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.

How the Identify Spell Destroys the World

This article assumes that 1st level identify spells are used in identifying and validating a large range of magical items whenever a magic item changes hands.  For example, when an item comes out of a dungeon, when taken off an enemy after a battle, when validating an item’s nature, during a financial transaction, or with death and wills and the pearl is consumed in the spell

Components: V, S, M (a pearl worth at least 100 gp and an owl feather)

– D&D 5th Edition Players Handbook, page 252

Seldom do the clam divers find wild pearls.  Only one in a thousand divers slices open a clam and finds a perfect white glittering orb inside.  Pearls are a misfired immunization response to possible invaders within the clam shell – a round orb of calcites working as white blood cells to entrap a speck of dirt.  A quirk of evolution which, before the Divination School of Magic, was simply a pleasant happenstance which neither worked for nor against the clam’s continued ability to reproduce and exist.  The wealthy craved pearls for their extreme rarity.  A string of wild pearls was worth a million gold.  And then, pearls became a core part of the magic item economy.

The Divination School of Magic set up local Identify shops in every major town, city-state and trade cross-roads in the world.  They work like any medieval guild: they enforce a certain level of service quality among their members, police services members can sell, and drive the right to who can and cannot set up shop.  They maintain monopolies in their territory.  And, like any other guild, they also offer members a carrot on a stick – the possibility the most diligent, most hardworking, and best diviners entrance into higher levels of Divination Mysteries. With entrance comes training in higher level divination wizarding spells.  The Grandmasters of the Divination School of Magic are the best Diviners in the world – and rightly so because they have mastery over the spell Foresight.   

Diviners in the local shops are 1st level Wizards trained in basic low level divination spells and cantrips.   They dream of notice by the higher ups in their Guild so they can abandon their storefronts and go into actual wizarding.  To do that, they must show a little entrepreneurial spirit and set up their kiosks where they will cast a high rate of identify spells per week.   Every town with a major Adventurer or Magic Item presence has an Identify Kiosk.  The Diviner needs a constant source of pearls worth at least 100 gp to service his clientele. 

It’s unreasonable to expect Adventurers will supply pearls but perfectly reasonable to assume Adventurers will supply at least 100 gp.  The Diviner buys pearls in bulk from a supplier and burns them in his spell-casting. We’ll get back to the Identify Kiosk in a few paragraphs but walk way with the scene of a Diviner at level 1 casting identify on a sword unearthed from a nearby ruin.

The Supplier of pearls is a merchant’s guild broker from one of two mercantile sea-side city states at war.  The city states are at war over pearls.

Originally, pearls were rare things the merchants found in distant bazaars and sent to their home cities with big batches of black pepper, rare textiles, and spices.  Merchants used these rare pearls to sell to or bribe the nobility.  Once the Diviner’s School of Magic started buying pearls in bulk, the traders had classic supply and demand on their hands.  They could sell the one rare pearl for an extraordinarily high price or they could feed the aggregate demand – but they needed to keep prices high, since pearls must possess worth at least 100 gp. The race was on, Lawrence of Arabia-style, to find enough pearl farmers so the merchant’s guilds could have fun with aggregate pearl pricing, and selling pearls in the pricing band.  Things got twitchy once they located pearl farmers and supply lines stood up.

Pearl farming is a slow and dangerous business.  Farmers seed clams and then harvest them underwater.  Then farmers must wait an entire year before the pearls are harvestable.  Beds are only good for 2-7 years and then beds rotate.  Worse, it’s trivial for a clam diver to get swept up in currents and drown.  Magic helps but clam farmers must expect casualties every season and magic is quite expensive.  Unless one mitigates all those expenses.  Brutally.

A sudden deluge of purchase requests from traders where there were none before incentivizes the clam farmers to produce pearls at an extraordinarily high rate and with a crushingly low overhead to maximize their profits.  They require large clam farms, dangerous work, large workforces, and a quick replacement policy for those who die on the job.  Merfolk are cheap, work underwater, are kept in cages, and fed chum.  Remember all those low level adventures with fighting slavers?  Why were slavers enslaving people?  Pearl farming on an industrial scale to feed the voracious appetites of mercantile city states who have found a customer.  And don’t forget the occasional enslaved wizard.  Need to cast those spells to allow Management to breathe underwater and cast the occasional identify to check batch quality. That guy is on an adventure of his own.

