Murder Hobos and Empire

mecha shivaThe Empire

The Empire lasted 5000 years.  Like all fantasy empires, the beginning was hazy and undefined.  It had a founder.  He was a great mythical General who slew a the head of an older, more corrupt Kingdom in a huge battle with spectacular special effects. Standing over the body of his slain foe, the General proclaimed himself Emperor. Grateful citizens, thankful to the General for leading them out of a dark time and into enlightened light, brought him the long forgotten Crown. Surrounded by family, friends, followers, and sycophants, the General sat on his Throne and began the long rule.

The Emperor was an Elf. He ruled over the races with an even hand – the other elves, the men, the halflings, the gnomes, the half-orcs, and the occasional but rare tourist dwarf.  All lived together in peace and harmony until a Threat faced the Empire. Then the Heroes saved the day.

This is a bog-standard fantasy Empire.  Colorless, bland, it begins with a bang and lasts thousands of years without interruption, collapse, civil war, disease, or hiccup.  The enlightened Emperor keeps his people safe while his threats are evil and wrong. Yet Empires, even those headed by hyper-conservative Elves, cannot last 5000 years without major social and economical engineering. Anything can destroy an Empire: an uprising, an unwarranted technology advance, even a new idea.

The #1 social good promoted by the Empire is the existence and continued stability of the Empire.  Every action must save the Empire; threats cannot disrupt the citizen’s lives; the Empire must continue.  The Emperor is good, the outside is bad, and heroes save the day by preventing change.  First order of business: forbid all new things, especially technological advance.  Order of business #2: worship the past and ignore the future.  The long lives of elves incentivize them to protect themselves and their Empires.  A new thing might unbalance the delicate machinery of power.  Things that threaten it must go.

Nothing lasts forever unless it exists in a hermetically sealed box.  But the Elves are smart and they stack the deck.  These particular Elves (good and shining all) built their Empire like so:


Unless Elves are immortal in this setting, they picked Charismatic Dynasts with primogeniture inheritance because it’s nice, stable, and a predictable. Done.

The bigger trick was establishing an effective professional bureaucracy of scholars, mostly other Elves, to run tiers of regional control across the Empire. Instead of handing control to squabbling nobles with inherited titles who vie and plot to become Emperor themselves, or raise up in civil war, the Emperor built his government through testing, meritocracy, learning, and civilian rule. Should one governor die or retire, another unrelated but similarly qualified took his or her place.  This allowed the Emperor to centralize power over his kingdom, create standards, and enforce stability. Uprising regional governors were merely replaced; they had no blood relation to the Emperor and he removed them at will.

The Emperor concentrated the learning and culture of his Empire in his Capital as the central hub.  As the Emperor built the government on meritocracy, only the most learned, most educated, and most erudite circulated in the bureaucracy surrounding the person of the Emperor.  There, the bureaucrats spoke Elvish (even the other races), argued philosophy, tweaked the meritocracy exams, penned poems, wrote histories and composed songs.  They discussed the merits of their Empire and agreed as one it was Good (although how Good was by degrees.)  And should any great scholar invent a new, interesting, and particularly catchy set of ideas?  He was “sent to rule the far-off provinces as a reward” for his magnificent work in thought and progress.


Magic flourished in the Empire.  Wizards built academies and took in a steady stream of new students. Many of these new students matriculated to take the government exams and accept leadership posts in the Empire.  The Emperor encouraged Magic  – as long as young Wizards mastered only the prescribed spells as taught to them by their elders.

At the beginning of Empire, the Wizards and the Emperor met and decided on the core spell list. They broke spells into rungs of “technology” – ie, levels.  Homogeneity gave the Emperor control over magic but he did not stint – the spell list was comprehensive.  But that was it. No other spells.

