Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).
But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?
…how would you go about stealing them?
Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.
Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; world-economy-changing seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.
Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.
XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.
* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.
…are still partly secret, but they have now been (mostly) collected. The race is over, the angel has died and collapsed into the crater it made in the ground, Chixi’lu got melted into glass, and out of the 15 vehicles that set out, there remain:
Eribotes’ steam machine, now shucked out of its turtle shell and reduced to a trike, suitable for 2 persons;
Haakon’s shellcasing, now willingly powered by Lord Chancellor the Pelgrane (at least until he can get properly healed up, they you all better watch out – Pelgranes harbour grudges for a long time);
Hon’dar-soo’s two sea bulls;
and Poison and Keek’s flying baby altar, now augmented with a big gas-burning propeller on top.
Joan’s sharkbowl just isn’t the same without Earl’s soulburner providing motive power. That said, it’s still as dangerous as ever, due to the presence of Count Charodon, the vampire hemoshark, who even now is tenderly trying a fin on the ground, to see if he can walk.
That’s it. Everything else is dead and/or broken.
Until Oogah the caveman, who ever since his tussle with a Hound of Tindalos has been riding this race on borrowed vehicles and with one hit point, surfaces in the river, at the helm of a spaceship-sub-possible-angel-escape-pod.
…why is space navigated using submarines in Tartary? How would surface dwellers like you know that?
Art credit goes to Robert Simons, whose Nautilus I totally stole. I hope he doesn’t mind. Check out his portfolio site – lots of awesome stuff I would be ripping off wholesale if I were to do a Moby Dick/stop the pigeon sequel…
although if you look askance at it just right it looks either like this:
or like this:
so +Stuart Robertson (of Strange Magic) piped up on the old “how to refigure demi-humans for a humanocentric game” concertina again, and I loves me a rollicking sea tune.
Here’s your basic 7 classes for a Treasure Island/Jamaica Inn/Smuggler’s Cove game. Adjust seasoning to taste for Pirates of the Caribbean, Hardy, Melville etc:
Dwarf = Miner: functionally the same as ever but no immunity to arsenic poisoning. Bluff exterior probably covers up an abused and abusive interior with moments of secret, solitary poetry.
Thief = Smuggler: actually a respected profession among the lower/adventuring orders, though with “fisherman” as inevitable legit cover.
MU = Engineer: for a Stevenson’s Rocket type steampunk feel. Real world examples include Humphry Davey and Isambard Brunel. My first thought was “parson” because of the bookish, useless-in-a-fight angle, but they have no magic in this setting.
Cleric = Fishwife: handy with a (blunt) rolling pin, a bandage and a hearty scolding.
Halfling = Preventive Man: These are the King’s Men who try to stop the smugglers. They’re not all hapless redcoats; some are sneaky spies and/or gamekeepers – Johnny Law in general, and they’re no shorter than anyone else.
Fighter = Haybaler: a big, burly farmhand with drinking capacity to match his fists. Alternatively Navvy, Gunner’s Mate, Dock Worker
Elf = Whippersnapper (whether ‘prentice boy or cabin boy or plucky orphan or maid is pure window dressing). The Jim lad class, knows more than he should, listens in while the parsons and engineers are jawing in the pub, but still yearns to grow up into a “proper” profession.
I like the purity of the basic 4 or 7, but if you wanted to expand this:
Bard = Parson of the fulminating fire’n'brimstone persuasion, or Agitator/rabble rouser, to borrow a leaf from the Hill Cantons. John Wesley was arguably both;
Assassin = Pirate and Ranger = Highwayman, or vice versa – maybe you never quite know what you’re up against there;
Paladin = Musketeer (I thought we were in Cornwall? Yup, all paladins are foreigners on a mission of some kind);
Druid = Moonshiner. Eh? What’s Dust doing over here? Well, I’m using it for “crazy old coot who lives off in the woods doing something the law wouldn’t like.” And although there’s plenty of those in Cornwall, there’s no professional archetype, so I’m reaching for a spiritual cousin. Actually in Cornwall this would probably be “gypsy,” but there’s the old racism card.
