Friday, 9 September 2011

The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals

I've been thinking some more about this idea of trade between dungeon dwellers and "topsiders". It's an element of the whole dungeon ecology subgenre that I find fascinating; it's also great shorthand for showing the players, look, this is a living, breathing environment that doesn't really care about you and would be going on very nicely indeed even if your characters had never existed.

What do dungeon dwellers have to trade? The answer to that is easy: precious metals and gemstones, which they have in relative abundance. They have more mundane and useful materials like iron too, but this is a society without the technology to transport large amounts of iron out of the depths of a dungeon and all the way back to civilization, and iron can be mined relatively easily anyway. No, outsiders are going to want to get their hands on stuff that is relatively light and unbulky and gives a lot of bang for buck in terms of weight. Gold, silver, rubies, diamonds.

But what do the dungeon dwellers want? What do they lack? This is a more interesting question and also more relevant, for two reasons: a) our focus is adventuring parties, who are going from top to bottom, so it were; and b) most dungeon-dwelling races have difficulties operating on the surface, so it strikes me that trade would most be one way, with peddlers venturing downwards from the surface rather than the other way round.

The obvious answer to this question is plant life and plant products. There are fungi in dungeons, this we know, but without sunlight there is no photosynthesis: most derro have probably never even seen a tree. So what deep dwellers will want are the kind of things that you can get growing on the surface but nowhere else. When you stop to think, the list of such goods is pretty extensive:
  • Items made from wood, it seems, would be prized as luxuries. Particularly carved statuettes and other decorative objects. But weapons with wooden shafts would be valued highly too: wood is light, flexible and strong like no other material is. Spears, bows (and arrows) and the like would fetch considerably higher prices below than above.
  • Dungeon dwellers with sweet-tooths would relish the opportunity to get their hands on fresh fruit, although this obviously has a very limited shelf life. Better is dried fruit, but honey would be best of all. I could imagine duergar chieftains handing over considerable amounts of gemstones for a pot of honey, just as the wealthy in our world will pay through the nose for rare cheeses, truffles, or caviar. Just to get a taste of something truly sweet for once in their lives.
  • In our own world's history, trade in spices was of huge importance in linking the East with the West. All that fungus which dungeon dwelling races eat is pretty tasteless without a bit of pepper, ginger or turmeric, and we all know that you when it comes to mushrooms you can't beat a bit of tarragon, ideally with roasted garlic...
  • By the same token, while you don't imagine dungeon dwellers being particularly interested in dyes, they'll certainly like a bit of incense. People in Europe would brave death, disease and dismemberment for the chance to ship incense from the shores of the Red Sea in ancient times, and I see no reason to believe the same wouldn't be true of dungeons.
Of course, one trade we haven't mentioned is one of the most lucrative of all: narcotics. This would work in both directions, with special fungal hallucinagenics akin to mescaline or peyote being trafficked from the depths of the earth to exchange for opiates grown from poppies on the surface - or heck, even tobacco. Once you get a derro hooked on opium you have a money train for life. If you can get all his gold back to the surface before you get waylaid by ogrillons.


  1. So now I want some background on what the nature of your underworld is. In most Grimm- or Beowulf-inspired fantasies, gold gets into the dungeon because it's stolen from men (or elves or other races, post WW2). The dragon's hoard is taken from the kings of Christendom and therefore it's a thing of virtue to get it back. In D&D this is generally less clear: dungeon-delving seems more like a kind of mining or whaling: monsters have the gold and it's your manifest destiny to take it and use it.

    So when you talk about trade between under and top, are the dungeon denizens mostly fences and launderers or are they mostly patient miners and trappers coming to the trading post?

    (a while back somebody posited that creatures of chaos were leaking into the PCs' world from the dungeon dimensions and bringing their loot with them, so that there was a net inflation of precious metals and a "natural resource" of XP being tapped, heating up the heroic economy. It's a charming idea, but the primitive anticapitalist in me wants some kind of reciprocal cost - does the arrival of dungeon-dimensional creatures make the PCs' world less bright and good? Do they bring the seeds of a Great Divergence (and attendant greedy individualism) with them, like having the discovery and exploitation of America happen right beneath your feet?)

  2. Speaking of naturalism: Greenwood's Undermountain has a dungeon town where the main commodity is slaves, but "anything can be had ... for a price." Might be worth studying that for inspiration.

    Also, what do you mean the propensity to truck is found in no other race of animals?

  3. Fuel for smelting and forging is another thing. Although coal can be used, charcoal is superior as it burns hotter.

    Wood has a problem underground - it tends to rot quicker than on the surface. This could go two ways - either the underground dwellers would consider wood to be unsuitable and look for an alternative, or else they might simply need more of it and replace it faster than surface-dwellers would.

    Nice post by the way. It fits in with some stuff I've been thinking about.

  4. Wood has a problem underground - it tends to rot quicker than on the surface. This could go two ways - either the underground dwellers would consider wood to be unsuitable and look for an alternative, or else they might simply need more of it and replace it faster than surface-dwellers would.

