Announcement! Moving!

The cat is out of the bag! The Murder Hobos with their Transmuter Banker and Spy Bard and Undead King friends are moving to their new permanent home on Critical Hits under their dedicated column, Dungeonomics! They produce some of the premier RPG content on the Internet and I’m proud to join their collective and become part of the Borg.

Being part of the DC gaming scene is super cool. Washington DC is turning into the Silicon Valley of RPG game development. So many awesome people live here and contribute to the constantly living and growing body of RPG content, it’s amazing.

I started blogging in 1997 (I went and looked it up) and most of the time it’s been about random slice-of-life stuff. And then up in a bad chain Mexican restaurant in Michigan I went off on how I couldn’t stand D&D5e Tieflings because they weren’t true to the (superior) Planescape originals. That worked, so I decided, hey, it’s my blog, I’ll write about what interests me. Turns out it interests you, too.

But! Since now about 1000 of you are hanging out, you deserve a FAQ.

Also, big shout out to Illuminerdy, another excellent online RPG blog you should follow. Like, now.

Will you be tweeting/G+ing/FBing your links on a weekly post?

Yep. I will still personally man some of my personal social networking. You don’t need to go anywhere if you get the links from twitter or G+. If you get them from RSS or an email on posting, you will need to move, unfortunately.

But if you sign up to the Critical Hits RSS feed, you will get even more great content! This is like an everything for nothing deal.

Do you have enough ideas to keep this going for a while?

Where power, money, violence, and magic intersects is a well with no known bounds. Although I take people’s ideas and expand them all the time.

Will you still be sticking to your schedule?

I’m still writing on Sunday mornings with plans to publish on Mondays.

Are you planning on publishing your essays?

Not in the first half of 2015.

Are you making any money off this move?

Well considering I’m going from -$10.99/month for hosting to $0 a month, it’s a net gain of $10.99 a month.

Although if I ever get a logo, I am printing it and “Given an infinite amount of time and actual economic pressures, all adventuring groups become neutral evil” on a t-shirt and selling them.

Is your old blog coming down?

It’s expensive to maintain and I will likely start ignoring it. But I am going to wait until the traffic moves over cleanly.

I don’t know. I don’t know what I am going to do with it. If anything.

What about your Nephilim FATE Conversion?

Yes, I have a mostly finished conversion of Nephilim to FATE. It gets constant traffic all day. If I shut down this blog it will need a new home. I’m not sure what that new home is. That is TBD.

Are you attending any cons?

Gaming conventions? Dunno. I’m well-known hermit who never goes into public like Thomas Pynchon.

What is the best place to find you online?

Twitter. I’m a junky. Follow me at @multiplexer.

Do you truly have a dog named after Arthur Schopenhauer?

Yep. He helps me write. It’s his job. He also really likes reading /r/economics.

Review: Don’t Turn Your Back Boardgame

We offered to Playtest the new Evil Hat Kickstarted Board Game, “Don’t Turn Your Back”. The version we played is functionally complete: all the cards, the board, and the accessories contain final art exercising the final ruleset. The game board came printed on test backing but that made no perceptible difference to game play. What does make a major difference is our third player, age 10.

Is Don’t Turn Your Back easy and fun enough for a 10-year-old to play? If it is, than anyone can learn to play and enjoy the game. If not, then the game is too fiddly with too many over-complicated rules.

Opening the Box

Our box is actually a manila envelope, so we cannot make any comments at this time on the unboxing experience. The overall game art is consistent with the art direction and themes from Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head RPG — that sort of dark, dreamy, gothic horror found in this genre of Horror RPG games. Note: as the game wore on, I felt it looked and felt less like Don’t Rest Your Head and more like Fallen London with manipulated photograph art.

The game has a board, four decks of cards for up to four players, four card organizer/tableaus, and a score counter sheet. The game board is bright with clear iconographic queues on what happens on the board while backed with the same photo-manipulated art from the cards. The Victorian Gothic art direction of the game drew in the 10-year-old, a bit of a proto-goth.

We laid out the board, the organizers, the decks, and the score card. Our copy did not come with score counters for the score card so we improvised.

Setting Up the Game

setting up the game

Don’t Turn Your Back is a combination deck-building game (Ascension, Star Realms, Legendary, Dominion) and Worker Placement (Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola) except with a twist – the workers are the cards in the player’s hand. During game play, players place workers from their hand in one of five possible depot: the Bazaar, District 13, the High School, the Wax King, and the City Slumbering, each with a different effect. Game rules restrict cards to depots based on identifiers on the left side of the card. For example, a player can place a card with the pink “HS” tab in the High School.

The depots have different effects:

  • The Bazaar activates on-card effects. Some effects help (draw more cards, add more buy) while some attack (force others to discard, remove a card from another depot).
  • The High School gives players end game “candle” points.
  • District 13 allows a card to exercise the “law” of the turn.
  • Wax King eats characters like tossing a card into the Void in Ascension – except cards fed to the Wax King add up to big end of game benefits.
  • City Slumbering allows for card buy from the tableau at the end of each round.

To start, each player sorts their deck. Several of the cards have the word “START” in the upper right hand corner — these are the player’s starting (FAVOR) deck. The other work as a private (ACQUISITION) tableau. Much like any other deckbuilding game, players start with a small deck and purchase into that deck from a tableau (private, not shared) by generating buy costs. Purchased cards migrate from the tableau deck to the player’s in-play deck starting in discarded and shuffled into their main play deck.

Players play DTUB in rounds. At the start of every round, players draw up four cards from their FAVOR deck. They then play in turns, going around the table clockwise, until every player has exhausted all the cards in their hand — ie, placed cards as workers. Then effects take place (buy, score, etc.) Then played cards go to the discard and players deal four more cards.

Games are 9 or 8 rounds depending on the number of players. Each round, a new “Law” comes into play which has a special end of the round effect. When the law runs out, so does the game.

We are hyper familiar with both the deck building genre and the worker placement genre (even the 10-year-old, both a Waterdeep and Ascension fiend), so once we had decks, the board, and scoring tokens, we were ready to play.

Playing

playing a round

First Round

We found Don’t Turn Your Back a bit confusing in the first turn. We understood the card buy mechanic but we weren’t certain what to do with all these depots on the board and why we cared. It’s a little less intuitive at first blush than other games with similar mechanics. We also spent a bunch of time explaining the game to the 10-year-old. We also did some hand waving to figure out how to resolve all the workers at the end of every round.

However, after getting past the initial round of “Why would I ever buy into District 13″ or “Why would I ever sacrifice a card to the Wax King,” the game went quicker and much smoother.

Rest of the Game

Like all games, we found positives and negatives about the game play. Overall, we played 9 rounds with a game lasting approximately 45 minutes. The positives strongly outweight the negatives.

Positives

Combining deck building and worker placement feels fresh. Interesting, but once we got the hang of game play, not confusing.

The rounds go markedly faster as the game progresses and players get used to the game style. By the end of the game the rounds flowed quickly.

Every round, the “law” changes and the strategy of the turn changes with it. This makes the game feel a little strange — it’s not 100% possible to plan turn to turn. But the wacky feeling made the rounds feel fresh.

The game feels well-balanced between the different cards, the five depots, and the card actions. No card felt outsized for its cost. Nothing felt ridiculously overpowered or a sudden “winning strategy.” The game felt extensively playtested.

Flexibility – where a card can go based on where a player can place it – is a major piece of strategy going into buy, placement, and deck building. Cards don’t feel haphazard — they all work into some sort of overarching play style.

To build on that, Don’t Turn Your Back does lend itself to the Enlightenment-Only Draw Your Whole Deck strategy from Ascension. Buying more cards means buying more workers, and workers lent itself to flexibility on the board. And because everyone has their own private tableaus, everyone can run this scheme leading to “land rushes” on the board when something that turn popular.

Negatives

We were occasionally confused between pain number (card strength) and cost number on the cards. We went maybe 3 rounds before realizing the pain costs != cost. Pain is on the left, cost is on the right. One runs up buy with pain, and then uses pain to buy cost. It’s a mildly confusing mechanic.

One of our players bought up nearly his whole Acquisition deck during play. Don’t Turn Your Back is a little light on cards (and variety) per deck. The game needs a little more variety — or simply a few more Acquisition cards.

Depth of strategy was a little less than I wanted because of the dearth of variety of cards to buy — although, I, personally, want games with insane depth, so your mileage may vary.

We also lapped the points board. The points board goes to 50 and the winning player had a score in the mid-80s.

The art is dark and at times the characters on the card are hard to make out. However, the graphic design picks out game play cues on the cards in bright colors so the art doesn’t get in the way of playability. It does mean spending a bit of time staring at cards going “Wha?”

end game madness

Should You Kickstart This Game?

Katie’s opinion after playing the game: “I loved it.” We bought the game.

That’s really the question, isn’t it? If you’re a fan of deck-building games or worker-placement games, it’s a worthwhile addition to your collection. If you’re a big fan of horror based board games, especially if you enjoy the Victorian Goth art style, it’s also a worthwhile addition to your collection.

Keep in mind, this is a deck building game with worker placement strategies, not goth Agricola. It lacks the competitiveness of the fight over the cards in the tableau and exchanges that same fight with worker placement combat on the game board. It’s an interesting twist and breathes some new life into a mouldering genre.

Kickstarters are a risk. If you’re worried the game will not materialize because the game is not complete, the game is complete. You’re dealing with professionals and mostly paying for printing. You will receive your game.

If you’re convinced, go and kickstart “Don’t Turn Your Back”.

Overall

Not quite a Waterdeep or a Sentinels of the Multiverse and little light on game depth. I wanted more out of the cards and the strategy. I want expansion decks. But Don’t Turn Your Back looks professionally polished, it was fun to play, and it was accessible to our most easily bored member of our board game group. We will likely play it again and foist it upon unsuspecting board gamers.

The Murder Hobo Investment Bubble

The Murder Hobos sit across the table from the Old Man in the darkened, road side Inn. The Old Man proposes a mission to the group: goblins infest the hills outside town. And goblins, as we know, are horrific fiends who steal babies and chew on children’s heads. Real nasty characters. They also gum up the place with goblin smell.

The Murder Hobos must travel to a nearby mountain, breach the Goblin Stronghold, kill all the goblins they see, and defeat the Goblin King. Roet Mudtwister. That King is a nasty bit of work with a bad reputation for foul language and a snaggle tooth. Then, the party must return to the Inn with proof of the deed. No time cap on this but make it quick, please. The goblins destroyed our fields. Think of the children. There is a reward.

In victory, the Murder Hobos will receive:

  • all the magic loot they find;
  • all the money they roll from goblin bodies
  • and a payday of 4000 gold pieces, cash.

The Murder Hobos weigh the risks of this mission against the worth of the payday. On one side of the risk equation, they face possible death at the hands of furiously angry goblins (less risk with a Cleric who can cast Raise Dead although if the Cleric dies, risk rises). Goblins are noxious characters and Goblin Kings doubly so. On the other side of the equation they bag:

  • Cash payout;
  • Possible magic upgrades;
  • Experience;
  • Heroism! Save the village and win the day!

This is a pretty sweet deal for the Murder Hobo party of the exact right level. Too low-level and the goblins will obliterate the Murder Hobos. Too high level and the side quest provides neither enough payout nor reward enticement for the Murder Hobos. The Old Man prices the Side Quest to a party of a precise level band.

For this particular group, the rewards vastly outweigh the risk. They have a deal.

The Old Man puts up no money up front. The Murder Hobos buy their supplies with their own cash, suit up, and follow the road to the mountain. A week later, they return with the head of King Roet Mudtwister, snaggle tooth and all. They’ve paid themselves back on their pre-adventure loan to themselves and made a bit more. High risk paid off with high reward. Murder Hoboing is lucrative business.

The Old Man hands over the coin purse with 4000 gold pieces. The village is, theoretically, saved.

But what’s in it for the Old Man?

Let’s assume for a moment the Old Man is not an altruistic lover of villagers and hater of all goblinkind. Nor is he sitting in the same Inn with the same offer of 4000 gold pieces waiting for the level-correct Murder Hobos to wander in for his health. What’s in the side quest business for the Old Man?

This particular Old Man has a story.

The goblins moved in under the mountain a century ago. Then, they established their village and Goblin King. The goblins quietly toiled away in their underground community while human and demi-human farming villages popped up around them. Separate but at peace.

A few years ago, while mining, the goblins discovered their mountain sat on a highly valuable hot salt vein and spring. Applying a little goblin ingenuity and goblin Rube Goldberg-like mechanical engineering, they extracted the salt slurry into a high-grade and highly valuable salt production line. Even goblins need salt to preserve food. They had a handful of magic spells and items keeping food preserved but, much like people, goblins pack fish and game into giant barrels of salt. No longer did goblins venture out to deal with humans to purchase salt or scoop up salty sand from far-flung beaches. Salt was here, under their mountain.

The salt production was so efficient, salt overflowed goblin storerooms. So, the goblins started selling salt in the nearby village markets for low prices. They undercut local human-based salt production and into the local Salt Merchant Guild’s profits. Goblin salt was clearer. Goblin salt was better. And Goblin salt was cheaper.

Sensing a possible business deal in the International Side Quest Industry, the Old Man traveled to the Goblin’s Mountain with a party of his favorite and most trusted Dwarven surveyors to perform a property assessment. “10,000 gold pieces,” the Dwarf told the Old Man. “That’s how much this mountain is worth considering the roads and the layout of the tunnels — and not including the salt business. Just the land. 10,000 gold pieces. Need to get rid of those goblins, though. Nasty business, goblins.”

The Old Man met with the Transmuter Bankers who turn anything, including Goblin Mountains currently full of Goblins, into gold. And they gave the Old Man a loan on this security — an investment on a future, essentially. They fronted the Old Man cash on his possible land investment. The Old Man found a buyer for his contract on the mountain at the assessed price: the local Salt Merchant’s Guild. They exchanged their margins on the futures contract on the land through the bankers.

All the Old Man needed to maturate were some Murder Hobos. The Old Man took a gamble. His risks were:

  • in the land deal between him, the Bankers who hold his loan, and the Salt Merchant’s Guild who will buy the Goblin Mountain;
  • that the right Murder Hobos would come along and take him up on the deal.

This worked out. The Salt Merchant Guild paid the Old Man 10,000 gold for the contract to get the salt mines plus the goblins exited their business. The Old Man paid off the Bankers the 4000 gold plus interest. The Old Man walked off with nearly a 60% profit which he shared a percentage with the Dwarves. Everyone (except the goblins) won.

Isn’t Murder Hoboing profitable?

Once this deal wound up, the Old Man moved on to the next land speculation deal.

Speculative Investment in Murder Hobos

The Murder Hobos are the agent of change in Side Quests land swap deals. The giant in the cave? He’s blocking further silver mining. That evil temple over there? Send some Murder Hobos to clean it out and renovate it as an excellent open air mall and dining experience. And that castle owned by one of the Lich Kings? Kill the Lich King, take the castle, and invest in a valuable hotel and resort destination!

But getting Murder Hobos off the ground is expensive. That starting equipment isn’t free. They economy requires Murder Hobo patrons.

Murder Hobos are highly speculative investments; if one of the Patron’s teams happens to cash out on taking out a high value and annoying monster while the Patron is holding the contract for that land, the bet pays out big. The monster is gone, the land is his, the Patron pays out to the Old Man on his contract, uses whatever he will with the land deal (hint: nothing good), and makes more money to invest in more Murder Hobos. The Patron only needs a handful to pay out to finance his entire enterprise.

The chain starts with speculative investment in Murder Hobos in a hodge podge corporation known as “Adventuring Guilds.” Patrons pay up front to clothe, lodge, train, and arm potential Murder Hobos. Trainers group the potential adventurers together into teams who work reasonably well together. This is a non-trivial investment in energy, money and time.

Then, the Patron sends the 1st level characters out into the world while promptly investing in the next set of Murder Hobos. He hopes his teams see the advertisements of the various Old Men with side quests — the typical rumors, roadside signs, and the people bribed to point Murder Hobos to the local Inn.

And of course, in the example above, the Salt Merchant’s Guild has monetary investment and receives dividends on success from the local Adventuring Guild. Not only do they cut a competitor in the goblins, they pick up land, they acquire the already pre-built goblin facilities for harvesting salt, and they receive a payout on guild dues from the Side Questing Murder Hobos. Not bad for their money.

The Murder Hobo Bubble

Once people get hold of this highly unregulated, largely under ground, and puppeted by Bankers financial system, it’s a matter of time before anyone with a bit of money invests in the local Adventuring Guilds hoping to cash out on land deals from Side Quests. More Murder Hobos means more shots at completing the quest means reaping more land back from Evil while receiving a payout. And the Old Man doesn’t pay out to Murder Hobos unless they succeed in their Quest. It’s win-win.

Like all highly speculative markets with no regulation and no sanity, this is bubbly market. Bubbly markets leads to investment mania. And in investment mania, everyone eventually has a good time then loses their pants.

And this example goes something like this…

More people invest in creating more Murder Hobos teams through Adventuring Guilds hoping for more Side Quest payouts from possible futures land contracts while they simultaneously buy into Goblin Land Contract Market. Investors realize they can make money at both sides of the Murder Hobo economic system. And it’s not hard to get gullible people to sign up to an Adventuring Guild to feed the investment maw. Being a Murder Hobo is more lucrative than, say, farming or tanning. More deadly, but certainly more lucrative.

Because suddenly it’s an Old Man sellers market from the spike in Murder Hobo buyers, payout prices for successful Side Quest completion crash. Hey, it’s an elastic price! Instead of 4000 gold pieces, maybe the Old Man can offer 400 gold pieces to passing Murder Hobos and get takers. High Level Murder Hobos pass on these Side Quests (risk to reward is too low; see above on Murder Hobo Risk) but low-level Murder Hobos try for it. Most 1st level Murder Hobos die in their great short-lived 1st level glory but some do level up in time and survive. Land deals cash out at an increasingly frantic pace. The investment cycle lives on.

Meanwhile, the payout price crash means plots for land acquisition under the humanoids balloon – the Old Man will see 90% profit if he can get some 1st leveled Murder Hobos to take his quest and survive. That’s too much reward for the risk. More Old Men (where do they come from?) get in on the contracting and selling of currently-owned land business to get a piece of the action.

More Old Men handing out Side Quests means a space crunch in the Inns. They cannot sit next to each other like Side-Quest-giver kiosks. That would be weird. And a space crunch means more Inns which needs more land. No doubt that land is being held by some nice family of Kobolds. It will look fine as an Inn. More quests! More Murder Hobos!

