On Mid-Medieval Economics, Murder Hoboing and 100gp

The party stands before the local Lord of the small town they’re passing through and responding to an ad:  Kill the local ogre in the hills for 100 gold pieces!  George the Ogre menaced the roads leading into the Lord’s holdings and villages so the Lord wants George gone.   You, the Murder Hobos, who breezed through go hey, we have weapons, we have skills, we have experience points, we can take out George.  And you do!  The local Lord hands out the 100gp (along with the party getting whatever experience points an Ogre was worth) and the Murder Hobos hobo along.

Where does the 100gp originally come from? 

Assuming the fantasy world our Murder Hobos inhabit is plausibly “Vaguely Western European Medieval” with some hand waving about elves, 90% of the population works in agriculture.  Sure expensive magic could make agriculture marginally more effective for the whole population but the structure of most of the countryside are manors of Lords overseeing combinations of bonded villeins and free peasants working the land. Even elves need to eat – or maybe they don’t, but people do.   Dotting along the road is the occasional inn and a few small market towns with functional marketplaces – and these are where our friends, the Murder Hobos, hang out.

Unless the Petty Lord in question owns a mine of some sort, he has few options to raise that 100gp:

  1. Squeeze the Peasants. Why bother to pay that 100gp himself to get rid of that ogre when his peasants surely have a few coins stashed under the floorboards somewhere?  This is what Sheriffs are for.  Go squeeze the villeins and free peasants – those free peasants are always good for cash.  Ever wonder why in old 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons the cash rewards would be in weird denominations? As long as it all adds up to 100gp, who cares the Lords squeezed the peasants a few copper at a time?
  2. Raid a nearby village.  Why squeeze one’s own peasants, who will surely resent being squeezed, when one can go burn down a rival’s village and force the peasants to cough up 100gp at swordpoint?  It really only takes the few buddies that live with the petty Lord, some horses, a few swords, and some flasks of wine… It’s one thing to knock over a few peasants, and it’s another thing to take on an ogre. An ogre is dangerous business.
  3. Squeeze the hostage. Hostage? What hostage? Where did a hostage come from? Surely at some point the petty Lord went on his campaign with his Lord. And that guy has a Lord above him — a Duke or Earl, perhaps. And that Duke got lucky on his last campaign when knocking over some other peaceful peasant villages. The petty Lord, with supreme luck, managed to take out a rival Knight and now has said rival Knight hanging around eating all the food. But the rival Knight’s family is another set of Lords with their own peasants to squeeze so our original magnanimous Lord with the ogre problem sends away for a bit of financing. And here it is.

Our party goes and rolls the ogre.  Possibly the ogre has some goblin friends, maybe a few orcs, and maybe if he’s a high charisma ogre a bugbear.  (Bugbear!)  The party rolls the enemy, collects a few trinkets, and saves the village.  Huzzah!  The peaceful peasant village is saved! They are heroes!  The petty Lord gives them 100gp to go away because he needs to get back to the pressing business of ensuring this year’s crop comes in to cover all his costs for his next year’s so-called war with his Lord. 

And the murder hobos do go away because they have 100gp burning a hole in a pocket and it needs to turn into stuff.

Medieval agrarian societies experienced little inflation over long periods of time.  Little money entered into the macroeconomic system to force prices to fluctuate and the pernicious guild system held prices artificially static.   The cost of wheat was the cost of wheat.  For prices to rise, someone dumps buckets of cash on the society as a whole.   Serfs had little money because they were serfs, Knights (petty Lords) had little money because they had to pay for the arms of war and kick up to their Lords… one had to crawl up the hierarchy before the murder hobos find concentrations of wealth.

But then a group of murder hobos would hoover 100gp out of one small community, find the nearest marketing town, and dump it all there like insane agents of the Invisible Hand.  100gp didn’t just buy drinks, it bought the entire bar.  The best thing for the entire community is if the murder hobos took their money and left.  Talk about acts of redistribution.

