The Box

CH crown

The Kingdom

The Kingdom was small, rocky and mountainous on the furthest end of the continent and pressed up against the sea.  It had neither great military nor great industry like its more muscular immediate neighbors.  Peasants worked what fields they could hew from the hillsides and those who did not grow, fished.  It was a poor, pretty postcard country perfect for travel guides, wineries and quiet retirement.

This Kingdom would be of no interest whatsoever to anyone except for all the bored Murder Hobos.

The King’s problem was this: the Murder Hobos had cleaned out ever dungeon, fought every dragon, freed every small town from every ogre, and killed the demi-humans down to the last kobold.  They didn’t leave behind the smallest goblin.  The highwaymen were long dead and the criminals, dispersed.  The Murder Hobos had turned all the treasure into bar tabs and drank the wineries clean.

The adventure was gone.

Some Murder Hobos moved on.  They joined Mercenary Companies and went to war in other nations making another fortune.  Some packed their bags and took to ranging far on foot, never seen again.  But, most stayed in the little mountainous Kingdom.  This was their home.  They were Knighted here.  They owned hard-fought lands and castles.  They had recognizable names and respect.  They didn’t want to go but they wanted more adventure.

In a duller and less creative King’s hands, armed and bored warriors would swiftly overrun the Kingdom.  Lacking something to do and no war to fight, they would fight each other and eventually fight the King, overthrow him, and start a long chain of strongest man on the mountain.  But, this was a smart and cunning King. He saw bored Murder Hobos not as a problem but an opportunity.

The King thought:

  • The King could invade one of his bigger neighbors but he would surely lose and he didn’t have the government structure to hold what little he took for, after all, his government was as tiny as his country;
  • The King could manufacture an internal civil war but that might end badly for him;
  • The King could declare a Crusade and send his Murder Hobos far away to fight the unknown “other.”  This had worked before but not to the small country’s benefit.

The King contemplated the ocean.  The infinite blue murderous ocean.  The King knew a vague “other” lived elsewhere – strange lands, weird adventure, unexplored dungeons, unknown people ripe for killing and taking their stuff.  His spies gave him complete reports about hostile armies not a far sail to the south – a dangerous sail, but a manageable sail. Beyond that, mariners claimed the sea was impassable with deadly reefs and monstrous trade winds.  Maps stopped not far off his coast. The Royal Intelligencia for centuries faced East overland to their own problems and never West over the ocean.

What if the King faced West into those blue waters?

What was out there?

Could the King reach those strange lands and unknown people dripping with gold?

This project would cost enormous sums in sail and rudder research plus cartographers, clerics, logging and shipbuilding.  The last of the Kingdom’s money from taxation on adventuring Murder Hobos sat in the treasury.  It was a gamble.  If this failed, the King would bankrupt a Kingdom full of armed insurgents and starving peasants.

But what is life without some risks?

The King started his covert operations project within the government.  Security was paramount – the King could not allow his larger and more powerful neighbors learn what he was undertaking.  Many first attempts west and south failed.  Entire crews were lost.  The King fought a small, secret war with the hostile armies to the south and established a beachhead to launch more test ships.

Eventually, the few working on this project figured out the right combination of square sails, compasses, clerical spells like Guidance and Purify Food and Water, and map making to sail a single ship around the currents and reefs that blocked in mariners for generations.  On the other side: a country untouched by the Kingdom or its Murder Hobos full of wonders.

When the first true expedition, the result of hard research and trial and error, returned with most of the crew dead from disease, storms, and misfortune but the square bottomed hull full with shiny gold and treasure, the King knew he’d won his gamble.

The King opened his project to his restless Murder Hobo population.

The Box

The King tasted the thrill of discovery and the promise of untold riches returning to his Kingdom.  And, as a bonus, he could drain his country of restless Murder Hobos.

There was no complete map.  There was no intelligence. Get on a ship, point it south or west, and pray.  Sure, the trips out on the sea had no guarantees of finding something interesting.  Some would find nothing and die at sea.   Some would find something.  Some would find something very interesting indeed and get eaten by it.  The death rate was a stupendously high near 80%.  But those who did find something, returned and told the tale cashed in big.  They were rich for life.  They were national heroes!

However, the government could not afford to pay their Murder Hobos, at least not any wage that made sense.  The government had wharfs, ships and maps to new lands and adventure but, while gaining their knowledge, had drained the treasury to zero.  In lieu of a wage, the King offered the Murder Hobos and any who joined an outbound exploratory expedition one or more boxes depending on their rank.

The box had a set of clear rules:

  1. The box was the size of a large chest. Strict government regulation dictated the box’s dimensions.
  2. No one received a larger or smaller box than another, only more or fewer boxes depending on rank.
  3. Crewmembers on the expedition could fill their box with anything they desired – gold, skulls, swords, spices, magic scrolls, rare feathers.  If they found it, and managed to bring it back, it was theirs to do with what they wish including selling for profit.
  4. Goods placed in the box was the crew member’s property free and clear, duty-free.  The government would neither take it nor tax it even if the good was otherwise illegal.
  5. If someone died on the expedition, the captain would destroy that crewmember’s box.  Boxes were not repurposed by other crewmembers including officers.  No murdering Joe and Jack to go from one to three boxes and making a bigger profit on a particularly juicy find.

