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.


  1. I've always thought a merchant campaign could be a lot of fun. Traveller meets D&D in a way.

    You mentioned our Chronicle, the members of the Freehold each invest xps in an annual ceremony to enhance and fortify their villa in the Hedge. It's pretty sweet. :)

  2. 1.Using trade as the reason for the group to be together is a good one, in theory. It provides a place for most roles in a typical group. Thugs to guard the product or move it around, rogues to know who to cut the deals with or know a property's value, holy types could be taking the word to the masses or on a pilgrimage, etc.

    My experience has been that some players become intimidated by the thought of being responsible for conducting business. They don't understand it in real life and they shut down. (But they understand how to play a half-drow/half-dragon shaman from a dieing race...) If you walk them through the process of how things work in the setting, it can help.

    As to keeping track of how much cargo they are really moving, I let the players decide that. 20 years ago, we'd have wanted high detail. Nowadays, not nearly so much.

    2. It's all about investment. I've used your basis here, with good results, in the past. For me, it's been Star Wars (you all own part of the ship), Conspiracy X (you all have a stake in the hideout and the strings you can pull for each other), Firefly (we've got a ship, how do we keep it going?), and Ars Magica (mutual learning and protection).

    4. Wait, you mean I can't roleplay out every interaction possible at my Giovanni's Morgue for the Rich? Game over man.

    It is interesting to look at the various games that start with taking down the man and turn into we love the corporation.

    Your point 5. is dead-on. My current Firefly game is suffering from a couple of players who don't interact with the NPCs at all (minus guns/swords/kung fu), unless it's the corner bakery. Here they are, merchants of the black, they have their own ship, some money to spare, and a love for travel. But they don't maintain contacts with anyone they run across. They don't ask the people they've met in game for work or leads. I've tried a few different methods of communicating and it always boils down to stopping the game and explaining the meta.

    I guess when it comes down to it, the social cotnract has to be agreed upon and fully understood by everyone at the table. Don't say it sounds like a great idea for a campaign if you don't grok it. And if you thought you grokked it, but find out you haven't a clue, bloody well say something.

    I think you and Peter Amthor sit on 2 sides of a fence when it comes to NPC interaction. You are a "high amount of interaction is okay" and he prefers "only talk to the named NPCs." I'll admit it took some getting use to in the Dragonblooded game. If I hadn't heard stories about other games some of the players were in, I would have been highly taken aback. "Why are they doing this? Who cares what goes on at the corner bake shop? Etc." When I understood that was the level of fun the other players wanted, I adjusted. I may not have joined in with their level of fun, but I grokked that it what they wanted, you were having fun with it as well, and that I needed to roll with it or get out.

    I think as a GM, you (or whomever) have to set the tone for the level of NPC interaction in the game. You can do that a few ways. If the player/s are trying to interact with everything that doesn't matter, my preferred method is to narrate that portion. No "in-game" interaction, as it were. If you catch on, great. If not, I'll have to use a different method. If it's an okay thing to do, I roll with it. If it's really starting to get to me, I try a little more blunt narration and eventually move on to a private conversation to get us both on the same page.

  3. Can I mention how much I hate it when I select "Comment as: Google profile" after typing a comment, and then having everything erased when it asks me to log in? I hate it a lot.

    One could create separate game supplements based on whether the PCs are the whole business, if they manage NPC employees and temps on or off stage, or if they are employees or temps to NPCs, or if they're middle management.

    I think my favorite show, The Wire, could be a great source for the challenges facing PC merchants. Even if they're not selling drugs. It shows the view from the top and the bottom of the company. It shows the tension between a combat oriented leader and one focusing on profits and relationships. And they go through endless tribulations from cops, rival crews, suppliers, thieves, front men, and trying to keep their politicians bought.

  4. @Christian: That's an interesting idea- I like the idea of tying that to a ceremony or a ritual, making that moment a part of the campaign itself. I'd just been letting them spend and had the changes occur, but it would be nice to take a moment at some point to show what that looks like. I've done that with Contact making before, so I probably need to zoom in on that group work.

  5. @Derek: 1. That's interesting as I was just reading another blog where they addressed that problem- the players' willingness to take on X fantastic role, but their uncertainty about doing Y role. I think some of that comes with worry about how much rolling vs. role will be involved with the social mechanics.

    5. I think that's important- and illustrates the necessity of players and GMs to communicate. And certainly I've seen more irritation on the part of low-NPC interaction players when their expectations aren't met than I have in the opposite direction. But that's likely the result of a long running set of groups, mentoring for new players, and the kinds of rpgs we're playing. I'll admit I want to bring new bodies into the group, but I also worry about the kinds of expectations those players might have.

  6. @Gene: Yes- I almost always copy my response before I hit reply. Though I've rarely had problems with it, I know other people have pretty consistently. I think your suggestion about the kinds of supplements does point at the big issue of hand-waving- what gets played out? what gets treated as a short-hand? how do you create the right kinds of goals and obstacles? You said it yourself when you were looking at a pitch I'd sent you: what's the motive beyond just business and money? what makes it dramatic? what are the stakes? Your example of The Wire points at one approach which answers that.

  7. I pointed the Armageddon folks at this post because merchanting's something that players have always wanted and which has been difficult to implement in a meaningful way in the game. I think we're closer now than when I first was working on the game, but it still doesn't feel quite right.

    Have you read the House of Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett? They're historical fiction about merchanting.

  8. I hadn't- I will have to track those down.

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