Caravans of the Dead

On Trade

bad necromancyHow do great magic items, mystical cloaks, Elven and Dwarven armors, rare reagents, and unusual spell scrolls make their way across enormous distances to shops and ultimately the hands of Murder Hobos? Slowly and perilously, one laborious step at a time.

For example, Elves sell their armor only at the edge of their remote forest. A group of merchants trades rare reagents for the armor.  Once bought, they pack the armor into a wagon and carry it over the mountains to a trading hub city. There, it goes on sale.  A second group of traders buys the armor at a markup. They move it in a great caravan with other goods over a desert to a different city’s bazaar.

The armor flows through four or five different trading hubs on route to Murder Hobos.  Each time the armor changes hands, its price increases. A merchant bought it for 100 gp here and sold for 400 gp there.  Once it reaches the local market, the 40 gp worth of Elven time, materials and effort becomes 1,000 gp in the Magic Item Shoppes a thousand miles away.

Overland, long distance trade is dangerous and expensive.  The roads are full of monsters, bandits, and weather-based peril. Routes shift with changing military and political conditions. Even through politically stable areas, preparation for travel requires pricey letters of passage and introduction. Otherwise local governments are certain to loot rich, foreign caravans for a quick payday.

Sea travel is marginally faster, safer and cheaper simply by avoiding politically unstable areas and rapacious local rulers.  It certainly isn’t more comfortable – an oared craft with a hundred men still lacks a bathroom.  Any boat might fall prey to murder, piracy and disease – even at the hands of their own captain and crew when they want the cargo more than their payoff for delivery.  The loss of men, ships and cargos on the seas is so common wharf logs simply note shipwrecks as “Lost with all hands” and a small shrug.

Yet, the possible upside profit on a trading venture is so great people keep trying.  Despite wars, bandits, piracy, disease, and death, a 1,000 gp Elven Magic Chain Shirt is still 1,000 gp.  Considering a typical background set-filling peasant makes 1gp through an entire year of backbreaking labor and subsistence living, that 960 gp profit could turn some enterprising Murder Hobo into a Lord – for a single sale of kit.  And the wagon holds twenty more where that came from.

So they keep heading out into the great beyond hoping to come back and make their retirement.

The God of Death

The dangers of overland trade present a golden business opportunity for the right person or trans-planar being.

A down on his luck God of Death contemplates the souls arriving on his Ferryman’s shores. Some are dead from disease, some from war, but a fair number from misadventure on the road.  In recent years, the sea of souls turned into a trickle.  His Church is in bad financial shape. Gods of Death just aren’t “in” this decade. It’s all light and happiness and harvest now.

With a lack of hard followers, various Gods of Death compete for scant believer gold coin to support their continuing faith.  It’s bad financial times for Gods of Death everywhere.

This God of Death, being in the typical Anubis Ferryman-over-the-waters mold, isn’t a stranger to travel or travelers.  It’s kind of his thing.  He makes the same simple calculation the merchant Murder Hobos do.  He can improve on the sad state of overland and sea trade and build a business model on this.   He can change his nature from the pure Death business into the Death, Trade and Money business.  This gets more believers into his church and widens his appeals to a certain kind of believer clientele with money to burn.

This God of Death sends his Clerics his plan via dreams and prophecy.  And when the Clerics misinterpret that, via physical messenger.  The plan will work and nothing could go wrong.

It works something like this:

At the beginning of the journey, the Clerics kill all the passengers with something pleasant and painless specifically made for their comfort.  They offer a nice poison to drink or use a convenient spell.  People go take a lie down and quietly die in the Cleric’s care.

Souls of the newly dead collect in the realm of the Dead.  They receive little chits identifying themselves as part of the God’s new Dead Caravanning Service. The Ferryman separates these souls from daily soul-ferrying commerce and sends them to the plush couches of the comfortable, upscale waiting rooms.  The God’s servants offer the newly and waiting Dead complementary phantasmal drinks.

Meanwhile, Clerics cast Gentle Repose on their now dead merchant passengers.   A single 3rd level Cleric of the Dead can keep 10 corpses in gentle repose indefinitely.  A higher level Cleric can offer a more economical service of more corpses on a journey per day aggregating the cost keeping travel prices low.

The caravaneers, still alive to drive caravan, goods, Clerics and bodies to its destination, pack the bodies in with the cargo. They figure body weight against the space of freight.  The displacement is an overall plus: while bodies take space, the caravans no longer pack food, water, clothing, cooking goods, or other life or comfort articles for the merchants.  They re-allocate that space for more goods on the trip, raising the trip’s possible end profits.

