Friday, January 29, 2016

How to Start a Trading Town IV - Business Partners

In April of last year, I wrote three posts called "How to Start a Trading Town."  When the third post fell flat (no comments), I ended it.

For good or ill, I use comments as a measure of interest in what I'm writing.  I can write on a wide variety of things and it is usually best to write on things that will get people involved and interested.  If I write a post in a series and it gets no responses, then I have to look at the effort in the same way that television looks at a show with bad ratings.  The show gets cancelled.

After nine months of silence, however, I was asked here to continue the series.  And since I asked for story ideas . . .

Let's take stock.  Our characters have started with a considerable amount of money - at least 20,000 gold pieces.  We've picked an empty shore on the coast, where the water is deep enough for a long boat (and a bigger ship no further than 300 yards/meters out), where we can conceivably build a stone quay (eventually).  We've made deals with the local lord.  And we've begun making a few contacts in the nearest city, selling land or enticing away a few of the residents there.

All this assumes the DM is a reasonable entity and that we're permitted to move along with these things without undue sabotage.  Personally, I like it when a party 'sets up.'  I rarely present the local lords as insipid, grasping, spoiled prats who act like infants the moment someone sets up on their territory.  My reading of history tells that squatting is usually the way that most towns have been founded.  All new residents are a source of income for the local lord and are therefore welcome, so long as they're not criminals who prey on the lord's capital.  We're definitely not interested, here, in setting up as criminals (that may come later).  We want a strong, industrious, religiously regulated community that pays its taxes on time, develops infrastructure in both the settlement and the hinterland and is rich in artisans and friendlies.

In my world, this is easier.  I have rules that support players having multiple characters, I give followers easily and my players tend to see a certain wisdom in not using these as cannon fodder.  That is because, I believe, my followers are not stooges - they are people with friends, associates, allies and thus serve as intermediaries between the party and the locals.  If I'm paying a low-level fighter as a follower and that fighter is a disgruntled, hateful, disconnected misanthrope - and I remember many followers were in the games where I acted as a player - then this is only going to encourage me to not care if said fighter dies.  On the other hand, if my fighter is a friendly, jovial fellow who's sister is friends with the priest at the chapel out near Clonmel, then perhaps that's someone who I might want to keep alive - in case I need a priest for some reason.

So at this point, as we build our dock, warehouse, corrals and perhaps a church, then we will want to do more than make friends.  We want to make connections.  We want to get to know the names of the people we're working for, who they know, who they've heard of in the area and what meetings can be arranged.

Yes, probably many of these people don't know anybody.  But if our DM is on the ball, a few smartly dressed people will show up, from curiousity.  They may be ill-mannered, doubtful, even insulting.  We may be bothered by this but we have to rise above that - these people who have time to wander about doing nothing but sight-seeing are just the sort of people we want.  One of them can surely introduce us to a guild-overseer, an alderman, a deacon or perhaps a fellow running a fighter training academy.  What we want is an introduction.  Just a chance to rub elbows with the middle class in the city and learn a little more about what makes the town tick.

This is a lot of work for the DM, particularly if that entity doesn't have a clear idea of how business/politics works.  To give a good portrayal of "what's happening," a DM has to have some idea of what happens in the upper corridors of power.  Many DMs, particularly the young, haven't the experience or taken the opportunity to read up on how power works.

I was into this politics thing at a very early age - and I remember distinctly playing with the heads of a few DMs in my youth as I maneuvered them into allowing me and my party to get away with murder.  Literally, in some cases.  This is why it is so important that any DM should acquire a wide range of disciplines . . . because if the only thing the DM understands are the rules of the game and the principles of combat, that is going to seriously balk any attempt at a deeper sandbox.

I don't want to digress into that just now.  For the sake of this post, what the players and DM should do - in the case where the DM feels unprepared - would be to work out between them a reasonable expectation of what might happen or what both parties (DM and Players) can see as a win-win.

All too often, this isn't even considered.  I have been running this game for 36 years and I still turn to my players, often, for a tet-a-tet regarding what's a reasonable response to something the party wants to do.  I'm only one fellow - I don't have all the answers.  Of course, I'm going to negotiate with an expectation that any concession I make will be one that has to be made in the future, too (and in my case, what happens in one campaign becomes policy in every other campaign - I suppose I could write a post about that, too).

So when we are setting up our trade town and meeting people, we should be looking at this thing from the DM's perspective - and working to get the DM on our side.  We should be explaining that if we stay here, we will be less interested in wandering all over the world.  This means the DM can take time to design this one space.  All we want in exchange is that the space where we've planned to stay is one that will keep us happy - and that means we'd like the benefit of someday having a regular monthly luncheon with the Lord Mayor.

I realize that we're all trained to think that a second trade town is competition (and therefore should be crushed), but that's not really the case.  In fact, that second town should be seen as a sort of franchise - where the people from the first trade town can expand outwards, buying land, setting up a colony, using that second trade town as an alternate depot or transshipment point, one that's a little closer to the source of some other region's good and which can act as a supplier in case of siege.  The stronger that second trade town (the one we're building) is, the better it can act as a subsidiary.  Therefore, we want to talk to the Lord Mayor to pass the message that our little bit of land on the sea is really a good investment in the future for both the town and us - like Pepsi having Doritos.


Doug said...

Alexis, I apologize for not commenting on your trade town posts earlier. I find them a great insight into a realm that few DMs venture, and had little more to say than "I like this."

You've hit upon the main aspect that "Advice to GMs" always fail to give - understanding how people work. Way too often players get to encounter "evil merchant" and "good priest" that are just boring, because these were the same cutouts used the week before.

