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.