The Dark Ages
In the dark times where legends sprang, most people were subsistence farmers eking out life from the soil. While warlords raged with metal and might and Great Heroes (later culturally appropriated for marketing purposes) birthed fully formed, people kept their heads down and hoped none of these warlords or Heroes found their villages and took their stuff. No one enjoyed legends coming to town, hanging around and committing legendary acts. Legends were deadly.
The secret of these times, the secret no bard uttered and no poet told, was this: these warlords and heroes also wanted to settle down, find peace, and scratch their own subsistence existence from the soil with pointy sticks. What good is the story of Harold the Great who defeated the Dwarves at Holden Pass when Harold the Great brutalized his way through the pass just to get the quality soil beyond? Who cares that later, Harold settled down, planted barley, built a house, raised a mess of kids, and died quietly in his bed? No one wants to hear the epilogue.
From these wars, in the endless quest for peace, warlords called themselves Thanes and granted each other the Hundreds, legal subdivisions of villages, farmsteads and lands. The Thanes named one of their own their King, and the King declared a rather small Kingdom. The warlords wandered off to rule from their Halls, dig in the dirt, and raise their children.
The village people felt relief. Someone had the job to get his buddies together and stab the other Kings in the name of everyone getting some quiet.
Things were kind of okay for a while. Except for the occasional invasions – but those were the times.
And then this other guy, a bigger, badder warlord with nastier friends than the King and his Thanes, showed up, kicked over the sandcastle, killed a bunch of people, burned the Halls, and made himself right at home. He built castles all over the goddamn place. His friends didn’t want to scratch existence from the soil or raise kids or live in peace. His friends wanted to go kill other people. They so weren’t done. They wanted to oust Elves. They wanted to run the Dwarves underground. They wanted human Kingdoms where they ruled unopposed. To maintain their lifestyle of butchery and mayhem, they needed food and support.
That’s where the villages come in. Most villagers put themselves at the mercy of these warlords for security’s sake and bound themselves to the land. What could they do? These warlords had swords and armor and horses. The villagers had shovels. The villagers had families to protect. So they became serfs, and their children became serfs, and so on and so forth for the next many generation. These villagers became background fodder for adventuring – the “villagers” who “need saving.” But some of the villagers who, then, were small time merchants, or local Clerics, or wizards, gripped hard to their freedom and their small land plots and chose to go it alone. They became freeholders.
In the historical record, the new King’s friends were the original Murder Hobos. But we’re not interested in these Murder Hobos who, honestly, came out well in the end except for those who lost their pants financially in their ill-gotten wars and lead their grandchildren’s impoverishment. We’re interested in the freeholders who survived in this Brave New World.
The City and the Guild
Medieval villages are not much by themselves. Little commerce happens among the hovels, houses, a Church to the Local Deity, and some land. No one has metal money and most people make the food and clothing they need to survive. To make any money, freeholding merchants must fill wagons with overflow village goods not promised to the local Landowner to support his random wars and cart them into town. Times are hard and those outside of nobility live in poverty.
Many villages feed the nearby town with local goods to produce a small market. The more villages, the bigger the market, the bigger the town. Bigger towns attract more full-time artisans and merchants who buy the village produced raw materials and turn it into finished goods. Merchants barter these finished goods back to the community. The most successful of those merchants look for interesting ways to make actual metal money by selling to other towns. More money attracts more freeholders off their ancestral land to permanently relocate, as they are not legally bound to their plots. This, in turn, expands the borders of the town until it turns into a small city with a plausibly functioning market. Clerics move in and build their Churches to their various Gods. Wizards set up shop in the nicer neighborhoods.
Once there’s commerce, there’s enough economy to support the merchant class non-noble rich. And the non-noble rich – or at least well off enough to support other daily activities than farming – lay hands on basic education. They read histories and start to wonder what happened, exactly, to the old races, the old warlords, the ancient Heroes (now Legendary Heroes of the Realm of the Appropriate Race), the Thanes, the old Kings and their tombs. They are dead and gone, now. Forgotten. Surely, no one has rolled them for their stuff and taken their cash.
