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In the world of Heroes of Might and Magic powerful artifacts are a (relatively) common quest reward. And by "powerful" I mean powerful, something that can turn a would-be catastrophic defeat into a glorious victory. However, I cannot really make a good justification for such rewards. Why would one even consider selling such a powerful item and not, for example, found a small kingdom or at least a gang to rob everyone around?

My specific problem is justifying someone selling a powerful item for anything. I want to create a trader that doesn't seem stupid, while still making the price realistic.

I don't want players to think "Oh, wow, that guy is really ready to trade a few useless units I have for a Relic-tier artifact!", but neither do I want them to completely ignore the quest/offer due to very high price.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, I hope you will enjoy your stay. A thought on your question: does the item need to be sold? I guess a ruler of a region might reward a party/person with a powerful artifact to ensure that they can continue to save the day for others, or as pre-payment for a difficult task that is required to succeed. As for a vendor, I guess not everyone want to be risking their lives to use the item; even though they get power from it, it's not risk free to do adventures. I.e., either one get cash from using the item (risky) or one get cash from selling it (hopefully less risky). $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Apr 28 '17 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ You don't buy it, you commissioned it. Da Vinci didn't have a room of paintings for sale and siege engineers didn't a yard full of trebuchet. You say want this, and then pay them to make it. Your reward is not a magic item but the connections to a maker and enough money to cover their fees. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 29 '17 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ Your other option is the same way you can buy aircraft carriers and submarines from russia, a large super power that is having serious problems then needs the money way more than the power. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 29 '17 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ Arms dealers do this all the time. They will sell you powerful weapons, all the while with no intention of using them themselves. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Apr 29 '17 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ @John: you should post that as an Answer. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 30 '17 at 7:22

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Without a charger, a smartphone is just a dark slab of glass.

Without gas, the fanciest car is an unwieldy wheeled cart (hard to even get an attachment point for a harness).

Without access codes, the fancy equipment US forces use to call in airstrikes in just a useless briefcase.

That stealth technology fragment could be invaluable for a weapons research lab, but useless to the peasant in whose yard it falls.

Individuals might know a particular artifact might be valuable, but be unable to extract that value themselves. So in that case it might very well make sense to sell to one who can use it.

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    $\begingroup$ Also if you already have a smartphone, a second one is just a paperweight. And if a car is more of a pain for one to keep than it is a benefit to use, it's useless. Same with all that perfectly functional stuff that I have no personal use for that's taking up space in my attic that I could be using for something else. $\endgroup$ – Jason C Apr 30 '17 at 23:06
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Most magic artifacts only work for specific people or under specific conditions.

Hey, I have this magic sword. It automatically blocks incoming blows with hardly any effort or thought by the bearer. But only if the bearer has type A- blood. I happen to have B-, so I guess I could sell it to you for, say, 100 gold?

Then there is this little lens. It lets you see what a relative is doing, anywhere in the world, but only if they want to be seen by you. All my family hates me. Will you give 20 silver for it?

(Substitute blood type and a happy family for whatever physical or other traits make sense for your story.)

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    $\begingroup$ For the first, it could even be "But I swore a vow of non-violence", which you can then turn into a six-hour monologue about the backstory of this one random NPC. Should it be that? Maybe the first part. Not the second part. $\endgroup$ – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Apr 29 '17 at 4:57
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Well there are a lot of ways you could do this I think but what sprang to mind for me were:

  • The trader creates his own magical items with the things you trade in. To you your items are useless but by reverse engineering them he can create much more powerful objects for himself. (Objects more powerful than the one he gives you).

  • The trader is actually a benefactor supporting you through your quest but doesn't want you to suspect as much so requires payment for the powerful objects he gives you.

  • These objects are just so common that charging into a village to rob it may well be met with opposition by an equally powerful relic.

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They do this because merchants are motivated by profit, not fame or dominion. Therefore, any situation where they can buy something and sell it later for more money than it costs them is a good thing, regardless of what the thing is (assuming it's not morally questionable, dangerous to transport, etc.) In fact, as long as they can reasonably expect to find a buyer/seller, any merchant with the capital should happily buy/sell any artifact.

Also, considering that these artifacts are probably more weight-efficient than other goods, it's even better for merchants that can stomach the initial cost of its purchase. Video game players make similar decisions all the time - it's usually better to trade/loot goods that are worth more by weight.

Why would one even consider selling such a powerful item and not, for example, found a small kingdom or at least a gang to rob everyone around?

You could ask a similar question historically about the world's most powerful tool, money. Why did bankers finance kings instead of running the kingdom themselves? Because bankers don't want problems, they just want a profit. It's not hard to say a similar thing about merchants/traders.

