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.