Trade again, hopefully clearer this time
Reading over yesterday’s post about creating a system for intercity trade again a day later I see that I failed to state clearly what the point of the post was.
The point is, if you are bent on creating an economy for your gameworld, and if you want your PCs to be able to engage in traveling trade, the good news is you don’t have to make any more of a working economy than that bit the players are going to see and interact with. And making that bit of economy will help make your world more concrete, and can generate a nice little trading subgame and a ton of adventure hooks.
The approach taken by a hundred RPG trading tables and another hundred nice little trading computer games since Elite (and probably long before then, actually) has been to randomly generate a ton of trade ports and randomly generate the prices for various goods within them, with or without some fudge factors to allow players to improve their odds of making money on each voyage (eg. diamonds are uniformly more expensive than corn, but also vary in price far more, so they support “higher level” play. Slaves are illegal in the “core” and therefore expensive, but legal and cheap in the “periphery,” etc.). Telecanter suggests a fudge factor of distance: taking a commodity farther from its home increases the risk of mishap and therefore decreases the supply of that commodity at the destination.
This is fine as far as it goes, but it stops short of an essential principle of fictional world design: any feature you add should mirror and augment the players’ experience of the world. If it does, then it will make sense to them, and can help fill in details about the world the players didn’t know to ask about. They know dragons are rare, so dragons’ teeth should be expensive. But also they might consult the market price index and discover that pearls are wildly more expensive than diamonds. Why? That’s an adventure seed.
Yes, I know. We all love random tables. But they’re liable to abuse if you make their results persistent and exploitable. Why are socks three times more expensive in New York than in New Jersey? Because the table wasn’t carefully designed to avoid that kind of exploitable randomness, and now you’re playing Tristate Sock Trader, until somebody rebalances the tables. And before you scoff, designing around this sort of nonsense has been a major task for computer game developers.
So that’s why I say risk should be the sole determinant of trade profitability – because the players have to deal directly with it and because it makes every trade, in some sense, a zero-sum game: the players pay for every success by facing and overcoming hazards. Also, it encourages you, the DM, to assign a risk factor to every port – and allows you to place some assessment of that risk in the players’ hands, enabling them to make informed decisions about what kind of game they want – they can read the market price listings, or consult grizzled sea-captains in the dockside bars, to gauge how risky it is to get to those cities. Is the town under siege? What’s the risk of goods being stopped by the besieging force? That’s how much prices are inflated. Fancy a little blockade-running?
The point of fixing profit for normal, low-risk business at 5% is, it renders such normal businesses viable but unattractive to PCs. It invites the PCs to cheat somehow, by grabbing a monopoly in some resource or otherwise distorting the market. It encourages them to take extraordinary risks – to go on adventures and make trade itself an adventure, without giving them a crock to exploit or a crutch to lean on. And it gets you away from that end of Elite where you were interminably shuttling Bulk Machine Parts between Planet A and Planet B.
If you hanker for the old randomized price index, just use the equipment list as a dice-drop table: wherever the dice land, that commodity is unusually cheap or expensive – whichever seems more fun. You neither know nor care how much rope costs in Lankhmar, right? But if you’ve heard that there’s a massive rope shortage on Pan Tang because of all the heretics they’ve been hanging, then suddenly there just might be money in old rope. Predicated on the risk of getting strung up.