Now, as to why a king or other person who is motivated by fame/dominion selling it... there's a value to everything, and if these artifacts are so common, then they can probably buy a new one later. This works out especially well if the quest/task they're assigning isn't something money can buy.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the part about a realistic price that is affordable for a potential buyer and worth the item, while at the same time not stupidly low. $\endgroup$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Apr 29 '17 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy I'm saying that the overall dynamics of trade, profit, and such don't change based on how powerful the items are. Therefore, like any price in an open and fair market, the price of relics will be set by supply and demand. You say that these relics are relatively common, so it would make sense that they're relatively cheap. The real issue you face for realism is the question of why your enemies don't go around using these relics all the time, if they're so affordable. $\endgroup$ – Jeutnarg Apr 29 '17 at 20:33
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Ignorance

He may be well aware of the intricate 3rd era Marik carvings, or the Varum cut gemstone on the hilt but nothing about its latent magic powers. The trader is selling it for its material value, without being aware of its magical value.

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I don't know anything about the Heroes of Might and Magic setting, so don't know how well this would work out for that, but in general the following.

The merchant is motivated purely by profit, because he does not, and can not, personally own any of the items he is trading in. Now, this might sound nonsensical, but it is in fact how many modern bussinesses run -- think about the salesman negotiating the sale of a new car and the trade-in of an old one. And it is not infeasible for a business centuries ago to get into a position to operate the same.

We start out with some number of merchants. For various reasons they decide to from a consortium with its own books (i.e. its own pool of money). It is initially funded by all the merchants putting in an equal amount (basically buying shares in it). Initially, the consortium can now buy items that are too valuable for any one of the individual merchants to buy.

This is quiet profitable, by buying rare artifacts from adventures who really would rather have cash right now, than a Magic Sword that turns killed foes into turkey dinners (and who don't even like turkey!). Then the consortium can, at its leisure, sell the items to people who would really like them -- for example at a high-end auction. For truely Huge markups. Which is fair -- the adventurer does not want to shop around to find someone who really wants it, they want to offload it now, even at only 20% its true value.

The consortium would regularly pay out money to the merchants (i.e. pay shareholders dividends). It could never payout all of its value at a point in time, because very little of that value overall is liquid -- most of it would be in items waiting for auction. Since it never pays out all the value, the merchants may not ever become personally rich enough to buy any items they wanted from the consortium. Though they become very wealthy, the consortium continues to serve its purpose of letting them trade in items they can't personally afford.

This all works very well, but there is an obvious weakness: At times an individual merchant, trading in the consortium name, will be holding either money (though one of the advantages of such a consortium is the ability to use notes of credit), or items, with a net value far exceeding their own stake, or their expected payout (dividends) for the next few years. So to stop this, there needs to be serious penalties for people robbing the consortium -- but assassins tend to be readily available for that.

So when an adventure comes to a merchant, ready to sell of the Orb of Creating Thunderstorms, he rubs his hands, knowing that the hero will sell it at vastly less than what the consortium can get for it by auctioning it to some wizard investigating flesh golems, and happily signs over enough money to buy his manor house 3 times over. But the merchant has no thoughts taking that item and using it himself. Because that would be the death of him, and his family -- he could never afford to buy something this big. It is not his, it belongs to the consortium, they paid for it.

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Let's imagine you developed a radar that's quite good at tracking stealth aircrafts. Would you have much use of it, except selling it to someone who actually needs it?

Quite many of such artifacts give serious boost only to someone with enough magic skill, martial skill or army at his disposal. If you don't have that then it lack any serious use. One would have to be a player character who used wisdom as his dump stat to take such sword and recruit a band of adventurers in nearest tavern.

Imagine you have a ultrapowerful sword and dissatisfied band of mercenaries with unpaid wages. You could slash maybe twenty or so of them before they overpower you. Are you certain you wouldn't sell it?

If there is one to rule them all ring(tm), then indeed it would not be on sale. However, if there are dozens +2 shields made of dragon bladder, each of them useful, then they would have a price. Actually, anything that do not provide almost guaranteed victory, should have a potential price. Maybe it would require putting mortgage on your kingdom, but still it could be expressed in gold.

Not mentioning that someone may be interested in to bartering one artifact for another...

Think rather:

-oh this guy is going to sell us this artifact for a rare herb that actually may save his life / info about crucial spell / bringing him head of an overpowered public enemy

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As a general rule a 30% markup over the cost of acquiring or manufacturing something is a good starting sale price. Obviously if you have a monopoly you can afford to charge more.

