Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 3)

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Apparently, I had a lot more to say on this topic than I thought, and it’s taken me until the third post to get to the item list that was the core of why I started writing this series in the first place. So without further ado…

Types of Items for Sale

Trinkets

Not every vendor in the market has epic items that will change your life forever. Probably the majority of them are a lot like their mortal counterparts: selling the everyday things that visitors to the market might need. Depending on the weirdness of the average customer, this could vary from goods that wouldn’t be out of place at any mortal market to items that have similar functions but alien appearances. Mostly, for mortal visitors, this winds up basically being tchotchkes: the kind of slightly unusual token you bring back to show your neighbors that you’ve seen wonders they couldn’t even imagine.

They might even accept your own coin or unusual goods for trade, letting you dip your toe in the market without bartering anything you aren’t prepared to part with.

Snacks and Merriment

It wouldn’t be a fair without delicious food, drink, and revelry to part you from your coin. As mentioned previously, they’re probably not glamoured fruits that will make you sick to death or tricks that keep you from ever leaving faerieland. At least the reputable vendors don’t sell that kind of thing. But the foods are delicious, empty calories, often spun into daring shapes that can’t be accomplished in human ovens with mortal gravity, and the entertainments are… extremely memorable.

Many of them are even touched with magic and might give you a small bonus to something relevant for an hour or two.

Exotic Goods

Beside the trinket vendors are the merchants with the things that are truly beyond what you can get in the mortal world. They sell bolts of cloth or fully-tailored clothing better than anything you’ve ever felt, metals that mortal metallurgists wouldn’t believe could exist, gems made of captured light, and chemicals that would make a mortal alchemist or baker weep at the possibilities.

Many of these things don’t last long outside of the market, falling apart under coarse mortal hands or turning into leaves with the dawn. If you can keep them up, the maintenance requires care and/or magic almost (almost) beyond what it’s worth. But they still might be useful for as long as they last, particularly if you’ve been invited to an event and aren’t properly attired.

Some of them might last, of course, if it suits the whimsy of the GM for them to persist. In particular, raw materials might survive into the mortal world… what better way to vex mortal crafters that try and fail to work them?

Secrets

If you need to know a particularly useful and hidden bit of lore, the market is the place to ask around. As noted previously, information at the market changes hands like physical goods: you’re paying not just to know something, but to be the holder of an exclusive (or, at least, extremely limited) piece of data. You can get weaknesses of your enemies, quest hooks, lost histories, and even spells from the right vendor for the right price.

Of course, the fact that you were asking around for these things is strangely free of the limited nature of secrets… the fae might gossip about your desires to almost anyone. That might particularly include someone who desperately wanted to know a secret that you now exclusively own.

Enchantment Shifting

To mortals, “permanent” magic is static, but, to many of the fae, it’s much more fluid. Have a curse you need taken off of you? Have a magic weapon that’s not your specialized type? There may be someone that can help you move that enchantment to a home more to your liking.

Magic as Commodity

The standard consumables are just the start for the types of magic you can buy at the market. Virtually any spell could find a home in a crafted good: to the fae, it’s not enchantment, just their own particular brand of handiwork. As noted previously, these should often be much easier to get than the rules expect, because of the spoilage factor.

Memories and Talents

Of course, the core currency of the market can also be an end in itself. Need to boost an ability or skill? Someone else may have paid in the right qualities that a merchant could distill the draught for you.

These bonuses should range from the slight to the overwhelming, and from the momentary to the permanent. Maybe you only need the memories of a genius or the muscles of a troll for a moment to solve a problem, or maybe you’d like a slighter bonus for longer. The pricing for this should probably start similar to a potion that boosts an ability for a short period, adjusted for magnitude and duration, and discounted for drawbacks.

In addition to the normal drawback of spoilage, the hidden drawback of this kind of thing is the danger of taking in someone else’s identity.

Mental ability scores and skills tend to come from a constellation of memories and emotions, not all of them healthy. Is it worth it to be smart, if you suddenly have a genius’ pedantry and arrogance? Is it worth it to be incredibly charismatic and artistic, if you are suddenly wracked with depression engendered by a long-lost muse?

Physical ability scores and skills can be even more troubling, drifting into the realm of body horror. The muscles of a troll may come with many of the troll’s other physical characteristics. And sometimes the stories of being turned into frogs are just an offended merchant selling a particular distillation of a potion of agility…

Teaching a Mortal to Fish

Perhaps the most efficient purchase you can make, if you’re mystically inclined, are the secrets used to build containers and fill them with currency. With sufficient dedication, you can spend the weeks until the next fair gathering dross from your own home town out of dreams, emotions, and secrets no one will even miss, and save up for something at no cost to your own identity. For the patient and industrious, it’s the best investment you could make.

Of course, some people say that many fae were once mortal practitioners with a greed for faerie things and the right start down the slippery slope…

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Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 2)

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Last week, I talked about the overall themes and possibility space of market items, and this week I’ll delve more into mechanics.

