Economics of the Ninth World

Published September 30, 2013 by in Mechanics

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The economies of Numenera are not well detailed, and that seems to be intentional, but a little bit of thought can go a long way in understanding the world and how to run it. Lets talk about the various economic facts of the Ninth World and what their implications might be. Bear in mind that this is all speculation, and that any cool idea you might have for economics in your game should be explored. This is just intended as a jumping off point.

Sources of Shins

The currency of the Ninth World is the shin – a coin-like object. In some places these are minted by the state, and in some places anything that’s coin-like and shiny works as currency. Let that sink in for a minute. In some places money isn’t minted – it’s found. There are a host of economic implications here, for both sources of currency.

Shins make sense. In a world where people are rebuilding society again, and lots of objects from the previous worlds are around, they’d find some common idea of currency and use it. Whatever’s most convenient – pocket-sized shiny things do the trick. But this is an interesting place to start from because it means that there’s an unknown amount of currency out there in the world, ready to be discovered.

One implication of this is that whenever a group of adventurers goes out into the world, explores, and finds shins – money is “made”. It’s suddenly in circulation. Now, this is obviously not the same as making money in a job – that’s just currency changing hands. No, an adventuring party is literally changing the amount of money in the economic world when they find shins. They are increasing the monetary base, increasing inflation, and literally creating wealth.

In remote regions, a group of adventurers bringing a wealth of coin into town could be a great boon or a terrible curse. They could devastate the economy, by patronizing a select few shops – creating massive income disparities. But their coin could be just what the local economy needs, so that the town can trade more with outsiders. Small towns really need to worry about losing their coin to traders – it might not come back.

Adventurer shins probably help more than they harm, by allowing them to trade without fear, and to attract traders with the things they need. And so governments, especially local ones in places where shins can be anything shiny and small and maybe round, would encourage adventurers and explorers, if for no other reason than the increase in local currency base, allowing for more trade.

And this ability for local governments to influence their own monetary base by encouraging adventuring could be a real problem for a kingdom that wants to control things. Minting your own state coin is certainly subverted by localities suddenly gaining currency, driving up inflation unexpectedly. In more authoritarian governments, such as the Pytharon Empire, we’d likely see the outlaw of non-standard shins. Some might even outlaw foreign currencies, depending on the politics of the time.

The opposite end of the spectrum would likely be the Sea Kingdom of Ghan, where the nation relies more on local government, and trade is a vital part of the economy – a variety of currencies probably flows through the nation’s ports. This is not to say that Ghan wouldn’t have a national currency – minting money might be a more viable way for the state to pay for employees and goods than through money gained by imposing heavy taxes, if the people don’t want those taxes and the king wants to oblige them.

Something to consider about the location of your game might then be how much outlawed currencies are used, despite the prohibitions. Are they worth less? What’s the penalty for getting caught? Is it the shadier dealers who take any shin and the upright citizens who only take the local coin? An easy rule of thumb might be to have outlawed coin be worth half as much as a legal one.

Oddities as Wealth

Oddities are worth a lot of shins, but that value depends on how useful or interesting the oddity is. They are the equivalent of gems in D&D – small, portable storage of wealth. And like shins, they likely only enter circulation when adventurers find them through exploration. Unlike shins, governments aren’t minting their own. This means that though the worth of any given oddity is in the eye of the beholder, they’re valuable for international trade, since they can be honored in any nation.

Plus they’re useful! Oddities are likely the prefered method of storing wealth for those who travel and trade a great deal, such as caravan merchants. This means they are a source of demand for oddities, trading less useful coin for them when possible.

No Market for Advanced Numenera

Numenera themselves, such as cyphers and artifacts, have no price. They are worth different amounts to different people. This makes a lot of sense if there are a lot of different kinds of numenera. In a D&D-style world where every +1 magic sword is the same and the nation has a few thousand of them, a +1 sword can have a market price. But in a numenera setting where there’s only a few quasi-psi blasters with flippant reinforced shock barrels, who can really say what one’s worth?

This is not to say numenera can’t be purchased or sold. That they’re “priceless”, or any such nonsense. It just means that every time a player wants to buy or sell one they have to have an interaction with an NPC of some kind. What’s a good starting point for price? Well, that’s up to you. If your players are swimming in shins, maybe set selling prices high to keep things interesting. If they could really use the item, to balance out the party, maybe set the price to a more reasonable level.

The most common situation you’ll likely be in is one in which players are trying to sell cyphers to NPC’s. The reason for this is that players can obviously only hold so many, and the powers are so specific, that some are seen as less useful than others. My advice is to make sure there are only a couple people in any given locale that are capable of making use of them / affording them.

