Economics of the wilderness sandbox

Let’s say you have a pretty standard sandbox D&D setting: a small fortified town surrounded by a whole lot of wilderness. That wilderness has a lot of natural wealth but also ruins from older civilizations. The main developed land, the country of origin for the players’ characters, is way back in the other direction. This is the frontier of the frontier.

So the adventurers have some starting equipment and a little cash. They can buy some basic equipment in town at the general store but not in huge quantities. Supplies are a bit limited, especially of metal since they don’t have a foundry (or know where they can mine for metal nearby). But the PCs can buy armor, weapons, rope, torches, 10′ poles, food, a couple donkeys or dogs. Nothing spectacular.

The adventurers go out and find some treasure and return with it. Some of it is in the form of coins, other treasure is old jewelry, gems, statuary, etc. Things you can’t just spend as money. At some very early point the adventurers will want to buy things that the general store doesn’t have and the blacksmith doesn’t know how to make (or doesn’t have materials for), or sell things that nobody in town wants or has the money to buy.

It’s in the DM’s best interest to place civilization far away. A year of travel by horse and river to get there and back is appropriate. You want people to play in the sandbox full of opportunity, not just siphon off the big cities. You want them to embark on their own adventure, not undertaking missions for pay from the wealthy and powerful. Not to say a city-based game of intrigue can’t be fun. But that’s not what this is.

So how do you get new supplies to the players, and let them sell their old goodies? I have a couple answers.

NPC Merchant Caravans
First off, there are merchants who will come to the fortified town in the wilderness to pick up trade goods and transport them back to civilization. People back home want the furred pelts, the strange taxidermy beasts, the seeds from new flowers and trees. Incidentally, having your wilderness extend in a north-south orientation with boundaries in the east and west helps encourage a wider variety of plants and animals not found back home – you see changes in seasonal temperatures with latitude changes, but not so much with longitude changes.

Anyway, the merchants tend to travel in caravans of donkeys for security. They bring some guards too. The caravan sets out at the first thaw in the south and moves north as the weather improves. By mid Summer they have arrived at the border town and trade all their manufactured goods away, buying raw resources of the wild, and set out for home. They’re chased back by the Fall and the quickening frost and arrive back in civilization in the middle of winter. Of course it may not snow there every year, but if it does snow they will see it as they roll into the big city.

You can request specific things from the merchants when they come to trade. You’ll see them again in the middle of next Summer. You can also leave money with the shopkeeper in town so that if the merchants come and go and you’re out on an adventure the shopkeeper can buy the item for you. He’s pretty trustworthy. But if you want to sell things you have to do it with the caravan directly. The shopkeeper just doesn’t have the money on hand to buy every ancient gewgaw you haul back from the dungeon. You may need to build a house in town just to store your loot for the next caravan.

Player-Sponsored Caravans
The players could get together and invest in their own caravan. They hire whoever will go, send their henchmen along, and hope to see them again next year. Figure out how many donkeys a man can handle, how many donkeys the caravan will need, and whether anyone else in town wants to get in on this too. The players should add additional men and donkeys to account for losses, and there are costs associated with the travel.

The DM should roll some dice to figure out how successful the travel was, the selling, and the buying. From that he can decide whether they lost too many donkeys and had to leave some goods behind, what price they were able to get for their goods, and whether they were able to find what they wanted to buy for sale (and at what price). If the henchmen are untrustworthy the DM should roll for their loyalty. Assume that nothing catastrophic happens to the caravan unless the players went exceedingly cheap on the expedition – at that point, losing 1d4 donkeys may be the whole thing.

If the caravan outright fails, the DM should decide whether the henchmen straggle back or just flee the wrath of their employers.

Players Travel Back
This is the least desirable outcome. In this case the players go back themselves to sell their goods and buy what they want. Explain to them that the route taken by the merchant caravans has dangerous terrain but not a lot of monsters or treasure.

If they insist, you can run the whole trip randomly, or map out the trip route and likely branches, or just roll for success as above with some bonus based on the level of the PCs. They should be more successful than normal henchmen even at first level.

Emphasize how there is little oportunity back home. Anyone who was fleeing debts or marriage or imprisonment should find their villains show up. And of course there was no extra experience or money gained – else the merchants who travel this route every year would have several levels and possibly even magic items!

Be sure to add a year of character age. This will be rather important to the Humans if the party wants to travel back to civilization every year.