The Economy of the Market

While it may move away from keeping the workings of the market seeming totally alien, it does help to have some kind of rational economic basis in your head as a GM. The fae merchants absolutely haggle, and some things may be arbitrarily expensive or cheap as a way of modeling alien values, but this is theoretically still a place where fae merchants do what mortal merchants do: sell items for a price that covers their expenses plus profits. Thus, having some kind of math in the background gains in verisimilitude what it loses in inscrutability. You don’t want the players getting pissed off that everything happens to cost either a negligible amount or slightly more than the most they intended to pay. Sometimes, they should just be able to buy the thing with the items of currency they’ve collected.

These items of currency are what I find interesting. This is another area where I feel like more of a mechanic provides a big gain in verisimilitude. If even the least fae merchant can, at a whim, transform core pieces of a person into coin, why are they wasting their time doing so with peasants rather than kings? Instead, I postulate the following (tweak for the nature of the fae and mechanics in your own campaign):

  • Many fae, and some mortals, can learn various tricks to see and touch the stuff of mortal identity: your dreams are real to them, your secrets have a presence, and your personal traits linger like a cloud around you flickering with signifiers. This can give them an uncanny insight into your nature, for the things you believe are hidden within the darkness of your skull are plain to see for those that know how to interpret them. More importantly, with the right tools and right circumstances, seeing someone’s trappings is just the first step of taking them.
  • These tools are made through ritual and expense, from rare material and great skill. The least fae can weave webs to hold nightmares, prepare flasks to decant lesser memories, and bake a juicy secret into a pie. Stronger fae can make much more potent containers, which can hold trappings of much greater value. And even the least fae can fill a container given by a greater crafter.

Ultimately, I divide the currency of the fae into two rough categories:

  • Dross items have purchasing power similar to a gold piece or two (or silver for games like Beyond the Wall that have more conservative adventuring economies): each one was basically a day’s work for a lesser fae to craft and fill with a trapping. They can only hold the most minor of signifiers: stolen nightmares, captured applause, the least of secrets, and pieces of your competency easily given and hardly missed. They’re the pennies of the fae world, used for small purchases and sweetening a deal, but it’s somewhat gauche to try to make a big purchase with a lot of them.
  • Unique items were made with much more expensive and time-consuming rituals to hold trappings of real significance. Each has its own story, and, once filled, mutates from its original raw form into something fitting the significant piece of identity stored inside. Each has a base value that may change based on whether the alien needs of a particular fae values that trapping for some inscrutable purpose beyond use as a currency. After all, these things aren’t just a fun version of coin: they have value because some faerie, somewhere, has a real use for them. And if you want them back, you’d best find them before they reach their final buyer.

What this means is that lesser fae probably can’t buy your youth, your health, your love’s affection, or any other things of real value to you, unless they’re shiftily working as a front-fae for a much more powerful buyer that wishes to remain unnamed. Once you start asking what of yourself you can give up for that extremely pricey item, many fae merchants may have to direct you to a more powerful trader who has the requisite container to bottle what you’re selling.

This should really give you some time to rethink the trade you’re trying to make.

Another thing to keep in mind about the fae economy is that it has its own peculiar form of DRM: mortals are used to information being easily copied, so might think nothing of sharing a secret or a memory. Most of the time, though, this is an exclusive deal: if you trade in information, you no longer have it yourself. The lesser fae make a point of only trading for data you haven’t “backed up” by sharing with someone else, so when you forget it you can’t easily get it back. The more powerful traders can absorb information from everywhere else it exists, be it minds or writing, as long as it was actually yours to trade.

So how much can you actually get by shaving off pieces of your character’s identity?

As a core rule, trades should be inherently lossy: the merchant has to pay for market overhead and ritual components, at least. Even with the best haggling roll, if you think you’re getting an even swap (say, two points of one ability score for two points of another), you’re probably missing something. It’s more likely that even the best deals will leave you over 20% in the hole when comparing apples-to-apples (e.g., trade five points of ability scores for four).

Dross should be pretty easy to come by, and only start to have major effects if the characters try to create a lot of it from their identities in a very short period. The market’s no fun if you have to worry about the long-term negative effects of minor trades. By all means be very descriptive about the lost memories, emotions, and other personal qualities spun into dross, but they probably shouldn’t have any real, long-term mechanical effect on the character (perhaps some small penalties in the short term).

Unique items, however, should quickly transition into dear purchases. Brandes is hesitant to assess permanent ability score penalties, but I think they’re on the table as long as the currency you buy with them can be used to get something whose utility closely balances the regret at permanent lost character potency (possibly just through being something otherwise unavailable through prescribed system means). In 5e or other games with systematized personality traits/aspects, those are also good to spend. Skills/skill points can go as well. Secrets are good to use if they have real in-campaign utility (e.g., the secret way into your stronghold, your own true name or that of a powerful entity, etc.). Spellcasters can give up learned spells.

And, of course, “permanent” may be relative. Most of the boosts you can buy in the market are fleeting, so actual mechanical stat penalties may last just long enough to be super annoying and then gradually recover (as you make new memories/accrue replacement identity signifiers).

