Trading without coins

I’ve been writing a science fantasy setting (similar to Caves of Qud) where settlements are isolated and trade is sparse. Made me think “what if this world did not develop any currency?” (or just forgot about it over time). So now I’m trying to figure out how to make a barter system work in the game, and at the same time be interesting for the players to interact with.

Do you know any games that have a similar idea (i can only recall Heart that has something like that)? Have you tried it in any of your sessions? Any random thoughts on the topic?

At the moment I have a procedure: when you generate a settlement, it has a resource that they value in trade (can be water, metal, wood etc.). So in a river town, water does not have a lot of trade value, but in the desert village, they will gladly accept it.

Looking forward to any ideas regarding this, and happy holidays :slight_smile:


Ah so one thing to think about is that the barter system is largely a myth, and for the most part pre currency economics relies far more on favors and pseudo-credit (also everything Im about to say is going to be not quite entirely accurate as I explain it :stuck_out_tongue: ) and gift giving, less so than straight exchange of value. Which is fun for a game cause you can milk that for a lot of social dynamics, especially gift giving. Now trading x for x does also happens (especially is someone sets up some consistent exchange) but it sounds like your world has less consistent trade networks so things are probably more ad hoc.


Oh, I actually love favours much more! Every item the players want to get is now a quest


It also seems like an opportunity to build robust social interactions into play. Trying to get an item without currency involves a string of decisions about how to approach the owner and what to offer in exchange, and most of that can serve as set-up for an eventual social skill check.


I’m doing a similar thing in a Cyberpunk-style game where coin exists but isn’t the limiting factor for a LOT of gear. Small stuff can be “owe me a favour” (eg Urban Shadows’ debt system), but big stuff is “well I’ll need you to do this first”.


For Stonetop (village-based pseudo-iron age adventuring), coins are around but there’s no standardized exchange rate and no central government.

PCs can outfit (before an expedition, or retroactively on the fly) by picking from a Inventory insert with items commonly available in their home village. If they want something else, that counts as a “Special Item,” and they have make a check to see if it’s available (10+, it is! 7-9, it is, but…; 6-, no dice).

Items and services are assigned a Value, but the Value is more of a logrithmic scale than linear scale. E.g. a single Value 2 item (like a cartload of grain) is worth maybe 5-10 Value 1 items (e.g. a good sword, a bronze lantern, some good iron tools).

Within a given Value rating, items might be traded 1:1, 2:1, 3:1 etc based on local supply and demand. E.g. a firkin of Stonetop whiskey is Value 1, and so is a pouch of salt. But salt is imported, so you might expect to have to trade 2 or even 3 firkins of whisky for that pouch of salt. Whereas if you took that firkin to the next town over, you might be able to trade it for 2 or 3 pouches of salt.

As the home base’s prosperity increases, so do the quality of goods that the PCs can outfit with. And so do the chances of a special item being available.

Oh, right… big old explanation here.


Vaults of Vaarn uses the slot based inventory from Knave and makes use of a barter system. Typically trade is per slot on a 1:1 ratio. VoV prices things using the Water Standard, where items are listed by the cost of a daily ration (contains food and water).

Really looking forward to what you are doing with your Qud inspired rpg, I am sure there is a lot of crossover content with VoV.


yeah, Vaults of Vaarn is big inspiration! I enjoy the simplicity of it, but looking to add some extra consideration for the players (like having a certain reputation level before being trustworthy enough for trade, having the right goods for trade etc.)


Exactly what I was looking for! Very cool system, thanks :eyes:


From a game design viewpoint it may be quite hard to remove “currency” for trade from a game without removing trade (purchasing equipment, selling stuff, even finding valuable but not useful treasure) itself.

It’s of course possible to have a game about something other then collecting valuables: heroism, survival, relationships … but presumably even then a lot of the time you’ll want a “currency” to track player success (reputation levels or days of food say).

