Worldbuilding Journal: Black Markets

I wish I didn’t have to use my Backup Blog Idea so soon, but today has not been such a great day for me. Between my sleep schedule being so messed up no thanks to Ramadhan, various real world obligations, freaking traffic, I was lucky to be able to write at all today. So yes, yes we’re going to dip into the backup barrel almost immediately after having just introduced it. That’s a great sign that’s not at all a Red Flag, surely.

Let’s check out the very first prompt in the Worldbuilding Journal:

Describe the black market in one of the cities you encounter. Start by writing down the names, appearances, and personalities of three vendors. What are some of the unique, unusual, or magical wares they sell? Or what valuable information do they have?

By they way, if you want to give this a shot and use these prompts as a springboard for your own worldbuilding, please do and maybe leave a comment about it. I’d love to hear about your world (unless they’re magical realms; nothing wrong with that, I’m not kink – shaming you, but maybe keep that stuff to yourself, hey).

Right off the bat I’m not going to start where the prompt told me to (boo) but I am going to start by musing about black markets. From my own understanding, these are markets – where goods and or services are being exchanged for currency – which deal specifically in illegal items and or services. Second, the fact that a market has sprung up around the dealing of these illegal items means that there is a huge demand for them, despite their illegality. For a real world example, think about drugs. Their use and sale has been criminalised and made illegal across the world, yet drugs remain in demand, partly due to their addictive properties, partly due to their implicit illegality in fact. So to determine what characters we’d find in a black market, what we need to find out is ‘what is illegal in this city’ and ‘what is in demand in this city’, and colour in the overlapping Venn diagram.

This step is important, because it tells us about two parts of the world that are important in your worldbuilding; first, the government of this particular city, and second, the society. If you have a government driven by Puritan values but a society that couldn’t give a toss, you end up with The Prohibition in America back in the 1920s. You’d have characters like Al Capone, you’d have places like speakeasies, and you’d know that the government isn’t actually doing what they think their people want but rather what they believe to be best for the people, and that the society disagrees with them almost entirely. You’d expect, in other words, to be talking to wise guys in suits and be led through back alleys to chug a beer if the city you were talking about in the prompt above was 1920s Chicago.

What a government bans is enlightening as to its character. Suppose all media not produced by the State Propaganda Department was banned – what does that say about the nation? You wouldn’t find beer and moonshine in your black market, but books, film, music and other media from overseas. You probably wouldn’t be led to a speakeasy but a warehouse where you can buy BTS merch from some guy you met in alleyway. Your contact would probably remind you more of a freedom fighter, or terrorist, rather than the old gangsters of the 20s. This is because a government that bans media from sources it can’t control probably wants to control the minds and opinions of its people, and force its people to know only what they allow the people to know. This puts us in mind, possibly, of an authoritarian government that is attempting to retain power by any means necessary, and hence why the dealers might look like freedom fighters.

But so far we’ve ignored the other half of that equation, and that is the demand side of the market. Why was alcohol in demand in 1920s Chicago? I must admit that I don’t actually know, but I can form an educated guess (okay I say educated but it’s mostly a stab in the dark; let me know how wrong I am in the comments below). First, the 20s was when the Great Depression hit America, and it’s not just the economy that was depressed at the time, if you know what I mean. Being able to drown your sorrows was something that people desperately needed at the time, you know? Plus, alcohol is a social lubricant. People tend to want to drink when they’re trying to enjoy themselves, the opportunity to have fun being something they sorely needed in those times. Hence, the demand for booze, and where there’s demand boy you can imagine there’s somebody to provide the supply.

This is why finding out what is illegal and what is in demand in a society is important. A black market is where these two spheres overlap. You need demand, or there’s no market. You also need what is in demand to be illegal or you’d won’t have a black market, you’d just have a regular market. This prompt, then, goes much deeper than what we assumed initially. It asks us about the state of the government and society in which we find ourselves in, simply by asking us to consider the black market in the society. This is because, like in real life, when you consider one thing, there are layers of implications behind them that can be considered.

Of course, this is a prompt. It’s perfectly fine to start at the other end and make your way through in reverse. Say you start where the prompt asked you to – with the names, appearances and personalities of the vendors in this black market. I’ll give it a shot:

First, we have Waheed. Waheed is tanned, a big guy, wears an eyepatch and a fez that’s way too small for him. Almost everything is too small on Waheed, in fact. He’s a big guy, and that’s just one of the ways in which Waheed stands out – not something you expect in a black market dealer, I’ll give you that. Waheed is foreign to the city, and his booming laughter is as strange as his speech (“Ah, that drink is full of the delight! Makes balls revolve like spinning dervishes!”).

From here, you can probably tell that Waheed deals in the exotic. Samples of his wares are sure to make a prospective buyer go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ before paying extravagant amounts of gold. Perhaps Waheed saw that there was a demand for his exotic fare here, and decided to bring them over, being illegal in both his home country and here. Or perhaps Waheed is truly just a regular ass merchant, whose wares just happened to be banned here, forcing him to “be rubbing of the tits with the unsavoury caste,” as he might put it. But what does he actually sell? I’m going to say…spice. A certain spice that is common where he hails from, that causes vivid recollections of past lives, allowing one to relive what has gone before in minute detail. And the reason he’s dealing this in the black market instead of where the honest merchants are? The city has a monopoly on magic items, and this spice isn’t on their approved list. Hence, Waheed is stuck down here.