Once the caravan reaches the destination, Clerics cast Revivify.  This is the lowest and cheapest tier of raise dead service costing the passenger 300 gp in cheap diamonds plus the cost of Clerical services (plus tip.)  This is also the riskiest option – if the Cleric does not raise the client within one minute of waiving the Gentle Repose spell, the Ferryman waives the soul from the waiting area to the underworld ferry.

However, richer merchant clients of the Caravans of the Dead pay 500 gp in diamonds plus service plus tip for the more expensive Raise Dead which not only raises the body but also casts healthy neutralize poison and cures all non-magical diseases.  Not only is the trip more profitable due to carrying more salable cargo, it’s a health tonic and spa.  Merchants return from successful journeys healthier than when they left and free of all foreign diseases.

Who doesn’t want to return from a year-long trip healthier than when they left?  It’s a great secondary level of service marketing.

The Church allows borrowing the price of the Revivify and Raise Dead Services against the future profits of the journey for a certain low-interest rate back to the Church so full cash payment is not necessary up-front for those merchant companies just starting out.  Merchants can also “pre-pay” for their death and resurrection and death and resurrection services (two deaths, two raises, based on trade location and trade route) to guarantee first raise and resurrection priority services plus added comfort services in the Underworld.

The Church doesn’t bother with collections on deadbeats. Failure to pay simply means the Clerics re-kill the client and the God of Death will exact his payment in other less pleasant methods in His Underworld.

Sure, dying and returning is a traumatic ordeal but the Church provides “rest and recovery” rooms in their various franchised locations with attending Clerics waiting with glasses full of refreshing cucumber drinks on return from the Dead.

The Glorious Upsides

But why would anyone do this? And why is it suddenly so popular?

Dead merchants on a caravan of the dead no longer worry about getting killed by war, famine, or bandits.  They won’t get fleeced by pirates, deal with a mutinied crew, or pay the dreaded Head Tax when passing through ports.  Who wants to loot, steal or tax a big wagon full of dead bodies?   Sure, they’re not actively decaying dead bodies (as long as the Cleric stays alive to cast Gentle Repose) but they’re still dead.  It’s a real theft deterrent.

And there’s no boredom!  Merchants die at one end of their journey, travel, and come back to life in some glorious, strange and different foreign city surrounded by new meta-humans to meet and greet!  They can get right down to the business of wheeling and dealing, filling the wagons, acquiring cargo, and buying cheap to sell expensively.  When it’s time to leave they simply die again, sit around in a comfortable quasi-death waiting room playing board games and reading the boardsheets from home (conveniently provided astrally) until it’s time to raise again.

Should the absolute worst happen to merchant bodies on their travels, should the boat sink in a storm, or the caravan get caught in a warzone, or bandits loot the entire enterprise en-route, well, the merchants are already dead.  They’re comfortably dead, not hacked to bits dead.  It could be so much worse!  A Ferryman working for the friendly God of Death takes the poor merchant to the Underworld in style with same-day service.  Of course, the Church refund the price for pre-paid Revivify or Raise Dead to the nearest living relative or estate. Those who die permanently in transit will receive a very comfortable afterlife.  They are, of course, customers, and the Church hopes to service the next of kin on their next trade mission.

The More Glorious Downsides

So, this makes a ton of money for the Death Church.  It is no longer contemplating Church Bankruptcy.  But this financial scheme is not without its downsides.

First, me-too knock-off Churches pop up and sell similar services cheaper.  How can a competitor price their services cheaper than 500 gp + Clerical fees + tip for a full Raise Dead?  By raising the merchant bodies into undead to help with the journey and pay down the expenses.  Undead don’t eat, they don’t need a bathroom, they don’t sleep, and they don’t take much more space than the original Gentle Reposed bodies.  Now, of course, the merchants may experience some significant wear and tear on their bodies during the journey should they use a cheaper service from a second-rate Death God. But they keep more profits.

Second, finding Murder Hobos to guard a caravan of bodies to ensure it reaches its destination might have minor challenges like, for instance, telling the Murder Hobos the caravan is full of dead bodies.  Some Murder Hobos with different and/or competing God and religious-based arrangements may take issue with voluntary death and resurrection.  This may cause the price of the Death God’s services to increase depending on the contracted services and the other objections.

There’s plenty of Murder Hobos who will do anything for adventure, murder, plunder, and a dozen levels, so during protection contract negotiation the Clerics leave out ‘what is in the wagon.’  Cleric business, they say.  Things become awkward when the Cleric’s wagon erupts with live merchants who, just as quickly, disappear again.  But these are Death Clerics. Around them, things get weird.