The local Aeon priest might be the best choice. To make things more complicated, I’d suggest having the Aeon priest low on coin most of the time, but willing to take cyphers on trade, or in return for oddities, healing, repairs, and information. If the players can just trade in any cypher for 40 shins at their local magic-item vendor they might as well be playing World of Warcraft. Tabletop gaming should be more interesting than simple transactions like that, especially when fantastical technology is what’s being traded.

Major Mistakes

The people of the Ninth World are said to be at about the technology/societal level of people from about the year 1000 CE. Pretty far away from most sciences, let alone the social sciences like economics, which have only recently become a thing in our world. Ninth Worlders likely have no clue about how to manage their national economies, and probably only succeed through luck. Here are a few ideas on how they might mess things up:

  • Engaging in Isolationism. In the past, and in some cases the present, people thought that by not trading with outside nations they could hold on to their wealth. They essentially thought that economic activity was bad, which is, uh, kinda the opposite of true most of the time. Isolationist policies probably happen from time to time, and nations cutting themselves off from outside goods likely has devastating impact on the common citizen of the Steadfast. Starvation, lack of tools, lack of medicine, lack of buyers for their goods – these are all consequences of isolationism to the common folk.
  • Messing up the Money Supply. Obviously, a government with the capacity to print money will at times print too much. Add in greed, ambition, lack of education, and numenera capable of doing the minting, and you’ve got a list of great reasons for Ninth World nations to make and make and make as much coin as they can. The obvious negative here is inflation. If things cost much more than they did last year, only those who have gone up in income by the same amount are keeping up. Everyone else is poorer. Those most likely to feel the sting are those who provide services less purchased by the state, and those in more isolated regions. Isolated towns, in particular, may find themselves essentially incapable of buying what traders want to sell, further isolating them and likely making them desperate. The other downside is trade – if your nation’s goods cost too much, no other nations will be able to buy them. Inflation could very well stimulate your economy in the short run, while severely harming it in the long run by harming producers who rely on international trade.
  • Thoughtless Banking. With no central bank, the lending system can fail at any time. Most likely only larger cities have real banks, but the threat here is serious – should there be a run on money due to a crisis, everyone might just lose everything. Also, without regulation on banking, lenders can charge an arm and a leg, or essentially act like loan sharks, physically threatening those who can’t repay their debts. Debtors prisons, indentured servitude, and worse likely exist.
  • Allowing Slavery. The nations of the Steadfast allow slavery to varying degrees. Some revel in it. Besides being disgustingly immoral, the practice of slavery has its downsides. In particular, an economy based on slave labor will likely collapse when those slaves free themselves, perhaps in a revolt led by daring-but-conscientious heroes or former gladiators. The economic fallout from a loss of slave labor should be a major concern for slavery based nations, likely causing them to hold on to the slavery system at all cost.

5 thoughts on “Economics of the Ninth World

  1. Petteri Sulonen says:

    Shins as a monetary base are actually rather similar to gold or other precious metals in historical economies. I would expect there to be shin mines too – areas with large concentrations of shins mined by government monopolies. An additional twist is that because shins are so diverse, the value of particular types of shins would fluctuate according to supply. So if someone discovered a mountain full of shiny things with a moving hologram of a walrus-like alien on it, those particular shins would quickly lose their value. Historically there was only gold, silver, bronze, and copper, really. A shin-based monetary economy could actually be more stable than a precious-metals based one, since the diversity would give it more “microadjustments” and something like the Spanish discovery of New World gold and silver could not have as big an impact as it did.

    There’s a pretty cool example of an economic crisis right in the Corebook, by the way – the great Guran bauble bubble (p 204-207).

    A point about slavery, though – historically slavery-based societies weren’t any more or less stable than societies that didn’t have slavery. In fact most societies had slavery, and some of them lasted a very long time. Slavery was only abolished in China in 1909, for example, and they had had it since the Shang dynasty – 3500 years or so. Few civilizations have fallen to slave revolts actually.

    1. Ryan Chaddock says:

      I agree, the sheer diversity of possible shins is what makes it an interesting concept, with a lot of hooks for adventurers.

      The slavery issue is complex. I mostly just included it to make sure people were thinking about it, when conceptualizing the economy. I think that in real life it’s hard to shake the slavery system and so it was around for thousands of years, but in a fictional universe with heroes things are a little different and there’s opportunity for good storytelling about major social change.

      1. Gelsamel says:

        The slavery issue is VERY complex.

        Consider a civilziation just coming out hunting and gathering and getting into subsistance farming. Subsistance farming is so intensive it leaves virtually no time for development, innovation, research, etc. If everyone in the civ has to attain a decent quality of life then it will require that virtually everyone work virtually 100% of the time. But what if you allow some members of that civilisation to have an extremely poor quality of life? That can free up a lot of labor to work on progressing technology and society as a whole.

        Now, I don’t know how valid this idea is historically, or in the real world (though I wouldn’t be surprised if, without the horrors of slavery, we’d not have the development we have today), but it makes a great moral crises to foist on a bunch of players.