In our world powerful artifacts that turn would-be catastrophic defeats into glorious victories (tanks, bombs and planes) are sold all the time. Why should your world be any different?

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  • $\begingroup$ Because those magical items are not easily created. Well, some are, and they are sold in this world openly, but not normally given as a quest reward. $\endgroup$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Apr 28 '17 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ You are assuming cheap, reliable transportation of readily sold goods. If transportation is expensive, slow or unreliable, or if a good will sit on the shelf for long periods waiting for a buyer, your 30% rule of thumb is not necessarily appropriate. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 28 '17 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ Now I'm curious what the markup is on a F/A-18 for export. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Apr 28 '17 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings wikipedia article on the f-16 shows that the USA paid a total of 35million 2013 dollars on average for its F-16 fleet, while Iraq paid 165million on average. Markup of 370%. Not exactly an F/A-18 and I'm sure there are other factors, but... you've got a number now. $\endgroup$ – Jeutnarg Apr 28 '17 at 21:22
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Market for (magical) Lemons

Many used items have developed faults which are not obvious to the buyer. This provides an incentive to sell it off quickly before more serious ones develop. People do this with used cars all the time.

This goes double for magical items. Traditionally they often come with .. costs. Whether you have to feed it virgin blood or pieces of soul or portraits in the attic or suchlike, it's often a morally uncomfortable cost.

And some of them are sentient, malevolent, or just directly cursed. The buyer goes away thinking "wow, I bought that Rod Of Power for a steal" and the seller thinks "I'm glad to be rid of that thing. Maybe I feel a little sorry for that sucker when he finds out it's glitchy when the moon is in Venus".

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As a general rule, trade happens when someone has something that is more valuable to you than what you currently have. Money ($$ or gold pieces) is simply a place holder for that value.

So, yes, people will sell very valuable things if they need what they are getting more.

Most high value trades will likely be barter or "in kind" trades since the gold piece count gets pretty silly. The society might have another value placeholder that is the value of 10,000 pieces of gold that could be used in these kinds of trades. Or they could use bank notes if there was any institution that is trusted enough for those to have any value.

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  • $\begingroup$ … or a Triganic Pu, perhaps. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food May 1 '17 at 12:09
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  • Their Relic makes them a target. Your merchant knows he has a powerful item on his hands, and he further knows that anyone with ill intent who finds out about it would pose a threat to the merchant. Better to extract some value from the item rather than cart it around for years.
  • They believe in you. Perhaps you've gained some reputation as a fair and just person, or maybe you've recently taken down the enemies of the merchant, or maybe you and the merchant are from the same House or some kind of fraternal order. Whatever the reason, they think the weapon is better in your hands than in his. For a small finders fee, of course.
  • They're buying your friendship. By asking for a few pittances, and giving you a powerful item, the merchant is gambling that you will attribute your future successes to that trade. The merchant knows markets are volatile, and he's had some rough years - wouldn't it be nice to have friends in high places? It's hard to gain a King's respect - handing the sword over to the King might not even warrant a nod of gratitude. But an adventurer who is making waves? That's someone who could elevate a mediocre merchant into a trade minister.
  • They're trading to achieve something more valuable. Maybe the mountain passage between two large cities is always full of giants, and you're the only one who can clear it out. What better way to open up new markets than to give you a magic item the merchant can't use anyway, so you clear out the giants, and the merchant can ply his (subjectively) exotic goods in a new city? If he were the first merchant over the pass and the first to sell wares to a foreign city, he could make a killing in a single season's trade.
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If somebody I know died and left me with a helicopter, I'm not going to keep the helicopter just because it's valuable. I can't fly a helicopter, and I'm not interested in maintaining a helicopter.

Same goes for almost anything: a spaceship, a family heirloom, 1000 arces of land in Canada, etc. While it may be valuable or useful to somebody else, if I can't use it or don't want to, it's not valuable to me.

This is basically how economics works in general. An apple farmer with thousands of apples doesn't need one more apple, and so it's practically useless to her. But a hungry man needs that one apple, and so it's very valuable to him. Thus, a trade happens, even though their opinions of the object's value varies widely.

Value to one person does not determine value to another.

My specific problem is justifying someone selling a powerful item for anything. I want to create a trader that doesn't seem stupid, while still making the price realistic.

In your case, you have a trader character. This is what traders do. They peddle objects around which are of great value to others but little to them.

Think about people buying and selling grand pianos for 10s of thousands of dollars, or more. The traders probably even play the piano. But at the end of the day, they need the money from the sale.

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By merely defining it as "powerful magic", even going into detail to illustrate that it has the power to turn a catastrophic defeat into a glorious victory, you have left out any potential downsides or limitations.

