The Modronocracy: an Adventure in Price Ceilings

Modron PrimusPrimus

The new Primus is identical to the old Primus.  He is the One and the Prime.  In fact, he is the old Primus in nearly every conceivable way except for this slightly different data set collected from the latest Calamity to befall Mechanus. Disaster separates the last Primus and this Primus and from disaster, information.

He ponders and watches hordes of Modrons sift the data for answers.

The problem, Primus thinks, is Chaos.  It’s always Chaos.  Chaos continues to enter his realm and, worse, leaks across the Prime Material Planes. Out there, it festers, it pustulates, and it gives adventurers the hot idea to level up and visit his home bringing Chaos with them. The knobs on Universal Chaos are simply too high.  If he tamped the Universal Chaos knobs down a bit, made a tweak here, a fix there, fewer adventurers would enter Mechanus, less Calamity would enter the Plane of Perfect Reason, and the Modrons would suffer fewer promotions of Secundus to Primus – which gives everyone a headache when there’s all that seat swapping.

Primus contemplates the data sifting results and reads the report (nice use of reds and blues, Secondus B).  He decides, in his glorious perfection and perfect mechanical reason, to make a couple of targeted fixes to the Prime Material Plane.  He enacts the recommended modifications to the Planes stated in the report.

Primus, being an actual God and all, has Clerics and Paladins to carry out his Will.  These worship laws, reason, and order.  Maybe these worshippers don’t call him Primus.  Maybe they call him the Legal Code or the Government Body or something.  But worship him they do, and into their minds, Primus requests they make one simple change:

Have their governments impose a Modron-calculated and -approved planned economy with set price ceilings on starting equipment items.

He sends the price lists to his Clerics in dreams. When that does not work because Lawful Neutral Clerics of Law do not follow dreams or prophecy due to non-repeatable results, sends Modrons to deliver his holy price lists on dot-matrixed printer paper (the modrons are behind on printer technology).

In his name, they enact the Modronocracy.

Price Ceiling Pain

A price ceiling is when a Government sets global prices for goods or services regardless of supply and demand.  Vendors may charge less than the government-mandated price ceiling but they cannot charge more.  In this case, the government provides vendors universally a price list from page 149 of the D&D 5th Edition PHB:

  • Battleaxe, 10gp
  • Flail, 10 gp
  • Longsword, 15gp
  • War Pick, 5gp

And on it goes.   Theoretically, setting a price ceiling keeps vendors from engaging in price gouging.  The cost of starting adventuring equipment stays low and affordable.  Everyone has access to the same equipment equally.  Anyone who scrapes together a 100gp becomes a level 1 starting adventurer.  The universe is right and proper.

The Prime Material hums along perfectly and predictably according to measured algorithms.

The pros are all theory. When governments impose price ceilings the fun starts.  We get:

Shortages!  Since vendors cap sword iron buying prices to stay within their price cap, suppliers simply stop supplying. It’s expensive and difficult to dig iron out of the ground, cart it across dangerous rutted roads to blacksmiths, and forge it into steel.  If miners only get paid 5gp for this 10gp cartload of iron, why bring a 10gp cartload of iron?   Why put in the risk?  They will put 5gp of effort into 5gp of iron.  They don’t care that the blacksmiths need that 10gp cartload for their Adventurer demand.  Screw those guys.  Blacksmiths can now only craft 50% the sword volume for the demand.

Massive quality reduction!  Blacksmiths will put in exactly 15gp worth of effort into each new sword. Due to peak constant demand with no chance of making a profit, new longswords stop looking like longswords. Blacksmiths sell anything into the demand they can plausibly call a weapon. That long, twisted metal chunk?  Sure, that’s a longsword. 15gp.  It may look like a fireplace poker but it’s a 15gp longsword!  There are no standards.  Do you see any standards?  The flail has five Styrofoam balls for metal spiked heads.  That dagger is made of licorice.  That will be 15gp, 10gp and 2gp respectively, please.  If you don’t like it, go to the next guy who… is also going to sell you a 15gp longsword of similar quality.  Have a nice day!

Lines!  Since now there’s an overall equipment shortage as few make quality swords from scarce forgeable iron, Adventurers get to stand in long lines to buy or sell equipment.  Let’s say that the Blacksmith makes swords worth 30 gp. Primus’s edict forces him to sell swords for 15 gp.   They’re nice swords.  They actually have all the properties of a sword. The sword has an actual grip, an edge, and is plausibly made of steel.  A low-level Adventurer makes roughly 5gp/hour by killing goblins, rolling their bodies, and taking their stuff.   The gap between market price of sword and ceiling price of sword is three hours (3 5gp hours + 15gp == 3 hour lines).

