Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Merchants of Menace

A while ago I was riffing on some "write a game in [small number] words" things, and had an idea which I didn't quite get around to doing anything with.

In the interim I've spent several months unexpectedly house-hunting, moving house and coping with a huge uptick in day job that coincided with remarkably low not-being-off rates amongst my colleagues - no fault of theirs, just unfortunate - so haven't touched the blog much. Where possible I was focusing my limited energy and free time on higher priorities, like actually playing games, trying to finish a fairly major bit of scenario writing, and doing very undemanding things to try and restore some SAN.

Here's that game, such as it is. I'm not likely to do any more to it, so I might as well throw it out here.

Fritz Wagner Holländische Handelsherren

The Merchants of Menace

Everyone knows merchants are fat and jolly, with comically-small ponies to ride, and inclined to throw up their hands in alarm when trouble brews. Well, except for the gaunt, gimlet-eyed merchants who smile thin-lipped humourless smiles as they close trapjaw deals with unfortunates, who lovingly tell their coins over again each night.

You are not those merchants.

You lope effortlessly through the city, eyes drinking in the opportunities. There is steel in your gaze and iron in your sinews, and when you shake hands you hear the heavenly clinking of gold spilling into your pockets. There are platinum rings on your fingers, set with gems, and when you drive them into the faces of unwary extortionists they leave marks like the claws of lions. You dine with princes at tables groaning with peacocks and wine, and before your silver tongue they pledge armies and sign laws. The world is your oyster, and at its heart is a pearl ripe for the harvest; a shame if it must die.

Broadly speaking this is a game of adventurers. Or rather, venturers. Merchant venturers, to be precise. You are cunning, tough and semi-piratical mercantile rogues who play the great game of profit and loss on the stage of the whole world. Thrones? An affectation best left to the weak-minded.

You are expected to indulge in fairly typical adventurer behaviour, with rather more striking of trade routes and rather less heroically hunting down monsters. Establishing a monster-hunting subsidiary company, now... that's business. Invading and plundering catacombs, on the other hand, looks like clear profit, and if a little hostile takeover is needed, you're not going to quibble at it.


It's a gimmicky system, because I was thinking about that sort of thing when I started writing it, and more importantly because it's thematic. The principle is that a lot of your activities revolve around money. Either you're directly using money to buy goods (or services, or people, or advantage), or you're throwing money at problems - or quite often, you're engaging in psychological conflict or outright games of chicken with other people, staking unspecified amounts of money on unspoken rules and trying to blink second.

That being so, the mechanics are all about money. Coins are your resource pool, your hit points and your resolution mechanic. Also, there are no shades of grey; you win, or you lose. The market is unforgiving.

Conflicts are resolved using coin flips. You establish the nature of the conflict, the approximate stakes in play, and hopefully roleplay to some extent how it's going down. Determine also whether it's an Open Conflict or a Secret Conflict, and whether they are Risking their resources. Then each of the two parties selects and flips a coin.

Each player character begins with the following Purse:

  • 5 x 1p
  • 3 x 2p
  • 2 x 5p
  • 1 x 10p

In an Open Conflict, both parties know how much their opponent is prepared to risk, and so they see what coin is being chosen. You can change your mind until you both eventually settle on a coin to use.

In a Closed Conflict (probably more common), you do not know what coin the other party will use until they are flipped.

If the conflict is likely to tax the character's resources, harm them physically, damage their social standing or face, or otherwise limit their ability to influence the world, it is considered Risking. For example, striking a deal, staring down a competitor or engaging in a fight are Risking. Convincing a bystander to give you information or looking for clues are not Risking.

The outcome is as follows:

  • Heads beats tails
  • Highest value coin wins ties
  • Matching ties are treated as ties if possible; if that makes no sense, try again
  • If Risking, the loser discards the losing coin to their Vault
  • If a PC wins a Risking conflict, they regain their lowest-value coin from their Vault

Typically an entire conflict is resolved this way, but in some circumstances it may feel more appropriate to have some back-and-forth calling for multiple flips.

When there is no obvious opponent, but the outcome of an effort is uncertain, this is an Environmental Conflict. The GM chooses an appropriate difficulty, signified by the size of the coin. The GM never runs out of coins. For a particularly easy challenge, the GM can declare that the difficulty is 1p with ties going to the player.

  • If the GM picks a 1p, with ties to the player, player wins 2/3 of the time
  • If the GM picks a 1p, the player wins 1/2 with a 1p or 3/4 of the time with any other coin
  • If the GM picks a 10p, the player wins 1/2 with 10p or 1/4 of the time with any other coin

Empty Purses

If a player runs out of coins, their resources are exhausted for now. They must rest and regroup before they can attempt anything else. If they are in danger or otherwise in a difficult situation, they may be captured, forced to retreat and so on. The player can still flip 1p against Environmental Conflicts; they can also flip 1p against standard Conflicts, but the best result they can attain is a tie (where this makes sense).


Each character can have one of the following advantages:

  • Bottomless Pockets: the character has two additional 1p coins.
  • High Stakes Gambler: whenever the character Risks a 10p, they can flip a bonus 2p.
  • Dead Cat Bounce: when the character loses a Risked coin, they can choose to lose a higher-value coin instead. If they do, they still lose the Conflict but something works in their favour.
  • Big Spender: the character can choose to Risk a coin in a challenge that doesn't require it. If they do, they can flip the coin twice and choose the better result, but must do so before seeing the opponent's result.

Each character selects three of the following traits at which they are particularly adept: Athletic, Dextrous, Hardy, Iron-Willed, Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted, Well-Informed. When they are relevant to an interaction, the character treats their primary coin (not any bonus coins) as having a value 1p higher.

Each character has one Persona that describes their outward character, and one Quirk that describes their behaviour, talents or physical nature. The player can devise these. When these factors are relevant in an interaction, the character can flip a bonus 1p.

Example character

Rogan Cordwainer is a Well-Informed, Hardy, Iron-Willed merchant with a Paternal Air and a Sophisticated Palate. He guards his resources carefully, giving him the Bottomless Pockets advantage. This makes him a solid, reliable character who weathers trouble well and generally feels in control of what's going on.

Ichabod Llewelyn is a Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted merchant with Light Fingers and an Eye for Detail. He always has another plan, giving him the Dead Cat Bounce advantage. Ichabod is erratic and takes a lot of risks (deception and outright theft tend to get you in trouble), but is good at minimising or avoiding the consequences.

Penelope Thornwick is an Athletic, Iron-Willed, Dextrous merchant with a Confidential Grin and a Love of Excitement. She is an adrenaline junkie who enjoys the rush of confrontation and challenge, giving her the High Stakes Gambler advantage. Overall, she's a gung-ho character who confidently throws herself at obstacles, and often succeeds on determination alone.

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