Ars Gratia Pecuniae: Art, Magic, Murder Hobos, and Cash

A Beholder Killed Our Friends And…

guild seal“It’s an early Puliarus’ Wand of Fear,” the Bard told the Artificer.  The Rogue next to her nodded encouragement.  Two wore their least dirty clothing. Somewhere along the way, they found a bath and no longer stank.  “You can see his signature on the wand.  See the exquisite markings along the shaft?  These early neo-classic designs carved into wand itself belays the true emotion of Fear, and we all know Puliarus is…”

“It’s expended,” the Artificer said and gave the duo a look.  “And it’s not even a wand.  It’s a stick.”

“The Diviner’s Kiosk identified it as a Wand of Fear,” the Bard insisted.

“Did he now,” the Artificer said.

The Bard and Rogue were the last survivors of an unfortunate adventure group who pushed their luck too far.  Four days ago, their team, a Fighter, a Cleric, a Wizard, and these two met with an Old Man in an Inn. The Old Man told them about the dungeon outside of town.  Clear it, he said, and keep what you find within.  Return for a cash reward.  The Old Man didn’t bother to tell the team about the Beholder waiting patiently in the treasure chamber.

Three good hits with a disintegration ray later, and the Bard and Rogue stood in one of the many Halls of the Guild of Artificers trying to unload their magic items for cash hoping to rebuild their team and exact revenge.

Legend Lore gave the Bard useful information about the few magic items the Rogue managed to three finger discount from the treasure chamber before they fled screaming from the dungeon.  The Bard knew faintly Puliarus was an artificer wizard.  According to vague rumor, his work was highly collectible in some circles.  The two hoped this information would gin up the price a little.

They also didn’t mention they used the wand on the way out but clearly they weren’t getting away with that.

This did not perturb the overweight Artificer wizard who held Puliarus’s Wand of Fear with surprising delicacy in his meaty hands. “What was the name of the dungeon, again?”

“The Dark Hive of the Indomitable,” the Bard said.

“I will accept this.  12,500,” the Artificer said after several moments of contemplation.  He set the wand back on the crystal display stand. “My only price.  I cannot offer you any more. It’s expended, you see.  You may see payments on the way out.  And please, don’t let yourselves be seen exiting the establishment?  The back door.  Should you wish to use our services in the future. We maintain a high quality of patrons here.”

They took their money. The Rogue had a niggling feeling the most mundane and least interesting of wizards ripped them off somehow.  But she couldn’t place a finger.

The Guild of Artificers took their tale of the dungeon, the beholder, the three tragically dead heroes, and the wand’s creator and packaged into a story. A week later, they sold it to a most discerning collector for 40K gold.   The Guild of Artificers took their hefty percentage for the transaction.

Why leave home when riches can come to you?

The Patronage System

In the beginning, the Guild of Artificers was a tiny Guild crushed beneath the greater Wizarding Schools and Guilds. Considered the mundane, filthy, hands-on workaday Guild of Wizards, they were lower in stature and prestige than the Necromancers, the Transmuters, the Enchanters, and the Diviners.  Where the other schools did science and research and warred among themselves, the Guild of Artificers kept their heads down, performed delicate engineering feats and created magic items of great utility.  They worked with their hands.  They smelted iron.  They worked glass.

The Artificers enabled the Murder Hobo economy.  The Journeymen Artificers – the majority of the members – made items for sale for the Great Fairs and the worldwide Magic Shop chains.  They stamped their Guild seal on potions of invisibility, wands of magic missile, +1 magic weapons, and other staples of the Murder Hobo trade.  They equipped Fighters and Paladins. They made money.  Not great money, but money.

To ensure Guild quality over their craft, the Guild rigorously maintained price lists and enforced price parity for their items.  A Potion of Slow, for example, cost the same regardless of make, manufacturer, or the seller’s location.  To ruthlessly protect their paltry merchant’s monopoly, they often burned down local haberdasheries who sold their items at a discount, murdered scab Artificers, and blackballed black market secondary buyers.  Either buy Guild of Artificer magic items from their tents and their makers or go without.

Most chose to buy from the Guild than go without.

A few Guild Masters broke out as stars.  These produced the highest of the high-end magic items – the Sun Swords, the Avenging Horns, the Rods of Resurrection.  But these items required intensely rare and expensive materials to produce.  Lords, fabulously wealthy merchants,  and other rich wizards extended a patronage model to these few Guild Masters.

Patrons paid Murder Hobos to adventure and return materials back to the Artificer Master. In return, patrons kept the final product, extremely high-end magic items, in their exclusive collections.  This worked for a while and the Patron age produced such fabulous magical works as Clementia’s Robe of the Arch Magi, Libra Mentum’s Deck of Many Things and Nikolas’s Portable Hole.  The artist earned enough money to live comfortably and hire his or her own apprentices and journeymen to pass down the secrets. But, ultimately, the works produced belonged to the powerful and the wealthy.

