Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The fluttering heartbeat of caravanning

As I noted in the comments, after a turn for the worse in Harshlands, I had a talk with the admins which (just barely) appeased me enough to keep me walking out. Today I got another token gesture: it's now possible to buy object-type (not mobile-type) dogs for use as props, though still not for breeding without admin intervention. I'm not availing myself of it, partly because the idea of dogs just makes me ill after how it was treated in the past, and partly because Reb's money situation is now so tight he can't spend any money on frivolities.

How's that? He's an active Master of what is supposed to be, according to canon, the most wealthy and influential guild in all the Isle.

So goes the theory. But the nerfing of caravanning in Harshlands continues on apace; it is already far, far less profitable than, say, woodworking or hideworking, and looks very likely to be made even less so.

It's hard to explain how and why to people without making their eyes glaze over, if they're not already familiar with business concepts like capital investment, operating funds, profit margins, cost of storage, etc. And most of the time when I try to explain this, people don't even remember the most basic of all costs, cost of goods sold. I have literally been stopped at selling things because of how big gross revenue looked!

The key economic factors that everyone always forgets are:
  1. Mercantylers add relatively little value, since they don't produce anything. Thus, their gross profit margins -- the ratio of gross revenue to cost of goods -- are far, far lower than in other trades. If a woodcrafter spends 100p on materials, the resulting goods will sell for 250p or so. If a mercantyler spends 100p on goods, the resulting sales will gross maybe 130p.

  2. Mercantylers have much higher overhead costs. In fact, in Harshlands most trades have no overhead costs until master level, and few after. They pay no taxes, no transportation costs, no permit fees, and only pay rent after becoming a master. All they do is drop their completed goods in a particular place and they sell at full price. Mercantylers, on the other hand, pay out handsomely for guards (the lion's share of the costs -- no pun intended), tolls, food and other supplies, wagon repair, and now we'll also be forced to pay for teamsters and hawking permits. These eat away quickly at revenue, and since most of them are fixed regardless of the quantity of cargo, they force a minimum size on a trip to make a profit at all. (Which is why having my wagons stuck at 1/8 the size that I was originally told they'd be completely ruined so many of my plans... one of many times that changing the rules on me midstream has forced me to yet again reinvent my business to try to make it work.)

  3. Mercantylers have probably the single highest startup costs. Only jewelers can hope to compare. As in real life, you need to have money to make money -- and you expect to get a higher yield when you do start with money, or else why bother to go into this level of investment?

  4. Mercantylers also require a higher level of operating capital -- that is, liquidity of assets -- to operate. People expect a wide selection of goods of a variety of types from a mercantyler, so it's always tempting to load up your stock. But you have to have a lot of free coin on hand, too. To handle the considerable up-front costs of each venture -- buying cargo, paying guards whether it sells or not, etc. To be able to take advantage of chances to buy when they come. To be able to absorb setbacks like not being able to sell your cargo. For instance, Reb's second trip last season earned him about 1400p on the sale of grains, and then tied up almost 2200p in furs that, if they sold, would have made him another 625p profit; but since they didn't sell, as the caravan market in Tashal remains non-functional, the trip on the whole actually drained 800p from Reb's coffers. He has 2200p worth of furs as assets, but these are all but worthless since they do not sell (not even to vNPCs, since they always go for the 1p-and-less bin).

  5. Mercantylers face a much higher risk than most trades. Both financially (the real risk of goods not selling as expected, which has bitten Reb time and time again) and physically (the risk of coming away from a venture wounded, maimed, or dead). High risk is like high investment capital requirements: the only reason people engage in it is for the chance of much higher rewards.
Of course, the factor that should, and did in real life, make caravanning profitable, even rich-making, in spite of all these, is quantity. The bigger your load, the smaller those fixed overhead costs become by proportion, and the more you can squeeze out of a razor-thin margin. And that in turn makes the need for huge startup costs and operating capital only bigger.

