Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Nine

TRADERS, PLUNDERERS, AND PIRATES

[image description: The traditional “Jolly Roger” of piracy by WarX, edited by Manuel Strehl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=609773 ]

Every fantasy world has its material goods, whether it be everyday items such as food and clothing, or more specialised items such as weapons and armour. The most basic goods will be made from the most basic, readily available materials, such as stone and bone, wood and horn, fur and feather, linen and leather. As societies become more complex however, both the supply and demand for rarer goods and materials naturally increases. Mining introduces rock salt, gemstones, various metals, and so on. Agriculture not only produces surplus food but an increased variety thereof. But trade further opens up the marketplace to a whole new range of goods that might not have otherwise been available.

How often have you read a fantasy novel or series or played a roleplaying game in which the characters walk into a shop and start buying all manner of supplies? In my own experience, I’d say it happens a lot. But have you ever wondered to yourself where all this stuff came from? Was it all locally produced or did some of it come from farther afield? In most cases this sort of thing doesn’t need to be explained. It’s not going to hurt your story if you don’t go into detail about where this and that item or substance came from, or how it was acquired. You can absolutely leave this up to the reader’s (or players’) imagination. But if you are inclined to, you can add a bit more depth to the world you’re building by throwing in a few details such as where the materials came from or how they were made. In most cases you will find that your more complex societies would not be able to produce everything they use or have available for sale all on their own. At least a few items will have been imported, and some will be rarer and thus more expensive than others.

[image description: Three of Wands from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. (Public Domain). Seen from behind, a lone figure wearing a coronet and toga gazes out to sea in expectation from atop a high place, accompanied by three staves planted in the ground, one of which serves as a right hand support.]

Cities have always been great for the trading of goods. Before there were cities there may have been merchant caravans that went from town to town to ply their wares, but these were always vulnerable to bandits. But in a city a merchant could set up shop in relative safety and need only worry about their shipments getting there safely. For early merchants, as for many modern ones, waiting for one’s ship to come in was not merely a metaphor. Yet just as landlubbing caravans attracted opportunistic land-based bandits, it wouldn’t have been long at all before the earliest merchant sea vessels attracted their own brand of thieves: pirates.

“The earliest documented instances of piracy are the exploits of the Sea Peoples who threatened the ships sailing in the Aegean and Mediterranean waters in the 14th century BC. In classical antiquity, the Phoenicians, Illyrians and Tyrrhenians were known as pirates” [Wikipedia].

Who Were The Sea Peoples? – Ancient Apocalypse: The Sea Peoples & The Late Bronze Age Collapse

The Sea Peoples, most likely a loose confederacy of seafaring folk from many different tribes or nations, became so good at raiding and plundering by sea and river together that at one point they effectively halted the trade of tin, a mined metal that had become invaluable to the lands they plundered because it was, along with copper, necessary to make bronze. This alloy was in fact so important to these early city-states and empires that the demand of tin, a rarer metal than its other component copper, was likely what led to the establishment of such extensive trade networks across this region in the first place, during what would eventually come to be known as the Bronze Age.

Like the barbarians we touched upon in Part Eight, the Sea Peoples seem to have been the product of several different societies on the move. Perhaps they were settled before, but were forced out of the places they once held as their own by any number of possible calamities, such as drought, famine, pestilence, or war. Whatever the reason for their invasion, they were–or at least would become–just as much a force that linked civilisations as divided them; a network all their own, and one that apparently introduced new things to the already existing network of trade which had previously focused on only a select few items, such as the precious tin required to forge the bronze its clients had come to rely upon so heavily.

For it appears that these seafaring folk, as wide-ranging as they were, brought other innovations with them on their adventures, such as weapons of iron and steel, superior to their bronze counterparts. And as a consequence–due to the ancient law of supply and demand–would also be ultimately responsible for spreading the knowledge of iron-working to the very lands they plundered. And later the aforementioned Phoenicians, at times both traders and raiders, are credited with the spread of the script that would eventually form the basis of the Greek alphabet, which would in turn evolve into the Roman one I’m using right now to record my English words.

Now, I think it’s important for me to add that piracy has not always been frowned upon in all ages, so pirates could very well be the heroes in your fantasy world. “In the pre-classical era, the ancient Greeks condoned piracy as a viable profession; it apparently was widespread and ‘regarded as an entirely honourable way of making a living'” [Wikipedia]. Piracy could especially be considered a noble profession if the pirates were attacking enemy ships and ports on behalf of their tribe, nation, homeland, or empire. But regardless of whether or not such piratical adventures are state-sanctioned, they will usually represent a very different sort of life from the settled one of farm, factory, and city, much like the aforementioned barbarians. There’s a kind of freedom in such a profession, and yet it was not an entirely lawless existence.

That being said, piracy has also been known to undermine tyranny, injustice, slavery, and systematic oppression:

Top 10 Ways Pirates Made Life Better For African Slaves

Coming Soon: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Previous: Barbarians

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

One thought on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Nine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: