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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Pawnbroker NPC: The Business of the Business

Let's get a couple of important things out of the way early.

Being a Pawnbroker is nothing like what you’ve seen on television.  Pawn Stars who sit around all day waiting for ancient suits of armor or possible Warhol items to show up so they can call an ‘expert’ is 99% a crock of shit.  I reserve 1% for the occasional oddball item that DOES actually appear in a pawnshop, but for the most part, it’s not like that at all.

You MIGHT be saying “Sure, yeah, we all know Pawn Stars is just TV, but Hardcore Pawn is TOTALLY like real life!” Ummm..nope.  It’s not like that either.  OK..maybe it’s CLOSER to the real life experience of Pawnbrokers than that other show, but it’s still all blown up and cartoonized for TV viewers to consume.  There usually aren’t bodyguards, or lines and lines of people with stuff, or folks being dragged out of a shop.  It just doesn’t happen like that.  Sorry.

Movies have also painted the way we perceive Pawnshops and the folks who own/run them.  I guess it’s safe to say that on some level, a tiny part of each of these media lenses allows a shred of the truth to shine through.

You may have a pawnshop in your town or city.  You should visit it, walk around, maybe even say hello to that weird-looking guy behind the counter.  He has some cool stuff, and you can get it for a nice price...hell, it may be one of the last places in American Retail/Resale where you can haggle a bit.  Make it pleasant, enjoyable, and respectful and you can save even MORE money on those Beats Headphones you want so badly (I personally am a Sennheiser guy, but Beats sure are popular).

In your game world, the Pawnbroker can be an indispensable asset for your players and their characters.  They may stock rare or unusual items, or hard to find items in the player’s current locality, because people who come from all over know they can sell or get a loan on items they might have handy, items that come from far away.

So, how do Pawnbrokers decide what they will buy, what they will write a loan on, or what they will outright reject?  VALUE, both present and predicted, is the key.  In the game world (for the sake of this article we will assume a somewhat medieval European fantasy setting.  Pawnbrokers in Traveler will need to get my meaning), durable goods are going to be common for the pawnbroker to BUY, but not necessarily LOAN against them.  The CONDITION of these items is key, as is also the materials they are constructed from. Below is a short list of items that would make sense for a Pawnbroker to buy, as opposed to write a loan against.

  • Armor or Weapons of Standard make and DECENT condition (meaning any repairs or upkeep would be a minimal investment)
  • Clothes in WEARABLE condition
  • Household items in GOOD condition (cups, plates, knives, curtain rods, )
    • If a Pawnbroker has a very large facility/shop, he may take things like chairs, tables, beds, etc.  The size of the shop often dictates the size of the goods he will buy/loan store
  • General equipment for Farm/Craft use
    • More specialized items may also be suitable for loan, depending on rarity/complexity

This list is easy to keep writing, but the rule of thumb should be : If the item is needed but COMMON, in decent/usable condition, can be sold to a wide group of people (is not usable ONLY by the original seller, or to a small population (hat of a certain size for ex.) and isn’t marked in some way as to indicate ownership OTHER than the person bringing it in, the Pawnbroker will BUY it.

How much should he pay?  ⅓ or LESS than the assessed resale value of the item is standard.

Haggling is customary, and should be encouraged.  Many GM’s will want to use Charisma as the stat to roll against...but I would suggest using Wisdom instead.  Pawnbrokers spend ALL DAY dealing with people who are essentially DESPERATE for money, and they learn to have a thick skin with regard to wailing women, begging men, and  general bullshit as well as the opposite...folks trying to charm the pawnbroker into a sweeter deal.  Pawnbrokers are like Elves...immune to such things, but if they make an offer, they would like to have the item.  This means they will cede a small percentage higher if the item may ‘walk’ (leave the store), and the seller has acted with general courtesy during the negotiation.  So, an example would be”

