Coin and Trade – Personal Plot for Guild Artisans



Merchants and artisans are the middle-class framework of a medieval society’s economy, but they’ve never gotten much attention in D&D. The guild most likely to get fleshed out in a DM’s campaign is a local thieves’ guild, either as something for a party’s rogue to belong to or antagonists for the PCs to fight. So when I saw the Guild Artisan background in 5E, I was definitely intrigued.

We often say that the choices a player makes while creating a character tells you something about what kinds of stories they want to see. Guild Artisan is an intriguing one, because, on some levels, it’s so mundane. And that could be part of the story that the player wants to tell. Does their character want to stay rooted in their mundane profession, even as they become an adventurer? Maybe your rogue is also a first-class baker. Maybe your fighter smithed all her own weapons. Or maybe your wizard still maintains a trade as a glassblower, fashioning bottles with the same methodical patience they use to fashion spells.

The flip side to this is that, by most accounts, medieval guilds were anything but mundane. Any organization is likely to become a hotbed of intrigue, politics, and the like. It could be that branches of the player’s chosen guild are working against one another, each trying to gain some kind of political upper hand. Or perhaps the player hopes to take control of the guild someday, thereby fully diving into the pool of connections, favors, backstabbing, and character assassination.

One thing that’s nice about a guild artisan PC is that it lends a small amount of predictability to the actions of a PC when the group enters a new town. It seems likely that, regardless of whether they treat their guild as a political situation to be exploited or just a place to get some cheap accommodations, a GA PC will head for their guild early in their explorations of the new place. This predictability means that a DM can prepare a bit of story ahead of time, in the form of a cast of characters, a location, and even some plot.

The guild as a whole can be something of a character. A guild in one town might be friendly, open, and helpful. Another town’s guild could be a bit more suspicious and taciturn, less given to being open-armed with newcomers. Yet another could be friendly to a creepy degree, possibly because they’ve been infiltrated by a cult of some darker power and hope to lure newcomers into their web.

All kinds of plots can be tied to a guild, giving you the chance to introduce storylines via the GA PC. Imagine if a seemingly lowly but expansive guild becomes infiltrated by cultists, or compromised by doppelgangers. You could have a whole storyline about exposing the guild’s corruption, or stopping them before they use their unobtrusive nature to stab at the seat of power.

A guild can also be a source of information. A stonemason or architect’s guild might be aware of secret passages in a noble’s manse. A carpenter’s guild might have noted certain irregularities in chests they’ve been asked to construct on behalf of a new temple in town. An alchemist’s guild might be worrying, as they’ve recognized that the ingredients a wizard is buying could be combined to make a large quantity of poison. Any of these things might be dropped as gossip in a PC’s ear, giving a reason to investigate and perhaps leading to adventure and danger.

Even more overtly, a guild artisan PC may get offers of adventure for a group to follow-up on. An NPC member of a jeweler’s guild may need a rare component, like the shell of a basilisk egg, for a commission and be willing to pay handsomely for the adventurers that bring it to him. A blacksmith’s guild needs to know why the copper mine they paid hasn’t brought them ore or ingots lately, ultimately leading the PCs to discover a mine taken over by duergar slavers. Any kind of guild might hire a group of adventurers to guard a caravan of goods, or to try and rescue guild members captured by goblins.

I hope this has made you think about the fantastic potential for adventure that this seemingly mundane background possesses. Next month, we’ll be delving into the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion for that most high-flying of heroes, the Aarakocra. Until then, may all your 20s be natural.

Oh, I love medieval guilds as a concept so much! Okay. Some things that fascinate me:

I love glass, and the history of glass, and if you’re looking at the history of glass in Europe you wind up inevitably looking at Murano, Venice, because it is THE European glass centre from the 7th to the 18th centuries. 

A fascinating couple of paragraphs from the Glass of Venice website:

“By the late 1200s, the production of glass objects of the finest quality was the city’s major industry as confirmed by the establishment of the Glassmakers Guild that laid out rules and regulations for the craftsmen. The purpose of the guild was to safeguard the secrets of the trade and ensure the profitability of the industry. In line with these objectives, a 1271 law prohibited the importation of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glassworkers.

An even more radical law was passed in 1291 that laid the ground for the establishment of Murano as a premier glass-manufacturing center. This law required that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to Murano to avoid the risk of fire from the furnaces spreading onto the largely wooden structures of overpopulated Venice. Many historians agree that the true motive for this law was to isolate the glass craftsmen to a location where they wouldn’t be able to disclose trade secrets. A subsequent law passed in 1295 forbidding the glassmakers from leaving the city confirms this theory.

