I recently started running a 4e game where a character is playing an unaligned merchant bard who is also a bit of a snake oil salesman.

What is a good way to play up the merchant / snake oil salesman aspects of a character?

Some things he'd like to do:

  • Maintain a collection of items for sale: We're both worried about the overhead of managing a store inventory and have thought about using a "trade goods" generic item that he can keep in his wagon inventory and sell instead. However, the idea of being able to use or sell specific items in the cart is something that appeals to us both. I also considered using a rule/boon sort of like the Charm of Making:

    Utility Power x Encounter (Minor Action)

    Effect: You create a nonmagical object in your free hand or in an unoccupied square you touch. The object can weigh up to 10 pounds and be worth no more than 50 gp. The object lasts until you use this power again.

    or like the Robe of Useful Items or similar object:

    Utility Power x Daily (Minor Action)

    Effect: You procure one nonmagical item worth up to 10 gp (with the DM’s approval) from the robe. The item is generic (a torch or a rope, for instance), not a specific item (the key to a particular chest). The item lasts for 1 hour. When it disappears, you regain the use of this power.

  • Selling items in a town: He'd like to be able to unload items he finds throughout the adventure in a town. However, we both like the idea of making it a more interactive process, possibly with skill challenges taking place outside of normal game time. What I'm mainly worried about here is how to balance the amount of gold he earns in terms of what is both level-appropriate and in line with the rest of the party. Additionally, he'd like to be able to buy and sell items for a profit, but the item selling rules only allow resale at a loss.

  • Run scams on people: This seems like the perfect opportunity for some skill challenges, but he and the party are all highly trained in Bluff. How can I make this challenging and interesting?

I'm looking for all the help I can get. Has anyone played with or as a similar character?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds like a great character for a system other than D&D. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 7:22
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ ...Or for one of the versions of D&D in which money isn't a substantial part of game balance. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 7:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ By the way, we're starting this at level 6, if that helps. He's an Eladrin Bard with the Dune Trader theme aiming for the Shady Dealer paragon path. (both slightly refluffed) \$\endgroup\$
    – Corion
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 2:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting choices, but in keeping. Personally, I'd recommend the Traveller's PP, just because it fits the "new city, new face, same-old-scams" mentality so very very well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2013 at 7:52

4 Answers 4


Speaking as someone who has tried something like this, maybe D&D isn't your best system.

Here's why, and what needs to happen to get around the problems.

Money is Finite

In each level of D&D, players are expected to earn a fairly exact amount of money, ranging from not much to being able to buy large cities out of pocket change for healing potions. Selling things doesn't produce money, it merely changes where the money gain occurs.

This means a few things.

First, don't worry about maintaining inventory. At all. He's a greasy merchant with a cart. So long as he has the cart, he gets paid. He gets paid whenever he/the party needs money. Instead of getting grants from kings or rewards from grateful villagers... he defrauds the ungrateful villagers from their money.

The horrible truth that you both have to agree on though is: this doesn't actually change how much money would be earned by the party.

What it does do is make a lovely narrative and a huge plot token for adventure of when the cart is stolen. Also, every three levels, you should generally upgrade the scope of the cart, to keep pace with the amounts of money being exchanged. Plan, in mid paragon, to sell a kingdom a monorail.

For normal magical items ... there's no really good answer. Selling common items is silly, and it's impossible to create uncommon magical items. Personally, I would allow the party to respec their items if the bard/party can overcome a skill challenge (as a DM, I just allow players to choose level appropriate magic items every level because it means I only need to worry about plot magic items. This provides a narrative framework from that. The value gained in the respec because of a new level can represent the "truly excellent scams" that the bard comes up with.)

Having "the right item at hand."

Happily, there exist rules for this. If your merchant is human, ask him to take wild talent master as his free feat. (One of my most favourite feats in the game.) Refluff one of the powers, Mental Tools to be representative of him having "just the right tool on hand." And, of course, the fact that they don't last is even more illustrative of the ... quality... of his fine fine goods.

Make sure the rest of the players are invested in this.

