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.

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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.

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

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.

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 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.

The Telegraph

David Plotz on last week’s Slate Political Podcast quoted this section of Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs as a bit of random trivia. This quote is a minor reminder that in American politics all that is old is eventually new again and the same few arguments come up again and again. If the telegraph is such a world-changing marvel in 1885, what is the Internet?

“The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and do his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented; sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze—but the application of stream to propel vessels against both wind and current, and machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances had changed as greatly as material ones. We could not and ought not to be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.”

– Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, Chapter XVI, Section 14

King Tut’s Chariots Marvels of Engineering

(Just a splat-share, but this is pretty awesome from a nerd standpoint.)

King Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, rode full speed over the desert dunes on a Formula One-like chariot, according to new investigations into the technical features of the boy king’s vehicle collection.

via King Tut’s Chariots Marvels of Engineering : Discovery News.

Extra Bonus Post!

1. I found a nice program called Calorie Tracker for the Droid (free) that backs to a massive database of restaurants and foods. It also has barcode search via the camera, tracking across all sorts of metrics (carbs, fat intake, etc), graphing, etc. My experience with trying to find out what is wrong with my diet is mostly one of data collection. Whatever it is, I’ll find it and stop eating it. Or at least find things I shouldn’t be eating in general and stop doing that.

2. I fell asleep watching this older documentary on the Dark Ages from the History Channel last night. Yay Netflix streaming to device that… I shouldn’t be in bed with but I was trying to stay up and failing. It occurs to me two interesting facts:

A. These documentaries are myopic. They completely leave out the existence of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. No mention is ever made that they tried to recover Rome through several invasions via southern Italy. All of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe simply disappears off the map. Leo the Great! The General Basiliscus! Zeno vs. the Ostragoths!

Oh… nevermind. No one gives luv to Constantinople.

B. If one wants to know what would happen in the case of a Zombie Invasion, study the Fall of Rome. Seriously! A decadent Empire is felled by invaders who take over the cities and force the few survivors to scrabble through the ruins to scratch out survival. Any moment a barbarian may appear and take people out with an axe (or a zombie virus). They never stop coming! To survive, the survivors collect next to the ruins of technological marvels they could never hope to replicate and strip them for parts. Aqueducts fail. Roads crumble. Bits of civilization holds out — the Roman Governor of Gaul held out for a breathtaking 70 years — before the barbarians (zombies) took out the last bit of existence.

I was so excited by the parallels last night I fell asleep. But don’t duplicate my example. Read a book! Or Wikipedia! The perfect blueprint for a Zombie Invasion — right from history!

Mythology and Wikipedia

This is the first time I am posting from my iPad. I’m seeing how it goes but if this becomes a habit I will need to start packing a travel keyboard.

I have started working on a small mythology-based project. I’m not sure where it is going to go and I get about thirty minutes a day to pick at it. It is not much time but thirty minutes a day starts to add up. I wanted to download Knowledge into my head but since my brain isn’t chipped yet for instant information transferral I went to wikipedia.

Now I know what bored people with phds in mythology or various cultures or library science do in their off-hours. Dude! I have several mythology books but save something like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology the articles in wikipedia are better than most reference books. I was shocked. They go on for pages and pages and are sourced to the nines.

The iPad’s Wikipanion app has been a real help. Not only does it do the fancy formatting but it bookmarks, follows links, and follows internal wikipedia links. Bookmarking is key.

So that’s that. If you haven’t looked up your favorite god, you should. The articles are impressive.