Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Market Day

Perversely and stubbornly there are things I truly miss about my life in my favorite underdog city, Detroit. The forays into ruin exploration were one, but high on the list was the weekly ritual of Eastern Market.

Every Saturday, without pause for piling snow or summer sun, an open-aired corner of the city known for it's haunting emptiness and utter domination by the automobile, comes alive with pedestrians in the hustle and bustle of market day.

Hawkers shout deals as you pass mountains of cheap fresh vegetables—some grown by local farmers, others trucked in from points exotic. In the cold months, the smells of mulled cider mixes uneasily with the visceral jolt of passing the open-air butchers. Everywhere is life and activity.

Before the early modern era (or late Renaissance if that's how you like to think about the 17th century), the lion's share of buying and selling of goods—all goods not just produce--in towns and cities didn't take place in permanent fixed location shops with regular hours, but did in once or twice a week sprawling, chaotic open-sided markets. To be able to present a range of goods to a buyer, a town needed that week or half-week to have goods flow in from the surrounding workshops and countryside.

Pick up a well-written history of daily life in just about any pre-industrial urbanized society and you will find some of the most vibrant passages devoted to descriptions of markets. Off my desk, at random from a pile of such books, I flip to the sections devoted to markets.

From Daily Life in Ancient India:
Crowds of shoppers strolled along in front of shelves piled high with green vegetables, fruits of all kinds, candied sugar, cooked rice and prepared foods for eating, whose pungent odors contrasted with the more delicate scents given off by the pyramids of incense sticks and sandalwood arranged on the perfumers' counters...The garland makers patiently build up their ephemeral works of art, threading heavy strings of stemless flowers interspersed with all the tinkling, brightly colored accessories that set the blossoms off. Pedlars and hawkers sold their trumpery and trinkets from door to door. Here and there, the entrance of a tavern or gambling den was surrounded by a knot of men of disreptuable appearance.
Or from When China Ruled the Sea:
Surrounding [Chang'an's] inner city and its elaborate palace was an outer city of 106 separate walled districts, hundreds of temples, and two enormous markets—an eastern market that sold goods from within the borders of the Tang empire and a western market that specialized in exotic goods from India, Persia, southeast Asia, and beyond, to the distant shores of Africa. Near this market, were taverns where wine was served in amber goblets and Western girls with green eyes and golden hair danced and whispered flattery into the ears of wealthy patrons. 
Down the narrow, winding streets of the western market, one could smell sandalwood from India or Java, which was mashed into a paste and used to cure fevers and intestinal disorders. There were aloes to make soothing salves and cloves to freshen the breath...There were Persian dates for the complexion, saffron powder for perfume, and pistachio nuts for sexual vigor...And some days there was rare ambergris, a costly incense, which the Chinese believed was “dragon's spittle”.

(I actually found two more highly colorful passages on medieval European city life, but you get the picture, right?)

The question is why does all the color and life of markets get such short shrift in fantasy settings? Why should day-to-day economic life be so much duller than that of real-world history? Why do we have to make it so boring?

At the worst end, fantasy cities that have these “big-box” general stores were an adventurer can walk in and buy just about anything on the standard equipment list.

Better ones divide stores by craft, service, or profession. Here is a magic component shop, there a blacksmith selling a limited range of goods. Maybe even a description of a square devoted to a market,.

But most everywhere it's the shop that dominates with its predictably steady inventory and fixed, perpetually-unmovable prices.

I understand part of the why. As one of my players, Desert Scribe, mentioned yesterday sometimes both the party and myself conspire to handwave purchases in town away in order to concentrate on the real action out there in the Weird beyond the gates.

I do try, most of my towns are dominated by open-aired stalls—perhaps broken up like early Renaissance towns with a roofed open-walled market, trade halls for certain big-ticket commodities, workshops where an artisan will sell goods directly, and small, up-market shops of the esoteric.

From time to time like real towns and cities of that period a trade fair occurs. The players after a year and a half of hiking it everywhere in the Hill Cantons finally purchased steeds at the biennial Horse Fair.

Still it's one of those areas that I feel like I miss an opportunity to really make my urban locales pop with description. A missing something that inevitably makes my “needs improvement” running list in my GM notebook.

(Inspiration for this post flows directly back to this wonderfully granular series of Equipment posts being done by Alexis on the Tao of D&D blog.)


  1. Back where I used to live we had a little Hungarian market. So fun. And even the local big market was owned by a Hungarian. He kept stock all neat things that are now hard to find.

    Hope you're having a groovy day. Mine is going slow because I'm goofing around, reading blogs.

    But I did finish a couple new blankets. Rah.

    Catch you next time, Cake. Have a good one.

  2. Where did you used to live? We had an open market in the town in Slovakia that I lived in that had some stalls run by Hungarian Slovaks. It was the only place I could get decent peppers.

  3. I find that most D&D-type players will allow the GM to describe the place when the party first arrives, but soon grow bored once it is apparent there are no breadcrumbs leading to 'the adventure'.

    On the rare occasion that I speed things along, my more attuned Players look surprised.

  4. East coast. In a small town once filled with many Hungarians. Most dead, now.

    Oh ... the peppers. So good. Mamama and Papam (grandparents), used to grow wonderful peppers. Then jar them in these HUGE jars.

    One time as a gift Papam gave me a massive, like bigger than me, sized hot pepper jar. Used to eat hot pepper sandwiches with butter, all the time.

    Ah, good stuff.

    I better get offline. A few blankets sewn, does not qualify as a work day.

  5. I am always thinking about how to make the prices deviate within perameters for my market tables ... but that is probably going to have to wait for the next generation at least.

    Something I've been meaning to say on my blog is that the players can be limited to a set number of shops per day - three to five, say, including the time to travel from one part of the city to another, time to wait to be served, to find the right thing among five to twenty shops of the same type in a city district ... that sort of thing.

    Incidentally, it isn't included yet because it begins with a 'T' but I do have a general town market as part of the list, wherein farm goods are purchased, as well as things that might be sold by buskers moving about.

  6. @Alexis
    Something I've been meaning to say on my blog is that the players can be limited to a set number of shops per day - three to five, say, including the time to travel from one part of the city to another, time to wait to be served, to find the right thing among five to twenty shops of the same type in a city district.

    A nice, elegant solution, it must have been mighty time intensive outfitting an expedition in a city where most shops were little more than the workspace of a craftsman.

    It certainly would have involved a good deal more footwork and negotiation than shopping today.

  7. I've been known to make my players wait for a seller to arrive, rather than giving them a shop. Made them hang out and do some role playing with the villagers!