The Modronocracy

Adventurers cannot buy their equipment without competing directly with the local men-at-arms, local militia, bandits, monsters, heck, anyone who needs a sword. And this is if swords are available at all.  After all the hassle the good local blacksmiths pack it in and go into the candy business.  That’s lucrative.  New Murder Hobos are stuck with substandard starting equipment made by increasingly undertrained blacksmiths.  Armor falls to pieces.  Bows come with no drawstrings.  The lance is simply a sharpened stick.

With the lack of solid, dependable equipment, the turnover for starting Adventurers is startlingly high.  They go into dungeons and they don’t come out.  Few skeletons die when poked with twizzle sticks.  Soon, there’s a starting Adventurer shortage. The world simply runs out of risk-takers with a lust for wanton demi-human murder but will also stand in long lines for the privilege.

prix fixe

The Adventurer economy carries standing-in-line deadweight loss.  Less money circulates into the pockets of Adventuring economy supporting industries.  The Quest Givers have no customers. They stop patronizing Inns.  Inns stop operating since they have neither Quest Givers nor current Adventurers to stay the night and heal.  Adventurers no longer buy magic items.  Identify kiosks go unvisited.

Towns perched on the edges of profitable dungeon enterprises watch their economy collapse.

Demi-humans and bandits, too, are out of luck.   They no longer have low-level armed Murder Hobos to roll and take their stuff.  On the rare occasion they do take their stuff, they find they wasted the effort.  That’s not a rapier. That’s squished up tin foil.  How are the bad guys going to steal swords to continue their evil enterprises?  Weapon shortages are the worst.

Monsters armed with their own natural-born equipment run amok.  They boil forth from the caverns and the dungeons.  They rend and tear.

The world enters a Adventureless Dark Age.

Primus is pretty happy with how it turned out.

This is not the end.  There’s two ways this story can go.

Smuggling, Piracy and Black Markets

First, physical governments who believed in a universal planned economy set these price ceilings.  They’re enforced by Primus’s Modronocracy government agents, troops, spies, and Courts through persuasion, propaganda, religious conviction, political belief, and terror.  The Clerics and Paladins of Perfect Law and Order hold vice grips on the throats of the mortal rulers and judges of the Prime Material Plane – or at least some Kingdom within it.

But these are mere mortal Kingdoms. The powers of Chaos and crime live to subvert their rules. Where there’s rigorously set government controls, there’s the grand opportunity for vast profits.  The Thieves Guild becomes the market of last resort.  They’re willing to sell starting equipment to nascent Murder Hobos at current, real market price – a market price inflated by scarcity.

And where do these black market swords come from?  Iron mines controlled by violent Thief Guild Mafia generates supply of the “product.”  Dirty blacksmiths on the take build a starting weapon equipment supply.  These blacksmiths push their product into the Mafia supply stream.

Smuggling rings spring up in port towns.  Huge crates full of forbidden Bec de Corbins and War Picks land on the wharf from black pirate ships.  Thieves pay off the local Watch.   The Thieves Guild passes around directions to their markets through the connected.  Murder Hobos get their swords through sleazy corner deals and underground handoffs.

And it behooves the Quest Givers to get in on the Black Market action. They are the demand for Adventurer supply.  And now the Thieves Guild puts them into their supply chain, too.  Those panhandlers in that filthy alley aren’t homeless.  They’re old man Quest Givers hanging out in secret Thieves Guild speakeasies handing out Adventure quests to kill whomever the Thieves Guild thinks needs a good killing for a kickback take.  Buy your weapons, talk to the Old Men, go make a fortune, and kill in the name of financial freedom.

Too much money washes around the Black Market starting equipment underground economy for only one Thieves Guild Mafia to go into business.  This market is ripe for some good old-fashioned free market competition.   Multiple Thieves Guild Families form around whoever has the best iron suppliers.  The families employ armed sea pirates to ship iron and finished weapons from their secret lairs back to black market towns.  They certainly cannot hire legitimate shipping firms – those firms bow to the Modronocracy.  And of course, for profits and treasure hoards, the pirates fight navies, legal shipping concerns, and each other.

The Adherents of Laws, Order and Price Ceilings will not stand for all this illegal nonsense.  These Black Markets are against the Law.  They must go.

The government has a crime problem.   Also, since the government can write clauses into their own rules giving themselves legal loopholes, they have starting equipment.  So they, too, hire starting Murder Hobos to go fight the pirates crawling their shores, break up evil smuggling rings, and fight the horrible Thieves Guild Mafia families.

And so it goes.  It’s a whole adventure unto itself.

Primus Needs to Go

The other option is say Primus is a God, and as a God, his laws are Absolute.  Primus alters the Prime Material Plane so vendors physically cannot sell starting equipment over his set price list.   Lines are a way of life.  Weapons become scarce.  Adventurers few.  Black markets cannot save the Adventuring economy.

The world is dying.  And there’s only one way to save the world.

