I’ve been thinking of merchant-adventurers as a character class and how I would’ve liked to play one such in D&D. The root of my inspiration: a long bout of cough that led me to getting reacquainted with a favorite read, Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s The Far Kingdoms.
The Far Kingdoms revolves around the adventures and misadventures of young Amalric Antero, heir to a wealthy merchant house, as he seeks a fabled land of wonders. I love the story for the shades of Marco Polo and Sindbad it evokes – not just the Sindbad of Hollywood, but also the original Sindbad of the Arabian Nights. (Hollywood’s Sindbad was of course a swashbuckler in a turban, while the original was a timid but plucky businessman).
These are some of the features I’d like to have seen in this class:
Milieu: merchant-adventurers can only come from well-developed civilizations with high levels of trade.
Origins: merchant-adventurers will usually come from the wealthy trading families or guilds. A few may rise from the ranks of lesser merchants, caravaneers or seamen, but this is rare.
Roles: merchant-adventurers are explorers first and foremost, and merchants second. It’s not the merchant-adventurer’s job to buy and sell; instead his role is to create conditions for successful trade.
He does this by finding new trade routes and markets, new goods and sources, and by making deals to allow him or his compatriots to come back in peace and make a profit. This last role requires negotiating skills and the ability to move among the ruling classes with ease – again, roles that tend to favor an origin from the better-educated upper tiers of society.
In game terms, a merchant-adventurer is perfect as the keystone character holding an adventuring group together for a sandbox campaign. He’s got a built-in motive to go to far and dangerous places, and to find other characters to come along.
Perks: a merchant-adventurer should have bonuses to negotiation, appraisal of goods and markets, and detecting motives.
Merchant-adventurers should also get higher starting gold, or maybe even a regular gold income (from family estates and the family business); this wealth however is not destined to stay long in his hands, as he must pay for things such as transportation, supplies, and hirelings for his journeys.
Because the merchant-adventurer has money or has a wealthy backer, he has access to resources that other PCs can only dream of. Horses, ships, mercenaries, specialists, you name it. Thus a party with a merchant-adventurer character on board has the potential to be pretty powerful; their enemies should then be powerful to match.
Combat: merchant-adventurers will often have to fight for their lives, so they have the potential to become decent combatants – not as powerful as fighters of course, but not as weak as wizards.
Merchant-adventurers can afford any armor but should have incentives to only wear light armor like leather at best. Perhaps an XP bonus for adventuring in attire that’s better for impressing a foreign lord or merchant-prince instead of wearing metal armor?
For weapons, merchant-adventurers should, coming from wealthy families, have access to the status weapons of their culture; in a typical campaign, this would be the sword. If you have firearms in your milieu, merchant-adventurers should be early and eager adopters of gunpowder technology.
Experience: merchant-adventurers should get extra XP for doing the following:
- Mapping newly-explored regions and the best routes through them, or finding and mapping a new and better route to a know destination;
- Recording new knowledge in the form of a journal or letters to a superior or colleague; you could roleplay this by narrating the contents of the letter or journal entry.
- Dispelling misinformation about a faraway place or people. The farther away a place is, the more likely people from the merchant-adventurer’s home are to believe something fantastical or monstrous about it. Yup, you’re a Medieval Mythbuster!
- Making profitable trade deals with foreign rulers or merchant princes;
- Implementing a long-term solution to a trade problem – e.g. to stop a barbarian tribe from raiding his caravans, a merchant-adventurer makes a deal to have them be his caravaneers and caravan guards.