Two city-states in close physical proximity selling pearls have a rent problem.  The rent problem is simple: there are two of them. 

Profits magnitude is not by who makes the most money overall but who makes more than the other guy.  Say, for example, City State A and City State B both use the same slaver pearl farmers to get their supply and the pearl quality is roughly equal.  Since they both provide the same service, and they both have their own merchant guilds selling pearls wholesale to diviners, they will both make equal profits.  Sure, they backstab and murder while competing over groups of diviners and exclusive contracts but aggregated overall, both city states make the same money. If, suddenly, City State A reduces City State B to a smoking ruin via giant fireballs and could no longer offer the same service, City State A could offer better service for the same price and sell into City State B’s customer base.   City State A’s profits would be magnified by how much City State B loses.  And then City State A could start extracting monopoly rents from the Diviner School of Magic to raise pearl prices to exorbitant heights because where are you going to buy pearls?  City State B?  Why, they’re a ruin!

In infinite worlds, surely one exists where the two city states work out territories peacefully.  Happily. They shake hands.  Everyone hugs. In the other infinity-1 worlds, both cities hire a bunch of mercenaries, load some fireballs into trebuchets, and go to town.

History provides many means to enforce a monopoly but the most popular is violence. 

And now, the pirates and black market.  The Diviner’s School of Magic prefers a complete monopoly on the casting of identify spells.  It is, after all, a divination spell and they are duly authorized to provide divinations. With enough money bribed to nobility and local magistrates, pearl supply and the casting of licensed and regulated identify spells are the sole province of properly licensed diviners.  Any old wizard casting a divination is unlicensed and perhaps illegal.  We don’t want wrong information about magic items getting passed around, do we?

Claiming the illegality of a 1st level and highly common wizard spell considering the political pull of high level wizards is a bit unreasonable.  But it is not unreasonable to outlaw the handling of pearls without proper license.  Black markets spring up when people desire certain substance but it is highly controlled or outlawed.  The market, here, are non-Divination School of Magic wizards with adventuring groups.  The supply comes from hijacking and theft – piracy.

Since pearl farming needs specific species of clams, the pearl farmer plantations operate overseas in exotic lands.  When a batch is ready for market, farmers load pearls onto large shipping boats and the pearls head for trading mercantile hubs.  Pirates hunt cargo cogs in well known shipping lanes, board ships, steal pearls, kidnap high value hostages, and sink the boats to the bottom of the sea.  Piracy is incredibly expensive for City State A and City State B (although it helps keep pearl prices high – maybe they create their own buccaneers).  “Good” City States hire adventuring groups to protect boats with cargo from pirates who are terrorizing the high seas… who then, after a thrilling adventure, take gear off pirates and get it identified.  Adventuring is a long tail.

Unlike setting up a supply chain from farmers, locking in contracts with downstream buyers, warehousing, transportation and distribution, the black market has a relatively low barrier to entry.  One pirate ship, one set of deals in a bar, and one big score of profits. Until one Thieves Guild grows dominant over the other smaller players and decides to grow into a full on underground economy.  That entity enforces its monopoly through obscene back-alley violence.  (Again, monopolies, violence.)  Once one is already breaking a number of laws, it’s not a jump to just keep on going with the law breaking.

But it’s there, the black market, with all its backstabbing and murder.  Thief gangs muscle into each other’s pearl selling territory, fight among themselves, and generally kill each other for their kingpins.  And a wizard shows up at a grimy corner in a back alley slum and deal with skeezy thieves to get a baggy of pearls priced at exactly 100gp each so she can identify the party’s equipment from the last dungeon run.  Maybe the baggy has pearls.  Maybe the baggy has marbles.  Maybe the baggy is full of pearls worth less than 100gps.  The wizard takes a gamble with the thieves guild.  Or the party can go to a fully licensed Identify Kiosk.