This would be better if the classes really mapped onto ways of dealing with problems in the world, but they don’t in DnD either, really, once you get into the demi-humans.
real lost continents are the best lost continents: Carcosa wacky races and asylum notes for the Sea of O’sr
FIRST, the reason I’ve been silent for a while is I’ve been noodling about writing a little Carcosa/Toxic Tartary Wacky Races game for (among other things) Flailsnails on Google+. The bare outline:
- you can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Racers have to balance the competing demands of zooming across an electroradiant hellscape (thanks Jeff!) with sabotaging each other and roping the local mongrelmen into their diabolical dirty tricks – and the more they divide their attention, the more likely it is all to go horribly wrong;
- the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;
- your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Think you can survive a John Boorman bad trip?
I hope to get it up and running in 2 weeks. We’ll see.
Toxic Tartary is Carcosa through a post-Soviet Central Asian radioactive Arabian Nights filter. For a fantasy filter placed over that, see HF Calder’s handy guide to Sky Piracy Around The Dune Sea – of course all of this is happening somewhere in Toxic Tartary, but with the time-spine ripped out of the historical narrative so that everything is always happening at once – pyramids rising, pirates despised/resurgent, gods rising/falling, nobody really knowing what’s going on. Just like real life.
SECOND: “Siberia shmiberia,” you say, “show me the really cold and unfriendly places!” Blood of Prokopius’ Alaskan nightmare looks to me like equal parts militantly anticolonial Cthulhiana (paging jason kielbasa!) and His Dark Materials arctic horror-mining, and that sounds pretty neat, but I want to go south for my Sea of O’sr adventure path…
Lost taught me everything I need to know about the value to be found in a single 5 mile hex and the special kind of claustrophobia you can get from knowing the world is out there but it’s beyond reach. So you’ve found a chart that shows a lost continent of wonders down in the deep south ocean and you’ve braved the Appalling Sea Gyres and hundred foot waves to get there – what do you find?
First of all, that most of your lost continent is under water:
Zealandia, larger than Greenland or India, and almost half the size of Australia… is unusually slender.*
Kerguelen Plateau is an underwater volcanic large igneous province (LIP)** in the southern Indian Ocean. It lies about 3,000 km to the southwest of Australia and is nearly three times the size of Japan. I note, not quite in passing: It is thought that Thule and Cook**** may have been a larger single island in the past, and there is evidence for a submerged crater between the two… Volcanic heat keeps the crater on Thule Island free from ice. Just like Arthur Gordon Pym told us...
I am never resorting to Mu or Lemuria again, these are much cooler – and could be seaweed jungle exotica if they somehow breached into view. Look at this handy Antarctic azymuthal: if we add Rlyeh we get 3 points of… well, actually not a pentagram but a square. Which in some sense is much creepier and more suggestive: Wells gave his Martians tripods because nothing in Earth biology (that he knew of) has 3 legs, and it’s since become a cliche that odd numbers mean alien. But the square, or quincunx (drawing Antarctica’s Mountains of Madness*** into the loop) implicates human involvement about as clearly as it’s possible to do. Giving us a fourth (or fifth) point over the South Sandwich islands near South Georgia.
And suddenly the Falklands War snaps into focus – Argentina, favourite hidey-hole of Hitler-breeding programs, vs. Britain, Evil Emperor of the previous century, fighting over those desolate bits of rock where the colour out of space touches down or, more likely, where it threatens to erupt into the sky. Because check out Gough Island, where you wash up while escaping the Cyclopean basalt towers shooting up on Montagu island, and trying to get back to St. Helena. Sure, when you first crawl ashore it looks a disappointing shade of grey-brown. Until The Colour descends.***** Full set. Stars. This is a campaign frame of seabed-churning horror. The navels of the world – the anchor points of reality – the IKEA allen-key holes into the hollow earth – are found on four islands around the south pole. Tampering with any one of them threatens to break the globe right open and spill the worms out. Alas, I’m not up on my Antarctic Space Nazis, and perhaps all of this is old news to princeofcairo, but given the mindshare New Zealand has claimed since the LoTR movies, I’m starting to think Lawsian thoughts about the effervescent power of collective representations. In my Cthulhu-reversed game, where the PCs were a bunch of monsters ditched in the Bermuda Triangle with a faulty saucer and an Antarctic projection map, all the real action happened underwater. But in this game the point might be not to raise the lost continent but to submerge the ones still left stranded above the protecting waves (fighting against the ancient Atlantean defenses, such as spring-loaded urban floodproofing! Your players will hate it when the Sorcerers of Continent Evil pop their megacity up out of the sea like a turkey thermometer) – to deactivate the transmitter that calls the Mi-go miners back or to keep the crazy nationalist powers of the world from accidentally raising R’lyeh in their ever-more desperate searches for rare earths and fossil fuels.
