Founded after the Fall of the Dwarven Kings three hundred years ago, the first of the Merchant Guilds were dwarven. In short order, though, their organized and ruthless approach to both craftsmanship and mercantilism allowed them to spread, absorbing or destroying competitors.
The Guilds Today
The Guilds - always spoken of in the plural, though it refers to the singular organization - are the lifesblood of the land. Their approach is simple: a brotherhood of craftsmen and those who sell the craftsman's wares. Their influence and wealth are notable, so much so that the Guilds are given two seats on the Accord of Worlds in Liminal.
The culture of the Guilds is a descendant of some aspects of dwarven culture, most notably in the names of the gods they give, codified in a system of practice called the Guildsfaith.
The Guilds maintain a simple goal, expressed in their motto: Abradh Volduur - "Let All Prosper". A holdover of dwarven culture that maintains that the whole of a community must prosper in order to have a righteous, worthy culture, the Guilds embrace this notion and apply it the broader world as a whole (although, they do seek to ensure that their memberships do the prospering in situations where not everyone can).
Guildsfolk are organized in the old dwarven crafts-guilds way.
- Apprentices serve masters who teach them their trade in exchange for unpaid labor, housed, fed and clothed by their masters. Good service and growing skill may earn an apprenticeship his journeyman status.
- Journeyfolk are licensed by the Guilds to practice their trade. Journeyfolk often become wanderers, doing whatever paying work they can find for their craft or find paying work in a master's shop. Most journeyfolk look to establish their own shops eventually, a place where they can perfect their craft. Those journeyfolk who believe they are ready attend the annual Guilds Symposium at Gorum Midrath, where the masters gather annually. Presentation of a master-work example of the journeyfolk's finest work and rigorous testing by a council of masters is required before a journeyfolk becomes a master; indeed, not all journeyfolk end up as masters.
- Masters are not just skilled craftsfolk, but also teachers and leaders. They set the standards for their craft, including pricing, so a master must also demonstrate some understanding of economic principles. Only masters may take on apprentices or serve on the Guilds Council.
- Guilds Councilfolk: Those few masters who demonstrate not simply skill, but charisma and a head for leadership may be asked to serve as Councilfolk in the Guilds citadel of Gorum Midrath, an ancient dwarven city that was the first of the dwarven city-states to throw over the rule of noblemen for that of the Guilds three hundred years ago. Most Councilfolk are dwarves, unsurprisingly, as Councilfolk serve for life, and many of the current Councilfolk are elder dwarves from the centuries just after the Fall, when the Guilds grew in size. A handful of masters from other races have become Councilfolk in the meantime, though there is a low-lying resentment among many of the older dwarves, who still see the Guilds as a dwarven endeavor.
- Guildspriests: Though not members of the Guilds proper, the priests of the Guildsfaith work very closely with the Guilds at every level. Out of courtesy for their selfless work, the Guilds treat priests of the Guildsfaith as members of the Guilds, at a level equivalent to their place in the faith, with Acolytes as Apprentices, Guildspriests as Journeymen, and Wisdoms as Masters. The head of the church, the Faithwright, has an advisory seat on the Guilds Council.
Not all craftsfolk are members of the Guilds; many out-of-the-way areas have few if any Guildsfolk, and even those areas that do still have holdouts who stubbornly refuse to join the organization. In particular, the elves and eldarin have demonstrated a marked disdain for the "coin-grubbing" dwarven organization, preferring the elven traditions of craftsmanship as an art that benefits one's community, trusting that the community will provide for the craftsman (a tradition that many Guildsfolk see as little better than being a beggar).
All craftsfolk and merchants are eligible for membership, however, if they can pass the rigorous testing required. A craftsfolk who passes this test is considered a beginning journeyfolk within the appropriate Guild, although depending on his level of skill, he may find himself accorded the title of master sometime thereafter. The shortest such time as a journeyfolk allowed is one year and one day.
Those who cannot pass these tests are permitted a period of time of study under a Guildsfolk - not an apprenticeship, formally, but a period of time known as being an "under-Guildsfolk". An under-Guildsfolk is unpaid, and indeed may continue to practice their normal craft. But during this time, they shadow their sponsor in the Guilds (who is always a master), learning the skills required to bring their work up to Guilds standards, as well as the various other skills that make Guildsfolk unique: economic theory, the culture of the Guilds and the various elements that apprentices pick up organically as part of their training.
Though a sponsor is unpaid for his time, if the under-Guildsfolk does manage to complete his testing successfully, he then owes 15% of his earnings for a period of time equal to that which he served as an Under-Guildsfolk. In this way, under-Guildsfolk are encouraged to push through their lessons, learning them well and quickly. Many new journeyfolk instead repay this debt by working for their former sponsors, giving them further training in Guild operations as well as a means of quickly paying back that time.
The Guild Seal
Upon achieving journeyfolk status, each Guildsfolk is given a palm-sized seal of metal, expertly crafted and one of a kind. It includes his maker's mark (a symbol that is pressed, burned or carved onto items the Guildsfolk makes himself) and the symbol of his Guild affiliation. Guildsfolk who own shops always display their seals in prominent locations, along with the seals of any journeyfolk who work for them. Traveling Guildsfolk carry their seals with them, usually in specialized coffers that they are required to show anyone who asks to see it.
