Becoming A Merchant House (Help Turn Boring Caravan Campaign Into Something Exciting)

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Hey there everyone, was hoping you could help a fellow DM out. Basically, my PCs have wanted to play in the Dark Sun setting and have chosen to forgo great ambitions of power (like killing/replacing/becoming as powerful as a sorcerer-king) and just want to be a successful caravan/smuggler and/or merchant house created by them. I think that could be an interesting, underdog, anti-hero type campaign, but I've been having a little trouble getting things going. We've had two game sessions so far, and they just involved mishaps and encounters during their first caravan trip (running into an ID Fiend that tricked them into killing innocent people, negotiating with a Giant to get across a silt river that the giants were blockading, and having to expose a Tomblador merchant agent who had caused said giants to cause the blockade).


While I have the next couple sessions (probably) figured out, I'm a little worried where to go from there because I don't want everything to be "you're crossing the desert and random entity 'X' attacks you" or "you run into random blockade/difficulty caused by random entity 'X'". I'm just afraid of it feeling like the same thing over and over again.


I'm trying to pull inspiration from things like the TV show Firefly (as they're smugglers), so giving them jobs that also involve con jobs or getting some kind of item from ruins (or obtaining it from some other power group by whatever means they deem appropriate) as well as smuggling certain goods or people past authority figures (such as templars).


But I just wanted to get some extra thoughts on it, to see if you guys have any good ideas. I usually nudge PCs to a bigger, more epic destiny in which there's some huge, big-bad they'll have to fight, but the closest I think I could do to that is like a rivalry with other merchants/caravans or disgruntled clients/people they've wronged. These things could work, just looking for some pointers on keeping a campaign where the PCs do nothing but move around the map in a caravan going excitingly and not just "and you walk here".


I have a few ideas for some more "significant" encounters that have to do with things from the PCs backstories, but I'm still not completely sure where all the overall campaign is going and could use help keeping caravaning interesting.


Hope I didn't ramble on too much! Thanks for any help!



Sorry if I haven't read the whole text (I was too lazy), but here is something I made a while ago about caravan:

A standard two mekillots caravan with 3 stages (shom) was moving from Altaruk to Balic and was attacked by rock thrower giants. Most of the peoples (PCs include) had to be put on projectiles weapons attack on the left side. Of all 50 persons attacking the giants, I assigned a % number. When giants were throwing rocks toward the caravan (still moving = mekillots), I would roll a %. The rock would pass through the wall, making huge load of damage, to those around this %number (with radius decreasing). A reflex roll was to be made (I don't remember the difficulty).

You should have see their face when the first rock blowed to their right, killing/splattering 3 men right to one of the PC. They were stressed like hell each time I was rolling the %dice. There was a few guards that would be using intimidation and violence to keep the peoples there shooting at the giants.

You can feel rest of the story. 
The Siltskimmer Page - www.siltskimmer.org
Basically, my PCs have wanted to play in the Dark Sun setting and have chosen to forgo great ambitions of power (like killing/replacing/becoming as powerful as a sorcerer-king) and just want to be a successful caravan/smuggler and/or merchant house created by them.


 But I just wanted to get some extra thoughts on it, to see if you guys have any good ideas.
Establishing a merchant house actually sounds pretty exciting. Some plot/story/mission ideas immediately come to mind:

1. Create new travel routes especially over seemingly unpassable terrain. Perhaps a route across the Black Sands?

2. Create new trade relationships with alien cultures like the halflings in the Ringing Mountains. 

3. Take some inspiration from the Transporter movies: the PCs are asked to transport something from A to B, no questions asked.  

4. Become treasure hunters like finding an ancient or fabled city and scavenging and transporting those back to the City States.

5. Fight off competing merchant houses, involving espionage, sabotage and maybe out right war.

6. Avoid confronting/pissing off sorcerer kings - bad for business. What prevents SK's from seizing their property?

7. Maybe the PCs are commissioned to capture some exotic (extremely dangerous) creature - alive (say for the arena?)

8. Explore personal stories related to merchant houses: Who's the top dog of the merchant house? What's the succession plan? What betrayals are waiting in the shadows? What if they need a loan to keep their business afloat....

9. Explore the merchant house as a business venture. Allow PCs to recruit their own staff, and their decisions impact how successful their venture becomes. Track the PCs progress from a tiny 1-wagon venture to a multiple-mekilloit empire. Maybe hack some rules (skill challenges maybe) that determines how successful their enterprise is, week to week or such.

10. What about finding some valuable resource like a special metal or (taking a page from Deadlands) "ghost rock"? It's like the PCs find something akin to Tyr's iron mines. It's a great find, yeah. But imagine trying to hold on to it!

Oh, you might want to check the 2e resource, Dune Trader. (I have a copy; just don't have a chance to check it right now) Hopefully those supplements will be available in pdf soon.

Anyway, a merchant house campaign isn't necessarily standard Dark Sun fare, but it certainly could be exciting. Let us know how it goes!



Thanks for the great ideas.  I'll try to think of some way to mark/keep track of their growth, that especially is a great idea for the over all campaign (combined with complications of owning a business and power).  I'll need to double check that they actually want to own a big business or if they want to get rich via smuggling and the like but being kind of free agents.

In the end it can equate to similar plot lines, but there would be less of a need for me to track their growth and instead can have them involved in employer's business (finding out that NPC 'x' has shady plans concerning NPC 'y', and at the moment 'y' is paying them to do a job!)

Anywho, thanks again for the good ideas
This is a great story idea for PCs and I have run one group who took this idea, although it was quite a while ago.  Here are some ideas that I will add.  This will overlap with Pelagorn, but just wanted to throw it out.

The great merchant houses do not want competition so they will work to destroy the newcomer.

An NPC works for the new house as guard, etc and is really employed by another house to sabotage the new house.  They will lose important items, plant magic components so templars will find it, leave the latch open to the smuggling compartment, etc.  You need to be sneaky enough so the players do not automatically blame the NPC.

Assassination attempts by other houses, through bards etc.

Theivery, this is one that I used and had the players roll a spot and listen check against my sneak check and would catch a few important items would go missing.  This can ruin the mood, so employ it carefully and maybe it only happens in a specific city.

Brute squads from other houses come to rough up the newcomers.

The Templars are always a good use here as they will need to be bribed in order not to check specific areas of the cargo, but the next Templar does not take bribes...all kinds of good ideas here.

The houses may partner with the newcomer in one of two ideas.  The larger houses may use them as a ploy to ultimately destroy them or the smaller houses may truly partner with them when travelling.

A noble or high official needs a specific volume of goods by a certain time and it is up to the PCs to get them, which could increase or lose the glory for them.

The Dune Trader accessory book from 2e is a great resource for these types of games and will help you determine what items will be a better sell or buy in certain areas.
Trade Lords by Athas.org is a good place to find information as well.

Trade_Lords_r2.pdf
The Siltskimmer Page - www.siltskimmer.org