Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

Running Dark Sun: Merchant-Adventurers

In the original incarnation of the DARK SUN game, the supplement Dune Trader detailed the independent traders who ventured from city-state to city-state, hawking their wares and sometimes engaging in shady dealings. Players could take on the Trader class and deal with the problems of trying to move caravans of goods, bribing templars, buying low and selling high, running a business, and defending against thieves and scoundrels.'s 3rd edition version of DARK SUN didn't explicitly deal with traders, but 4e included the trader as an archetype, continuing the trend.

Now, some players didn't like the trader class. This was a character that didn't fight well (using the thief's combat ability and often without armor), had limited skills (like a thief but not as competent), and had no magical or psionic power. The trader's main claim to fame was having access to more money than most characters, but not so much that it really mattered after a level or two. So why would you ever play one?

Put simply, the trader is an adventure generator. The trader has, built in:
* A need to go to other places
* A need to deal with lots of people
* A need to hire skilled specialists to help with travel and commerce
* The skills to handle social interactions that let parties get by in cities
* The means to get information about rare and hard-to-find commodities that adventurers want
* The skills to connect with patrons, nobles, and merchant houses that will pay parties for services

These are all great ways to get an adventure started! Now, if a trader is an NPC patron, that means the DM's controlling the direction of the adventure. In such a case the trader is just hiring the PCs and sending them off on whatever is the adventure of the week. As a PC, the trader has the means to make choices about the adventure. The DM can give the trader opportunities to make money, but it's up to the player to decide which ones are worth pursuing and which ones they want to do. Plus, the trader can open doors to find a new adventure when the PCs need money or favors, or just want to get out of town in a hurry with a caravan. A PC trader can look at the market and decide that it's time to head from Tyr to Balic with a load of iron, or from Draj to Raam with rice, or . . . anything at all. It doesn't matter so much what the cargo is; what matters is that you're trying to buy it low, sell it high, and face all the challenges along the way! And if you make it to your destination, you might be rich!

So the trader is a merchant-adventurer like Marco Polo, or Richard Burton, or the Shanxi merchants of China. They're not only involved in moving cargo, but also in going to distant places, looking for ways to make money in foreign markets, navigating the treacherous waters of politics, and coming home with riches and exotic discoveries.

If you're playing with a character tree, the trader is also the perfect character to use to bookend an adventure. The trader can start the adventure by finding a job and hiring on the PCs, and end the adventure by dealing with the payoff. In the middle, the trader can fade into the background as the player switches for another character in the tree in order to pursue the adventure in the ruins or desert or forest ridge or whatnot.

Here are some merchant-adventurer hooks for your game! Give your players a juicy reason to play a trader!


  1. Trader is offered goods at a deep discount if he will deliver them promptly (roll 1d6: 5-6, the goods are contraband, stolen, or otherwise problematic)

  2. Trader is offered a chance to hook up with a larger caravan that is going to another city-state

  3. Templars threaten the trader and tell him he'd better leave town in a hurry; trader has only a couple of days to buy some goods and escape

  4. Trader is given an opportunity to get a map for a hidden route or a hidden cache

  5. Trader is offered a subcontract from a major merchant house

  6. Trader learns of someone else's upcoming trade deal and can undercut the opposition by traveling to a nearby destination with a valuable cargo, if (s)he can get there first

  7. Trader is given an unusual item and a contract to deliver it to a specific party in another city or village

  8. Trader is hired to transport a person or people safely to another place

  9. Trader is told that there's an opportunity to buy valuable goods at a deep discount at another location, but only if able to get there quickly

  10. Trader learns of an acute shortage in another location, and can sell goods at a high mark-up if able to arrive there quickly


  1. Come across strange ruins en route, with possibility of rich treasures inside

  2. Caravan attacked by raiders/slavers/thri-kreen/gith

  3. Bad weather damages caravan/causes people to get lost

  4. Thief manages to steal from caravan, discovered halfway through journey

  5. Templars pursue caravan (1d4: 1 = to confiscate cargo, 2 = to arrest the trader for some slight, 3 = bribed by a rival merchant or house to delay or hinder the trader, 4 = to bring trader back to do a job for the city-state instead)

  6. Route closed by natural disaster, caravan must find a detour

  7. Someone has secretly placed a dangerous item among the cargo (magic item, psychic item, alchemical explosive, monster egg, etc.) and it becomes an issue partway through the trip

  8. Flying creatures (aarakocra, silk wyrm, summoned air elementals, etc.) try to dive bomb and steal cargo

  9. Disease strikes the caravan members or animals

  10. Food/water supplies get rotten/corrupted/spilled/lost


  1. Corrupt guards/templars demand a high tax/bribe at the destination location

  2. Rival merchants try to stop trader from selling

  3. Local thieves decide to size up the trader as a mark

  4. Trader is falsely accused of a crime and must clear name while trying to find a way to finish the deal

  5. Buyer tries to cheat the trader (either by intimidation or by offering very little money)

  6. Buyer offers an unusual item as part of the purchase price for goods (magical item, contraband, map, plot item)

  7. Sale price for goods collapses, trader must find a way to make money on them

  8. Originally planned buyer is dead/missing

  9. Market closed for some reason (templar investigation, plague, disaster, war, fight with Veiled Alliance, etc.)

  10. Fight breaks out when trader goes to make sale

The obvious trick, of course, is that some complication happens, and the trader must have a short adventure to deal with it. Whether the adventure succeeds or fails, it will result in the party having something to do, and maybe even if the trader doesn't fix the problem, a new opportunity might arise.

Safe travels, traders!
Tags: dark sun, game design

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