Dwarves running land assessment and appraisal businesses see business boom.

Everyone is in on the game trying to either become a Murder Hobo (easy but quick way to die), get in on shares on Adventuring Guilds (less easy and expensive), taking up space in an Inn as an Official Old Man (few by now actually old or, in fact, men), or speculating on all the ancestral land of the various humanoid and otherwise so-called “evil” species. Inns turn into the Starbucks of the Adventuring world — Inns are across the street from Inns in towns made entirely of services catering to Murder Hobos and Inns. It is Inns all the way down.

Eventually this happens.

  1. People realize Murder Hoboing is a good way to die and quit trying for easy and quick loot, drying up the Murder Hobo supply;
  2. Side Quests disappear as the hordes of 1st level Murder Hobos destroy the “evil” races;
  3. Old Men run out of money paying interest on loans on land they do not own as real Murder Hobos become scarce;
  4. Inns take up all the land in villages;
  5. Investors no longer seeing big and fast payouts for land contracts exit the market.

Not enough land or murder hobos or speculators are left in the market to support it. People bail out of the market in a panic. Overbuilt Inns go out of business. Old Men go back to retirement. Farmers stop trying to learn how to use a Bec de Corbin. Adventuring Guilds close. Salt Merchant Guilds must contend themselves with selling regular salt. The Goblin Land Contract Market slinks back into obscurity. Professional Murder Hobos are enormously annoyed.

And the Murder Hobo/Side Questing economy crashes. Decades pass before anyone receives any new Side Quests. Murder Hobos are stuck doing the main quest only. Many die on final bosses from being under-leveled in this sad and trying time.

Transmuter Bankers make one hell of a pile of money.

But what of the Old Man?

He’s still in his corner of the dark gloomy Inn, shilling out Side Quests for which he can no longer pay.

Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company and Reality’s End

“We have been seeing a big uptick in these lately,” the Diviner at his kiosk says as he pushes the scroll over the tiny desk to the Paladin.

The Paladin feels confused. The little Wizard is alone. There are no other Wizards in sight.  Perhaps the Diviner refers to himself in the Royal We.  He is a Wizard and Wizards are weird.

“This scroll casts Leomund’s Tiny Hut.  If you cast it, you get about eight hours of protection.  Useful, because it’s portable, but it doesn’t manifest any particular creature comforts.  See this mark here?”  The Diviner points to a small scrawl and a happy little printed cartoon mage on the base of the scroll.  “Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company produced this scroll.  We’ve been tracking these scrolls with great interest.”

The Paladin thanks the Diviner, pays for the identify spell and leaves.  The Paladin doesn’t share that he has eight more identical Tiny Hut scrolls in his pack.

The Party found Leomund’s Tiny Hut scrolls everywhere: in dungeons, on suddenly dead orks, in raider’s backpacks, and one inside a particularly nasty gelatinous cube.  No one thought much about this except, perhaps, they simply had reached the level in which Tiny Hut scrolls became pervasive. And those scrolls weren’t without their use. The party could stand up a small protected zone wherever they went.  It didn’t provide them the comforts of an Inn but it gave them the on-demand protection of one.  The magic huts were at least comfortable and dry. 

Whoever left these scrolls all over did the Party a real solid.  And free, too. These were third level spell scrolls, not some mere cantrip or Light spell.   These were worth something. And that one weird dungeon had a barrel full of Tiny Hut scrolls graced with a hastily written sign sporting the scrawled letters: “Free!  Take one!”

While Inns provided food and, more importantly, booze, the Party no longer spent much gold on Inns.  Sure, Inns were the purveyors of suspicious old men with quests and bar fights, but the adventure was on the road.  As long as the Party had a *Cleric who could whip off the Create Food and Drink spell, and someone was smart enough to pack a bag of salt**, the party rarely returned to town.  The Fighter could pack his own flasks of whiskey – he had the carrying capacity for it, and he could resupply his precious booze supply from rolling bands of evil humans (those guys are always loaded). 

Happily and not thinking too deeply about it (although the Wizard did make mention that this was all very weird), the Party took free hospitality from the mysterious Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company.  Thank you, Ozmo, you crazy magical nut, wherever you are.  We raise a toast of magically summoned but cosmically bland bacon to you from within our toasty Tiny Huts.

Until finally, months later, the Party returns to town.  Downtown, in the main square, stood the magical equivalent of a food truck – right next to the Inn.  The big, colorfully decked wagon sold all sorts of useful scrolls courtesy of Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company at a marked down discount: the not appearing in this edition Leomund’s Secure Shelter, the also not appearing in this edition Leomund’s Hidden Shelter, and the grand daddy of them all, the rarest and best, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion. Buy five and get 10% off!  Buy 10 and get 25% off!  It’s a fantastic deal! 

“For gold you, the rich adventurer with a party loaded with spell casters, can sleep every night in an enormous mansion with enough food (and booze) to feed 100! Perfectly secure from roaming monsters and hordes of orks!”  comes the sales pitch.  “No longer must you sleep in uncomfortable Inns with variable heating, bad beer, mysterious old men and smelly common rooms!  Instead, use this scroll and sleep like the grand Lords you are!  Also Ozmo’s Hospitality Magic Company is available for lucrative franchises.  Inquire inside!”

And really, who wouldn’t turn down 10 Magnificent Mansion scrolls for 25% off?  It’s just gold and they can find more on adventure.  While the party’s Wizard protested that this much trans-planar magic is potentially bad and he should start a study, the party’s Sorceress forked over the cash for the scrolls. If unseen servants could serve her and she could sleep on a feather bed while on Adventure instead of sleeping on the hard ground and eating whatever the Cleric summoned, she’s all for this.

She’s not the only one.

Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company, purveyors of the World’s Finest Hospitality-based Spells, Scrolls and Items, provided a great service to the world’s adventurers, travelers, and murder hobos.  It’s the Wizards, sick of being poked and prodded on adventures led by over zealous Fighters and vengeance-driven Paladins while sleeping on the cold ground, who take up the call of the franchise. Why have space-filling and noisy Inns taking up valuable downtown real estate when a Wizard could read off a cheap scroll (which he sells) and pop up a full service, safe, and hyper comfortable Inn (a service he provides with the scroll) down the nearest blind alley?  Hell, it’s not merely Wizards – anyone with some Arcane got into the act. And rogues might have a 17 check to open up their own instant pop-up Inns, but that doesn’t stop them from selling Ozmo’s Hospitality Magic Company scrolls out the back of shady run down lean-tos on the seedier side of town (or at least knock-offs which may or may not work roll d20 to find out.)

Welcome to chaos in the heretofore stable hospitality economy.  Inns, forced with sudden competition from without by Ozmo’s Magic Hospitality Company, raise their offerings, too: bar fight free Inns, Inns with better beds, meals by celebrity chefs.  The Inns must advertise the stability of their location over convenience.  They adjust their prices to a new competitive low. 

And when a certain percentage of Inns go out of business – Inns run on profit margins and a little mass-market competition puts them in a bind – what happens to the old men hovering in dark corners giving out Quests?  Has anyone thought about them?  The Inns helped subsidize the living costs of the Old Man Quest Givers Guild.  Systemic Inn closures forced old men to set up kiosks in the street with signs saying “QUEST GIVEN HERE 10 gp” next to the Diviner Kiosk and the guys selling the Ozmo scrolls.

The Diviner had some opinions about this development but for now he quietly feds his data back home

Someone, the Party’s Wizard pointed out every time he saw one of these new trendy Ozmo-based businesses pop up, figured out the core production problem with shelter spell scrolls. 7th level spell scrolls are not trivial to produce.  Look at the economic chaos.   What about the silver that went into that dozen Magnificent Mansion scrolls we just bought?  What about the ivory?  All those hunted and dead elephants to feed the unquenchable maw of the market?  What about them?

“Don’t worry about it,” says the Rogue (who now sells Tiny Hut and Magnificent Mansion scrolls on the side at a reasonable mark up). “You worry too much.  It’s all good.”

It’s not good.  The Party’s Wizard discovered, through careful observations and experimentation, that abuse of Planer spells lead to a weakening in the walls of Reality.  “Continued use of Ozmo’s spell scrolls,” the Wizard says, “will cause a slow but certain degradation of reality until it all collapses into a single, final, Big Bloop.”

“But when?” asks the Sorceress.

The Wizard does not know. Letters passed back and forth with his Guild back home confirmed his worries. His home Wizard Guild (those left not making a killing selling insta-Inns) issued a warning.  Continued use of products from Ozmo’s Magic Hospital Company will cause reality to degrade.  While the tears  in reality are tiny at first, the rips will expand until the entire world unravels.   It may be next month, next year, in the next ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years from now… the Wizards cannot tell since measuring the effects of spell scrolls on reality is fraught with math.  They need more funding for further studies – which they can raise by selling Inns.

“How will this be any different from those of Evil who open portals to other world to bring forth fiends we must fight in battle?” asks the Paladin.  “How do we tell between an extra-Planar fiend summoned here by an evil Wizard and one who entered through a rift in a weakening of reality caused by millions of Tiny Huts?”

The Wizard conceded.  The fiends will be the same fiends.  The fights will be the same fights.  The evil wizards summoning hordes from beyond the same evil wizards summoning hordes from beyond.

The Rogue pointed out the Inns of old already disappeared.  It’s too late to think about the end of reality now.  Someone should have thought of that before everyone bought into the Ozmo franchise. Besides, if the rifts in reality will not consume the world for another thousand years in a “Big Bloop” does it matter if the Party uses the scrolls today?  Who much cares about a thousand years in the future other than a handful of Elven Wizards who always have their panties in a wad?

Isn’t a thousand years long enough to figure out a fix to this problem?  Why do we care today? 

The party doesn’t care today.  Or tomorrow.  Or once they reach level 20 and retire and their children become the next great adventurers.  Except for a few, Inns go out of business.  Ozmo’s becomes a Corporation of amazing wealth, reach and power.  Adventurers adventure.

Sometime later, a great expose published by a group of bards uncovered Ozmo as a deeply Chaotic Evil Wizard dedicated to destroying the realm’s hospitality industry. Far in Ozmo’s deep past, he visited an Inn and had bad shrimp.  After days of incredibly uncomfortable difficulties no Chaotic Evil Wizard should ever endure, he swore eternal vengeance on all Inns, Resorts, Lodges, and Hotelry.   Driven by hatred, enslaving planar demons by the hundreds to his bidding to craft spell scrolls, he concocted a plan. He decided to destroy all Inns everywhere.  His method of destruction? Freebies.

Buying from Ozmo’s put money into the pocket of Corporate Evil designed to destroy the hospitality industry!  These revelations divided the populace.  Some pointed to the body of growing Wizard research about the End of Reality and cried for corporate regulation from the King.  The government must reign in Ozmo to save the world. Others claimed they had a right to use and cast whatever spells they wanted. Who cares what a handful of Wizards say? Just because Ozmo is evil doesn’t mean his spell scrolls cannot be for the greater good. Look at the amazing lift to the adventuring economy since Ozmo’s began!  So many fewer orks!  Sure, there’s been this eruption in extra-planar creatures lately, but we have all these adventurers to keep it under control!

A political rift opened.  The two sides yelled each other.  One side called their opponents government-abetting control freaks who would not let adventurers adventure without the burden of regulation.  The other side called their opponents “Bloop Deniers.” In marketplaces they came to actual blows. No one noticed when the entire Diviner Guild simply left the Realm entirely.

And it was a shame when all of Reality came to a sudden and unannounced end sometime during lunch two weeks later.  

Roll new characters!  Time to adventure on the Planes!

* Theoretically we could measure the economical worth of a Cleric by the number of Create Food and Drink spells she can whip off in a day against the amount of money spent on actual food.  Where does the food come from?  Is she lowering the price of food everywhere by being able to create food from thin air?  Is magically created food Vegan?

** Magically created bland food requires salt.

Murder Hobos and the Supply Curve of Evil

A party of more or less good-aligned murder hobos gets wind of some organized slavery going on in a far off land – something vague about fish people, industrialized farming and pearls.  The slavery operation aims are relatively immaterial to the party. Slavers are over there and smashing them in the face is a generally good-alignment thing to do.  The party hops on the first boat to guaranteed adventure and loot.  Zoom!

For this adventure, the GM (who is also an economist and is, therefore, unbelievably sadistic and evil) assumes the demand for the pearls remains a relative constant – it does not suddenly dip or climb.  Whoever is buying pearls will continue to buy pearls at the same pace. Those farming pearls will have a constant demand for slaves to farm and fill that constant supply of pearl buyers.  She also assumes the price for fish people slaves into the industrialized pearl farming operation is elastic.   Either a sudden change in supply or an increase in demand will see a rapid delta upward in slave prices.

She writes these facts on a convenient 3×5 note card.

Once landed in the far off land after an exciting encounter with pirates (required by law), the party debates how to deal with the massive slavery operation going on. They come up with three options: kill slavers, slave redemption, or kill master slave dealers. They try the first one since it is the most straight forward and level comparable.

Killing the slavers, who are largely hobgoblins to reflect parity with the party’s level, is, for a while, a satisfying experience with party-level XP and treasure.  The party jumps slavers with advantage, they have exciting fights, slavers die, and the murder hobos roll the bodies for loot. A couple of fish people slaves go running off into the waste – free-ish for now.  Total victory, right?

These slavers are only feeding slaves into the greater system of slave-run farm ownership a handful at a time. These guys are small fries. And, whenever the party kills one slaver it gives another entrepreneurial hobgoblin a new day job. The party back of the napkin calculates they need to exhaust the entire hobgoblin race before killing slavers one at a time is an economical slave-ending practice in this corner of the world.  This activity is too small and localized to have impact on supply or demand. It does, however, line the party’s pockets with some small magical trinkets and a magic pair of boots they will somehow unload.

Several levels later, the bard gets a better idea.   The party will find the slave dealers and exchange some of their hard earned loot from rolling slavers and set slaves free. What is better than directly freeing slaves from the penury of pearl farming slavery?  And with minimal combat?  Guys, the bard says, this plan is awesome

The party exercises their now established contacts and has some interesting adventures with the local underground and Thieves’ Guild (hope the party Thief isn’t operating without a local license or they’re going to have words…). They fight some interesting monsters in some sewers because why wouldn’t the exotic city in the far off land have sewers, and finally discovers a hidden slave market.  The party bids on as many slaves as they can afford, buys them, and then releases them into the fish people slave Underground Railroad. 

Look! A great heroic deed!  Slaves freed!  Slavery solved!  Someone buy the bard a drink!  They’ll just roll slavers, buy back any other slaves, and drain the supply from the farmers!

Except now the party has introduced a new strong thread of demand into a system with an otherwise constant and predictable slave demand.  Slave prices are inherently elastic (says the GM) and until the system reaches a new murder hobo induced equilibrium, slave prices shoot up and up and up.  Incentivized by the climbing worth of their kidnapped victims, more hobgoblins become slavers to fill demand at a nearly 2-to-1 rate.  Entire fish people villages are torched and their populations forced into captivity.  The problem becomes immeasurably worse.

Good news, though – it might be possible to kill the whole hobgoblin race! 

Slave dealers send happy fliers for slave auctions direct to their murder hobo inn!  The more the murder hobos buy slaves to set them free, the more the lower echelon of the economy blows out trying to meet that demand.  And those original pearl farmers still need their replacement slaves at the same rates as before so they buy their replacements at the higher prices and then adjust their prices upward. The entire economy of this small country reacts to more money washing around by hiking prices on staples. Behold, the murder hobos are living agents of inflation!

(This causes a knock-on effect of passing this price down to the pearls which angers the traders who pass the price hikes to their customers but screw those guys. They’re just wizards. Right? Angry wizards don’t have any future bad political effects, right?)

Now slavery is more lucrative than ever before.  More evil humans and humanoids are participating in the wider economy.  Everyone is charging a bit more for everything.  Good going there, bard.  Why do we even listen to this guy?  All his plans are bad.

While waiting for the slavery economy to level out, the murder hobos go to work on their third, and best plan: killing the slave dealers and choke off supply.  If the pearl farmers cannot buy their slaves from slave markets then surely this whole land will come to its senses, right?

These slave dealer guys, the murder hobos discover in the course of the adventure, are like taking down Mafia bosses – they have enough scratch to hire themselves some serious protection and they’re not afraid to use it.  They’ve built themselves little empires on the backs of slaves and their clients, the farmers. As prices shoot up, the percentage of take the dealers extract from the sales is going up.  The slave dealers are making serious bank on the murder hobos.

The GM runs the party through a pretty thrilling adventure. Suddenly, the party has a mysterious benefactor who sends them directions to a slave dealer stronghold – a big, heavily armed manor house. The party makes plans.  They ready spells.  They break into the house in the dead of night and they take down a slave dealer in a serious boss fight with tons of cinematics.  And that guy, he has major loot in his basement.  Magic scrolls up to here

It’s when the murder hobos leave with their arms full of slave dealer loot they discover their mysterious benefactor was another slave dealer wanting to consolidate his position*.  The slave market is now making so much money the dealers are incentivized to gank each other through their favorite weapon of choice – the ANSI standard good aligned, heroic wandering murder hobo.   Now the mysterious benefactor picks up all the dead dealer’s clients and slave supply. Maybe he’ll hire all these new slaver Hobgoblins to fill out his ranks, too. 

Better yet, because supply will take a momentary hit while the slave dealers adjust to the new reality on the ground, slaves will now become even more expensive until the economy, once again, hits equilibrium.  

Murder hobos are agents of economic chaos. 

The supply curve and the base elasticity of the price of slave fish people screws everyone equally. Looking at the tally, the murder hobos have:

  • Killed some slavers and taken their stuff (good)
  • Killed a slave dealer who was totally evil (super good)
  • Set some slaves free (good)
  • Incentivized more slavers to re-capture all those slaves set free (bad)
  • Pushed up the value of slaves (pretty bad)
  • Helped to consolidate possibly warring slave dealers (really bad)
  • And walked off with armloads of loot (the best part!)

Remember the note about the GM being evil, above?  The GM is evil. Someone give her a cookie.

What’s actually the solution here?  Killing the low level slavers is fun but long-term ineffective.  Buying slaves and setting them free makes things worse. Killing slave dealers feels effective but makes the remaining slave dealers even stronger. 

Clearly, the rot is at the top.  The problem is the local government who allows all this evil to flourish with its tacit and ineffectual approval.  We need an armed military solution says the Paladin of Vengeance.   Only applied force at the top and a strong hand of wise guidance will free the fish people from their chains of slavery. 

