A while back I wondered why gold was used as a currency in real life, as well as in modern fantasy. In fantasy Role Playing Games (RPGs), gold is practically synonymous as money. I often thought gold was just useful because it was something people easily understood, and that’s fine. However, I think it pays to know a little bit more about the element (pun not originally intended)*.
Gold is mostly inert.
This means it doesn’t easily react to things around it. It won’t oxidize, meaning it won’t form different compounds in water or the air. Also, it occurs naturally, which means it can be pulled straight up out of the ground.
Compare this to copper. Take a look at any old penny, and people can see why gold might be preferred. Copper oxidizes, which means it will turn blue over time. This degrades the amount of copper in the penny, which technically could change its value.
This is important in older economies, since money is often tied specifically to the weight or amount of a precious metal. Imagine selling a farm for a hundred pounds of copper. It gets wet on the wagon, and the seller is now losing money to stuff that falls out of the sky. A transaction in gold means the seller doesn’t have to worry about the weather.
Gold is also easily molded.
Pure gold might be too easy to work with, as a human can exert enough pressure to change its form. However, keeping impure forms of it makes it retain its shape for jewelry and coins. If a purer form is needed, it can always be heated.
Thus, gold can be a good source of personal wealth for characters and societies. Easy use means things can get made with less effort, which makes them cheaper. Or at the least, goldsmiths can make more beautiful things with gold than iron.
These considerations should be kept in mind for other metals.
Platinum also can be a good choice. It’s mostly inert, but it occurs rarely on Earth. Different fantasy realms could have more access to platinum instead of gold, which would make platinum a coin of the realm. One could even use scarcity as a way of showing the difference between currencies of different countries. Economies could spring up over people transporting gold to platinum-rich societies and vice versa.
At the very least, the practical considerations of why gold is a good currency can make a fantasy currency more realistic. Maybe your magicite coins are great because it takes magic users to mint them. Or maybe there’s a rare currency that nobody knows how to make anymore, which could render a currency priceless. Regardless, people will look at a currency as a practical thing, which helps sell a world as a very real place.
*I linked to Periodic Videos, because they’re awesome.