        Slaves revolting is alright, although morally boring… but I find destroying the black-and-white conceptions of the player characters even more interesting. How do they react when they find out the egalitarian utopia that founded by freeing the slaves is being left in the dust with everyone dying from famine before finally resorting back to their old ways, perhaps with the roles reversed?

  2. Gelsamel says:

    An issue with shins is denomination, when you have “1000 shins” do you really have 1000 little pieces of junk? If so that explains why oddities are so useful, but then why have people not settles on a more rigorously standardized currency? Furthermore how durable are they? Certainly durable enough to be used as currency… but then what about shiny junk you find that isn’t durable? If it’s a common currency certainly everyone understands the rules by which you decide one piece of crap is a shin and another piece isn’t.

    The varied nature of shins is definitely interesting but it’s also the least believable part of the world. Even less believable is that the main kingdoms have not minted coins (in opposition to shins) to squeeze as much profit out of local resources as possible. Factor in the type of political games that can be played with government controlled currencies and the reason for not having such things can only be that that they’re unable.

    Now, all these issues are probably too much for your standard GM running your standard game. But if you want to play some economic hijinks it can definitely pay to homerule your own economy, which can be pretty easy to set up using some basic mechanics. Once you’ve homeruled your own economy you can see how prices change at the click of a button, assuming you’ve set up a simple spreadsheet. This makes for some great economic storylines based off devaluing of currencies, the start or end of wars, the start of droughts or famines, the start of a plague, and really makes your world come to life.

  3. Emuel Eslebon says:

    Note that “a shin” not being perceived the same way throughout the Ninth World has the usual implications: Some people will accept your useless bauble as a shin, some will not accept your bona fide shin from Beyond — and some will set an exchange rate. It can quickly become a matter of some planning how you want to be paid. So, oddities and cyphers make even more sense as part of negotiations (“okay, 1 Xian synthglass shin per day per person and a lump sum of 7 Zish gold shins now per person and the glass showing monster slugs coming at you as you drink when we arrive”). I try to not overdo it but currency and currency exchange problems tend to add to the verisimilitude of the world. With Numenera, you can even go one better: Create adventures out of them!

    1) Some local sort of shin is valuable because it essentially is the stuff that keeps some Numenera running (whether as payment or part of maintenance…) and is getting scarce…
    2) The shiny shins you brought from beyond made no problem until you arrived in the township of …ington. The innkeeper blanched and had to be paid with a collection of shins from everywhere else. Now, you wake up in the night and see an angry mob gathering around the inn…
    3) The goldsynth shins of …ville has been a stable currency for at least a hundred years. The characters stumble through the remains of an archaic machine in the mountain towering over the town when they find a production hall where some parts are formed for subsequent use. The punched-off refuse is a pile of millions and millions of goldsynth shins clogging the recycling chute…

    Regarding the “minted money should work better” argument: Money ultimately is a lie all interested parties choose to believe in. If the believe flags, so does the perceived value. See real world problems with other imaginary things, such as stocks and derivatives, or return to bartering (or setting up ersatz currencies like cigarettes) after wars. In the Ninth World, you cannot settle on one “scarce” material, on one “good enough” authority — or the guarantee of no counterfeiting numenera… If you instead take something that is there, impossible or hard to produce, and use it until someone disproves its value ore comes along with something “better”, you will not do worse than with minted money. And we come back to it: What will you create money out of when you are one step up from barter? Precious materials? Precious how? They are necessary and tend to get scarce (iron in ancient egypt) or are scarce by nature. It takes some time and familiarization with money and minted precious money until people will believe you the “this placard represents X shins and will be paid out in full at your national bank” scam. If a ruler tries to enforce his or her own currency too early, then a black market will spring up and probably favor the accepted shin and barter economy. So, we may yet see “real currencies” in the Steadfast but it will take some time in the Beyond (or it already works perfectly somewhere out there…).

    Slavery: That is a hard one. I tend to agree with the arguments made in “Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei” by Egon Flaig (sorry, I do not know a comparable work in English). Essentially, the pervasiveness and degrees of slavery in your society give rise to certain dynamic developments or repress them. You have everything from a society with some (time-limited) form of slavery to a society running on life-long slaves that “encourage” neighbors to provide slaves (which they do… from their neighbors and so on, leading incidentally to an increase of slaves of their own, increasing the overall need for slaves, leading to Subsaharan Africa five hundred years ago…) – or else… I do not think you can “prove” things either way because industrialization and general increase of wealth even in the worker class with subsequent increase of economic activity and so on muddies up the issues but a large amount of slavery in your workforce will probably lower incentives to do things another way and leave you in a more or less stagnant state unless innovation is forced on you. No, I do not claim that the Chinese could have gone from mass armies and crossbows in 200 BC to 21st century tech by the time of the crusades if not for slavery.

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