Reliance on the whims of patrons limited Magic Items crafted by the Greats.  After centuries of wars waged using the fruits of their labor, the Artificers dispensed with the patronage model.   Too few of their artists became Great Masters and too little money flowed directly into their pockets. Yes, their network of store fronts and traveling tents made the Guild a tidy profit, but they reabsorbed those profits into material costs. If their works were so critical to the Murder Hobo economy, they should keep all the profits.

The Artificers abandoned their Patrons and shifted to a direct sales model for their Greatest and Most Powerful Works.

The Great Galleries

As successful Murder Hobos matriculated out of the Murder Hobo trade and into retirement, they needed to invest their piles of monster-rolled gold.   The Guild of Artificers had the thing.  While great Kings may debase their currency to pay for their endless wars and lesser Murder Hobos may cause intense inflation from occasionally dropping dragon hoards on local economies, magic items never lose their value as long as the Guild of Artificers maintained their monopolistic grip over the purchase and sales of magic items.  The rich moved their unstable assets into magic items and guaranteed their money was safe from the roving eyes of greedy taxmen.  And who knows, maybe outfitting Junior with that Ring of Protection +2 and that Elven Chainmail could produce another Legendary Hero in the same vein as Dear Old Mom and Dad.

That wasn’t enough.  That wasn’t moving their inventory.  The Guild of Artificers needed a hook. Something to make magic items more than items to toss into some forgotten vault as a safe asset investment.

They made magic items intensely collectible.

They made them objects of desire to the super rich, idle, and bored.

The Patrons became the customer.

Sure, Clementia made this magnificent Robe of the Arch Magi but did you know it was during her blue period?   This is one of only three pieces crafted by her hands during this period – look at the amazing beadwork.  And did you know it was lost for many years and re-discovered by Hrolfgar the One-Eyed Evoker after an extended battle with a Celestial Half-Dragon Lammasu on Mountain Gird’s rocky summit?  Price?  What do you mean… price?

The Guild of Artificers only post prices for the lower,  lesser magic items.  Something like Clementia’s Robe of the Arch Magi is almost beyond price.  The discerning buyer requires an attentive touch.  Artificers discuss filthy money only after a magnificent dinner and over post-consumption aperitifs. Entirely on the Guild’s dime, of course.

In the place of the old magic storefronts, the Artificers built great galleries.  They were beautiful architectural works. The Artificers hung magic items in glass cases.   They removed all the prices and, except for the common items, made their magic item price list a Guild secret.  They protected their prices with threats of expulsion, disintegration, un-death, and Flesh to Stone.

But, as the Guild of Artificers learned, mystery, Bardic word of mouth and their Legend Lore spells was not enough to create the intense demand in collectibility they craved.  Certainly, works of the Great Masters from the patronage period were worth entire vaults of gold, but these were rare and the Great Masters, being Great Masters, had long passed. Wealthy retired Murder Hobos were not buying new art.  They wanted the old stuff.

The Artificers were not, as they said, filling the funnel.

The Guild of Artificers looked at their gold piles from their previous sales and their burned down inventories and decided it was time to invest in journeyman artists.  They would take their hands, guide their careers, and make them famous.  Unlike the other Wizarding Guilds who make promotion to Master a province of age, heredity and intense wizard politics, the Guild of Artificers opened up their ranks to intense promotion.  Just like they crafted magic items from Mithril and Adamantium, they crafted new Masters.

They created hot new magic item brands super rich Murder Hobos craved.

Artist Branding

Engineers all, the Guild of Artificers turned their attention away from the hands-on work of crafting magic items and galleries to the more interesting dungeon crafting work.  Why be small-minded about their art?   They built performances around the wands, staves, swords, and shields they made. The adventure is the art.

They created great underground tunnels of multiple levels in the current avant-garde Post-Modern Eclectic Dungeon style.

They weaved together the stuff of traps and deadfalls into great emotional tales.

They bribed tribes of hobgoblins with the promise of the dungeons as military forts to craft a point about the wider meaning of military force in an adventuring context.

They hired Summoners (those filthy beggars) to fill their dungeons with only the best and most stylish deadly creatures of the Planes.

In the treasure hoards, the Guilds of Artificers planted their best and most attractive pieces.

They bribed Bards to spread the story of the dungeon and its hidden treasure far and wide.

Then, as a coupe de grace of true conceptual performance art, the Guild of Artificers built Inns and Magic Item Guild stores around the mouths of these new dungeons and staffed them with journeymen Artificers, magical blacksmiths and Old Men quest-givers.  They even wrote scripts with highlighted dialogue.

And then the Artificers sat back and waited.

Murder Hobo team – or, preferably, many Murder Hobo teams – entering the dungeon and dying horribly added to the magic item’s story.   The more Murder Hobos died, the greater the story and the desire.   And, when a Great Hero emerged with the item and used it in a greater battle told in legend and lore, the young Artificer’s brand grew and grew.

While word of the dungeons leaked out into greater society, the Artificers took their most discerning and wealthy customers into their private collections.  Yes, while Ydium’s Staff lays in the notorious Cavern of the Shadow Tyrant waiting for release, allow us to show you some of Ydium’s other, less famous work.   He’s quite young but very prolific.  Once some wizard releases his staff from the Shadow Tyrant – a nasty character with his own story perhaps you would like to hear? – all Ydium’s work will increase in value.  Now is the time to invest.