The wizard making back alley deals may get herself in real trouble with the Diviner’s School of Magic if she operates on enough scale. How would the Diviner’s School of Magic know unlicensed black market pearls and rogue identify spells? Well, hell, they’re diviners.  And speaking of…

Let’s get back to our friend, the diviner, from way in the beginning.  He bought his pearls legally from a merchant who has marked the pearls up and put on a ‘crossing a war zone’ premium on the supply.  If the two cities ever flood the market with pearls, the pearls will drop in worth to under 100gp and become useless for identify spells* so the war and markup are good for business.  It is in the interest of the Divination School of Magic to keep City State A and City State B at war and to destroy the black market to force price controls over their identify spells to ensure they work and to maximize their profits.  Being the reliable source for identify is the kiosk selling point.  It always works.

The Diviner’s School of Magic is not particularly interested in profits.  Sure, profits help to fund their grand enterprise but they are not motivated purely by extracting rents from adventurers, militaries, magic item resellers, hordes of hobgoblins, or anyone needing a check on a magic item.  What they crave is information, and what everyone hands over willfully in their transactions with the diviners is all the information about the magic items in their possession.  It only takes a question to also extract identities.

This is the hook for the 1st level diviners: the more identify spells they cast, the more information they gather about the magic items in circulation – where they come from, who has them, what they have, where they’ve moved to.  The more knowledge diviners feed back into their guild, the likelier they are  “promoted” to a “higher level of secrets”and get out of the daily drudgery of casting identify spells.  Low level diviners are knowledge forwarders to a centralized knowledge repository held by the Diviner School of Magic.  The mysterious and unknowable Grandmasters know everything about everyone – who is adventuring, who is successful, who has what high level weapon or tasty piece of armor, what great weapon has fallen into which military’s hands.  They know about magic item transactions between parties.  They are a lovely secret society and highly integrated intelligence network for hire spidering their way across the realms – intelligence useful to both sides in a war.  Would you like to know what magic items the other side has in reserve and how to counter them? 

Why bother casting spells to look omnipotent when one can merely consult the hordes of accountants in the back room? Money is money but intelligence is priceless.  Who questions the least of all Schools of Magic?  Look at the evokers, they have fireballs!  We merely cast spells to gain little bits of knowledge…

From Secret Grandmaster Diviner to a corner kiosk to a Great War to black markets to pirates and slavery and back to the adventuring party again with their fresh levels and unidentified gear.  The arc of the supply and demand line from farmer to consumer is relentlessly neutral evil.  Lost in this entire discussion is the forgotten cage of owls, somewhere, cold, forgotten, and completely bereft of feathers.

  • This brings up a whole different question of how does the pearl know it is worth less than 100gp that is on the topic list for later.

Writer’s Note:

The original conception for this idea was a knowledge problem.  The diviners who identified magic equipment for 100gp always had the upper hand over adventurers because while the adventurers would know what magic items they had, the diviners would know the magic items all adventurers had since they identified them.   It’s a small hop to incentivize sharing information with a secret cabal in a giant information network in return for cheap benefits ie, 2nd level.  Then came trying to figure out how many identify spells needed to be cast/week to support adventurer groups, magic item transactions, death and wills, auction houses, etc and since identify is the de facto validation check much like an appraisal, the answer turns out to be “a non trivial sum.”  It’s millions of gp in pearls/year with pearls at 100gp. And pearls are intensely difficult to come by from nature so that needs puts pressures all over society.

I am a big fan of the Diviner School of Magic as massive secret society/intelligence network and put together a few notes on why one would never use their services (ie, you’re the thieves guild/magic user underground).  Also working on ways to counter them.  This is a nice campaign idea to start from the slavers and work up through levels like an onion to the horrible reveal of the secret society apparatus about to be used for something horrible and that Grandmaster Diviner your wizard just learned from wants to eat the party’s face. 

