I want to construct an immersive, complex and functional fantasy economy in order to inform my world-building process. I'm interested in finding a working economic model and applying that into low-tech, low-magic environments, similar to the authentic late medieval/early modern eras.

  1. What sorts of commodities and raw materials are out there and where to get them? A list of commodities would be great.
  2. How does trade and transportation (land and water) work, and what are the possible pitfalls of trading (taxes, bans on certain goods, robberies, etc.)?
  3. Crafting! How would you proceed in creating this sort of a complex, multilayered system, where raw materials are being converted into more polished materials using various vocations and techniques (which ones?)? How would you design a crafting system, where these commodities and materials are used to assemble finished products? How to fit in the price of labor, and the skill of rare artisans?

I'm looking for something of a complexity along the lines of the economic system of EVE Online. However, EVE Online is a computer game, and science fiction besides. I'm looking for something more varied, middle age-ish, with a personal touch, and that can account for differences based on the cultures participating in the whole trading system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the first question to ask yourself, as a designer, is "How will players actually interact with this in play?" Most stories -- in any era and genre -- don't really focus on their protagonists' day-to-day economic activity as a central point. Your system should probably take that into account. I'm a fan of abstraction in this case, because I don't think there's a way to be both detailed and accurate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Jul 12, 2012 at 21:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ While an interesting discussion, from the FAQ: "If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." I can certainly imagine an entire book (and would probably love it, too!) \$\endgroup\$
    – dlras2
    Jul 12, 2012 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ "What did they make in the Middle Ages, and how did they make it?" <-- That's basically your question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Jul 12, 2012 at 22:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ You have three questions in this one. Why not ask those as distinct questions? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2012 at 7:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered asking some of those questions on history.se? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2012 at 7:53

7 Answers 7


Someone did write a book about this! It's called Grain Into Gold: A Fantasy World Economy, and it answers all your questions to various degrees. If you're interested in learning more, this review archived by the Wayback Machine is very informative.

It most answers your first question, by detailing a fantasy world economic model based on raw materials and working upward to the more complex goods, including land and labour values. It does have a chapter on trade and transport, and its effects on prices. It deals a bit with some of the possible factors in a mercantile expedition: taxes, risk, etc. It deals less with crafting, but it gives you a very solid foundation on which to layer a crafting system. It also deals briefly with the impacts on magic on economics. That's less important if you're making a magic-low world, but it's still worth thinking about if you're going to have any magic at all.

If you love world building and think economies are interesting enough to detail in your world, you will love this book.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just got my hands on "Grain Into Gold: A Fantasy World Economy", along with "Farm Forge and Steam - A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Civilisations". They are both informative books that very much answer all the questions i had in mind. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 13, 2012 at 11:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Johnny Awesome! Glad to help. I haven't looked at Farm, Forge and Steam before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2012 at 15:37

I was going to comment, but it looks like it will be simpler to answer:

There are deep problems with the backwards projection of a capitalist commodity economy with wage labour onto "low-tech, low-magic environments, similar to the authentic late medieval/early modern eras."

There's a conflict between the desire to have "an economy" in your understanding of wages, production, prices, trade and accumulation, and the authentic late medieval/early modern.

I suggest, as a sourcebook even though it is incredibly late in the early modern, and deals with the movement between early modernity and modernity, The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson's historical fiction / cypherpunk attitude explains the very real limitations of market economics in this period.

Now this could be fun as all hell to play with, you could run it with the themes relating to capitalist accumulation that permeate the cyberpunk genres, but in the very low tech setting of causing a run on the goldsmith's notes…

But you're not really going to get a production orientation out of this. Production wasn't the central point of accumulation in the early modern period. Long distance luxury trade was. Production was locked down primarily by agricultural brutalisation, or by networks of skill societies ("guilds"). Entry into production was a matter of choosing a lifetime's occupation.

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this then, is to take any of the less "capitalism with swords" fantasy economies, then add a long distance trade module over the top which effectively amounts to flavoured social contest resolutions relating to rumours or knowledge of demand and supply being out of synchronisation; with occasional "commercial finance" disasters such as VOC fractions plummeting on the market, or a run on goldsmith's notes, etc. This way you get to combine the pre-modern primary economy of agricultural and goods productions, with the developing capital concentration in trade.

