around building living cities and towns, and we’re going to start it off with something that a world can’t really go without.
We’re talking all about the gold this time, and the silver too. In fact, this whole post is on fictional economies and how you can build one for your world!
Whether you’re running a tabletop game or writing a novel, you need to understand how wealth works in your world!
The economy of our world isn’t just about dollars and cents. It includes natural resources, time, technology and people. A fictional economy is no different! It doesn’t matter whether you want to build a deep, functioning economy or a basic one, you need to consider how these factors will affect the way people in your world work and live.
So, let’s break down some of the major parts you should consider!
Natural Resources and Raw Materials
Natural resources are what makes the world work. Without wood, water, rocks and fossil fuels, our society would look very different. What’s available in your world? How plentiful or scarce are certain resources? This is an especially important area to consider if there is some special or magical material which is going to play a large role in your world.
Melange or “the spice” from Frank Herbert’s Dune series is an excellent example of a raw material that holds key importance in the world. Melange is formed from the sands of the planet Rakis, and is not only a drug, it’s the most valuable commodity in the world and the whole economy is built around it.
The second most important part of the economy is the people in it. When you boil it all down, economies are basically a system to get other people to do something. Our real world economy uses a capitalist system of wages and consumption to get us to go out and do all the jobs which need doing to keep our society functioning the way it does today. But capitalism doesn’t gel so well with low-technology or low-magic environments, similar to our late medieval/early modern eras.
Production is the driving force of our economy today, but production wasn’t the driving facet of the economies of our past. For example in the early modern period, it was long distance luxury trade over sea and land routes like the Silk Road that drove wealth. Back in those days, saffron was worth its weight in gold! The production of society’s goods and services were either obtained through feudal methods of agriculture. Peasants worked the lands to provide food, under the control of a ruling monarch, and specialist goods were the domain of trading companies and guilds. Most traders and guild members would practice their craft for their entire lifetime. Skilled artisans and daring merchants were highly valued and courted by the rich and wealthy across the globe.
Taking time to work out how people actually do the things that make your world go ’round, and what they get for doing them, is a vital part of designing a real economy. Consider what jobs exist, how valued they are? And, of course, how long it would take someone to master the role! This brings me nicely into the next facet of your economy you should consider.
Time. You really can’t build a sensible economy without considering it. How long will it take someone in your world to harvest a field? How long to craft a musical instrument? How long does it take to transport goods from one place to another? Again, these are super important things to think about in worlds with technology and magic systems. If sentient robots that serve humans are central to your story, how long does it take them to perform the task? If you’ve got guilds of wizard’s who can transport people quickly over large distances, how does this affect trade?
The longer it takes for something to be produced and transported the more valuable that thing is. Keep this in mind when you’re allocating value and rewards to labour, and costs to goods, services and raw materials.
If there are science-fiction or fantasy elements to your world which involve some kind, then they are undoubtedly going to have an affect on the economy. Consider the rarity of these elements, how many people have access to them or the capacity to use them? Are these elements trusted by society, or are they considered dangerous or unpredictable?
Have a look at the effects of automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning on industries in our economy today. These technologies are disrupting whole fields of business, and there is ample debate that rages about whether or not these advances in tech are going to be beneficial or disastrous for society. These same arguments would occur surrounding the magic or fictional tech in your world, so consider what their impact would be, and which side of the debate would sway popular opinion. Remember, Betamax was going to kill the VHS, until it didn’t! How people feel about technology or magic will have a substantial affect on the role it plays within your economy.
Currency is the most visible part of your economy. It’s the tangible thing people can hold onto in the world that makes all the stuff we’ve been talking about above concrete. You’ve been working out the value of the currency the whole time you’ve been considering all these other aspects. Now all you need to do is design it.
This part is really up to your imagination. Credits, tokens, gold sovereigns, choose the aesthetic that you want currency to have in your world, and assign it nice, whole number values. In our world, 100 cents equal 1 dollar, and it’s an element of our modern economy that you can easily borrow, no matter what genre or era you’re writing about.
If you have different currencies for different parts of your world, just like the real world, then spend a little time considering which ones are more valuable, and how much people would exchange currencies for. Again, you can look to our real world economy to get a basic idea to manipulate for your own.
We’ve looked at the real bare bones of economy building here, but there are plenty of great resources out there for people who want to dive right into it!
Grain into Gold by John Josten is a nifty little E-book which provides a step-by-step guide to help you build a fully fleshed out economy for any fantasy world!
Making Money by Terry Pratchett also falls into this category, although it’s not the only Pratchett novel that provides an insightful look at a functioning fantasy economy, it’s definitely the most thorough. (It doesn’t hurt that Moist von Lipwig is such a fantastic character either!)
Novel Ninja wrote a much more detailed break down about fictional economies back in 2014, including a section on inflation, and I can’t recommend their article enough as a great starting point for further research!
We’re going to keep exploring urban elements of world building over the next few posts!
Until then, happy world building everyone!