    Or maybe there's a trade in alchemical treatments to make wood more resistant underground conditions?

  5. Never thought of it this way. I've always thought of dungeons and underground cities as a place to plunder but if hostilities could be held to a minimum the smart PC could act as a runner.

    Now I have extra reasons for adventurers to initiate contact with the Dwarfs that have walled themselves off for millennium. Trade. And you could always use the animosity brought about by these new trade routes to start conflicts along the routes, in the cities and among the speculators that would rise up around this.

    The profit made off of a colony heavy in sugar cane and coffee beans would potentially be astronomical. If you could find the right trade partners below.

  6. A REALLY expensive luxury would be those magicks that capture some intangible wonders of the surface world: the bright of the sun, a fresh breeze, the sound of the sea...

  7. Fabrics seem like a big-ticket import. Wool would likely be valued given it's use in a cold, damp dungeon. Of course silk and other rich fabric too for the more discriminating critters.

    I like this idea for providing a different set of carrots for underworld exploration. Players as Dungeon Marco Polos braving the caverns to open up trade routes from the Realms above and all that.

  8. Interesting. It makes me wonder if they might bred a wood replacement. I wonder if particular large (i.e. giant) mushrooms might have a woody structure made a chitin? Off the many topic, I guess, but interesting.

  9. Richard: I'll probably expand on this in a blog post, but the long and short of it is: there are many varieties of dungeon denizen in my dungeons, some hostile, some neutral, some mundane, some supernatural. In the Yoon-Suin campaign setting that I developed/am developing, the main megadungeon is called Sangmenzhang and it is an ancient, abandoned dwarf citadel that burrows deep into the mountains. It is haunted by ghosts in some areas, but in others more traditional D&D creatures have set up homes. In its lowest depths (not to give too much of the game away) it links into other, even more ancient and deep tunnels.

    So, many of the denizens couldn't be traded with, but others could. I view the trade as quite haphazard and based on barter: in travelling around the dungeon, expanding corridors, delving into new areas, etc., the denizens probably uncover seams of minerals, not to mention ancient treasures. Some of the less hostile ones will be willing to exchange some of their findings for the items I mentioned. Eventually yes, trading posts might come to be set up and the trade will become more organised; the dungeon dwellers might begin to concentrate more on mining for minerals which the surface dwellers want, and even trading with each other (a tribe of orcs near the surface trade gold for honey, which they then trade for weapons from a group of duergar much deeper down, etc.).

    The dungeon would probably eventually be pacified in this way - one of the core tenets of the neoliberal consensus, that stretches at least as far back as Adam Smith, is the idea that trade brings about peace because eventually it becomes more profitable to exchange than make war. But that would be boring to game in, so I think in D&D terms it is always best to assume that trade between surface and dungeon is in the earliest possible stage of development.

    Roger: I was quoting Adam Smith, so take up BJ and the Bear with him! ;)

    John L and Odyssey: Good points on the wood, both of you. I like this idea of alchemical varnish.

    Jason: I thought about coffee and sugar too. I also thought: who's to say what a tribe of derro would like from the surface world? It could be they develop a taste for nuts, or cheese, or even just grass...

    Liza: Then a whole new subclass of magic user would develop, specialising in these spells.

    ckutalik: It's best if the players hit on the idea themselves, really, but I could also imagine that a merchant with an eye for a bargain might approach a group of adventurers with a proposition to do some trading, once they've gained a bit of notoriety.

    Trey: Kind of a tangent, and a blog post all of its own, but it always worried me that creatures in dungeons are often armed with wood-based weapons (spears, axes, crossbows, clubs) which, if you think about it, should be quite rare.

  10. More directly, straight alcohol. Hops and wheat are surface products. Perhaps you can posit a brewable fungus but I'm not sure what their real-world sugar content is.

    Which raises a kind of Indian Wars dynamic, in that selling firewater to (chaotic evil) orcs would likely be prohibited but lucrative.

  11. Strangely, though, some denizens of subterranean domains consider wood a blight. It rots, it breaks easily, and it's the sign of someone close to the surface. Beholders are particularly guilty of this elitism, though some races show shades of it in some underground domains.

    Some dungeon-dwellers have an interest in topside literature, considering the turns of phrase and idioms of surface-dwellers to be interesting. Some topsiders likewise collect Underdark literature, for similar reasons.

  12. @Dave R.: I like that, or opium. Opens up all kinds of possible motives and counter-motives amongst the dwellers above and below.

  13. Great ideas here, Noisms.

    @John L: It depends on the wood. I know of examples of archaeological wood preserved in tropical caves that is close to 2000 years old. E.g.: this "canoe-like object" --

  14. Excellent post, noisms. I recall a White Dwarf article from many, many years ago that discussed what an undersea civilisation would be like -- no access to fire for smelting, etc -- and this post is the same kind of good stuff.