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The Where and How of Acquisition
The FFXIV retainer isn't something that a character automatically starts with. The game doesn't believe in coddling its players, and right off the bat it leaves newbies to flounder in large cities, uncertain of where to find anything necessary. Fortunately, one doesn't have to wander far afield to acquire a retainer - the "vendor" for them is right in the adventurer's guild. In Limsa Lominsa, her name is Ursulie. (In Gridania the NPC is named Gyles, in Ul'dah, Thaisie.)
Talk to Urusulie about retainers; she says a few rather intimidating-sounding things about contracts. This is actually nothing to be concerned about. Each PC gets a free retainer. Ursulie will also offer to either match you up with a retainer (choose a random one for you) or let the character pick one for herself. The latter option is for those that don't really care what species of retainer they get.
At this time, it is only possible to have one retainer per character. There are rumors that multiple retainers might become a paid service later.
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FFXIV Retainer Basics
There are two ways to summon a retainer - one is to find a little bell (seen here to the right of the marauder in the charming yellow tunic) and stand near it. The option to "summon retainer" will appear in the menu. The other way is to be nearly anywhere in the market wards - more on that later.
Once summoned, the retainer will appear and say something cheerful. There are then four standard options:
1) Exchange items with your retainer - This is the bank function of the retainer. A retainer has an 100 slot inventory, just like a PC. This option also allows for the exchange of gil. If a retainer is set to seek items (via the bazaar) it is necessary to leave them with sufficient funds to purchase the requested items.
2) View and manage the contents of your bazaar - The auction house function, covered on the second page.
3) Adjust bazaar modeling settings - This option is used if you are selling clothing items and wish to have your retainer "model" them.
4) Release your retainer from service - This removes the retainer. This is not recommended for use.
5) Dismiss your retainer for now - This ends the interaction with the retainer, allowing them to disappear.
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Getting to the Market Wards
In most locations in a city, retainers can be summoned, and are automatically dismissed if the PC closes their menu or logs out. Each city has one location where retainers remain up permanently, however. In Limsa Lominsa, this area is called the Market Wards, and is reachable by teleportation. The Market Wards are located on the South Islands. One the PC has arrived at the bridge to the South Islands, the menu option to teleport will be available.
Each of the market wards is set up as a long hallway lined with market stalls on either side. There is a break in the middle of the hallway where the are no stalls. From that location, a PC can teleport back out to the city. In the other portions of the hallway, retainers can be summoned.
As of the October 15 (2010) patch, the market wards are now organized by the type of items being sold. While any item can still be sold in any ward, those appropriate to the ward are taxed at a lower rate. Items appropriate to each ward are listed here; keep in mind that it's a developer's list, but it is likely accurate enough.
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Retainers: The FFXIV Auction House
In the market wards, retainers are left active without PCs present, to have their bazaars browsed by other players. In the market wards, the FFXIV retainer menu also has an extra option - Finish managing your retainer. This option closes the menu with the retainer, but instead of dismissing them, leaves them active and ready to be browsed.
If a player purchases items from your retainer, that money will remain on the retainer until retrieved.
Once a retainer has been placed in the market wards, they cannot be summoned, not with the bell, notr from another market ward. (The October 15th patch claimed to fix this issue, but as of October 16th, I've tested it and the bug is still firmly in place.) So remember where you parked!
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Setting up the bazaar.
The most important and least intuitive function of the FFXIV retainer is that of a vendor/auction house. Each retainer has a ten-slot bazaar for selling items. All PCs also have a similar ten-slot bazaar, which is set up in much the same way.
Begin by selecting the View and manage the contents of your bazaar option in the retainer menu. This will bring up the list of all inventory currently not being sold by the retainer. (Items already in the bazaar will appear under the bazaar tab.) Select an item, an another menu will pop up.
Sell item will bring up a dialog, where price is set. The number of items to be sold defaults at 1, so to place stacks of an item that must be manually changed. Price can either be "set price" (how much for the entire stack) or "unit price" (price per item). The default option is unit price. The price can be typed in to the box - which is mercifully quicker than using the arrows. However, to get that number to stick, it's necessary to hit select after typing.
The Purchase item dialog is very similar to the one for selling. However, instead of offering up an item for sale, it will take up one slot in the retainer's bazaar to show that item is being sought, and for what price. Anyone who has the item in question and is willing to sell can select that from the retainer's list and be automatically paid for it - if the retainer was left with enough money.
One word of caution on the purchase item dialog - if a stack of an item is requested, the vendor will not buy less. Thus, if a retainer requests four dodo skins, a player will not be able to sell the vendor just one. (Another annoying thing that will hopefully be fixed at some point!)
The Toggle Sort option is useful; it sorts the retainer's inventory list so that like items are grouped together. (For example, multiple stacks of copper ore will appear one after another on the list.) This sorting will remain in place in other inventory views, such as when exchanging items. The sorting cannot currently be toggled from the exchange items dialog, which is mystifying.