I also like cities at war because it’s a lovely excuse for high seas adventure: two maritime cities giving groups buccaneer’s papers to operate as pirates on the high seas for a ‘good cause’ by rolling each other’s ships.  One can roll slaver ships and rescue wizards who maybe were sold into slavery by defying the Diviner’s Guild in the first place…

This is really the first cluster of ideas I would flesh out into something bigger with more meat.  It really needs the 10K word treatment to work.

A Little Debt Financing Between Friends Goes A Long Way. Plus Pirates.

The party stands on a beach on the other side of the world facing down an army of 30,000 heavily armed but lightly armored orks.  And they wonder… how did we get here?

King Stephan II is at war with his neighbor.  He no longer remembers what the war was about or how it started.  It began in his father’s father’s time.  All King Stephen II knows is war is expensive and the Royal Treasure is heavily in debt to a number of incredibly dubious concerns.  He’s not worried about the debt, though.  King Stephen II is phenomenally concerned about a more pernicious virus working its way through his Kingdom: boredom.

When war is good it’s very good.  The realm has no professional standing army.  Instead, when it’s time to go to war, the King bribes his Dukes to mobilize their private armies.  The Dukes bribe their Barons, the Barons bribe their Knights, and the Knights rape and pillage the land to raise money for armor, weapons and horses which flows back to the Faires where the brokers make their cash. 

The military is a loose confederation of adventuring groups, mercenaries, Knights and their buddies looking to grab a well-paying hostage, Barons trying to get ahead, and Dukes eyeing the Throne.  Theoretically, all these groups show up at the same place at the same time after a fun trip through the countryside where they force local peasantry to fete their betters with enormous and locally expensive feasts.   If all goes well, they route the enemy. The victors grab as many hostages as they can reach, and the Knights go on a rampage burning down the local villages.  Everyone makes out well and the local treasury overflows with its cut from this heroic misanthropy.

The enemy has been busy with their own internal problems leaving King Stephen II with a multi-pronged problem:

  • Bored nobility.
  • His treasury holds dust and his creditors are circling.

The Good and Wise King can debase the coinage – he’s done this a few dozen times before – to raise more money for his treasury and squeeze the peasantry as the harvest is good.  But his real problem is the nobility.  King Stephen II is Half-Elven by some tangential definition of “Half Elven” – he claims an ancient ancestor was an elf and he possesses some great and noble elven blood.  So do almost all of his nobility, even the Duke of Shoral, even though that Great and Wise Duke is clearly a half ork.  (The Duke of Shoral claims not only an ancient ancestry of elven blood, he claims his half-orkness is a special expression of that blood.)  King Stephan II is in truth only a man and he needs his nobility entertained otherwise they will begin to entertain themselves with each other.  Nothing is worse than bored heavily armed personal militaries.

Wizards, or at least their agents, live on the Trade Nexuses.  The Glorious and Most Serene Republic of Bavoria is just such a trade nexus.  Built on the ruins of an ancient harbor left by the previous civilization who had excellent taste in city locations, Bavoria benefits from a wide, protected harbor, access to timber in the nearby foothills of the mountains, and excellent roads.  In the far-flung past, Bavoria mostly did trade in honey, wax, and wine.  Now it trades everything its network of brokers can buy from all over the world.  With trade comes money, and with money comes the academic trades – the writers, the poets, the painters, the sculptors, the philosophers, the alchemists, the libraries and the universities. With the universities and an access to expensive and rare reagents come the Wizards.  And the banks.

The Doge of Bavoria is a Transmuter and sits at the head of the Colainni family, an ancient family who were among those who built Bavoria in the mists of history.  The Colainni family was a proud family exclusively of wizards but today most of the family business is in finance and murder – much more lucrative than wizard’s robes and runes. And the hats? Oh, the amazing hats.  The Colainni family has managed to fuse the Merchant’s Guild with the Thieves Guild and Wizard’s Craft Guilds to build a small banking empire to Kings.  

Doge Uberto Colainni has a pirate problem.  He’s always had a pirate problem.  Before, they could be bribed to pay back a cut to him of what they stole but they’ve not paying up and they’re putting a dent in the profits.  Normally, he would send out the Bavoria fleet to take care of the problem but King Stephen II is in to him for 1.2M gold plus interest from the last little adventure in War five years ago.   The Doge knows the good King has an entire kingdom of Knights and brave adventurers who might be getting the hot idea to come adventuring right at him.  The Doge prepares a courier and sends a message.  In returning for forgiving a bit of that war debt – debt the good King will run up again – the Doge will send his Knights off somewhere that will keep them occupied for a while.

The King’s Men fan out across the Kingdom and position themselves in Inns offering adventure.  An old man wearing the King’s colors tells a thrilling story around the fireside of sun drenched cities and horrible pirates and a chance for glory and stuff. The King himself is calling adventures to join the cause.  The adventurers can keep any booty they find!  All the adventurers need to do is rendezvous with the contact in Bavoria – here’s a name – in a month’s time and they can take part in this, well, let’s not call it a crusade, really.  A fight for Chivalry.  Pirates are evil!  Rar pirates! Go good!  Fight evil!  Go over there so you stop draining our coffers!

And a bunch of Random Encounters later, the adventures find themselves in Bavoria.  A city of money!  A city full of crime!  A city where scoundrels will roll the party blind! But it’s also a city of wealth, of wild parties, of politics, of murder, and of ancient ruins the party can go through and level in if they are a little under-leveled.   The Guild of Diviners will identify magic items for quick cash but then we’re back to the problem of actually selling magic items. It doesn’t help that the diviners are also in the pocket of both the Thieves Guild and one of the other great families of Bavoria, the Campise, who is standing up a competing Thieves Guild-slash-Financing House, and now they know the party has magic items and of what size and what kind and from where… but first, pirates.  

Sure enough, Knights and Lords from all over King Stephen II’s kingdom filter into Bavoria.  They feted on the backs of peasants all the way from their capital city here.  And they are ready to kill pirates.  Oh are they ready to kill pirates.  Is the party ready to kill pirates?  The NPC knights are all about killing pirates! 

First problem: no one can take horses. The boats don’t have enough room for all the armor and the squires and the mercenaries and the adventures and tents and supplies and horses.  The boats are only so big. The horses must go, and due to a sudden glut of horses, they’re going at half price.  Now Bavoria has a lively but short-lived trade in horses!  A win for everyone!

Second problem: the clerics of King Stephen II’s Kingdom are slightly different from the clerics of the Republic of Bavoria so no one agrees on the right blessing. After an altercation and possible cleric-and-paladin fist fighting, the party has a problem to solve.  They can solve this however they see fit, including allowing the clerics to hit each other until they’re unconscious and then have the party cleric bless the mission. And clerics?  They’re mean.

Finally, everyone boards.  The boats cast off!  They float around on the sea for a while.  They fish.  They have fights on the sea with pirates!  And the party lands on shore surprisingly fresh.

Here’s where maybe someone should have asked a few questions. The Doge of Bavoria did not have King Stephen II or his Knight’s best interests in mind.

  • The pirate generator is an enormous walled city surrounded on the shore by a river and otherwise surrounded with desert.
  • If the party thinks to ask no, no one brought any siege equipment.  Why would we bring siege equipment?  What those walls?
  • The NPC Knights, however, did bring many barrels of wine.
  • The pirates, knowing the Doge was getting irate, called their buddies who called their buddies and they have bored warriors and mercenaries, too. Now just off the city is an army of 30,000 heavily armed orks on horseback.
  • The orks on horseback don’t seem interested in attacking. They mostly seem interested in sitting just out of range and laughing.
  • Also Knights?  In the desert?  In heavy plate armor?  Without horses?  All those good Knights and Paladins aren’t going anywhere fast.