It's really amazing how quickly a DM can step up his game just by asking the question "What does this NPC want?", answering it in a realistic manner, and then playing through with that in mind.

JB said...


Now I feel shallow for taking so much time just to justify why a battle axe might receive a +1 bonus to hit when being used with two hands. Can I help that my daily life is surrounded by politics and business folk and that I'd rather my game deal with harpy infested ruins than the corridors of power?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I don't know what's wrong with "I like this." It's a vote.


You should remember that the post presumes the players want to do this. If the players want to deal with harpy infested ruins, using their battle axes, then I'm good with playing that game too.

I don't really need to give much advice for THAT kind of game, now do I? Most already know how to play that game. The point here is to give the players options - and that what the DM would rather have his game deal with shouldn't be the all-defining nature of the campaign.

It's just that what I get out of the game is challenging myself to rise up to the players' level and impress them. What details I run, exactly, isn't very important to me - only that those details are presented in the best possible way.

LTW said...

Good stuff, will read.

Discord said...

I have to concur with Doug. Quite often after I read one of your posts, I'm in awe of what you've just laid out, and I don't feel I have much to add to the conversation.

That being said, this series is amazing and I hope that you continue it. Some day, I would like to have players that would become involved enough in my campaign world to try setting something like this up.

Matt said...

A vote from me then. Good stuff.

Don't think I commented much on the earlier series, mostly as I was interested in seeing where you were going, and didn't have much to say that would really be engaging.

Tim said...

Going along with the crowd here. Really dig this series. I definitely think the "DM options" topic has so much to explore: a big community discussion board for people with relevant experience in different areas would be great (e.g. the players want to establish a water mill on a river and the Internet connects the DM with a few savvy engineer DMs).

As for getting more community response, maybe a "like" button of some kind is worth adding. That would give you an easy metric to see if people are really enjoying the post, even if they don't have much to add.

Alexis Smolensk said...

A like button would be pretty nigh useless. I care about what voice likes my stuff.

Adam said...

Great post Alexis, thank you for returning to this subject. I have no special insight to throw out right now, but I just enjoy reading it. Especially the segway into dealing/negotiating with the people who make up the other half of the game.

Ozymandias said...

"Like" buttons are too easy to use and carry little substance. Writing a response takes a bit more effort. Consider Facebook: every post presents a "Like" option, whether it's about suicide prevention, the horror that is Donald Trump or kittens in a cardboard box. Shoot, people post about their personal tragedies, asking for help or prayers or sympathy, and people use the "Like" button as a means of saying, "We're with you."

But that's off-topic.

I love these posts. They present options for players but they also represent options for NPCs. How often have any of us, as players in the game, come across a start-up trading post? Or a castle that's half-way through construction? D&D relies on the frontier or borderlands as a setting for many adventures, but we often ignore the fact that humanity is always pushing the borderlands back. Imagine an adventure where the players go into the deep forest, perhaps into a caves beneath a mountain, and are snowed in by a sudden storm. They're forced to stay for the better part of a year and, when they return, they find a town not a few miles away, that wasn't there last fall.

Tim said...

Fair points Alexis and Ozymandias. I suppose commenting to just say "cool!" is sufficient to get a sense of topic popularity.

kimbo said...

I like these posts. This is really needed for the game, sensible rules and actual play advice on how PCs can have an impact on the game world beyond murder and mayhem. This is what the game community should be developing, not just another megadungeon or random whatever generator... presumably dms havent been interested in these sort of things. This would be cool game suppliment.

Do you think the interpretation of potential in-world consequences through cooperation/negotiation between players and dm has the potential for greater immersion? a bit like talking real world politics or curent events with friends. Its certainly a great solution to the experience gap (real world) between player and dm, sharing expectations.

Re Liking , the paradox of moderation: discussions are very on point, relevant and clutter free but positive comments that dont add value to the discussion feel out of place.

Alexis Smolensk said...

That's fine, kimbo, if there are relevant and clutter free comments. I obviously like those and I have many readers who are brilliant enough to sustain a meaningful discussion.

But I have also been told, many times, that I say things to which readers "could not think of anything to add." I love that I am such a good writer that I kill a subject dead with my final word on it, but since I can't see the facial expressions of the reader, I'm also forced to suppose that I am such a bad writer that a total lack of response indicates crickets.

If people want to see more of a particular subject, they have to shout that out - not just assume I know it. A positive comment that encourages more writing on a liked subject is very, very much in place, more so than sending the message that I should write about something else. Nyet?

Vlad Malkav said...

Hello Alexis !

I loved those posts, inspirational as hell and I'd like a lot more ! I feel ashamed for not having posted on the previous one of the serie, even though I was damn well interested ... Will try not to do that again if I have the time.

By the way, I've just finished my first reading of "How to Run". I'm at a loss of words... It's brilliant, it deliver far more than I hoped, and I think you really created a true basis for growing as a DM. This work has opened my eyes on so many things, it's fantastic.

Damn it, I still sound like a fanboy, don't I ...

Thank you for all the work you're doing and sharing with us ! We want more :)

Wandrille Duchemin said...

I wanted to add up to previous comment by saying I am really happy that you decided to resume these posts (thank for your comment, Adam).

Concerning your remarks about the local nobility reaction to a new town, it seems to me that in some medieval countries (but I might be heavily biased here), a settlement need to get the approval of a higher authority (e.g. the king) in order to be granted a proper charter.
Plotting with the local nobleman in order to obtain the charter could then constitute an interesting 'quest'.
Also on the subject of the reaction of a nearby town, and while I agree that confrontation/aggression would not constitute the norm, I just wanted to mention the example of Nieszawa ( Here the specifics of politics made it so that the new town suffered several attacks from the old one as it positioned itself as its competitor.