Alternative World-building - How We Shop in TTRPGs

I think it is important for GMs, game developers, and writers to look for alternatives to the trends and traditions that exist in their crafts from time to time. Even if we don't discover a better way of doing things with our group, going through this process can help us examine why we rely on these trends and were they came from. This will be the first of a series of explorations I want to make on this blog.

One thing that I have noticed about the groups I have played fantasy TTRPGs with is they often ignore the roleplaying process of shopping. The conversation will go, “I look for X,” then “You find X for Y gold pieces,” or the shopping all happens in between sessions. When a roleplay encounter in a store or marketplace does occur, it is often with a generalist merchant running a strange fantasy supermarket or a scripted plot-related encounter with a specialist like a blacksmith.

This development is understandable for several reasons. General stores and one-stop shopping more closely reflects our modern experiences with department stores and supermarkets. Roleplaying shopping can also be seen as a distraction from the primary objectives of the game, not worth the effort for many groups. After all, it is hard to create relationships between the shopkeepers and the player-characters if they meet only occasionally. However, creating long-term relationships between particular store owners and the PCs can be quite rewarding, as Critical Role has shown with NPCs like Pumat Sol or Shaun Gilmore.

A more realistic approach may be even less desirable for game writers and GMs because of the work involved. A large collection of specialist shops run by craftspeople would have been the norm for most pre-industrial settings. In many societies, certain manufacturers would have had monopolies due to government licenses or guild requirements. In other industries, the amount of manpower available or specialized skill required would have kept the number of shops and the things they could each create very limited.

A Different Approach

Thanks to a new book I have been reading, I stumbled upon a historical precedent that would allow a GM to create a realistic variation on a generalist TTRPG shopkeeper while maintaining a realistic network of small guild shops throughout the community the story takes place in. Please keep in mind that at least part of the information I am relying on for this post is relying on my imperfect translations of Korean language resources, so any mistakes are my own.

In the Early to Middle Joseon period in South Korea, the capital city had networks of specialized shops that belonged to guild monopolies called sijeon. The monopoly was enforced through licenses, fees, and close relationships between the bureaucracy and the merchants. Everyone had to buy or sell these regulated goods through these shops or risk having their goods seized by sijeon merchants. The major goods that maintained their monopolies throughout most of the Joseon period (silk fabric, thread, cotton fabric, ramie fabric, paper, and fish products) were called the Yukuijeon though other sijeon monopolies were established and abolished thoughout the period such as stores that sold rice, medicinal herbs, and other essentials.

An cartoon showing the six major sijeon called the Yukuijeon. These included rice, silk, cotton fabric, ramie, paper, and fish products. Art is by Jeong Seo-yong.
An illustration of the Yukuijeon. Art by Jeong Seo-yong [정서용] ©2017, Chosun Media

The GMs out there may be wondering, "How is this making life easier for me? This sounds even like even more work!" However, a shopper would not go directly to the store. Instead, they would begin a conversation with a yeoriggun. A yeoriggun was a merchant who did not have a license or funds to start their own store. Instead, they acted a broker between a shop and the buyer. They would earn a living by haggling with the buyer and pocketing the difference between the shop price (enuri) and the final sale price (yeori). So that the buyer was kept ignorant of the shop price, they shopkeeper and yeoriggun would use a spoken code or cant called byeoneo to communicate the price while haggling at the store. Byeoneo allowed the yeoriggun to sell goods for many different types of stores without having to memorize everyone’s prices.

Applying Brokers to our Game

If we implement a similar system of brokers acting a go-between between the players and stores in major cities, the PCs could create a special relationship with a particular broker without the GM having to create a large number of detailed NPC vendors. This broker could also be a source of quests, community gossip, or act as a seller for the PC’s unneeded loot. To create story and tension, a side-plot could be about two or three NPC brokers competing for the party's services when they come to a new city.

I would also recommend that the GM use the fantasy elements of the setting to alter this yeoriggun system described here to improve convenience for the players as well. The store and brokers could use some form of magic to communicate the store prices long-distance or make a brokerage network in between cities. The PCs could also communicate with the broker at a distance to start arranging large or important purchases that would normally take time to gather or commission custom-made gear, improving world immersion. An NPC broker could even become a trusted steward or factor for the PCs if the party has a long-term presence or investment in the community.

Attempts to make certain things more realistic to a pre-modern setting does not have to sacrifice the convenience of game-management or storytelling. Rather, it could improve world-building and storytelling opportunities, making the setting a richer and more enjoyable place to play in. With this suggestion, I hope it might help you engage your players deeper into your world by getting them more involved in the communities you create and their economies.

Resources on sijeon and yeoriggun:

In English

Lee Uk. “The Merchants of Seoul” in Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea: Economy and Society, edited by Michael D Shin, translated by Michael D. Shin & Edward Park, pg 83-92. Boston: Global Oriental 2014.

In Korean

Choi Myung-Hwan. 국가에서 허가받은 장사꾼 시전상인 [The Stores of State-licensed Merchants] in 지역문화정보 [Local Cultural Information] in 이야기자료 [Documentary Material] in 소중한 기억 속 푸짐한 情,시장 [Markets, Rich in Precious Memories] on N-Culture. The Federation of Korean Cultural Center.

Ji Ho-jin and Park Semi. "[뉴스 속의 한국사] 종로 '육의전', 궁궐에 물품 공급한 최고 상점이었죠" [The Yukuijeon of Jungno that provided goods to the Palace] as part of the 신문은 선생님 [Newspaper Teacher] series. Chosun Media. Posted 11-21-2017.

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