As an "end of arc" storyline you could have the state attempt to expropriate their wealth (as done historically) by your choice of war, forced ennoblement (at cost), or forced loans.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure i understand the concept of guilds - that they controlled amounts of goods to produce, the prices, and, most importantly, the secrets of their trade to protect from the outsiders. Such a situation doesn't, however, have to be static - if, for example, the region has a superior food supply, there can be quite a bunch of people devoted to technological advancement and/or exploitation of the ongoing system. A guild system can be the basic principle to start deriving from - to prepare some unique region-specific twists of the established system (an example: a black market crafting community). \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 13, 2012 at 11:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ "there can be quite a bunch of people devoted to technological advancement and/or exploitation of the ongoing system." No not really, consult source material for the early modern period. If you want to wander off into "capitalism with swords" go ahead, but this conflicts with verisimilitude. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 14, 2012 at 5:38

You're trying to achieve quite opposite goals there, so you have come to one of the basic questions that leads to the three corners of designing crafting systems:

  • Realism (in the context of crafting & economy, this means a high degree of complexity & depth)
  • Usability (often this comes down to easy-to-use and not so much depth)
  • Consistency (whether this part of the game merges well with the rest of the game system or whether it looks and feels like a bolt-on)

Think of these as a triangle graph: you can only have one or two out of three to a high degree. Either it is realistic and is somewhat useable, but risks not fitting the rest of the game, or it is likewise in depth — and then you play “Economymaster, the game where you need a PhD in history and economic to win”. Or you cut down on complexity a lot to achieve a useable system that's consistent with the rest of the game — just like the crafting systems in many games, which are pretty abstract.

Now, back to the other question parts:


What sorts of commodities and raw materials are out there and where to get them? A list of commodities would be great.

This in itself is a rather complex question. I could open my history books and start to read out lists of plants and ores that were mined at several points in history and would not cease to read out those goods for the next 3 years, but generally speaking we can break down the products into general categories. The most relevant categories I can think of, without starting to open books, are the combined raw resources, which can be broken down to roughly the following sub-categories (which in term can be broken down even more):

  • Ores
  • Lumber
  • Crops
  • Animals (live)

From these, most other goods can be made under the expense of workpower, which is kind of another vague category. Workpower could take the shape of free craftsmen, people hired by others, it could be slaves — but all have in common that some humanoid spends time and effort to first extract the raw material from nature (farming, logging, herding, mining) and then refine the raw resource into some sort of refined product, which often has a more useable shape than the raw resource and again can be refined to take other shapes.

Think about this as the production chains in some of the more complex strategy or city-building video games — Settlers 2, Pharaoh or Caesar for example:

  • Ores get extracted from the ground in a mine, then get smelted into metal bars in a smeltery, then get shaped into tools and other metal objects in various smithies.
  • Trees get cut, turned into boards in a sawmill, and then things get done with them.
  • Crops get sowed, harvested, and processed (in steps) so food can be made from them. Other crops get refined into fabric and then turned into clothes; others again just get fed to animals.
  • Animals in turn could be hunted or raised, then butchered for meat and hide, sheared for wool (which in turn can become fabric and clothes), or milked for drinking or making cheese and other milk products, while the meat becomes all sorts of sausages and other dishes.

You see, already with these 3 basic categories — raw resources, refined products & workpower — the interactions become highly complex, and the more you break down any of the categories or extend the production chain down the line, the more complex the system has to become to cope with them!


How does trade and transportation (land and water) work, and what are the possible pitfalls of trading (taxes, bans on certain goods, robberies, etc.)?

Trade and transportation is again a topic people have written books about, especially in a historical context. Generally speaking, you would need to define what historical timeframe this economy resembles and then research in that direction in actual history books. I suggest looking into the history of the Hanse here. Generally, trade, transportation and taxation grow hand in hand:

If a marketplace develops somewhere, it is because people come together to trade, either bartering goods for goods or exchanging goods via currency (which is another thing you have to think about in terms of economy!). When people have to travel to trade, they have to develop some means of transportation for the goods. On the smallest scale, this could be a man carrying his goods to the market from his home. Or he invests and gets himself a cart.

Then, some crafty man might say "Mister Farmer, you lose a whole day of working your fields going to the market from your home to sell your load of wool for 10 silver. How about I come to your farm and I buy it for 9 silver, and you have the extra day to work on the land?" From this we get the first regional trader: he buys the products from the local area a bit cheaper and sells them at the normal price at the market town. Possibly he tries to sell a tad under the price of the local farmers, to deny them customers so they're forced them to sell to him instead.

This change however might lead to another development: if several traders start to do this for the same product, some have to go even further to gain enough goods, possibly crossing from the closer region (that belongs to the township) to areas that don't belong to the marketplace but some other. Those traders become overland traders, far traders. They buy in bulk from the regional ones, hoping to sell at profit further away where the product is not made at all.