Perhaps you’re worried that sinking four lost continents won’t be enough of a climax? Here, have 10 vile vortices (because who’s supposed to make do with just one Bermuda triangle?). Does looking at that map make you think that if you kept adding regularly-spaced triangles you could turn the earth into something like a D20? Well actually it’d be a D17… the number of Pokemon types.
* wtf? Unusually slender?
** srsly, wtf? I love the use of the word “province” here. Far from the even larger igneous metropole (ELIM), perhaps. Metamorphic provinces are of course the diasporogenic engines of the World System.
*** not the Cliffs of Insanity, with which my son is currently obsessed. Oh you knew it would happen.
**** is that why they ate him and took his thighbones up on the mountain? Because he’d namesaked them to this toxic-god-unforsaken necklace of rocks? What did they see, from faraway Big Island?
+ OK, a rough square. Which makes me wonder (although not enough to waste time on it), if one can’t draw a lovely Fibonacci spiral linking together all those place – Ponape, Easter Island, Hy-Brazil, Oak Island etc etc, that stubbornly refuse to conform to great circle ley lines, so that they show up on neatly spaced lines like eclipse paths. And take advantage of the fact that the alignments are never quite right.
*****Via bldgblog, again. Also the wonderfully-named Friends of the Pleistocene (nothing to do with Julian May, I think).
1. To fight the shoggoths you have to become one… and then find a way to get the humans to work with you.
2. Your dad built an empire but now he’s been assassinated, so you, the dissolute playboy, are thrust onto the throne.
3. King Narai is dead and a war of spies begins; you are anyone in Ayutthaya during the ensuing political free-for-all – Chinese, Persian, French, Dutch or English merchant-adventurer-ambassadors, Samurai royal bodyguards, Thai royal hopefuls, funerary architect-acrobats, members of Phaulkon’s secret service… (Local colour and history abound in this one, but since the political map is being redrawn right at the moment the adventure starts, you don’t need any prior knowledge of it to play).
4. The Navy’s sent a squadron to help the new governor of the Bahamas crack down on the buccaneers, and here you come into port with your very first prize in tow.
5. “You must rescue the princess! But the witch’s curse has destroyed all our weapons! Take this gelatinous cube and a potion of Feather Fall instead.” (yeah, I know. That’s three sentences. It’s still not as bad an abuse of the rules as #3. And there’s worse to come.)
6. You are rough-and-tumble pirate-peddlers, making a living off inter-island trading and raiding, when the Dutch show up in their floating fortress, offering to buy all the nutmeg and cloves you can supply. How will you treat with these red-hairs, who are looking around for a place to plant their castle? What about when not one but 20 floating fortresses show up? The long form of this pitch is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton; as a campaign it could take on a 200 year sweep and expand to fighting off the Europeans and the Qing, forming a league of islands, even building a new, seaborne Islamic or Fukienese Empire to rule the waves right out from under Britannia.
7. When the soldiers came they killed your whole village and you were driven into the hills. There you found nature spirits, who agree to help you if you help them. Now you can fight back against the soldiers, but take care not to pique the curiosity of the emperor’s sorcerer-viziers. This spirit-medium game looks like vodou* or kami worship or ma khi on the outside, but is secretly Pokemon reskinned. Who understands the spirits best? Who knows what, in the end, they want?
8. Bad guys are planning to seize the world’s oil chokepoints, and you have to stop them! Or maybe help them? Or seize them yourself? Nothing is clear in this globetrotting, port-hopping, Bond-Cthulhu exploration of the high finance and criminal underworld that runs international shipping.
* crazy but true: textedit wants to autocorrect vodou to voodoo. So it knows both words and considers one of them correct?
From a ship, Coelomia looks like a low, rocky sandbar or reef, or possibly the mouth of a crater, with a shallow warm water lagoon in the middle.
It could easily be mistaken for the South Pacific island of Tabuearan. Outside the ring of visible land there’s a steeply-shelving, fairly smooth undersea reef that prevents large ships from approaching closely. Small boats or Viking longships with shallow draft, however, can row right into the lagoon, where the water is warm and the bottom is soft and sandy.
