Caravan Peddlers: The Appraiser

So your group has all this loot but they’re not sure what to do with it—especially if its in the form of a giant ivory sculpture of a behir or a cup of treant tears. It’s all valuable, but how do the characters hock it for their own means? In some cases, the DM might even restrict what kinds of magic items the players can purchase or craft themselves, or the party is way outside of any civilized area to trade in a pristine gem encrusted chalice for some much needed material components.

Enter the Caravan, a D&D device which takes the form of a pack of vagabonds traveling the world like a mini point of light adding a refreshing break from dungeon monotony or survival challenges, all whilst providing a means to do business and bartering with the characters. The Caravan can contain any number of NPCs that can be helpful (and fun) for the characters. I’ll build this as a series then, adding a new gypsy, acrobat, peddler or performer to the cavalcade each time. These little mobile merchants offer the opportunity to trade on the road first and foremost, but a savvy player might gain a bit more that the expert caravaners keep close to the chest, like sage advice, uncommon or even rare items, training in powers the characters didn’t know about, or even more mysterious boons, like fortunes, curses or rituals.

From a DM’s perspective, the Caravan is untethered and wandering all the time, so part of its brilliance is you can pop it into a adventure or keep it out at your leisure. Also consider that the Caravan is easily justified as dropping off or picking up experts from around the world at any time; the beastmaster they learned Mounted Combat from two months ago jumped off the wagon and may not be there any more when next they meet. Further, consider containing the amount of gypsies you equip in the Caravan at any one meeting—the Caravan might be fun, and lucky, but too many options and NPCs can bog down the flow of your game. Always keep it moving, just like the emcee hollers.

So here we go, the first character in a list of optional huskers to add to your game.

The Appraiser

Gems and art have sort of lost a part of their luster since previous editions. The fact of the matter is that appraisal is a skill that is so recondite that it doesn’t really fit well into the category of exciting adventure. Or does it?

The Appraiser can take an assessment of a party’s stock of artwork, jewelry and gems in order to offer an in-game benefit that they can actually use. An Appraiser, however, may not always be the most honest sort. When a DM pronounces to a group of heroes they’ve found a finely dodecahedric-cut ruby, two wax-polished brimstone onyxes, and 25 small but perfect gleaming bench-beveled cut sapphires with sterling silver inlay core-reduced with — yeah yeah yeah, they just want to know the gold piece value so they can liquidate it into funds for magic items that they actually want!

The Appraiser knows this too, and can offer the players a chance to put his talents to good use in other ways. The Appraiser isn’t necessarily out to take advantage of the PCs, but purchasing all the junk the PCs haul in could end up gaining a lot of cash for such an expert, and in the mean time, the PCs could learn something. Consider an interaction with the Appraiser more like expert advice, but only if they understand it all. Don’t think I didn’t take some tips from The Antique Road Show for this either!

If the party would like to have their wares appraised, they must first pay for the Appraiser’s services. An appropriate amount for such services would be in the neighborhood of the price of a consumable magic item of the party’s level minus 2 (if you didn’t know, a consumable item is typically one fifth of the price of a regular magic item of the same level). A party of level of 11 would then expect to pay an Appraiser 840 gp. While the Appraiser is estimating the party’s valuables, a single character can make a Dungeoneering check. The result indicates how much the character gleans from the Appraiser’s evaluations about their loot. Compare the check result with the DC in each of the Alternative Rewards listed below, giving the player the reward of the highest DC they reached.

Side Note on Dungeoneering: This check for a Caravan Peddler represents a character’s understanding of the true value in gemstones, art objects, luxury and adventuring items, as well as oddities and trade goods. Why Dungeoneering and not History or Arcana? Well, we could parse out each piece of treasure and target a specific skill that makes sense for each, but this seldom used skill seems to incorporate a panoply of things outside of the usual. Other than the direct connection to mining for precious stones and metals, Dungeoneering also encompasses knowledge of survival and of creatures from the Far Realm. Either way, it is up to the DM if they would like to honor a different skill for this check.

