How much is a gold piece worth (5e)?
TL;DR: About $100. Maybe slightly more, but we like round numbers. Also, it’s almost impossible to compare two radically different economies.
I loved taking a deep dive on this topic: I enjoy looking at how people value things, even if we are talking about fantasy economies full of fake wizard people. But more than that, I also wanted to have a reference point for myself and my players.
However, we must acknowledge that the medieval fantasy economy that also contains dragons and fireballs probably doesn’t directly map on to our advanced, mechanized, non-fireball economy. For this purpose, I am just looking for a way to have an approximate idea of what a gp is worth, not set up a fantasy to real-world currency exchange (please don’t come after me, SEC).
To figure out the approximate worth of a gold piece, I used two methods. The first is a basket of goods approach, where I take some comparable goods from the D&D universe, and tie them analogous real-world counterparts, and compare prices. The second method uses the lifestyle model. This model looks at poor and modest lifestyle expenses (as given in the PHB) and compares them to the poverty rate and median income in the United States.
Basket of goods
There are some goods from the DnD world that just don’t quite map to today’s economy. For example, you probably can’t pick up a longsword at the local sporting goods store. However, there are still some items between economies that map quite well.
Gold. Gold is an excellent trade good to track, because as an investment it retains its value over time and is, in general, a great hedge against inflation. The current price of gold at the time of writing was $1500 per troy ounce, and there are about 14.58 troy ounces in an Avoirdupois (standard) pound meaning that a pound of gold costs ~$21,874.95. The PHB notes that a pound of gold is 50gp, and that makes a gp worth $437.50. Hunh. Gold may be slightly overvalued at this time, as lucky investors were able to purchase it for about a third of the cost in 2001.
Bushel of wheat. A pound of wheat in the PHB costs a copper, and a bushel is 60 pounds, so a bushel is 0.6 gp. We can assume that our hardworking medieval peasants produce high-quality organic wheat, and the best price I could find was around $14.21 per bushel of organic food-grade hard red spring wheat. The organic grain crop markets aren’t as active as traditional farming markets, so it can be hard to get a price. This makes a gp worth $23.68, although the price fluctuates.
Cow or ox. I put them in the same category, which shows I know nothing about agriculture [Editor’s note: Can attest. Despite a love of chickens, the author knows little about agriculture]. The PHB places the cost of an ox at 15 gp. Believe it or not, there isn’t a real market for oxen (generally castrated steers used for farm labor). However, hopefully, a slaughter weight cow is comparable. Assuming 1200 lbs and $50 per hundredweight a slaughter weight cow is worth $600. Thus, in the cattle market, a gp might be worth $40
Light Crossbow. Crossbows are, shockingly, not hard to find. While I have no idea if it is comparable, a higher-end crossbow (the Barnet Whitetail Hunter II) is $400. We want our adventurers to have the best equipment for fighting demons, not some knockoff. The PHB says a light crossbow costs 25gp. This means the value of a gp is about $16.
Saffron. 5e includes this fun spice in the trade goods section. 15gp gets you a pound. Per Wikipedia, trade amounts fall around $2000 a pound, although with all products the price varies. This put our gold piece is $133.33. Next time my players find a treasure trove, it is going to be saffron.
Averaging the basket together gets us near $130 a gold piece and gives us an idea of how to stretch our dollar in each economy. You’ll notice, of course, that all goods impacted by industrialization are all much cheaper in our modern economy, fireballs or no. I guess that if we continued to add goods to the basket, the “price” of a gp would continue to drop.
The only goods that are substantially more expensive in our economy is gold and saffron. If you were to trade between the United States and 5e world of Fearun (and not violate the prime directive by giving all the elves assault rifles and iPhones) you would want to bring in manufactured goods (crossbows, industrialized agriculture, et cetera) and extract gold and rare labor-intensive spices. Well, that and fireball scrolls.
Cost of Living
Another way to look at the value of a gp, is to compare the cost of living for the two societies. Of course, poor people in western societies often have access to technology that would make our ancient kings blush, but it can give us an idea
Lifestyle expenses – Poor The PHB describes individuals who have poor lifestyle expenses as “A poor lifestyle means going without the comforts available in a stable community. Simple and lodgings, threadbare clothing, and unpredictable Conditions result in a sufficient, though probably unpleasant, experience. Your accommodations might be a room in a flophouse or the Common Room above a tavern. You benefit from some legal protections, but you still have to contend with violence, crime, and disease.” People at this lifestyle level tend to be unskilled laborers, costermongers, peddlers, thieves, mercenaries, and other people down on their luck, which sounds comparable to living at (or maybe under) the United States poverty rate. A poor lifestyle is 73gp per year, and the poverty rate for a single person is $12,490. This puts our gold piece at $171.
Lifestyle expenses – Modest It costs 1gp per day or 365gp per year for our average peasant to survive in a fantasy world. The average median income for a person in the United States is a depressing $31,099. This puts the price of a gold piece at $85.20.
Averaging these two values estimates that a gp is about $130.
Bringing it all together.
I appreciate the need to be exact, but we are comparing prices across two vastly different economies. One is shaped by the vast forces of industrialization, globalization, and capitalism while the other is shaped by dragons, magic, and the ever-encroaching darkness.
In the end, we are looking for a quick shorthand so our players and DMs can have a sense of what a gold piece actually is. Thus, I feel compelled to choose a round number, if only to keep the math easy. A gold piece is approximately $100 and that makes the noble copper worth a dollar.
Putting that in perspective, paying off your student loans:
The average college graduate has $37,100 in student loan debt or 371 gold pieces. Assuming a party of 4 graduates and average treasure horde rolls from the DMG, they would need to adventure to level 4 or 5 (depending on how much they spent on health potions).
If you are desperate to read more in-depth articles about the cost of a gold piece, you can find one here.