This concept is horrible for normal dungeon crawling. If the party is willing to engage in an urban game, perhaps even with the Break & Enter third-party stealth rules, this can be quite fun. As a concept attached to a normal adventuring group, this concept will be just horrible. Here, maximal refluffing is your friend. Have a complete decoupling of powers from their appearance, such that the party can fit into the venue and archetypes allowed by this world. Furthermore, make sure the entire party is cool with where the "who do we defraud" line is drawn. 4e is not a good game to model subtle party conflict nor direct PvP. Take everyone through the Same Page Tool and probably joint character creation before continuing. Finding the right setting is also important.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What? You mean in D&D money depends only on what the dungeon designer wants to give the characters and not on what they do (picking more or less objects, search for good purchasers, crafting, haggling, robbing,...)? I don't think I have understood you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 21:02
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ To some extent, yes. If you have an overly generous treasure scale, then PC's end up with so much extra gold they can buy magical items that completely unbalance the game, such as level 5 characters with +5 Plate Mail of undead control, and you have to have massively overpowered encounters to compensate, etc etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – JohnP
    Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 22:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Flamma, in 4e, treasure is a component of character and is balanced to the party. While it should be represented as a consequence of their actions, the amounts they gain and the trouble they run into is a function of their level and how much other treasure they have gotten this level. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 22:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Already laid down the ground rule that it would basically be his cut of the level-appropriate party gold. Thanks, did not know about Wild Talents or the Mental Tools power. Only one or two of the party might be okay with an "urban game", but they all really like the dungeon clearing adventures. Hoping to get more responses before I accept this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corion
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 0:52

Personally, what I would do is have some of the treasure items they find be things that are hard to sell.

Instead of finding 100gp, have them find a vial of indeterminable liquid, or an ancient idol.

Let him buy and sell things at a profit by making the items he buys be secretly magic items. I.e. he buys a bunch of barrels, and inside of one of the barrels he feels something is odd. Low and behold inside the barrel is a magic ring. Something he will find a magic item, and sometime he will not, making the buying and selling all the more interesting :)

As long as you manage to keep the math hidden, I think it could turn out to be quite fun.


I think a fun way to do this would be to let your player make some skill checks in each village/town/city. You'd need to homebrew something, but it could end up being a great way to keep a campaign moving.

The inventory-tracking point raised by Brian Ballsun-Stanton is a good idea. It is easier to model the cart contents as an abstract system, by describing it as trade goods items. You could let your player make a check against the number of items he has if he needs to look for something specific, other than that it's immaterial what is in the cart.

A model that may work would be using skill checks to determine how much he can sell an item for (as [base value]+[profit]), and how much it costs to buy the junk items he will sell on later (as [base value]-[swindler's margin]). Then have different sized places have different caps on how much inventory can be moved, and lastly and most importantly make a check for how long the merchant has before people figure out what he's been selling them, and has to make a speedy exit!

This may sound complicated and unnecessary, but I see houserules as a way to improve the game and create interesting and detailed rules for obscure side-problems. I envisage it happening like this:

1) Merchant enters village. Village = max 2d4 sales and 1d4 purchases, with 2d6 - 2 hours before villagers notice deception.

2) Merchant sells (2d4: 6) items for 10gp (base price) + (profit = 1d6: 4)gp. Gain of 6 x 14 = 84gp for 6 items.

3) Merchant buys (1d4: 1) item for 10gp (base price) - (swindler's margin = 1d4: 1)gp. Loss of 1 x 9 = 9gp for 1 item.

4) Merchant has (2d6-2: 2) hours to leave before a mob throws him out.

You can replace each die roll with a skill check, and let the other morally fluid PCs help out if they want. It can lead to roleplaying and plot hooks, especially if the party gets hired to deal with a snake-oil merchant the local noble has heard complaints about! Again, this is just my take, but I think it would work nicely if you tweak it to fit your table and group.


I'm currently creating a merchant, though a bit of the opposite of yours. If you will, allow me to share successful sales gimmicks he would hate to see:

  1. Unexposed items: Mystery items might appeal to the "adventurous" type. Filling most bags with 1 copper item and having one filled with a rare 1 gold item would allow you to sell each bag for 1 silver saying that's the "average of value per bag". Adding a no-refund policy would make it more of a gamble, and avoid the cops.

  2. Knockoffs. As there are in any worlds, some craftsmen are experts while others are still on their way. By marking regular swords with the master craftsmen's seal would raise your profit margin and reputation.

  3. Location: Finding the right location where potions and equipment are needed but no one is selling can allow you to jack up prices.

  4. Snakeoil. Simply that. Calling yourself doctors and making outrageous claims for piss water is the tried and true method.

Lastly, 5. Bulk Buys. Have 9 empty barrels and 1 full of wheat? Fill them all 9/10ths of the way with dirt and top them up with the wheat, "no one will be the wiser"

Note, all these are things my character actively looks for, so avoid other merchants.


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