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.