You must define its limits, within its limits, you will find the reason why anyone would exchange it and what would be considered a reasonable exchange or trade--and since you say you do not want the trader to appear stupid, it will HAVE to be a reasonable exchange.

Scenario 1:

Albeit this "powerful magic" can turn a catastrophic defeat into a glorious victory, it has no effect on love and does not work in the area of seduction. So, the trader trades this type of magic for another type of magic that does have an effect on love. This could be love from a single person or love from an entire population--not wanting a population to merely fear him for his powerful magic.

Scenario 2:

The trader does not want to give up this powerful magic, but someone else is close to discovering a magic that works similarly--it also turns defeat into victory. In order to prevent someone else from creating a similar type of magic, he has to share his secret magic with a group that has the means of ensuring no one can create an X type of magic... (the patent office of magic world, a cartel that controls resources necessary to create magic, or someone who has access to amnesia magic that can make whoever is trying to replicate the powerful magic forgetful).

In a twist of irony, in order to save his magic, he must share it with someone else. Or perhaps, he is only sharing his magic to obtain the end in mind but has a back-up plan to deal with the same party who he had to share the magic with--maybe because it is his magic, he has programmed into it a poison or curse if someone who does not know all the details of it uses it--so he has no worries in sharing it in order to prevent a similar one from being developed. Of course, in this case, the trader would withhold those details from anyone who he is forced to share his magic with.

Scenario 3:

The limitation on the powerful magic is it can only be used an X amount of times by any individual. The trader has already exhausted this number, and so needs to find another individual who he can entrust to use the magic for his own gain, perhaps someone whom he can easily manipulate so he does not appear to be stupid in being gullible or for trusting others too easily.

Scenario 4:

The limitation is that every time the powerful magic is used, a rigid sacrifice must be made (maybe a loved one must die), so the trader "tricks" someone else into using the magic for both his own benefit and the trader's--but only the other person takes the loss.

Scenario 5:

The magic in question only works in the present or can only go into the past for an X amount of days, weeks, months, or years. In order to change an event that occurred in a time far beyond this limit, the trader must find someone who has magic that can go in the past or can otherwise nullify this problem. A temporal enhancer of sorts if you want to avoid the complexity of time travel.

Possibilities are endless...

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I was thinking a little about this issue, too.

I think this boils down to three things:

  1. Merchants are not warriors
  2. Two pieces of good equipment trump one piece of better equipment
  3. Why aren’t merchants getting robbed?

To elaborate 1): merchant and warriors (adventurers, heroes, whatever) are two very different professions. If a merchant was to use this powerful relic for themselves, they’d have to (a) know how to use it, which might require prior arduous training – this legendary sword requires 150 str, while an average merchant has only 20 str; and (b) be willing to accept the risks inherent to fighting (OK, so I have this powerful magic orb, and I can now go wild and start killing people… but wait, what if I’m countered by two other guys with a similar magic orb each… or what if I’m countered by a guy with an even more powerful magic orb… or what if some local kings dislike my killing everyone and my wanting to become a warlord, after all there should be several such magic orbs in the treasury of each kingdom… I think it’d really be better to sell this orb to this guy who’s just came to my store, let him take the risks, I’ll focus on making profit from trading)

To elaborate 2): Well, the price for such artifacts should be, in my opinion, set appropriately high. Not necessarily sky-high, though: let’s say that a few pieces of equipment that is a grade lower in quality can make up one piece of equipment that is a grade higher in quality. The merchant can still make profit from such a deal. The reason is that a gang/party/squad armed with a few pieces of a little weaker weaponry is still likely to defeat a gang/party/squad armed with only one piece of a little stronger weaponry. Three guys with a +150 mithril sword should still be able to kill one guy with +200 adamant sword accompanied with two guys with a +10 wooden training sword each. Overlords/warlords/anyone else who may want to arm his men for any reason that might involve fighting should be aware of this.

To elaborate 3): This is, in my opinion, an even better question. Suppose you see a lone merchant with stock full of precious artifacts in the middle of wilderness. A thug/bandit/servant of an evil empire would have no restraints to simply kill the merchant and loot his shop. Even heroes, who are supposed to be more moral, might think twice if their very survival depends on getting this particular artifact. There is, of course, the argument that long-term it wouldn’t be beneficial for anyone, since this way there would soon be no merchants to trade with; however, this argument is weak, since of course immediate survival trumps any future potential profits.