Kill Primus.

It’s been done before.  The Wizards and Clerics know some big, nasty capital-C Chaos incarnation entered Mechanus and destroyed a previous Primus.  They felt it in the currents of magic.  Other Gods informed their Clerics of Primus A’s Fall. They dutifully wrote it down.  It’s right here in the book.

Sure, it needed some huge God-level Chaos demon to take out Primus before but it’s doable, right?  Someone else did it.  Simply enter Mechanus, figure out some way to subdue millions upon millions of Modrons, get to the Center Cog, and fight an epic battle with a God while clothed in the greatest Chaos-based magic items of the Planes.

Somewhere out there are heroes.   Heroes willing to take up the last magic weapons of the land.  Heroes willing to travel the Planes, learn its ways, gather hopelessly unpredictable allies from the Chaotic Planes of Good and Evil, and plan a fight. Heroes ready to take on an entire Plane of Existence.  And when they are ready – only when they are ready – fight Primus himself.  Easy!

Heroes must level up and kill God.  He’s made of XP.

This, of course, happens.  The way it all goes down is pretty goddamn cool.

It is also an exercise left for the reader.

The new Primus is identical to the old Primus.  He is the One and the Prime.  In fact, he is the old Primus in nearly every conceivable way except for this slightly different data set collected from the latest Calamity to befall Mechanus.   Disaster separates the last Primus and this Primus and from disaster, information.

And this information says: let’s give price ceilings a miss.

Image Credit: Skeleton art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. MadRatatosk says:

    This is, by way of metaphor, a concise summary of China’s market economy from Mao’s revolution all the way up to 1989. Interesting how nationalization & standardized distribution can have a similar effect to price ceilings…

    Another great one–love reading these, please never stop writing them!

    • In all honesty, I was thinking about the old Soviet system of distribution. In particular, I was thinking about radios. It was common for an oversupply for all of the parts of a radio except one particular one, so no one received a radio and radio parts piled up in warehouses.

      Russian housewives under the Soviet system usually spent 4 hours a day waiting in various lines to receive food and household goods. Much has been written about deadweight loss, economics and Communism. Central planned economies simply do not work.

      I am not out of ideas yet! So I’ll keep writing until people are well and truly bored of me. 🙂

  2. They make axes, clubs, and morningstars with less iron but equal lethality? Suddenly, there’s an increase in price on good hardwoods?

    • It depends on how extensive the price caps are, doesn’t it? If hardwoods are also limited, then you’re predicting a situation where the price of every substance that could be used for reliable or semi-reliable murder rises to match the highest-price weapon on the list. If great-axes are top price at 25gp, for example, suddenly you’re going to have a market full of e.g. broken-window-glass great-axes.

  3. Brandon Van Every says:

    A difference of course for pen and paper RPG economies is there are actually only ~7 participants in the economy. 1 GM and ~6 players or so. That’s why the command economy actually works in the rulebooks, because there aren’t enough economic protagonists to actually care. Given that the PCs cannot really care, it’s really all simulation in the mind of 1 GM. What is that GM going to do, build a computer program to run the economy? It’s a totally simulationist notion that all these factors should change. A fantasy world could just as easily have a fiat that swords spontaneously duplicate somewhere as a matter of “natural magic” phenomena, keeping the world adventure supply at equilibrium. People in some real world religions believe that the Bible is the infallible word of their God, so why can’t weapons and armors have infallible prices governed by the unseen forces of… well essentially the GM’s mind, but the point is it can be and *is* any excuse. Unless you’re writing something out like a computer program that is a model and does produce some kind of independent complex results.
    Computer RPGs often solve equipment problems by simply having them disappear into non-existence if players don’t carry them around. Merchants capable of supplying infinite amount of gear aren’t really a solution, they’re a fiat, but why not? Merchants could all in essence be gods of spawning. And also, a station in life that PCs can never hope to have. The Merchants bake the bread!
    Perhaps the PC’s observable universe is actually divided into “the real”, which obeys principles comparable to our own reality, and “the Simulacra”, which are simply the stubs that obey nothing. Realization of this within the character’s game world mind leads to cognitive dissonance, insanity, and Existential Hell. Does the universe quickly become nihilist, as the player murders as many merchant god simulacra as possible? Happens in CRPGs all the time.

  4. This is pretty awesome; “overthinking” things is a pretty fun exercise and RPGs could certainly stand to see more of it. Keep up the good work!

    That said, your diagram really bugs me because the red dot of “Modron perfection” marks a point with higher supply and lower demand than the market’s natural state, which is the exact opposite of what you spend most of your time describing. You write of shortages, but the diagram shows glut. So something got flipped at some point in the illustration process. No?

  5. Modronocracy: the Age of the Monk… until instead of Head Tax the Kingdoms impose a Hand Tax and begin the confiscations.