Despite all this, it seems like the admins look at the possible gross revenue from a single trip and panic and that's the end of the analysis. "160 bushels of wheat at 22.5p each means 3600p... we can't let someone earn 3600p! Especially if they can come back and do it again!" Except of course that the profit on that trip is only about 1000p, and you can't do it again for another year. If by some miracle I could make three two-leg trips a year, without ever having a cargo fail to sell and without ever being robbed by bandits, my net profit would be at best 6000p... which an active journeyman woodcrafter can make with zero risk, zero capital investment, and very little need for operating capital, in the same amount of time.

And that's just how things are today. Almost every variable that led to the 6000p possible annual income, is currently being considered for reduction.

In fact, right now, the admins are discouraging me from practicing my trade at all "until the work behind it is complete so it is setup properly". Admittedly, it's not even been a week since the last time we talked about this, and that week included Christmas. But it's been three months since I got my caravanner license. It's been six months since I was eligible to get my caravanner's license. It's been 14 months since I announced my intention to become a caravanner. When should I start counting from? Particularly when all the plans right now seem to be limited to ways to nerf caravanning farther.

The fact is, caravanning could be functional right now, according to the plans I posted last week on the forums, if someone finally made about three decisions, and then someone spent a few hours, maybe one day, on building. There are refinements that would take longer, but it'd be functional with just that. The same few hours of work I've been asking for for months.

I find myself feeling like I have to be on the defensive because the need for large profits on this or that trip to provide operating capital for the following trips comes off as rampant greed. Now, I've played Reb as having slightly absorbed some of the "ethic" of his guild; he's flippantly casual about sums of money that would have made him faint when he was apprentice, and he hasn't hesitated to spoil his wife with fine jewelry. But at the same time he's still the humblest member of his guild; all he's bought himself is a fine sword (which has probably saved his life already; he sees it as operating equipment, a business expense) and two suits of moderately nice clothes (but linens, not silk and lace and frippery). I still find myself thinking other people think I am money-hungry -- like I'm treating the size of my coffer as a score and I want to get high score -- and explaining the economics of caravanning does little to diminish that opinion, since no one ever listens long enough to become convinced. All I want is enough to make it work and keep working -- not my fault that that happens to be a very large number! That's the nature of the trade.

All this is, quite ironically and amusingly, entirely moot. Since even if caravanning were implemented and feasible and profitable enough to justify its costs, it's not currently possible in Tashal for a rather stupid reason: lack of guards.

The mercenary company in Tashal recently lost two people. Just two. But since one of them was the only one with high enough rank to order around the NPC members, all those NPCs are now also unusable. There's no IC explanation for why those NPCs cannot be used on missions anymore. By all rights one of them should be the new captain, in fact. As a result, the entire company consists of only two usable members.

Hire NPCs, you say. Good idea. Only trouble is, where canon says you can hire a guard for about 40p round trip (and even the Harshlands price list still says so), it now costs about 3000p to hire one. That's because you have to prepay for 10 years service, and you have to supply all the required equipment. Remember what I said about startup costs and operating capital? For me to get enough NPC guards to make a trip to Azadmere viable would cost all my profits from the next 18 trips. If I suddenly came into a huge pile of money, I couldn't earn back the investment for, at a minimum, six years. How could I even hope to ever raise that much -- particularly if the only means to raise it requires that I already have it? (Can't even go into debt to do it; maximum amount of debt I could go into isn't even enough to buy a single guard, even though I'm a member of the guild that makes the loans.)

At this point, with almost half this year's trading season gone, I'm reduced to begging every passerby who can hold a sword if they will let me overpay them to go to Azadmere, and almost everyone can't because they're all apprenticed to someone, or employed by someone. Even the Crimson Leopards, which includes the Royal Foresters, can only front at best three people.

