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Tribute caravans are delegations sent to your fortress to deliver you spoils in the form of random goods. The current way to obtain tribute is to send squads on missions to nearby sites.
If your fortress performs a successful mission to "demand tribute", whether it be one-time or annual, that site will send a caravan, once a year. No actual "trading" or broker is involved, they simply drop off the goods at your depot and then leave, without speaking to any of your dwarves. Tribute caravans tend to be relatively small, but they are guarded. You don't have any control over the content of the tribute. What they bring depends on the civilization's available materials, the site's size and tracked items and so forth, and may range from excessively mundane (like a bunch of average quality clothing) to extremely useful (like exotic animals), and may largely appear random. Notably, tributes are one of the few ways to obtain evil animals tamed by goblins such as beak dogs for instance. Yearly tributes usually happen at the beginning of a season and may be arranged at any season, including winter. Note that a site's ability to provide tribute greatly depends on whether they have access to wagons, pack animals and so forth, e.g. a goblin civilization is likely to provide you with a couple items as that's all a merchant can carry.
Sending a full squad with proper weapons to a site that's reasonably depopulated (< 100 denizens) is almost guaranteed to result in your tribute demand succeeding. Moreover, there is little apparent downside to demanding an ongoing tribute every year as opposed to one-time apart from FPS concerns. However, your tribute demand may fail if the contacted site is populated by creatures unable to make agreements, such as kobolds. In that case your dwarves will attack the site instead.
Tributes are also one of the few ways to "contact" another civilization without triggering an outright war and therefore ensure that it will send out regular caravans afterwards, *on top* of the tribute caravans it'll be sending and even if your tribute demand failed. Successfully obtaining tribute from a civilization you are at war with may result in (presumably coerced) peace, assuming a state of peace is possible - currently only elven, human and dwarven civs.
You can receive tribute from any populated site, including necromancer towers and goblin civilizations at war with you. You can acquire tame sentients (including things that should just flat out not be tamable at all, like goblins) from raids and demanding one-time tribute.