21
May

What’s In a Market?

Usually, a trip into town during a roleplaying session means downtime, scouring the books for the next item to buy, and maybe a quick snack-break before the next leg of the adventure. But what happens when you or one of your players wants to explore the bazaar before battling on? A little primer into such a profitable precinct is in order!

MEDIEVAL MARKETS

Markets are gathering places for the buying and selling of goods and they’ve been around since antiquity. They may be indoors or outdoors (or a combination of the two) – permanently fixed in one location or mobile like a traveling caravan – and may occur daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, or only on special occasions like festival days. Public squares, large plazas, wide boulevards, arcades, courtyards, parks, and cleared spaces outside of city gates are all possible positions for such profitable pageantry, though some markets might occur inside large structures, either purpose-built for them or otherwise: like a coliseum or temple. Floating markets also exist: a succession of boats and rafts that serve as mobile shops along a busy stretch of water.

Markets may pop up organically as the needs of the community demand, but they may also be regulated and chartered by the government, church, or other authoritative body. Historically, the right to host a market was carefully managed to ensure the proper taxes could be collected and protections provided, as well as to avoid overlap in coverage – too many markets in close proximity or on the same day would result in a loss of potential revenue (and maybe start a war). A city with a market had financial advantages over one that did not, but also had to protect that right, politically, or lose those profits.

 

WHO’S IN A MARKET?

Buyers – The most critical component of a successful market is an abundance of buyers. Depending on the type of market, fair, or festival being held, their numbers can be made up of local shoppers looking for daily goods, customers that live near enough to make a weekly or monthly trek for bulk supplies, or travelers from much greater distances seeking specialty goods. Some will be at the market to browse or experience the event itself, but most who travel to the market do so to make purchases. They are vulnerable – carrying either money, valuable goods, or both – and any intelligent market-goer will be wary of strangers and scams because, for some, if they go home empty-handed they and their families will be ruined. Savvy buyers travel in groups to watch each others’ backs and take great care when bargaining and bartering to avoid wasting their hard-earned coins.

Sellers – The other fundamental factor in a market environment are the sellers. They may be producers (like farmers or fishermen) unloading their wares before they expire, wholesalers offloading bulk goods to other merchants, auctioneers running a bidding process (common in livestock markets), retailers and middle-men buying the work of others at a low price and attempting to sell high, artists and artisans who make goods from raw materials, expert crafters who specialize in one particular type of item, and fixers who can find things that you can’t (if you have enough cash). Sellers take a great risk bringing their wares to market – fees and bribes, spoilage, theft, taxes, and bad deals all threaten to make their hard work lose its inherent value. And whatever they don’t hawk to patrons must be hauled back home for another try on another market day. The temptation to cheat or cut corners is always present.

Peddlers – Peddlers or tinkers are re-sellers of goods who may buy up leftovers at markets (or scavenge from the cast-offs and garbage of a city) and then haul sellables to those who can’t make it to market – especially villages and farms too distant from the commercial centers. Peddlers are opportunists and will adapt to what is available, but most try to keep common and ubiquitous goods on hand like foodstuffs that don’t spoil easily, rags, rope, simple tools, and scraps of material that can be re-made into useful items. The peddler may also offer handyman services like basic repair-work and blade-sharpening. A peddler’s life is hard – his profit margins are small (or non-existent), and he must keep moving in order to make any money at all.

Hirelings – A service-oriented industry tends to spring up wherever markets are held, consisting of helpful people for hire like bag-handlers, cart-drivers, translators, messengers, errand-boys, and market guides for out-of-towners who will help you find and bargain for what you need (for a small fee). Prostitution and other unsavory services may also be found, depending on how well the market is policed.

Officials – Market organizers help to arrange the layout of stalls and sellers, break up traffic jams, handle disputes, and oversee larger deals. Tax collectors (and their guards/thugs) roam the square to monitor prices and take a cut of the estimated earnings. Money-changers (and their guards) serve the role of the modern bank; exchanging foreign and local coins, making change, officiating loans and promissory notes, and checking for counterfeit cash. Masters of weights and measures handle the standardized measurement tools of the common market – scales and measuring sticks of various sizes – in an attempt to prevent cheating. Bribing any or all of these officials may be an essential part of a successful market venture.

Thieves – Where there are many, distracted people, there are usually opportunists like pick-pockets, shop-lifters, scammers, and con artists. Some of these will be regular folk who’s desperation pushes them into crime and others will be well-organized and well-practiced professionals, like thieves’ guilds and mobsters. Extortionists and protection-racketeers may also frequent markets that are poorly guarded by officials (or they’ll be in on the scam).

Beggars – Vagabonds, scroungers, and panhandlers (both the legitimately poor and the pretender) frequent larger markets, hoping for charitable contributions or simple job opportunities. When they are not run off or otherwise abused, they can sometimes earn a decent wage. Many markets do not allow begging, however.

Town Guards – Because markets and their patrons are very important (financially) to any town fortunate enough to have one, it is in the best interest of the city officials to protect them with town guards or other police-like or para-military forces. The larger the market, the more patrols are needed. Less honest guards may use the opportunity to exploit travelers or merchants, often with blatant extortion at the point of a spear, though such behavior also damages the reputation of the market itself and must be curtailed by the higher-ups.