Using the so-called “Ancient Books of the Ancients” written conveniently by theoretically ancient scholars, students learned by rote the same introductory spells and, as they progressed through their education and careers, learned the same 2nd level spells, same 3rd level spells, all the way to Mastery.  Then those Masters taught their students the same spells from the Ancient Books of the Ancients.  Everyone, even the greatest of villains and the worst monsters, had access to the same spell list and same spells.  No magic, not even the most powerful, proved a major threat to the Emperor.  He always had some Wizard with the antidote to all known spells circling his personal bureaucracy.

On this went for the 5000 years of Empire.

The Empire declared those wizards who performed their own, private magic research the evil renegades. Murder Hobos given quests by the Questgivers in the pay of the centralized bureaucracy (a lovely position if one could get one) dispatched them with extreme violence.  They were evil, Murder Hobos heroes good, out they went.

But, the argument went, why would someone perform their own magical research?  Such a thing was unthinkable.  The current spell list was solid, covered all needs, and mastering magic guaranteed a nice job with comfortable living standards for life.  So almost no one did.  Rogue wizards were an aberration.  The Ancients knew best.


The Emperor developed highly sophisticated trade internally, within his Empire.  The north had wheat and millet. The south had fish and salt.  The government built roads and canals to ease trade pains between the north and south and patrolled them with professional soldiers from the Empire’s small standing army. A lucrative trade cycle formed.  Merchants made good, but not overwhelming, money. The people were happily fed.  With the north and south filling each other’s needs, the people were free to specialize in their trades: mages, clerics, adventurers, magic weaponsmiths, questgivers. They developed arts and luxury goods.

Trade outside the Empire was a different story.  Selling of goods and services to those outside the Empire was forbidden.  It was tantamount to selling arms to the Empire’s enemies.  And who would want to?  No one opened trade with the Ork Hordes who wandered the steppes outside the Empire or the Spider Goddess Worshipping Dark Elves of the Underdark.  Not only was it forbidden, by the cultural norms of the Empire, it was evil.

No goods flowed out, and no goods, with forbidden ideas and technology sticking to them, flowed in.  To the outside, this policy appeared harsh and extremely xenophobic but, on the inside, it guaranteed good quality and predictability. Everyone was happy except those who wanted to trade for those core and luxury goods.  Those guys felt a bit miffed.

But who cares about them. The Emperor created long-term generic fantasy empire stability: poetry and songs were acceptable forms of artistic expression, wizards studied the prescribed magic, a never-changing population of worshippers appeased the Gods, and the realm was generally at peace unless faced with a Big Threat.  Then, to protect stability and peace, the Empire called in the Murder Hobos.

Murder Hobos in the Empire

What to do with the young, the restless, and the adventurous?  What should a great Empire of 5000 years do with its Murder Hobos?  Send them Murder Hoboing!

Murder Hobos assist in the Empire’s inherent extreme conservatism by destroying anything old and threatening, or new and threatening, or current and threatening.

The Empire needs its Murder Hobos.

The previous Empire’s ancient ruins are sitting there, ruining, and waiting for plunder.  Those ruins could hold libraries from the previous civilization with forgotten nuggets of knowledge.  Those books might suggest… science.  And, in the Emperor’s eyes, that knowledge is worse than worthless. It’s an active threat.

What better way to destroy precious, ancient sites than telling groups of Murder Hobos the nearby ruins are full of monsters and treasure?  Provide them money and gear.  Incentivize them with government Questgivers.  Murder Hobos will clean out any active, temporized threats hiding in those caves, carry away the weaponized priceless relics and burn the rest down. They saved the nearby town and the Empire, and no one knows a calculus primer went up in flames.

And, then, should the Ork Hordes on the steppes or other “outsiders” start acting up because, hey, they’d like some in to the Empire’s wealth and trade, Murder Hobos get parachuted in to the so-called remote provinces. Why burn precious professional standing army capital busy protecting the internal trade routes when expendable Murder Hobos can buzzsaw their way through the Empire’s worst “threats.”  To the frontier where it’s wild and there is treasure, the Empire says.  Take out the evil tribes. You will be greatly rewarded for your service in the name of Stability and Peace!

