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on the costs of trade

One of the projects I’m in the middle of right now is an early-modern trading game, for which I’m currently rereading Neil Stephenson’s excellent (but daunting) Baroque Cycle.

If you haven’t read it, and you have any interest in the gaming possibilities of the 17th century, then you must go out and read it right now. If you did try to read it and found it hard to get into, start with King of the Vagabonds (which is officially “Book 2”) and then read Quicksilver (Book 1). That way you’ll immediately see the picaresque RPG potential without having to wade through obscure allusions and the Royal Society shenanigans that are Stephenson’s first love. The books can be found separately (expensive, if you want the full 8-book Cycle) or packaged together in Volume 1, which is, confusingly, also titled Quicksilver).

So the reason I’m writing is, I’ve got some rules for maintenance and wasteage, and I’ve been wrestling with whether anyone really wants them – is this the spirit of adventure? Struggling to find enough timber and tar to stay afloat? And then Stephenson points out to me that yes, in fact – the demands of running a ship pretty much dictate that you must get into risky business. Your boat is more than a hole in the sea, surrounded by wood, into which you can pour an endless flow of money. It’s also a demanding patron, which seeds adventures with every worm:

[A ship is] …a collection of splinters loosely pulled together by nails, pegs, lashings, and oakum… She floats only because boys mind her pumps all the time, she remains upright and intact only because highly intelligent men never stop watching the sky and seas around her. Every line and sail decays with visible speed, like snow in sunlight, and men must work ceaselessly worming, parceling, serving, tarring, and splicing her infinite network of hempen lines in order to prevent her from falling apart in mid-ocean… Like a snake changing skins, she sloughs away what is worn and broken and replaces it from inner reserves—evoluting as she goes. The only way to sustain this perpetual and necessary evolution is to replenish the stocks that dwindle from her holds as relentlessly as sea-water leaks in. The only way to do that is to trade goods from one port to another, making a bit of money on each leg of the perpetual voyage. Each day assails her with hurricanes and pirate-fleets. To go out on the sea and find a [ship] is like finding, in the desert, a Great Pyramid balanced upside-down on its tip.

Not convinced? Too wordy and abstruse? Want more of that GURPS Goblins flavour? Here, then – the opening lines of King of the Vagabonds. Even if you only invest in that one, it will repay you a hundredfold. A free campaign opener on page one…

MOTHER SHAFTOE KEPT TRACK of her boys’ ages on her fingers, of which there were six. When she ran short of fingers—that is, when Dick, the eldest and wisest, was nearing his seventh summer—she gathered the half-brothers together in her shack on the Isle of Dogs, and told them to be gone, and not to come back without bread or money. This was a typically East London approach to child-rearing and so Dick, Bob, and Jack found themselves roaming the banks of the Thames in the company of many other boys who were also questing for bread or money with which to buy back their mothers’ love.

The way of the mudlarks (as the men who trafficked through Mother Shaftoe’s bed styled themselves) was to voyage out upon the Thames after it got dark, find their way aboard anchored ships somehow, and remove items that could be exchanged for bread, money, or carnal services on dry land. Techniques varied. The most obvious was to have someone climb up a ship’s anchor cable and then throw a rope down to his mates. This was a job for surplus boys if ever there was one. Dick, the oldest of the Shaftoes, had learnt the rudiments of the trade by shinnying up the drain-pipes of whorehouses to steal things from the pockets of vacant clothing. He and his little brothers struck up a partnership with a band of these free-lance longshoremen, who owned the means of moving swag from ship to shore: they’d accomplished the stupendous feat of stealing a longboat.

Inevitably, they get ambitious and start cutting anchor cables, so they can loot the drifting ships at leisure – or even merely threaten to cut them, to extract protection payments. Inevitably, things go wrong and get complicated.

Need more, always more? Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is a couple of centuries later but just as perfect.


  1. March 16, 2020 at 6:04 am

    You know, I’m starting to see the outline of a system here. Perhaps each ship has something like hit-points, and falling below certain hp thresholds inflicts various penalties (slower travel time being one obvious possibility, but I’m sure there are other good ones.)

    Hazards encountered at sea cause damage, and the only way to “heal” the ship is by expending “bundles” of parts from the hold (and perhaps by assigning workers, board game style?) The bundles take up room, displacing potential cargo, but you risk never arriving at all if you don’t carry any. This also means you need to keep buying more bundles every time you come to shore, which means you need to turn enough of a profit to afford them.

    An illustrated character sheet for the ship itself seems almost mandatory for this. (The more I think about it, the more this DOES feel like a board game, in a way that I think is okay.)

    Mudlarking, by the way, sounds like a great early adventure for city-adventurers. I could even envision a small booklet of “ship dungeons” or a random ship-stocking generator, kind of like Barrowmaze’s field of graves and mini-tomb generator, to supply adventure for aspiring mudlarks. Such a booklet would certainly need a chapter “So You Decided to Steal a Ship…”

    • March 16, 2020 at 1:47 pm

      I already have running costs calculated for ships in terms of money… but this would be a much neater way to handle it! Roll for damage to the ship every n days/miles, add penalty for storms or other hazards, and have a fixed cost “1 hp repairs” unit. Thanks!

  2. March 17, 2020 at 7:37 am

    Sure! I was thinking that continual damage while you travel, even under the best of circumstances, is probably more “realistic” but less fun. There’s a certain thrill to the idea that if you roll the dice *just right*, then you can get through to the next port unscathed.

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