Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gather Data

On the subject of trade and trade systems.

After due consideration, I believe that I have made a mistake about what I've chosen to highlight in the past.  I have consistently presented the economic angle - the production of goods and services, their distribution and most ponderously their value.  I've used these things to demonstrate how they can be fitted into the framework of a world and how aspects of the distribution can add dimension and substance to that world.

Yet, after all that, I've failed to direct my attention to the place where a DM might begin with their world.  I've sought primarily to show by example, expecting that the problems that started my system are the same problems that everyone has already encountered.  Perhaps, however, I made a connection where others did not.

Allow me to correct that error - as I've only realized in the last day or so that I've made it.  I'll go back to my mindset before building any sort of system at all.

I know that most of you are unfamiliar with the AD&D Player's Handbook, so I'll ask you to insert the game required equipment list of your choosing.  I think most suffer from the same issues.  The Player's Handbook, for example, had two columns of print dedicated to equipment.  About forty percent described armor and weapons, the latter easily being the biggest section.  Half again as much gave prices for what amounted to dungeon equipment and food, most of which was designed for either drinking at the tavern or eating in a dungeon.  Then there was a section for animals - with four kinds of horses.  Tack took up another section. Then there were vehicles and ships, a few things for clerics and a few herbs.  The book did not include any descriptions, but later editions and other games made up for that.

I had three basic problems with the equipment list that, I remember, left me feeling that there was something fundamental lacking in the game.  First and foremost, that no matter where the players went, no matter how far they travelled, no matter what culture or climate or size of city they entered, a long sword was always the same price.

Secondly, there weren't enough items.  That was fixable by simply adding more items to the list, but that would inevitably lead to the third problem:  the price for everyone had to be pulled right out of the air.  There was no logic for why one weapon that did a certain amount of damage costed more than another that did the same damage, nor why banded mail, for example, was 5 g.p. more than splint mail, when they both offered the same armor class.  Why even have two different armours for that amount of protection?

Solving these three problems would not be an easy solution.  Most, I know, simply accept the book as written dogma, arguing that at least its a bullshit number that they themselves didn't invent, and so solves the problem.  Of course, players were always asking for things that did not exist on the table, meaning that I was forever inventing a price for something - leading to complaints that my made up price for one thing did not fit a pattern in the player's head regarding the price of something else.  I had only been playing the game for six years and I was already sick of it.

I had been considering various solutions based upon the weight of things and how much of different types of metal went into different objects, but I really could not decide on any method that didn't begin with at least two or three hundred half-assed judgement calls.  This was precisely what I wanted to avoid.

The problem at the time wasn't that my world needed an economy, it's that it needed some sort of logic for pricing things.  I felt that since things ought to be of a different price in different parts of the world, somehow this pricing system ought to account for that as well.  At the time, I remember being completely flummoxed.

I had been working as a statistical clerk for an oil company and had just taken a stats job with the 1986 census that would keep me busy for most of 1985.  I had seen the lengths to which companies and the government will go in order to amass data, organize it, interpret it and then use it to create policy - all in a world that had not yet invented excel or even windows.  Having done it myself for these companies, I wasn't afraid of a project that would take years - I did not care how long it would take, so long as whatever I came up with solved my issue.

See, I really hated those equipment tables.  I hated them with a stone cold passion.  After the first two levels, the players had literally nothing to spend their money on, while at the same time there was no reason whatsoever to travel from one part of the world to another.  I had recently decided that I needed to give up on making my own world and adapt the real earth to my system . . . a decision that only exacerbated the problem.  A sword costing the same amount of money in West Africa as in Spain?  Ridiculous!

The year my parents married, 1958, they had a visit by a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman that convinced them that they should buy a set of encyclopedias for their children.  My mom was pregnant with my brother at the time and so they were thinking about such things.  The salesman succeeded in selling them a '1959' set of Collier's Encyclopedias, as everything was identified as next year's in those days.  I would arrive on this earth six years later, in 1964; those encyclopedias would be central to my education before I grew old enough to start hunting through the city's university library.