Seller has a good condition dutch oven, well made and cared for.  She is pleasant to deal with and understands that by selling the item, she will likely not ever possess it again.  With no arguments, the negotiation begins.  The Pawnbroker will start at ½ of ⅓ the value of the item (let’s say it's worth 9sp new).  She will ask for ½ the new value (if she is like most folks, even the ones that come into my shop today), and the Pawnbroker will kindly explain that the price she asks is too high for a reseller, who also needs to earn money from this transaction.  He will then give some ground and offer a bit more, say 2sp.  She seems despondent and asks for 4sp (maybe here she says something about her hungry children, which will have no effect).  She has been easy to deal with, and the pawnbroker knows he can offer 3sp and double his money on a sale, since item is in such good condition. If at 3sp she seems like it’s no-go and she starts to walk out, he will kindly ask if it would help if he offered 3sp and 5cp, and he will make sure that he mentions that ‘it’s really the best he can do, and he understands if she needs to shop the item around elsewhere’.  Geez, it’s a heavy pot, and is she going to get a whole SP more somewhere else?  Why Lug it?  Chances are he will seal the deal with a few extra copper, but he doesn’t make it a habit, and he never will do it if he’s dealing with an asshole.  Never.

If a Pawnbroker can pay LESS for an item he is buying, he will. Simple as that. If he offers 2gp on something worth 50gp and the buyer agrees, than that's the deal. Pawnbrokers love this, they live for it. It means big margins, and for a pawnbroker, inventory is a complex matter (we don't need to go into it here, but it's hard for a pawnbroker to find, keep, or grow inventory).

Loans are an entirely different affair.

Deciding to process a loan against hard collateral takes a bit more skill and knowledge to manage.  Items that qualify for a loan should be somewhat rare or expensive, in good to mint condition, and will maintain or GROW (this is best) in value.  Some items that will make sense for a Pawnbroker to write a loan against are:

  • Musical Instruments in FAIR (or better) condition
  • Gems and Jewelry
    • Obviously silver jewelry is less valuable than gold, rubies are less valuable than diamonds.  You need to use your best judgement here.
  • Books (assuming books in your game world are a rarity)
  • Antiques/Relics: Items generally found in richer homes like a finely made candelabra or a fancy serving plate (especially if made of a rare metal like silver)
  • Magic items
    • Obviously this one gets a bit tricky, but almost every magic item has good value
      • I would use source-books as a guide if lists and gp values are available (Like in the DMG), otherwise you will need to ‘guestimate’ the value
  • Weapons and Armor of Better than Usual make, or rare weapons or armor, and Definitely MAGICAL weapons or armor

Again, this is not a complete list and such a thing would be hard to manage, but the simple rule of thumb for loans is: If it’s rare and valuable, if it will maintain or grow in value over time, and if there is little to no risk in loaning against the item for future return on investment, then the item should qualify for a loan.

Loans are written at generally 1/5th the assessed value of the item.  YES...LESS than a BUY!  Why?  Because the pawnbroker can quickly flip a bought item, it’s not locked into a loan.  There is less risk and red tape, so buying an item outright nets a higher profit for both seller and buyer.  A loan is a risk, and that risk is valued lower.  Simple economics.  So, for example, if a wealthy person comes into the shop with a gold and ruby ring, and the pawnbroker assesses the value at 100gp, then the loan would be written for 20gp, or the item could be sold for 50gp.

How does the pawnbroker track loans?

Well, nowadays we obviously use technology, but the basics are still on paper.  

All items pawned will receive a corresponding chit for redemption, which is transferable.  A notation will be made in a large book of loans. Interest on loans is 5% compounded monthly (this number may be adjusted up on larger loans), a very reasonable rate, and an initial loan fee is also tacked on to each loan, due at repayment.  This loan fee can be any amount, but something reasonable is common, perhaps 1sp (again, this fee may be adjusted upwards on larger loans).  The term of the loan should be standard for the shop, perhaps 90 days.  It’s important that the pawnbroker act in a consistent manner across all loans, since word of mouth will be his marketing, and reliability and trustworthiness will be his stock & trade.  The goods he takes into his care for loan should be well protected, so hiring reliable night guards and even adding magical security will be important (this isn’t Gringotts, or whatever that Potter place is where they lock up people’s valuables, but the Pawnshop needs to be a secure facility or people will not use the service).