The Appraiser is suitable for characters from 7th to 17th level. At 17th level, the appraisal cost would be 5,000 gp, the exact amount of the boon gained by hitting the hard DC. Still, if the hard DC isn’t reached, that character would be out 4,000 gp, and that might bruise the purse, even at that level. If they don’t even make the DC of the middle item, they’d be out even more. If a character was higher than 17th level, they would be losing money no matter what the outcome (until we publish a higher level Caravan Appraiser that is!). A character of 6th level is going to have a pretty mediocre chance of even hitting the lower level item’s DC, and at 168 gp for the service, they’d still be losing out quite a bit.

The Appraiser uses an idea of fixed DCs and comparable fixed rewards instead of variable DCs that might scale better in level, therefore, tread carefully and give the players a decent explanation of the risks. In essence, a visit with the Appraiser ends up being nothing more than a gamble, but it can still provide a character with a significant advantage when they need it, especially those versed in the ways of Dungeoneering.

So, in terms of concept the players aren’t actually gaining any value on the gems or art they found in their pile of loot, per se. The check represents  more of an abstract education of something from the Appraiser, and then taking away that knowledge for use at a later time, probably in a more dire predicament. The DCs and amount the players must pay for the expert’s services should, on average, net them a little value, but cost them a little coin.

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Stand Up Like a PC and Play Your Character

I know this is a blog about D&D crunch, but it’s so hard to play the game every week and not expound on what I consider an integral part of the game. But this is Rules As UNWritten, so there’ll definitely be some crunchy cookies here at the end. If you can’t wait til the end, there’s a sample of the Personality Boons below, and you can click here for a pdf of all the cards to use in your game immediately! If you just want to see them all on their dedicated page, go here.

Personality Boons: Give them out when players typify their characters in great role playing scenes

First things first, for all you players out there: Play your freaking character. And I’m not talking about showing up with a pencil, character sheet and dice on the table, taking role appropriate actions and pulling your weight in the challenges. Don’t play the character on the sheet, play the character in the world. I’m talking about personality and how you can technically have a character on paper but a vacuous representation of them in the game world. Don’t do this people, you’ve got a great opportunity to have fun here, so never forget walk in their shoes and talk with their motivations.

You have look at your character and ask yourself what makes them different from every other character. It’s really important, not just for your enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of everyone else at the table. If another PC has an elaborate character, they’re not only having fun painting the game a different color, but they’re sending you a message to step up your game and make something out of your robotic expected “hero.” You can have a strong and charismatic paladin, but you don’t have to be a knight in shining armor. Nor do you have to be the extreme opposite just so you feel like it’s completely different. There are so many shades of grey in character development that can be extremely interesting and fulfilling, so find what makes them unique and make it happen at the table! But if you have a hard time doing this, and I can understand if you do, there are a couple guidelines below to help make your character more rewarding.

Guidelines for Players

  1. Five Words: Give your character five words to describe her demeanor, personality and perspective on life. Put those five words on your character sheet, reference them often and play them out.
  2. Need Help? Look At Your Build: If you don’t know how to identify your character, it’s all right there in front of you. Your character is defined by all the choices you make every time you level. Oh, you took Toughness? No, he didn’t just wake up and have a thicker neck. Announce to the group that your character has been eating a lot more and doing push-ups after every extended rest. “That’s it,” he’s says, “if we’re going to keep getting into these fights, I’m gonna beef up the ole sack of potatoes.” Have him stretching his neck while the rogue is searching for traps. Have him constantly eating jerky right after a battle. Have him dance on his feet to keep his muscles warm right after a short rest. See, you took a feat and made it a character trait. It’s easy.
  3. One Character Trait Per Game: Sure, you could say he’s a funny guy because he has a high charisma. Come on man, push it further. If you really want to play a character who is humorous, don’t say it, show it. Come to every game with a joke. Do it, it’s your homework. It’s not hard, it’s a simple character trait, so don’t just say he’s funny, make him funny.
  4. One Development Per Level: At the beginning of each level, look at a part of your character’s history, identity or relationships and choose to develop one thing about them. Just one thing. It’s more difficult than you think. Take that one small part of your character and change it slowly so it is different by the end of the level.
  5. Remember Those Five Words? Change Them: Great characters never stay the same. You don’t have to change all five words actually, you get to keep the ones you just can’t live without, the ones that DEFINE your character. But the others? Change them. Develop them. Over time your holier-than-thou perfect paladin begins to doubt herself. Over time your I’d-do-anything-for-money gangster rogue begins to grow a heart.