Since economic pressures put on groups of elves and dwarves in a Feudalistic society who take up arms to wander the country side and kill ogres interests me, I can game out some of the our party’s choices after spending their 100gp on whiskey.

1. Roll over to the next Lord and take another well-meaning good-aligned job they heard from the previous bar to rescue another peaceful peasant village.  The process starts anew, except this time the murder hobos ask for250gp instead of 100gp because the party leveled and they have more expensive equipment and reagent needs.   They continue along like this until they fight the big boss at the end of the module and destroy a small country’s carefully balanced economy by dumping the treasure on a small marketing town.  Perhaps once the adventure completes, the murder hobos become an upgrade: the murder mercenary company.  Why take out goblins when one can take out towns and knock over petty Lords themselves?  Cut out the middle man.

2. Climb up the ladder from petty Lords to big Lords and Churches. If anyone has money, it’s those local Temples that dot the countryside squeezing the local free peasants and moderately wealthy landowners for their cash (since they can pony up and don’t have their own private shrines.)  You Clerics you with your wealthy Sanctuaries and need for adventuring teams to go do things.  At higher levels, the murder hobos can shake down people who shake down people who squeeze the peasantry en masse.  Not only does it make more money and destabilize an agrarian society faster, it’s more efficient for higher levels!

3. Get thee to a city.  And hold onto that thought.

Once the petty and not-so-petty Lords get rolled a few times by the murder hobos, they have their own choices because they need to get their wheat to market, they don’t know how to figure in inflation, and seriously they have bills to pay and these guys need to move on.  They can (lists of threes!  lists of threes!):

1. Buy another murder hobo company and sic them, for another 100gp, on the first murder hobo company in hopes of mutual annihilation.

2. Militarily mobilize against the murder hobos – oh thank you for saving us now please go far away and stop hitting all the manors on the road for jobs please.  Maybe raising troops and mass mobilization is the best way to get right of the plague of lawful good adventurers who just want to help the poor and the oppressed against the legions of evil?

3. Join ‘em.  It’s more lucrative to murder hobo rather than run lands as Knight So and So of SuchandSuch.  Grab the sword, leave the gun, take the cannoli and surely they need an NPC fighter!  Who doesn’t?  There’s a Storm Giant menacing a village over the rise.

And now our, oh, 7th or 8th level murder hobo group who has saved many peasant villages now have an entire chorus of ex-petty Lords helping them to right the wrongs while they ravage the countryside, and some Duke or Earl or even King will get smart and point them at their enemies for a bribe of, say, 10,000 gp ganked no doubt off the back of a hundred thousand peasants paying taxes…

Murder hobos are no good for a fine Western European Medieval economic climate full of elves.  So much for the long-term economic stability of the Hobbits of the Shire.

Cities – small, filthy and few as they are – are the only civic and economic structures with enough wealth to support the rapacious needs of the average, healthy, constantly leveling murder hobo.  A 100gp disappears into the cities dark streets like water after rain.  Guilds extort from one another.  Landed Churchmen run the heads of their Temples out of Cities.  Governments make their headquarters.    These are the guy with hard cash.  Where they got the hard cash is of no concern – they have hard cash.  Never mind with landed nobles. Those guys are broke.  There’s some Guild there who has long term grudges with another Guild and wants to get their pay and all they need is a group of murder hobos who have leveled up siphoning all the money out of the countryside. 

Imagine the rogue class of the Auditor who works for the Guilds with the Guild Artisan background who makes sure that now the team is part of the City they pay their kickbacks to the Guilds themselves….

When Guilds don’t have enough money, some Lord of a rich city state who doesn’t bother with such things as lands and rents but in real things like proto-banks and ports needs to have a rival sacked.  Here’s a scroll of fireball!  Gratis!  Go sack.  Hope you don’t come back!

Given an infinite amount of time and actual economic pressures, all adventuring groups become neutral evil. 

