No one knows his name ... he’s never said. No one knows anything about him ... he won’t talk. But every rare once in a while, maybe twice a year, maybe less, he’s pushing his cart down the cobblestones, barking out his sales pitch.
The man’s of average height, dusky complexion, raggedly cut dark brown hair. His garb is dusty, worn, nondescript homespun, with a faded indigo wool vest. He always seems to need a shave. He bears no weapon.
But the tale’s not about him. It’s about his cart.
It’s a simple pushcart, two handles, two wobbly wheels. On it is a baffling array of packages, all wrapped up in faded, threadbare canvas and tied with coarse twine. They are of all shapes, and of many sizes; no two are alike. For just five silver pennies, you can have one item.
But only one. On any given trip, he will never sell more than one item to one person. He’ll hand you your item, and move on, sounding out his call once more.
And then it’s your turn: to figure out just what in the hell you’ve got.
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What the cart vends is offbeat items. My own list runs several hundred deep, and are almost all 20th-21st century items, usually quite mundane. Examples I’ve given out in the past are rolls of Scotch tape, a modern Alpine backpack, a car antenna, a Bic lighter, a box of plastic army men, a Brillo pad, a tube of Preparation H, a box of tampons, a TV tray, a space blanket, a penlight, a Slinky, an aluminum baseball bat, a set of chess pieces (one side only) made of Bakelite, and a parking meter.
The trick is to identify it without any handles that would quickly reveal it: “You’ve got an odd wooden pole. It’s about four feet long and an inch square. It has strange runes on it, unrecognizable to you, painted on the shaft. At one end is a flat paddle, about a foot long, and breaking off at a 45 degree angle. The end of the pole is tipped with an odd black substance that’s sticky to the touch and slightly flexible; the paddle is wrapped in the middle with a thin layer of what appears to be the same substance.” That’s an actual example, and it took the party that had it over a half-hour to figure it out. I'll upvote the first commenter who does.
The vendor won’t sell you more than one, and no matter what it is it costs no more than five silver pennies. He won’t give you any clue what anything is, and is blandly incurious. He’s also laconic about damn near everything else too: “I get these from friends.” “Eh, selling them is a living.” Ask too many questions, he’ll frown and move on.
If you try to follow him, he’ll disappear around the next corner and just plain vanish. No one’s ever accosted or attacked him, and no one’s been insane enough to try to rob him. (My parties, who are uniformly charmed when the fellow shows up, exert peer pressure on anyone who’s tried to so much as give him a hard time.) I leave it up to GMs what happens if anyone tries, but I recommend lightning from the sky and the earth opening up to swallow offenders. Anyway, the vendor will never sell to that character again, and in fact will avoid the party he's in thereafter.
It is, of course, up to the players to decide what good the items are for, if any. Some, like a 20th century cowboy hat, are obvious. Some, like a lava lamp or a toaster oven, sure as heck aren’t.