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In theory, ships are one of the cheapest ways of moving large amounts of goods long distances. However, they also have the significant drawback that they can only go where there is large amount of water - large rivers, inland lakes, or the open ocean. Thus, most historical trade routes centered on these whenever possible. In modern times, it has also become possible to dig vast canals between the cities, thus allowing ships to travel even where no convenient river is located. This is a massive undertaking and is only done by very large and wealthy cities which can afford it. Skeptics claim that these canals will soon be rendered obsolete by the expanding rail network, but for now, building such canals has usually been worth it.

The slow, placid, horse or golem-drawn river barges can hardly be compared to the ships moving across the open oceans - these must be much sturdier constructions to be able to endure the frequent storms lashing across the surface of the seas. Most such ships are still sailing ships, but more and more of these are replaced by metal constructions propelled by giant, golem-powered paddle wheels.

Traditionally, travel on the ocean has been a risky undertaking for land dwellers. Not only do fierce storms and dangerous currents threaten the travelers, but the ocean depths are also home to numerous large monsters and often hostile underwater civilizations. While well-organized and -armed humans are quite capable of clearing wilderness areas of monsters on land, the hostile underwater environment has proven to be beyond their ability to tame. Traditionally, seafarers have either attempted to stick to well-known routes with few known dangers (though no such routes were ever completely reliable, since more than a few dangerous underwater creatures are migratory), appease whatever creatures live along the way with gifts (Experienced navigators know spots where they can throw such sacrifices - usually gold, silver, and gems - to the dwellers below, and they always warn the owner of the ships not to ignore this custom. Of course, a number of less than sterling representatives of this profession have also made up such spots and then arranged to retrive such treasure for themselves…), or rely on speed or powerful defenders to power through such dangerous regions. But the defenders had better know what they are doing - even a small number of water-breathing creatures capable of using weapons can easily destroy a ship with a wooden hull if no one above can breathe and move underwater and challenge them in their own domain! Recent advances in shipbuilding have made iron-plated hulls more common, which makes wrecking the hull more difficult - but not impossible.

Whatever their type, ocean-going ships are a significant investment, and while the merchant fleets of individual city-states can be impressive, none of them have the numbers to maintain true colonies in distant lands. Instead, they prefer to create trade outposts where they can buy or sell their goods, and make sure that the local ruler is on their side through a combination of diplomacy, bribery, and the occasional show of force. Sometimes, they have even backed adventurers to take over local ports as rulers in return for favorable trade concessions.

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