And the murder hobos return to this blighted inflation-riddled land 10 levels later with their army and their enormous magic items. The local government never has a chance. Vengeance is meted out with a black armored fist. Those government officials not executed by the good murder hobo party are torn apart by the citizens in the streets.  The party declares themselves the Just and Wise Rulers of this Blighted Land.  Now, dammit, there will be freedom.

The murder hobos outlaw slavery.  They free the fish people.   The murder hobo’s army and police force round up the slave dealers, throws some into horrible dungeons and chase others out of the country.  The pearl farmers must now provide the fish people a wage of some sort or face the same fate.  They tax the pearls to pay for their righteousness.  Freedom is imposed.  You, people, will be free.

The price for pearls shoots up astronomically.

Sure, now, the murder hobos have to contend with an angry enemy navy made of pearl buyers on their coast, pearl price wars from other neighboring countries who allow slavery, and internal uprising from both the farmers and the private armies of the ex-slave dealers operating under ground.  Oh yes, and remember those pissed off wizards?  Well, here they are.  Pissed off. The bill came due.

This will work itself out with a little heavy handed dictatorship, military occupation, unlawful price controls, and a ruthless smothering of discontent.  This is nothing a Paladin as the new head of Government cannot handle.  Paladin’s are Good. This is for the good of this terrible land. Someone get that bard out of here.

And the fish people?  They live forever in horrible apartheid poverty. But at least they have their freedom.

The party totally prevails over the tyranny of the Supply Curve of Evil.   Level up!

* Because the GM also watches tons of HKAT.  Time for some Triad action!

The Lich Kings of Avalon – A Campaign Seed for D&D 5e

D&D5 Campaign Seed

This is a campaign seed for a fantasy campaign loosely named “the Lich Kings of Avalon.”

At the height of the King’s power, basking in the glow of victorious battles, wise in years but still spry in body, and a Kingdom at peace, the Necromancer came to Court.  The Necromancer offered the King a simple bargain: he would grant the King and Queen eternal life in return for the Necromancer and his ilk to live openly… plus a nominal fee.  He had arranged financing with the Transmuter Bankers, the Necromancer said, for the magic over several years with reasonable terms – not an issue for a King with infinite time.

The King’s advisors were aghast.   The Clerics of Good railed.  Sire, they said, this is Black Magic. Your soul is in jeopardy!  The Gods oppose working with the Necromancers!  Your ancestor banished them for a reason!  Do not accept this bargain!

The King looked at his second son – his eldest and first Heir dead from disease contracted in battle these ten years past – a boy of ten years who may not live to see fifteen.  His other two living sons were young.  He thought of his forebears who had the good fortune live long and to die slowly of strokes and dementia. Ten years, the King thought, barring his luck holds, until the inevitable downslide.  His beloved Wife and Queen, his wisest councilor, she too would soon fade and pass away.  What would become of his Kingdom?  His great victories?  His lands and treasure?   Would these boys rule and grow his Empire or would they, like all other boys fortunate to inherit peace, squander it all foolishly?

The King banished the Clerics of Good from his Court to go minister to the smallfolk in the Shires. He signed the papers of the damned Transmuter Bankers (so much more evil and terrible than Necromancy with their usury and compound interest and their promises of turning Flesh to Stone for non-payment).  He revoked the law set by his ancestor against establishing a Necromancy Guild in the Capital City.  And he gave the money to the Necromancer.

Afterward, a group of High Lords and Clerics who opposed the King’s choice of entering Undeath planned a coup.  They meant to destroy the thing that was their King and replace him with his ten year old son.  They struck the Palace through the sewers in the blackest night but the King anticipated their actions.  The Diviners had tipped off the Crown and those fortunate plotters who escaped scattered into the countryside. 

Those plotters discovered and identified by the smallfolk of the Shires fell upon them and took it upon themselves to mete out the King’s Justice.  They loved the King and Queen and those who struck against them found a bad end hanging from a gallows in some unmarked barley field.

The Kingdom carried on much like it always had in the reign of the King.  Some feasting moved from the brightness of day to after the night and Government in the Capital began operations later in the day.  The King required more tenting to watch the Jousts and Tournaments.  But the Camelot the King built glittered on its Hill, a beacon of Might and a source of capital.  The small people carried on as they always had, doing business, making money, plowing land, having families and living lives.  The Kingdom found new stability and predictability.  May the King live forever! 

The King elevated the Clerics of Gods of Kingdom and Law to the places in his Court vacated by those of Good and Peace.  He had no interest in nattering priests concerned with his immortal soul when he now had an immortal body.  Freed from the concerns of primogeniture succession, he then settled in to rule for a thousand years just as foretold in legends.  He was now the Once and Future King.

Quietly, the Necromancers opened a chapter house in the Capital City for business.

The first ten years of the Risen King’s reign saw unprecedented expansion and War.  A King with no fear of Death has no fear of battle. And a King with an infinite lifespan has no fear of paying down his war debts. For the Good of Kingdom and Crown, the King reopened War with his neighbors, lead his troops into battle and began a merciless war of conquest.

This could not stand.  The other prosperous Kings (or at least those with a tax base they could squeeze) would not watch idly as this obvious military advantage graced their mortal enemy. While the Risen King raided lands and burned villages, other Kings used their own networks of Diviners and Spies to bore into the Risen King’s Court.  Once the other Kings, too, understood what they needed to do to compete, they reached out to the Necromancer Guild.

These were the salad days for the Necromancers.  Celebrated in Courts and rich with other men’s financed debt, they traveled from Kingdom to Kingdom and Duchy to Duchy to offer the gift to military supremacy through eternal life.  Everywhere the Gods of Good opposed them, but the Necromancers and returning spies pointed out the Kings could supplant the Gods of Good with the Gods of Law and Right and their Kingdoms would be even stronger.  Take the Undeath, finance it through the Transmuter Bankers (always ready with the paperwork), give up one mundane life for a life befit of true Royal Blood, and break your Kingdom from the stranglehold of succession and failure.

Those who could mortgage their Kingdoms did.  But those who could not swiftly became vassal states of Empires.

The Risen King continued to reign a hundred years more with his Queen at his side.  Powerful beyond measure, he ushered in a new Golden Age. His sons grew up, married, grew old, founded Ducal Houses in the Kingdom, and died.  His grandsons grew to adulthood and stepped into the roles once held by his sons.  Soon they too married, grew old, and died.  Great-grandsons did not know a time without the Risen King on the Throne.  Great-great-grandsons were not sure their role in the Crown should the Crown ever fall.  Were they even of Royal Blood any more? What was Royal Blood? 

The Kingdom was always externally at War but always internally at peace.  The threat of Civil War by succession was gone.  There were the other Lich Kings of Avalon to fight, to take their towns, to raid their Empires, for the good of the Kingdom.  Where there was no War, trade and industry flourished.  Where there was War, it was merciless and brutal. 

We are always at War but we are always Winning.  The Gods save the Mighty Risen King!

The Lawful Gods of Might, Stability, and Kingdom supplanted the Gods of Good.  The Necromancers openly spread through every country and Empire. They became wealthy beyond imagining offering legal Turnings to those of High Nobility but never the greatness of the Turnings offered to Kings.  Social class dictated undeath.  Vampires lounged in the Great Courts and convinced the Risen King to pass laws allowing their legal and noble right to feast upon the peasantry and bathe in their blood (the Kingdom has so many we will never miss a few!)  Revenants, once great Generals and now Ever-living, haunted their black suits of armor on the fields of battle.  Undeath became fashionable.

Did Undeath corrupt the minds of the Lich Kings?  They ruled, for good or for ill, as they always did among their Undead Courts.  External to Court politics, the Kingdoms and Empires were much the same.  Was this the king or his succession of advisors, some undead and some the grandsons of his original advisors, maintaining eternal stability and peace within?  Or a blessing of Undeath? 

And did it matter?

The Once and Future King had returned to all the Great Courts of the World.  May the Lich Kings of Avalon rule forever!

The Murder Hobos of Avalon  

It is not entirely obvious from the outset that the undead run the Kingdom.  Much of the truth of the dealings with Kings and necromancers never became popular knowledge outside a few Government officials, High Nobles and highly ranked Clerics. The Crown’s propagandists long persuaded the populace the King’s unnaturally and bizarrely long life is a blessing to the Kingdom.  Sure no one sees the Queen much any more in public.  The King rides through towns in the countryside in an enclosed carriage.  He sits under his special tenting at his tournaments. In armor, the King appears with his visor closed and that dark visage around him is simply his God-given powers over Men and Dwarf and Gnome and Half-elf manifesting.

Besides, the doings of Kings, Dukes and Earls are so far removed from the lives of the villages they might as well be on another planet. For most people, as long as the Kingdom carries on and doesn’t bother them, they support their King.  Only through slowly peeling back the onion skins of lies and deceit surrounding the King and his Court does the horrible Truth finally emerge.

The War against the Risen King is a Shadow War.  The Risen King is too powerful to fight in the fields army to army in great cavalry charges.  Freedom from eternal peace and stability and life given back to the Living requires plots, spies, plans, assassinations, and murder.  It needs dubious Murder Hobos.

Who Fights the Risen King?

The Risen King enjoys broad based support throughout his entire realm. Few will publicly raise their fist against him lest they be dragged off and properly lynched.  But some would like the Kingdom – and all Kingdoms ruled by the Undead – returned to the hands of the true Living, even if it means enduring the chaos of succession.

* The Vassalized Kingdoms subjugated mercilessly by the Risen King as part of his Eternal Empire are not ruled by undead. They are not great and glittering Kingdoms on a hill. Their Courts are not filled with overdressed Vampires and the occasional Wraith.  These are the tax base for the Risen King’s eternal war, kept poor and forced to the soil so the King can squeeze pennies from their blood. They remember a time before the Risen King and the other Kingdoms of the World.  They remember when Necromancers were evil and not celebrated wizards and advisors to great Courts.  They remember when the Gods of Good were not hunted to the edges of the World.

However, representatives of the Vassalized Court who may or may not harbor their own dreams of attaining eternal life of a sort for themselves. Outwardly their motives are noble – freedom from oppression for their people – but inwardly they want what the Risen King has: power.  If they destroy enough of the undead Lords and seize their lands, they, too, could treat with the Necromancers.

*  Underground Clerics of the Gods of Neutral and Chaotic Good.  While some of the Gods of Peace, Hearth, and Home are unequipped to fight Courts of Undead, many Good Clerics follow Gods of Light and Nature.  Gods of Light may provide warmth and light when all around is dark but they can also burn the Undead with focused laser fire.  Nature has horns and teeth. The King’s Agents may have pursued these Clerics to the edges of the Kingdom and forced then underground but these Clerics still hold their sermons in homes in the Shires of those who hold to the Old Ways.  

* Great-grandsons of the Risen King who want their Blood Right as King.  Via primogeniture they claim the right of the Throne and Kingship but a long dead King occupies their Throne.  They have money and their have their Ducal Lands but they want the Throne and are willing to open a bloody war to get it.  Problem is there is now more than one of their little group who also can claim the Throne. Backing one Great-Grandson may mean opening Civil War with another.

* Agents of other Lich Kings of Avalon pretending to be employed with the Vassalized Kingdoms or the Gods of Light.  The Wars have long stagnated between Kingdoms and the only way for one Kingdom to gain an upper hand over another is for a Lich King to find a quick True Death at the hands of enterprising Murder Hobos. That way, the other Kingdom’s hands are clean, a Kingdom falls into complete Chaos, and the War shifts from equilibrium and into another Lich King’s Court. 

In the hundred years of stability, stagnation and growth, Kingdoms have had plenty of time to work out the kinks in their elaborate spy and Divination networks. All they need is to make a move.  In the name of Good and Freedom.  

* Enemies of the Necromancers who want their little Guild closed down, them removed from world Courts, and cast back into the Shadows.  While they rarely dabble in undeath themselves, they are the peddlers of the high fashion of the nobility.  They bring eternal life to the Courts and guarantee endless War and Empire. Destroying the purveyors of undeath will begin to free the world from their pernicious presence.  But they are rich and powerful and have high up friends and will not go down without a fight.

* Relatives of those murdered and fed to the Undead Courts for their blood feasts to maintain their eternal lives.  One of those vicious Earl Vampires ate a wife, a son, a family in wartime – legally.  The endless cruelty and evil must come to an end and the lives of the dead revenged in Holy, Purifying Light.

* Demons of Chaos and Hell who want their souls brought to them in payment for services rendered.  Eventually that bill for eternal life comes due and the demons want their flesh. The Necromancers may or may not have mentioned this part. Sometimes they forget.

* Transmuter Bankers who want their debts paid in full and are willing to have eternal life forcefully removed from a client and liquidate those estates to get it.

* Disciples of Chaos who simply want to watch it all burn for their own glorious financial gain.

The fight against the Risen King is a long slog.   One cannot merely walk into the Court and kill a century old King.  Besides, many have tried. One needs to get through his layers of protection, chip away at his support, and murder his most powerful vassals before coming face to face with the King.  And, in the mayhem aftermath, there are 10 more Kings out there just like him. 

Law vs. Good

This is a story designed to turn the normal fantasy Good-Evil axis on its side and ride along the Law-Chaos axis. If you want to turn this campaign seed into an actual campaign, the recommendation for constructing the first few sessions is:

1. Start the players off in an oppressed vassalized Kingdom saving villages from standard orcs and trolls and leveling;

2. Encountering clerics of Good and Light to spin out their tale of being banished to the edges of oblivion;

3. Come to the attention of Agents – either of the Vassalized Kingdom or an enemy Kingdom – and employ the Murder Hobos to destroy an undead lesser Noble Lord and let them figure out how to accomplish that task; 

4. Leave clues that the undead conspiracy goes all the way down.

After this, it is more about PC choice than unspooling a complex plot. Preference is to making all the “Good Guys” appear Good with loads of dark Neutral Evil motives.  The Undead Courts and the King are, without a doubt, undead, but only some of them are evil.  But this is only a suggestion – don’t run campaigns on rails.   

The Risen King entered this contract with the best of intentions; these Kings and High Lords are the disciples and Saints of the Gods of Law.   Do the Neutral Gods care if their most powerful agents in the Realms are dead as long as their power extends down to the smallest freeloader and feeblest villein?  Law is a powerful construct.  It crafts Governments, it holds together Kingdoms,and it pumps life into sprawling Empires.  The Risen King has provided stability for his people and might against his enemies. If a Lawful Good God must face outcomes that expands his Domain in spite of embracing some Evil, does he send in the Murder Hobo death squads anyway?  

Yes, those filthy fashionable Vampires of the Risen King’s Court are ridiculously evil but they were ridiculously evil when they were alive. If the PC choice is to go after the Risen King and kill his Undead Court in the name of Good, remember this is also in the service of Chaos.  The Vassalized and oppressed home Kingdom will definitely be freed in the aftermath of disturbing a century of expansion and stability.  And maybe that is a victory condition for the PCs.   They will leave a Civil War in their wake.

Lay out the philosophical dilemma, provide the choices to the PCs and see what happens.

Writer’s Note: Big thanks to Beth McCoy and family for providing me with this idea!  It’s a good one.  Also I listened to tons of White Zombie while writing this.

I started constructing this as a D&D5e campaign and now I wonder if it isn’t better as a weird sort of Night’s Black Agents Fantasy game or a Dungeon World game.  Running this with Gumshoe would take some interesting rejiggering of the system to make it work but it’s loose enough to fit into most molds.  And of course Dungeon World would allow the players to “fail up.”

Featured Image by Lorc under CC BY 3.0

The High Price of Fantasy Kingdom Wars or Your Lawful Good King is a Dick

Hordes of Orks mass on the border of a far-away kingdom. They rampage, causing horrors and havoc.  The tales of the Bards are full of terrors.

Your King is a man who styles himself after King Arthur: Good and Proud and Right and Just.  In peacetime, he rules over his self-styled Camelot, a place of feasts and jousts and general hugging.  The King’s Lawful and Neutral Good advisors council the right thing to do for a Good and Just King is to take the war to the Orks and save those distant people.  The religious authorities, representing Lawful and Neutral Good Gods, explain the Orks worship Gods of war, blood and death.  Righteousness dictates the King must defend peace and love from the horrors of the Other.

The King half-listens to his council drone on. Meanwhile, he envisions himself in future Bardic tales as an authentic Arthurian Upgrade.  No longer a myth, future Kings – no doubt descended from his blood line – will take inspiration from his great victories, War in his name, style their Courts after his Courts, and rule as he ruled.  They will tell tales of him, a better, more shining, and more awesome Monarch.  He can march his great armies out to the fields, do war on the Orks, and return home, covered in Glory.  As a bonus, he gets to murder some Orks.

The King tells his advisors he has decided to go to War.  Make it so.

Rule #1: Wars Cost Money

Wars are expensive.  They are really expensive.  They are mindboggling expensive.

The Crown must shell out for the following, at minimum:

  • Provisions for a large army;
  • Equipment for whatever part of the army belongs to the Crown;
  • Transportation for a large army, including ships;
  • Siege weaponry of various sizes;
  • Bribes to Noblemen to convince them going to War in some far off land is a good idea and they should pack up their armies;
  • Bribes to Highly Prized Murder Hobos (re: PCs) to convince them to fight with the Army instead of randomly attacking it;
  • Bribes to other Kingdoms to allow the King’s Army to pass through;
  • Bribes to Pirates just because;
  • General paying off anyone who happens to demand money for services, like re-provisioning armies in the field.

Medieval-based fantasy armies are not run solely by the King. Instead, he forms the the army from a loose confederation of private armies consisting of Lords, mercenaries, pirates, high level Murder Hobos, wizards, and the occasional group of hyper-powerful Good-aligned clerics.  The King must convince/cajole/bribe all these people – especially his feudal Lords – this War is a good idea, in their best interest, they should come along and bring 3000 of their closest, most heavily armed friends. 

“About five hundred thousand gold coins at the minimum,” the beleaguered Treasury Secretary says to the King right before the guards arrest him for uttering that number out loud.

Nevermind the real cost of running the Kingdom left in the hands of someone arguably competent – perhaps the Queen if the Kingdom is lucky, or the King’s highly ambitious second son if not – as the King and his first son go off to War.  Kingdoms even in peacetime are expensive.  Kingdoms built roads, ran government and judicial systems, maintained castles, kept military readiness, bribed churches and paid interest on the loans from the last war.