“You can do anything you want,” the King told the Murder Hobos.  “You can raid any dungeon.  You can massacre any people.  You can steal anything.  But you keep what you put in that box and I get the overflow.”

For a shot at untold adventure, fame, and riches, an adventurer signed up for an expedition, got on a rickety and unreliable boat strapped together with clerical magic, sailed to somewhere unmapped with unknown natives, hostile monsters, diseases, and death traps, killed things, packed their box full of treasure (but no more than that box), and sailed home all while praying the Cleric didn’t die horrifically along the way.  Simple!  An easy way to get rich!

And the unexplored world across the ocean was full of unknown natives, hostile monsters, unexplored dungeons, and treasure.  Lots of it. Entire continents full of it. Nevermind the people who actually lived in these places – they’re worth XP and they drop golden loot when they die.   Here’s a ship, just return with a map and we’re all good.

Despite the terrifying unknown of boarding a boat and sailing “thattaway” and the insane death rate, people went.  People didn’t just go, they stood in lines waiting to go.  The clamored to go. The Kingdom’s population looked at their lives and evaluated their choices:

  1. Stay on a tiny mountainous farm, scratch a life from the dirt and die in subsistence poverty;
  2. Stay working a tiny fishery, scratch a life from the sea and live in subsistence poverty;
  3. Live in the Kingdom’s one, tiny, cramped, filthy city, scratch out an existence and live in subsistence poverty or…
  4. Get on a boat with a pack of crazy Murder Hobos, sail off into the unknown, frantically pack a box full of gold, sail back, and retire in style.

An 80% death rate meant a 20% chance of getting wildly rich. These odds were better than a 100% chance of dying starving and trying to grow wheat from a rock.  They went.

The danger wasn’t the outbound voyage, which was pleasant unless the Cleric died – then the food and clean water ran out and the crew slowly died.   It wasn’t even the expedition itself despite the monsters, dungeons, terrors, angry locals, and Murder Hobos using convenient unnamed crew members for judicious trap springing.  It was the return when Murder Hobos filled the ship’s hull so full of magic items and treasure the ship became unbalanced.  They hung boxes over the ship’s side to make more room for loot in the hull.  They strapped loot to the mainmast.  The ship listed and rode low in the water and smacked into the reef and broke apart on the return.

Time for an underwater adventure to recover the lost wreck off the coast!

The clear economic incentives worked.   The few peasants who survived their one voyage (fewer, again, went on more than one as who would take that chance?) retired in style and poured their treasure into the nation’s breweries and wineries.  The government gave the money duty-free and reaped it back in taxes on goods.  Cartographers stayed in business. Murder Hobos helped conquer the world in the name of the Kingdom.

What could go wrong?

A Good Thing Keeps Going Forever

Actually, surprisingly, nothing went wrong for the locals of the Kingdom.  The raided distant lands had some complaints but they’re not part of this story (and are worth XP).

The economic incentives for the government, the people, the Murder Hobos and the expeditions were nicely balanced.   The Kingdom moved from simply sending expeditions on adventure to sending out government officials to establish forts and beachheads in explored areas. Sure, the Kingdom experienced a drought of willing local peasants to farm and fish since the peasant supply was fixed and the crewmember demand high. The King bought extra food from his neighbors with overflow taxes and treasure. When peasants ran out, foreigners hopped on those boats with the crazy Murder Hobos and made their fortune.

The King carefully ensured foreign nationals, too, kept what they brought back in their box.   Whatever was in the box was yours regardless if you were Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish, Halfling, Blue, Grey or Purple.  Beyond that, the government took the treasure.

The King kept the good times going but, eventually, the King grew old and died.  His funeral was spectacular.  The entire country came out to wish him off to the Planes.  His birthday became a national holiday.  The people built Shrines to the Gods of Travel in his name.  Statues erupted on every street corner in the Kingdom’s one tiny city.

The King’s son also believed in the power of exploration, Murder Hobos, and treasure.  He expanded the program, built many more ships, invested heavily in cartography and ship upgrades, and established more beachheads for adventure.  He, too, kept the good times rolling until he grew old and died comfortably in his bed.   As did his son.

The Kingdom grew wealthy on the willingness of people to gamble for high risk stakes with their lives and either die or come home wealthier than they could dream. A nascent empire grew.

The continent’s simmering political stew pulled back the King’s great-grandson.  Try as they might, the Kingdom could no longer ignore their place in their continent. The large, powerful, muscular nation next door who, until now, took almost no interest in the small mountainous nation, decided to consolidate and add the burgeoning treasury to their own.  Why bother building their own carefully managed program of incentives and expeditions when they could simply invade?