Note that the caravan travels at the prime adventuring season. If the players want to adventure during the winter they’ll find little forage, few game animals, risk exposure to cold and being trapped in a storm, becoming lost more easily, and missing occasional dungeon entrances they would otherwise have spotted easily. In all, adventuring in the winter is awful!

Finally, this works only if every player wants to travel back home. If some wish to stay behind then the group is split. At that point the DM may want to simply roll for the caravan trip success, have the players whose character left make up new characters, and use the new characters with the PCs who stayed behind to go on adventures for the year while the PC caravan is gone.

Players Settle Down
If a player strikes out and settles an area of wilderness, raising a castle to protect people nearby, he will attract settler peasants. Along with these will come trappers and hunters who operate in the area and also pay taxes to the PC lord. If they survive a few years the Summer merchants will come with more finished goods for the larger population and more money to buy their raw goods. The caravan may even swing by the village instead of expecting them to come to the original fort!

Eventually the PC lord’s domain becomes established enough to support a population of specialists. A tailor, stonemason, carpenter, armorer, swordsmith, bowyer, ropemaker, weaver. These people will be able to actually create the finished goods out of the raw materials that were always traded to the Summer merchants. Now those merchants have to buy finished goods, and so must bring more money and better refined goods with them.

At that point, the merchants will be bringing things of high value that the local nobility (the PCs) will want to buy. The townsfolk mainly buy and sell among themselves but sell off goods to the merchants in exchange for their coins and luxury products from back home. Note that the best manufactured goods will still be produced back in the home civilization. The most talented craftsmen, using the best tools, in the established and traditional ways, are not coming to the frontier until long after it’s gotten boring and the players want to adventure farther out.

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2 Responses to “Economics of the wilderness sandbox”

  1. a1s Says:

    “Note that the caravan travels at the prime adventuring season.”
    That is actually not true, according to your time-line the caravan spends it’s winters at the Big City back south. The point is even more moot if you consider travel to take up a whole year as the adventurers will be back at about the same season he departed (probably a little earlier)

  2. 1d30 Says:

    Well it’s true if you don’t want to adventure in the Winter.

    The caravan leaves at the Spring thaw and arrives at mid-Summer. Which means it takes a bit more than one season to travel. They trade and then move south before the harsher Winter of the north can trap them.

    If you’re an adventurer and you move south at the first thaw in the north, you’ll be leaving later than the southern caravan. You’ll arrive in the south in late Summer. If you trade and then move north, you’ll arrive in early Winter, which means the latter part of your journey north is in frigid northern winter weather.

    The southern caravan is able to do it better because they’re warmer down there and it affects that leg of their travel.

    When I say the caravan travels in the prime adventuring season, I mean that if the adventurer goes with the caravan he’s missing out on adventuring in the wild and profitable north between the Spring thaw and the Winter freeze. And that’s really the best time to go adventuring.

    Some reasons for that include animals and monsters being more hungry during the Winter due to lack of food. And also lack of food for the travelers to forage or hunt. Sure wandering monster rates will be lower overland, but those carnivores you encounter will have a much worse disposition and far more likely to attack.

    You’re also more likely to be slowed down by inclement weather, be injured or trapped by it, and the snow will conceal lovely things like surface ruins and dungeon entrances.

    In all, it’s best to adventure in the warmer months (at least when there’s liquid water falling out of the sky!) and work on projects at home during the colder months. If you travel by caravan you use up all those nice warm adventuring months traveling.

    And to discourage traveling south even further, I suggested aggregating the journey for speed at the table. But also it should be dangerous, not exciting, and certainly not profitable in itself. That is, you will encounter wandering monsters but you will not encounter dungeons or much treasure.

    As long as people understand this up front they should be able to make good choices. I can see some people chafing at the restriction, but it’s necessary for this game setting. You need to be far from civilization and its control to have freedom. That means you can’t be next door to the largest civilization in the world just for trading purposes.

    Note that a high level Magic-User will be able to Teleport back and forth at his leisure. That’s one of the benefits of high level play. And if he exploits that to change the game setting, that’s not a problem. High level play is different from low level play anyway.

    EDIT: When I talk about the player wasting time traveling, you might be assuming that everyone will want to go south and come back. But if two of six players want to go, and the rest don’t, the game stays focused on the wilderness of the north. The two players whose characters are traveling south will have aggregated rolls for their journey, and they should roll up new characters or temporarily promote a henchman and play it for the year of adventuring in the north. We don’t just “skip a year” unless every single player goes south.

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