This is where the party is at.  There’s all sorts of interesting possibilities the adventuring party can pursue:

  • The party can be super clever, figure out a way into the city through some ancient sewers and destroy the pirates from the inside.  The city is not a normal city full of people kept hostage.  It truly is full of nasty goblins, orks, evil demi-human races, hobgoblins and the occasional bugbear.  Meanwhile, outside the city walls, the NPC Knights will try to make a single siege weapons out of driftwood (which burns) and mostly die of heat exhaustion in their metal cans.
  • The party can have a throw down with the champions of the ork army after sets of skirmishes.  In some twisted ork tale of honor, if the two champions of two armies meet, the one set of champions who survives is the winner of the war. Winning will disperse the ork army.
  • The party can attempt to oust the useless head of the NPC Knights, one of the erstwhile Dukes but not the Duke of Shoral he was too smart for this, take over the army and actually hold a useful siege. But they won’t get any respect unless their head is also Nobility of King Stephen’s Kingdom.
  • The party can get back on boats and fight the pirate menace on the seas. Sooner or later they will meet a Pirate Boss who will give them an epic fight.
  • No doubt there’s all sorts of interesting exotic places to explore off the beaten path: other ruins, interesting trade cities with strange cultures, and more clusters of pirates.

The head of the NPC Knights, a Duke of Canet, who claims descent from elves and the royal line of Kings, has little interest in anyone’s advice.  He will bat it away with one hand and drink hot wine under a hot sun in another.  To him, this is a big party and the longer it lasts, the better.  The siege entertains his men and occasionally one of the small skirmishes results in booty.  He has to milk this siege in a far away land for all it has.

Regardless, the NPC Knights after a long time of hanging around in tents with bright banners, screwing around, getting each other killed in skirmishes, and generally failing to do anything useful, will eventually tear down their tents, get on boats, and go home.  Unless the party manages to take the city and defeat the pirates themselves, the Knights return to Bavoria totally and completely successful in their own minds despite it looking pretty, well, like a huge failure.   

But someone wins in all this.  Who wins? 

  • The Doge wins because regardless what happens, the pirates back off a bit giving him a great financial victory which he will use to hire assassins and off members of rival wizarding families.
  • The pirates win because they still have their big army, their pirating base, and they made a bunch of knights look like jerks.  The tiny war thinned their numbers so the pirates back off for a bit but check out the recruiting propaganda they get in return!
  • The party wins because they get to go on cool adventures and take stuff.

King Stephan II gets rolled.  Sure, he gets his Knights out of his Kingdom for a while but the Knights didn’t return with much he could put into his treasury.  He’s still in debt to the Doge.  And his neighbor is still having its own civil war problems and can’t come fight him.  But the Doge is thinking of going to war with his neighbor, the Glorious Republic of the Iron Isle and could use some Knights. He’ll be happy to forgive some debt but King Stephen II will have to arm them… 

The moral of this long drawn out story: Maybe the old man in the inn giving out adventures doesn’t have the best of intentions.  Also, more importantly, wise rulers keep a constant war at the edges of their kingdoms far away from their central cities and bases of power.  Campaigns work best when they send adventurers out to the far reaches of civilization.  D&D is essentially a western.

As you can probably guess, this was all based on real history of the Crusades which were exactly as dumb as this.  And every bit as successful.

On the Unloading a Pair of Magic Boots and Troubles Therein

While killing an ogre for the local Baron for a quick pickup of 100gp, the party offs the ogre’s buddy, a nasty little goblin.  This guy was a real jerk.  Once he was good and dead – the fighter stabbed the goblin extra for good measure – the party did what adventuring parties do.  They rolled the bodies.  Among the handfuls of copper pieces, a few unusable weapons and a convenient cache of crossbow bolts, the party discovers the goblin was wearing a pair of Boots of Striding and Springing. 

For whatever reason, the party decides it doesn’t want to keep the boots.  Perhaps it is a matter of taste.  The style is out of fashion.  The size is too small.  Also, as magic items go, boots of striding and springing are on the low-end of the interesting scale.  Regardless, the party takes the boots to the nearby peaceful peasant market town to unload them as one does with unused magic items.

