Sunday, November 6, 2011

About Trade

What's the simplest system we could come up with for trading goods by sea that would still have some of the flavor of the real deal?  I figure some of you are very knowledgeable about this stuff (looking at you richard).

I'm thinking 3-4 tiers of.  More risk = more return. More risk will mostly = ports farther away.  Maybe have the player roll each session we play to check on the trade voyage's fate.

1. What should the probabilities of succeeding be for low, medium, high risk? If you stick with a single d6 and have the roll be 4-5-6, 5-6, or 6, that would be a fifty-fifty chance of losing a cargo even at the lowest risk.

2. What returns should I be looking at? I'd like no chart necessary, so numbers like +10%, +25%, +50% are more attractive, because I can do them in my head.  I have no idea if those are way too much or too little.

If we stick to general rates of return based on distance, we can decide later what ports have what goods and just plug them in and you could always layer shortages and rarity on top of the basic system bones.

Yeah, I realize this could ruin everything and let people make their fortune without needing to enter dungeons.  But investigating the loss of a vessel, or even traveling on your own trade vessel à la Sinbad, is right down my campaign's alley.


  1. You should check out the rules for trade in Traveller. All of the various incarnations of that game have relatively detailed guidelines and charts for cargo, profit margin, etc.. They can easily be modified to fit into a D&D campaign.

  2. In my Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign I would just tell them, "this town is famous for its copper wares – you can invest up to 500 gp and bring it to any town at the coast for a 20% profit. If you don't have a cart, donkeys, guards, and all that, you can join a merchant who will share it with you for a 10% profit."

    I'd improvise all of that based on the map and some notes regarding goods various towns are noted to be famous for in the boxed set.

    If they invested a lot of gold, I'd think of sending bandits or pirates their way. I named merchants and kept them traveling around the area.

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  4. My favorite sea trade computer game is the Patrician series. Seems like you could get very complex data about supply, demand and prices in different cities from a running game of Patrician and just change city names and a few of the products.

  5. Are you worried about your D&D turning into Traveller? ;)

    My response is too long to post here, so I put it on my own blog. Alas, I can't give you a working system straight off but, briefly, profit should be directly linked to risk first and distance a poor second.

    Why do you need an abstract trade system? Is it to handle what NPCs are doing? Or the PCs' continuity-time between adventures? Or are they getting into managing a flotilla of NPC vessels? The third case is about the only one I personally wouldn't just handle by fiat, or via a flat percentage chance of mishap and then a mishaps table, with results expressed as percentage of investment lost + some special effects (enemies made, ports now off limits, addition of thieves/moles to your organization).

  6. I have a handful of tables I put together for my neat seafaring board game. For each port, I generate what they offer, what they most want, and how legal each of those things is; generally, you roll for a modifier on the value when it comes sale time for both those things and everything else. Enough crunch to make it fun to make a few decisions, but loose enough to be manageable.

  7. I'd keep an eye out for the ACKS release (I think it's due for December). They've got a nice trading system- in some ways, fictivefantasies approach is similar to it.

  8. Thanks, all.

    @John: I'll take a look, but avoiding charts is a design goal.

    @Alex: Yeah, I want a system so I don't have to make rulings constantly. Also, with a system players would be more aware of choices they have.

    I do like the idea of setting up NPC traders on set routes.

    @Roger: There is an old pc game I played that was about trade in the Mediterranean. Can't for the life of me remember the name. I went all out, had a notebook with prices for every port and worked out the most profitable routes. If you're into that kind of thing the flash game Caravaneer is pretty fun, set in a post-apocalyptic desert.

    @Richard: Thanks. I think I'll need to make another post to lay out some of my assumptions, etc, but the short answer is I want a mini-game the players can play with their gold, that makes the world seem more real and alive, without me having to detail every last bit of my world.

    @fictivefantasies: Sounds cool. For my purposes, I think, other than weight/volume, perishability, and illegality, most trade items are just widgets.

    Supply and demand matters if players are on the ships, because it will determine where they will need to go. It also requires me to map out the whole world and lay out trade items. Npc trade voyages you invest in could be traveling anywhere, you really just want to know if they made it safely.

