I totally get that some people like buying things in their games. They like perusing lists of items and they like haggling with pretend people over pretend goods for pretend money. I completely get that, but more often than not a shopping session just drags everything to a screeching halt.
A game can certainly have shopping in it but like every other aspect of a game, it takes some planning to make it work.
Is It Necessary?
The very first question to ask is, is the shopping really necessary? Does it add anything to the game other than some more stuff on the character’s sheet? I believe that shopping doesn’t have to be necessary. In our Shadow of the Demon Lord game, I did away with shopping entirely (and also actual descriptions of treasure beyond enchanted items). You can do this in D&D just as easily.
There are different ways to do away with it while still having characters have equipment. Some games have the party’s gear provided for them by a patron or organization. Some games do it by making gear largely irrelevant. Some do it by letting characters reoutfit between sessions. Even in a game like D&D you can simply eschew shopping (which also means you can largely hand wave treasure other than magic items).
In our Shadow of the Demon Lord game I made the decision to focus on the adventure, not the day to day existence of the characters. This meant that we didn’t handle shopping. When you’re watching something like The Witcher, there’s never an entire episode of Geralt asking the shopkeeper what they have and what they buy and then remembering he needs to buy potions and then maybe what are the abilities of this sword vs. that axe. So I told the players this up front and then did the following
- When characters leveled up I simply gave them new gear acquired during downtime, including restocking potions. If the player wanted something specific and not magical items they just let me know and I either said “sure” or “no”. level up I give them some new gear – armor, weapons, spell scrolls etc.
- Mundane Items were handled via an abstract system like Dungeon World has. Each character had X “adventuring supplies” rather than a lengthy list of rope, spikes, ball bearings, torches, fishing line etc. etc. They could simply mark off one use of “Adventuring Supplies” and they had the specific item they needed. These supplies replenished when they were in a town during downtime.
- Enchanted items are found during adventures and only during adventures. Never, ever, ever was there a possibility of acquiring anything other than healing potions and low level scrolls as part of the gear acquired during downtime.
That’s it. No shopping, no pouring over equipment lists, no “I’m 2 gold shy of this”. The game focuses on the adventure, not the mundane.
If you decide to keep things more traditional and include shopping, please, please don’t randomly decide if a shop has a powerful item or not. Some game systems use an item rarity which is…okay…kind of. I mean more along the lines of a player asking “does this blacksmith have a vorpal sword” and the DM assigning a random chance and rolling. Absolutely do not do this!! While I would gladly make the argument that even the rarity tables should be guidelines for the GMs to make a decision, this is a non-starter. Even if you ask the player to make a super difficult roll to see if there’s a Luck Blade kicking around the back office, are you prepared to have that in your game if they succeed? If you are, then you can handle giving it to them and if you’re not then there shouldn’t be a chance of them getting it.
If you’re going to have shopkeepers then provide cultivated lists of items. This is what the shop has, don’t ask for things not listed. It’s easy enough to provide some generic lists that can be recycled and then add to those lists for particular shops or markets or even regions of the setting. Maybe a particular area is renowned for their healing waters so shops in that area sell Greater Healing Potions pretty much everywhere. Cultivated lists can actually speed things up (you can just give the players the list during downtime) and add some immersion.
Treat It Like Any Other Scene
Some players like to use shopping trips as a reason to gather information or interact with the world and that’s excellent but treat those activities as separate from the actual purchasing of gear.
If a character wants to go shopping then ask the player their goal. Gear acquisition can be handled off board or provided by patrons etc. If they want to acquire information, then that’s a scene. If they want to interact with an NPC, then that’s a scene. Answer the important questions of who is present, what do they want, where is this happening and why do they want what they do. Now it’s not a shopping thing (again, that all happens via other methods) and is a social scene for the character(s) to focus on.
Upkeep Made Simple
The Conan game has a simple system in that during downtime, characters pay an upkeep cost. This cost covers food, lodging, tavern drinks, companionship, repair/replacement of lost mundane gear and all the incidental costs for adventuring. Left your sword in the belly of a great beast? No problem, during upkeep you get a new one. Shield got dinged up? Just drop it at the smithy and pick it up on the way out of town to adventure. This cuts down on spending time at the table just restocking and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work D&D. Just assign a cost and take care of all those mundane things at one time.