The Incense War: a Story of Price Discovery, Mayhem, and Lust

The dragon stank.

Dragons sit on their gold hoard and spend millennia soaking in their own sulfurous stench.  They aren’t a big fan of bathing to begin with as it involves water and leaving the gold and rags and people and scrubbing and soap.  And this particular red dragon hadn’t made contact with a wet rag in almost a century.  The crippling smell wafted from cavern mouth, filled the outer building air, and tainted blankets, hair and clothing for miles around.  Everyone knew when the dragon was home because they smelled her.

Despite her entreaties, the dragon’s beloved Dragonborn Clan made elaborate excuses to avoid entering the cave and visiting with Great-Grandmother.  Over time, the visits slowed to a stop. The dragon was lonely and sad.

Sad dragons are dangerous dragons.  To preserve their way of life, the dragon and her Dragonborn cooked up a compromise. It was easy, it would work, it required fire and money, something they had in abundance, and Great-Grandmother could avoid the indignity of a bath.  All dragons and their Dragonborn would benefit.

The Dragonborn set out on the road to buy incense in bulk.

With Truth and Fragrance for All

The God of Light watched the white smoke curl.

When frankincense burns over hot coals, it perfumes the air and fills rooms with perfect white smoky clouds.  The God of Light loved the heady, thick, perfumey smell. However, the priests rarely burned incense in the Temple; it was a rare and expensive commodity. Instead, the priests spent the money collected from the parishioners on other, higher priorities: hospitals, poor houses, orphanages, training new priests, and 45’ tall gilded God statues on the Temple front lawn.  Burning incense was a treat, not a requirement, for worship for their Glorious Glowing God.

The God of Light thought: this was all well and good that the priests set their priorities on the poor and infirm and giant gold statues (the God loved those statues as they glittered and were just so big) but the God of Light wanted to see the white smoke curl.  He wanted more incense in his Temples. And not some more.  More.

The God of Light sent a Holy Revelation down to one of his powerful priests.  Now, priest, you are a Paladin. You have a new holy mission!  We have a new dictate for the Faith.  A Crusade!  Go Go Go!  Go to the southern Trading City!

And so the new Paladin went.

Incensed at the Price

It takes ten years for the Boswellia Sacra to grow to maturity and provide a steady flow of frankincense sap.  Even when it does take root, grow, and finally produce useful product, the tree insists on growing in the most inhospitable areas of the world – rocky, mountainous, hot deserts.  Few people survive in the tree’s main growth band to harvest the sap, dry it, package it, and ship it across dunes to far away trade hubs.  Fewer ride with the caravanserai across the desert to risk bandits, disease and death, and to sell it to middle men merchants. This is why incense, core of perfumes and candles, is an expensive luxury good. It is high risk, high reward.

Although it experienced a sudden severe jump in demand, frankincense had no hope of scaling its supply.  It simply was not possible. The amount available at any one time in the world was strongly limited.  So when the priests and the Dragonborn both sent agents to scour towns and cities for incense and purchase it in bulk, merchants naturally began a fun round of price discovery.  Both new buyers entering the market had deep pockets and an infinite capacity for incense lust.  Dragon hoards and Temple treasury rooms rapidly decamped to the bank accounts of incense merchants.

The merchants asked: how much are these new deep-pocked buyers willing to pay for this incense over the normal, average incense cost to satisfy their needs?  10x more? 50x more?  100x more?

100x sounds good.

Theoretically the price curve should follow the limited supply but not everyone in this story is a rational actor. People have an infinite capacity for speculation and optimism while having poor risk judgment. Seeing a way to make a quick buck, incense’s price jumped again as speculators entered the market.  There’s a fortune to be made in investing, buying, and hording incense, you see.  Buy it, sit on it for six months, and unload it.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Like other luxury commodities with limited supply sensitive to the number of buyers like nutmeg, beanie babies and cryptocurrencies, the bubble inflated. More determined buyers pushed the price up.  Bankers released some easy and liquid money into the economy.

Raiding became cheaper than buying incense direct. Dragons hired intelligent demi-human raiders to attack the priests on the road between the southern Trading City and their Temples.  Orks were plentiful, greedy, and kind of dumb.  In response, Temples hired and equipped Murder Hobos to murder the orks.  Murder Hobos were also plentiful, greedy, and kind of dumb. So, at the loss of ork raiders, the dragons hired hobgoblin hordes. The Murder Hobos who survived leveled up. The Temples replaced and armed more Murder Hobos. The dragons summoned Githyanki from the Plane of Limbo. Murder Hobos took offensive action and raided outlying dragon lairs.  The Dragonborn Sorcerers felt twinges of loyalty issues.

Neither dragon nor God stood down.  Now it was about principle.

Aromatic Crusades

Bards, no longer able to cast Legend Lore due to lack of physical components, fanned the flames of the incense war.  If they couldn’t cast their spells at least they got a good story out of it. A war over a marginal luxury commodity transformed into a fight of Good vs. Evil with the world, the entire world, hanging in the balance.  Stories. Drama. Battles. Heroes!

Because war was on. If one side eliminated the other, the winning side would dominate the incense trade. The price would deflate. Winners could feed the hungering needy maw of their masters. They could bask in heady perfumed smells.  The Temples of the God of Light rallied the city people to their side. The dragon and the Dragonborn called upon the demi-humans of the wild.  The skies darkened with the banners of endless armies.

No compromise.

No treaty.

No peace.

The dragon sent her army to the towns.  Dark hordes burned and looted across the land, laying siege to the towns and putting the God of Light’s Temples to the torch.  Fewer temples meant the God of Light required less incense.