Follow these guidelines for some serious fun with your character. They’ll feel brand new; they’ll have dimension and substance that you can really put your finger on. You’ll feel more like your character is a real person, but the best part about role playing like this is that it’s contagious. Because it’s really hard to role play a character by yourself, you’ll confront their characters with a rich personality, and hopefully then they’ll want to distinguish their characters from yours, and it spirals into what is known as fun. I therefore have one more guideline to add to the list above:

  • Help Your Party Members Develop Their Own Characters: Do you see that warlock struggling with the weight of her dark patron? Don’t just stand there rogue-without-a-heart! You could give her a shoulder to lean on while working on your character’s own struggles with companionship, or drive her to reject the chains of coward patron entities that won’t show their faces to drive home your character’s immovable personality. There are so many options, but most importantly, remember to help the other character get closer to a resolution with the quality they’re trying to refine.

For the Dungeon Master

You’re not getting off free at all here. Just because you’re not the one running the characters doesn’t mean you get to sit idly by while they do all the heavy lifting. On the contrary in fact, your job could be the hardest. Number one, the thing that contributes most to a lack of role playing at the table is inspiration. The players can get stifled or shy and your job is to make it as easy as possible, to light the tiniest of sparks at the feet of the players. A lot of players actually need some lighter fluid, a stack of kindling and a blowtorch to get the inspiration moving, but start small with any stimulus you offer so that they can feel like they own the character that much more when they do get to developing them.

This is all more like advice and less like real crunch, so below I present some tangible tools for the Dungeon Master to help dig out those character personalities.

Personality Boons

To download the pdf of all Personality Boons that you can cut into cards and use in your own games click here. You can also see all the boons on its dedicated page here. Here’s how they work:

  • Hand out Personality Boons when players…
    • show off the qualities that make their characters distinct
    • make a strong effort to develop their character
    • role play a particularly great interchange with other PCs or NPCs
  • Choose the most appropriate trait from the bank of cards. Every possible trait may not be in there, but something close to the character’s disposition will still provide a reward.
  • Avoid handing out too many Personality Boons, the benefits should be encouraging but not expected. A good measure is one boon per session.

The idea with Personality Boons is to foster good role playing, not to hand out a lot of random bonuses, so consider carefully when you choose to hand out these awards. These are a great alternative to the recently introduced Fortune Cards, but in my opinion better as they do not simply supply players with a stack of chance perks, they promote the identity and growth of the characters’ personalities at the table.

It’s worth noting that even though some of the Personality Boons may seem to have a negative connotation, all of them provide a benefit of some kind. If a player seems uneasy with the fact that they are rewarded with a quality that they find unsavory or doesn’t depict them in a clear light, let them know that it’s a great opportunity to see how others perceive them and they can choose to play their character differently in the future. And that there’s nothing wrong with playing a character with less than moral motivations, so long as the game still functions cooperatively and everyone is having fun. Remind them that great characters never stay the same, and perhaps this is part of their character’s journey. They could also choose to embrace the quality they’ve been acknowledged for (especially if they like the boon that comes along with it), and that too can help develop their character.

I hope you get a chance to flip through these little morsels and use them in your game. They’re great for ice breaking new groups and reinvigorating old characters with their classic eccentricities. Enjoy!