July 11, 2017

Shopping and Haggling

Buying off the rack goods is an artifact of the industrial and post-industrial era.  In medieval and renaissance society, even when a shop kept a stock of goods, there was rarely a "sticker price."  Haggling was the norm.

Haggling is also an interesting opportunity for roleplay, but it takes a long time, and can be frustrating for GMs -- and players -- who aren't any good at haggling.  On the other hand, using a simple die roll for haggling opens up problems of system mastery and waives the opportunity for roleplay.

Haggling can be used to show a character's reputation in town:  In Casablanca, a lace seller is trying to rip off foreign newcomer Ilsa, who is clearly jaded to this kind of chicanery.  Then Rick arrives, at which point, he drops the price to less than half and keeps dropping it as he discovers that Rick cares for her.  It highlights the relationship between Casablanca and newcomers (profiting at their expense); Casablanca and Rick (Rick's reputation is golden); Rick and Ilsa (fraught, at that moment); and Ilsa and foreign cities (she's no bumpkin).

So we need a system that's quick, not overly-detailed, and has story inputs and outputs.  And because there are several great fantasy RPGs, it should be mostly system neutral.  Finally, it should be something that doesn't require changing any existing rules.  In this sort of situation, I like to very carefully frame a simple skill check, and then use it over and over.

A Shopping Rule

If your system uses modifiers or varying difficulties, set the difficulty based on the character's reputation in town and the experience and exclusivity of the shopkeeper.

  • A reputation of "desperate" or "despised"; or an exclusive, appointments-only shopkeeper should make the negotiation very hard.
  • A reputation of "distrusted" or "newcomer"; or a high-end, veteran, or bespoke shopkeeper should make it hard.  
  • A reputation of "familiar" and "neutral"; or a moderately experienced merchant would be moderate difficulty.  
  • A reputation of "well-liked" or "hero"; or a naive yokel would make it easy.   

What skill do you roll?
  • Old school D&D (2e and before, or most OSR stuff):  Charisma
  • Pathfinder, most d20 spin-offs, or 3e: Diplomacy
  • D&D 4e or 5e:  Persuasion
  • 13th Age:  An appropriate background
  • Dungeon World: +Cha (and there are no difficulty modifiers in Dungeon World)

Note that you can use this haggling rule any time the PCs go shopping, even if they don't intend to haggle, because it generate some good story outcomes.

Shopping Stakes Frame

Name the seller(s) or buyer(s) and make the die roll.  On a success, let the player choose two.  On a failure, let the player choose one.

  • You get an extra 10% discount/profit or they throw in something (of the DM's choice) for free.
  • The interaction doesn't attract attention.
  • The process doesn't take a lot of time.

Guidance for GMs

The options above follow the old corporate axiom: "Good, fast, or cheap:  Pick one.  If you're lucky, pick two."  That also makes it really easy to remember at the table.  Most people can remember the good/fast/cheap thing in a pinch.

The 10% discount is not going to break your game.  You'll notice that no matter how the PC rolls, they can choose to get a 10% discount.  Choosing the 10% discount is guaranteed to lead to some kind of plot outcome.

The PCs might decide it's more fun to get a random item thrown in for free instead of a simple 10% discount.  This gives you an opportunity!  You have three choices:  First, you can just give them something generally useful, to reward them for picking this option.  Second, you can give them something that you know will be very useful to them soon, even though they don't know that ("I got the alchemist to throw in this vial of antitoxin for free when I bought all these healing potions.  I hope we don't wind up needing it...").  Third, you can give them something that advances the story or starts a new story - stolen goods, a mysterious trinket (from the table in the 5e PHB, from a web trinket generator, or of your own invention), or an item that communicates story information ("This other mysterious traveler was in here just two days ago and sold me this silver goblet, but you can have it for being such a good customer."  "Wait, was she an elf, about this tall, with a scar on his cheek?"  "Yeah, stranger, do you know her?").

If the interaction attracts attention, make sure to have this come up later.  This means the interaction is notable, and makes a good story.  It's not every day a mysterious elf with a longbow comes into the village and buys one of the shepherd's mastiffs.  Maybe the PC had to impress the village wise woman to get her to sell them some healing potions.  If the PCs have enemies (and they really should!), their enemies can track their movements by following a trail of stories told by the common folk.  Also, if the PCs are trying to keep a low profile, attracting attention is obviously bad.  The attention attracted could also come from the seller or buyer regretting the deal.  Did the PCs buy the farmer's last sausages, and now they wish they hadn't sold them?  Did the PCs cajole the blacksmith into selling them chain mail too cheaply?  Did the PCs buy a diamond the jeweler had reserved for another client, and now they want it back?  The PCs' reputation might suffer, or their allies could start to get antsy.

If the process takes a lot of time, the PC might miss important details in town that could cause them trouble later.  It could also allow enemies to catch up, or coming dangers to get closer.  The most popular fantasy RPGs -- 13th Age, Pathfinder, and D&D -- rely on time pressure, so wasting a few hours shopping could cost the PCs, if they're up against the clock.

Don't Roll for Every Purchase

Save yourself the aggravation and only call for at most one roll, per PC, per session.  This system generates story outcomes with every roll, so it starts to get overwhelming if you have a lot of story outcomes generated one after the other.  If the players don't split the party, you can take care of it all with one or two shopping rolls.  

That is, if the PCs stop into Neverwinter and the wizard buys rubies, an arcane focus, fine robes, and ten days of rations, don't roll at each of the jeweler, the tailor, and the outfitter's shops - just roll once for the whole trip.  If the wizard gets a discount, apply it to all the items.  If they choose a freebie, you can give them one or more - your choice.  If they attract attention, at least one of their interactions draws attention, or something else they do while shopping is what draws attention.  If they take a long time, it's at least one of the purchases, and probably most of them, that cause the delay.

Don't use the Shopping Roll for Cons and Robbery

Some games (e.g. D&D, Pathfinder) have skills like Bluff, Deception, and Intimidation.  Using these skills is not bargaining.  It's cheating, conning, or robbing.  Using Deception or Intimidation to get a good price is a different system, with different outcomes (such as being wanted for a crime!).

Why should I use this?

The shopping roll achieves a lot of great things for you:
  1. It takes care of the players' desire to haggle to get a discount, for the mechanical or procedural benefit of saving money.
  2. It takes care of the players' desire to haggle for the story benefit of interacting with shopkeepers.  No matter how it goes, it forces the table to add some details to the interaction.
  3. It generates story outcomes that you can turn into story hooks, to drive the plot forward.  It's the PCs' actions that generate the momentum, and players like that sense of agency:  Things happen in the world because of them (for better or worse).
  4. It's great for pacing.  It happens right when the pace tends to slow down (coming back to town, doing some shopping), so you can use the die roll outcome to accelerate out of the usually-slow-paced shopping session.
  5. It does all this quickly so you can get back to the action.

July 7, 2017

Magic Item Shops

Where did the idea of "magic item shops" come from?  That's the question we're going to explore today on Run a Game.  The answer is pretty simple:  Japan.  But it has a convoluted history worth exploring!

Art by Zeke Nelsons, used with permission

In the early editions of D&D, the idea of buying and selling magic items was absurd.  Magic items were wonderful things you discovered in the dungeon that either made your Fighter more powerful or did cool, odd things.

2nd Edition let spellcasters craft magic items, but it didn't let you buy them.  Crafting magic items wasn't a formulaic system like Pathfinder or even the fairly simple "spend some gold and cast a ritual" method of 4e.  You had to go on quests, designed by the DM, to get the required components to make them.

Random magic item tables made their discovery a surprise to everyone at the table, and early edition D&D fighters (original, 1e, BECMI) did not specialize in any particular weapon or weapon type like they came to do in the post-millennial editions.  (With the exception of BECMI weapon mastery, but you didn't choose a weapon to master until after you had found a magic weapon, typically.)

2nd Edition came out in 1989, and it was the last edition before we started seeing magic item shops.  What happened between 1989 and 2000, when 3rd edition came out and put price tags on every magic item?

Magic Items in Shops in JRPGs

To find the answer, we need to look at the history of another, parallel, emergence of magic item shops: JRPGs (Japanese RPG video games).

JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior have shops where you could buy progressively better weapons and armor.  In the mid-80s, the weapons and armor you could buy from the shops in these games were not magical - they would start off shoddy, like "wooden" or "copper" or "iron" and then advance to special materials like "elven" or "silver" or "golden" or "mithral."  The magic weapons and armor like a fire sword were only found in treasure chests in dungeons.

These early JRPGs were inspired by D&D, which was coming over from the US.  Naturally, mundane items could be bought in town, and magic items could be found in dungeons.  It made sense.

But something happened in the "black box" that is Japan.  Since I can't read Japanese, I can't go read old Japanese RPGs from the early 90s, but between Final Fantasy / Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy II (US numbering) / Dragon Warrior IV, the idea of selling magic items in shops became acceptable in Japanese fantasy RPGs.  It's possible the evolution happened within the video games themselves, or perhaps a Japanese tabletop RPG introduced the idea first.  Regardless, after the release of 2nd edition D&D, we experienced a full decade of video games based on D&D that incorporated buying and selling magic items into their idiom.

