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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

The Hammock District

by Justin Unrau
Jun 29,2005


The Hammock District

Yelling "Get on the bus or I swear to god we're going to leave you behind!" was how we finally got Jon away from the salesman, but he was grouchy.

"All you needed to do was give me a few more minutes and I could have gotten the price down," he grumbled as we drove to the next temple. "Now I'm never going to find another chess board like that. His brother made it. It was really clever with a little lid and storage for the pieces and everything. Man, I wish I'd bought it."

One of those things that everyone ends up doing in games is going shopping. Travelling hasn't helped me come up with new ways to roleplay ordering things online or whatever, but it has forced me to rethink markets.

When I run D&D or whatever other non-modern game, one of the things that I used to worry about was how to portray the variety of stuff in a city's market. We know that these bazaars are filled with tiny little stalls and shops and we know that they don't have UPC codes written on them, but what do all these places sell? I mean, my city of 600,000 people can only support three game stores, and the food court in the mall near my house can't have both a Burger King and an A&W. So in a place with hundreds of independent merchants jostling for space, how do they all find their niche?

They don't.

Now, as always, I'm drawing this conclusion not from thoughtful historical analyses or reading or anything but by going to open-air markets all through the Middle East, India and China.

Here's the big secret to the shops in these markets:
They all sell exactly the same stuff.

In most of the souks (the sort-of covered Arabic bazaars) I've been to you see beautiful wooden tables and game boards. And they have rugs and scarves and shirts and little silvery jewelry things. And fake old books.

So you look around and eventually decide to think about the purchase and head out of the 3'x3' shop. And next door is a guy selling exactly the same stuff. And next to that, and next to that.

The story at the top of this column is from my first time in India. Jon was really pissed off that he couldn't buy this unique chessboard the salesman's brother made. Of course, when we got to the next temple there were fifteen more guys selling them. The joke about how many brothers the first guy had went on for weeks.

Now, you might be saying, "Pssht. Of course they all just sell the same junk to the tourists," and you may be right. But I see it happening everywhere.

Here in China my city's in the middle of a construction boom. Every third shop on my street is selling toilets or light fixtures or flooring. They're right next to each other, and they're right next to eachother without the rabid competition I'd expect. Same with the noodle shops and the shoeshine people. They all sell the same thing and it really is just a matter of chance which one you go to.

This "Hammock District" phenomenon has really freed me up in planning my games. Now when adventurers go to the big city I won't worry about "What makes this shop different from the eighteen thousand shops around here?" but "What makes this seller different from the eighty thousand people around here?" Which isn't a much easier challenge, but it's the same challenge every GM faces. You don't have to worry about what is actually in the shops, let them be cookie cutter replicas, just work on the people. And I find myself buying from different places based on the merchants because of that uniformity of goods.

It also means that I'll streamline things in the game more often by rolling for the shopping experience, using the dice to say how long you take to find someone you're willing to deal with and what kind of price you get. Of course, my players tend to be of the "Let's not skip a moment of our characters' lives" type and don't gloss over stuff, but I try.

This all falls apart when you are looking for something particular. This January I was in Tibet, and a friend in Canada wanted a Tibetan singing bowl or two. When I'd been in Nepal a couple of years before these bowls had been all over the place, so I figured that in their country of origin they'd be even more all over the place. I was wrong. It took a lot of searching to find any.

My gaming lesson from that is that as a player I'll give the GM a break more often. Even if it seems ridiculous that this not uncommon thing isn't available in the biggest market where it makes the most sense for it to be, I'll live with it. These things happen. And in the meantime I'll buy a cowboy hat (which were everywhere in Lhasa).

The last thing I want to mention about buying stuff in games is the whole "rich adventurer" syndrome. You know how the party wanders into a village fresh from the dungeon and completely fubars the economy by slinging gold around like they were big rich assholes? Well I find the opposite is what happens to me.

As a real "rich" traveller (I get paid a comfortable amount in Chinese money but it's about 30 times what my university students live on) you attract people who want you to have the best, and most expensive, stuff on offer even if you don't want it. It's not always a cheating kind of thing, but a maximizing profits thing.

As a GM this reminds me that not every innkeeper is going to be putting the adventurers out in the stable. In fact, they're more likely to kick other people out of bed to get the gold pieces. And if my characters want to come into town and keep a low profile, they've got to think about their finances. And characters from a rich background are going to have a hard time.

One thing I find myself doing (which in my experience is the opposite of how most PCs act) is getting really uptight over tiny amounts of money. Like when a cab-driver over charges by 5 yuan. "Well, I could buy a meal with that!" is what goes through my head, often without the accompanying "But it's only 80 cents," to balance it out. So I've got some varying points of view to choose from depending on the character I'm playing

That's it for this edition. I hope it's provoked a thought or two. Next time we'll talk about crossing borders. International ones.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda:

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