Bards, Lies, and Magic Items: The Mass-Producing Artificer Con

dungeon fiasco

The Tilt

The old Diviner was dead.

The Palace Guard found him face down stone cold dead in his rapidly cooling morning mush. Strangled. Few old men, even old Diviners, naturally strangled themselves when faced with another dull morning of mashed oats and a few sad, scattered raisins. The breakfast wasn’t that bad. But something was wrong with it.

A murderer was loose in the City. The Bard had suspicions she didn’t share with the Palace Guard.

In life, the Diviner was a crafty and nasty old bastard with a penchant for doing away with his enemies by a million tiny brutal cuts.  He’d served his Duke faithfully for decades.  He ran a spy ring feared across the countryside and maintained a network of the bribed and the talkative.  And he played a double game feeding the Duke’s information back to the Diviner’s Guild and their loathsome Black Chamber. The Duke believed the old Diviner was a slightly doddering old man who gave candy to children and cuddled puppies. Secretly, the man was a terror.

The Bard arrived in City months ago to infiltrate the Diviner’s secret circle and report back to her employers. And here he was. Dead.

Outside, the City streets filled with the shouts and songs of Murder Hobos. The Duke was taking his City to war against his rival, the hated Oligarchy.  He put out the call for mercenaries far and wide. He promised great rewards should the City succeed in destroying the Oligarchy (who was evil, yes, in the mouths of the Duke’s Bards). Already, Murder Hobos fanned the country side killing scout patrols, clearing the hills of rabid demi-humans, and seizing land from the nomadic orks. When the time came to fight the enemy, the Duke promised the Murder Hobos, every one of them, their own magic sword, free of charge.

The Murder Hobos in the Inns lifted their tankards to the Duke. “Duke, Duke, he gives us Loot!”

The Bard gazed down at her dead foe’s body. Things had gone bad. She slipped off and conferred with her two compatriots, the Eldritch Knight and the Trickster Rogue. Then, she cast Sending, reported in, and waited for next steps.

This is how it all went down.

The Setup

Like most stories, this one starts small.

On the edge of a sea stood a tiny port town. It had a single mud street, one Inn, and one warehouse. Outside the port town, farmers worked a series of small plots and cow pastures. Flat-bottomed boats regularly docked, bought the wheat and meat for sale, and returned to the Oligarchy to sell at market. This town had no great dungeon, no treasure lying under its huts, no great villain. This town had only wheat and cows.

City-States, being City-States, as they grow, cannot feed their population through the few farms outside their walls.  They require trade to bring food into their markets to fend off starvation and de-population. A network of external trading towns keeps the people fed and the city humming along. No one thinks much about these little port towns until two great, distant cities claim them.

The Duke and the Oligarchy both claimed the tiny port town. They shook their sabers at one another in Diplomatic Courts across the countryside. The Oligarchy claimed the port town by right of purchase and deed. The Duke claimed the port town by hereditary right. The Oligarchy announced they did not acknowledge such ridiculous statements as hereditary right when they had land right deeds. The Duke stated the port town was in his demesne.

Into this argument over lands and rights appeared the Artificer. Where she came from, no one knows. She claimed she left the Artificer’s Guild and their life of shallow emptiness and their endless pursuit of “meaning.”

The Artificer stood before the Duke. She said she possessed a marvelous power – a power forbidden by the Artificer’s Guild.  A power so great, should the secret leak out, the Artificers would go out of business. A power so great it would change the world! See, the Artificer knew the secret of crafting magic items in bulk. Instead of a single sword, the Artificer produced hundreds. No, thousands.  In a short time.

The old Diviner told the Duke he was skeptical. Such a thing was outside the bounds of magic.

But wait, the Artificer said. Let me make you a magic sword! Then you can judge my work. I will return tomorrow with a magic sword!