That last one is the fiddly bit.  If the Kingdom is flush, this War with the Orks is doable.  But the hard reality is Kingdoms, unless large and with a stable economic base, are rarely flush because Kings keep looting their economic base for cash to run their Wars.

Rule #2: The King must Fund His War

The money has to come from somewhere because it’s certainly not in the Treasury.  Luckily, the King and the Crown follows a convenient Kingdom Looting Script faithfully.

1. Squeeze the Peasants.  Always start with squeezing those who are the least equipped to fight back.  However, these are also the least equipped to have any money.  Also, the local Lord of the land gets ticked off when his peasants are over-squeezed because then they cannot buy food, they starve to death and they die. Dead peasants cannot harvest the local fields so the Lord cannot sell his produce and cannot make any money.  That money goes to paying for the Lord’s private army which he needs to go out into the field and follow the King for glory.  

“No can do,” says the Lord. “You already looted my peasants so I cannot afford my man-at-arms or pay for more Murder Hobos.  Good luck fighting those orks!”

Worse, if the King insists on squeezing the peasants and insists on forcing Lords to follow him to War without something in it for them, the Lords will find a bored King’s Brother they suddenly like more who taxes their peasants less. The Kingdom falls into Civil War.  Everyone gets distracted. 

Besides, the Churches of Goodness tend to object – something about their Gods not being so keen on kicking peasants in the name of Good.  So that strategy has limited effectiveness.

2. Squeeze the Local Minorities.  Squeezing the local conclaves for Elves or Gnomes for cash can result in some decent returns. (1) They rarely don’t have Lords protecting them and they worship weird Gods.  Sure their Gods might also be Lawful and Neutral Good but they have no God Representation in Court so they totally don’t count.  The King can squeeze them as much as he wants and no one will jump to their defense.

Problem here is there are so few of them.  Funny thing, every time the King wants to go to War, the Crown squeezes their communities for cash and, after a few cycles of this, they pack up and find somewhere a little less squeezy. Maybe those Orks out on the frontier… they heard about them.  Let’s try those guys.

3. Squeeze the Rich People.  Arguably, squeezing the towns has the best possible returns. They don’t contribute to the overall war effort. They are loaded. Guilds are nothing but little money fountains and, besides, how did these non-noble and non-royal jumped up peasants get so much money in the first place?

Except many of these guys are both smarter than the average government tax collector and wizards.  Funny, they get Bards to perform for them, too, (2) and they heard the tales.   By time the government tax collectors show up on their doorstep demanding extravagant tax hikes and payments to the Crown, the money has long been off-shored.  

“Sorry, man,” they say.  “Our money is allll tied up in banks in off-shore accounts and in the businesses.  Wizard bankers, you know. Maybe if we didn’t have to pay for our own personal Murder Hobos to protect our stuff when we transport it to market we’d have more money to give you.  Good luck with the Orks!”

The King also has a bit of it-goes-around-comes-around with taxing the rich people.  He squeezes them for cash and then turns around and pays them all the taxes back – with a markup to make a profit – when he then needs to purchase dried provisions in massive bulk to feed his armies in the field. 

4. Squeeze Religious Institutions.  The King cannot send the Crown after the Good and Neutral Good religions supporting his cause.  It wouldn’t be right and besides, he needs them to contribute clerics to his cause. 

But surely, his Kingdom is full of Neutral and even Evil Temples to Gods.  Aren’t there some out of work Murder Hobos around here?   How would they like to make some cash and magic items on the side while extracting some “taxation” from the local Temple of Complete Evil and its followers?   It’s Evil!  It says right on the side of the building!  Sure it’s not hurting anyone and it was named in a sense of great and hilarious irony but it has a treasury room and the King needs to pay his Lords and start buying provisions.

That works to help flush out the war budget but the Kingdom only has so many Temples of Complete Evil.  There’s a serious Evil per square mile crunch which keeps this tactic from being a major contributor to the financial war footing.  Once the War is over, the Crown will need to work with religious leaders to lure more Evil to his land, surreptitiously of course, so the Crown can send Murder Hobos to loot it for future wars. 

5. A Loan from Wizard Bankers.  Oh God. Wizards.

The Transmuter Bankers have the entire half million gold pieces up front and ready to loan to His Majesty with a nice 20% interest rate. Wizards have no time for talk from preachy Clerics about the evil of usury and the horrors placed upon Kingdoms by those who would charge interest rates.  Besides the terms state the loan is payable over an incredible time span.   HIgh-level wizards have nothing but time. Take your time. We will get our money.

And if the Kingdom misses a payment?  Why, the Wizards have Teleport and Disintegration.  And hell, maybe in some future upcoming Civil War they will happily give loans to the other side who will, of course, promise to pay.

In the end, the King has to go with the wizards.  He signs on the bottom line. 

Now the King has money.  He has pissed off Lords, angry peasants ready to revolt, uncooperative religious institutions, fleeing minority groups, rich merchants making a fast buck, and wizards.  But he has money!  He can go off to Glory!

Rule #3: The Local Glory is Faster and Cheaper than Heroic Glory Far Away

It takes nine months to muster the entire military, arrange any Naval support, secure passage with bribes, and procure enough rations to march in Glory in the Far Off Land of the Orks.  But march they do with the King at the head of the line, his shining son the White Prince next to him, banners fluttering in the air, Cleric tunics all nice and white, and accompanied by singers and drummers.

First, the food runs out.  It goes bad. It gets wet. The baggage train washes away in a river.  But this isn’t a problem.  Surely those villages along the route will throw the entire army a grand feast fit for a King!  And if they do not, they are evil and we must destroy and loot and add their grain stores to the baggage train.

If looting peasant villages along the way doesn’t keep the army fed, then looting peasant fields certainly will.  Those cows over there are now the King’s cows. Those peasant fields are now the King’s fields.   Nevermind that perhaps these are the lands of a different King. We are saving the world from Orks!   The Orks are Evil!  Loot those cows!  Bring the King a steak!  On the rare-side, please, with a nice merlot.

Second, the murder hobo and mercenaries wander off.  Murder Hobo and mercenary companies will stick around a long time as long as the King keeps them fed and housed and there’s something to fight. Looting, pillaging and burning the occasional peaceful peasant village is tons of fun and they make all kinds of money.  And they can justify it to their Lawful and Neutral Good employers – that village was housing a portal to the Underdark.   And that village over there secretly worshipped a Dark God.  The third had a dragon if you can believe that!  It was a tiny dragon with only a teeny horde but it was a dragon they swear.  It had killing coming to it. 

Eventually, the army begins to unravel and the mercenary companies find something better and more profitable to do with their time.  They leave in the night with not even a forwarding address.

Third, the local Kingdom is easier to invade than the far off Kingdom of Orks.  After all the King is passing through some foreign Kingdom with a large and well-manned army.  He needs money to pay off those damn Wizard Bankers.  And if he adds some territory to his Crown, he grows his Kingdom’s dominions and tax base.  Then he can pay for more Wars which brings him more glory and adds to his Arthurian mystique.  Then he can really take the war to those Orks.

Besides, those Orks aren’t going anywhere.  They will still be there in a few extra months, right?   This is only a small diversion.

The King comes up with some claim on the local Throne through his father’s sister’s husband’s cousin allowing him to press for legal Du Jure rights over the land.  He claims Kingship of the local environs for himself.

The King declares War.  The clerics get to some hard core proselytizing to the local devastated populace in the names of their Lawful and Neutral Good gods. Everyone believes the war will last four months.  This war lasts the next 40 years.  But that is a future problem for future people.

Naturally, the cities of the invaded Kingdom in question had plenty of warning and prepared for siege.  They are well provisioned.   The cities have Walls and the occasional Evoker Wizard with a single, well-placed fireball.  But hey, the mercenaries have stopped wandering off, the King’s Lords are gaining glory, and as cities fall, it adds to the war chest to pay back the pernicious loans.  Everything is coming up King.

It’s a super bummer when one of those well-placed fireballs kills the King.  Too bad the army burned all their diamonds of resurrection paying for food to keep up the siege.  Now the guy is toast.  Literally. 

The King is dead, long live the King, may his son, the White Prince, rule long and well!

Rule #4: The Orks are Done Rampaging

A large portion of the army stays behind to help hold the newly taken lands won in their war.  A few mercenaries get lucky and declare themselves Lords of castle they take giving themselves promotions.  Yet, some bedraggled portion of the King’s original army, lead by the White Price, with some mercenaries, murder hobos and clerics, after years of pillaging, adventures, sieges, war and mayhem, will stagger to the great Outer Kingdom where the Orks rampage just as the Bards told.  

Or were rampaging.  At the looks of the place, either the Orks are all rampaged out or the people of the local Kingdom put up one hell of a resistance.  Either way, it’s kind of quiet here now and the Orks settled back down.  Would have been nice if someone had, say, established an early outpost and sent messages back or something. 

Although there’s certainly other interesting local wars to get involved in. You know, with the Orks. They now have this little Kingdom of their own that can contribute land and glory to the Kingdom.  They have established treaties with some other local small kingdoms made of formerly oppressed minority groups. Other murder hobo-based trading companies are already here making some quick cash. And the wizards are offering the Orks war loans at great rates.

“But it’s sort of a shame to waste the last of this army and these loyal Lords,” the White Prince, now the White King, says to the last of his circle of advisors, now including a particular Murder Hobo group. “Besides, the Clerics still insist their Gods tell us Orks are evil.” With that, he follows out his original mission and declares War on the Orks.  In they charge for one last great battle!

The White King’s ransom is enough to firmly financially establish the Ork Kingdom.

The Glorious Conclusion to the Great War Against the Orks

It’s a shame about the King and his son the White Prince nee’ King but everyone comes out pretty well in the end in this story. 

History celebrates the King, who died in glorious battle, as a great and noble chivalric King who died a warrior’s death, just like Arthur.  His legend grows every year helped along by opportunistic bards who swear they don’t get kickbacks from the Crown. 

The White King finally staggers home after being ransomed and is also hailed as a great hero and King until he, too, gets killed in a particularly ironic way and opens civil war between his brother and the supporters of the White King’s son. 

The Kingdom fights to keep its not-entirely-legally-taken-lands for 40 years which presents young Lords many opportunities for glory cheaper and closer to home.  The people of these lands are not as thrilled.  Eventually the Kingdom loses those lands in a series of bungled sieges lead by the King’s great-grand-nephew.

The Kingdom never pays off its loans.  Instead it refinances the debt so many times it becomes the basis of their own major banking system.

Orks grow enough financially to expand their borders aggressively and spend hundreds of years in fun pitched battle with other Kingdoms willing to economically exhaust themselves.  They figured out not all evil comes from butchering the local populace.  

The expanding Ork Kingdom gives the Lawful and Neutral Good churches a tasty shibboleth to rail against which brings in the donations and the volunteers for their swelling ranks of clerics.

The Wizard Bankers make a mint off interest rates and all this economic activity.

The Merchants make enough to fill the banker’s coffers by war profiteering.

And our friends, the Murder Hobos, through all the years of adventures and wars and sieges and small dragons and Orks and pillaging, make 20th level.

——————————————————–

Writer’s Note: This is all based on some very real fun the French had in the midst of the 100 Year War when they all got bored of losing to the English and went on Crusade against a burgeoning Ottoman Empire and completely collapsed at the Battle of Nicopolis.  The Turks found the Crusade of Nicopolis “hilarious.” There’s some callbacks to the Peruzzi’s who lost their shorts financing Kings.  If only they had disintegration spells…

(1) This is why Elven parents tell their children not to venture out into the human world.  Somewhere out there somewhere there’s some Good and Just King who will come along and take their stuff for better Good and Justness.   The Dark Elves don’t hide in the Underdark because they’re evil; they’re just tired of human taxation policy. 

(2) Bards will perform for anyone, especially if they are spies. Perhaps spies in the employ of a Kingdom of Orks.

The Great Failure of History Theory

Textbook writers lard up High School history books with the Great Man of History Theory.  This theory states that every once in a while a Great Man appears on the scene and with his overwhelming Greatness and Amazing Good Looks pushes history along its course.  The rest of humanity is merely Styrofoam packing peanuts on history’s great froth, unable to do anything or make anything or build anything for ourselves until this Great Player Character of History comes along.  Humanity is the packaging to the Great Man’s super cool deliverable into the stream of time.

Naturally, Great Men are men, white, Western European, flawless of complexion (nary a zit to be found), tall, and with a full head of hair. Unless the Great Man in question is Napoleon. Then they are white Western European men free of acne with amazing hair whose great contribution to history is not the conquest of Western Europe but the uproariously hilarious lack of stature.  Dude was short!  And an Emperor! A short Emperor! Can you believe it?      

The Great Man theory has all sorts of obnoxious and occasionally pernicious effects – a belief than no woman contributes to the overall arc of humanity’s story, a strain of thought which fetishizes “Great Men,” and a mindset of built-in helplessness of humanity’s masses. When the dragon comes to the village,the villagers won’t go get their bows and pikes and take care of their problem; the villagers summon a Hero to rescue them and cower in their homes. When the kingdom faces a great problem, it’s the King who solves it, and never the annoyed wool merchants and clerics and advisors who sit the King down and explain in Parliament how this is going to be solved.  The great generals save the country and the day.  

This is all kind of silly.

Anyone who spends five minutes reading a history book with any depth quickly discovers this theory is garbage.  It’s arguably worse than bad because it presents a view of history where people are helpless against it.  Historians counter the Great Man Theory of History with a more anthropological view.  History is a story of people, movements, thoughts, and adoption of technological change. Historical figures appear like air bubbles rising to the surface of a great sea of change and pop on the mighty timeline of humanity.

This makes somewhat more sense assuming history is a process of economics, people, thought, and change coming together to create a continuous narrative.  And it does match an awful lot of human history.  But it doesn’t explain some of the more pernicious pressures of change usually caused by someone being some kind a dumbass.

I put forth for comment the Great Failure Theory of History.  It states:

At any time or any point in history, a person or group of people will rise to the occasion to fuck up, pull acts of epic douchebaggery or otherwise completely fail at critical junctures when people would really rather prefer a little bit of competence. This opens up opportunities for great change usually to the determent of everyone else and/or someone showing up to clean up the mess. 

This predicates the course of history is gloriously failure-based. History is less defined by the heroic efforts of Great Men but by the incredible and jaw-dropping screw-ups of individuals and collective groups of people.  Usually with pre-meditated intent.

Three examples just to get the mental meat juices moving:

1.  In 1347, the Mongols put the city of Kaffa in the Crimea under siege.  When the Mongol Khan of the Golden Horde, Jani Beg, came down with Yersina pestis, his army had the bright idea to take bodies dead from plague and fling them over the city walls.  Genoans, knowing when it’s a good time to bug out, fled back to Genoa. Too bad their ships were loaded with rats.

Two years later, uncounted millions were dead.  Feudalism was over. 50 years later, Europe would Reboot and start a new operating system called the “Early Modern Age.”  Thanks army of Jani Beg!  You guys are the best.

2. This year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta which brings to mind King John Lackland, a King such magnificent failure in history Disney animated him as a confused, scrawny, scared lion. (At least he was voiced by Peter Ustinov, which is something.)  Never expecting to lead men he never bothered to learn how to become a leader of men.  In a time when all disputes were settled by particularly pointy pieces of metal, John enjoyed law, legislation and the occasional bout of vicious drunken murder.

He was a French guy who lost a big chunk of Normandy and was now stuck running a hostile island full of blood-thirsty Anglo-Norman lords and pissed off, heavily armed Welsh.  To get back the Empire he managed to lose, he needed an army.   Anglo-Norman lords laughed at the little Norman who misplaced his entire country. They weren’t going to fight for John. He needed mercenaries and mercenaries require cash.  So he squeezed everyone for cash – Lords, monks, merchants in the nascent wool industry,regular people.   The Pope, a bit pissy, put the entire island under Interdict for three years so no one was allowed a burial until John begged back into the Pope’s graces. And John blew all that money and didn’t even manage to get Normandy back. 

Sick of this crap, the Lords forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and give up absolute his ultimate unquestionable Feudal Lordship.  Sure, the Pope threw out the Magna Carta immediately but by 1225 it was English Law.   Funny thing, though… it was written to only apply to Lords but the Anglo Saxon populace with their non-French idea of freedoms thought it applied to them and it became a fact.   Thanks John for being terrible at Kinging!   

3. One would think the bomb that bounced off the open car, rolled into a group of bystanders and exploded would be a hint to Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia on June 28th, 1914.  Maybe get inside.  Get some actual security protection.  Abort the rest of the day’s schedule.  Don’t drive around a highly heated and well-armed Sarajevo in an open car.  Instead, Franz Ferdinand gave his speech in public while his car still dripped with blood and core.  And then, they decided to go tour hospitals with injured soldiers. When they got lost, turn down a blind alleyway where karma caught up with them.

Even with Archduke Ferdinand dead, WWI didn’t need to happen.  Maybe if Kaiser Wilhelm II was a teeny bit better at leading his empire and less freaked out about competing with his English cousins on Who Is Most Imperialist.  He didn’t need to declare war on Russia, start a two front war and activate the chain of alliances.  It could have been a regional war between Austria and the Balkins.

But no.  WWI is a entire chain of people making terrible decisions.  Especially Winston Churchill’s disaster in Gallipoli which lead to much of the mess in the modern Middle East…  Sure it broke Europe with the old world and ushered in the 20th century but the cost of hubris is high.

Spend five minutes thinking about almost any event in history, dig around and find the idiot or great movement of idiots standing right behind it going: ”Oops.”

Quick Thoughts about Gaming Hooks

When we write settings and stories for games, they tend toward Great Men.  The hero saves the day.  The old king wisely rules his Kingdom. Problems are solved with the use of force, pointy bits of metal, and a fireball. Get the power-up and win the game.  Tie up the loose ends neatly with no messy consequences.

Success is fleeting but delicious failure is forever.  Stories evolve from messy details, wrong choices, going left when one should have gone right, and staying outside after an attack instead of sensibly taking cover.  We can learn from history – the lessons our history teacher never wanted us to learn. Failure is fun. Failure creates narrative.  Failure makes space for so-called opportunistic Heroes to appear.  Failure brings the low up and the high low.  Failure creates huge opportunities for change.

And most of human history is run by people being humanly stupid.

So… 

1. Big failure is way more cool than an endless string of success.  Success ends the story.  Let the party fail. Not fatally. Just enough to cause themselves more headaches which turn into more story with more consequences.  This turns into story.

2. Trying to clean up the mess from the original failure often results in even more failure.  Let that one sink in for a while, and then roll with it.  