With the growing number of far traders, some of the larger markets might want to protect their local products and get their share from the profits of these: They tax the import of foreign goods. And they want to make sure that their denziens get the first pick when it comes to goods transported through, and so force any trader passing through the area controlled by the market to stop and offer their wares.

Now, some large markets and towns might have the idea to try to benefit from forming an alliance — the traders from those towns get special privileges (like less or no taxation, or not being forced to offer the goods) in the other member's towns: the Hanseatic League or its equivalent is born.

3. Crafting!

How would you proceed in creating this sort of a complex, multilayered system, where raw materials are being converted into more polished materials using various vocations and techniques (which ones?)? How would you design a crafting system, where these commodities and materials are used to assemble finished products? How to fit in the price of labor, and the skill of rare artisans?

Well, I ended up answering this part before the others, so... just read above?


First of all, as someone else already wrote in the comments, ask yourself what you are trying to model, and if you really believe this will interest your players.

I can think of a couple different approaches:

Trading You want to involve PCs in running or working for a trading company. This can be the Merchant Guild, a minor noble houses, whatever... for this kind of stuff the best inspiration can probably come from the Traveller trading subsystem, adapted for low-tech goods. Please understand that one of the basic characteristic of a low-tech world is that travel speed is limited... this includes goods and information (even some specific spells may make the latter travel much faster). If you want to involve PCs directly in trading, this is important, because even just taking one lot of goods to destination (say, with a caravan) would take months of game time. The best thing would be to make them travel by ship (either on the sea or a large river) so they can see different places and get involved in more tangential encounters and adventures (this is why I suggested Traveller, btw).

Crafting This is potentially even more boring for PCs, but to each his own, I suppose. There are systems with extensive rules for crafting, at least for magical items. I suppose you can adapt one of these, or look for games with rules fo "research" and adapt those. Here is something I cobbled together years ago. It's for Traveller, but probably abstract enough to provide a starting point at least.

If you keep the setting to the traditional middle-age equivalent, no mass production really makes sense, so you risk, again, to bore your players to tears ("day 45 of rice-tending season... roll for mice, excessive rain, insects...") at the very best the PCs could be involved in procuring rare and expensive ingredients, tools, or to spy on some competitor's revolutionary trade secret or stuff like that.

I don't really think that going all out in simulating economies or industries has a lot of value for players. But I do agree that keeping an eye on how plausible the rewards/prices may be a good thing. Have a look at this, for example.

This one, too... especially for the link at the end, even if some of the resources may be available only through the Wayback Machine now.

If you want more detail... old (simulationist) games may provide more in terms of mechanics (mostly in the form of abstruse formulas and endless tables). I suggest you try and locate some copies of Chivalry and Sorcery, for example, the older, the better.

Harn may provide some stuff too, but I am not really familiar with the system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify things: i'm searching for effective economic models from the standpoint of a WORLD BUILDER, not a GAME MASTER (therefore the whole "players won't use that" argument is arbitrary). I don't want to be an ass here (and i DO appreciate the time you took to write down this reply), but most of the stuff you're telling me i already knew. I was just looking for some interesting commodities in the trade market, some original production methods and a few outstanding, culture-centered twists on the customs of trading. But it just may be me - not being able to ask the question properly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 12, 2012 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Johnny that cleared up a lot of confusion on my end. At that point, I would say that this is just research into real-life techniques/products/materials/etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phill.Zitt
    Jul 12, 2012 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, sorry, I focused too much on question #3, probably... it read (to me) as a quest on game mechanics for players wanting to use their Pottery 37% skill or something... \$\endgroup\$
    – p.marino
    Jul 13, 2012 at 6:38

The problem with linking the EVE economy ( as an EVE player myself ) is that almost the entire economy of EVE is player-driven, with exceptionally little NPC interaction. The players also interact with the market on a regular basis, usually at least once per log in. This means that some players can dedicate themselves to the market warfare, while others do PvE or PvP. It's something that does not scale down to 5-15 players well at all.

@p.marino has a fantastic answer that he wrote while I wrote this one, and so you will want to look at that one. His links are fantastic.

As for your actual questions:

1 - wikipedia will help you here. Start with final products and work your way back. Glass, swords, cloth, etc.

2 - Is not a question, or you seem to have answered your own.

3 - This is more or less arbitrary. The specific 'techniques' of doing something is not a detail I would recommend to delve into too deeply, as there is usually only one or perhaps two techniques for creating any one specific item. As for pricing systems, each crafter is likely to play the market, setting the maximum price that he thinks he could get for it plus a percentage based on his reputation, quality of work and availability of similar pieces, and then haggling with the customer to a final price.

