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.