3. Someone out there looks and smells like a super competent Hero with shiny perfect teeth and immaculate hair. People love him and will follow him.  That guy is the villain.

4. Historically, women in seats of authority are uber-competent because they schemed for it and earned it.   Men, not so much.  Kings refuse to King.  Generals lead armies into blind canyons. Great Leaders launch bloody and fruitless wars over dick-measuring competitions.  The quietly competent woman is a thousand times more dangerous than the slicked hair Super Hero.  She’s probably the one who deployed the Hero in the first place.

5. Perception of the past is what wins.  Whatever people want to believe happened is what is recorded and what happened. Truth? My reality is way more cool than yours.

History is the story of the failure of great and powerful people.  The more power, the bigger the unintended consequences.  We can learn a bit and work this inspiration back into gaming narrative for the good of us all.

Fast Eddy’s Leased Weaponry and Adventuring Accoutrements

Are you a first level character starting out on your mission of vengeance and justice after evil destroys your peaceful peasant village? Maybe you just graduated from your elite warrior training school a little low on new adventurer funds and cannot buy both the sword and that critical life-saving armor upgrade?  Perhaps you are experimenting with turning evil and need some new flair?

Why don’t you come on down to Fast Eddy’s Leased Weaponry and Adventuring Accoutrements! 

You don’t want to buy that longsword brand new with cash.  Put that thing down!  Those blacksmiths won’t tell you this, my friend: any new longsword that walks off the lot instantly loses 20% of its value in its first battle!  Those knicks and scratches and blood on the pommel adds up to a loss of value in your critical investment!  Why buy a brand new longsword when you’re going to delve that dungeon down the street, level heroically a few times, find yourself facing an Ogre boss monster and need an upgrade… fast fast fast?

Fast Eddy’s can get you into a major upgrade fast!

Upgrade your weapon every dungeon delve!  Don’t like longswords?  Want to try warhammers?  Or itching to get into that shiny but expensive magic imbued Bec de Corbin?  Turn in your weapon and clear out your lease for a brand new weapon!  Change weapons every level!  Just put a little gold down and you can walk out with sweet luxury armaments. 

And that’s not all!  Fast Eddy’s supplies a whole line of armor, bracers, magic boots, trinkets, and protection gear all subject to short-term and attractively priced leases for the adventurer on the go!   

Fast Eddy’s has a special offer for new and first time adventurers.  Instead of paying that huge chunk of change up front only to see that precious investment degrade – and let’s face it, it’s the last money of your poor dying peasant village massacred by those heartless orks, Fast Eddy understands – why not get into a limited time weapon lease with only 5% down on the total price and pay only a generous 5 gold a month on your first weapon (with limitations on longsword use subject to contract terms and conditions and a 12.94% APR on the total monthly payment for all gear)!  Get yourself in some real scale armor!  Maybe a shield?  It’s so cheap you can get completely kitted!  Other leases subject to weapon and item combat and time limits!

Don’t die like other first time adventurers!  Come on come on come on down to Fast Eddy’s and lease your gear… today! 

***

I couldn’t figure out why any first time adventurers would buy their equipment new. And yet they do. 

I mean, it’s good for the local economy.  When the local overpowered inexplicably long-haired pretty boy wanders around destroying the local villages with his hordes of monsters and generates new murder hobos, blacksmiths do well with that nice demand for first time non-magical weapon purchases. First level characters on their quest for vengeance buy their weapons new because that’s what they do.  They don’t know any better and their village is all dead and etc. etc. Tragic.  Then new murder hobos delve into the nearby cavern/dungeon/sewers in hopes of leveling up a bit and promptly get slaughtered.  Rinse.  Repeat. 

Oh first level characters, how you wish you had that second hit die.

But smart first time adventurers ought to buy their weapons used.  All those earlier and now ex-first level characters created a hell of a supply of basic, good condition, non-magical weapons.  The prices for barely used weapons are nice and low.  And even if a murder hobo survives that first dungeon run, who keeps their first level weaponry for long?  A level, maybe two. One good run on a dungeon and murder hobos have whole new sets of actually used equipment of highly dubious value taken off the bodies of other less lucky or less fortunate adventurers, monsters, and assorted end bosses.  That starting equipment is disposable stuff.  Its duration in murder hobo hands is so short blacksmiths ought to make it out of plastic. 

Now, of course, first time adventurers might have trouble pricing some of those used weapons for sale.  Yeah those prices look good. Starting gold piece budgets can really stretch with the used weaponry market. But there’s no Kelly Blue Book for New and Used Weapons, Armor, and Adventuring Gear (or associated reviews, magazines, or web sites.) 

If our friend the first level murder hobo has a solid blacksmith background she’ll tell that “fantastic deal” on that 5gp longsword is because the hilt is duct taped floppily to the blade and not because it’s an “amazing sword with a fascinating history and a bit of silvery flair.”  That other murder hobo over there with that noble background might have a harder time with the used weapon market and hey stop don’t buy that because that’s not dragon blood on the blade.  It’s hard out there for naive murder hobos.  The unscrupulous used sword lot set up conveniently near the mouth of that starter dungeon has deals but you really gotta shop smart.

For those who don’t want to comparison shop used weaponry, I present a brand new model for selling equipment to murder hobos: leasing.

Why not lease?  No murder hobo is going to hold on to a store-bought weapon for long, since murder hobos take the good stuff off enemy bodies or from ancient, forbidden treasures somehow not yet looted by all the other murder hobos. A competent adventurer holds on to her starting equipment until what, 3rd level?  Does she really want to pay full price when what she needs are rolling upgrades to keep up with the escalating difficulty of those black dragons and displacer beasts?

Fast Eddy’s offers great deals on leases with rollover to new equipment and equipment buy-back (to feed into that used weapon shop he owns at the mouth of that dungeon) especially for the first time adventurer.  Sure, the contract has interesting terms and conditions in the small print like how the murder hobos cannot fight any humans, meta-humans, orks, ogres, hobgoblins, bugbears, beholders, or associated creatures with certain black signs on their armor or face litigation or confiscation of their weapons plus enormous interest hikes by Fast Eddy’s guild but who reads the small print?  Or, on page three, how the contract stipulates should the bearer of the weapon die or face some other associated physical mayhem like being turned to stone or cast into another dimension, Fast Eddy’s may subject the remaining terms of the lease to collections to collect the remaining balance to one’s remaining team members, relatives, or survivors of peaceful peasant villages?  Oh and there’s interest on these leases… nevermind all that, just sign on the dotted line and put that 5% down and walk out with a shiny new bit of kit – always brand new, always guaranteed, no guessing or duct tape involved!   

Of course, leasing comes with a certain amount of lock-in unless the veteran adventurer wants to pay off the lease on now used kit instead of upgrading.  And does any adventurer want to just throw away that amount of coin?  What adventurer doesn’t want to invest her cash in better equipment instead?  Fast Eddy’s fat leases offer some pretty exciting deals to those successful murder hobos who want to get into more upscale and luxury adventuring kit – a whole backroom of Two Handed Sword +3 Flametongue with velvet lined scabbards and +3 Rings of Protection with the very clearest in new rubies, perfect for any famous adventurer dinner party.  Just walk in, sell back the old kit at generous rates, sign a new contract with considerably more interesting terms and conditions, put down the deposit, and adventure to cover that monthly bill with interest.

And always remember, fellow adventurer: good credit is happy credit!

***

This all works out pretty well for the professional murder hobo until someone rolls a couple of bad 1s on a d20 during an epic and tragic boss battle on the top of some mountain in a far away land.  Which happens.  It’s very sad.  Murder hoboing is dangerous stuff. 

Fast Eddy invokes the contract and turns over the unpaid lease to collections.

This is an unfortunate thing, collections, but it’s right there on page three of the terms and conditions of the lease.  It was covered at the moment of signing.  Usually if the adventurer has reached that point in their profession for a truly boss-oriented dramatic death (perhaps with the original long-haired pretty boy; see above) she arranged proper legal representation in her will before hand. Her estate is good for the coverage on the Advanced Magic Item lease.  But if she was running a bit on margins – perhaps her spell reagents were running her dry or she was in deep in debt with a certain guild of Fast Eddy’s passing acquaintance – Fast Eddy might turn the remaining balance over to increasingly shady levels of collects agents to repo the magic weapons. 

First it starts with a visit from a nice polite man in a dark suit who comes calling about the balance of the debt.  And then a quiet break-in from the Thieves Guild to steal just enough to collect what the customer owes.  If that is thwarted – because adventurers – then ninjas.  And if the family, friends and associates fight back against increasingly inexplicable attacks from context-free assassins coming after the former associate’s hidden secrets, Fast Eddy washes his hands of the contract and hand the whole sordid mess to Big Timmy and Friends.

And no one wants to deal with Big Timmy and Friends.  No one wants to talk about Big Timmy and Friends.  Especially the friends part of Big Timmy and Friends.  Big Timmy and Friends has brought more than one mighty band of heroes low on their moment of cosmic triumph by popping up and repossessing magic weapons.  Some legendary adventurers have said: yeah there was that ancient Red Dragon and he was a serious customer I mean goddamn with all the fire breathing and teeth and claws and wings and things but he was nothing compared to the pan-dimensional, extra-cosmic, demonic Abyssal hell of Big Timmy and his Repo-Man Friends.

If there’s one thing demons out of the Lower Hells do well it’s repo equipment anywhere on any Plane in the universe. 

They get their equipment and Fast Eddy maintains a nice, smooth business for the next ambitious group of clientele.  Universe needs saving, you say?  From hellish repo men?  Just sign the contract right here and I can get you into an excellent magic sword…

***

The sordid moral of this whole story is:

If you’re a first time adventurer, you might want to get your kit used because there’s some choice deals out there.  But if you do, make sure you bring along a blacksmith buddy.  And maybe take a pass at that juicy deal leasing that longsword unless you think you’ll be good for the cash 10 levels from now.

And Fast Eddy?  He might sell that 5gp down and 5% monthly plus interest longsword 5, 10, 15 times before it’s too busted to lease and goes to his used weaponry lot.  It’s a good business to be in, even if his clientele keeps dying in the local dungeon.  Perhaps because they keep dying in the local dungeon.

Writer’s Note: This came out of a weird discussion about adventurer start up equipment and why anyone would ever buy new and we couldn’t figure it out.  Wouldn’t it be better to lease? And what happens if you lease?  And if you die, does the repo-man come after your buddies to recoup your weapon and/or the buyback value?  Then I heard a podcast on crazy collections agents out of Buffalo and that’s kind of sticking so now we get Abyssal repo-men working for Fast Eddy and discussions on weapon loan interest… 

Podcasts and Bibliography

Writer’s Note: I am in the center of a two week streak of real life madness so blogging time took a serious hit.  I have been meaning to write this anyway and remove the ancient dead pages with a bibliography and links page – in fact, this post.  So while I am crazy busy, here are the books I read/am reading and the podcasts I absorb with all their links and references.

A couple of fine Internet friends asked for a list of books and resources that are gentler than attempting to get through an Economics textbook.  I pour data into my head every moment I can – I read an awful lot.  When I’m not reading, I’m driving or working.  I have a long commute so I listen to a number of podcasts.  

Podcasts

I use the Apple Podcast player that comes on the iPhone.  To be honest, as a piece of software, it fails where others have succeeded and I cannot recommend it; smarter people have written better better Podcast players than what Apple ships as default on their phone.  But because I moved all my Podcasts there when the software was first released I have been stuck with it.

Books

I admit: I don’t read much fiction.  I have given up largely on dead tree books and make heavy use of the Kindle.  The search and highlight feature has been the most useful feature.  All of these books are available from Amazon.  Links provided by Goodreads.

Fiction

Non-Fiction

Economics

History

When Murder Hobos Liquidate a Dragon’s Hoard…

dragon-head Let’s pretend our band of murder hobos exist in a world with real money instead of the nice, clean, decimal-based and universally exchangeable currency of gold pieces, silver pieces, electrum pieces, etc. etc.  Rational, decimal-based currency with a coherent, internal logic is a mid-19th construction at best – the pound sterling wasn’t decimalized until 1971. A universal one-world currency still isn’t a thing; the Euro is the world’s only real cross-state medium of exchange.   Don’t believe me?  Go to Windsor and get some Canadian quarters and try to put them into an American coke machine.  

Money is a shared hallucination and takes many forms – from debt to coin to paper to electronic to giant stone disks.  So let’s do a little thought experiment and think about coinage as was for most of history: an imaginary debt construct between two people, localized statehood expressed, in fun circumstances a physical representation of class, and a moderately inconvenient lump of metal.  Got it?  Great!

Just before we can ask two questions – hey wait! – the murder hobos go under the mountain and kill the dragon.

Question #1: What is worth more: a gold coin hoard or a silver coin hoard?

Given two dragons – a red dragon on a hoard of gold coins and a blue dragon on a hoard of silver coins – and real historical coinage, without melting the hoard down into ingots, which hoard is worth more?  Throw out the gold coins are worth 10 silver coins construct and go for the history books. 

Answer? It depends.

1. They are roughly equal with the current exchange rates

What is worth more in a medium of 15th century international exchange, the gold Florence florin or the silver English pound sterling?  Answer – it depends on the season and where one is geographically in Europe and what the gatekeepers to exchange rates believe that day.  Money is an illusion and a mental abstraction; the silver hoard and the gold hoard are equivalent if the coins can be roughly exchanged for each other in an international monetary exchange market or goods of equivalent value.  So theoretically they’re equivalent.

How about an extreme edge case. What if the hoard entirely contains the heavily debased kind-of sort-of gold late Byzantine hyperpyron (the dragon took out a city on the Greek coast) and circulating through the murder hobo fantasy Kingdom are Sicilian silver ducats?  No shopkeeper in Sicily will accept a hyperpyron but he will greedily take all those ducats.  The gold hoard is essentially worthless but the silver ducats are money.  The silver hoard is worth spectacularly more than the gold.  Sure our murder hobos can melt down the hyperpyron hoard, extract the gold from the lead or nickel, convert it to ingots, and then convert the ingots to silver ducats through a gold seller – or they can have the immediately spendable silver hoard.

Which is worth more?  Answer is: it depends on what the coinage is, who is accepting it, and what is the going exchange rate between silver and gold coins. 

2. Neither: They are Both Worthless

The dragon slept on the hoard of coins for a thousand years and, in that time, the coins reverted to their base state as lumps of metal.  Not physically – the coins are still physically round and roughly coin shaped.  However, the coins are no longer in circulation and cannot be exchanged for goods and services.  They are not money.  To be money, someone else has to price objects for sale in ancient dragon hoard coins. 

Imagine this for a moment: you (the reader) unearth in your backyard across a giant chest full of gold doubloons.  Two hundred years ago Templar Pirates stumbled into your not-yet neighborhood while being pursued by the Church for their heresies and decided to bury their chest of doubloons (why doubloons?  because they are Templar pirates).  Now you have a chest full of doubloons.  Congratulations!  They are round. They are gold.  They have portraits of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Now, go to Five Guys and exchange a doubloon for a bacon double cheeseburger with the works and a side of cheesy fries.

Yep.

You are the proud owner of a big chest full of inert metal.  You have some fascinating options: call in the archeologists to dig up your backyard, melt it down into gold bars (where without questions?), sell it to some dubious goldbug with a commercial on late night TV, find a wealthy and discerning buyer for the doubloons to mystically convert useless metal into money, or rebury the chest.  To exchange doubloons to money means finding a buyer.  Finding a buyer means a donation, heavy government taxes or sleazy characters and very possibly a high speed car chase. 

You know what?  Here’s a shovel.

Back to the dragon’s hoard: spending ancient non-circulating coins in gold or silver is like buying a burger with a doubloon – not an acceptable currency for that time or place.  Without a forge, a mint, and a way to convert those ancient coins into passable currency or a hoard of dwarven archeologists to take it for a small reward (wait the dwarves have archeologists?), the murder hobos are the proud owners of a large pile of very heavy metal.

3. Neither++: They are Worth Much Worse than Nothing

The murder hobos hire a minor army to pack the coins into cases and cart them out of the cave.  And let’s say for the sake of argument that ancient gold coins of dubious denomination still circulate.  Great!  The murder-hobos are now fabulously wealthy!  They spend their coins.  They affix coins to hats and walk around with real, physical money sombreros.  They hand the local shopkeepers sacks of coins for onions. 

Soon, so does everyone else.  And by soon, “really quite soon indeed.”

Our murder hobos are engaging in what we will generously call a little quantitative easing. They dump immense sacks of hard cash on to an economy with little coinage in circulation.  Now everyone has money!  Sacks and sacks of money!  So shopkeepers can charge sacks of cash for their goods to make bigger sacks of cash which they now give to others for their rapidly increasing prices! 

And soon it’s all worthless.

Too much unexpected money washes around in the monetary supply.  Prices hike.  People buy bread with wheelbarrows full of gold dragon coins.  Hyper-inflation soars.  Economies crash.  Poverty prevails.  The kingdom collapses.  Nearby kingdoms invade.  Vicious barbarians behead Good and Wise Kings.  Empires disappear to never reappear again.  The Age ends and turns to darkness! 

Society reverts to a crushing dystopian Mad Max-like existence full of roving bands of murders.  Good news for the murder hobos: XP!  XP!

Later another dragon collects all the forgotten coins together, stuffs it into the cave, and sits on it. 

As a historical reference: after a 1100 year period of hardly any good minting metals except what societies imported from overseas (fall of Rome – 1550AD), Spain enslaved the Native Indians of Peru and forced them to mine vast supplies of gold and silver.  The Conquistadors sent it home on giant ships heavy with ingots. The Spanish mint promptly minted this stuff into doubloons, dumped it into the economy and caused Europe-wide 300% inflation.  Western Europe went into a depression.  Templar Pirates buried cases of it in your backyard.

And so it goes.

Now that we’ve established that perhaps taking cases of gold out of a dragon’s hoard out of a cave and dumping it whole scale on an economy might not be wise…

Question #2: How do the murder hobos liquidate all this filthy lucre?

We’re not going to stop the murder hobos from killing dragons.  It’s already happened.  It’s the past.  There was a quest!  And honor!  And evil to vanquish! 