It seems strange to me that some salesman managed to affect my life so much six years before I was born, but that's how things go.  I knew those books intimately - but they belonged to my parents and they stayed with them when I moved out of the house.  In 1986, as I struggled with my pricing problem, what existed in those books never occurred to me.  That is, until one day I was at a used bookstore and an entire set was available for $25.

My parents paid $600 for their set over a period of five years - in 1959 dollars.  The ones I would buy were much cheaper and were from 1952, not 1959.  I remember I had to come back to the store in two trips (I didn't have a car), as the total set weighs 90 lbs.  That didn't matter.  My brain was on fire.

I realized then that the descriptions of cities, regions, bodies of water and so on included descriptions of things that were made there.  That meant I could read the books, take notes, then somehow organize the location of those things into a pricing table that would account for things being a different price in different places.  As far as the actual price of things, I would somehow then compare the total production of things with the production of other things, so that I could use the scarcity of things to produce a price that wouldn't be invented.

How I would do this I had no idea.  But the principle was sound.  Gather data.  Organize data.  Interpret data.  Apply data.  I knew going in that it would take years.  No matter.  I was comfortable with that.  ALL statistics take years.

Here is the lesson from all this.  If you're reading this and thinking about making an economy, you're thinking about this backwards.  For that, I apologize.  That's all I've paid attention to on this blog.  The real issue is deciding, first, what things are going to exist and be available in your world.  THEN, decide where those things come from.

I used an encyclopedia to decide where things come from.  And because the encyclopedia was written for other agendas with other purposes, I discovered the origin of things I had never remotely heard of - which started me on researching the processing of such things and how they fit into an economy.  That last came about as an after effect of my solving the problem.

So we want to give your world an 'economy.'  We'll start by giving your world things.  You need to just make a list of everything you ever wanted your players to be able to buy.  After that, you'll need to decide how many places produce each of those things.  You don't need to do it as I did, with raw materials combined together to make developed goods.  You can just say, "I want fifty places in my world making swords."  We can make that work.

This is the place my course will start from.  I hope you're ready.


Mujadaddy said...

"just make a list of everything you ever wanted your players to be able to buy"

Oh, is that all? I understand, and marvel at, your comprehensive approach, but isn't purchasing items either trivial or story-driven? Outside mere simulation, the game world's prices are only a factor when the players interact with merchants.

I understand the desire for consistency. I understand a burning passion for completing work which none may ever see, much less appreciate. I suppose I'm asking if you're being pennywise and pound-foolish with your tireless efforts: one could spend the rest of their life striving for economic accuracy (I'm reminded of various disparaging comments about economists I've heard over the years), but does it actually help make the game fun?

I find myself arguing a position here that is somewhat alien to me; less detail in my RPG?; but consider it a polite inquiry against your mental health.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My mental health? Really?

Mujadaddy, I'm going to take a guess here and presume you're not one of the 20+ people who paid me a dollar online to prove they really cared about a trade system and implementing one in their world. These are people who know how much work I do and LIKE IT.

Did you not read the part about where I talked about the 1986 Census and oil companies compounding data to create their own 'picture' of the world? I'm quite sure that you presume that these things are justified in that they produce MONEY - though in all fairness the government is about spending it - but some of us do feel that 'insane' amounts of work are worth it for the less pecuniary benefits they yield.

My players think that, yes, the extensive trade tables, the details inherent there, the knowledge that I am not fucking them with DM's fiat and ad hoc prices, the knowledge that I am putting this much work into the back ground of my world and so on DO IN FACT make the game more fun.

Makes the game more beautiful too, an argument I make extensively about aesthetics in my How to Run.

You're not expected to join in. Don't be so sure that you know what does or does not make the game 'fun,' however.

Read the above and TRUST ME. I've been doing this a long time.

Mujadaddy said...

I did consider kicking in the dollar, but I'm a legendary skinflint.

Don't misunderstand: I love the level of detail you've given us here, and I don't mean to seem either ungrateful or iconoclastic in your house. And I surely didn't intend to purport to have the One True Secret of Tabletop Fun.

Is it important to know that Silesia exports iron ore? Certainly. Is it important to know exactly how much iron ore comes out of Silesia? I would say no, but give me a moment to establish why. Is it important to know that on a given weekday, there would be a cart train with six tons of ore with twelve men-at-arms escorting toward Munich? Aha, now we're talking: it's only moderately important whether it's 5, 6, 7 tons of ore in the carts, and ONLY when the PCs have some reason to care about the exact figure, whether they're involved in the industry or in banditry.

