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!

  • Tom

    Obviously, the solution was to set up a co-operative with the fish people. The murder hobos act as muscle while the fish people harvest and sell the pearls by and for themselves. They could even make a few deals with the Wizard Guilds — “Fair Trade Pearls” is an easy way to make your activities seem better without actually doing anything.

  • Matt Popke

    Honestly, this is the best post you’ve written so far. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your earlier posts, and they’re fantastic food for thought for GMs seeking to make their campaigns a little deeper, but this is the most fully-realized concept you’ve posted yet. Were I not already running an Edge of the Empire campaign (seriously, Star Wars’ oversimplified political and economic structures make for some fun speculation) I would drop everything, take the core of this idea and immediately start running it. It has all the best parts of an RPG campaign, an overarching problem and set of nemeses that develop as the characters do, a feeling of accomplishment accompanied by a constant need to improve (addictive), and even some kingdom building to sprinkle on top. This GM isn’t evil. They’re brilliant.

  • Doctor Q

    This article is just brilliant. Well done.

  • Jeb

    Of course, much of the demand for pearls is driven by the Murder Hobos use of Identify spells. A realization that completes the circle as the band of heroes realize that their role in leading the slavers to enslave the fish folk.

  • Charles Akins

    This post is really good! I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week Series for February 1-7, 2015.

  • Marty Walser

    Solution: Exterminate clams.

  • Ernst

    Excelent post!!!
    Although (As a player – a wizard at that JEB) I would state, that the supreme act of goodness – and the solution to all the problems – would be to eliminate the hart of darkness, the evil above all.

    I say kill the GM.

  • Matthew Reynolds

    I agree with Tom. For murder hobos, there is an easy solution to the problem here.

    Form an alliance with the fish people. Allow the fish people to keep the majority profits of their pearl farming operations. Arm the fish persons and supply them equal protection under the law – at least as far as you can extend your dominion.

    As the murder hobos muscle the slavers out of the business, they leave behind independent pearl harvesters/farmers. It’s entirely possible that pearl production will actually increase, as workers who receive the wages of their own work tend to be much more productive than slaves and tend to organize much more productive pearl harvesting/farming techniques. At the very least, a free fish person doesn’t have to be constrained while they do their farming (think about how air breathers would have to control water breathers). And note, unlike human slaves, pearl farming among the fish persons does not represent a particularly hazardous occupation, at least when they don’t have chains on. Slaves are often used in situations where quality of life is low, but for the first person they are presumably well adapted to the aquatic environment and can avoid most or all of the hazards of diving. It’s possible that the freeing of the slaves might drive the price of pearls down, which in turn drives the price of slaves down, which in turn drives hobgoblins out of the slaving business (and probably into piracy, as its now more profitable to try to steal the pearls after they are harvested). Also note that arming the fish persons drives the opportunity cost of slaving up, driving more hobgoblins out of the business.

    The apartied situation is actually very unlikely if the pearl farmers actually control the resource inherently. The price of peals will be largely driven by how much value the fish folk place in farming, which will be corrected in large part by market forces. If the fish folk don’t enjoy pearl farming, then the price of pearls rises until enough fish folk has the incentive to farm pearls.

    The main dangers I see are:

    1) Fish folk aren’t human. If the fish folk don’t have understandable motivations – maybe they have no desire for any material possessions, and as such market forces break down. Or maybe they want nothing that the landdwellers can supply (which seems unlikely, but again, not human). Or maybe they are morally opposed to harvesting pearls.
    2) Conversely, happy pearl harvesting fish farmers drive pearl producing oysters to extinction by harvesting them too well. Better have the druid start teaching sustainability to the fish folk
    3) Vested interests in slavery recognize the threat long before the PC’s have the force to resist them and the PC’s make major enemies well before they are able to resist them.

    Assuming #1 isn’t true, and fish folk don’t mind pearl farming, the price of pearls is unlikely to rise astronomically.

    Historically, the big problem with freedom is it meant the percentage profits at the top went down, which might mean that the government of Goodsville doesn’t have the money that the government of Badland has, which means Badland might be induced to make war on Goodsville leveraging its greater income. Until firearms came along, free citizens tended to loose to well armed elite military aristocracies. So does the more equitable distribution of wealth actually led to a society that can protect itself from invasion?

    • Michael Kelley

      If the price of pearls drops below 100 each, they can’t be used for identify spells. Of course I the wizard can always pay 100, and presumably it would work.

      • Matthew Reynolds

        I think it is safe to assume that the prices in the PH assume a stable economy without large changes in the value of commodities. A reasonable DM with a group showing any interest in economics at all is going to allow the PC to find ways to pay for reagents or obtain adventuring supplies at below market prices. In fact, to a certain extent I allow this already, since I allow the players to make a charisma check in order to bargain for favorable (or unfavorable) prices. So the parties very diplomatic cleric might very well be able to get a jeweler to part for a pearl worth 100 g.p. retail for a mere 60 g.p. Heck, which a good roll, she might get the merchant to take a one time loss on a pearl. So I wouldn’t particularly object to a PC party getting into the pearl farming business and if they did and were very successful one consequence could be a crash in the price of pearls as the PC’s begin to oversupply them in a previously stable market.

  • G. Branden Robinson

    Another possibility for the noble virtuous paladin dictator would be to debase the currency heavily. The rules say only that the pearl has to be “worth at least 100gp”. gp: gold pieces. Pieces of gold. The rules don’t specify what denomination, as minted by what kingdom, or any of that stuff.

    100gp can be a pretty subjective standard of value if you’ll let it.

  • James Harris

    See this is the flaw of static economic models, they can’t adequately explain historical change. Lead a slave revolt and kill dealers from the start. Any inflation caused will be due to imperfect competition as dealers become fewer, but ultimately as the revolt marches at their doors it will become irrelevant. The apartheid state? Well its not good, the pali loses all his abilities if that happens. Assuming the Party Oligarchs don’t get ganked by rival murder hobos, the identify spell just falls into disuse. People simply resort to other methods of identification which are cheaper than 100gp (they probably would anyway). Wizards have a very diverse portfolio of spells and can simply swap spells. A few sorcerers remain pissed about being stuck in a niche market, but there are rumors they have dragon blood so no one gives a damn.