In the ensuing war, the King’s great-grandson died on the battlefield.  The only person left to lead the small nation was an unseasoned cousin who choose, unwisely, to marry into the Royal Family of their neighbor to end the war.  This lead to a complete takeover and the Kingdom’s collapse.  As these things go.

The new Kingdom owners mothballed the program.  The good times came to an end.

It was a tragedy.  But Murder Hobos, being as they are, certainly weren’t done with adventure.  The original problem, lots of Murder Hobos and nothing to murder, returned to the fore.  The big muscular Kingdom had only passing interest in high risk/high reward expeditions and expensive, far-flung military strongholds in strange countries.  They didn’t care if Murder Hobos rose up in rebellion.   They had a large army and little interest in the politics of small people.

The large Kingdom’s King was not an enlightened man.

But this time, the Murder Hobos were smart.  They stole maps from the small Kingdom’s wreckage.  They tore down the black operations and burned the papers.  They scattered to the other countries taking their knowledge of far away lands and riches found therein with them.

Uninterested in letting the good times end at the hands of international politics, Murder Hobos took their maps to other countries and other Kings and said:

“Make me a boat.  Let me fill a box with treasure and you will receive the riches of the world.”

The smart Kings looked West and gave the Murder Hobos boats.  The small Kingdom’s nascent over-sea Empire was soon theirs. The other Kings, well, no matter how grand their Kingdoms no one reads about them in history books.

Writer’s Note: This is about the caixa de liberdade, real mechanisms used on outbound Portuguese boats during the Age of Discovery.  The boxes were about the size of a telephone booth on its side.  The Captain’s was often richly decorated.  It works as a pretty awesome way to send players on adventures and then tell them they can only fill this box…

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Gabriel says:

    On the first paragraph, I knew it was about Portugal! But this is only because I’m brazilian and know my country history (at least a little bit…). 😛
    If you want more murder-hoboing from this side of the world, look for the “bandeirantes” (pure murderhoboing to go deeper in land) or the Jesuit reduction (spanish church conversion of natives, until portuguese murderhobos expelled them). Both come soon after the history you told. 😉

  2. It is Portugal! It has one of the world’s most fascinating histories, especially as the court in Lisbon get a second “pop” after they kicked the Spanish out.

    And what happens in Brazil during colonization is _fascinating_ and the endless source of more articles. The history of the bandierantes is a particularly rich vein to mine. Fortune Hunters! Profit and adventure!

  3. Lordomatic says:

    Great article! Keep them coming!

  4. And then someone puts a portable hole in their box.

  5. Another absolutely excellent read. The originality of these articles and the concepts as applied to gaming campaigns is incredible. It’s like a master class on applying read-world history to a fantasy campaign. Mix in the murder hobos, and watch the hi-jinks ensue.

    These articles needs to be combined into some kind of master publication (like an ebook or something) because the wealth of ideas here cannot be underestimated.

    Thank you Emily for another great article!

    • De nada! This was easy.

      The general vague forming plan is that I just keep writing until I have an enormous mountain of words. Then we scale Mount Words and find the shiniest ones at its summit. We find someone editor-shaped (I believe there are a few around here) and bang the shiny words into a thing.

      We’ve also talked about making Castles in the Sky a stand alone but it needs ~4K more words, some serious editing, and art.

  6. xobmaps says:

    Another great story based on history. If castles in the sky is book one, maybe real histories told with fictional countries could be the second?

  7. What reason do the murder hobos have to keep adventuring once their boxes are full? There’s no point in accumulating excess treasure if you can’t keep it, to say nothing of risking your return voyage by loading down the hull and unbalancing the ship! Expeditions would likely return to the Kingdom with nothing for the King. But why return to the Kingdom at all? Why not sail to a different port in a neighboring kingdom and keep ALL the treasure? Or better still, why not mutiny and turn the ship to piracy, hanging just outside the Kingdom’s reach and preying on successful return voyages that are too laden with treasure to get away? Those pesky murder hobos (and the players who control them) love to… um… Think outside the box.

    • First off, if you were that smart, you wouldn’t be a Murder Hobo. You’d be a Banker. Note that no Bankers are harmed in any of these voyages but they certainly make money off bankrolling them.

      Second you can do all this stuff. In fact, historically, people _did_ all this stuff. It’s perfectly valid to take the ship and turn to piracy or stay in the far off kingdom and plunder away. It’s a trade off for the Murder Hobos. They have to ask themselves:

      Do they want to exile themselves from their homes, their people, their King and their Kingdom, give up everything they hold dear, to live in some far off, bug- and disease-ridden foreign Kingdom to make themselves Gods? Do they want to give up their homes to be pirates? And will it end well when the Kingdom sends Murder Hobos to plunder them? Or do they play by the rules, fill the box, pay the duty on the rest, come home, and get turned into national heroes?

      You know what, that sounds like a valid campaign with plenty of free will built in to me.

  8. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    This is absolutely my favorite series on this site.