There’s a lot to this subject.  This doesn’t even touch money-lending and usury and rents.  This is a time with no real banking – where do the murder hobos store their cash? – and few mints churning out coin.  Lords pass off murder hobos based on IOUs they never intend to pay and then other Lords who will call those in.  Backstabbing guild politics of the highest order and free peasants willing to use murder hobos on their climb by their fingernails up the economic ladder so they can buy themselves a title.   And this is just what is rolling around in my head.   The murder hobos rely on an invisible system to support their need to Do Good: the wealth of the churches, the rent taking of the lords, the control of the guilds, the networks of small market towns destroyed in their wake by overindulgence of beer.

The White Company is the best of real history rapacious and completely gonzo mercenary adventurers who had some fun in 14th century France and Italy.   A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman describes the White Company and the role of mercenaries in medieval society in loving detail.

Anything on the Black Death is good for exploring what happens when disease upends a perfectly good Feudalistic system.  The history of printing gets one into guerilla warfare tactics between guilds and free enterprise (printing was never guild controlled) and the length they will go to blowing up each other.    Seriously, the history of printing and the printers wars with keeping out of guild control is the best historical story no one knows about. 

Debt: the first 500 years has a chapter on Western medieval economics in detail and describes what happens when one dumps huge amounts of liquid cash on a low cash velocity society.  (Hint: massive hyperinflation –just ask Spain!)

I am currently reading the Story of England by Michael Wood which describes life in a Medieval and Renaissance society in loving, personal detail.  Also, academics are jerks.   If you thought monasteries were bad they are nothing compared to a small Liberal Arts college in 1300AD.

Nothing coughs up ideas like real life.

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  • Sam Ashwel

    The other thing you can do, when your murder-hobo population gets unmanageable, is give your murder-hobos a reason to go and do their murdering Somewhere Very Far Away, hinting that there are alignment-based rewards as well as better loot.

    The problem with this plan is that you have now invented paladins, and nobody wants that.

    • Panagiotis Alexiou

      aka The Crusades

  • N_Who

    “Even elves need to eat – or maybe they don’t, but people do. ”

    Did you just imply that elves aren’t people?

    • Justin Akkerman

      Of course elves are not people. They can’t be resurrected. They don’t have souls. They are fae. I would not be surprised if they were kept at bay by a “protection from evil” spell.

  • Judd

    There is also the strange economic components of the magical effects prominent in games like D&D. The magic there with things like wishes, fabricate spells, healing potions, stone to mud and mus to stone conversion, wall spells, etc. pretty much ensure that the world of most fantasy games are nowhere close to historical. In some cases, they may even be post-scarcity in some localized cases (fabricate alone can do this).

  • John Jaeger

    Makes me want to add elements of mass wealth appropriation (i.e. the crusades) and mass plague to my game. Definitely helps redefine how I paint my commoners and nobles in future sessions.

  • Happyroach

    I think it was way back in original D&D that Gygax responded to criticisms of the pricing of items by pointing out that communities near adventuring locals would have massive inflation. And since adventurers would go nowhere else…

  • Phil DeLuca

    Largely incoherent, but still fun and thought-provoking. Thank you!

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  • lukereinhardt

    Like Phil DeLuca, I found this somewhat difficult to read (although I think ‘largely incomprehensible’ is a little harsh!), but it has some good ideas. I’ve responded to it and expanded on it at my (brand new) blog. I hope my ideas are useful: http://universityofgamebridge.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/of-hill-giants-and-hyperinflation/

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  • Stephan

    Perhaps we’re thinking about this wrong. Obviously, the true anachronism in this sort of game is that there’s actually a middle class. It’s these fine burghers who are moving the wealth along in a socially mobile kind of way, just dressed funny and also swords.

  • Episteme

    Folks keep asking what to do with a character’s loot in 5e. Reading this makes me realize that I just need to forget thinking like a long-term D&D player and start thinking like my European Studies minor (Early Medieval concentration): time to start moving up the in-game power ladder by lending gold from dungeon delves to cash-poor kings in urgent need of money for mobilizations! 😉