The Guilds are in a unique position to provide a variety of services to the lands.
- Crafts: The most obvious service the Guilds provide is a body of skilled craftsfolk who work together to improve their craft mutually. Instead of singular craftsfolk passing on their own innovations only to their apprentices, the Guilds work to foster the best and the brightest. The annual Guilds Symposium in Gorum Midrath sees presentation of the finest new techniques, materials and theories for each of the Guilds presenting, and those journeyfolk and masters who attend the Symposium may take away great new skills they might never have had the opportunity to innovate for themselves.
- Mercantilism: The Guilds have a justified reputation as shrewd economic masterminds. Part of their lore comes from old dwarven ruminations on such topics, philosophy which formed the foundation of some early dwarven theology. Most of it, however, comes from excellent record-keeping that is the lifesblood of the Guilds, paired with a perspective that far outstrips that of anyone else in the world. Simply put, the Guilds have the luxury of looking at trends on a scale no one else operates on, and they do not hesitate to use that perspective to their advantage.
- Guildtowns: The Guilds occasionally either "adopt" small settlements in out of the way areas, or outright found them, paying the hefty prices necessary to gain government commissions to do so. Such settlements are considered investments, and all the local Guilds work to foster them into a place of prosperity for everyone's benefit. Masters will send journeymen with the start-up coin to establish new shops there in exchange for a portion of the profits for a decade or two, and all the Guilds pitch in to ensure it is quickly and efficiently established and guarded, often hiring mercenaries to do so. There are three main kinds of towns:
- Market Towns: Market towns are established at crossroads and at the center of larger areas of production. The Guilds quickly establish these towns with large market places, and frequently throw festivals and other events intended to attract buying crowds. They often arrange for luxurious accommodations for the local nobility for very little price, knowing that such folk attract others by their sheer presence.
- Port Towns: Port towns are river- or sea-side towns, always constructed with extensive docks and facilities for trading vessels. They are often at the ends of caravan routes, and while they usually include a small market of some sort, their main purpose is to act as a place to allow goods in and out of the region.
- Caravan Towns: Caravan towns are way-points along caravan paths, often fairly well-defended. They are generally founded in areas with little such amenities - long routes between places with no settlements or way-inns are the perfect place for the founding of such a town. Caravan towns are frequently established by purchasing a lone inn or caravanserai that already exists, and then building up the inn and the surrounding territory with shops and facilities of interest to caravans and travelers alike.
- The Stoneways: These ancient dwarven thoroughfares have been put to good use by the Guilds, who reserve them for their sole use. Though their most common application is to provide Guilds caravans traveling long distance the ability to do so in safety, many very rich folk have been known to hire Guildsfolk to guide them through the Stoneways when traveling such distances as well.
- Mediation: The Guilds pride themselves as men and women of reason as well as shrewd negotiators. It is no surprise, then, that the rich and powerful often seek to employ them as mediators when the situation warrants it. The Guilds like to brag that their mediators have prevented feuds and whole wars. In order to qualify as a Guilds mediator, a journeyfolk or master must submit to the testing as one of the Guilds Symposia. Those who qualify have a silver ribbon hung from the bottom of their Guild Seal.
- Banking: The Guilds also provide banking services. Only masters with a shrewd head for numbers, who pass the necessary training over the course of three Guilds Symposia qualify to have the gold chain that marks a Guilds banker draped across the bottom of their seals. Guilds shops that also act as bankers usually drape gold-painted chains along the bottom of their shop signs as well. Banks: The First Guildsbank of Liminal, Market Quintan (M1)
- The Guilds bankers provide a variety of services, foremost of which is money-lending to noble houses and business owners. These bankers also maintain a deposits system, in which an individual might deposit a certain amount of money with one banker and withdraw a like amount from another banker elsewhere. The customer is given a certificate, marked with the banker's seal and must indicate where the funds will be withdrawn from, allowing the banker to send word ahead to expect the transaction. Alternately, the certificate may be simply shown to any banker, but the funds will not be available until the banker has written to the issuer of the certificate to verify its authenticity.
- Most of this communication is done via the Guilds Post, but extremely wealthy customers may pay for magical communications as part of the service. Many bankers who provide this service are drawn from the Spellwrights' Guild, but even those without magic often have the means to secure such arcane communications.
- In the last fifty years or so, actual Guilds banks have been established in some major cities. They are always operated by masters, as normal, but have also taken to hiring journeymen who have been injured or in some way prevented from practicing their crafts. These Guilds banks always have a Spellwright on staff. The advent of Guildsfolk who are nothing but bankers has led to a call to create a new Guild for their art, but the Council is split on the matter.
- Postal Service: Originally, Guilds merchants were happy to carry messages to other location on their route for a nominal fee. This was an old dwarven tradition which carried into the formation of the Guilds proper. Over a century ago, however, a new Guild was formed: the Missivefolk's Guild. Since then, the Guilds Post has become a well-established service in all places where the Guilds have even a single shop. One shop in any town (or multiple in large towns and cities) is given a "missive counter" where locals may deliver letters and packages to be delivered elsewhere for a fee.