Ydium is so fashionable this year.  Everyone wants Ydium in their collections.

And they buy.

Pularius is So Hot

This story returns to Pularius’s wand, the Bard and Rogue, their unfortunate party and that final sale.  The Guild of Artificers planted that wand in that dungeon a decade before.   They knew the wand was Pularius’s early work.  It was his project to graduate from a mere journeyman crafting Hats of Disguise to real works of magical art.  The discharge was no issue.  Pularius could easily refill it, as, unlike the Old Great Masters, he was a now middle-aged gnome and lived in an artist loft up the block with a team of assistants.

As for the Bard and Rogue, they were savvy enough to know what was up with the magic item economy.  Selling under the table would net them a better price but at great personal cost.  Had they sold Pularius’ Wand of Fear through some non-Artificer secondary market, like the black market or between Murder Hobos in some seedy backroom Inn, word would get to the Artificers.  It always did.  The Artificers cultivated deep connections with the Thieves’ Guild (their favorite method of money laundering) and they owned the local quest givers.

The Artificers maintained careful lists of those who sold magic items outside their system. They blackballed sellers from even the simplest traveling wagon or Fair tent.  No more cloaks of invisibility, no more wands of fireball, no more magic items at all – unless gotten, of course, on adventure and in dungeons, which fed, ultimately, back to the Artificers.

The Bard and Rogue wanted to return to the beholder who disintegrated their friends.   They wanted vengeance and vengeance added to the Wand’s story.  They played the gallery game.  The Artificers handed over gold cash for the Wand and sent the two on their way.  Good luck, and may the beholder disintegrate more Murder Hobos friends.

That beholder was a fabulous Guild investment. The Artificers congratulated themselves for their taste.

Known party death meant everyone desired Pularius’ work.  See, Murder Hobos died for this exquisite wand.  A bit of Bard bribery, flash on the gallery floor, a whisper at a dinner party, comments in the right circles, an arranged showing at a Great Fair and Pularius was a hot, hot, hot magic item brand.

That story alone added an extra 10% to the wand’s sale price.  The party’s death in the dungeon was part of the piece’s overall performance.

Pularius, feted as a new Great Artist and Master Artificer at parties and shows, considered himself lucky. Had Pularius’ wand lay lost in a hoard, forgotten, at the bottom of some unloved dungeon for centuries, the super rich would not buy his current, more dynamic work. Galleries, unwilling to sell magic items at their true list prices, would drop him.  He would go bankrupt. He would be forced to craft Wands of Magic Missile for sale at Magic Shops (properly licensed by the Guild of Artificers) to low-level Murder Hobos for cheap on their way into dungeons to create other Artificer brands.

But he avoided that sad Fate and instead drank champagne from flutes at ritzy parties.

Not so much the fate of the Murder Hobos who unknowingly pursued Pularius’ hot art, some successful, some not.  Murder Hobos used the magic items in great battle, and died, making Pularius, and the Guild of Artificers, desirable to the super rich, the powerful, and magically commanding.  The Guild of Artificers won, everyone made money, and more or less lived happily ever after unless disintegrated by beholders, disemboweled by the undead, limbs sheered off by displacer beasts, or heads smashed in by Front Giants in the name of Great Art.

Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. So, when do I get to buy your campaign setting? Or will weaving these tales of economic adventure help to increase your brand strength 😉
    Seriously, this series is so effing good. A highlight of my week.

    • This is just a weekly exercise to increase my overall brand strength. When it’s high enough I will compile these, place them in a treasure hoard, and then set up adventurers to go retrieve them at great peril! Then once they are read they will be the _wisdom of the ages_.

      Also, thanks for the complement! It’s hugely appreciated. 🙂

  2. What is the relation of the Artificer Guild with the Diviners Guild? Are they rival on the magic item market? They have a cartel over magic item crafting? The Artificer produce and the Diviners distribute?

    My mind keep blowing!

    • In my head, where unfortunately the map lives, it works like this:

      * The Diviners essentially track magic item use across everyone they access. So if you hand over Pulinius’s Wand of Fire to an Diviner for identification they will note who you are and that you had at some point a Wand of Fire. They will collate that information into an overall map.

      * The Artificers are creating items at a high clip to essentially generate “item brands.” They are trying to generate the Air Jordans of magic swords and then manipulating the market for their own financial gains.

      I would say they’re rivals but it’s more subtle than simply market mechanics. The Diviners have in their Black Rooms entire dossiers on various Popular Artificers and their plans and the Artificers are throwing flack to confuse the Diviner’s information with flack.

      This might be worth exploring in a 2K form, actually.

  3. As a fellow writer, I have to say that your work is utterly inspiring. The spin you put on things and the angle you take is refreshing, creative, new, and most importantly, entrapping. I love it, and now have the urge to write some more.

  4. Brandon Van Every says:

    Yikes it’s the computer game industry! This is a direct allegory of your experience on MMOs, right?


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