The only building on the island is a bamboo-and-palm-thatch hut, belonging to a crazy, muttering, Ben Gunn type castaway wizard. Apart from sunning himself on his balcony and unsuccessfully trying to brew potions out of kelp, the wizard tends a set of wide, shallow rock-pool-botanical garden of coastal and aquatic plants behind his house.
The wizard is harmless, and once he’s got over his fear of the adventurers he’s a mine of information about the island. The first thing he’ll tell the PCs is that he wants to rescue his friends but he can’t. Then he’ll show them some giant snail shells with membranes over the openings – these can store a couple of minutes worth of air, and allow for deep-sea diving. Then he’ll want them to try his potions (hoping to find one of water breathing). Finally he’ll get around to telling them the island’s secret, the reason why he and his friends came to it.
The island is actually a giant mollusc, or maybe two molluscs joined together.
The “lagoon” is a mouth with a ridge of stony, barnacled, tree-lined shell around it. The lagoon’s sandy bottom is the body of a giant snail-like thing loosely covered with sand and seaweed. This snail thing is connected to another that combs the sea floor for curiosities. The creature passes any indigestible curio it finds on the sea floor (bits of shipwrecks, Atlantean kingdoms) up to the mouth to get washed out by the waves, or to be rifled through by opportunistic murderhobos. Like the wizard and his friends.
So you could pan for treasure! But there’s a couple of complications. First, there are the crab-men – strong, violent and beautiful, with pearl-encrusted shells. They look like Kabutops, but covered in mother-of-pearl. Mechanically they’re like these guys. Those crab-men have taken to swiping all the treasure that gets washed up in the lagoon. The wizard has an uneasy truce with them – they let him live on his end of the lagoon, but they won’t let him in their end, where the floor of the lagoon shelves down into an opening deep into the mollusc shell – where they’re keeping the treasure.
And there’s another complication. The wizard came here as a member of a party of adventurers: where the others came for the gold, he had heard legends that an ancient and wise creature lived on the island, a creature that knew the way to paradise. The wizard brought a bunch of tools with him for exploring the island, including potions of water breathing, a diving bell, and a working magical submarine. He had to stay topside to power a ritual, to pump air into the sub. The rest of the gang went deep into the shell. And never came back. The wizard’s confident they aren’t dead – he tried casting Speak With Dead and although he got plenty of responses, none were from his friends. So he wants to know what happened to them, what they found, and what they did with his sub.
What the wizard doesn’t know is that deep inside the shell there’s a series of chambers, some filled with water, others with air. His friends did indeed make contact with the mythical creature – the mollusc, natch – in a small chamber right in the centre between the two great bulbous shells, where they found strange tubes that allowed them to mind-meld with it, and they are slowly being coccooned in pearl themselves. Mind-melding with the mollusc has some advantages – it allows you to control the crab-men telepathically, it feels really good, and it lets you into the mysterious and very slow-hatching plans of the mollusc, and of the party, who are now part of the same mental entity. It’s also very dangerous: breaking someone out of the mind-meld can hurt them, and anyway they won’t want to come away because they’re happy.
Indeed, the wizard’s friends are happy, and peaceful as long as nobody offers them violence, and willing to talk to strangers. They don’t care much about mere gold and jewels and rayguns and what have you. They’re looking for some special magical treasure, which the mollusc has been slowly amassing for years. They might be persuaded to help get the submarine for the PCs (using the crab-men), or drive the island to some useful location, or whatever you want. Maybe someone could try to mind-meld long enough to steer a crab-man to the sub, and then try to leave the meld to take control of the sub. But they emphatically do not want to be rescued, and they don’t want the wizard to join them in the meld – maybe they suspect he has some ulterior motive, maybe they realise their condition is a curse as much as a blessing, maybe they just don’t like him.
Past the mind-melding chamber there’s a narrow squeeze – too narrow for the previous party’s abandoned diving bell, but not too narrow for an unarmoured adventurer and a bag of potions of water breathing (emergency supply in the diving bell, which is probably still in the next chamber just past the squeeze). Beyond and below that, the chambers open out again into a crab-man settlement, with a whole city of crab-men hanging in ropy pearlescent strands off the bottom of the lower shell.