    @charlatan: Thanks, I'll take a look.

  9. There is a simple homebrew system from way back in Dragon Magazine issue #6. It's literally one page. And most of that is explanation for the table. I dig it and have used it. I like it because it's super simple, easy to implement, and therefore, easy to mod or add to if you want. I have made a PDF of just the one page from the magazine. If anyone would like it, I stuck it on Mediafire for sharing:

  10. Woops - just saw you wanted no chart. It does appear the chart is just a simple escalation and could probably be expressed without the need for a chart. I'm not that into math, though. Still, one chart, one page - I'm a big fan of your own one-pagers, so I think it may still interest you. Plus, it follows all the bits you mentioned - ie, bypassing more ports offers more chance for profit, but also increased chance of being lost at sea.

  11. Hey thanks, I'm familiar with that article. In fact I think it is what inspired me to try and make an abstracted, small system. Though I never quite got the logic of making more profit by skipping ports. That's why I went to straight distance of port.

  12. I can see how the straight distance = profit idea might work in a fantasy game and as part of an abstract system, where you just assume merchants are dealing in goods that would be profitable, rather than taking coals to Newcastle. It simply didn't occur to me, history head that I am, to take away the boring/wrong choices.

    Likewise, I had thought of offering players a distinction between "bulk" and "luxury" trades, but really, who's going to choose "bulk"? And if we know the PCs are going to be dealing in high-value goods then we can assume that for them the waters are infested with pirates and the ports with corrupt officials, while the bulk traders have their own flags and union cards, and therefore ply a less dangerous ocean.

    ...all of which gives me an idea for a "steerage" option for low-level PCs: need to get to Stiltport but can't afford to face the dangers of an OSR sea voyage? Take the slower but surer route: coasting on grain and timber barges, working short contracts with long hours and heavy lifting. It may not be adventure time but you'll make a couple of contacts in low places, pick up some rumours about the ports along the way, and arrive more or less intact and ready to make money by more exciting means.

    What's that you say? It's a wuss option - why postpone adventure when you're here to play now? OK, but don't complain that the sea is too dangerous.

  13. From the Dragon article, I think that the design idea with regards to skipping ports is to make longer hauls potentially more profitable, but also to increase the risk of something bad happening en-route. Same idea, really, as a trade over distance, with the distances measured in known stops and places to sell the stuff, rather than on a mileage/km/whatever basis. I think that's spelled out in the body of the article, seeing as how this table is really about trade over distinct shipping routes. I don't see why one couldn't substitute distance for ports, though, for uncharted shipping.

  14. I think the "skipping ports" thing is just a handy shorthand when you don't have anything like a precise map yet and don't know the distances. Even if you did, counting ports is faster than measuring. I guess the idea is that the more ports you skip over along a given coast, the farther you are from the goods' point of origin, so they are probably rarer. I know, very simplistic, but I think it's a good shortcut. I think of it as a betting system, and skipping a port is like "letting it ride" - you can make more, but you increase your chance of busting out, also. I've also used this same chart for handling overland merchant caravans, too. You set off in one general direction, and the more settlements you pass over without selling will probably get you more profit, but at the same time, you're farther from home, and more likely to be targeted by robbers and bandits, or end up in unfriendly territory. But ymmv. I'd love to see if you come up with something as easy to use, but better. :)

  15. Oh, yes, I don't have a problem with measuring distance in ports. I love it. It's the kind of granularity I like because it reduces options that need to be memorized, it makes numbers smaller, and it makes sense (you aren't sailing 700km, you're sailing to a certain port that is 700km away).

    I was only taking issue with the idea of "skipping" ports, that you were somehow losing profit by docking to re-water and buy supplies. I can't think of any real reason sailing along a coast from point A to point C is inherently more dangerous or profitable than sailing from A to B to C.

  16. Oh, I see. In that case, I didn't see it as "skipping" a port as in passing over it completely, just skipping it as far as being a place to unload your goods. From reading the article, I presumed that the player would instruct the ship to stop at several ports and sell there if the roll was favorable, and if not, move on. Semantics. :)