So how do the murder hobos get rid of this huge pile of likely worthless, possibly dangerous, and certainly gold-colored coinage?  After all, the dragon is dead. The money is all theirs if they can do something with it.  Some ideas…

1. Go colonize the locals like the Conquistadors and establish a kingdom

If the band of friendly murder hobos can get the coins out of the cave, avoid spending the money like wild monkeys on a bender (no the wizard cannot buy that tower just because), cart it thousands of miles until they find the last reclaimed area of their world – assuming such a thing exists – fight off endless bandits and attacks, level a bunch of times, find a place on some wind beaten mountainous frontier, murderize the locals, and build a stronghold, they can establish a frontier kingdom with the dragon hoard as their base currency. Of course, this new frontier kingdom – missing all the amenities of home like identify kiosks and fairs to trade magic items and bathrooms – are on the ancient dragon hoard standard.  Unless the murder hobos want to contend with a highly restricted monetary supply limited by their hoard, never have enough money to pay for an army to go to war to defend their kingdom from the peaceful ork society they kicked off their ancestral holy land, or be able to expand, they’re going to need gold mines.  They are going to need to build a mint. 

So the murder-hobos use the old dragon hoard to make a newer hoard by forcing the locals to build their infrastructure. They slowly phase out the old dragon hoard base until their new kingdom is on their own currency. The old dragon hoard reverts back to uselessness.  Then they stash the old useless coins in a cave near their kingdom.  A dragon comes along and sits on it. A new group in the far off future find it and begin the cycle anew.  Thus the infinite cycle of murder hoboing marches onward.

Meanwhile, the murder hobos have a kingdom to build and rule on their dangerous frontier with an unshakable Lawful Evil iron fist.  They need trade routes and a standing military and a way to purge the land of the locals while establishing their own farming communities and impressing their own serfs into feudalistic service.  They need stability.  Each takes a piece to control for themselves.  The murder hobos have no time to adventure anymore because now they are busy playing a game of highly morally dubious Age of Empires. 

2. Liquidate it through mercenaries

One group of people will take that dragon hoard off the murder hobo hands: mercenaries. Sure they’re evil and scum and villainy. And maybe the Paladin complains a little like she does whenever the party starts waltzing down the neutral evil path.  But mercenaries don’t care.  They will take any hoard in any denomination from any country and turn that money magically from metal into whole scale killing. Mercenaries practice their own version of alchemy.

Sure the mercenaries will take the money off the murder hobo’s hands for free no questions asked but that is such a waste.  The murder hobos worked hard for this hoard. A dragon, a thinking, reasoning, intelligent being with opinions and family and hobbies and quite possibly a voting record, died so murder hobos could hire these mercenaries.  And that dragon cave hanging over that peaceful peasant village is central to a big, peaceful fantasy kingdom with a complete functional infrastructure including roads and villages and peasants and farms and gold mines and mints and bathrooms.  No one needs to travel anywhere.  No orks need to be kicked off their ancestral homeland.  Nothing needs building.  The Paladin can avoid the bigger moral questions. Property really is the best way to liquidate a dragon’s hoard and turn metal into a thing. Possessing the Kingdom wholesale is the quickest way to turn these remaining dragon hoard coins into money

At this point we inform the Paladin that Lawful Evil is a perfectly valid Paladin alignment.  It’s okay.  Hugs?

After the murder-hobos obliterate the Kingdom’s army (they never saw it coming from their trusted heroes), imprison the old King, and ennoble several sleazier Mercenary Captains for their service, they must figure out who is going to rule and over what.  Someone has to rule their Peaceful Fantasy Kingdom now they’ve gone and conquered it.

– The Fighter sees this as an opportunity to continue the old traditions and crown himself King. 

– The Cleric wants to establish a Theocracy under the Gods of Goodness and Light – what could be better than a Kingdom ruled by the One Good Church? 

– The Sorceress suggests a charismatic dictatorship under her as a Dark and Beautiful Queen. 

– The Wizard, sensibly, suggests a dark oligarchy Star Chamber where they rule as equals in complete secret. 

– The Bard, pleading for sanity, starts writing a Constitution and suggests a Republic – which means breaking feudalism, of course, and dismantling the guilds, and rewiring the political philosophy of the Kingdom and he promises a small, hardly noticeable Revolution.  Teeny. 

The Paladin climbs out the window as the stabbing begins.

Hey, at least the murder hobos liquidated the dragon hoard into a Kingdom, power, land, and loyal ex-mercenary lords!

3. Find a new dragon

Maybe the murder hobos, playing these scenarios out in their head, realize the hoard is not worth it.  There is such a thing as too much money.  Instead, they go on a quest to find a new dragon, lure him back to the cave, get him to sit on the gold and, occasionally, very occasionally, terrorize the local peaceful peasant village.  Having one village terrorized is a smaller evil than the entire collapse of the Kingdom, right?  The Kingdom must persevere in the face of… them.  Finding a new dragon is a good choice.

This could have been easy, though.  It’s just too bad that, last week, the murder hobos capped Slim Jimmy and put Slim Jimmy’s Obviously Evil Dragon Raising and Breeding Ranch Emporium to the torch.   Slim Jimmy was evil! He was evil breeding dragons.  He was going to unleash them on the Kingdom!  Or maybe he was selling them to murder hobos in sudden need of dragons to sit on hoards.  In the fantasy universe, where there’s a business model there’s a business man.

If the murder hobos are lucky, Obviously Evils is a dragon raising chain across the Kingdom with outlets in all the Major Metropolitan Areas.  But their price list – wow.  High.  Raising dragons to sit on hoards for adventuring parties is not cheap.  Someone has to cover those feeding and muckraking costs.  Even a small dragon costs almost a dragon hoard. The murder hobos will need cash to dispose of their cash.  Surely there’s a slaughter-able Arch Lich or a Beholder Lord on their way out there, and that can’t possibly cause any problems…  

A Conclusion of Sorts

There’s a fourth option, establish a bank, but that went to a whole dissertation on monetary exchange rants, debt financing for kings, and slowly purchasing the empire.  Completely feasible but it ends in party stabbing. Someone has to be in charge.  Also it was an entire blog post in itself – maybe next week.  So let’s just say that ends with all but one member of the party dead, the last one a neutral evil paranoid, and an extensive crime family. So it’s the Rogue that wins that one.  Good going evil!

In old D&D 1st Edition, at 10th level, player characters build their Stronghold as a sink for their filthy lucre.  But that was an earlier, more innocent time when the game abstracted less of the real world.  Clearly when the game ended the party members were Kings and Queens and Lords and Dukes and such and suchlike. A better time. An easier time.  A time when TSR published splatbooks with monetary exchange rates.

The moral of the story: leave the dragon on his coins. Let him sleep.  It’s better that way.

Icon made by Lorc and available on game-icons.net.

The D&D5e Alchemical Con Men

His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Cabalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies …He also has a whole library of magic books.  He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so he may in future serve a different master …

- Propositions to the Archdukes in VIenna (1606)

True it is,” the Court Alchemist says to the King, “without falsehood, certain, and most true.  That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing…”

“When will your laboratory provide me gold?” the King asks.

“Soon, my Great King,” says the Alchemist. “We are close to understanding the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Simply a few more weeks of research and a few thousand more gold.  It is delicate.  One cannot rush enlightenment…”

The Great Alchemical Scams

Now since the principal part of our work consists in knowledge of our hermaphrodite, that is to say Mercury, guard well that you take it not for the leprous, common and vulgar mercury, in no wise proper to this subject.  But where will you then – you ask – that I seek and find it?  I answer that he is imprisoned and bound by many chains, and that there be none but the Philosopher can deliver him and set him free.

- Concerning the Material of the Stone, Anonymous

Alchemists claim Alchemy is the oldest science in the world with a theoretical history stretching into the mists of forgotten time. They say, by manipulating the elements, alchemy advocates inner awakening, enlightens the soul and grants greater insight into the universal magickal workings.  These pseudo-scientists weave a tapestry of Hermetic Magic, mystical languages, astrology, numerology and chemistry to build an emotionally charged narrative opposing the traditional schools of magic with equally powerful effects.  Why pay for a wizard when an alchemist does the same – and so much more!  All their alternative magic needs is some seed money, a place to work, and a patron.  

The Alchemists are running a con.  The con uses three core scams separately or in combination:  

The Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone: The core quest for any Alchemist is the manufacture of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Holy Grail fusion of art and alchemical science, this physical substance could turn lead into gold or silver, prolong life indefinitely, act as a universal panacea, and be the very key to the riddles of the universe.  The Philosopher’s Stone promised infinite riches and ultimate knowledge.  Alchemists believed (or claimed) the search for the Philosopher’s Stone was an internal and external journey. Only the most pure find the Philosopher’s Stone.  Its manifestation is the outward sign of complete hermetic enlightenment. 

Outside of the Alchemist’s lab, actual wizards of the school of transmutation keep quiet about the Philosopher’s Stone.  Sure, they know how to turn things into other things with magic but an ultra-powerful substance?  What is this crazy talk.  And no, they don’t know a thing about the overly successful but murdered Alchemist found dead in the street with no witnesses or the Alchemists turned to stone.  Not a thing.  

The Elixir of Life: An immortality potion, the Elixir of Life is sometimes equated with a specific manifestation of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Universally sought, stories tell of great Alchemists who drank “the white drops” (liquid gold) and achieved immortality without resorting to necromancy or eternal undeath. One only needs the slightest taste on the tongue of the Elixir of Life to extend mortal existence for hundreds to thousands of years. 

Some Alchemists claim to have tasted the Elixir of Life and are already hundreds of years old – outliving the oldest of the Elves themselves.  But there’s no proof.

The Sovereign Remedy: The ultimate cure-all – not just for disease (easily supplied by Clerics) but for all ills and difficulties.  The sovereign remedy is the solution to thorny political problems, the inability to see into the future, for old age, for infirmity, for mental illness and disease.  It slices, it dices, it’s a salve, when applied, that will bring the dead back to life.  The Sovereign Remedy is an infinitely refilling healing potion for no cost – curing all possible maladies, created in the laboratory with alchemical equipment, and made without Clerics or Gods.  The Clerics warn these are scams but that doesn’t stop Kings and Emperors for buying fantasy cure alls with mountains of gold.

And so far, while the Alchemists write libraries full of Hermetic tracts and books on astrology, they have produced no real tangible results – that anyone acknowledges.

Why Do The Patrons Hire Alchemists?

Why would Emperors, Lords and Kings turn to Alchemists in a world full of wizards who cast actual fireballs and clerics who commune with real Gods out on the Planes?  Why would these guys with advisors, education, money and power turn to alternative magi in their search for enlightenment?

– Wizards are expensive.  Wizarding guilds set high and inflexible prices for their services.  Sure a wizard potion will always do precisely what it says on the tin – wizards are proud of their workmanship and offer a high quality of product – but that potion costs 300gp. The Alchemist claims she can brew the same potion for only 100gp!  Or cheaper! In a more attractive bottle!

– Wizards with any good reputation will not turn over their secrets to some Grand Duke for money.  Some things are worth more than a bit of scratch; and while wizards love cash they won’t say, “Oh, the Philosopher’s Stone?  I have it here in my pocket.  Here, my Lord, take a bit!  Gratis!”  If a Lord wants to turn lead into gold and achieve immortality he’ll need to ask around.

Worse, some wizards are quite excited to part with their secrets for a steep price.  The Necromancer happily offers his Lord the secrets of the universe and turn the Great and Magnificent Emperor into the Great and Magnificent Lich King Lord. Why, yes, he can Grant Eternal Life… wait, why is the King running away?

– The Lord cannot turn to scab wizards. Once a Lord hires a non-guild wizard, the wizarding guild blackballs the Lord for life.  The Guilds have standards and they don’t need the Higher Classes. The first wizard guild rule is: customers only hire guild member wizards.  Need to go to war? Need a phalanx of fireball throwers?  Too bad you hired Bob the Scab on your quest for immortality. We cast him out for stealing our secrets and selling them on the street. Guess you’ll need to lose that war. 

Wizards are petty like that.

– Wizards are loyal to other wizards.  Their loyalty lies with their Order/University/Guild/Family.  Even the sleaziest wizard’s absolute loyalty cannot be bought or bargained.  Why would someone who can teleport and throw a fireball grant loyalty to a Lord whose best move is to call the Guard? 

– A Lord can turn to the Church for magic and enlightenment… if the Lord wants entanglement in Church politics.  Any Cleric will peer at the towers full of alembics and furnaces, the racks of dubious books, the magic circles drawn on the floor and the Neoplatonic sigils on the wall and ask probing questions. Questions like: what the hell are you doing? And, have you properly contributed to the Church this week?  Clerics are serious hermetic buzz kill.

– Alchemists dazzle.  They toil in huge laboratories of bubbling tubes and flaming furnaces with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of assistants.  They speak and write in glorious, compelling code that tantalizes with a hint of higher truths.  They make their Lords feel important. And Alchemists have impeccable fashion sense.

– Alchemists hook their Lord on the con.  Their King is an enlightened Monarch who, with Alchemical Truths, leads his people into a great and golden future!  Unlike the haughty closed-door wizards or the judgmental clerics, the Alchemist invites his great Patron along on a journey into philosophy, history, arcane knowledge, astrology, pseudo-mystical religion, and inner spiritual growth. It’s art!  It’s magic!  It’s the theater of the world!

It is, amortized over time, more expensive than paying a wizard.

Who Are the Alchemists (in a Fantasy Setting)?

The bulk of alchemists are straight up grifters and con-men – high charisma Rogues and a handful of Arcane Tricksters.  To manage the con, they require fast talk, a glib mastery of alchemical terms, knowledge in handling alchemical tools to make small but impressive results (magnesium flash-bombs and the like), slight-of-hand and an excellent sense of fashion.  They also need an underground contact to float them a supply of small gold nuggets to show “progress” in their “search for the Philosopher’s Stone.” These rogue alchemists are actual chemists – they can work a bench – but their expertise lies in true transmutation: turning words into gold.  

These rogues have a standard modus operandi.  They lay hands on a letter of invitation or hook themselves up with another Alchemist of solid reputation as an assistant and ingratiate themselves into a Court with high promises and theatrics.  Then they ditch their Alchemist buddy, run a savage burn on their patron, publish a few pamphlets full of garbage, and make a big show of building a laboratory with tiny incremental results. They soak the Court for cash until their Patron gets exasperated.  Then, just as the heat picks up, the Alchemist packs up his bags and wheels across town to run the same savage burn on the next Lord.  With their freshly written pamphlets in hand and a growing reputation as an Internationally Renowned Alchemist, they can keep the con going for years.   (See: history’s great charlatan, Edward Kelley.)

The second group of Alchemists are the real deal: the charismatic Sorcerers and Warlocks.  Unable to become normal socially accepted wizards in the cities through standard means, hunted to near-extinction by the wizarding guilds as competition and scabs, these truly magickal Alchemists use the endless parade of con-men as their cover.  Con-men to the Courts throw metaphysical flak into faces of would-be witch hunters while the Warlock and Sorcerer Alchemists use their (real) magic to keep their positions with the courts solid.  Dressing well, impeccable manners and producing for their Lords, they hide behind the courtiers and their Kings.

These are the Alchemists of solid academic reputation: the real “magic” scientists. Unable to communicate in the carefully articulated language of wizard arcana but possessing high charisma and real magic, these Alchemists use the coded and hermetic language of alchemy to cover, and explain, their actual abilities. Like the con-man rogue, the Warlock and Sorcerer Alchemists are truly chemists and doctors – they perfect skills at the bench and in a laboratory in the service of their patron while writing books on their findings to further “the sciences.”  The difference between them and the con-men: they get dangerously good results.  They walk a fine line between con and discovery.

While the payoff is high, the Lord takes risk for keeping the Sorcerer and Warlock Alchemist on staff.  The wild-magic Sorcerer may, randomly, explode the tower dedicated for alchemical research.  And the Alchemist Warlock might slowly infect the heads of the entire Court with Cthulhu. But, who says the search for greater hermetic enlightenment is without a little peril?  (See: Ramon Llull, Arnold of Villanova

The final group of Alchemists are those who use alchemy to a different end: the Spy Bards.  Espionage and Occultism: the perfect pairing. These alchemists can rattle off the language of alchemy with the best of the con-men.  They have contributed to the greater body of alchemical knowledge as a carefully cultivated cover over many years.  And they often come paired with one of the con-men grifter alchemists to help get ingratiated into a foreign Court – the bard as the front and the grifter as the “assistant.”  While they can make flash-paper and palm a gold nugget or two, the spy bard’s expertise is in encryption, ciphers, codes, mis-direction and information gathering – useful in both espionage and alchemy. 

Welcomed with open arms into the Courts all over the world for their celebrated knowledge, these bards talk their way into the closed boudoirs of the rich and famous.  They use a little bit of alchemical fast-talk to make friends and cultivate moles. Then they are off sending back encrypted messages to their home Courts.  Once the Lords are on to them – or bored with them when they don’t get results – the bard takes her leave and exits stage left, to head to the next Court down the road and do it all over again. (See: Dr. John Dee)

To Wrap This Up

Even in a world of insane market controls the free market will find a way.  It’s cunning like that.  Building high inaccessible walls around access to standard wizardly-magic creates a perfect opening for all sorts of con-men, grifters, proto-scientists, thinkers, and spies to waltz their way into the parlors of the rich and not-so-magicked.  They take advantage of inaccessibility to magic – there, but never cheap – to give themselves an opening.  If the money cannot flow into the pockets of the wizards it will flow elsewhere.  Where the gate keepers build gates, the con-men build scams around the side and to the left and offer it all for cheap.

In fantasy, Alchemists make great backgrounds for player characters, NPCs in court, an entrance to stories about the Planes (what if all of this crazy talk is right?), a tension between wizards and non-wizards, spy stories, and ridiculous scene-chewing villains.  Imagine for a moment the con-man grifter who now has two hundred assistants, a tower full of bombs, and is running all sorts of heinous murder plots from his protected position.  Who needs an Arch Lich when one is dealing with a high level, high charisma gnomish Rogue and her legions of fanatical minions who hides in a tower full of glass and fire?  Evil bomb-throwing alchemists!  Fun times!

Note: none of these Alchemists presented here actually want to do science. That’s a variant – the actual scientist Alchemist.  Or the hybrid based on Paracelsus: an effective surgeon and chemist who carried the Elixir of Life in the pommel of his broadsword.  But there’s no science here.  Just a series of rogues, their cons, and taking advantage of some well-meaning Great Emperors of Empire.

Writer’s Note: When I was writing this, I kept thinking the Bard-Rogue duo as the Mullet Espionage Team: business in the front, party in the back. 

This is pretty short – I could write forever on Alchemical con men and rogues.