As of this writing, if every single person who said they might come comes, we will just barely have enough to make the trip. If even a single person doesn't log on at the appointed time, we're screwed. I haven't even gotten a cost out of the Leopards, nor do I have a clear idea of whether I'll have to pay just the hawking permit, just the bulk markdown, or both, so it's possible that even if it does go off I will only break even.

But can I complain? No. If I talk about this, most of the time people just don't believe me. Without knowing about caravanning or even basic concepts of business, without any insight into the history of how caravanning has been changed in Harshlands, they just look at the large numbers and they're blinded by them. They're sure I'm just being a negative-nancy, defeatist, that I don't really want to find a solution. They start proposing ill-informed, half-baked solutions, and I shoot them down one after the other, and they get discouraged and blame me for it. Understandable, but it's not my fault! If there were an answer that obvious I would have found it. They get the impression that I'm not even trying, when what's happened is actually that I've been trying for a long, long time, and as unhappy as I am, I'm still trying from long before they tried and until long after they'll give up.

I don't mean to suggest that caravanning is the only reason for Reb to exist, for me to log in. But almost all the other reasons either depend on it, or are dormant for other reasons.
  • The Silver Plough, Reb's charitable organization, has nothing particular to do; we're brainstorming tinyplots we can set up and run ourselves, but we can't find any that won't require at least admin permission, which I'm loath even to ask for, and any good ones would require admin support, which I can't even vaguely hope for.
  • Besides, the only reason the Plough is not defunct from lack of coin is that I have not junked as much coin, food, and clothing as I ought to have by now, plus a few big donations; but caravanning's large revenue was the entire raison d'etre for the Silver Plough, so if that is dried up, the Plough is doomed, eventually.
  • Reb's marriage and family life are entirely off-camera since his wife hardly ever logs in.
  • His farm has had all the fun drained out of it by an exceedingly poorly thought out change to farming crafts; the only reason I planted this year is because the revenue from farm goods (enhanced by my ability to sell them at wholesale) is what's keeping me financially afloat, but I resent every time it takes me 10 game minutes to plant a single carrot seed.
  • Hanging out in Tashal in hopes of roleplay, when farming doesn't make it impractical, rarely leads to anything these days: there are rarely more than a few people around at any time, since so many people have been splintering the player base into other locations, so we now have 5-6 pockets of 2-3 people unable to get anything started, where we used to have 2-3 pockets of 5-6 people engaged in somewhat vibrant roleplay.
  • Plus a lot of complaining about people being AFK means people now log in, check if anyone's there, and log off if they're not, and when everyone does that, there are never people there.
What it all adds up to is simple: no reason to log in. Right now the only reason I'm logged in is the very, very remote chance that some cluster of able men-at-arms will suddenly show up and want to be hired on, so I can make this trip to Azadmere happen. Even though I know that will likely be a source for more frustration when I prove unable to sell the wheat, or some other caravanning-nerf ruins my plans mid-stream. I have to try -- that's how I got this far -- but by the same token, I've endured through enough reason to give up a dozen times already, buoyed up by the promise that I would finally, at least, arrive, and get to spend my time doing the things I wanted to do from the start -- the adventure of caravanning afield, the development of character when at home. Each time that arrival becomes again delayed indefinitely, it's that much harder to believe it'll ever come. Right now, I don't really believe it at all. Haven't for a while. I'm just going on sheer pigheadedness now. And pigheadedness is an affliction that doesn't last.

1 comment:

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

I've just discovered that when I went to the NPC miller, instead of getting 10-15% of my wheat kept, I had 50% of it kept. The miller walked away with 4,625p worth of wheat from me that day.

Had I realized, I would never have done it. That loss will consume any profit I can make from the next 3-4 trips. It erases most of the profit I made at Azadmere last year.

This is the admins' "solution" to the fact that my trade is dependent on a PC that has not logged in for over a month now. Bend over, Reb, this is what it's like being a mercantyler in Harshlands.