Friday, May 27, 2011

Trader to the Crown: Merchants in RPGs

I like the idea of the "merchant" as a class in an rpg campaign. I think they often get thrown in as lip service when people are putting together collections of classes and the like. But the merchant embodies a kind of goal-oriented character that I can really get behind. And of course, there are many flavors of that at the table. What I’m talking about isn’t the merchant as the con-artist, face-man or used-car salesman. I’m talking about the merchant who actually deals in goods, makes arrangements, and searches for profit.

To that end I’ve put together a Geeklist which assembled some of those games which have that as a key premise. I love the abilitiy to draw together different games across obscure criteria. Anyway, the link for the Geeklist.

Merchants and Manifests: Trade in RPGs

So I love the idea of a trading game more than I probably love the actuality of a trading game. I love trade as a factor in Civilization and Europa Universalis, for example, but I can automate all of those details. I’ve skipped quite few exploration, economics and trade games because the review suggested that things were a little too hands on for my taste (the Annoseries for example). In the same way, I’m attracted to trade and economy as an issue in tabletop games. I’ve read some on that (A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World; The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World; and some economics texts) in the hopes of being able to bring that into the game. But when it comes to the crunch of things- well, I kind of fall down. I mean, I don’t think we’ve tracked money as a factor in campaigns for at least a decade now. We make assumptions about wealth, we deal with the idea as an abstraction. We don’t have price lists which used to be a cool thing we’d pore over at the table.
So the key question: how do I marry those abstract systems to satisfying options for someone who wants to play a merchant.

One thing to figure out is how that ‘trade’ functions in the game. One the one hand, it could be crunchy- with players tracking goods, hunting down items, fulfilling contracts, rising to challenges, and making choices which shape the direction on the business. The other approach takes the mercantile enterprise as a means to an end. They provide a gateway to abstract wealth, contacts, allies, or most often new plots. Legend of the Five Rings, at least in the early editions has to contend with this problem. The Yasuki are among my favorite families in the setting. They’re merchants in a culture which looks down on samurai class involvement in that kind of trade. Other clans (notably the Unicorn and Crane) have families that deal with that but in a less direct way. The Yasuki- in my mind- serve as martyrs to the necessities of trade. But their abilities in the game essentially revolve around the ability to get things and not much beyond that.

I think one of the most useful and fruitful approaches for these kinds of games is to make the company a shared resource. This is how Bookhounds, InSpectres and even Reign handle things IIRC. Question of businesses as a resource of the players- as a kind of patron of some kinds, but not just as a monolith, but one in which the players have to make an investment. InSpectres and Bookhounds both take this approach- so the group functions as a merchant, rather than a single character having to take that role. I ran into Ken Hite at a con and how much I liked the structure he’d built into Bookhounds. He said that its yet another thing Ars Magica created and that other games have lifted and used. (That would be an interesting Geeklist to see- one looking at the influence of Ars on later games)

This kind of approach can be used in other campaigns as well- building up a set of details and ratings which the players can raise collectively provides a nice bond. In HeroQuest, this is represented by the community rules. In Changeling the Lost, if the players share a single Hollow, they can all pitch in on it. That makes it a more useful refuge for the group. A fantasy campaign might see the players managing a town or a keep. Ars Magica has this in the form of covenants. If you have a science fiction campaign, then the shared resource can be the ship and upgrades to it. That does mean the GM has to have lots of elements ready for the ship- ideally ones which matter to the roles of the party members.

So one of the obvious things to notice is how much the idea of playing a 'Trader" is a sci-fi rpg trope more than any other. I wonder if that has something to do with the contrast between the civilization and wilderness kinds of adventures. Certainly early D&D and other games focused on heading out into the wilds- whether those be literal wilderness or lost ruins. Urban focused adventures came a little later. There’s a degree of crunch to those representations of trade as well- at least in early Traveller materials. We have detailed and significant systems for the kinds of goods, for space requirements, for the interaction of local laws and bureaucracies, for transport costs, and so on. It’s a spreadsheet game. Later games would tone those aspects done more- hand-wave them or focus on general aspects.

To consider a more recent, sci-fi example, Firefly. Money and trade serve as the backbone and motivation for events, but they’re not the key element. There have to do nearly literal horse-trading, but money’s always in short supply. The nature of the setting means that they can’t get ahead. And that’s worth thinking about- how you keep the players striving for a goal (like material wealth) that they can’t really obtain as that would undercut the premise.


Of course in Cyberpunk universes (let’s take Cyberpunk and Shadowrun as examples) corporations are essentially large-scale horror factories of crime and villainy. There’s a strange contradiction which comes out as those gamelines roll along. At the beginning, most of the player material seems aimed at making them anti-authority anarchists and punks. But then eventually we get more and more supplements about how to buy in- showing the sexy corporate stuff. Not that they’ve any less evil, but they get sexed up for the setting. Of course Werewolf has Penetex, which I think of as the classic evil corporation. Then there’s stuff like SLA Industries and Corporation which take a more or less dystopian approach to those ideas. There’s a message about capitalism, coming from a game company, which always seems more than a little ill-informed and high-school in its mentality. Mind you most of these presentations don’t really deal with the idea of trade and commerce but of business and control. I can’t imagine anyone deciding to play a Ventrue or a Giovanni in Vampire the Masquerade because they really want to explore the world of business.

Of course all of this talk about merchants means that there has to be a couple of agreements at the table. The GM has to be comfortable and ready with the idea of the player actually building something- like a trade network, a series of contacts or a business. If the game’s not going to allow for that, then the GM needs to make that clear to the player. When my wife first got into role-playing, she played in a fantasy campaign which seemed urban focused. The group played around in the city for a long time, with the characters doing things and carrying out operations. She’d made up a merchant character and spent her time building up a business, establishing contacts and essentially developing resources for the group to use. The GM acknowledged that and let her build stuff up and then as she was getting things in place, shifted the group to an entirely different country- essentially jump cut and they’re in a new place. If the GM had made it clear that was going to the shape of the campaign, she would have built differently. And a GM who sees a player investing heavily in something they know is going to come to nothing really owes the player at least some kind of discussion and redirection. Or provide some means where that can explicitly pay off later.

The other agreement is about the level and scope of social interaction at the table. Is trading a series of rolls? Is it actual haggling? How much details will there be and how much room at the table will be allowed for those kinds of social interactions? We play pretty social interaction heavy games generally. So there’s some room. Others don’t. Peter Amthor has some posts on bad play which address the question of how much social interaction/play at the table is enough. My experience is a little different, as I’ve more often seen GMs and some players shut down any attempt at interaction at the table. I’m not talking about the excessive stuff, the narrating everything, the talking to everyone, the wheedling with the store owner stuff- that seems a little like a straw man. Part of the problem comes when very different people come to the table for very different purposes. If the group’s doing that kind of heavy NPC interaction and enjoying themselves, then the player not into that needs to figure out if that’s where they want to be- rather than getting irritated. And the reverse holds true- I just wonder how GMs can communicate and hold to a particular level of social interactions and focus at the game table.