Like with the nature of items, the nature of fae currency is figuring out how to get player characters to do something the characters might regret forever, but which doesn’t actually permanently ruin the players’ fun. A lot of it will come down to your own players’ tolerances for roleplayed misery.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 1)

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My Beyond the Wall players, as mentioned in a prior post, finally decided they had enough of a handle on the campaign world to go into the Hedge searching for the market they’d learned of from a pack of defeated goblins. Their treasure from that encounter was a chest of stolen nightmares: clearly only the kind of thing human adventurers are going to get much use out of if they can find the place where commerce of that type happens. This meant I needed to think out exactly how I wanted the goblin market (really more of a faerie market in general) to work.

I’d done some improvisation on this score using Don’t Rest Your Head’s bazaar, which functions quite similarly. But what works for an extremely rules-light game doesn’t work as well for games like D&D that have a lot of assumptions built into player access to items and magic. Brandes has articles on goblin markets in general and ideas for what to find there, and you should read both of those articles before this one to be working from the same playbook I am as to what I still felt like I needed to create.

Themes of a Faerie Market

While I typically prefer the term “Goblin Market,” the poem with which that term is most linked is not exactly what I’m talking about (though well could be the pastime of the less savory merchants when they’re not at the big show). I tend to think more of the markets of Stardust and Hellboy II: massive gatherings of strange merchants with exotic wares, where you might wind up paying in coin you didn’t know you possessed.

In this kind of market, there can certainly be the wicked danger proposed by the poem, if your game wants to emphasize the Victorian morality involved. But I think you’ll often get more out of it by playing a bit more fairly with the players: purchases aren’t an inherently bad idea, but can still be extremely risky if you don’t know what you’re getting or spending. This is a fully functioning economy, just using rules that may defy the PCs’ intuitions from more mundane markets.

For my own purposes, I think the major themes to keep in mind when running such a place are wonder, consequences, and identity.

  • Wonder: At its core, visiting such a market is an opportunity to inject wonder into a game. Beings normally only encountered in frightening combats, legends, and as historical remnants are packed into a small space and going about their own personal shopping trips. You get to see them up close and may not even have to fight them. They may trade with you. This may be your best opportunity to gain information from primary sources, if you can ask the right questions. And it may be your opportunity to piss off a huge swath of powerful entities all at once, if you’re not careful.
  • Consequences: While the market may not inevitably be that of Rosetti’s goblins, tricking you into trading that which is most important for pretty poison, such an outcome is not off the table. Some merchants will outright try to cheat you, and even the “honest” ones are happy to take advantage of your ignorance to get a better deal for themselves. In particular, if you are rude or brash, you are unlikely to profit. If it looks like you got an excellent deal, far better than what you expected, there are probably hidden consequences. And, with a handshake bargain, there’s not even any fine print to read.
  • Identity: One of the classic things the market trades in is trappings of identity. You can pay with memories, beauty, youth, vigor, secrets, and many other types of coin that you didn’t even know were available to spend. The consequences are usually smaller but more obvious than a classic devil’s bargain for your soul: you get to spend the rest of your life understanding something about yourself that you didn’t realize was essential until it was gone. If you’re lucky, you can figure out how to buy it back. From the other side of the deal, what does it mean to profit from the trappings of someone else’s identity? Any boost you purchase may be powered by an essential trait of another person, taken into yourself.

The Nature of Market Items

The interesting thing about the market is the juxtaposition of seemingly fabulously powerful magics with an implied hidden drawback. Items that are normally the trappings of epic adventurers seem to be available for quite reasonable prices, even once you’ve gotten a handle on the true meaning of fae prices. How do you put such things into the game without breaking the itemization math upon which D&D is based?

I think the key is to keep most purchases fragile, fleeting, evanescent, and/or ephemeral. Not only should they mostly be consumables (as Brandes notes), they should defy the traditional D&D logic of consumables by including spoilage. In my experience, potions, scrolls, and charged items accumulate, becoming dangerous to game balance in their ability to be saved until their moment of greatest advantage. Part of their costing is based on being a reserve spell when the math said you should be out of daily resources. Making fae purchases into something that must be used now, or at least soon, can go a long way toward eliminating worries about whether they’re too cheap. Especially if the fae traders are on a schedule that doesn’t suit the whims of the PCs, it’s pretty easy to give out items that are lots of fun to use, but which won’t be available to wreck scenarios set a few days or weeks later.

Also, as noted under themes, items purchased from the fae are likely to have hidden drawbacks, not the least of which is being spun from the trappings of someone else’s identity. What shortcuts did the fae crafter take to make something so powerful that can be sold so cheaply? Does its core still carry the intentions of its originator, making it unexpectedly hard to use? Will it, even in the best case scenario, begin to warp your own identity through leakage or as a core principle of how it works?

If you can get your players into a deep anxiety about whether they were cheated or got a fabulous deal, and whether they can risk using this thing vs. risking letting it expire, you’ve properly created the item.