Alternatively, you might encourage settings and individual adventures where there are unique trade goods that are worth more in place X then in place Y, but even then, what’s the metric for tracking if a deal is good or bad? Presumably your players aren’t really seeking to become say the horse trader with the biggest herd. Universal currency is popular in rpgs as a holdover from D&D’s XP = GP recovered rule where it serves a dual in game purpose of buying things and as the meta-currency for advancement. I think its hard to keep any meta currency aspect if you break down a universal value, but more I suspect it adds considerable complexity.

Adding verisimilitude almost always adds complexity, and often for little result.

I’d focus on what you want to achieve with a barter and trade good system. How much space will it take in game, how important is it, does it displace other mechanics? I think it might be cool to building a trading and travel game, but setting goals might be hard. How does the player decide or know that they need to get 144 horses or 9 cart loads of royal honey?


A few questions that I think might help you figure out what you’re looking for here:

  1. What is the focus of gameplay you hope for? Do you expect the players to spend a lot of time looking for resources in order to trade for stuff they want? Or do you expect this to be a side thing that they only engage with occasionally?
  2. Do you care whether the players engage in barter, or is it enough for the characters to do it in fiction? How abstract are you interested in barter being?

In terms of other games that engage mechanically with barter.
Heart: You mentioned it in OP, and it’s true that it is a game where you trade objects, sort of. Each object has a die value (d4, d6, d8, etc…) and you trade value for value, so you have an abstract currency to measure relative value, no actual bartering takes place. Each resource is somewhat unique, with its own tags and uses, and resources can be used for all kinds of things in game, but you can’t trade a d4 resource for a d8 resource with an NPC. Still, it’s a way to abstract value in game

The various different editions of apocalypse world have different ways to abstract barter, it’s worth checking those out.

Any game that has a really abstract resource/purchasing system can be flavored as barter. Burning Wheel’s resources system, for example, can easily be flavored as barter.

Note: All of these systems abstract barter to some degree. If you just want barter to be the thing in your game, there’s no need to abstract it, you can just have players do it, using your understanding of relative values in the fiction and whatever type of social/persuasion mechanics your game has. I don’t think that’s terribly difficult to do, and might even be fun. However, it puts a lot of burden on the GM to be fair in their setting relative values, and to make sure that players have access to resources that the people they meet will want to barter for. My experience is that players tend to find this kind of thing frustrating, that they will try hard to push against the limits your NPCs set, and to use social mechanics as mind control to get “great deals” and then be annoyed when you don’t let them. Clear communication about what NPCs want and what is possible to bargain for is critical to avoid these situations. So see my questions above to help determine how abstract you want things and how much effort it is worth it for you to put in.


I’m doing a similar thing in Boned, but the currency is based on gladiatorial prize levels, because that is all the main civilization there cares about.

My tip (FWIW) is that you should find something in your setting that is innately valuable but common enough that everyone knows what it is, and base your currency on a comparison to that. For example, on early Diablo 2 trade servers, gold pieces were effectively worthless. Everything was instead measured against trade with a “Stone of Jordan” which was a magic item kind of at the low tier of anyone caring about it. So things would be worth “3 sojs.” or an item or set of items roughly that good. It’s still barter but it has a stable base for comparison. I think about this a lot because it was sort of a natural experiment where things just shook out that way.

Might not fit your setting idea but those are my observations.

1 Like

wow, thanks for the responses. i’ll try to answer everyone here!

I think it’s fairly important. It will be displacing any currency mechanics, but it also kinda blends with encumbrance. Now every time you want to trade or buy something, you have to carry the thing you want to trade in one of your slots instead of an abstract purse!

The game is very much travel based, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get rid of universal currency. Every time the players travel to a new location, they have to rethink about what is valuable and what is not. I think it adds an interesting challenge.

  1. My goal is to make trading harder and have players find alternative ways of getting what they want, instead of just coin. There are no items in the game that are really worth lots of commitment, so I imagine it as more of an aside thing.
  2. I want to present a mechanical and in setting reason for the players to barter. I don’t really understand how the players can engage in it since they arent trading anything irl? Sorry.