The Duke agreed to the experiment. The Artificer left Court and returned promptly the next day. The old Diviner identified the sword and agreed it was sufficiently magical. The Artificer gifted the sword to the Duke, which he accepted.

But wait! the Artificer said. I will craft ten magic swords! In a week! For you, my Duke. To keep. For your Palace Guards! The Artificer needed only 1000 gold to get started. Just a thousand gold.

The old Diviner looked skeptical. No wizard can craft ten magic swords in merely a week and certainly not for 1000 gold.

The Duke, consumed by lust and greed for the small trading port and a desire to destroy the Oligarchy, overrode the old Diviner and agreed. 1000 gold. Return to Court in a week, Artificer. If you succeed, we will negotiate. I don’t have to tell you about failure.

The Artificer left and returned to Court precisely a week later with ten magic swords. The old Diviner stood back, waved his hand, and cast Detect Magic. All ten swords glowed. The Diviner’s apprentices identified each sword while the Duke leaned forward, steepled his fingers and stared.

When the demonstration completed, the Duke asked what the Artificer needed. The Artificer, secretly deep in the hole for the ten swords she purchased in another town, told the Duke she needed money, blacksmiths, more money, extensive work space, and even more money.

The Duke sent the Artificer away and waffled for a day. Then, the Duke received a terrifying report from the old Diviner. The Oligarchy had hired Evokers. Without some equal weight on their side, the Duke would lose this war.   The old Diviner suggested they put out a call for Abjurers. Mass Protection from Fire

The Duke disagreed. He summoned the Artificer back to Court. I want all the magic swords, the Duke told the Artificer. You shall have money, men, and space. I need 10,000 magic swords. Immediately.

“Of course, your Grace,” the Artificer said.

The Artificer

The Duke went into debt.

The Artificer’s hunger for cash emptied the Duke’s treasury into the Artificer’s pockets. Yes, every day, the Artificer demonstrated progress, and the old Diviner sent his apprentices to the rapidly growing Weaponworks to prove the swords were real and magical. But every day, the Artificer also claimed she perched on the precipice of bankruptcy. See, making magic swords was expensive! If the Duke wanted his swords, the Duke needed to pay a little more gold.  And a little more. And a little more.

The Duke, desperate for money, opened loans with the hated Transmuter Bankers who were glad to lend him money at truly rapacious rates. The old Diviner tried to persuade the Duke to give up on this quest with the Artificer, stop borrowing money and hire bonded mercenaries instead.

But, the Duke was in too deep. He became paranoid. Not only was the Oligarchy with their Evokers (those hated Evokers) after him and his Blood-Granted Lands, but Bankers and the old Diviner were against him, too. Everyone was out to get him. The only way to stop this downward spiral into madness was War, and his friend the Artificer assured success.

And the Artificer’s Weaponworks produced swords at a breakneck pace. While the Duke gazed on, the Diviner’s apprentices stood over huge batches, waved their hands, and proclaimed them magical. Who cares if the swords were twisted metal strips with cloth wrapped around one end? Who cares if some of these swords weren’t swords at all but unbent horse shoes? They were magical dammit and everyone knows magic weapons are the best weapons.

The Artificer proclaimed the worst swords true works of sculptured Art. She brought Art, Culture and Martial Progress to the Duchy! See your Grace?

While the Artificer enjoyed a new, treasured place at Court and with all the rich of the City-State, the Duke fought viciously with the old Diviner. The Duke even wondered out loud about replacing his old, trusted advisor with the Artificer who brought him such success.

The Weaponworks

This is when the Bard and her two companions got involved.

In the dead of night, the Bard, Eldritch Knight, and Trickster Rogue broke into the Weaponsworks. Silently, they knocked out the guards. They disarmed the Artificer’s thoughtfully and artistically placed traps. They picked the enormous magic lock on the armory and snuck in.

The armory was full of twisted strips of metal hanging in racks.

