“The merchant eyes the elven silver coins suspiciously. ‘What’s with these funny coins? No matter, if they’re pure, I’ll trade. Let me get my touchstone and scale.’”
When you hear the word touchstone, you usually hear it in the metaphoric sense. For example, my brilliant gaming blog is the touchstone against which all DMs should measure their skills. So, a touchstone is a thing you measure against. But what the hell is a touchstone?
A touchstone is a flat piece of dark stone, like slate. Yes, it is literally a stone. And when you touch it with a piece of precious metal, like gold, it leaves a colored mark. Well, you have to rub it really. But rubbing is a kind of touching and isn’t this just getting dirty? Specific metals leave specific colors and if the metal is impure, the color of the mark is affected. Now, this is really valuable if someone is trying to buy stuff from you with chunks of precious metal. Like coins.
The ancient Greeks (back to them) called touchstones lithos lydia or Lydian stones because they blamed the overly materialistic, consumerist Lydians for inventing coins. That isn’t quite true. Chunks of precious metal had been used in trade in ancient China, in ancient India, and in various places around the Mediterranean. But the Lydians got credit in Greece, possibly because they were the first nation in Europe and Asia whose government officially minted coins. Incidentally, the Greeks also credited the Lydians with inventing the idea of permanent retail storefronts (as opposed to stalls and tents and markets).
The first coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring mixture of silver and gold that really pisses off Dungeons and Dragons gamers for some reason. It actually took a long time to develop a process for refining pure silver and pure gold. So, electrum (which they also called white gold) was it. Thing was, if you didn’t know the purity of the electrum (how much gold and silver was in there), you couldn’t be sure of the value. So, along with scales for weighing coins, the touchstone was instrumental in allowing global trade.
With better refining techniques, different nations started developing their own minting preferences. Greece, Rome, and other European nations preferred silver coins because silver was easier to come by. The Persians (who eventually conquered the Lydians) preferred gold coins. Governments also started stamping coins with particular marks to swear to their weight and purity, which meant you didn’t need to weigh and test the coins – as long as you trusted the foreign government. Which you couldn’t always do. Some nations would purposely debase their coins with other metals. Other places just didn’t want to play the trade game with stinking foreigners at all. Sparta minted iron coins that had no value outside of Sparta to discourage foreign trade.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, minting went into a decline. Byzantine and early medieval coins were almost paper thin, the stamps were plain, and the standards fell. That’s when the process of clipping became common. Basically, an unscrupulous con-artist would clip a tiny piece off every silver coin and save the pieces until he had enough to melt them down and make a new coin. Eventually, clipping was foiled by developing stamps that extended all the way to the edge of the coin so you could see if the coin got clipped.
How can you use all of this in your D&D game? Well, honestly, this is one of those flavor things. You can get into the minutiae of money changing, counterfeiting, currency exchanges, and all that crap if you really want to. But it won’t get you anywhere. But you can tell a lot about a culture from what it stamps on its coins. For example, ancient Chinese money bore the catchy motto “counterfeiters will be beheaded.” The sort of money someone has in their pockets can also be an important clue (or red herring) in your game. If the orcs have coins from some foreign nation in their stash, maybe they stole it from a foreign dignitary or maybe those orc raids have a more political motivation. When players design their own homelands, you can even ask them what their coins look like.
Look, I realize this is just flavorful word porn and I generally try to make things more useful, so let me throw in a bonus. Do you know where the word money comes from? It actually comes from the Latin word monere, meaning to warn or to protect. And there’s a cool story behind that. During a siege of Rome by the Gauls (ancient French persons), the commander of the Roman forces was holding out on Capitoline Hill. Capitoline Hill was home to flocks of geese which were said to be sacred to Juno Monere (Juno the Protector, the wife of Jupiter). When the Gallic forces tried to sneak up the hill, the geese went into a honking frenzy and warned the Roman forces of the surprise attack. Later, that hill became the site of the Temple of Juno Monere and that temple was where Rome minted most of its coins.
So, if that whole coins as world-flavor thing doesn’t work out, maybe you can make some sort of goose-based trap.