And tangled in the strands, the sub. Getting to the sub has one more complication – pressure. The bottom of the shell is deep enough to cause serious pressure problems for human divers (I don’t know how deep that is – look it up. I’m going to say about 100 feet). You could polymorph into a squid, perhaps. If you were confident crab-men didn’t love them some tasty squid. Or you could try to get to the sub quickly, since high pressure diving is all about time.
There’s plenty of treasure for a violent and uninquisitive party to take out of the island, but most of what can be reached easily is not very convenient: you could kill and loot the crab-men for as much mother of pearl as you can handle, provided you don’t mind it coming in foot thick slabs – that sort of thing. The crab-men also have a few valuables squirreled away in the top couple of interior chambers, hidden in a mighty tangle of everything the sea bottom could possibly provide. But to get to the sub, or the major treasures of the crab-men’s city, you’d have to get inventive. And to unlock the real potential of the island you’d have to get friendly with the mollusc.
Different campaigns will want the sub to have different possibilities and limitations. I picture it like a small version of the Nautilus from the classic Kirk Douglas 20,000 Leagues – big enough for 5 adventurers and their equipment, and capable of operating just as long as the wizard can sustain his continuous-air-making ritual (supplies enough fresh air for the crew and to power a small turbine for propulsion. The ritual must be conducted under an open sky – which is why the wizard can’t go aboard – and has a maximum range of 1 league).
Regarding the challenges of underwater adventuring, Harry Potter provided several magical solutions (gillyweed, which provokes a partial Deep One polymorph, outright polymorphing into some seaborne species, bubble-head charms, buddy-breathing with mermaids*). If needed the wizard could have developed anything from potions to a really long rubber hose. He does have a collection of diving-bell-like apparatuses around his hut, which he has grown out of nacre. These all have the disadvantage that they’re nearly impossible to move on land, being extremely heavy and having rough outer surfaces. Once in the water they become more tractable.
* OK, that last one is not canonical HP. But I bet there’s a fanfic.
Telecanter wants a simple system for abstracting sea trade.* Alas, I can’t do simple today. Much as I would love to answer this with a trading mishaps table, I think the way to get to a workable system is to start with the desired outcome and work back from there. I also can’t provide a system accurate to the silver piece straight off because I don’t know the particular rules of his game world. But if I were to build one, I would base it on these principles:
For trade to be worthwhile, you have to be able to hit a sweet spot where profit outweighs risk. High risk requires high profit. As risk goes down, so can profit, making more trades and types of goods feasible (and forecasting becomes more reliable, too, so you can choose to take smarter risks).
So your rate of risk pretty much tells you what the rate of profit should be – and it’s all expressed purely in terms of money potentially gained and lost. Why can we say that, and discount risks to persons, morals, societies and immortal souls? Because we assume going in that there is a class of traders willing to put those things on the line, and if we try to add those non-economic considerations to the economic model, we run the risk of someone (the PCs, obviously), privately discounting them and taking over the world (cf. the history of capitalist colonialism).
The really dangerous end of trade for your gameworld is the simplest one: intra-town or village-to-village peddling with no significant risks. You don’t want to put a crock in your game, where players can generate infinite money through grinding out some simple, low-risk trick. Here rate of profit must be fixed and low, and it’s all about scale: the amount one man can carry of basic goods (clothing, prepared foods, simple tools) should be enough to support him as a vagrant peddler/unskilled laborer, but not much more. A shopowner works at a bigger scale but the same rate of investment return, say 2-5% profit over total costs (goods + labor + building rent or whatever) per year.
Adding risk of any kind increases the allowable return proportionally. If there’s a 20% chance of being robbed by bandits then the profit rate has to jump up by 20% too – but it needn’t increase by more than that, because in general people are bad at calculating and respecting repetitive risk: they’ll be super happy about all the money they made by avoiding bandits twice (25% over base each trade!) and won’t think about the chances of avoiding them a third time.**
Sea trade has a massive extra risk safety valve built in: the capital cost of a ship. This adds a risk to every voyage that (historically) is often many times the cost of the goods carried. Just like that, allowable return jumps up (which is useful, because so does the scale of operation: a man might carry 100 lbs of goods on a handcart. A camel could carry half a ton. A big merchant ship might carry a thousand tons). If there’s a 10% chance of losing your ship and we maintain 5% overall “guaranteed” profit (ie if you kept playing this game with infinite ships over infinite time you’d make 5% a year) then that 10% of capital can be added to the profit potential of a single one-year voyage without breaking the economy. So if a new ship costs 10,000gp and the total cost of doing business (ie goods + crew wages + port fees + bribes) is 1000gp then the sale price of the goods should be 2100gp – over 100% “apparent” profit! That makes Sinbad type adventures highly attractive for individual, risk-seeking entrepreneurs while explaining why farmers don’t collectively abandon their crops for the high seas: if you bet the farm, you have to be ready for the possibility that you’ll lose it.