Artisans working in the glass trade were well rewarded for their efforts. They had a privileged social status, and their daughters were allowed to marry into the wealthiest and noblest of Venetian families. By applying this clever approach, Venetian government ensured that the glassmakers encouraged their offspring to carry on the trade, and that trade secrets stayed in the families and fueled creative processes leading to innovation and further success. This, along with Venice’s convenient location at the crossroads of trade between East and West, gave Venice monopoly power in manufacturing and selling quality glass throughout Europe that lasted for centuries.”

Venice as a city state set laws in place to establish, isolate and control their glassmakers guild on an island to protect trade secrets and maintain a continental monopoly on their trade. Trade secrets, historically speaking, were a HUMUNGOUS deal.

You could have so many stories here. Are you a foreign guild member, rocking up to the city with your letter of introduction, ready to be greeted by your brethren, and absolutely shocked by getting turned out on your ear? Maybe a shady sort wants you to smuggle trade secrets out to them. Maybe your guild branch wants you to smuggle secrets out to them. Maybe you found notes in a dungeon or wizard lair that would revolutionise certain processes, and suddenly you’re the target of every guild branch in existence hoping you’ll give or be persuaded to give the process to them and them alone. Maybe your party encounters a local guildmember who wants to leave the city and wants you to smuggle them out, breaking local guild laws and potentially fatally damaging your relationship with your overall guild in the process. Maybe the guild as a whole wants your help to break free from their city-state’s restrictions, or maybe only certain sections of the guild, and the rest are perfectly fine with their privileged lives or else deeply and genuinely believe that their secrets should be protected for the good of the city and the pride of the guild.

You’ve got options here. Murano is a very fascinating example of medieval guild-and-city politics.

On a broader scale. Moving to London here, and the Livery Companies (essentially guilds). There’s a lovely page on Wikipedia on the mottos of the Livery Companies, and it is fascinating. The mottos of a guild suggest so many interesting things about them, even when you have no idea of the history involved in how that motto came about.

Some examples:

The Worshipful Company of Bowyers (bow-makers) don’t have a latin phrase for a motto. Instead, they have three names. “Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt”. AKA the three battles where the English Longbow is considered to have decisively won the battle for the English. Like. That is just excellent and incredibly pointed marketing. “Here’s what our wares do, next fucking question!” Amazing.

The clockmakers have ‘Time is the Commander of All Things’. The Worshipful Company of Cooks has, for some reason, ‘Wounded Not Conquered’, and I’m desperately curious as to why. Musicians have ‘Preserve Harmony’ and the Glass Sellers have ‘Discord Weakens’, which is funny and makes me deeply hope their guildhalls are across the road from each other (I don’t think they are, but it’d be amazing). The Painter-Stainers have the extremely ominous ‘Love Can Compel Obedience’, which, if you need an incredibly random guild to have been infested with a cult, can I suggest?

On a similar note, the Poulters have ‘Remember Your Oath’, which, again, curious and ominous?

The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards has ‘With Upright Heart All Are Exalted’, which is hilarious and feels very much like they were trying to get in ahead of the inevitable gambling association.

A lot of the mottos are clearly biblical quotes loosely related to the industry at hand, like the Paviors (pavers) ‘God Can Raise to Abraham Children of Stone’. The Shipwrights have ‘Within The Ark Safe Forever’. The Needlemakers have ‘They Sewed Fig Leaves Together And Made Themselves Aprons’, which feels very much ‘the first day out of Eden, we were there and doing the work!’. There’s a lot of flag-planting and general ‘you’d be lost without us’ in these mottos, which is excellent.

The thing these mottos do is suggest history, ideology, story. Some of them feel defensive, some of them feel defiant, some of them feel ominous, some of them seem incredibly incongruous and make you wonder what the history is (again, why do cooks have ‘wounded not conquered’?).

From a worldbuilding POV … you can put things like this in your world. Like. Was your Cooks Guild hugely involved in a particular war? Was it born out of camp followers way back when? Does your glass sellers guild have a huge and longstanding hatred and rivalry with the local bardic college? Are your wood-metal-and-cloth stainers randomly an ancient fertility cult for no apparent reason? Do several of your guilds have close and sometimes hidden relationships to various deities and practices (are pavers the primary makers of golems)? Are the local weaponsmiths or bowyers extremely arrogant and proud of their craftmanship for extremely specific historical reasons? Are the needlemakers fed up of being looked down on when you’d all be fucking naked if we weren’t here?

Guilds are so much fun. You can do a lot with them, with their histories and hang-ups and beliefs, their relationships with their cities and each other, their reputations and reactions to how people view them, their prominence and decline as various industries crest and fall in different cities and different times. They’re an awesome set of organisations to play with in a world.


#long post #history #D&D #story ideas I will never write #this probably deserves some warning tag but I am not sure what

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