Entertainers – Street performers (or buskers or troubadours) can be a highlight of market day and may even become the primary attraction if they are highly skilled. Jugglers, singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, living-statues, magicians, contortionists, comedians, puppeteers, snake-charmers, animal acts, storytellers, artists, fortune-tellers, fire-breathers, and even full theater productions are just a few examples. Some markets may require licensing and have regulations pertaining to buskers (like forbidding them from criticizing the government, even in jest). Prime performance spots (pitches) may be a source of animosity between rival entertainers. Performers generally work for tips and may be the target of unscrupulous thieves or officials.

 

WHAT’S FOR SALE?

As a general rule, the larger the market, the more options exist. The following is a general guide to what may be available in a common, medieval-style marketplace, but each location will certainly have it’s own exceptions, oddities, and goods that are simply unavailable or forbidden. The numbers given in parenthesis are population approximations.

Hamlet (less than 100)

  • Cloth / Textiles
  • Clothing (simple, daily-wear items)
  • Containers (e.g. Baskets, Boxes, Sacks)
  • Cultural Items (e.g. Religious Items, Simple Jewelry, Traditional Garb)
  • Dairy Products
  • Earthenware (e.g. Clay Dishware, Jugs)
  • Fresh-Caught Fish or Game
  • Fresh Produce
  • Footwear
  • Grains (probably un-milled)
  • Household Goods (e.g. Candles, Quilts, Rugs, Soap)
  • Plants and Seeds
  • Preserved Foods
  • Livestock (in limited quantities)
  • Local Specialties (e.g. Alcohol, Honey, Rope)
  • Raw Materials (e.g. Coal, Flax, Metals, Reeds, Salt, Timber)
  • Second-Hand Goods (a.k.a. Grey Market Goods)
  • Tools (usually only the most common kinds)

Village (100 – 1000)

  • All the wares available in a Hamlet, plus…
  • Baked Goods
  • Butchered Meats
  • Ceramics
  • Dyes, Inks, and Paints
  • Furniture (for the common home or shop)
  • Grains (un-milled or milled for a small fee or percentage of the grain)
  • Hot Food Vendors
  • Leatherwork
  • Metalwork
  • Tack (equipment used for animals like saddles and harnesses)
  • Tools (for a wide variety of jobs)
  • Weapons (in limited quantities and only the easy-to-use kind)
  • Wearables (e.g. Belts, Hats, Jewelry)
  • Woodwork and Carpentry
  • Working Animals (e.g. Camels, Farm Horses, Oxen, Water Buffalo)

Town (1000 – 20,000)

  • All the wares available in a Village, plus…
  • Artwork (of the simple, decorative variety)
  • Black Market Goods (e.g. Illegal Weapons, Poisons, Stolen Property)
  • Dolls and Toys
  • Flowers
  • Imported Alcohols
  • Imported Foodstuffs
  • Imported Raw Materials
  • Livestock (in larger quantities due to stockyard availability)
  • Local Maps
  • Medicines and Medical Products
  • Mosaics and Tile Work
  • Musical Instruments
  • Paper Products
  • Specialty Clothing (e.g. Luxury Clothes, Uniforms)
  • Specialty Footwear
  • Stonework
  • Tools (of all sorts)
  • Vehicles (e.g. Boats, Carts, Wagons)

Large Town (20,000 – 100,000)

  • All the wares available in a Town, plus…
  • Armor (in limited quantities and only the simple types)
  • Antiques
  • Fine Furniture
  • Glassware
  • Locks
  • Luxury Household Goods (e.g. Chandeliers, Drapery, Paneling)
  • Perfumes (and other hygiene products catering to the upper classes)
  • Precious Metals
  • Regional Maps
  • Weapons (all the standard, regional types available)

City (100,000 – 300,000)

  • All the wares available in a Large Town, plus…
  • Armor (all the standard, regional types available)
  • Cold Food Vendors
  • Ice Blocks
  • Imported Goods (from neighboring regions)
  • Maps of the Known World
  • Rare Books, Scrolls, Etc.
  • Servants or Slaves (or even brides )
  • Specialty Vehicles (e.g. Chariots, Gondolas, Warships)
  • Spices

Large City (300,000 – 1 million)

  • All the wares available in a City, plus…
  • Atlases of the Known World
  • Banners and Flags
  • Imported Goods (from distant lands)
  • Occult Wares (e.g. Potions, Relics, Spells, Talismans)
  • Specialty / Specific Hirelings, Servants, or Slaves

Metropolis (1 million +)

  • All the wares available in a Large City, plus…
  • Armor (including the most artistic, exotic, and highest quality)
  • Exceptionally Rare or Hard-to-Find Materials
  • Exotic Animals
  • Fine Art (e.g. Masterpieces, Tapestry, Statuary)
  • Weapons (including the most artistic, exotic, and highest quality)

When you’re describing your marketplaces, don’t forget to include the smells of the food, the chatter and clink of bartering and coins, and the thick press of people in search of hidden treasures. The market doesn’t have to be a break in the story – it can be a whole chapter unto itself.

 

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