Role-playing games have a long and storied tradition, dating back to the 1970’s when games were played with pen and paper in our living rooms. From their earliest beginnings, RPGs have drawn on a consistent set of familiar tropes to populate their perilous worlds – creating archetypes that can be found in RPGs far and wide. In this series, we examine some of the most common RPG archetypes, and delve into how they have been implemented across the genre’s rich history.
For our first outing, we examine a mainstay of any RPG world – the merchant. Whether they are sitting back in town waiting to purchase your hard-earned loot, or coming along for the adventure themselves, merchants have been a ubiquitous part of RPGs from the very beginning. Merchants are often characterized as businessmen first, friends second – interested in rare treasure, long-lost fortunes, and making a name for themselves as a broker of needed wares for adventurers and villagers alike.
From this basic template, game designers have created a creative mix of colorful characters, interesting abilities, and subversions on the archetype that have lead to some truly unforgettable RPG experiences.
Shopkeepers – An RPG’s Bread and Butter
Perhaps the most straightforward use of merchants – and certainly the oldest and most prominent – is to litter them in every town as a means of unloading loot and upgrading equipment. Typical shops found in RPGs include armories, item shops, magic shops, churches, and inns. In many RPGs, the merchants manning these shops come in a variety of sprites and personalities, usually aligned to the shop which they tend. They play a crucial role in the game’s internal economy, the balance of which can either turn a game into an unrelenting grindfest (Dragon Quest 1) or leave a player constantly overpowered by the latest and greatest equipment available (EXAMPLE).
But even within this limited dynamic, game designers have found room for variety. The shop-bound merchant does not always need to be a lifeless shell. Some shopkeepers are given unique personalities and quirks, becoming a vital method of establishing the game’s tone. Still, others act as quest givers and important links in the game’s story. Some may even offer side quests that unlock key abilities, the most powerful equipment, or that extra infusion of gold to get you prepared for the next major step in the game’s plot.
Of course, some developers take the simple merchant dynamic the other direction, removing any semblance of character entirely. The developers behind Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler, for instance, make shops and inns simple menus, with no interior rooms or shopkeepers to meet of any kind. This technique can strip away the facade and allow developers and gamers to focus on worldbuilding in other parts of town. The approach is simple, but accomplishes its goal well.
The Noncombat Party Member
Between the village-bound NPC and full-on party member lies another unique means of slotting merchants into an RPG – the non-combat party member. These merchants find their ways into a company of heroes not to take up arms against evil – but simply to offer whatever assistance they can with their available skills. Some are even only there to make a quick buck.
Whatever the case may be, these party members stay out of the limelight, preferring to stay back from the main party and do what they do best, buy, sell, and organize equipment.
A key example of this implementation of the Merchant Archetype is Merlinus, from Fire Emblem’s sixth and seventh installments. In Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword (known simply as Fire Emblem in the west) Merlinus joins the party after being rescued from a band of brigands. Outside of battle, Merlinus serves as the “equipment manager,” giving the player a place to bank excess items that their party members cannot carry. But his utility doesn’t stop there. By deploying Merlinus to the battlefield, he allows units to send items back to camp, quickly exchange equipment, and adds an extra layer of strategy, as his cart must be protected from enemy units.
This sort of party member shows that these fantasy worlds are inhabited by more than just muscle-bound heroes, and that more than brute strength may be necessary to wage war against the legions of evil.
Merchants as Job Class
One of earliest implementations of turning merchants into combat units, of course, follows along with the roots of RPGs. Merchants have been featured as accessible job classes, joining the likes of warriors, thieves, mages, and monks.
One of the earliest examples of this comes from Dragon Quest 3, where the merchant class is available from the very start of the game. These merchants had no spells or great strengths to speak of, but they did provide the player with additional money after each battle. Remakes on later consoles would further bolster the Merchant’s arsenal, but this basic template – making money where other characters could not – has remained a staple of the Merchant class for decades.
Dragon Quest also added an additional story-based wrinkle into its merchants. Namely, creating a merchant is necessary to complete the final game. When the player discovers the beginnings of a settlement on a distant continent, the colonists ask for a merchant to join their community and help build their town to prominence. The player must then either create a new merchant or give up a stalwart companion for good to see the town grow. As the town grows, the merchant’s greed and avarice grows with it, and they eventually find themselves imprisoned by the town they helped create. This simple approach integrates gameplay, story, and capitalist stereotypes.
In newer titles that feature the merchant class, heroes who take on this job gain a variety of abilities centered on making and spending money. In Bravely Default, for example, gaining the merchant class requires you to take down an ruthless businessman, intent on exploiting an entire city for his own profit. The abilities used by this merchant – and eventually learned by the player – center on using hard-earned gold to purchase items mid-battle, deal direct damage to enemies, or reduce incoming damage.
An Identity All Their Own
As RPGs grew and evolved from the class centered roots, traditional job classes grew into full-on characters – and the merchant is no exception. Characters with a merchant background often begin their quests with the goal to make their fortune, then find themselves wrapped up in the hero’s journey. They often discover there’s more to life than the amount of gold in the purse.
Following the introduction of the merchant class in Dragon Quest 3, the series next installment brought us Taloon, the hero of Dragon Quest 4’s third chapter. Beginning the adventure as a merchant looking to strike out on his own, Taloon’s path inevitably crosses with that of the game’s central hero, and he provides both his fighting prowess and his unique merchant abilities (including a cart to carry goods) to the main party. Taloon is driven by an innate wanderlust and love of treasure typical of many merchant stereotypes, he is also largely motivated by a desire to provide for his wife and children. This balanced approach helps Taloon serve as an effective model for how to make a merchant character both cater to and subvert expectations.
That sense of wanderlust carries over into modern interpretations of the merchant archetype as well. Tressa, one of the eight heroes of Octopath Traveler, begins her journey with a similar goal in mind. By traveling the world, she hopes to broaden her horizons and hone her merchant skills to a level she could never reach by staying in her quiet home town. Where Taloon represents the older merchant archetype, Tressa represents the younger. Wide-eyed and idealist, Tressa must learn throughout her journey what being a good merchant means to her. She must learn what morals she lives by and how to identify what her customers (and she herself) values most.
From a gameplay perspective, Tressa comes with Merchant abilities both old and new. She is able to collect gold from monsters, barter with townsfolk for rare or discounted items, and can even bring in “hired help” into battle at the cost of a few leaves. Tressa’s personality and ability-set make her a fan favorite in the Octopath Traveler community, proving that a merchant can be every bit as engaging and useful as any other class.
Blurring the Lines
Perhaps the most ambitious means of implementing the merchant archetype comes from games that meld traditional RPG elements with shop simulation gameplay.
Moonlighter, released recently on the Nintendo Switch, shows that even the shopkeeping aspects of being a merchant can be turned into compelling gameplay mechanics that richen the player’s immersion into the game world. The hero of Moonlighter and owner of the eponymous shop, Will, ventures out at night into dangerous dungeons to collect materials to sell during the day. The ebb and flow of Moonlighter’s gameplay finds the player diving deeper and deeper into a widening array of dungeons, then returning to town, setting and adjusting prices, and watching as the gold spills in. This integration fully merges all aspects of the merchant archetype into a single, coherent experience unique to this class.
Merchants in RPGs stand as a shining example that even the most mundane of professions can be reimagined into fun and engaging heroes. They are one of many RPG archetypes that can add flavor and variety to any story, breaking away from the common tropes associated with the genre. Games like Moonlighter prove how even a simple merchant can be the hero of their own story, whether that be through fighting hordes of monsters or making a quick buck back in town.