To fix 3): I think this issue should be fixed if we stick to this one rule: All merchants must have somebody to enjoy protection from. For example, it would be perfectly fine for a merchant to operate on a marketplace in the capital city of a powerful kingdom, enjoying protection from the king’s elite guards in return for taxation. In such a case, however, the king is likely to want the merchant to sell the most powerful artifacts only for the state, definitely not for random strangers. This, however, raises no problems if the player is himself an elite paladin of this kingdom. Similarly, the enemies, say the orcs for example, might have their own merchants to trade with, who routinely travel to orc-occupied lands to sell them goods. Such merchants, however, might be unwilling to trade with enemies of the orcs, for example the players, or else they might be beheaded by orcs. This may change if the orcs start suffering grievous losses from the player, for example when the player captures the marketplace the merchant was previously trading with orcs on, drives the orcs off all nearby lands, and by some miracle the merchant and his goods survive the battle. Another possibility is that for reasons the game plot must’ve previously explained the merchant wishes to sell his best wares particularly to the player. Chances are he might want to do this in secret, though.

I’d suppose this is how this setting could survive base logic.

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The premise is that these items are common to begin with. Your trader will sell a relic tier artifact because they've got good profit margins, and there's a new shipment of powerful relics coming next Tuesday anyway. Besides, what does a merchant need a sword of ooze slaying for, civilization is nice and safe!

As for starting a city/town, the simple answer is competition. If EVERYONE has these artifacts, they're really nothing special. The ability to rain fire from the skies doesn't mean much if that's the power level of the toy in your happy meal. And you still need to produce crops and supplies.

Think about modern technology. Cell phones, modern weaponry, farming tools, housing, materials, or just about anything else would be enough to convince medieval people you were a wizard or some other powerful being. But because they're so commonplace today, nobody bats an eye when you declare that you ascended 20,000 feet into the sky and flew half way across the continent without breaking a sweat just to visit your parents for the weekend.

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The first pick in the NFL draft is quite valuable, but its value is currently not expressed in money. Instead, it is valued in terms of other draft picks. For example, the first pick is worth about as much as the second pick plus the fiftieth pick.

Some people have tried to express the value of a draft pick in terms of "expected number of future wins". Other people have tried to use the free agent market to guess at the "value of an expected future win". Their efforts are confounded by the requirements that very bad teams spend about as much money on players as very good teams, plus the very bad teams tend to get more valuable draft picks.

Similarly, magic items in your world could be tradable for other magic items. If a magic item saves you the need to maintain a certain amount of military strength, that magic item might be tradable for a province capable of supporting that large of an army.

Or perhaps powerful magic items could be pawned and redeemed for enormous amounts of money. (Perhaps a king's ransom?) In the Middle Ages, entire duchies were sometimes pawned and redeemed. By pawning his duchy, a duke could finance a crusade or other great venture; he could hope that the profits from the venture would let him redeem his duchy.

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Scale the baddies up to meet the strength of the relic. In HoMM, it's not uncommon to come across several dragons or even a few titans blocking the road. Even a hero with the strongest artifacts in the game(world) needs a whole army to back him in those encounters. And the hero wants enough of his army left over afterwards so his rivals can't attack him and force him to run to the nearest tavern in terror.

A lone merchant in the world of HoMM might happen to find Armageddon's Blade lying in the grass and decide to take on the nearest pack of Chaos Hydras, but odds are he'd just end up as a skeleton by the side of the road. It's much more profitable to him to just sell it for an exorbitant price to the local Hero running around with hundreds of minions.

Another example of this is the Cradle series by Will Wight. People and artifacts in that world scale up to having world shattering powers, but there's always someone/something stronger that's more likely to kill a challenger than lose to them, discouraging one person from finding some crazy object and conquering a world with it.

tl;dr, make your world such that the baddies and environment require more than just a magical sword, but immense skills, abilities, and minions friends to back you up.

Bonus, the artifacts require practice and use to become more attuned to them. So a guy who's been using his magic sword for 50 years would know more tricks and could unleash different powers with it than another guy who just happened to pick one up out of the grass.

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Option 1 You buy them the same way you can buy aircraft carriers and submarines from russia, a large super power that is having serious problems then needs the money way more than the power. Alternatively richer nations may sell off duplicate items in the same way we sell off military surpluses.

Option 2 You don't buy it, you commissioned it. Da Vinci didn't have a room of paintings for sale and siege engineers didn't a yard full of trebuchet. You say want this, and then pay them to make it. Your reward is not a magic item but the connections to a maker and enough money to cover their fees. These makers may only know how to make a one a or a few types of things, each maker guarding their secrets just like any high demand craftsman of the time. Of course these makers may instead have no problem selling one if the government is not buying enough of them.

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