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Stink-a-Lot Bear Asks:
As a fairly new DM I am really daunted by the prospect of creating shops in my adventures. The 5e guides are really vague about making shops and buying and selling magic items. I find this really frustrating – if I’m promising my players a raid on an unguarded dragon hoard, I want the wealth they plunder to actually make them able to buy stuff, and if I ever make an urban setting, I’d like there to be shops to populate my city. But equally, I don’t want to mess it up and make my players really overpowered too quickly.
So my question is this – how do you deal with shops in your adventures?
Well, you didn’t explicitly tell me how to credit you. So I fed your name from your e-mail address into a random Care Bear name generator. Thanks for the question Stink-a-Lot Bear. I s$%& you not. It seems so ridiculous that I actually screen capped it just to prove it. Here’s the screen cap.
Okay, Stink-a-Lot, let’s talk about this whole shopping business first and then we’ll talk about magical items. Because, from the way you are phrasing your question, I think you’re coming into this with a very video gamey sense of shopping in RPGs. And that’s probably causing you some problems.
Here’s the deal. Shops aren’t interesting. In general, if the players are in a town or city and they want to buy some s$&%, you just handwave that crap. “We need to buy some rope and rations.” Okay, cool, mark off the gold and you have rations and rope. Here’s the PHB equipment list. Done and done. The only time you actually need a shop is when the shop is worthy of a scene in your game. And generally, buying s$&% in the game? That isn’t worthy of a scene.
That said, it is also perfectly okay to assume that, in smaller settlements, it’s not possible for the players to just buy ANYTHING on the equipment list. But that doesn’t require you to come up with “shops” and lists of what’s for sale at each shop. You can just say, like, “while you’re in the Hamlet of Dirtburg, you can’t buy any weapons or armor or anything that costs more than 10 gp. The hamlet just doesn’t have that stuff for sale.” Stuff like that. If you want to. And generally, that’s a pretty good idea if you want to emphasize the players are out in the sticks and make them worry a little about resources. Otherwise, it’s not worth worrying about. Just assume anything for sale in the PHB is readily available and let people buy it.
Now, that said, Stink-O-Bear, I’ll also point out that shopping in D&D is kind of ridiculous and anachronistic anyway. Most of the equipment adventurers need is not “off the shelf” stuff. In fact, there wouldn’t be any armor or weapon shops because they wouldn’t do enough business to sustain them. That s$&% would be special made to order. And it would take days or weeks to be available. Armies and lords and kings kept blacksmiths in permanent employ to equip their men. Noble families would engage smiths. But there’s no Wal-Mart for even mundane equipment out there. And, if you did go to a dry goods store or a supply depot, generally, you gave the proprietor a list of what you wanted and he’d gather it up for you. Most of the stuff you bought, you bartered for in the marketplace. The idea of specialty shops with goods “off the rack” is a very modern idea.
That said, your cities are probably FILLED with shops. Various businesses, that is. And, at any given moment, your plot might call for the players to talk to a jeweler or an alchemist or a chiurgeon or a baker or a tailor or a tanner or a tinker or a hooper or a chandler or a whatever. And when that happens, you’re probably more interested in the interaction than you are in what’s for sale. Because there’s a plot reason. Right? And then, you’re making up an NPC, not a shopping list.
The point is: for normal shopping, just handwave it. You don’t have to mark every shop on your map. They are all there, somewhere. Just mark the interesting, plot-relevant ones.
Now for the buying and selling of magical items. Here’s the deal: this is a very complicated and contentious topic. In 3rd and 4th edition, the rules assumed there was a brisk trade in magical items. Magical items were either freely available or easy to make and therefore, players could buy and sell them. Hence, in the 3.5 DMG and in the 4E PHB, you had price lists of magical items. Simple as that. And, as long as the players had the right amount of wealth for their level, they couldn’t buy anything game breaking. A 2nd level character in 3E or 4E couldn’t afford a +5 battleaxe of berserking.
Prior to that, though, the game sort of assumed that magical items weren’t freely available. See, magical items are extremely expensive. As I already noted, a weaponsmith couldn’t make enough money trading with the average peasantry to support a specialized weapon shop. Now, imagine super-expensive luxury weapons. Because that’s what magical weapons are. The same can be said for armor and other bits of magical equipment.