Put another way, the general concepts you're using, consolidated here, are staggeringly important for the detail-oriented DM. Knowledge of major industry, agriculture, trade patterns and amounts are vital for consistency and realism. Where I think I'm having a philosophical break from you is once you 'zoom in' past the interactions among the major regions (multiple 20-mile hexes) to within the constituent areas of those regions themselves (single 5-mile hexes). The relationships are important, but are the exact details, to the 8th decimal?

I can accept that the system you've devised thrives on this detail. But, put plainly, would the ideas behind your system break down with less detail, replaced on the micro-level with approximations derived from a designated Regional Trade Hub? Something like "Calais doesn't register as an outlier for iron ore, so iron ore prices there are (Hub: Paris: Base Price) x (distance factors) x (population factors)", just so you can breathe and not have to track EVERY commodity and source reference as a whole but rather, once the Hubs had been designated, only track the spots where something Important Happens?

What I am advocating for here, I suppose, is the idea that there is a level of automation which could be achieved at some point.

It also occurs to me quite suddenly that your experience with your commerce system may have already mitigated these concerns I have and that I should save my questions til the end. Your response will let me know the answer to that, at least. Thanks, regardless.

Arduin said...

I guess I'm mostly baffled that the "story" potential of a comprehensive and location-based price sheet is being missed. I mean, really.

Isn't hand waving the financial under-structure of the game just devaluing everything the players do anyway? Is it not hamstringing the potential variety of "stories" that can emerge?

I guess it's just something you'd have to see for yourself in action to appreciate, but I've definitely had players excited about "the shop" in foreign places.

Hell, I had one party trying to use magic to render mammoths docile so they could kill them without risk and sell the meat.

I knew how much a pound of mammoth was worth compared to a pound of cow. If players know you aren't "making things up", that there are rules, then they make decisions accordingly.

And that's a good thing to encourage.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"It also occurs to me quite suddenly that your experience with your commerce system may have already mitigated these concerns I have . . ."

Yes, that was going to be part of my answer.

Mujadaddy, I think the break comes from what information you think I'm producing, or how close I am to it. I do the research and build the algorithm - and then everything is automated. Point being, I've long since forgotten how many iron or anything else that Silesia produces - the numbers are plugged into the system so I don't have to look them up or remember them.

While this seems all very complicated, it really is only because my world is staggeringly HUGE. And it is huge only because I started with one small area, then I did another and another and another. Without stopping. Because I love the research, I love learning weird, strange things about places, about the relationships between places and so on. I love numbers and I love plugging them into the system.

When I say I'm rebuilding a table because it has gotten too big to manage (as I'm doing right now, as trying to add France to the trade tables broke it), I mean that I'm pedantically going through city after city and rewriting the spread sheet. Yes, it does take awhile. But once it is done, I'll be glad, because then I can add MORE numbers.

Is it complicated? Not really. Finicky? Oh yes. I have to pay attention. But I like that, it frees my mind and feels like a vacation from the world - while examining the world in detail.

Would the system break down with less detail? No, because the system worked when it just included a few small regions (domains). But why would I choose to remove detail now? How would that make any sense? I've been patient about including it - I'm proud that its all there. I'm anxious to include more.

Because I'm crazy? No more than someone who has climbed fifty mountains and now wants to climb a fifty-first. No more than a bodybuilder who works out every day. This is just one means towards my personal satisfaction.

That you don't understand it is really pretty meaningless, isn't it? We don't all enjoy the hobbies of others, do we?

If it makes you feel any better, the course I plan to give on trade tables will offer a 'simple' version.

Heck, wasn't the request for making your equipment list pretty simple? It's just a damn list, isn't it? There's no math involved.

Alexis Smolensk said...

A few more words.

What you may be missing is the incredible amount of pure factual information that gets uncovered in figuring out the way stone becomes armor or how cows become glue. Just look at those sea route tables I posted. All I wanted was to establish the shortest routes between places - how useful are those, however, for giving purpose and conception to those blank sea hexes on the map?