Adventuring costs money to suit up and head into the woods and night and darkness. Rich Merchants – successful tailors, haberdashers, milliners, artificer wizards, clerics and the like – band together into a consortium, invest their money, and send their sons and daughters out to raid these old locations mentioned in the ancient documents. Some of these parties return, richer than ever conceived. Okay, the party had to fight the revenant of King Olaf the Fat, and man, that guy, they managed trap his undead corpse in a doorway and then set his leaking undead fat pustules aflame, and he was theoretically a major storied historical figure but we won’t tell anyone because his Crown was worth actual gold.
Well, the rich merchants think to themselves as they count their take, that worked.
Thus, the merchant owners, now Guild Members in good standing, founded the Merchants Adventuring Company. Their primary aim was to establish a monopoly on adventuring before anyone got the hot idea to compete. As long as the MAC held a charter for adventuring and no one else did, they had a singular claim on investment, growth, training, and mission success. If you want to adventure, you must belong to the MAC! And if you don’t belong, if you try to freelance and compete, well, our members are armed and incentivized to kneecap you. Some are wizards with Disintegrate. Just saying.
The MAC set up the standard apprentice-journeyman-master training chain to ensure adventurer quality and quantity. They trained fighters, provided starting equipment, and found quests. The MAC’s training system was as deeply corrupt as any other Guild-based training system be it Wizard Guilds, Tailoring Guilds, Tanning Guilds, or otherwise. Strangely, only the locally politically connected sons and daughters made it past their apprentice training to graduate to journeyman status and join parties with shots at big scores. Others washed out into support journeymen roles, returned to their villages to plow, or died during apprenticeships. But such were the times and protectionism is a universal instinct.
Over time, the original investors in the MAC passed on. Successful, wealthy, retired Murder Hobos who were Hobos no more and now City Merchants replaced them. These Master Adventurers guaranteed the continuing success of the MAC by dumping the riches of forgotten Kings and lost heroes into vaults, rigging the training process, and only promoting their friends and family to Master. They built a Guildhall. It had amenities.
Things for the MAC were good – great – until the King went to War.
The Cost Centers
In a world of absolute monarchy, Wars are all about personal ego.
In the King’s mind, the Kingdom has plenty reasons to go to war:
- King A wants to expand territory, capture a rich city, or solidify his power base;
- King A doesn’t like King B’s religion even though the two Gods are actually two Aspects of the same God;
- King C married King B’s sister and King A both wanted the sister and does not like King B or King C;
- King B said that King A looks like a Gnome’s Butt to King B’s brother the Duke who told a Bard;
- King A is bored and being on campaign is super fun.
In no where does the King consider the good of his people, his finances, his Kingdom’s stability, or its economy. What does he care about the good of his people? King B called him a Gnome’s Butt. The Kingdom’s people will totally agree King B and his people have to go. Once decided on a course, the King’s job, when he takes his nation to war, is to:
- Rally his nobles;
- Press tons of peasants into service to fill out the flack and the fodder;
- Find loads and loads of money.
Kingdoms based on peasants digging subsistence livings from the ground with sticks rarely have the liquid cash needed to financially subsidize a war, even if the King was called a Gnome’s Butt. The King looks around for money. He shakes out all the couch cushions. He squeezes a bunch of peasants. He does not ask his nobles for money because his nobles will use the ask as an excuse to get offended and not to contribute troops to the War. The King avoids the Transmuter Bankers at dinner parties. Then he finds the one place in his Kingdom that has money:
The Guilds are fat, rich, and plump. They are not noble. Technically, they aren’t armed. When the King squeezes them, they ooze money like squeezing an orange for juice. Besides, these cities and their commerce only succeed on the good will of the King, his Dukes, and his Barons, right? The Guilds are happy, no thrilled, to empty out their vaults and hand their dearly gotten riches over to the King so the King can go to war. That’s what that money is for!
In the King’s mind, the Guilds aren’t financial and economic contributors to the Crown. No, they’re profit centers to loot.
The nobles, sad because they were friends with the Guild Masters and now find themselves cut off from super amazing Guildhall amenities (have you seen their spread?), send in the sheriffs, the judges and the soldiers. What else were they going to do?
The King happily goes off to war with a fat bank account. And oh, he does take some of the MAC adventuring parties with him because he is the King and he can do that. And off he goes, with his flags, his parade armor and his army. The people see him off and cheer because that’s what they do. The Bards tell stories of their brave King and their great Kingdom.