The 1990s-era JRPGs evolved more and more magic items for sale, starting with a few, and evolving rapidly.  By Final Fantasy IX (2000, same year as D&D 3rd edition's release), you could go to a store in a town and buy swords with ice and fire spirits bound to them, angels inside them, and swords inscribed with magic runes.  Not to mention any number of magic rods, bangles, flutes, etc.

From "golden swords" to "diamond swords," the items for sale got more and more fantastical from the mid-80s through the mid-90s.  Eventually there were magic items in shops, and then there were entire magic item shops.

Ultima Online (1997) and Everquest (1999), released just before and during the development of 3rd edition D&D, also had magic item shops.  (They also had magic item creation, like 2nd edition AD&D, but much simpler.)

Magic Item Shops in Tabletop RPGs

The idea of magic item shops is so unique to video games that it only ever crops up in fantasy fiction as a tropey, lampshaded in-joke.

Magic item shops are not part of most official D&D settings -- even the post-3e settings.  In 2nd edition, in the Forgotten Realms, there was one magic shop -- in Hilsfar (thanks to POCGamer for pointing this out!).  The magic-flush Eberron setting of 3rd edition, for another, doesn't have magic item shops so much as Dragonmarked Houses (essentially dungeonpunk megacorporations) that produce and sell them mostly to high-class clientele (e.g. other Dragonmarked Houses, nobles, etc.).  A growing middle class in cities like Sharn can get hold of minor trinkets - healing potions, feather fall tokens, flying skiffs, and (for the richest) elemental-powered ships.  But these are arranged through appointment with an artificer of the appropriate dragonmarked house.  There aren't flying skiff dealerships you can walk into with a down payment and walk out of with a slick, new model-year air-skiff.  In other words, the idea of a store you can walk into and buy magic items off the rack doesn't even exist in the most magic-rich D&D campaign setting.

Magic item shops are in Pathfinder (mentioned in both the Settlement rules and Magic Item rules), and though they aren't typically found in Pathfinder's Golarion campaign setting, settlements often have magic items for sale, somehow.  It seems that the idea is so odious that it gets hand-waved.

In 4th Edition D&D, where magic item buying and selling peaked, you took a ritual to make magic items, so the party Wizard was typically the party's magic item shop.  You could also take a ritual to break magic items down into residuum, which was just "store credit" for the party wizard's ritual.  In a way, this harks back to 2nd edition, where spellcasters could make magic items, only with gold piece price tags and without the cool quests.


Between the late 90s and the 'teens, D&D and JRPGs diverged considerably.  Final Fantasy now has motorcycles and gun-blades and rock 'n roll music.  JRPGs have largely left D&D behind in the realm of pseudo-European pseudo-medieval fantasy while they've gone off in different creative directions.

5th edition takes us back to the style of 2nd edition.  Gone is the "video gamey" nature of 3rd and 4th edition (and Pathfinder).  Though there are optional rules for magic item price tags, I don't think most DMs use them.

Is D&D its own genre?

It's clear that magic item shops aren't core to D&D's idiom, which is evidence of the idea that D&D is its own fantasy sub-genre.  Briefly, JRPGs tried to emulate D&D's style, but they diverged.  D&D spent two editions and a decade and a half following JRPGs before breaking off and returning to its roots.

Personally, I've always felt D&D carries its own subgenre of fantasy.  Trying to run other kinds of fantasy in D&D can be difficult - the odd monsters, the way magic works, the idea of levels, party dynamics, the commonality of magic items (even in relatively stingy 5e)...

All that goes to support the idea that D&D is not just an RPG to tell sword and sorcery fantasy stories in, but specific kinds of sword and sorcery stories where there are lots of bizarre monsters to fight in remote, isolated dungeon-like locations; where there is treasure in the form of magic weapons, armor, and wondrous items; where there are spell scrolls and potions; where there are Rogues and Paladins and Clerics.  It grew out of tabletop wargames, and the roleplaying part slowly grew on top of the game part, giving us the feel of players moving game pieces, trying to accrue more powerful items and abilities to take on still stronger and more bizarre monsters and get still more powerful and wondrous items and abilities.  Even if you don't play D&D that way, it's baked into D&D's system and idiom.  No matter how you try to play D&D, you can't help fighting bizarre monsters and accruing powers and magic items that allow you to fight tougher and weirder monsters that reward you with more and better powers and more and better magic items.

Personally, I revel in it when I run or play D&D.  To me, Out of the Abyss -- the most "D&D" of the published 5e modules to date -- is the ultimate expression of the subgenre.  It's especially egoistic. The first half of the module is all about gaining power and experience (in order to escape the underdark).  It's full of dungeons and bizarre monsters.  You find odd items.  Magic is everywhere.  It's weird often to the point of being playfully silly.  It's fantastic.