See? You can work on your worldbuilding both ways. You can start with the government, the society, what they want and what they value and work your way down to Waheed, or you can work your way from Waheed and find out that this is a government which tries to limit its peoples’ magic exposure, despite their obvious love of it. Perhaps this is a magocracy – some rando gaining enough magic power to challenge the Academy is obviously something said academy wants to try and limit from happening as much as possible. 

From there you can move on to the next dealer – Hadrian. Hadrian looks like he belongs in the Academy proper rather than down here with Waheed and the rest of the scum and villainy. Indeed, he uses words like ‘Indeed’ and ‘Indubitably’ and tends to correct peoples’ grammar. His clothing is immaculate – he is always wearing the magical equivalent of Gucci or Dolce and Gabbana (I can’t be arsed to figure what those are right about now. Sometimes, you want to pursue where the muse leads you before going off on tangents). 

Can you guess what Hadrian sells? Yes, you’ve got it right! He sells books. Specifically, books that have been outlawed by the Academy. The writings of ancient lichens bound in human skin, a copy of the grimoire of a mighty necromancer long thought dead (or is he?), the mad ramblings of a pseudo prophet whose spells only make themselves apparent to those willing enough to travel down the path of madness. Hadrian obviously doesn’t agree with the Academy (why would he be down here, if he did?) and obviously, Hadrian believes that a true magocracy is a democracy, one that chooses its leaders from the most powerful of mages regardless of their social station. Hadrian might take issue with your abuse of language, but only that – he won’t stop you from browsing, and taking one of his books home to study. He believes that magic will free society, but only if they are allowed to pursue knowledge, no matter what path that may take. Hadrian is also possessed of some valuable information – the inner workings of the Academy, which makes him one of the most valuable assets to assassins, political movements, and even revolutionaries. He can tell you exactly what the Grand Magus has for breakfast on Sunday, how many guards accompany Lord Vykstra of the School of Abjuration, and which prostitute in the Red Light district has carte Blanche access to absolutely all areas of the Academy. If you’re running a campaign, Hadrian is one NPC you want on your side.

Last vendor before we wrap up, and this time let’s work the other way around. Let’s start by considering the Academy, its magocratic government, and the society that loves and adores magic enough to pursue it through illegal means. This last vendor probably won’t be a revolutionary Che Guevara type – society loves magic, which is probably why they tolerate the magocracy in the first place. The Academy does love control, however, and won’t tolerate magic outside its sphere of control. So our final vendor deals in a magic that the people want, but that the Academy doesn’t want them to have.

Yup, you’re right again (you’re on fire!). Our last vendor is Kildragon…an arms dealer. We’ve decided he is an arms vendor because we’ve decided that war magic, or the kind of magic that the people could use to possibly overthrow the Academy, in other words, is the kind of magic they probably don’t want the people to have. But is there a demand? Naturally. First, when you’re in power, regardless of how good your character is, somebody somewhere wants that power and is willing to kill you to get it. But wait – we’ve established that there is probably a lack of revolutionaries because people love magic as much as the Academy does. However, we’ve also established, via Hadrian, that probably not everyone agrees 100% with the Academy. Also, perhaps this splinter cell of society has no issue with a magocracy, but rather they take issue with the people running the country. Specifically, the fact that it’s not them. In other words, they want to replace the current magocracy with themselves or people they like. That sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

Kildragon probably looks more like a warrior than a wizard. Almost as big as Waheed, but half and conspicuous – he’s probably more interested in having less people know he exists, if he wants to stay alive. His face is scarred from battle, and his robes are simple and spartan – more like a war caster than a proper magocrat (that may not be a word in real life but I promise you it is in our world). His head is constantly on a swivel – he never goes anywhere where he doesn’t know the nearest exit, so if he walks right into your house without a second thought, that should tell you he’s been there before.

So what does Kildragon sell? What does a magical arms dealer deal in? Spells and incantations that cause massive damage, of course. This is where you buy those scrolls of Fireball en masse. Every second counts in a battle, as Kildragon can attest to, so possibly what he sells isn’t something so obvious. Maybe, what he sells is the ability to mask the fact that you’re casting a fireball. Maybe, casting a fireball takes a long time, enough for a single archer to turn you into a pincushion. So what does he sell? Ways to speed the casting of a fireball from one minute to one second. This makes his services valuable even if you don’t want to cast fireball at Lord Vykstra.

I hope you gain something from this article. THis has been incredibly fun, and I think I’ll try to dip into the Worldbuilding Journal for more prompts in the future. What an amazing end to a horrible day! Here’s hoping this helped you as much as it helped me. See you in the next one!

4 responses to “Worldbuilding Journal: Black Markets”

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