But, beyond that, there’s this sort of change in mentality between 2nd and 3rd edition. In 2nd Edition (and early), magical items were prizes to be won. They were rare, special, and they broke the rules. There was no particular planned progression around magic items. They were just prizes to be won. And making them freely available to buy and sell would have ruined that. 2nd Edition and prior also included complex ideas about how magic items could be made or repaired. Creating a magic item was something that took time, effort, partnership between the player and the GM, and sometimes even a special quest to obtain ingredients like “the last thought of an honest king” or “the heart of a windstorm.” It was all very mythical.
3rd Edition and 4th Edition assumed that magical items were part of the progression of the game. And that’s not a bad assumption, even though a lot of GMs will disagree with me. And the main reason that GMs disagree with me is because they hated having to ensure they were rewarding the right amounts of treasure so that PCs could advance along the equipment progression track. Follow? Most GMs are actually lazy s$&%s and hate even bothering with experience points. But f$&% that attitude. It’s important.
5E dispensed with that idea. And I assume a lot of it had to do with the fact that WotC did a lot of surveys. And they were talking to a lot of people. And most of the people who were engaged enough to bother with these surveys were DMs, not players. I can’t prove that. It’s just conjecture. But the point is, all that crap about buying and selling magical items and magic item progressions were mechanics that a lot of DMs didn’t want to deal with. And so, because 5E was built on nostalgia and buy committee, we went back to the old way of doing things. You just can’t buy and sell magic items. The world doesn’t work that way.
Interestingly enough, though, 1st and 2nd Edition D&D included a lot of little subsystems. Especially 1st Edition and Basic D&D. You could buy land, build castles, hire retainers, raise armies, construct dungeons, and do all of this other expensive s$&%. That was in addition to buying ships and paying for expensive spells and material components and all sorts of other crap. Gradually, those things dropped out of D&D.
And so, now, we’re left with a very interesting problem in 5E: money has no value. You can’t buy and sell magical items and there really isn’t much else to spend money on. There’s no equipment advancement. There’s no monetary upgrade system. So, gold in 5E has become essentially worthless. It’s just something the players can horde and sleep on like dragons. There are OPTIONS for it, hidden away in the DMG, but I suspect those get overlooked or ignored.
That said, if you WANT to have a thriving trade in magic items, it’s easy enough to do. Check out DMG 135. It tells you how much magic items are generally worth by rarity. And with that in mind, you can allow your players to buy and sell magical items. But, if you do that, it’s important that also make sure you’re giving out about the right amount of treasure based on encounter challenge. Otherwise, you run the risk that the players will overload themselves with powerful items. D&D 5E isn’t as prone to being broken by powerful magical items as earlier editions, but it can still be done.
You can also set limits. You can decide, for example, only common and uncommon magical items can be bought and sold. And you can use the tables on DMG 142-143 to customize the items a bit. For example, if they commission a dwarf smith to make an item, it will be of Dwarvish make. You can decide what that means. And, in fact, you can invent your own quirks and minor properties based on the ones on the tables. Maybe all magic items made by dwarves have the loud property from the quirk table.
If you do decide to go this way, I recommend you either go with the hand waving route for buying magic items or you require all magical items to be commissioned. That is, the PCs have to go and have the item specially made by a mage-wright or artificer or something. In one of my campaign worlds, there was a guild of magical artisans and the PCs built a good reputation with them. And that eventually translated to small discounts and preferential treatment for commissions in return for doing the occasional job (“we need the heart of a fire elemental and some coral from the Death Sea, go get it”). The party could also turn over any magical items they found and didn’t want to the same guild for a price.
If you allow the PCs to SELL magic items, I’d suggest that you only allow them to recover about half the cost of magic items. I would also suggest that you make single use magic items (like potions) cheaper than permanent magic items (like bags of holding). The tables in the DMG give price ranges. So use the lower end for single use items and the higher end for permanent items. And also feel free to restrict what items are available. It’s easy enough to tell the players “sorry, no one has a staff of power they are willing to sell.”
Hope that helps, Stink-a-Lot Bear.