If some internal threat arises – a wizard decides to invent new spells, a dragon trainer decides to breed a new “dangerous” dragon, a bureaucrat consolidates power – send in the Murder Hobos.  These guys are clear and present threats to the Empire’s stability.  Destroy them before they publish a paper and tell anyone about their findings!  Of course, they’re evil.  Anything new and different is evil.  And when attacked, they defend themselves. See? Evil.

Murder Hobos never lay their hands on new weaponry.  Should a great threat appear on the horizon, they quest for the ancient weapon of great power (destroying ancient sites, above).  The ancients – whose burial sites need a good trashing – are the only ones powerful enough and smart enough to stop great external or internal threats.  Only the most ancient and storied weapon is the right one.  If it’s powerful, it’s ancient.  If it’s a threat, it’s new.

This is how the Empire likes it.

End of Empire

Everything clicks along.   The Empire homogenizes government, trade, culture and magic.  Culture focuses on arts, literature and history. External threats terminated or ignored.  Murder Hobos erase all trace of the past while venerating its great knowledge and power.  People are at peace.  The Empire has no known internal threats except the occasional nuisance.   Change is almost unknown.

When the Dwarves show up out of nowhere at the Empire’s cities with their Steampunk-powered mobile firing platforms, they catch Empire a little flat-footed.

Until then, the Dwarves lived quietly in their own Kingdom under the Mountains.  The Empire categorized them as outsiders and ignored them.  Occasionally the Dwarves sent in tourists – strange foreigners into a strange land – but, for the most part, Dwarves stayed home.  A few adventurous Dwarves appeared in Murder Hobo parties, broke some ancient pottery, stole a few ancient swords, and disappeared under the mountain again.  The Empire explained their absence with an elaborate fictional history of a “Dwarvish-Elvish feud” and closed borders to them.

It was quiet.

But the Dwarves didn’t stay as one Kingdom over 5000 years.   The Dwarven Kingdoms grew and fell and grew again, with their own long, and exciting, internal history. They had no restrictions on research or science. And their inherent lack of magic didn’t bother them when they discovered physics.  The Dwarves were happy the Empire considered them “outside” and cast the Dwarven Mountains as an external civilization to ignore. No one traded with them – except all those other societies trapped outside the Empire’s high, beautiful and bureaucratic walls.

So that worked.

There are many theories about the cause of Empire collapse: slow decay on the inside at the highest levels, disintegration of strong centralized bureaucratic control, populations whipsawed by disease, economic stagnation. The Empire would fall, eventually, from its own weight and waste, given enough time.  And 5000 years is long enough for stagnation to set in, for the bureaucracy to stop being a dynamic meritocracy and magic from the Ancient Book of Ancients to become slowly ineffective as the mightiest spells and their counters diffuse through time and population.  Long term conservatism may bring about long-term stability but stagnation and decay leads to complacency.

And sometimes, it’s the arrival of a more technological civilization with different military maneuvers and Steam-powered mobile weapon platforms.  No one stopped the Dwarves for their drive for answers.  No one had news from the Dwarves.  They did their own thing and here it was.

The Dwarves invaded like aliens from outer space and flattened the Empire in weeks.  The previous civilization ended when the General showed up, killed the previous King, pulled together Empire, and crowned himself Emperor.  It ended the decaying, decadent Emperor and his bejeweled bureaucrats now.

The casus belli for war is almost always stuff.  The Dwarves wanted to open trade with the Empire.  Rebuffed by the Elves and forced to talk to the bureaucratic hand, they tried an end run and smuggled goods in for exchange.  Their people caught by local authorities, cast as villains and Murder Hobos set upon them, the Dwarves decided they really wanted to open trade.  Because now it was on and they needed the Empire’s ceramics for their mecha upgrades.  They were going to force it open at the end of a gun.