TL:DR - Unless your RPG is a market simulation, I do not think you want to focus on this.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The World in making/the RPG is NOT a market simulation :) ; but even so, having some region-centered or culture-centered specifics to economy (i.e. some nasty trading rituals, rare products made only in the region, etc.) would sweeten up the experience. Another thing is the daily life of the commoners - what are their living conditions like, what can they afford, etc. - such "details" are better not swept under the table, since these conditions reflect the theme and the mood of the area back on the players. The uniqueness of a regional mood is everything, generalized RPGs are nothing! \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 12, 2012 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for starting with final products (glass, swords, etc.) and working your way back. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Jul 13, 2012 at 3:56

There are a few things to consider here. First and foremost, as noted by Samuel Russell, production wasn't a respectable part of trade in the late medieval era. Second, unless you're dealing with a reasonably high level of magic, it's not actually going to have an impact on the economy (or at least, not more than "real" alchemists and astrologers did), so you might as well try to model the late medieval economy that actually happened.

The major thing to remember is that until very recently, historically speaking, the notion of the economy as a system didn't exist. Most regions produced everything they needed locally, and the aim was to get to next year alive, not to make a profit. Wars, famines, and disease all had impacts on this, and any improvement in one area of those three inevitably led to overpopulation, underemployment, and local market crashes. The French Revolution, even though it's much later, was still fairly fundamentally driven by the unbelievable price of bread.

So, in order to get something interesting trade and economy-wise with the technology from before, say, the Age of Discovery (and even then, note, it was still about the gold, and then the silver, and spices and silk), you're going to have to look at different economic - and probably different social - models.

Places to look for these (and I know far less about these areas) could include the Inca empire, ancient China, and the Mughal Empire. The Inca Empire has the interesting concept of the "vertical archipelago" (well, historical economists studying it do). The Mughal Empire had at least the concept of a cash crop, as far as I can make out, so production there may not have been as low-interest.

Some links for further reading

As is often the case, Wikipedia provides the best summary of the vertical archipelago outside of actual academic papers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_archipelago

If you do have access to JSTOR, there's also a very good paper entitled Rethinking the Vertical Archipelago: Ethnicity, Exchange, and History in the South Central Andes, by Mary Van Buren in American Anthropologist (New Series, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 338-351)

On the Mughal economy, this is a decent summary: http://library.thinkquest.org/C006203/cgi-bin/stories.cgi?article=economy&section=history/mughals&frame=parent

And on the ancient Chinese economy, there are good basics in this classroom information from Indiana University: http://www.indiana.edu/~g380/2.2-Food_and_Money-2010.pdf

  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, how about proving some actual links on the Inca, China, and Mughal stuff? And as far as late medieval/early modern Europe is concerned, mercantilism does stand out as an interesting economic model. \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 13, 2012 at 11:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Point. I've edited in a few now - they're reasonably basic, but all contain solid onward references. \$\endgroup\$
    – gothwalk
    Jul 13, 2012 at 13:26

I would make it simple but efficient.

Some sort of economy rating of a region. The rating could represent the production power, availability of the resources and capacity of selling products.

A region/country with open borders and good relationship with its neighbors could have bonuses.

You could have the said country make an Economy check every year or season..with difficulty based on season, political tensions, neighbor's economy etc. You could also make a check to recover from something bad.

If a country fails an economic check, depending on the context, could affect the players directly. An economy check failed just before winter could make the winter mortal and people could die during the winter. Food would be really expansive and rare.

Under political tensions the government could request all the horses and precious metals. Forges in towns could be asked to produce weapons for free (with no other reward than knowing the King is happy of your loyalty). Food could be rationed out.

How players contribute to the economy rating depends on what role they play. Let's say that players own a mining company with employees and all. Have a skill cover this and some skill checks during a set period of time could increase production, make more profit from the selling etc.

If the players are simply buyers, unless they spend more than what the settlement can take it shouldn't change the economy rating. If the players buy all the horses of a town, well horses take a while to reproduce and make new horses to be sell. If players buy all the food available in town (for lols and giggles) well it could make the food producers richer, but people hungry and angry. When everyone is richer, everyone increase their prices so keep this in mind.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Regional economy ratings? Such a concept is indeed simple; it is also systematically applicable to the "big picture". I like that! \$\endgroup\$
    – Johnny
    Jul 12, 2012 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suggest you take a look at the Pathfinder Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red. This Adventure path contains all the info required to manage a whole kingdom (including Kingdom character sheet) \$\endgroup\$
    – user4000
    Jul 13, 2012 at 2:04

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