Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sea Trade from Dragon #6

This is the sea trade system from Dragon #6 Ωmega mentioned in my previous post.  I've read it before, but, looking back, I have to say I'm impressed. The whole thing fit on one page, was clean, and easy to understand. Kudos to Ronald C. Spencer, Jr.  It feels very DIY OSR to me.  
I've reformatted the data here for scholarly purposes. I changed "Ports Skipped" to "Port Distance" (it just makes more sense to me, unless there's some kind of race for time related to profiting).  I've also tabulated the returns and odds in a second chart. As you can see the sting of failure is ameliorated by including the brutal chance of ship loss with just getting poor returns on your cargo.  The biggest risk giving a 35% for the former, 25% for the latter. But if you take that risk, you have a 5% chance of getting one of those dreamed of 500% returns on your investment.

I don't think I would use this as is.  The minimalist in me wants to at least cut it down to short, medium, and long hauls.  But it's cool to see what they thought the probabilities should be.  If you can get a hold of a copy, the system also includes simple rules for pilot fees, time spent, and import taxes.  Cool stuff.


  1. Very, very nice table dynamic: I like how increasing distance means greater unpredictability + danger, and distance 6+ only yields a profit less than 50% of the time... it's a real gold rush provoking table.

  2. Yeah, I love this whole article because it's very much in the spirit of the old-school approach to the game. No universal mechanic, simply a "patch" added in to deal with something that particular campaign's players wanted to try. Since the author of the article mentions the players in his "Bardukian" campaign are all crewmates on a ship, it makes sense that maritime trade would come up.

    I really love that DIY aesthetic. That being said, I DO hope you publish your own take on trade game, because we both lean towards the minimalist when it comes to rules.

    And re: what Richard said above, I feel it's very much a "gambling" kind of table, where each port you choose to "pass" on is like letting your bet ride.

    BTW, anyone wanting to check out the original article, you can get a copy here for the time being: http://www.mediafire.com/?8xv0g0vsljkkzyl

  3. I like the notion of the table, but I'm suspicious of the numbers. At a glance, it doesn't look like maritime trade in the world this table describes would ever get off the ground, if you use the B/X prices for ships. The 10% chance for losing the ship at distance 0 seems especially suspect- I'd be interested to see some historical numbers on the topic.

    I'd also either make the results more granular, or renumber this as a d20 table (not sure why Spencer didn't, unless he had one of those d100 golf ball dice).

  4. Thanks all.
    @richard: I like the uncertainty too because I want my world to not seem so understood and stable. Not a new world, but I guess the chaotic apocalyptic world after the older empires have fallen.

    @Ωmega:I think I'll eventually make one, mostly because it's what I would want as a player. Even in a video game I think it would be fun to send x rare cargo to y far distance and see if it makes it back. Hmm, what if what comes back is semi-random, sort of whatever weird local stuff the expedition could gather for the return trip? That would be fun.

    @Charlatan: Maybe if I smoothed the lower numbers but really reduced the chance of much profit it could work?

  5. I'd be interested to see some historical numbers on the topic.

    Here's the thing with trying to fit historical data to such a chart: if shipping is a regular activity then the chance of losing your ship expressed as a percentage of all shipping must generally be disappearingly small. There are exceptions, like the voyages of discovery in the 16th century, but those are understood to be exceptional - not regular trade. One could set a game up like Pendragon or Ars Magica, to only "kick in" at those moments when adventure happens, and have those moments spaced years apart in the interests of simulation. But in any event your trade table would look nothing like this: real world traders rely on stable business relations, foreknowledge of markets, regular routes and risk-minimizing practices (spreading cargoes among multiple carriers, only sailing at certain times of year, sailing in flotillas to allow mutual help...).

    So a table like this has to represent a different world. And a trading game probably shouldn't be too naturalistic.

    ...sorry it took so long for me to state this clearly. I guess I started a long way from where I wanted to be.

  6. So a table like this has to represent a different world. And a trading game probably shouldn't be too naturalistic.

    Point taken! But you want to make sure the numbers have an interesting level of risk, and aren't just a tabulated way of saying "No."

    That 10% chance of sinking means you're approaching a 50% loss rate after 6 trips between adjacent ports. Even if you pretend that death isn't the issue, the monetary cost of the lost ship is going to put a severe limit on the minimum value of maritime cargo. Can your campaign support that?

  7. Actually, to belabor the obvious: Maybe you do want a tabulated way of saying "no"; if it's the case that your world is too unsafe, or shipbuilding insufficiently advanced, for sustained trade, a table like this makes the case of the risks are rewards. It's all just a question of what world you want encoded in the table.

  8. @charlatan: yup, or what kind of trade the table represents. Your point about the proportional value of the ship and cargo is well taken - historically I can think of a few cases where single voyages reliably paid for their vessels - smugglers, blockade runners, treasure fleets and the early days of the ultra long distance spice trade. Or if the vessel was cheap to make or made out of the cargo, like log rafts or hide canoes.

    In cases where the cost of the ship was proportionally small, unprofitable runs were pretty much always the result of mishap rather than bad market prices. Maybe the unprofitable end here represents loss or spoiling of cargo, theft, swingeing corruption, bribes etc. But then, even on the lower-risk end there should be the chance of making a big proportional profit, just in case you get everything right.

  9. An alternative way of looking at this table: what if each of these voyages were a dungeon and '"loss of vessel" meant TPK? (and outings that made a simple loss meant troops were killed/equipment lost). Nobody in their right mind would accept the kind of bet this table represents as a career path, but reading over play reports, I think it might map onto quite a few OSR campaigns, the players' vigorish being xp and leveling up, which tends to cluster losses on the less successful players.

  10. I know this is almost a month old now, but on the off chance you're still engaged by the subject, I found something else you might like. This is an article about a Sea Trade system from the old Pegasus magazine from Judges Guild. (Funnily enough, also from issue #6.) This one is very similar to the Dragon mag one, but a bit more crunchy (3 pages vs. 1). As before, I have a snip of just that article from just that issue and I am happy to share! I'm going through Pegasus and White Dwarf now looking for "good" articles to clip, so if I find any more about trade, I'll share again. Enjoy! (Link Below)


  11. Sweet, thanks for sharing! I'll have more time with the coming holidays and maybe I'll be able to consolidate some of these unfinished ideas.

  12. No problem - glad my nerdery and amateur archivist tendencies can be of benefit! Here's another article from Pegasus #3 - this one's yet a different system someone devised for handling players' sea trading business in D&D. This one's got differentiated commodities and is apparently based on Traveller. Gotta love that crossover.

    Article is called "Wanderer's Merchant Company":