Adventurers between Adventures: Merchants and Customers

Accustomed to a certain lifestyle

While thinking about commerce in Dungeons & Dragons, I keep coming back to the question of how the average person affords the lifestyle they live. As the books are primarily written for the players, many of the rules regarding buying goods and services are built around abstracted costs of living between adventures. These costs are shown first in a high-level abstraction called Lifestyle Expenses, which represent the average daily costs of living in certain levels of comfort. This covers food and lodging, and determines the social strata that your character might interact with during their periods of downtime. The fresher the food or more comfortable the bed, the more expensive the daily costs.

I happen to like the online version of these rules a bit better than the printed copy, and the Basic Rules on expenses can be found here:

The prices are then broken down into food and lodging of various comfort levels, also on a daily basis, and then food is broken down into individual items that one might order off a standard tavern menu. You know-- meat hunks, loaves of bread, gallons of ale and the like. This is my personal preferred view, though I might honestly prefer a more in-depth table based on the level of preparation, craftsmanship, and cost to import certain ingredients, but we'll get to that later.

The mile-high view of Lifestyle Expenses is interesting to me because its brevity indicates that there is an expectations for players to not pay it much mind. It creates a simple metric by which players can roughly estimate the cost of their lifestyle, and brush it aside as simply "the time until the next real thing." In truth, I have yet to see a player or dungeon master even reference these rules during play, to the point where for a time I didn't believe they existed. This is just as well, though, because even low-level adventures tend to ensure that players can quickly afford the Modest or Comfortable strati within the first dungeon delve. More, if they're crafty.

For example, a character who survives the introductory adventure The Lost Mines of Phandelver (or Here There Be Gerblins, for fans of The Adventure Zone) can expect to come away with anywhere from 10 to 50gp, plus a magical item or two, if they play their cards right. While this isn't enough to jump straight into the glamorous life of wealth and fame, it's more than enough to live comfortably until heading off into the next adventure. 

That's all well and good for the adventuring type-- the stoic Paladin or fearsome Barbarian who might throw themselves headlong into certain doom, with naught but a prayer to see them safely to the other side. They can use the spoils of their small wars to fund a certain lifestyle until the next evil emerges from its respective pit, and that'll be fine for them. What I wonder about consistently when reviewing these rules is how we are treating player- and non-player-characters who don't want that life for themselves? Even the smallest village is likely to have a humble carpenter, blacksmith, or shepherd. How do they earn enough to live? 

Let's take an example laid out in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and say that my Human Ranger "Karrson" has inherited a smithy. 

Thanks to his inheritance, Karrson doesn't have to shell out the cash to build "Karrson & Sons Smithy" from the ground up, so that's one expense out of the way. All Karsson needs to worry about here are the expenses for daily upkeep. The Player's Handbook and DMG provide some useful tables for average daily costs of a business, such as an inn, but smithy isn't on the list, so we get to improvise a little here. 

Running a smithy "by the book"

To begin running Karrson's smithy according to the books, we need to figure out what the average daily cost of business is. This includes paying staff, and purchasing basic supplies to keep the place running. For the average smithy, you might need 1 "Skilled" hireling to do the bulk of the blacksmithing, and 2 or 3 "Untrained" hirelings to be assistants, or clean the shop at the end of the day. Per the Player's Handbook, that comes to 2gp and 6sp per day, which we'll round up to 3gp for accounting's sake. Then we'll need raw materials to turn into our product, which we'll say is swords and axes. We'll estimate that we need about 10 pounds of iron per day, on average, depending on the work being done. That gives us enough to make a decent longsword or a big war axe, plus some extra for smaller orders (nails and the like). I will admit to not being a professional blacksmith, so one might argue for a smaller or larger number of pounds, that's fine. I'm saying 10 pounds solely so that we can say that our average daily cost for supplies is 1 gold piece. 

That brings us to 4 gold pieces per day to run the Karsson & Sons Smithy, which sounds fair! According to the Dungeon Master's Guide, that places us somewhere between running a shop and a guildhall, which feels appropriate for the concept. 

According to the DMG rules for running a business, whenever a player spends their downtime minding their business, as it were, they roll a percentile die. They add the number of days spent on this activity to their roll, with a maximum of 30 days, and subtract 10 from the roll for any missed payments. The result of the roll determines how the times goes for the business in a general sense, with higher numbers being generally better. For example, a roll of 41-60 reads "The business covers its own maintenance cost for each of the days", while a roll of 81-90 reads "The business covers its own cost for each of the days. It earns a profit of 2d8 x 5 gp." Lower rolls require the player to pay for office maintenance costs out of their own pocket, which may lead to the aforementioned missed payments. 

As you may have expected, I have a few problems with it. Why? Because, dear reader, I -- *pushes up glasses* -- am a loser

The book isn't what I need, and that's okay

I want to be really careful here: the book is not wrong. I have only found that in the particular kind of game that I want to play, these rules do not fit the mechanics or narrative that I want. In the spirit of Unearthed Arcana and years of D&D modules before me, all I want to do here is explore an alternative that I find interesting. 