The local cordwainer won’t accept the boots of striding and springing.  The cordwainer, a member of the local shoemaker’s guild in good standing, doesn’t recognize the boots as magic but he does recognize them as a different make than other boots made in the region.  Good quality, good make, but they’re not his nor one of his fellow guildmates so he cannot resell them.  He is not authorized to buy and sell foreign goods and if they’re left in his shop, he’ll get found out by the guild for hoarding strange makes of highly unauthorized footwear.  There’s a price list.  He likes being part of the guild, see.  They help him and his family out when he’s down.  His father was part of this guild. His grandfather was a grandmaster of the cordwainers of the peaceful peasant village.  And he doesn’t want any trouble.  Besides, he only pays in script and not in coinage.  The party needs to move along.

The local merchant doesn’t recognize the boots, either, but he recognizes them as magic immediately on inspecting them on the counter in his small shop.  The wizard’s craft mark is on the inner sole.  See that right there? These are wizarding shoes.  Great magic in wizarding shoes. The merchant’s guild in this region isn’t permitted in its charter to resell strange, foreign wizarding shoes.  They banged this charter out so the merchant can sell commodity goods here and the Baron stays over there where the town would like them and the Baron, well, he takes interest in these sorts of things.  Maybe the party took them off a wizard?  That’s a problem right there, too.  The merchant can’t pay for strange foreign wizarding things in his shop.  Brings nothing but trouble.  Besides, the town mostly works on script, ledgers, loaning and mutual debt.  The merchant can only pay in Bob the Baker’s bread.  Do you like bread? Bob’s bread?  Fantastic.

  • Forcing the merchant to accept the boots unearths the hard reality that the Merchant’s Guild of the town is also the Judge’s Guild, the local Mafioso Guild, and the Government Guild. This merchant?  He’s also the Mayor.  And the Head Judge.  The merchant will call in his friends and his friends will make sure the party doesn’t sell no weird, foreign, and possibly evil wizarding shoes in this town.  We won’t kill you right here and now because of the ogre business but maybe it’s time to go.  The locals are not much when it comes to fighting but leaving an entire town murdered over a pair of boots – there’s a slippery slope to neutral evilhood.  The party’s cleric might be irked.
  • Getting the local Baron involved brings up all kinds of ugly questions like: “Why are the lower folk walking around with a pair of magic boots?“  And then the magic boots will belong to the Baron because he needs to go on campaign and he doesn’t have magic boots.  Now he does. Yours.  Not a great plan.  Great guy until someone shows up with some magic items and then not such a nice guy any more.
  • Barding up the merchant or pulling out some merchant background can get a bit of “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.”  Maybe there’s something the merchant needs for a bit of favor.  Besides, the guy trades in favors all day.  The local merchant is not of any help but there might be an upstream reseller.  Here’s a bit of a written introduction and a rough schedule for a Faire that moves around a number of cities.  Nomenally that faire sells cloth but an entrepreneaur can unload a pair of boots if the buyer is right and the place is right and the money is right.
  • Calling down on God or Gods is a thing that works because if there is anything a merchant needs, it’s a blessing to help him move those more mundane items in his shop.  But he still doesn’t handle foreign magic goods and he can only pay in what he owes to other townspeople.
  • Cutting the inner soles out of the boots to remove the wizard’s mark and leaving them with the local non-guild affiliated peddler with his jingle jangle wagon of assorted goods for a few copper will get rid of them quick but these boots are worth some serious scratch.  Always an option but no adventuring party is going to get rich off filing the serial numbers off magic items and unloading them on movable consignment stores.

No one in the town is going to buy the boots the local head cleric explains to the party on their way (hopefully) out of town.  And no one wants them. These are good people.  Godly people.  People who tithe regularly to their local Temple.  What the local head cleric, who is one of those nice guys affiliated with one of the local Gods of home and hearth, wants is the party to take the boots and leave. They will bring nothing but instability to this nice little community. If there’s anything the Gods want, its stability. 

A group of towns who want to become cities situated on ancient trade roads hold a rotating open market.  What it is, who hosts, and where it is held depends on the time of year.  The external appearance of the Faire is selling well-known commodity goods: one week is cloth, another is spices, another leather and other durable goods.  Merchants travel over incredible distances marked with the occasional Random Encounter to make it here to unload from all over the known world and over it all a rich and powerful Lord who makes it happen with the guarantees of security and law.  It’s his Law but his Law is he gets his tax.  As long as no one sets the entire town on fire and brings the Lord into it, he’s fine with whatever nonsense happens.