Also, the cost of ships adds a handy bar to participation in the profitable trades; what lords and kings can get away with matters less to your gameworld than what everyone could get away with: return from a warfleet can be basically uncontrolled, because the only people it really affects is a small class that’s eager to spend the profits on war.
The trick, then, is not to exempt the PCs from facing this bar: they have to be responsible for the economic risks they take and they have to inhabit the social rank their risk level demands (are your murderhobos sailing around in a king’s ransom? Then they can expect to face princely threats). There’s a hundred ways to do this, as long as you don’t forget them, from Jabba’s loan-sharking to law enforcement (in the case of those who steal their ships), to corrupt port officials to wars and unpredictably-changing trade agreements, before you even get to the more familiar fantasy seafaring threats of storms, gyres and krakens. Even if you’ve given your PCs a ship free and clear at the outset (because you weren’t thinking about the implications), if those PCs want to make more out of it than they would by just selling it, they’ll have to figure on replacing it one day. And they should consider the potentially devastating consequences of surviving the ship’s loss: was it rented/on loan? Then debt-slavery beckons. Did it have NPC crewmen? Those guys had families. What kind of reputation does a captain-for-hire get, from having his last gig literally sink? Don’t neglect non-capitalist arrangements – they almost always cost more overall, socially and communicably, than a simple cash-on-delivery deal. How do you face the chief who gifted you your knarr? Especially when you agreed to take his son on as water-carrier? Where were you when it all went wrong? The Cannibal Islands? The Cursed Latitudes? How will people react to you if you somehow make it back, in plump good health?
There are also possible outcomes other than success or catastrophe. Goods can spoil en route, be stolen or confiscated or jettisoned in a storm, eliminating profit but maintaining viability (or incurring debts). Historically, warehousing has been one of the decisive factors in the success of large-scale enterprises – if you can wait for the right market rate before you release your silks, nutmeg or wheat, you can dramatically change your profitability. The speed of trade is also critical – time is money: if you can make 5% a week, that’s wildly different from 5% a year. Sea trade adds unpredictability here too: Arab traders out of Cairo might see a roundtrip to Naples take 6 weeks or, rarely, up to a year, depending on weather and other conditions.
So what’s a good rate of risk for your game? Fundamentally that depends on how many trades you want the PCs to think about doing: are you playing Traveller, where it’s a way of life for millions of characters, or Jason and the Argonauts, where the potential profits are political or even metaphysical?***
The 50% or 66% or 84% chances of not coming back that Telecanter mentions are pretty rare historically – it’s the stuff of legendary quests like Magellan’s or Da Gama’s voyages, where a whole society makes a huge bet, hoping to make so much profit they can take over next door’s kingdom – or of massive desperation, like Somali piracy. Starting at that end of the curve sounds like complicated fun: there’s a good chance the PCs will retire after one job, so the job should be epic. And profits like that bring multiple risks, even after the voyage is over; everyone from cutpurses to bandits to state police want a slice: it takes strength to hang onto treasure (and might make for an interesting inverse campaign; you start with the goods and have to act smart to keep them).
On the other hand, if your PCs are tramp-trading around, waiting for a better job, a la Traveller, then something like a 10-20% chance of an adventure hook per voyage (you’re not going to sink them off-screen, right? When they could be forced into an unknown port or driven onto a mysterious island or made to make hard moral choices by pirates?) might make sense – then the trading is continuity, the returns are a sub-game, and you can keep ‘em hungry by making ‘em replace their ship bit by bit (broken masts or star-drives, drunk or fanatical mates), so they stay dreaming of retirement and that island in the sun, rather than playing Deckchairs & Cocktails.