The Bard drew and held one of the so-called magic swords. She cast Legend Lore. And she learned that, until last week, this so-called magic sword had experienced a fun and exciting life as a horse shoe, old nails, and part of a hoe.  The weaponsmiths smelted the iron into…this. Whatever it was, it wasn’t magic and it was hardly a sword.

The trio fanned out among the armory and, combining Detect Magic and Identify, found a few actually magic swords imbued with Magic Mouth and the rest merely twisted bits of metal. The Magic Mouth swords were ringers.

But the three, while they spied on the old Diviner and his circle of spies, witnessed, repeatedly, the Diviner’s apprentices casting Identify while the Duke watched.

The Eldritch Knight took up a slouching position at a table at a nearby Inn with visibility of the Weaponsmith’s main doors. The Bard and the Thief hid in darkness high in the rafters for the Weaponworks to open in the morning. And then nothing happened. No shiploads of swords, no Duke. When nothing paid out, they tried again the next morning. And then the next morning. They started to wonder if their information was incorrect. Until…

The Bard, Thief, and Knight watched the entire exchange from their different angles. Workers loaded random swords into a wagon. As it rolled through the Weaponworks doors for the approval of the Duke, the Artificer slipped a bag of coin into a Diviner’s apprentice’s hand. The Artificer then spoke a word. The Diviner’s apprentice hesitated, listening for the whispering Magic Mouth. Then the apprentice lifted one sword out of the batch, looking like a random pick, and cast Detect Magic on it. The Duke’s eyes lit with avarice. Then the Diviner’s apprentice cast Identify.  The sword identified as a +2 Long Sword, the Artificer pronounced the batch good.

The Duke waved a hand and a servant presented the Artificer with a chest of coins. The Artificer, now dressed in the richest robes and shoes the City-State provided, looked humble and self-effacing for a moment. Then, with grace, she accepted the coins.

“I knew it,” the Trickster Rogue said with no little amount of admiration.

Two days later, the old Diviner was dead, face down in his morning Wheaties.

It Crashes Down

The Bard figured the situation was this:

  • The Duke, paranoid about the Oligarchy and their Evokers, decided he had the upper hand and was going to War.
  • Yet, the Duke was the proud owner of a few magic swords, a large number of unusable weapons, and massive debt.
  • Murder Hobos flooded the City lured with the promise of free magic weapons to use or sell.
  • These were not good-aligned Murder Hobos. After getting bilked, they were unlikely to show mature levels of reason.
  • Once Murder Hobos died in battle and others realized the magic swords were fakes, the situation was going to turn ugly.

There was also the matter of the Bankers, and the angry Diviner’s Guild who would demand restitution for their murdered Member in Good Standing.

The Bard momentarily considered recruiting the Artificer for her ability to create mayhem and havoc in the heart of the enemy but rejected that idea. For now.

Meanwhile, the Bard answered the outstanding question of the Diviner’s apprentice. They caught the same apprentice they watched running the scam trying to sneak out of town with a horse cart of full of gold. The Diviner’s apprentice figured if the City was going up in flames, he should cut his losses and get the hell out of Dodge. Zone of Truth and the Eldritch Knight’s fists extracted the story out of the apprentice: how he had been a ringer in the Duke’s Court since the Artificer arrived, how all the old Diviner’s apprentices had been in on the scam for months, and how they took kickbacks.

But yesterday, the old Diviner confronted this particular apprentice. He had found all the gold under the floor boards in the laboratory. The old Diviner knew what was up and contacted the Guild. All the apprentices were out. No graduation to Journeyman Wizard, no lifetime of adventuring or sitting in some Identify Kiosk somewhere identifying magic items, no possible matriculation to Master. Nothing. The apprentices were ex-wizards. Get out.

This particular apprentice decided to do his Master one good one. He went to the Artificer. The Artificer saw an opportunity to rid herself of her one last opponent at Court and helped the apprentice out. That morning, the apprentice downed one of the Artificer’s Potions of Invisibility and did it the old fashioned way with a garrote.  Revenge, the apprentice figured, served cold with raisins.