In my imagination, I can see the little ships moving along the lines, getting blown off by storms, failing to make the navigational changes, getting attacked by pirates, putting into the nearest little shitwater port just so they can realign themselves with the safe route again, meeting other ships stumbling into the same harbours, sharing information, making bargains, sorting out equipment and joining together to make it back safe to 'civilization,' etc.

All from lines patiently drawn, one after another, according to set rules.

EMERGENT BEHAVIOUR. The Ghost in the Machine. Shit I can't make up, because my imagination will never be as varied as mathematics. And I don't have to make it up! I get to sit back, explore the patterns and interpret the data.

Absolutely that is fun.

Issara Booncharoen said...

Things I have seen Alexis describe his economy can do, and those I can infer:

The creation of scarcity in certain things the party finds valuable as an inpetus to travel. This can be done narratively but will always smack of the DM wanting you to go somewhere. When Alexis tells you that you can't buy a thing because the ship from x hasn't come in yet. There's no indication that he wants you to go to x so that the story can continue, the party is in control of it's own motivation, it goes to x because it wants to buy the thing. If the same information was presented by a DM who had simply decided this was the case you can bet that it's because the DMs story continues at x or is at least served in some way by it.

It provides NPC motivations. You meet a random NPC on the route between two places, as a random spod in another game they're a merchant or some peasants. Alexis can tell you what they're transporting, why they're taking it there, if they travel the route often, how well armed or guarded they are, all from looking at the flow of goods between the two places and the map. All that provides a basis for personality.

It gives players something to 'exploit' note this ( http://tao-dnd.blogspot.co.uk/2008/06/seizing-day.html ) I can imagine an entire campaign based entirely off engaging with the economy, where players go around finding profitable things to do and overcoming the challenges inherant in those things until the local circumstances render that unprofitable, these activities range from smuggling, through piracy or economy building right through to high level, high risk stuff involving attempting to seize valauble, already owned, territory. Again this is possible in a purely narrative campaign, but in those the party suceeds or fails purely by DM fiat and much more information must be made up on the spot. With a lot of the information already in place a party is free to be clever or fail on their own wits. They take a ship out to a hex in order to try piracy? That could lead to finding no ships at all (being way off any shipping lanes) or running into naval patrols twice a day (being exactly on the shipping lanes)

That's the sort of thing I'm after in an economy at least, and if I'm doing it ass backward then so be it.

Jhandar said...

TO a certain degree I feel you explained this well in your previous video on the economic system and working to create a world that incorporates this economic system myself I think you are still undersell the complexity some.

There is a deep, deep rabbit hole here, and the presence of the reference material in the encyclopedia cannot be undersold. For example, jade: milky jade, or Nephrite, is found in calcium and magnesium-iron rich deposits while Jadette, the darker green jade, is found in sodium and aluminium rich pryoxene. Does Mountain 'A' have that composition, which would indicate potential markers for the other minerals? Do both makeups of jade appear in the same range at different points? Etc. Being able to reference an established map and resource distribution removes an infinitely complex resource distribution model out of the question.

I am not advocating everyone use Earth, but if you are truly going to work to make a thoughtful reproduction with this depth of complexity, pull form Earth. The dwarves may live in the Himalayas, which may butt up against the halflings in their Serengeti in your world, giving you pre-existing markers.

Then all you have to do is try and get the weather to jive... Earth is much simpler, trust me.

Mujadaddy said...

Hello, Arduin. I wouldn't say I'm missing the story potential of the Tao Economic Simulation System, whatsoever. My stake in the argument centers around the labour involved for the DM. The results can't be argued with, and I find no fault with the underlying algorithms which produce them; the math is beautiful.

Back to Alexis, your passion shows, clearly, and without your efforts I wouldn't have the framework to attempt the discussion here, which isn't an indictment of the results or even the process but moreso the repeatability of your system for others.

"While this seems all very complicated, it really is only because my world is staggeringly HUGE." -- I'd actually say that the principles are simple: Every goods reference affects every other reference for that good. Plug the reference values into the distance calculations and you're done. (I know getting to this point was a multi-year effort on your part; I'm just saying that, now, you have discovered some essential truths which appear elegantly obvious. Please don't think I'm downplaying your efforts in the slightest.)