Third, the diamonds.  If this Death God’s business is successful, and assuming it is, the Death God needs a continuous influx of diamonds to power the entire business scheme.  Diamonds, of course, come from Dwarves who run the diamond mines.  Trade here is equitable – Dwarves like gold, Clerics receive gold from pre-paying rich merchant customers, Clerics give Dwarves gold, and Dwarves hand over diamonds.  Clerics burn diamonds on raise services.  It all works.

Diamonds, it turns out, are not all that rare.  The world’s crust makes them all the time.  But they are difficult to extract from deep mines and that effort makes the Dwarven services valuable.  The preferred route for a Death God who builds his Godly Business on a mountain of bodies, Revivify, and Raise Dead is to enter into an exclusive contract for Dwarven diamond-based services.

The negotiations are tense.  The Death God must deal with Dwarven Gods.  It goes back and forth.   Finally, the Dwarves agree to give the Death God and his followers an exclusive monopolistic line on the diamonds in return for a percentage of the successful fees and tips.

Dwarves don’t care.  They simply desire a constant delivery of gold for doing, in their minds, nothing. While they are merchants, they have their ways of dealing with the horrors and problems of the long distance trade.  They don’t need the Death God’s services but they do like his money.

The other Churches do care because, now, they must find replacement diamond suppliers for their own Revivify, Raise and Resurrection services.  They require a new source of mining expertise – Gnomes, perhaps, whose mining gear occasionally explodes.  The overland routes to the Gnomes are sometimes long and dangerous.  Many routes involve peril, pirates and Murder Hobos.  Big caravans full of diamonds are easy targets for greedy bandits and rapacious local lords.

Maybe instead of going to Holy War against the Death God over diamonds like they are clearly contemplating, the other Churches should take advantage of the Death God’s Caravans of the Dead.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Oh him, the merchant? He’s spending a year dead for tax purposes.

    • There’s probably a line on their 1090 form with a check box. “DEAD IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS Y/N.”

      Imagine the tax auditing! How does one provide proper paperwork proving that one was dead within the last 12 months? I suppose the Clerics issue forms before 1/31 of every new year.

  2. Great reading, as always.

  3. I lost it at refreshing cucumber drink XD

  4. xobmaps says:

    The pathfinder clerics might be able to pull this off extra cheap, gentle repose + breath of life there, but the timing would be VERY finicky (only 6 seconds), but NO costly material components involved.

    These articles are always entirely too much fun. And usually scary.

    • Six seconds might be cutting it a _little_ close unless they also have a Wizard hanging around to cast Haste on them or something. (What if it takes more than 6 seconds to say the word of the spell?) But otherwise, the principle still holds. 🙂

  5. I recall something similar in ye olde “Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide” computer game – slavers using Flesh to Stone & Stone to Flesh and transporting slaves as statues to cut down on food & water, the possibility of slaves escaping, and adding an extra burden on anyone that might want to free them. That was based on 3rd edition rules though, and I haven’t seen Stone to Flesh in 5th edition yet…

    • I admit, I never got around to playing NN: Shadows of Undrentide but that’s pretty damn clever. Also, I haven’t seen Stone to Flesh. It has to be there. How else do you unstone people?

      • The one time it came up in an Expeditions adventure I ran, the only thing that seemed to cover it was Greater Restoration.

  6. Mark S. says:

    Again, another article with lots of good food for thought, and roleplay. Regarding the first part of the article – how to convince the players that the value of Elven chain mail in whatever source book they are holding is just the “suggested” value?

    Player: “But it says here that it is 1000 gp!”
    GM: “Yeah, but that was the price in Waterdeep. You are very far from Waterdeep right now… The merchant will settle for nothing less than 1200 gp. He demonstrates how light and flexible and shiny it is again for your ranger’s benefit.”
    Player: “I hate you so much right now…”

    • A price is just a signal wrapped in an incentive. The Ranger is signalling he is incentivized to pay more than the listed price for the chain mail! Maybe he has a greater need than that price. Maybe there is just one set of chain mail in the city and the Ranger wants to outbid all other Murder Hobos by offering his new higher fair market price which is higher than listed in the rulebook.

      Although I don’t think that will go over well with your group. 🙂

  7. xobmaps says:

    Well, frequent customers CAN spring for this little custom statue of themselves that lets them set up a contingency gentile repose as soon as they are metaphysically dead. It is a bit more expensive, but is a one-time cost 🙂

  8. xobmaps says:

    gah, that did not reply to the breath of life stuff properly, sorry.