In response, the Temples sent their elite Murder Hobos on missions into the goblin and ork lairs to commit a kind of pre-emptive demi-human genocide.

Goblin armies set small towns on fire and Murder Hobos burned goblin towns down to the last goblin child in the name of Good, Peace, and Kingdom. The world spun out of control. More armies, more town sieges, more burnt Temples, more grand Murder Hobo heroics and final boss fights.

Murder Hobos reached 15th level. They eyed the dragon caves.

The Dragonborn and the priests both separately yet simultaneously realized, if either side controlled the supply of incense, they could expand militarily to monopolize the entire trade route.  Instead of attacking each other’s strongholds to knock out a competitor in a market, they could invade the southern Trading City.  They could command the caravansaries.  They could expand their control all the way down across the desert to the source of the frankincense.  Invasion would sate their infinite incense lusts.

The inhabitants, realizing war was coming to them in a very real and ugly way, bribed both sides.  They said: How about that Trading City over there?  That one looks pretty cool.  And rich!  So rich.  Maybe you like giant vats of gold?  How about slaves?  We can get you slaves!

But no.  This was the site of the great epic battle.   The battle to shake the world.  The battle to determine the course of history.  The dragon and her Dragonborn were evil!   The Paladin and the priests of the God of LIght were good!

The people of the southern Trading City were screwed.

Gold, Frankincense, and Murder Hobos

It’s bad enough when one army sacks a city but two leave nothing but destruction, devastation, and blood inches deep running through the streets.  When the battle was over and the dust cleared, the dragon’s army won its pyrrhic victory and control of the southern Trading City.  The Trading City’s citizens were dead.  The merchants fled.  Incense warehouses sacked. Evil triumphed at this critical juncture.  The world quaked.  The Bards sung songs.

And, for a little while, the dragon’s cave smelled amazing.

The Dragonborn suggested, as they had won, they pursue peace. They had what they came for.  They had control of the incense supply.  They would walk around the mountain without wearing masks.  Great-Grandmother dragon smelled great.  They would force the merchants to come under their control and sell what was left of the supply for Dragonborn-set prices.    What was left of the gold hoard– not much, really – was safe.  Why not seek and find peace with the God of Light?

The God of Light was enraged.  He demanded his priests fill his Temples with little perfect curls of white smoke at all costs.  And the speculators weren’t ready to lose their investments on peace talks.  They sided with militant religion.  Peace?  What peace?  The Paladin’s army ensured this wasn’t over.  The world would see no peace until Good defeated the dragon.  That’s why the Paladin slaughtered the Dragonborn emissaries.

The war dragged on another year.  The dragon sought to expand territory to secure control of the incense trade routes. The Paladin took it away.   The Paladin claimed other, smaller, less important Trading Cities and the dragon laid siege.   The borders between the two armies shifted back and forth over the sands.  This was no longer about incense but about territory. 

Murder Hobos, living on steady diet of adventure, climbed to level 20.

This war would have dragged on until one side or the other was financially exhausted.  Except the Murder Hobos, at the pinnacle of their adventure, climbed the mountain, fought their way through waves of demi-human guards, slaughtered the Dragonborn Clan, and killed Great-Grandmother dragon.  They took the incense and the last of the dragon’s hoard.  When they spent the dragon’s hoard, the local economy crashed.  But that is, as they say, rather another story.

Good won. Evil lost.  The God of Light got his perfect white curls of perfumed smoke in every Temple.

Without the dragon pumping up the price with her voracious bottomless appetite for perfumes, the entire incense bubble collapsed.  Speculators, traders, and merchants lost their pants.  Meanwhile, the Church started wars with the traders and incense manufacturers to forge an intractable incense monopoly. The Paladin declared his Crusade a success.

Slowly, as prices recalibrated and their new, monopolistic levels, Bards could buy 250gp of incense (which, for a long time, was a microscopic dot) to again cast Legend Lore.  Gods and Modrons recalibrated their magic reagent prices. The Murder Hobos went down in history as heroes.  The dragon and Dragonborn, horrible villains.

And the Transmuter Bankers quietly divested from the incense market.

Comments

  1. “Hey there, God of Light, what’s this epic battle you’re going on with?”
    “Oh, hello, Goddess of Plants, I’m just telling this jumped-up lizard they can’t mess with my supply of frankincense.”
    “Frankincense? You mean this tree sap?” *causes gallons of the stuff to pour forth from her hands*
    “Ah…yes…that.”
    “Did you just want some? We could probably work out a small trade.”

  2. I tried something similar in my first Ars Magica game. Seemed simple enough to give an abundant relative of saffron the qualities of saffron in taste. It ended up in a trade war with spice merchant consortia. Economics are hard.

  3. Or, the dragonborn tell their Great Grandmother, “Incense is sssssoo expenssssive.” and she has them research a spell to duplicate the effects. But then we don’t get cool stories. 🙂

  4. Great story, as always!

  5. Brandon Van Every says:

    Amusing! But also based on “for want of a nail….” There are a bazillion substances other than frankincense that reduce dragon smells or produce little curly smokes. Sagebrush, from the North American west, historically did both jobs. It grows cheaply on the ground nearly everywhere in that part of the world. Being cheap didn’t stop it from being assigned ritual significance; in fact, being cheap may have facilitated that, since rituals could be easily sustained. First thing I thought of for dealing with stinky dragon, was pine needles. Second, potpourri. Maybe they would have had a war over citrus groves but there’s still other plants.
    This of course completely leaving aside the magical solutions, the assumption that the need must be met with naturally occurring sources. Alchemists may have come up with nifty smelling stuff, although then your story might have been about the negative effects of Volatile Organic Compounds.