Bartering For Profit — 3 Ways To Make Haggling With Merchants Fun

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1048

Bartering to knock gold pieces off a merchant’s price often happens in my campaigns.

The GM trap comes when it gets boring.

Each side dickers closer to a meeting point. Then payment. Done.

But this gets dull after a while. The novelty dries up.

Today, let’s dig into three solutions for how to make bartering more fun in every game.

Justify Price Changes With Why

Add roleplay zing by telling a story each time the merchant drops their price.

Here’s a typical bartering roleplay:

Player: “How much is the chain mail shirt?”

Merchant: “It’s 150 gold pieces.”

Player: “I’ll pay 75.”

Merchant: “125. That’s my lowest offer.”

Player: “100. That’s my highest offer.”

Merchant: “Ok. Sold.”

And that’s a short version. I’ve seen haggling go down to the copper piece while everyone else waits.

But if you tell a story and roleplay it, you make the encounter interesting for everyone at the table.

Player: “How much is the chain mail shirt?”

Merchant: “It’s 150.”

Player: “I’ll pay 75.”

Merchant: “Would that I could offer you such an amazing deal, my friends. But my friend needs help. I will by giving the hard-earned offerings from such fine and esteemed folk as yourselves to his cleric bills.

“Each copper counts towards his well-being. So I can sell you this sturdy and fine armour — sure to repel the keenest of blades — for only 125 crowns.

“Anything less and my friend’s health shall suffer!”

It’s fun telling these tales. Great practice for improv, too.

And players often take up the same tactic and will try to make their tale even more convincing.

In addition, such stories give you the perfect vehicle to share world details and plot hooks. Who’s the friend? How did they get hurt? How much do they owe for healing?

Use Real Leverage

Cunning NPCs know the characters are not their bread and butter.

They’ll use every tactic in the book to extract the most while the opportunity strikes.

Run through this brief sequence to see what leverage options you might have:

A Crime

The NPC will observe what the PCs wear and carry, looking for anything illegal.

For example, guards warned the PCs at the gate to tie their weapons down. But the group forgot to do that after a recent skirmish.

Note that the characters won’t know the laws. You can make an infraction up. (Do so sparingly to avoid your great world feeling punitive and arbitrary.)

If a crime opportunity presents itself, the NPC will bring it up and demand more payment.

Take whatever form of payment the NPC thinks best. More money, a favour, an introduction, a mission, a delivery.

A Want

Merchants know what their customers want.

The NPC will profile the characters and place them in a certain customer-type bucket.

They’ll know what people in that bucket like and will offer something along those lines.

For example, something from your special equipment list. “The back room” or “special vault” type stuff.

Note that merchants can benefit by becoming a middleman. For example, a merchant’s friend sells magic knives. The merchant brokers a deal and takes a percentage for the hook-up.

Figure out what the players want for their characters. Have the merchant infer this, or roleplay to suss it out.

Then use that desire as bartering leverage.

A Need

The merchant learns your group needs something. This need comes with an urgency, scarcity, or flavour that makes it harder to acquire.

For example, the battered and bruised hobos need healing magic. And if they don’t return to the dungeon immediately, the treasure might escape.

Note the merchant needs to parley or spy for this information. Play the long game here and set up a thieves’ guild, spy network, or other agency to make this information bubble up with speed.

Roleplay It

Bonus points if your merchants use multiple approaches to earn a fair recompense serving the boorish and very mortal PCs.

The merchant tells a story and gives a why for the price, sharing a cool new world detail and inadvertent clue or plot hook.

The PCs counter-offer.

The merchant applies leverage. He’s the only arms and armour dealer within 10 miles, and he’s expecting the PCs’ rivals to roll in (pun intended) and need the chain shirt too.

Roll It

Another option: make a skill check and not barter at all.

GM: “Please pass me your shopping list.”

Player: “Ok, here’s what we all want. I want to try to negotiate on the cost.”

GM: “Ok, make a diplomacy roll.”

Player: “16”

GM: “Great. You get 10% off the whole list.”

Player: “Cool beans!”

Rolling instead of bartering makes admin stuff like shopping trips fast and efficient.

It also leverages character sheets in a way combat can’t scratch.

I will choose a roll play over a roleplay when it suits the pacing or mood at the table.

Bartering For Profit

I prefer to roleplay shopping trips when there’s time.

Players enjoy the roleplay too. It lets them portray their PCs in a different context once in a while.

Use bartering for hooks. Use hooks as currency. And use currency to build a deeper campaign in ways rolling cannot.