On the Great Divination Wizards Guild and the Black Chamber

Guilds are urban creatures.  They cannot survive without cities.  They are parasites on the fantasy body politic, reaching their spider-like legs into the deepest recesses of civic culture.  Although membership is nominally voluntary everyone in town belongs to a guild: the doctors, the barbers, the bakers, the carters, the shoemakers and even the wizards. Especially the wizards. 

Once enrolled one does not lightly leave.

The political powerful and wealthy Greater Guilds represent professions requiring rare and expensive educations.  These powerful civic bodies wield true local power in their trade oriented Free Cities where the Masters of the Guild rule in tiny oligarchic republics without the meddling of Lords.  Between them they divide and rule the Free Cities controlling war, conquest, trade, and industry.  The Free Cities dance in their vice grip.

Within the Free Cities, the wealthiest of the Greater Guilds, Greater Divination Wizard Guild, is an autonomous moral and legal person. It possesses wealth in lands, houses, and money.  It contracts, bargains, binds itself, and a proctor represents it in court.  It built a vast University decorated with Coats-of-Arms. It has seals, banners and archives.  It makes its own internal rules which supersede many local laws for its members and all members of associated, lower Guilds. Within the Free Cities’ jurisdiction, the Greater Divination Wizard Guild is self-governing.  In a pyramid of city power, local lesser local craft guilds swear allegiance to the Greater Divination Wizard Guild for their own benefit and wealth: the wizard reagent reseller guild, the wizard jeweler’s guild, the wizard parchment makers guild who sell watermarked parchment for scrolls, and the wizard’s haberdasheries for highest qualities in wizarding robes and excellent wizarding hats.

Anyone with money, wealth or ambition schemes to join the guild and the easiest way is at the bottom: with apprenticeship.

A wIzard starts as a lowly guild apprentice. All entrants to guilds, greater or lower, mercantile or craft, world-spanning or local, starts with parents offering their precious children at age 10 to Masters on a contractual agreement.  Some contracts result in cash, some in goods in kind, and some in promises around the care of the child. After signing, the child leaves home with precious few personal belongings and enters the world of the Master’s workshop where they learn a trade while doing the Master’s unending bidding.   Some of the Masters of the Guild are kind, but most not; they have to uphold their reputation for turning children into wizards and only eight years for each child.  Eight years are barely time to learn the basics of the wizard’s craft and not enough time for kindness.  Long hours, constant work, uncomfortable conditions, and rote memorization is the norm.  Wizard workshops are brutal places to matriculate.

Not all children have the magic spark. Some lack the talent and the mental agility. The weeding practice is merciless. Master Wizards trade children who fail to quickly display magic to Masters of the lesser craft guilds for anything: goods, money, servants, other apprentices.  Society bars these failed children from the higher strata of their city’s class structure and doom them to a life of labor pressing paper in the wizard guild’s parchment mills or tailoring proper wizard cufflinks.  Failure in the Master’s workshop means a life toiling in service to wizards, never quite belonging to them, knowing you could be one of them, but on the outside forever looking in.  Once in as an apprentice to a Wizard Master – don’t fail.

Those who master enough “passable” cantrips may call themselves wizards and graduate from their Master’s workshop after eight years.  On that day, these new wizards are full dues-paying members of their fraternity for life.  While some newly minted journeyman wizards migrate to the next Free City over in search of work, few ever progress further in their mastery.  Instead they find themselves in lifetime mediocre salaried service to their Greater Divination Wizard Guild in its voracious need for cheap and easy labor: writing detect magic and identify scrolls marked with the watermark of the guild for pay, tied to benches in magic item factories crafting for sale, or offering their clerical services cheaply to the city.  Being a member of the vaunted Great Divination Wizard Guild does not guarantee success: many young wizards exiting the workshops of the Divination Masters find themselves bound for life to identify spell kiosks just outside popular dungeon and monster caves, identifying items and collecting data for unknown Guild Masters.  If they just work harder… 

But it’s good being a loyal guildsman.  The journeymen who do choose to stay journeymen for life exercise a number of perks for membership in a wealthy, powerful guild.  The guild is fraternity of educated men and women.  It’s warm.  It’s welcoming.  For those who quietly toil for their brothers and sisters, the guild provides them with a salary, gives them access to lower craft guild services, throws them banquets on holidays, pays for Church help when they or any of their family are ill, buy rounds of drinks and bails them out of jail when they get into a drunken bar fight, shelters them if they are homeless, gives them a stipend when they are old and pays for their funeral at their end of life.  Members can wear the coat of arms on their wizard robes.  The Great Divination Wizard Guild provides.  Sure, it takes a large cut of whatever the wizard makes but look what a member gets in return! 

Most of these journeyman wizards never progress past First Level. But who would ever want to leave the city or the comfort of the guild?

The Guild Masters encourage those few young journeyman wizards with strong enterprising spirit to go out into the world. Leave the Free Cities. Band with murder-hobos.  Discover mystery and excitement.  Gain a few levels.  “And bring us back what you learn,” say the Guild Masters. Pointy hat on head, staff in hand, shocking grasp cantrip in mind, the orks will take care of these optimistic few.  Dead in caves, on dungeon floors, in wilderness, and on the bitter end of jagged rotten iron hobgoblin swords, the great yearning for adventure solves the Guild Masters’ future wizard problems.  The few survivors are a more manageable long term problem. 

The Masters can deal with five high level wizards.  They have uses for the five high level wizards. The rest is what Bugbears are for.

Because the Guild Masters desire control and the status quo.  They brook no challenged.  The guild has internal laws and the members must obey the laws if they wish to continue reaping perks.  Shops must not sell what the Masters say they cannot sell.  Wizards must not scribe spells on non-guild approved parchment. Wizards must not wear non-guild approved robes.  Wizards must not use competing guild’s magic items.  They cannot learn or cast non-guild approved spells.  No one in the Free Cities may hire a “foreign” wizard – and “foreign” has wide connotations.  The Masters maintain a complete iron monopoly grip on their domain.  

To maintain control, without any forewarning, the Guild Masters sends out bands of Searchers – the Guild’s own Black Internal Affairs Squad – to Wizard workshops, mills, and storefronts to ensure complete compliance with the laws of the guild. Discovering reagents purchased from non-guild storefronts and hats made by non-guild approved milliners is grounds for censure. Spellbooks found with non-guild-approved scrolls or, worse, scab scrolls results in Searchers confiscating the workshop and member banishment from the guild.  The Searchers are on the spot judge, jury and executioner.  There is no appeal.  And the Guild Masters always know.  

Fear in the name of inner harmony, city peace, and civic brotherhood togetherness.  But why worry about the Searchers if the wizard has nothing to hide?  We’re all brothers and sisters.

Some wizards banished from the guild flee the Free Cities guild jurisdictions to craft their own, new spells on their own pressed parchment.  Spells the world has never seen.  Spells that may, if popularized, change everyone’s life.  The Guild Masters cannot abide rogue wizards and spells they do not control.  They are inherently ultra-conservative; change cannot permeate the membrane of their carefully designed guild fabric.  If someone outside mounted a charge to their authority, the Guild Masters could lose a small sliver of power.

The Masters send out teams of witch-hunters into the black swamps or desolate, forgotten wizard towers where the apostates hide. “Find these evil wizards and bring them to justice,” the Guild Masters implore adventurers (which include one of their own), “as they are destroying our way of life.  Keep the magic items in those dungeons and towers you find. For greater glory!  And bring us back the secret spell the evil wizard was working on, will you? Along with his head.” 

The guild promise of progression from apprenticeship to journeyman to master is a lie.  Theoretically, entrance to Mastery in the Wizards Guild is a meritocracy.  Purchase a workshop from years of back-breaking labor and adventuring and accept apprentices.  Take a place at the table of Masters.  Enjoy the money and power.  The old wizard earned it. 

Wizards chase this carrot on a stick their entire lives.  Work hard enough, pay enough dues, play the game, show enough unwavering loyalty, do the dirty work of the guild and be admitted to the higher ranks.  Claw into middle-management.

Yet, the licenses for Mastery in any of the Wizarding Guilds are few and jealously guarded behind a web of examinations, payments, and complex secret mystical rituals.  The Guild Masters goad potential would-be Masters to throw them another grand banquet, kill another guild apostate, and give another vast donation. The Masters promise to place the candidate’s name into the bag for possible election to the Masters when an Old Master dies.  Pinky swear.  And when an Old Master does die, the Guild Masters confers their one available master license to their own progeny to perpetuate hereditary line of families controlling the Guild.  Bloodlines, they argue, are the best proof of future mastery over the difficult, higher-level Magickal Arts and the difficulties of navigating city politics.   Who else to bring into the top ranks of Mastery than those who were born and raised into it?  Fair?  No. What is fair?  Surely there’s another adventure to go on, another dragon to slay, another Plane to map, instead of getting dragged into the mundanity of politics of civil city life?  This is a place for diplomats, not battle-hardened soldiers.

Hiding behind the Guild Masters of the Great Divination Wizard Guild, protected by this hereditary cult of Guild Masters, perpetuated by carefully cultivated nepotism, coils a layer of black secrets.

The Secret Masters of Divination are masters of information.  They know all, see all, understand all.  In times forgotten they built their guild on a core of wizard-based sensors armed with divination spells – information gatherers.  They run the Searchers.  They choose who to hunted and who to ignore.  They declare wizards apostate who climb too high into their ranks.  They sit on masses of data, sift through it and divine who to promote and who to destroy.  Some whisper the Secret Masters of Divination are an Arch Lich, a Mind Flayer and a Beholder who steer the Great Diviniation Wizard Guild toward acts of unspeakable evil. Others claim the Secret Masters are seven 20th level gnome wizards bent on Gnomish World Domination.

In the bowels of the Free Cities, under the streets and deep in wealth-bedecked guildhalls, protected behind layers of mundane journeymen wizards and their legions of servants, the Secret Masters run a massive intelligence operation: a Black Chamber. Within, the Secret Masters filter all the information gleaned for their member’s spells, they read mail, they crack the most powerful codes, and they know all about Lords, the Kings, opposing Wizards, and Great Families.  They run a world-spanning operation and sell their information only to the highest bidders when it suits their purposes.  The entire guild operation – the city government, the greater guilds, the lesser guilds, the mills, the scrolls, the magic item factories, the workers, the apprenticeships – are designed to fund this massive, expensive secret operation.  For whom? No one knows. 

The Secret Masters employ special wizard agents in the Black Chamber to analyze the data and concoct new advanced ways to spy on the enemies of the Free Cities.  They recruit from within the guild: promising journeymen wizards matriculating from the best Master’s workshops are “encouraged”  to go on adventure and, if they live, come to work for the Secret Masters. Here, they perfect their Divination spells and ascend to the highest levels of wizard mastery.  Beyond the control of the Guild Master front, these black agents move among their guild mates and perform the hands-on bidding of the Secret Masters – information collection, murder, mayhem, ant-spy deflection, whatever actions the data dictates.  Outside the Black Chamber, these agents look just like another journeyman wizard.

Anyone might be black agent of the Secret Masters.  Anyone

Or say those who can’t climb into the ranks of the Masters. Who knows? It’s probably all a crazy rumor.  Guild membership and mastery might just be about temporal City-wide power, money, monopolies, trade, wars and control.  Maybe the Guild Masters are a front for run of the mill every day evil.  Funny thing about Masters of Divination – they are also masters of countering divination spells. 

 guild-circlesWriter’s Notes:

I had this idea in my head for the Diviners running a sort of horrible Medieval post-WWI intelligence agency – the forerunner of modern intelligence operations. The Divination spells in D&D5e strongly correlate to information collection, data mining, and sifting. Then I came across the “Cabinet noir.”  And found other references to other Black Chambers, including the American Black Chamber

The free city is Bruges. 

Most of this comes from “Guilds in the Middle Ages” by Georges Renard, 1918.

The Black Chamber is from “The Code Book” by Simon Singh

Anything else is from “Medieval Guilds” on EH.net on the article by Gary Richardson

Picture made in Inkscape.

Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy: the Bard as a Spy, Cryptography and the Fantasy Espionage Team

The party stands before the Duke and he gives them a charge: march up the mountain to a nearby kingdom and slay the Arch-Lich who lurks there.  The Duke provides the party with maps to the mountain, a summary overview of what they might find (high level henchmen, nasty guards, a dragon chained in the basement) and offers useful magical equipment for the adventure. And God Speed, the Duke tells the party: the Kingdom and its people depend on you.  Defeat the Arch-Lich and forever be written into the annals of history!

Off they go into the mists of tale.  But this is not a story about the party heading off to grand heroics.

This is the story about the intrepid spies who stole the maps.

Even guards in evil kingdoms need to eat.  It’s a funny thing about the bard driving the food cart.  She spent her life learning to play all the roles for the stage and the role of her life is selling a bag of apples and a barrel of beer to an evil guard quartermaster in charge of feeding the rest of the evil underlings and cultists who surround the Arch Lich.  She must build trust.  She’s all about the confidence game – a natural-born grifter.

This is the core of a bard.  Yes, the bard can sing songs to buff up a team and work support, but what the Knowledge Bard, a graduate of the Bardic College is good at are skills: the languages, the persuasion, the investigation, the perception, the stealth and the performance.  She can carry out a role.  She can track down a mystery.  This knowledge-based bard is a master of languages.  She has no communication barrier, not even with the evil races.  She knows funny stories about everyone.  She can sing a couple of songs.  She is the master of selling roles to her audience of one and persuading them to trust her.  She can run a con like no one’s business.

Outside in the courtyard of the Arch Lich’s compound, the bard and the evil quartermaster get along like lifelong friends.  Next thing she knows, the quartermaster is inviting her in for tea.  Then she bribes guards on the inside with treats.  Evil guards are treat-deprived because they serve an evil Arch Lich and evil Arch Liches don’t go in for tiny sweet cakes.  It’s not a sweet-positive atmosphere.  Who is going to turn down a muffin?  Are you that evil?  Gratis, you know, between us.  And don’t mind my two friends over there – they help to unload the cart.

Then, she has her team in.  The bard schmoozes and builds up her network.  She gets a few people to talk, and they introduce her to bigger people who will know more information.  This is a long con.  Be the role, sell the roll, and don’t get caught.  After a while she’s one of them, part of the trusted inside. She’s always been there.  She’s the one who brings the muffins. Getting caught means jeopardizing the job and blowing cover and possibly getting killed.  Now she needs her team to steal information about the fortress and the Arch Lich’s plans.

This is a high risk, high reward sort of job.

The spy bard works her wits, her skills and her spells. While the bard spell list looks nearly unusable for standard dungeon-crawl murder-hobing, it’s fantastic for gathering human (or in-human) intelligence. She doesn’t have the big boom fireball or lightning bolts but her bardic spell list allows her to survive in the hostile environment beyond enemy lines where compromise is a constant risk. 

The best of the best on the bard spell list:

  • Message – The ultimate spy cantrip, Message’s singular ability is its ability to travel through a ceiling to the next floor or around corners.  It’s bounded by 120 feet (12 floors assuming 8 foot ceilings) or 3 feet of wood (about 6 floors, total, assuming joists).  Working with a team, Message can get alerts – I’ve been nabbed! – through a building, a palace or a decent sized compound instantly.
  • Illusory Script- Essentially short term “cryptography by magic,” Illusory Script will encode one message that only decodes for the target. Highly useful for making copies of documents before they’re properly encrypted.  This spell assumes the message will not pass through the hands of any creatures with True Seeing like, say, an Arch Lich, so use judiciously.
  • Unseen Servant – An easy way to perform a lengthy, repetitive task, like encrypting a message by hand; see below.
  • Magic Mouth –  For passing along cryptographic keys, locations of dead drops, names of contacts and warnings, Magic Mouth is the perfect spell for communicating information between team members securely in a close and dangerous locale.
  • Non-Detection – Non-Detection is the diviner-busting spell.  For 10 minutes, the target of non-detection can get through any magical scrying or divination defenses.  The perfect spell for that high risk break-in, highly sensitive conversation or that Mission Impossible theft.  Essential for pulling off a job.
  • Zone of Truth – Need to get absolutely accurate information out of a contact?  The downside of Zone of Truth is the target knows they’re in a Zone of Truth.  Using the spell will burn a contact, but if the information is critical to the safety of the Kingdom and all those innocent people…
  • Sending – More powerful than Message but less easily cast (as it is 3rd level), Sending gets 25 words anywhere, to anyone.  25 words is enough to transmit a key to a much longer bit of ciphertext to a receiver or reveal emergency information.  25 words is a tweet! It’s the SMS of spells.
  • Clairvoyance – Clairvoyance is an alarm system.  For 10 minutes, the bard gets a sensor on a door that detects intrusion.  That’s how long she has to meet with her network contact to get information, or commit a quick murder, or perform a little larceny.  10 minutes to get in and get out with a reliable watch. 

Spells aren’t enough to infiltrate and share information about a high risk target.  A good run against a target requires spells and skills – mostly involving data.  Encrypting information by hand has a few strong advantages over the spell Illusory Script or a Sending: it is longer than 25 words, it lasts longer than 10 days, it cannot be detected by a Detect Magic, cannot disappear with Dispel and cannot be instantly broken by a creature with True Sight – which, well, Arch Lich.  Or a high level Diviner in the Lich’s employ. 

The bard is a cryptographer and an a cryptanalyst.  The Linguist feat enables the bard to master most languages and cryptography is manipulating language to make it indecipherable with a secret key – or crack the enemy’s codes. 

This is the essential tension between the game of intrigue and the spy bard. The spy bard’s network needs information to effectively deploy military resources and those being spied on must intercept and break codes to further their interests. It’s information and intelligence providing internal security and external offense against the enemy.  Bards have the skills, the motives, and the creativity to keep one step ahead of the enemy’s current technology. 

The stronger the key, the stronger the algorithm, the more unbreakable the code.  The bard needs unbreakable codes – her life and the lives of others hang in the balance. As the spy bard lacks a computer (it’s fantasy), she has two classes of ciphers she can roll by hand at her disposal: alphabetic ciphers and one-time pads.

Alphabetic ciphers include the classes of substitution ciphers.  The spy bard knows enemy bards on the other side who intercept her messages can trivially crack simple monoalphabetic ciphers with frequency analysis.  She has to assume her messages can – and will – be intercepted by fate or by violence. If the enemy catches and deciphers her messages, the intelligence is lost and she’s probably one dead, or undead, spy bard.  They can’t be deciphered. 

