A trade route is simply a passage traversed by merchants and caravans from settlement to settlement for economic purposes. A trade route can pass over land or sea and link multiple locations over great distances. While many goods can flow along each route, some can become famous for certain materials eg the Silk Road and the Spice Routes. Trade routes also facilitate the flow ideas and people and play a vital role in the formation and development of states and empires.
First you’ll need to know what goods are being traded. You should have an idea what regions have access to what resources. Take a look at the Resource Map guide to work this out.
Its also handy to know where the goods are flowing from and to. You may have already placed some settlements near resource deposit during the Resource Map guide. You can also take a look at the Placement of Settlements to add further locations to your map.
Trade routes will form along the easiest, safest, cheapest path between two trade hubs (villages, cities etc).
Generally this is the shortest route, along rivers and along the coast/ across the sea. Its a lot easier, faster and cheaper to transport goods over water. Land routes will avoid difficult terrain and may also form between water routes to link said routes.
Traders will avoid dangerous routes which are home to bandits, outlaws, dangerous animals, and anything that would threaten their cargo, unless they can hire the muscle to protect themselves. This includes dangerous enviroments such as volitile seas. Sometimes great riches could be won by taking big risks though…
Cities on Trade Routes
Settlements on trade routes will prosper and grow. Those that produce or consume goods will grow as a direct result of the trade, but other industries such as inns and entertainment will grow as services and goods are provided to those visiting the settlement.
Villages that lie on a trade route, but don’t trade much may grow as well as traders stopping for the night and restocking their food and water would bring wealth to the village.
Villages near where trade routes intersect will prosper also and may turn into a central trade hub in its own rights over time.
Drawing the Routes
Bearing the above in mind, plot the routes from settlement to settlement ensure every major location, and resource gathering settlement is linked.
Tracking Goods on the Routes
First track the goods produced in significant quantities (if any) at each location on a route (look at nearby resources on your Resource Map). These are the goods exported from each location.
Nearby locations will have access to these resources at a reasonable price, whereas further away locations will pay a higher price. Goods will be luxury, rare or none existant due to the high costs associated with transporting such long distances.
Also be sure to combine goods in a settlement to see what they can produce eg producing tin and importing copper would allow a settlement to produce and export bronze.
List what each Settlement has Access to
Track in a table the resources each settlement has access to. Denote with bold text the resources produced at this settlement and use an astrix to denote elavated prices, and two to denote extremely high prices. You could also use italics if you wish to remind yourself that this good is produced here, not exported.
|Game Meat||Game Meat||Game Meat|
|Cattle Meat||Cattle Meat||Cattle Meat|
To see what goods are passing along a particular stretch of trade route, simply look at the goods available in both settlements. Eg between Rivermeet and Masas there flows: Grain, Game Meat, Cattle Meat, Lumber, and Bronze. We can also see that lumber and especially bronze is especially valuable in this part of the world.
We can also see that Hanfeth produces Tin, and combines it with imported copper to produce bronze to export. They do not export the tin, presumably to protect their monopoly on bronze production. Bronze has to travel a significant distance to reach Mesas, so its expensive here, and we can see its a rarity in Rivermeet.
Using Trade and Resources to Drive Your World
In addition to growing cities, wars might also be caused. A nation that does not have access to an iron source might invade to secure such a supply. An inland country might invade a coastal one to acquire access to fish stocks. Countries might fight over control of certain trade routes, as they did the Silk Road in real life. Prosperous villages, towns and cities, will become targets for raiders, bandits and outlaws and who knows, the noise of the city might attract some nasty critters. If a trade route suddenly changes or finds an alternate route, this could have dire consequences for the region.
Beliefs Regarding Resources
“It was once believed, erroneously, of course, that celestial bodies were responsible for certain precious metals found on Earth. The sun’s rays created gold by passing through the Earth, Mercury created Mercury, the Moon created silver, etc. For this reason, the orbits of those celestial bodies would dictate where to look for those metals. Since the direct rays of the sun created gold, then looking for gold any further north than the Tropic of Cancer or further south than the Tropic of Capricorn, would be foolish, because north and south of those lines never got direct rays of the sun, only angled rays. The same was believed to be true of the other celestial bodies.
Now, obviously, science marches on and alchemy like this wasn’t around forever. But including a belief system into where you can find, and mine precious metals in the world you build, denying the people of that world access to metals that are there, but not where they expect them to be can have great story impact.”
This is an excellent point from a redditor named u/Galaxy_Ranger_Bob. Using beliefs such as these can add some real colour to your world. If it is believed that a certain resource has desirable qualities, this would drive up demand and the price of this good. You could have a plotline where a war is started to control production of said resource and by the time they realise that the good doesn’t do what they thought it does, they have wasted loads of resources and weakened themselves.
Taking the time to add resources and develop trade routes can really breath life into your world and give it new and interesting directions that you hadn’t even thought of. Someone on the Worldbuilding Subreddit once said,
“The mark of good worldbuilding is when the world starts to build itself.” ~Unknown Redditor
Try using this in your worlds and see what they mean, its very satisfying.