Six months later, the King’s army gets massacred on some distant foreign plain by King B. Oh not the King. He’s fine. He was in his tent napping when it went down. The King’s army. And all that Guild money gone in a puff of hubris.
Murder Hobos of the World, Arise!
Funny thing about cities. In the Medieval times, they’re tiny self-contained countries. If they situate geographically on an easily defended bay, they can ship food in and ship goods out. They don’t need the financial or food support of villages. They don’t need Dukes and Kings.
Technically, this all goes back to the warlords and the heroes in the beginning: the reason to stick with a Kingdom is security, protection, and a rough legal framework. But, if your main trading Guild in your City consists of 20th level Adventurers sitting around recounting their times they fought the dragon, how much security is that Kingdom providing? Any?
The Merchant Adventurer’s Guild, a jewel of the Realm, are tired of Kings coming in, declaring war on some other King, and taking the MAC’s hard earned stuff. And unlike their distant ancestors, the merchant villagers of old, the MAC is heavily armed.
Once the news returns their money and their friends are dead – yet again in another Kingdom military adventure – the MAC asks: Do they need this King? Sure, at their city’s center stands a castle, but the Duke is on campaign. And his son is in adventuring training with the MAC… But what is he doing for us except using us as his piggy bank?
Some members scream for reasonableness and moderation. What about tradition? What about the Kingdom? What about our identities? What about the way things have always been done? Can we exist without a King? What do the Gods think? Clerics panic and remind the Guild their Gods are pretty pro-Kingdom and anti-Chaos just so everyone knows.
The Masters secretly vote and they decide: the King has to go. At least out of their City. And we will rule. And we will be a Council of Heavily Armed Equals. And it will be good, we will keep our Filthy Lucre, and it will work.
This sort of thing gets messy quick. The Murder Hobos pick up their weapons. They spend no time kicking the Duke’s men out of the city. In the chaos, someone receives a really terrible bruise. The MAC changes the locks on the City doors. They declare Liberty, Fraternity and Equality for those able to pay and the rest go back to your day jobs. The MAC Masters declare the Free Republic of the City and they, the new Oligarchs.
And then the MAC Masters remember two things:
- The King is coming back, and he still has some vestige of an army;
- All the tombs the MAC raids to maintain their cash are in the Kingdom.
Well, this is inconvenient.
The MAC Masters use Message, Sending, Bards, and Connections to put out the call – of all Murder Hobos in all Guilds in all Nations, come to the Free Republic of the City for endless opportunity to take out an Evil King, roll his castles, and take his stuff en masse! Why storm ancient tombs and face down Dracoliches or worse when you can help us on our quest to establish Freedom for All Murder Hobos! Join our Quest! Liberty, Fraternity and Equality for most!
Murder Hobos of the world, arise!
The King fields his army (now paid by a loan at a near rapacious 15% from the Transmuter Bankers because Kings are terrible credit risks). The MAC Masters field a huge number of high level Murder Hobos. Armies clash! Legends are made! Heroes are born! Fireballs explode! Bards write stories!
It goes poorly for the King. He thinks about taking up a new hobby other than warring on King B.
The signed treaty states the Free Republic of the City can stay independent. Murder Hobos have the rights to raid the Kingdom’s tombs for a 20% excise tax on all hoards taken and found. Borders are established.
Freedom! Rights for Murder Hobos! Even the super evil ones! Money! Money for everybody!
The Free Republic of the City, no longer a Guild but a State, ruled by Oligarchs pulled from 20th level adventurers, does quite a well for a long time, really. It does take a while to kick the King fully out of their territory. They do ship in food and generally figure out how to manage an economy. They have to fend off the occasional King and invading army but that happens. They have weird internal strife. They all make tons of money. The Oligarchs cling to their adventuring monopoly but slowly, they start to understand basic capitalism and markets and competition. They start to figure things out.
The Murder Hobo Marxist Ideals of Fraternity, Liberty and Equality collapse into corruption, graft and bureaucracy, but that was expected. A few other Murder Hobo cities also throw off the yoke of the Kingdom and join the United Free Cities. Interest rates are blessedly low.
And I’d say they live happily ever in their pearls of Free Cities but then, one day, some jackass Elf shows up and introduces coffee. That is, as they say, a different story entirely.
Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames