Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Worldbuilding Through Shops

'Arms Dealer in Cairo' by Jean-Leon Gerome

In the classic module B2: Keep on the Borderlands, Gary Gygax suggests allowing the players to begin interacting with their characters as soon as possible:
"After you have explained the background, allow your players to begin interacting with their characters. Give them time to wander around the KEEP, learning what is there, finding the limits of their freedom, and meeting the other 'inhabitants' of the place. They may quickly establish their base in the Traveler's Inn, purchase their equipment, and then visit the tavern -- where they may gather bits of information for their coming adventures."
This suggests that the players have rolled for their ability scores and marked down the details of their race and class, but not purchased equipment. Play begins, and the players must explore the keep to find merchants and craftspeople in order to obtain their gear. This is a great opportunity to portray your world. The items available for purchase are no longer generic entries on a list, but real, tangible objects that exist within the environment. As such, you can describe these items in the same way you would describe any other aspect of your setting, and the players will begin to absorb the flavour of the setting as they acquire each new piece.

The rest of this article details a shop I made for my Twilight Coast setting, an old-school campaign of bronze weapons and giant arthropods. The coins of the Twilight Coast are called 'shells,' and are divided into the gold scarab, the silver snail, and the bronze crab.

The Shop of Amethyst Odd

You enter a small, dimly lit shop. A glowsac lantern hangs from a wooden beam on the ceiling, casting a purplish haze over the room. The walls are lined with shelves holding a variety of miscellanea. A long table set against the right wall displays a number of bronze weapons. Several mannequins clad in glossy armour are crowded together along the left wall. At the back of the shop, a tall, thin man in purple robes watches you from behind a curtain of drifting incense, smiling, commenting, and answering questions.

The Table

Several weapons are laid out on heavy cloth.

Three nondescript bronze daggers of simple make. Their blades are streaked with black. -- 2 scarabs each

Two straight-bladed bronze shortswords with short grips, their pommels shaped like curling antennae. "Antenna swords. Very popular." -- 10 scarabs each

A polished bronze shortsword with a leaf-shaped blade. -- 10 scarabs

Three short, bronze-headed axes with plain wooden hafts, not much different from a tool for chopping. -- 5 scarabs each

Two 6-foot spears with rusty, leaf-shaped bronze heads. -- 1 scarab each

A worn, heavy axe with a semi-circular bronze blade attached to the haft. Two holes are carved out of the blade, giving it the appearance of an epsilon or double crescent. The grip is cord-wrapped leather. "Effective for conversations requiring dismemberment, hm? Heh heh heh." -- 10 scarabs

A polished bronze sword with a long, straight blade and very narrow guard. The short hilt is tarnished bronze, decorated with embossed spirals; the grip is wrapped in leather cord. A tarnished bronze scabbard lies next to it. "A very nice sword." -- 15 scarabs

A heavy bronze sword over 5 feet in length. The blade is single-edged, with a shallow curve. The hilt makes up almost a third of the length. A long scabbard of shiny black beetle chitin lies next to it. "Interesting, no?" -- 50 scarabs

A flanged bronze mace with leather grip. "Good for crushing bones." -- 5 scarabs

Two tapered clubs of twisted wood, the narrow ends fashioned into grips. "Maybe you'll be able to afford something better next time." -- 1 snail

A sturdy, 6-foot length of dark wood, polished smooth. "You can't go wrong with a good walking staff."

A long haft of wood topped with a heavy, spiked bronze ball. "Quite nasty, the morningstar." -- 15 scarabs

A huge double-headed axe, the haft made of thick beetle-chitin, the head of heavy bronze. "That haft was once a beetle's leg." -- 30 scarabs

A 5-foot maul of whorled, tapered wood, the thick end bound in bronze rings. "Sometimes a big tree branch will do." -- 10 scarabs

A tall bronze warhammer. The slender haft is of polished, dark wood, and the back of the head has a curved spike attached to it. -- 15 scarabs

A polished shortbow of reddish wood. -- 25 scarabs

A honey-coloured longbow polished with beeswax. The grip is carved into segments like the body of an insect. "That'll give them a sting... Heh heh heh."

A worn light crossbow of plain design. -- 25 scarabs

A stained heavy crossbow with bronze fittings. The curving bronze limbs are shaped like two beetle wings ending in spirals. "Music easier to use than a longbow." -- 50 scarabs

The Mannequins

Different suits of armour hang from the wooden mannequins.

A scuffed black beetle-chitin cuirass, cauldrons, gauntlets, greaves, and horned helm. "Made from a giant beetle, that is. Hardest stuff around." -- 200 scarabs (plate armour)

A chipped grey crab-chitin cuirass, cauldrons, gauntlets, greaves, and flared helm. "The shell of a giant crab is quite tough." -- 200 scarabs (plate armour)

A grimy bronze ring hauberk and bracers. -- 30 scarabs

A blackened bronze chain hauberk, hose, gauntlets, and coif. -- 75 scarabs

A dirty leather brigandine. "Brigands like those." -- 10 scarabs

A stained bronze chain shirt. -- 50 scarabs

A ratty hide smock. "Oh, you know... it's cheap." -- 10 scarabs

A scale mail coat, leggings, and gauntlets made of overlapping pieces of crab shell. "Very noble." -- 50 scarabs

A painted wooden round shield. -- 15 scarabs

A scored black beetle-chitin moon shield. "You can prop a spear in those crescents at the edge there." -- 15 scarabs

A chipped crab-shell buckler. "Good in a scrape, but too small to block incoming arrows. Made from a single piece, of course." -- 10 scarabs

The Shelves

A large number of objects are on display here. (whatever adventuring equipment you make available in your campaign)

At the Counter

The corners of the man's twinkling eyes crinkle as he smiles, accepting your shells in a graceful, wizened hand. "Thank you for your patronage. I have a special section for returning customers... I trust I'll see you again soon?" 


The benefit of this method of purchasing equipment is an increased connection between the players and the setting. The drawback is that it takes time and can become tedious when a group wants to focus on adventuring rather than shopping. Something I do to compromise is create a custom equipment list with brief descriptive adjectives attached to each item, as opposed to always delivering the full-fledged immersive shop experience. Another alternative is to hand out a copy of the full shop writeup like the one above and let the players purchase equipment on their own time, either before play begins or between adventures.

Happy crafting.

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