The Lost Seas
The societies of Athas are not sophisticated enough for a real banking system. The insularity of the individual city-states coupled with the nature of the currency (declared pegged to water by fiat, enforced by state violence, and periodically banned when one sorcerer-king decides he is angry with another) and the lack of robust civil structures mean that lending and interest traditions have not fully developed.
The danger of transporting money on the perilous roads is a major issue for merchants. In order to alleviate this risk, Athasians have developed a system of money transfer and pseudo-banking called hawala. Simply put, hawala is transfer of wealth without physical transfer of money. A patron visits a hawaladar in Tyr and gives him 10,000 dragons, asking him to transfer it to the patron’s brother in Draj; the hawaladar gets in contact with a hawaladar colleague in Draj, who pays the patron’s brother 10,000gp…minus a nice commission, of course. The coinage itself never leaves the city, and the hawaladar’s colleague will make up his 10,000gp loss by finding a client who wishes to transfer money to Tyr and asking his Tyrian colleague to return the favor.
Additionally, the hawala system can be used to store money in a manner similar to a vaul. It’s well worth it because the patron does not have to worry about maintaining a treasury, paying guards, foiling robbers, etc. On the downside, hawaladar do not maintain huge vaults, either; it can take weeks to extract a patron’s deposited money from the business when he wants to withdraw it, as the hawaladar must put it together from various assets. Also, hawaladar do not pay interest on deposited funds; indeed, they charge yearly fees for the service they provide of insuring the money’s safety.
Hawaladar can also provide loans—fairly simple ones, with high interest rates and fixed dates of repayment—using their funds.
Types of hawala
- Courier hawala. Used by virtually all hawaladar, courier hawala relies on a courier to bring news of the deposit to the hawaladar in the neighboring city. Elaborate systems (rumored to involve psionics or even arcane magic) are used to prevent couriers from being faked or intercepted and changed. It can take days or weeks for the money transfer to occur, based on the distance between cities, and a fee for the expense of the courier is charged on top of a percentage of funds transferred. Faster, more exotic couriers (such as elves, riders, or aaracokra) add a premium to the service.
- Shardmind hawala. Used only by the Balic-based shardmind collective of Sezimbra, this method is cloaked in secrecy and relies heavily on psionics. Transfers occur very swiftly indeed, and a high cost makes this out of range for all but the wealthiest merchant houses.