And now I'm thinking about the enormity of your effort and how you have arrived at a simple principle for detailed economic simulation, and I have to attempt to communicate how excellent I find your results, without sycophancy, and attempt to communicate my own needs, both philosophical and practical, as a DM without seeming critical.

"Emergent Behaviour" -- Absolutely the goal of the Simulationist. The Simulation must generate unknowable outcomes or it's too rigid to be considered such. However, I, as a DM, must begin in broad strokes to have a foundation within which to observe the emergent behaviours. I feel I'm getting distracted, so let me focus the discussion differently:

If a DM has a simple trade system with 1 or 2 goods in mind and has built up his various locations and references on a Regional scale, what are some of the non-obvious steps necessary to slice up a Region into several locales, in order to 'zoom in' to a more local level? Today's post talks about this from the opposite approach, lump your goods together and slice them apart later. I'm more curious about taking a defined quantity ("GDP of grain in the Eastland" which is already accounted for in other calculations) and then separating the Region into its constituent Reference locations, all without turning the grain economy of the Westlands on its ear.

Do you find your system is extensible in this way, or does this require "going through city after city and rewriting the spread sheet"?

Alexis Smolensk said...


One small disagreement. There is no conclusive relationship between 'emergent behaviour' and 'simulation' - emergent behaviour applies to non-simulation environments as well. As I am very definitely NOT a simulationist (as I argue on this post, and as 'simulationism' in RPG's has a sordid and disgruntled connotation, I would rather not be painted with that brush. Please.

That aside, some programmer might be able to figure a way to avoid the 'city after city' process that I use, but I don't know any better programming than excel. However, since an average self-made world has typically no more than about 100 population centers, and only a third to half of these are markets needing to be updated, this is not an onerous task.

My world has something like 22,000 population centers designated thus far, along with 750+ markets. That is why it takes me months to redesign some of the 22 meg tables.

In the last two days I've done about as much work as it would require to update a typically sized RPG world. About 6 hours. Not that onerous.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Let me add, Mujadaddy, since you've spent much time on it.

There is no need to reassure me. We're just having an intellectual discussion. I'm finding the questions relevant and appropriate.

You would feel a little less 'backing up' from me if you would refrain from statements that judge or specify my motivations. "Simulationist," for example, which is a label I haven't laid claim to. Another example: the phrase "burning passion for completing work which none may ever see" does not actually capture either my motivation nor my nature, though it could easily appear that way if you had never spoken to me in person or had me explain it directly to you.

Each time you do this, I feel the need to qualify, since this is, after all, a declaration about ME. That's why I appear defensive. I hope that's understandable.

Mujadaddy said...

"I am very definitely NOT a simulationist" -- I was only using the word in the general sense (you are simulating an economy), not meaning to bring along the connotations you mention.

"some programmer might be able to figure a way to avoid the 'city after city' process that I use, but I don't know any better programming than excel." -- Now we're getting somewhere interesting: I'm a professional algorithmist, and very willing at minimum to do some analysis at the edges of what you can accomplish to determine the practicality of applying 'stronger stuff' than Excel formulae to your ideas. No rush; if you don't get in touch before you've finished the video series, I'll ask again.

Alexis Smolensk said...

As I go, I'll be adding the excel files to the wiki - so if you want to play with them, you'll be free to do so.

Mujadaddy said...

Yeah, I can certainly grab the files you mention on my own, but if you had a list of wishes or identified shortcomings in Excel, that would steer the analysis.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'll keep that in my mind and address those issues if it occurs to me.

Mujadaddy said...

I had a "Eureka!" moment while brushing my teeth last night.

I seem to recall one of your old economics posts had the line "and all this derived from the cost of wheat." Do you recall which post that was? I'm onto something pretty exciting, but I'd like to reread that post, and googling "site:tao-dnd.blogspot.com wheat flour cost" or variations thereof hasn't produced the post I'm thinking of, which as I remember had something to do with horses also, maybe?

Alexis Smolensk said...

You may be quoting from this old attempt to explain the system on this post. My best guess, I'm afraid.