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.

Comments

  1. Pat Gamblin says:

    Now I’m thinking of Modrons as the Auditors of Reality from Discworld.

  2. multiplexer says:

    There’s a bunch of super fun and interesting directions to take the Modrons. Since what the Modrons do on their march and, really, in general is undefined, we can do all sorts of fun things with them. Also, Modrons! They’re the best.

  3. Matt Johnson says:

    As much as I like Modrons… I submit the possibility that you are over thinking what is meant to be an abstraction… it’s less about the actual gold dust or gem than it is about the cost to the player, and regulating how often they can cast the spell.

    • Sanjay Merchant says:

      Well, yeah, that’s the Doylist (out of character) explanation, but coming up with Watsonian (in character) explanations for such things is fun!

    • I agree–the $GP value of items (and this includes things like reagents for Identify) is ICly not directly related to or relevant for purposes of casting. The value is a guideline to allow players to abstract the process of shopping. The character, the one who knows the real spell, and how it really works, rather than the PHB abstract, is capable of judging whether a reagent appears suitable for a spell or not (unless, perhaps, there’s hanky-panky going on like fake reagents that require a roll…).

  4. EmanantVolition says:

    This is, quite possibly, the most outstanding gaming blog I’ve stumbled onto all year. +100 points to house multiplexer.

  5. EmanantVolition says:

    I know you said you ultimately hand-waved the 1gp = $10 formula, but I’d really like to hear more about how you settled on this conversion. I tend to get prices conversions with a floor of $100 looking at things like “cost of a cow/goat” or “cost of a lb. of saffron.” Going just by gold $/toz of around $1200 gets you $400/gp if each gp is 1/3rd of an ounce, although I’m not sure how reasonable the gold to gold comparison really is.

    • Sanjay Merchant says:

      Well, I guess you could look at the weight of a typical D&D coin and compare that to current real-world gold prices. It says something about the age of the internet that I consider the hard part of that process to be getting up and crossing the room to retrieve my Player’s Handbook.

    • 50GP=1lb., at least since 3E.

  6. Chris Edwards says:

    As far as I can tell, though, the diamond isn’t used up for casting Chromatic Orb. Wouldn’t that mean that many if not most diamonds suitable for Chromatic Orb (given their relative durability) simply continue to circulate? I think they’d have to have a policy of actually destroying suitable diamonds to ensure that the price remained buoyant.