With the apprentice and the cart of gold in hand, the trio faced an interesting set of choices.

They could:

1. Murder the Artificer and burn the Weaponsworks down. The trio could leave evidence of spies from the Oligarchy as perpetrators of the horrific crime. Incensed at this rank betrayal by spies and the murder of his favorite courtier, the Duke, his army of Murder Hobos, and cartloads of bum magic swords would take the field. The Oligarchy would slaughter them. The surviving Murder Hobos, duped by the unwitting Duke and throwing away their fake swords, would abandon the cause, join with the Oligarchy, declare the Duke evil, and destroy the City-State. History would quietly forget the Artificer’s involvement and hang the entire sordid failure on the Duke.

2. Unmask the Artificer and the Diviner’s apprentices. The Duke would certainly have them all hung by their necks until dead. But the Duke still needed to deal with the hordes of Murder Hobos filling his Inns and promised both magic items and action. Murder robbed him of his most trusted advisor. The Duke’s next steps were undefined – somehow he would have to keep a lid on the truth, renege on his promises, deal with his impending bankruptcy, and possibly go mad. Word would leak out (perhaps via the Bard and her friends) that the Duke was critically militarily wounded. This road also ended with war and slaughter at the Oligarchy’s hands.

3. Let the Artificer go, deal personal vigilante justice to this apprentice to shut him up, and take the gold. Then, start contacting all the other surrounding City-States, including and especially the Oligarchy, and feed them a report about the Artificer. The rumors were true. The Duke does have a super Artificer who can make magic swords in bulk! Let the Artificer receive invitations from every Court in the Country. Force the Artificer to travel and set up operations to cover up her rapidly spreading lie. Feed her unlimited success. Sure, the Duke will go to war with the Oligarchy and lose, but maybe by then the Oligarchy will also arm their Murder Hobos with fake magic items.  And meanwhile, everyone goes bankrupt.

Oh, the last choice was going to piss off the Black Chamber.

Either way this goes, the Bard, the Trickster Thief, and the Eldritch Knight reported back to their employers on-coming City-State doom. Crippled by finances, lacking their spymaster, and armed with bad weapons, the Duke was a dead man. After heated discussion, the spies chose one of the three above choices. Things happened and it was bad – or hilarious, depending on access to information and side of the conflict. Before it got too ugly, the spies snuck out and went on to their next assignment.

(As a hint, in this scenario they choose door #3 but all three doors are valid doors.)

And far away, on the sea, a tiny port town and its cows, caught in a global conflict between City-States, magic, money, greed, avarice, war, and death, were gradually… slowly… forgotten.

Writer’s Note: This is based on the Spy Bards, the Diviner’s Guild and the Artificer’s Guild. Go read those! Part of the scam came from Frank Abagnale’s Art of the Steal, one of the best books on scams and cons. Big thanks to Eric Thornber and Rob Donoghue for the bulk of this con. Also thanks to Jason Morningstar and his fabulous game, Fiasco. If you are reading this, and you have not bought Fiasco, for the love of God! Go now!

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Even without the background knowledge from the sources mentioned I found this utterly fantastic! In one of the campaigns I am in, one of our PCs runs cons every now and then, but nothing to this level (and no one, other than the occasional demon, dies). I think it would make for a fun side story arc to investigate a con like this and see where it goes.

    I definitely need to check out Fiasco.

    • Thank you! It took a bit to put the con together and then run it into the ground. These things tend to end up in death, murder, mayhem, or all three!

      I heartily recommend Fiasco. It’s the best small game you will ever buy. In fact, Critical Hits hosts a Fiasco playset — Alma Monster. And there are others — head over to and flip through the collection of things that can terribly wrong.

  2. This is very good! Nicely done!

  3. Another wonderful piece! I love sitting down to read these. 🙂