- The Missivefolk's Guild employs courier riders who ride a round twice a day to pick up and deliver such missives and parcels, delivering them between missive counters. Then, the Guildsfolk who runs the missive counter sees that those messages are delivered, usually by his apprentices.
- The Missivefolk's Guild has lobbied thus far to be permitted (in emulation of the Guilds banks) to open up formal Missive Houses that do nothing but provide such services and possibly also keep scribes on hand to be paid to write for those who cannot do so for themselves, but the postal fees provide a tidy income for a great many Guildsfolk, and they are loathe to cede that right.
- Workhouses: The very poor, indigent and refugees are not permitted to simply loiter wherever they like in Liminal. If they are caught by the authorities, they are sent to one of the workhouses in the Workman's Quintan. Men and married women are sent to the Raudlun Workhouse, single or widowed women are sent to the Two Suns Workhouse, while children are cared for in the Carenden Hall Workhouse. The workhouses provide food, shelter and clothing (to the best of their financial ability). In return, those who are there can be hired by individuals for a variety of cheap labor, usually manual labor. Half of these fees go to the workhouses. Its residents are encouraged to impress employers, who may choose to then employ them - or at least, that is the philosophy. In truth, most employers prefer to continue the cheap labor of workhouse residents. The workhouses, as an arm of the Merchant Guilds, are also supposed to organize testing to see who in their care might qualify as apprentices or journeyfolk in the Guilds, but in reality the House Masters and Matrons are far too busy with logistics and discipline to administer such testing.
- Dwarven Governance: The Guilds were a necessary innovation in dwarven culture after the Fall of the Kings. Though their influence has certainly spread beyond the dwarven peoples, the mountain people still rely on the Guilds to govern their societies. Dwarven communities always turn to the local masters of the Guilds to make decisions for the whole of the community, as well.
- The Ancient & Revered Order of Ironwrights: One of the three original Guilds, the ironwrights are an ancient dwarven legacy of iron-smiths. They maintain incredible techniques of the finest work, such that few of their masters know all of them, and those who do are inevitably dwarves who have been practicing their arts for a hundred or more years.
- The Sacred Stonewright's Guild: The second of the founding Guilds, the stonewrights are architects and masons. They are generally divided into two classes as masters (those who specialize in hands-on building techniques, and those who design the intended constructions), but journeyfolk are expected to know and use both sets of skills.
- The Prosperous Mercantilist's Guild: The Guilds merchants are shrewd businessfolk and negotiators. Guilds history maintains that it was the Mercantilists who first came up with the idea and operation of the Guilds, tired of shoddy workmanship and absurd pricing schemes that were wholly local in origins. As a result, approximately a third of the Councilmen are drawn from this Guild.
- The Martial & Industrious Order of Armswrights: The first of the Guilds to split from another Guild, the armswrights were once considered simply ironwrights. In time, however, their influence and wealth grew to the point where they were able to petition for recognition of their skillset unique from those of other ironmongers. Though the ironwrights fought for nearly seventy years to prevent it, the Armswright's Guild was eventually recognized.
- The Most Numinous Spellwright's Guild: A guild of arcanists and magicians, the Spellwrights were formed in response to the positively usurious prices the early Guilds found themselves being charged by wizards when their work needed magical support. To that end, the dwarven wizard Warkuzad Flint was offered a seat on the Council in exchange for founding this Guild to train magicians and provide magic at reasonable Guilds-rate. Many magicians consider the Spellwrights money-grubbing at best; at worse, they are accused of defiling the ancient magical arts.
- The Worthy & Diligent Guild of Missivefolk: A Guild of riders, the Missivefolk are specialized couriers and messengers. Apprentices are usually paired up with masters who teach them the nuances of riding the routes, the care of mounts and how to actually ride. Journeymen are sent out as the bulk of the riders in outlying routes, while masters usually tend to the major routes. Those masters who grow too old to ride routes sometimes establish way-stables, where missivefolk may trade up horses and find safe lodging for their mounts, their parcels and themselves along longer routes.
- The Steady & Sinewed Guild of Teamsters: The first of the so-called Argulath Guilds (from a dwarven word that refers to work that does not produce a product, or "service industry" work), the Teamsters are a political force to be reckoned with.
- The Most Nurturing Guild of Clothiers: A Guild of cloth-makers, seamstresses and tailors.
- The Attentive & Precise Guild of Woodturners and Lathesfolk: A Guild of wood-crafters. This Guild encompasses very nearly any craft that is mostly wood, and hand-held. It does not include vehicles or buildings.
- The Most Sagacious Tomewright's Guild: A Guild of bookbinders, scribes and illuminators.
- The Eminent Sodality of Brewers & Vintners: A Guild of makers of alcohol of all kinds.
- The Great and Proud Guild of Gemwrights and Jewelers: A Guild of jewelry crafters, gem setters and lapidaries.
- The Distinguished Guild of Hidewrights and Furriers: A Guild of leatherworkers and furriers. Includes both those who harvest such goods, as well as those who use them to craft items.