I don’t have the time right now, alas, to write a nicely-balanced table that marries profit rates to all the hazards listed above, but I’d use that 5%-after-all-costs baseline to set market rates and assume that if a given commodity is available locally it will generally be cheaper to get it locally (with the proviso that 1 mile on roads might be equivalent to 100 miles by sea for some goods). Exceptions to the 5% rule apply where monopolies, rarity and other exotica come into play: i.e. when the PCs get involved. But then, trading in exotica should be a risky, tense, thoughtful, strategic enough game that the PCs won’t miss the dungeon. And if they can see past the economics of capital costs and risk analysis and refuse to stick their necks out for a piffling 5%, why there are plenty of ways they can voluntarily increase their risks in order to jack up their potential reward…
*I have to offer my profound apologies to the ACKS guys: I’ve just been too busy to keep up with their discussion, in order to make a meaningful contribution to what seems to me an extremely worthy product. Right now I can invest a couple of hours a week in this blog; anything more threatens my job hunting, work, sanity and marriage.
**Gold rushes and piracy invert the normal rationality of trade: there people bet on a eucatastrophe. The rate of profit is generally horribly negative (the average career of a “golden age” pirate captain was less than 4 years, from first running up the black flag to swinging at Tyburn), but there’s that tiny individual chance of never having to work again.
*** Historically accurate overall trade risks for, say, the medieval Mediterranean, are hard to calculate (and always were, even for merchants at the time) and of questionable value for your campaign, whatever it is. One day, I promise, I’ll crunch those numbers, and when I do it will be by looking at the rates of profit folks hoped to make from single voyages. Because they operated in competitive environments and we know that, with only a very few exceptions, any merchant family could be ruined by the loss of its ships and agents two years running.
I don’t have anything intelligent to add to this, so I’m just going to quote it:
the “world’s oldest topographical map” was drawn about 1150 BCE… for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat (‘Valley of Many Baths’) in the middle of the Eastern [Egyptian] Desert. The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills. This fragment… at the far left of the 280 cm (9’2″) long papyrus — shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls).
The story leads to eight man-made caves cut about 20 metres deep into the terrace which had been used as harbour storerooms and workshops — all much as they were left almost 4,000 years ago
…which contain the remains of boats that had come from Punt (Queen of Sheba land, among other things). The boats were disassembled after the voyage. We don’t know why, but I like the idea that they were multi-purpose tools for our ancient travelers: we’re done with these boats: now use them to make biers, litters and shelters. Take two long steering oars and carry the Ark between them.
ETA: Telecanter’s response at the other place convinced me to mirror this over here too:
Bonus Gernsbackian misprint fun: when can I have my flying ear?
Bonus situationist fun: tracing the symptoms of an imaginary plague. The architecture-school-speke is pretty thick here, but it’s making me imagine different kinds of contagions – plagues that are archaeological, epistemic, fetishistic or psychoanalytic… cryptographic. Not sure what to do with that yet, but I feel a table of outre diseases coming on. Something to respond to Joesky’s Lich Itch.
Telecanter proffers an affliction moving through the buildings of a city. I imagine a mundane psuedo-medieval city being slowly enveloped by inter-dimensional buildings, or from a different eras, or cultures. Cool. [that sounds Archigramic to me... ed.]
Also, Cryptographic: a plague on the written/printed word and people must race to try and memorize the books left untouched before they turn into a language no one can speak.
Awesome. I must write up my dimension-hopping-through-architecture setting.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, aviator and author of, among other things, The Little Prince, was enchanted by how machines, after their first clunking, wheezing, inefficient entries into the world eventually always came to conceal themselves and their artificial natures. He was, of course, talking particularly about the first 40 years of flight but his comment seems more Platonic – he said that all machines would finally achieve the naturalness of outline “of a breast” (he was French, after all).(1)
Of course everyone already knows about ironclads and the weirdness of that moment, after centuries of confident polishing of the ideal form of the warship, when all bets were called off and man’s groping ignorance was laid bare. But somehow I was unprepared for it when I ran across the incredible model collection of the Musee National de la Marine, in Paris. Which shows metal abortions, directionless dead-ends and attempts to reinvent the whale (no, that’s not a sub). And it was finally borne in on me, what I think the fundamental impulse of Steampunk is: it’s a kind of anti-Exuperian urge, to reveal the machine in its first improvised, ludicrous moment. Perhaps to capture that spirit of invention that isn’t concerned with doing it well, but merely with being able to do it at all.