The book doesn't provide what I'm looking for because of a few simple reasons: 

First, the rules only come into effect while the player is actively spending time on the business. This implies that while the player is not actively there, everything goes pretty much according to plan, and the business stays afloat. This incentivizes the player into never spending time on their business, for fear of losing money. 

Second, the rules specifically list a maximum of 30 days per roll. While this is most definitely included to prevent rolls consistently over 100+ (I can just see myself saying "I spend 100 days on my business lol"), it encourages players and Dungeon Masters to move swiftly between adventures, while sweeping the in-between stuff under the proverbial rug. This is fine if you want to focus primarily on going from dungeon to dungeon and dragon to dragon, but.... I don't? I know, it's the name of the game, it's fine.

Last and most importantly to me, it reduces the entirety of your downtime, up to thirty days' worth of hard work and interactions, to a single roll. Yes, this can be filled in (and done well!) with role-play and narration, but it presents a stark mechanical imbalance when compared to things like combat. Could you imagine reducing an entire dungeon crawl to a single percentile roll? No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous. And why is that? Because the player character, as an entity, is written for combat. The rules for combat in Dungeons & Dragons are more complex, more fleshed out, and more interesting to play.

The argument that I would like to present is that the player character is equally constructed for trade and social interaction, and with the proper implementation of rules that respect that fact, we can make running a shop as mechanically interesting as raiding a dungeon.

Below is a first draft of how those rules may look. Admittedly, I've written these down in spare moments over a number of days, so some thoughts may be incomplete or inconsistent. The intention is to use this as a starting point on the road towards making and play-testing something more "real".

Going into Business

Whether you are inheriting a business or starting something from the ground up, there are many factors that you'll want to keep track of as you get started. It's recommended that you do this on a separate sheet, or in the "Additional Notes" of your character sheet if possible. At the top of the page, outline the general description of your business: name, rough outline of what the business provides, and the primary operating location. Especially if you're building your business from scratch, you'll want to work with the Dungeon Master to figure out the cost of building (or buying) a location to use as your primary operating location.

Below the general description, create three columns: Assets, Expenses, and Extra.

Assets are anything that you can, will, or are actively making money from. This can be physical items that you want to sell, services that you can provide, space that you can rent, and so on. Really, it's anything that you can convince the Dungeon Master that someone else may want to pay an amount of money for at some point. These will be the things that you sell to customers when they come to your primary place of business, which we'll get to later. For example, if you run a small inn, your assets may be a small number of rooms to let, a small breakfast served in the morning, and a warm dinner at night. 

Expenses are everything that you have to pay money for to keep your business running. This includes the cost of crafting or maintaining the things in your Assets column. For example, if you are running a smithy (as in our example earlier), one of your Assets may be "Longswords". A corresponding expense may be the iron needed to craft new longswords, or hiring a blacksmith or assistant to do the actual crafting. Expenses for an inn may include the food to prepare for meals, and a hireling or two to help keep the rooms clean.

Players and Dungeon Masters should work together to determine the prices and costs of both Assets and Expenses, starting with the examples provided by the book (we'll consider those "market value" for most items). Players may freely opt to mark up or down the prices of the Assets, though that may affect a customer's willingness to purchase something later on. One of the additional projects that I'm laying out for myself currently is writing up lists of example Assets and Expenses, to create a sample set for your businesses. This may turn into something resembling a separate character sheet for shopkeepers, but we'll keep things loosey-goosey for the time being.

Creating Customers

While a character owns a business, the business sees a number of customers per day equal to the character's Charisma modifier (minimum 0, though perhaps we could make a case for having an negative number of customers). This number can be increased through Marketing, which we'll talk about some time later on. Customers, from the Dungeon Master's perspective, should be treated like monsters. They have lives, react to other customers, and can intersect with the character's lives at the worst possible moments. 

When a customer enters the shop, give them a Goal, an Expectation, and a Demeanor. These can be selected from the list below or chosen randomly by rolling the corresponding dice. Goal and Expectation are to be kept secret by the Dungeon Master, while the Demeanor should be made known to the players immediately.

The Demeanor reflects both how the character behaves while in the shop, and the mechanical challenges that the player may face while they remain there. The Demeanor can be changed through successful skill checks, outlined in Making the Sale below.

The Goal reflects the initial desires of the customer (which they may or may not be honest about), and affects every roll made involving them. 

The Expectation reflects what is likely to catch the customer off-guard, and give the player the advantage. The first time a player character performs an action that proves the customer's expectation wrong, they gain advantage on their next roll. 