She employs a whole bag of techniques that come with her Linguist feat to slow and befuddle her enemies and increase the difficulty of her ciphers: she can insert random characters, she can encode spaces and ‘nulls,’ she can encode syllables instead of single letters, she can use codes inside her encoded text, and she can layer the cracking process with nasty little traps.  She can get very clever and use variations on the monoalphabetic cipher by using multiple alphabets to encode the message.  If she has time or tools, she can even use the Vigenere Cipher, a nasty polyalphabetic cipher extremely difficult to break by hand without time and a good way to guess the key.  Breakable, yes, but perhaps not before the spy bard and her team can get away.

The other option, and a favorite of spy bards, is one-time pads.  One-time pads are virtually uncrackable without the key because they are completely random – the ciphertext gives no footholds in the sheer, icy cliffs of cryptography for enemy bards to crack with frequency analysis.  It works like so:

  1. The bard takes a highly sensitive message and one of her favorite plays or songs. 
  2. She works through the work of art and gives every word a number. 
  3. She replaces the letters of her message with numbers, each number corresponding to the first letter of a word in the work. 
  4. She delivers a big list of numbers on a page.
  5. Using Sending or Magic Mouth, she drops a message about the work of art to her teammate or a bag man – in effect exchanging the key in 25 words or less at a time delay.

No Diviner, no enemy secret agent, and no magic spell will crack that code if it’s intercepted.  However, this technique has two major weaknesses: 

  1. The bard somehow give the key to the intended target of the ciphertext.  If she cannot cast spells, or is not high enough level to use messaging spells, she will need to rely on a back channel.
  2. This work can never be used in another one-time pad so the bard needs a nearly inexhaustible supply of plays and songs.  Luckily, she is still a bard.

As a quick bard hack — Cryptography is a labor-intensive and slow process by hand unless one has unseen servant.  Much of the task of enciphering and deciphering is rote – look up the chart, look up the key, look up the ciphertext, write the ciphertext down. Repeat.  Unseen Servant is a short duration programmable spell which performs a task a human servant can do – like writing down letters or looking up charts.  As difficult as it is, the bard can automate much of the labor for efficient communication and gain critical minutes using magic. 

The bard cannot pull off the entire savage burn on the evil Arch Lich without an infiltration team.  She’s a fantastic cryptographer, she speaks all the languages of evil, she can make friends with the Arch Lich’s closest henchmen and get them to spill their plans.  But she cannot get into the Arch Lich’s inner sanctum to steal the Lich’s phylactery alone.  She cannot get herself out if she gets into a fight.  She’s a Grifter.  She needs an Infiltrator.  She needs a Hitter.  She needs her crew. 

The Infiltrator is a Trickster Rogue.  Fast and intelligent, the trickster rogue is a master of the three finger discount.  The bard is the face of the operation; the trickster rogue is the action.  Her job is to break into bedrooms and steal plans, hide in ducts to overhear conversations, sneak into the dungeons to release high value prisoners, execute a couple of targets with backstab (and True Strike), get in, get out, and get away with the maps in her underwear.  She employs a subset of the Bard’s spy spell list –  she has Message to keep in contact with her party members – “Guard patrol on level 5,”- Disguise Self to meld in with the guards or the servants, a little Charm Person (“These are not the orks you are looking for,”) and, when detected, Sleep.  The Infiltrator uses Illusory Script as the microfilm camera of spells to copy plans and leave the originals behind. 

The Hitter is an Eldritch Knight.  A retrieval expert, her job is to protect the Bard and the Rogue when they get themselves into trouble.  She’s not a hired killer, but she will kill to get her teammates out of a rough situation. Having enough social skills to pass as almost anything, the Eldritch Knight can double up as a Grifter to back up the Spy Bard.  Her Mage Armor and Eldritch Sword means never having to carry weapons into a possible combat zone – she has them when she needs them.  One the job goes bad, the Infiltrator is on the run and the Spy Bard is talking her way out of being hung from the nearest rafter, the Hitter can reach out for her sword and start going to town. Hope the Bard has encrypted all the documents sufficiently when they get spotted while running away…

The three methodically plan out their the savage burn on the Arch Lich because that guy has to go down. He’s bad news.  The bard provides a cover for the team (“I’m a bard and these are my roadies!”), builds up her network of contacts, works a the human side of the intelligence chain, defeats the diviners the Arch Lich may have on his staff, and encrypts the data to smuggle out.  The thief lifts the plans about the Arch Lich’s army, his dragon in the basement, his phylactery, and makes off with the Arch Lich’s inexplicable pair of Boots of Striding and Springing.  The thief also performs a little covert ork and hobgoblin murder.  The Eldritch Knight smacks people in the face when it all goes bad because it always all goes bad.   Getting out is difficult; sometimes she stabs some former ‘friends.’ 

They are a highly trained team.  They work on hire.  They answer to no master – that anyone publicly knows about.  They coordinate on a job through well-placed Message, Sending, Magic Mouth, dead drops, and signals.  The job is to get in and get out.  Preferably without getting caught or setting the Arch Lich’s castle on fire. 

When a Kingdom needs help to deliver them from evil, these are who they call first.

In this particular example, we can assume the run went smoothly. The bard talked the team in under the nose of the Arch Lich and made some friends. The team set up dead drops in secure locations inside the Arch Lich’s compound. The thief bloodily murdered a few orks with death from above.  The team discovered the Arch Lich’s horrible plan. They snuck out by cart — “You’re out of beer!” – in the night.  The Eldritch Knight cleared out patrols on the way home. They smuggled their encrypted information to the Duke, who handed it to his cipher secretary for decryption.

Then the Duke called in the main hitters, the fireball wielders, the combat team and handed them the decrypted intelligence.  Here you go, a ready-made adventure for heroes to go roll an Arch Lich for the good of us all…  

Pre-Build Team:

The focus was mostly on the bard but the bard needs a posse.  To express the complex idea of how to build an infiltration team and how the spy bard works in practice, we put together some example characters. This pre-built 5th level infiltration team is a group of highly trained women operatives and mostly ready for play.  I didn’t write these – all credit for these character sheets goes to my research assistant (and husband!) by Eric Thornber.  

These PDFs are free for download.

Writer’s Note: This started as a discussion on twitter about D&D/Shadowrun cross-over.  This is less socio-economics and more world-building but gets at a long standing issue: the Bard – what good is she good for?  It turns out in D&D5e, she’s the lynchpin in a slightly different class of stories than the standard smash-and-grab murder hoboing.  Then I really enjoyed the idea.  Unfortunately, I ran out of words, so I may continue into a major Crypto Bard vs Diviner Underground War write-up next week.  This is less intrigue than I would have liked.

The team at the latter half of the article is based on Leverage’s Hitter/Grifter/Hacker/Thief combo with the Bard filling the role of the Grifter and the Hacker.  The Bard and Rogue are essential.  The Hitter can be swapped out for a Warlock and a Sorcerer, but the Eldritch Knight was the most fun.

While writing this I came across the Chevalier d’Eon, the best example history could give me of a transgender spy bard because awesomeness.

Fiat Magic Reagents, the God of the Market, and Modrons

A bard dashes through the back rooms of a palace with secret plans in his hands.  The guards are after him.  The bards desires escape and the best way to slow the guards down is to throw Arcane Lock on this door and then go out the windowIt requires 25gp of gold dust.  With sweaty palms and heart thumping in his chest, and mere moments to go, the bard is not going to whip out Mordenkainen’s Guide to Commodity Prices Across the Realms for the current week (picked up wherever good books are sold!), flip to the G section for gold dust and look up the current market trade price of this baggy of dust in his hand to ensure the commodity market for gold has not significantly shifted since he entered this palace and got it on with the Duke’s daughter.  “Wait guys,” the bard could say to the guards, “Before we can do this, I need to check my actuary tables.”

But prices do change based on a whole host of conditions – sometimes very fast.  So we ask: without any market information, how does the spell know the gold dust was worth 25gp? 

I offer three possibilities:

Quick Sidebar: Tracking reagents by price instead of weight is a flaw in the game system.  For example, continuous flame requires “25gp of ruby dust, consumed on casting.”  How much ruby dust does 25gp?  1oz?  8oz?  1000lbs?  If the local economy prices 25gp at 1000lbs of ruby dust, no one is casting continuous flame.  “Just back up the dump truck here, George,” the wizard says. “I need to light this here torch. CONTINUOUSLY.”  After doing some quick calculations and looking up turn of the 20th century actuarial tables in Google Books and did a hand wave to allow $10 ~= 1gp, it takes 125lbs of patchouli to cast Legend Lore. 

We roll with this idea and its implications for fun.

#1 Least Interesting: Delusional Belief and Fiat Reagents

The spell-caster, who purchased a small diamond for a magic focus for chromatic orb for 50gp from a trusted jeweler, believes the diamond he uses for his spell is worth at least 50gp.  The wizard is confident in the price he paid for the diamond.  He casts chromatic orb.  His target takes 3D8 damage.

Maybe the diamond is actually worth 50gp.  Maybe it’s not.  Maybe the diamond is really a chip of elaborate glass sold by the Thieves’ guild and the wizard only needs to believe the focus is worth 50gp.  The unshakable belief in the original financial transaction powers reagent focus for the spell.  The wizard better keep his receipts.

Spell reagent effectiveness based on belief drives a perverse incentive for the Wizard Schools, especially the School of Evocation, to ensure all sellers of small diamonds sold for chromatic orb price them at a floor of 50gp regardless if a free market would also price the diamond at 50gp.  The Jewelers Guild must act as an “authority” on gem commodities, and through pressure and persuasion, the Jewelers price accordingly.

Wizards are not experts in rare gems.  They’re experts in spells.  They buy their focii from a “trusted seller” from the Jeweler’s Guild.  The trusted seller assures the wizard of the reagent’s price, despite the price being arbitrary, and performs the financial transaction.  Later, magic works. Yay!

Fixing the price of the small diamond suitable for chromatic orb at a floor of 50gp goes into a weird economic rathole of fiat reagents. A large, financially solvent entity, the School of Evocation, through “persuasion” implicitly backs any small diamond of suitable chromatic orb focus size at 50gp.  It’s safe.  It’s tradable.  Anyone can carry 50gp reagent-grade diamonds and exchange them for goods and services worth 50gp.  If Joe the Baker does not want to carry 50gp from making a large bread sale because it is heavy and obvious and a target for thieves, he can, instead, buy a chromatic orb reagent.  Then Joe can pass it on to George the Weaponsmith for a 50gp-worth sword. And George can pass the diamond on again – giving the diamond a little velocity – to the taxman for his 50gp bill.  No one needs to carry 50gp any more – not adventures, not anyone.  Instead they can trade in “orbos” – chromatic orb spells – and price everything in the very spells which needed fixed pricing. Now the school of evocation isn’t merely a fixer – they’re a central bank.

Markets are nothing but a big confidence game.

This ends where Schools of Magic turn into National Banks issuing reagents as currency, builds the International Wizarding Fund and the World Wizarding Bank and give up chromatic orbing bugbears entirely because it’s more lucrative to run a global economy.

But this is all boring so we will look at possibility #2.

#2 More Interesting: Gods

This is simple for faith-based casters:  A cleric holds up his diamond and goes hey, God, will you take this in exchange for resurrecting my buddy? And the God says, wellllllll you put in 5000gp of effort and time and it’s a super nice diamond so sure. Here you go. Resurrect away.  Done.

But what about arcane spells?  They don’t go whizzing off to some designated God for a price check on Aisle 9.  The wizard casting chromatic orb might be a stone cold atheist.

Or do they?

Hidden in the Gray Waste there is a God who checks out arcane reagent pricing during spellcasting.  And this God’s name is Mike.

From what little is written about Mike from the Planewalkers who penetrated his Palace, his avatar manifests as a paunchy, 50-ish balding man with a striped knitted sweater, oversized glasses and a paunch.  This dour God-powered economist sits on his comfy chair surrounded by hoards of slobbering Yugoloths who wear green visors and counts piles of money and argue about externalities and incentives.  They make anyone who broaches the inner sanctum do math… for eternity.

Mike is not a God of Trade.  Mike is the God of the Market. He has a condo in Bytopia but mostly he dwells in Hades.

Long ago, when the worlds were young and enterprising experimental wizards discovered the spells and bound casting to focii and burnable reagents, Mike snuck in.  With the help from his clerics, Mike managed to get tiny prayers built into the ritual words for vocalized casting.  Wizards buy these reagents, right?  Reagent pricing ping off Mike and he responds with a confirmation.  That way Mike could ensure reagent pricing was fair and equitable.  Just all part of his sphere of influence.

The worlds didn’t turn out the way Mike envisioned.  He became small.  The Realms, locked up as they are with guilds and Wizard schools and monopolies and lords and feudalism, culturally resist his sphere.  Unleashed free markets would overturn order. Bring the mighty low and raise the low up.  Destroy the status quo.  Start wars.  Bring the revolution and lay waste to entire kingdoms. Invent the joint-stock corporation. Pollution. Mass consumption. Corruption. A new order.  Powerful human and God incentives keeps Mike where he is: small, glowering, and surrounded by actuarial Yugoloths.

Mike schemes.

Like any God, Mike has his cults.  Few and worshipped only in the darkest places of accountancy back rooms.  Mike directs his clerics to pry their way into the minds of the enterprising and seeds the plans to break down resistance to loaning money at interest.  His paladins, armed with an oath of vengeance, track monopolist guildhalls – good, evil, indifferent – and burn them to the ground in the name of freedom.  His cults back the secret underground black markets, the cottager networks, the rogue print shops, and anyone who dares to trade outside of Guild control. 

But good to his word from when the worlds were new, Mike still performs a price check on reagent pricing whenever it comes to him through arcane whispers and verbal ritual.  Every once in a while he fails a check because prices have drifted too egregiously or what the spellcaster uses as a reagent substitution is silly and the spell explodes in the spellcaster’s face.  “Wild magic surge,” they say. Or maybe Mike.

But maybe it’s not Mike or any God at all.  Maybe it’s…

#3 Most Interesting: Modrons! 

Imagine this:

  • Some describe an economy as a giant super computer with people and goods as their programs and subroutines to generate pricing and commodity information;
  • A fair percentage of spells across all spheres of magic have a material component with a fixed cost needing verification;
  • Spells with fixed cost also have verbal components;
  • When a spell-caster casts a spell with her focus, the verbal portion of the ritual transforms into an arcane network protocol which flies across the planes and terminates at Mechanus;
  • A Modron picks up the ritual like an inter-planar REST call and processes it;
  • The Modrons in concert check the price against their infinitely running algorithms and return a YES or NO;
  • The spell either works or explodes.

Enormous pricing table and indexes maintained by Modrons – not unlike Mordenkainen’s Guide to Commodity Prices Across the Realms with pseudo real time inter-Planar access.  Dammit, Modrons!

See, Modrons simulate everything in the planes in their giant Modron-based computation matrices within Mechanus.  Modron economics algorithms are perfect and predict price fluctuations of all possible goods and commodities with startling accuracy given a starting point.   Sadly, humans and other humanoid beings are not so predictable. Humans have an annoying habit of getting into wars, conquering each other, crashing their economies by basing them on chromatic orb spells, and other economic mayhem.  And while the Modron algorithms are without fault the data is often not; after a while the results begin to drift.

Every Great Cycle or 289 years, to recalibrate their systems with a fresh data set, the Modrons erupt from Mechanus in a great horde and walk the Planes – in the Great Modron Marketing Survey.  Modrons stop, buy, sniff, observe, and utterly destroy whatever they pass through.  They collect data about all the commodities on the Planes and build elaborate tables – which carefully promote to the highest level Modrons on the Marketing Survey for safety and CRC-32 data validation.  It may look like Modrons are burning down your peaceful peasant village but all they want is the current price of eggs.

While few low-level Modrons survive the march – Modrons often catch a bad case of adventurer –  the high level remainders straggle home and feed the freshly collected data into the rest of the great computation matrix of Mechanus via Primus.  They restart the machine and off it goes.

Once the data gets into the system, the spell-to-reagent prices are fixed.  A 25gp diamond for a chromatic orb is so big with such weight.  However, every 289 years, give or take a few years, as the data ages the prices drift.  Modron checks no longer reflect the correct prices of spell reagents.  The percentage of spell failure slowly climbs.  Then the Modrons march again and prices reset.  Again, as the spells ping their little mystic-networked and highly distributed checks off Mechanus, they cast again.

A simple, clean explanation.  With Planes wide destruction.

Bonus Content: A Heist to Run a Savage Burn on the Entire Universe

Someone discovered the truth of the Great Modron March and, through a series of events, has hired the adventurers.  They have a plan but they cannot execute it themselves.  The sponsor is old and likely frail and enormously powerful cleric.  They need a group of high powered adventurers who are willing to take great risks for enormous financial rewards.  They need adventurers to run a complex heist.

Here’s the thing: while the Modrons march, the Modrons freeze their pricing algorithms.  But as the Modrons return to Mechanus and right before the few stragglers report to Primus, they reboot the entire computational matrix.  At that precise moment, the matrix is open to a little data hijacking.  Yes, someone, at great length and great pain, has discovered a hackable timing vulnerability in Mechanus via the Great Modron March.  To make everyone richer than anyone else ever, all the party has to do… really just this… is to:

  • Pick a spell and its spell reagents;
  • Follow the Modrons on the last leg of the Great Modron March;
  • Sneak into Mechanus without being seen – clearly easy for adventurers of such great skill;
  • Kidnap a survivor from the great Modron March who, through the promotion scheme of the Modrons, is likely to be a high-ranking Modron;
  • Feed it the wrong information about said commodity;
  • Let the Modron go without being spotted so it uploads its bad data to Primus;
  • Go home and buy and/or sell like mad.

Any spells, magic, or economic data which relies on the Mechanus computation matrix will be wrong; every arcane spell-caster must adjust to a new value or have a critical spell fail until the Great Modron March begins again and resets.  If the adventurers and their backers are prepared, they’ll clean up and make more money than anyone else on the Planes – more money than imaginable.

A few small catches, though:

  • It’s not easy to sneak into Mechanus without being observed because it’s Modrons and they are all hey look people in Mechanus this is data must share so this will need an Oceans-11 like plan;
  • High level Modrons put up a hell of a fight;
  • Feeding information into a Modron is a little bit of an ‘undefined requirement’;
  • And the Modron has to be returned to the end of the march without being missed.

The payoff… the payoff is enormous… and it will run a savage burn on all the wizards in the universe.

But who gave out the truth of the Great Modron March and the timing vulnerability?  Deep, in the depths of the Great Waste, a forgotten God named Mike taps copies of a perfectly serviceable heist plan.