…and then I cracked up, confronted by this flanderized monstrosity,(3) armed with 4 big field guns in turrets, a metric buttload of old style ship guns, 18 “canons-revolvers” and 4 torpedo tubes. And, I don’t know, maybe a catapult or some horns.
Have you looked at a modern airplane? Have you followed from year to year the evolution of its lines? Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the principle of simplicity? It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elemental purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness. It results from this that perfection of invention touches hands with absence of invention, as if that line which the human eye will follow with effortless delight were a line that had not been invented but simply discovered, had in the beginning been hidden by nature and in the end been found by an engineer… startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally wonderful that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is a machine… in the machine of today we forget that motors are whirring: the motor, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heart beats – and we give no thought to the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect the machine dissembles its own existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice. Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1939): Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere, (Harcourt Brace, Orlando 1967), pp. 42-43
2: rest of the photos from the museum here.
3: dammit, it turns out that the highly useful critical concept I understood by “flanderization” is exclusively the coinage of Zak Sabbath, since the tvtropes page on the topic claims it’s really the ridiculous exaggeration of a minor character in a work of fiction, generally to the effect of making them stupid. No: that will not do. I do mean making something worse – or more like its image – by adding other intensifying features to it. Perhaps the redundant piling up of signifiers all pointing in the same direction in order to reinforce a point.
James M asked: what sort of historical campaign would you like to run?
Ideally I’d like to do both of the following:
Non-fantasy historical: the first years of the East India Companies (1600-1620, with some liberties).
It’s got everything; seaborne adventures of discovery, evil employers, people turning native to warn the Japanese of the impending threat, island cults, Chinese pirates and mafia, and the original spices-that-must-flow. The PCs are officers on a ship negotiating, trading, and warring against the other companies. I can just see them enacting something like the Ambon (or Amboyna if you like) Massacre on their rivals but getting to seriously question (and maybe derail) the whole enterprise when confronted with the genocide in the Bandas. It’s like being pirates except you’re still members of society. In other words, an actual rationale for a D&D economy. This would be the history of proto-imperial rivalry as Giles Milton sees it: his popular histories turn up the heat to a rolling boil and are practically novelizations – highly recommended.
Semi-historical low-fantasy: I’d move the time frame up 50-80 years: the Companies are filling in the holes in their maps/networks.
This time the PCs are natives – I’d get the players to invent the details of their home island Korad style. They have a unique resource: they can contact and bargain with nature spirits for magical effects (and I’m thinking this would borrow from Pokemon but be reskinned like hoodoo*). The game opens with the first arrival of the Dutch or English, who want to use the spirits for their own imperial ends.
Anyone interested? Assuming you could spend a few months in France to play.
* did I really never post this? My version 2 of that Pokemon-trainer-hoodoo-man thing:
Servant of the Kami.
Kami (nature spirits) can be found in all environments – caves, forests, rivers, wells, glaciers, the sea, the sky, thunderstorms. They can also inhabit well-used objects like walking sticks or books or houses or temples.** The Servant of Kami can call and bond with Kami, keeping them in “pots” (talismans) like a hoodoo man. When released from their pots the Kami generate one spell-like effect – generally more or less predictably – related to their home environment. Offensive spells include lightning (from storms), winds, killer waves, darkness, rockslides. They can also ask the local environment for information. The Servant can keep the average of his CHA and level in Kami at any one time. To get the Kami back in their pot after each use he must save vs CHA + level – number of uses that arbitrary period (week? day? scene?). Kami also sometimes want the Servant to do stuff for them. Kami are jealous, prefer Servants who know their place, and dislike seeing objects being treated as mere slaves: Servants can never keep more possessions than they have Kami and should never accept aid from magicians or clerics if a Kami could help instead.
The only “spells” the Servant really knows are Bind and Speak With Kami. Everything else has to be gathered in play. Depending on how he treats them, the Servant may retain Kami as allies in their home locations after he releases them.
** This could lead to an interesting recursive tendency, where a shrine built to venerate a particular Kami gets its own Kami (of the temple), which would want venerating in its own right. Or which would show up when people ask the original Kami for stuff, and interpose a religious interpretation between the petitioner and the phenomenon supposedly being petitioned.