Goals (1d6)

  1. To purchase the most expensive item or service available at a 50% discount. (+2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor)

  2. To haggle with the merchant as much as possible. (Failed Making the Sale rolls reduce the Demeanor by 2, to a minimum Demeanor of 1)

  3. To purchase a specific item or service at 80% market value. (+1 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor)

  4. To purchase something at an acceptable price. (+2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor beyond 4)

  5. To spend money freely in exchange for premium service. (-2 DC against rolls to improve Demeanor. If another customer's needs are given priority, Demeanor is instantly reduced to 2)

  6. To purchase the desired item or without causing too much trouble.

Expectations (1d6)

  1. That service will be slow.

  2. That this store will not have the specific item/service that I need.

  3. To have to haggle to receive a fair price.

  4. That assumptions will be made about me based on appearance.

  5. That the merchant will know nothing about their product.

  6. That the quality of the item/service that I receive will be lacking.

Demeanor (1d6)

  1. Upset. Will pay 50% of market price. DC 18 to improve.

  2. Irked. Will pay 60% of market price. DC 16 to improve.

  3. Unsure. Will pay 80% of market price. DC 14 to improve.

  4. Reasonable. Will pay market price. DC 14 to improve.

  5. Gleeful. Will pay 125% market price. DC 12 to improve.

  6. Ecstatic. Will pay 150% market price. Cannot be improved.

When asked, a customer should be specific about the kind of item or service they intend to purchase. If a customer enters the store with a Gleeful or Ecstatic Demeanor, they may not even wait to be asked. The item or service should always be within the realm of what the business has to offer-- though it would be "more realistic" in some cases, we don't want customers coming into our smithy looking for the bed and breakfast. Additionally, the customer enters the store with the intention of purchasing something. If the Dungeon Master wants to bring in characters that are "window shopping", that's fine, but they should be treated separately from Customers.

As I mentioned about, when creating the business, Dungeon Masters and players should work together to create a short list of the kinds of items and services that the business is likely to have on-hand, and use the prices outlined in the books to create a sort of "menu" that can be referenced. Customers who may have doubts about the availability of a product or the shop's ability to produce it are likely looking at the more expensive products on the "menu", while most other customers are likely looking for something towards the middle. 

Making the Sale

When you interact with a customer with the intention of changing their demeanor, describe what action you take, and make a check according to the relevant skill. For example, lying to the customer about a product's value would require a Deception check, while extolling the virtues of a service may require a Performance check. If you are unsure what skill your action requires, defer to the Dungeon Master's judgement, or simply add your Charisma modifier to your roll. If your roll meets or exceeds the DC listed on the customer's current Demeanor, their Demeanor increases by 1 point, to a maximum of 6. Otherwise, the Demeanor decreases by 1. If the player's action is focused on a target on than the customer, their Demeanor decreases by 1 per action. 

If a customer's Demeanor reaches 0, or if the item or service they require is not offered for some reason, they will leave the establishment without purchasing anything. 

At any point while interacting with the customer, the player may opt to Make the Sale. At this point, they expend the item or service from their inventory, in exchange for the agreed upon amount. The customer then leaves the business. In the case that the item or service requires the customer remain at the place of business, such as renting a room in an inn, no further rolls are required for Making the Sale, and this has no impact on the number of customers seen per day.

While not required, I highly recommend creating names and quick descriptions for each customer. This can be something the player and Dungeon Master come up with together, or something pulled from a random generator for sake of ease. This is important to me, because it opens up the possibility to have recurring customers, adding further depth to the world and creating connections that may not have otherwise been made. Recurring customers could turn out to be the captain of the town guard, or a passing noble, or even the campaign's main villain. These characters can be played however the Dungeon Master prefers, and their goals, expectations, and demeanor may change freely.

Marketing and Advancement

While I enjoy the idea of a player character’s Charisma modifier dictating the number of customers a store sees each day, as it represents a sort of abstract word of mouth, I want there to be room for improvement in all things. We can’t leave out low-charisma characters, after all, and we should reward players who want to take the time and strategize well. There are a couple ways that I can think to do this, both of which I’ll look to detail further in later posts (because I believe I’ve written enough here, don’t you think?).  

The first method would be to give each store a separate character sheet, complete with attributes and skills and everything. Initially, the store’s sheet would match the character running the shop, but as the store earns capital, it can exchange it for experience points. This is similar to more “old-school” games like Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Crawl Classics (though you can check my memory on that one). We’d have to do a bit of conversion math, but at a glance I feel that a 1 to 3 gold-to-XP ratio sounds fair.

What this allows us to do is separate the store’s progression from the character. If the store does well, it advances well, and at certain levels it can take advantage of an attribute point increase, then begin to use its own charisma modifier to bring in customers, rather than the player’s. We could conceivably translate a good number of feats to relate to commerce instead of combat, as well. 

The alternative, which I might like even better, is to take advantage of the existing hireling rules that I mentioned earlier. Only, instead of hiring someone to carry your things or help make new items, you hire town criers and advertisers to go around promoting your business. The conversion on this is fairly easy as well, if we think of a purely monetary value: skilled hirelings bring in one more customer per day, and unskilled hirelings bring in one new customer every 1d4 days. This is roughly equivalent to the kinds of daily value you can get from hirelings performing other tasks, and gives players a decent chance of breaking even on their investments rather quickly. 


Next Steps

I’d like to work on creating some fillable character sheets for stores, and perhaps coming up with a few commercial archetypes— weapon shops, taverns, inns, etc. It would be fun to treat these like classes in the PHB, with unique perks as they level up and everything. 

What I’ll write on next, though, is the idea of politics and public works. We’ll explore ways that players can, through their actions and investments, indirectly influence the events in a location, and how a Dungeon Master can help draw the lines between actions and outcomes on a large scale.