I imagine the barter system itself can be p abstract. The one in heart i enjoy a lot bc it ties value to rarity and is very easy to understand.

good note! I was thinking of adding some basic resources that are more or less universal, like water, metals or spices. Those could be the fall back option if the players have nothing better to use for trade, but they are extremely impractical to carry.


Right, the thing about Heart is that it’ isn’t really a barter system. It’s a resource system where the resources feed into most of the game’s systems. The whole game is built around resources, the fact that you can trade them for stuff is just a side effect of that. But when it comes time to trade stuff, every resource is given an abstract value in die level, and you trade value for value. A sword (d8, kill) will trade for something else worth d8. You aren’t bartering, in the sense of negotiating for a fair trade of unlike goods with no clear measure of value to mediate.

If you want to do something like that in your system, it’s pretty easy, just use the prices in your equipment list of choice or set your own, and tell players that they have to trade value for value. If you want it even simpler, have a few tiers of value like in Heart, rather than explicit prices. This way, trading will be harder, because they need actual stuff to trade, but you won’t have arguments about what stuff is really worth or whatever.

1 Like

Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking of ultimately doing! Irl bartering would be a nightmare for the gm.

My initial idea was to have different value tiers for different regions, so that players don’t get away with carrying one expensive piece of equipment that can be sold anywhere.

1 Like

Cool! Will they have a way to know that things will be worth less in a new region? It would be very frustrating to gather a bunch of stuff you think is valuable only to get where you are going and discover it is not.

1 Like

Re: Stonetop, I’ll say that it’s something that isn’t 100% clear in text, but shines beautifully in play. The game offers a lot of points to make the prosperity of the town visible to the players, but it’s never as clear in text as it is in play how nebulous those value tags are.

I really enjoyed my time with Stonetop, and from a barter system perspective, it’s a really good example of what negotiated value is like. You can’t draw up a table in stonetop and say “these things are valuable, these things are not”, because the reality is that (more like Apocalypse World), it’s about what you need right now, and how accessible it is. What good is water to a drowning man, for example. Therefore it’s so much less about replacing currency (as in the Diablo 2 example), and so much more about solving problems. For this reason, I actually think a game that does it really well is Apocalypse World.

Sure there’s a “barter” and “jingle” economy, but the reality of it is that people don’t care about your cash. If you step to Balls because he’s the only weirdo who knows how to siphon fuel from the wrecked pipes, you probably can’t pay him enough. Instead, you need to sort Sunset out for him. Or you need to get him Coyote’s knife. He actually doesn’t care about coinage, he cares about VALUE. The reason that currency is so uhhh fungible in a standard D&D town is because the Shopkeeper knows they can turn that currency into the things that are valuable to them. In any situation where that is less true (Stonetop for example!, or AW), people have no reason to take whatever you’re offering, unless it is immediately valuable. The people of Gordon’s Delve don’t have to value things in the same way as Marshedge, even though there is a theoretical value associated with the trade, that is so much more dependent on how that item solves immediate or predicted problems.

This is great from an “active adventurer” situation, because it means shopping isn’t bookkeeping, it’s problem solving.


I imagine the players would ask for rumours, or talk to wanders who have been there. Also I think there would be some stuff that’s valuable all the time, like ancient artefacts, so you have a safe choice if you dont have anything else.

Wow, you have perfectly described my thoughts!

Obviously I know nothing about your regions but how about each has a resource they’re rich in or produce (and so doesn’t trade for much in that region), a resource they need (something practical like wood or a certain stone), and a resource they desire greatly and consider a luxury (something like fine wool or seashells).

Three resources per area or settlement isn’t too complex to remember on the fly, but it gives enough depth that trading in each will feel slightly different. Extra fun if the resource one settlement produces is a luxury in another, far-distant settlement.