Wait, did he say that the Loan Chit is Transferable? Yup.  Anyone with the corresponding loan chit can come back to the pawnshop and redeem that chit, with payment, and receive the item in hock.  That’s a pretty standard thing.

How does the person taking the loan know the amount to repay?  Well in today’s world we give them a slip of paper, which they have signed, outlining all of that information.  In-game, the Pawnbroker should explain the payment due over time to the person taking the loan.  It is THAT PERSON’S RESPONSIBILITY TO REMEMBER AND HAVE APPROPRIATE PAYMENT AVAILABLE FOR REDEMPTION.  So the GM should work the numbers for 1, 2 and final months repayment before the loan is transacted and the player should make a note.  The GM should also note it somewhere as well, but at the time of redemption, if the player has forgotten the repayment amount, the GM might make use of that information to take advantage of the situation.  ALSO, the GM should give the player all dates for payments, and a FINAL DATE for repayment.  Time is very important with regard to loans. The pawnbroker will be counting the days until the loan is due, and once it’s over there is no going back.  If the player/character tries to come back for an item the morning AFTER the loan is due, it will not be available.

Are Pawnbrokers into shady or illegal stuff?  You would think so, right?  But who do you think is the first guy the cops come see after a burglary?  Yup.  It’s a conspicuous business by its very nature.  Now, that isn’t to say that every pawnbroker operates above board.  I’m sure some don’t.  Really sure.  It’s up to you how to play him.  He could be the biggest fence in the city, or simply be working with that guy, and so ‘hot’ goods might travel through the pawnbroker for a percentage or flat finders fee.  Maybe the Pawnbroker is a dealer of other ‘products’ and his pawns are all above board, but he’s dealing drugs out the back.  There’s no one right way to play him.  He’s unique, an individual, but his business like most is somewhat standard, hence the rules for Buys and Loans.

Wow..that was a lot of info...and I didn’t even get to the neato stuff I use to enhance the pawnbroking NPC’s with magic… this is gonna be a 2-parter, and next time I will discuss the ways where magic can play either a partial or pivotal role with regard to the Pawnbroker as an NPC.

I may have jotted down some things that prompt questions...feel free to ask me in the comments here or in my G+ posts and I will answer them if I can.

I think the Pawnbroker is a super-fun addition to the game, even though I do it all day, every day. Give it a spin, and let me know what you think!


  1. Whew. A lot to chew on here. This seems like it could have been an add-on to Gary Gygax's "The Canting Crew" (That's a high compliment, as I esteem TCC as a quite valuable member of my gaming library.) -- not because the Pawnbroker is a member of the Crew (though he could be, as you write above), but because members of The Crew could use the Pawnbroker to their advantage. This is excellent and I have not yet seen the way magic could work for, against, or with the Pawnbroker. Nice work again, Howard.

    1. Thanks again Mike. I haven't read the Canting Crew, but now I guess I have a reason to explore it. Working on the more Magical Aspects of certain Pawnbrokers now...should be out soon!

  2. Great article I look forward to see your next segment on this. Definitely an idea I will consider using in my games.

    1. Glad you liked it! I'm working on the 2nd part now, hopefully just a few days and I can post it. Thanks for the add to the blogroll as well!

  3. I now want to build an entire encounter revolving around a pawnbroker. Funny that I've never considered such an NPC or locale in any of my games.


    1. Let me know how it goes! I'd love to read about your NPC Pawnbroker and how your players interact and deal with him. Game On!