No one sells magic items in the open here, either, but the party can lay hands on some seriously upgraded pieces of mundane equipment if necessary.  At night, behind the tents and in the bars, people settle their accounts and the interesting goods exchange hands.

By knowing a guy, having a letter of introduction, getting the right people drunk, surviving a few fist fights, and generally running around depraved, it’s possible to find the magic items broker.  The party will bump into a bunch of other guys, too.  Nothing is ever simple on the quest to unload a pair of slightly magical boots:

Someone from one of the Wizard Craft Guilds is attending the Faire looking for the same sets of background deal brokers to unload their magic items into circulation.  (How else do they make their way into dungeons and random treasure tables?) The Wizard Craft Guilds aren’t like a small peaceful peasant village Shoemaker’s Guild.  These are guys with money, muscle, and agents to move their merchandise.  And these aren’t the Wizards themselves, of course – no self-respecting Wizard is going to come out of his tower to sell at some Faire. That would mean getting dirty.  This is a broker’s broker with his own set of thugs. And they want to know why this party is selling strange, foreign magic boots with a different wizard’s mark than their Guild into circulation.  

    • Is the party now magic boot-making competition? 
    • Is there a collect and resell effort from foreign points going on to dilute the list prices of magic items? 
    • Are the local wizards of the Wizard Craft Guild being scammed?

Maybe what the party needs is a visit from the broker’s local group of armed friends, in the cover of darkness, behind the bar.  Because while the party may not have to go, the boots certainly do. 

The black market gets whiff there’s some action in the magic items area and, unlike the rubes back home, these are guys who know how to move magic items and get them into the hands of discerning dealers.  Sure the party might be running from the thugs behind the Wizards Craft Guild but here’s a friend – really! a friend! – who only wants to get the best price for the boots for his quiet, discerning client.  This is safe. This is clean.  No Guilds involved at all except for Ours but you don’t need to know about that.  This will move the boots and sell them to a discrete buyer.  The Necromatic Arch Lich and his Legions of Terrifying Evil who simply need high quality footwear as they trample on the necks of the local populance.  You know how it is.

Running amok away from the thieves’s guild and the wizard craft guild, the party draws the attention of the local Merchant’s Guild who both try to turn a blind eye to all sorts of shenanigans but if inns start getting burnt to the ground, they’re both going to get wary. Luckily for the party, the local Merchant’s Guild is on a whole different playing field than the local Merchant’s Guild of the small town. These guys finance entire armies for rich patrons.  They have their own set of mercantile laws that have nothing whatsoever to do with local Law, or the Lord’s Law, or laws from the local Temple. These guys are judge, jury, executioner, and the entire local government.  We leave that for now, because the Merchant’s Guild wants to see if the party lives.  If they do, there might be something in it for them.

And after lighting some bar on fire while running out, the party hooks up with their guy.  They have wizard guild thugs after them.  Black market mafia thugs after them after breaking their deal to sell the boots.  They got beer all over their new leathers.  Letters of introduction are exchanged. In a room in quite another inn across town, the magic item broker looks at the boots, looks at the wizards mark in the sole, and he tells you his fee for moving the boots is 37%.  At a list price of 5500gp, he’s going to take a little over 2000gp from the party for the price of taking those boots off the party’s hands.  Good magic item laundering service is expensive.

In a time of craft guilds, merchant guilds, organizational guilds, nobility, and wizards in towers protected by armies of thugs, it’s hard to move foreign merchandise.  No one wants to accept the risk of explaining where the item came from.  And all the rich guilds have their form of muscle and protection.  This is all to say, one can get mileage out of a pair of boots rolled off a dead goblin. And maybe in the end it is easiest just to pull the soles and unload them on the peddler.  It’s cheaper that way. 

The Faire is based on the Champagne Faires, a thing that happened before the rise of the Hanseatic League and a tribute to the absolute determination, in the face of Kings and Guilds, to turn a buck.