The Empire, even with their highest level Wizards and greatest Heroes, were no match for a civilization who figured out electricity.  Sure, that wizard casts chained lightning bolt 3 times a day but the mecha can attack with a laser until the power tank runs dry.  And then there is another power tank.  It takes eighteen years to create a new first level wizard; Dwarves build mobile fighting platforms on assembly lines.

The ensuing end of Empire was a mess. Change came, and it wasn’t pretty.  Nothing lasts forever.  The longer the Empire, the harder the economic and socio-political collapse.

Given an infinite timeline, even the mightiest of Empires become their own museums.


Murder Hobos picked through the ruins of Empire.   Those ruins contained the loot, weapons, spells, and armor of an enlightened age.  They were full of undead armies of Empire, ancient survivors plotting to return Empire to its sainted place, and Elves.  Murder Hobos used the ruins of Empire to kill things for XP, level up, and improve their equipment allotment.  It was an amazing, if dangerous, time to be a Murder Hobo.

And eventually, some other General from the Murder Hobos rose up to kill off the great threats and form a new Empire on the ruins of the old.

Writer’s Note: Lots of things I’m thinking about here — the Fall of Rome, Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucianism and bureaucracy, Safavid court culture, the Battle of Plassey, and Dwarves.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Steven Markley says:

    This was a great read. =)

    And actually, this is like something I did when writing my fantasy setting. In Bahati, it’s the ancestors and deities that all are all about maintaining tradition. One of those traditions, as you might guess, is respecting and worshiping your ancestors and gods. The existing nations are conservative by nature, and while some of them are more open to change than others, none permit change radical enough to disrupt society. The ancestors are primarily concerned with maintaining localized (community-level) social order, while deities are focused on national identity and faith.

    The nations aren’t stagnant, so much, but they’re held back in some respects by deathless entities from beyond the grave and cosmic beings that were never human, all of whom are very invested in retaining their power and very existences. Because if people stop praying to them, they’ll fade away. Of course, respect for divinities is included in a package of other traditions people are expected to follow, and these vary from nation to nation. But veneration of the ancestors and deities are constants in all of them, especially since there are social and magical benefits for being devout.

    This doesn’t preclude social upheavals entirely, though. Empires fall and new nations rise up. The social glue of faith helps keep societies together, but it isn’t foolproof.

    Anyway, thanks for inspiring me to think about these issues more deeply. =)

    • I’m seriously thrilled that these things inspire you to think deeper about subjects that matter to you! I’m always happy to give the tools to GMs to think about their worlds and make them richer for everyone — themselves, their players, their dogs.

      Once you start seeing the deep conservatism in Empire it’s difficult to unsee. 🙂

  2. Eric Scott says:

    About halfway through, I found myself wondering if this was an allegorical story of tabletop RPGs, with dwarves representing the dawn of MMOs…

  3. Robert Duff says:

    Was there a particular spell you thought might be disruptive to the status quo of the Empire?

  4. Michael Hutson says:

    A few thoughts:

    While the overall form of empire remains remarkably stable- one George Orwell essay said “as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity”- unless elves are quite different from humans, there will nonetheless be occasional “interesting times”.

    There is a distressing tendency for dynasties to eventually produce “palace princes”: the nth generation descendant of the original conqueror, more familiar with luxury and the fawning of courtiers and concubines than with struggle and conquest. The bureaucracy by necessity becomes semi-autonomous, filtering His Divine Majesty’s commands through a sort of regulatory shock-absorption system, mitigating the more hasty and ill-thought out orders. And about those concubines: since the only other males that can be trusted around the harem are eunuchs, they eventually become a caste of palace insiders, a RIVAL bureaucracy to the official one. Both organizations become adept at “managing” the Emperor, who becomes more a figurehead with each generation.

    Then there’s the Army. The generals leading it have to be competent, but it’s worrisome if they’re TOO good at conquest. Expect capricious purges based on real or false presumptions of disloyalty.

    Given these circumstances, “peace” means keeping the murderous, back-stabbing quest for power and influence merely at the level of court intrigue rather than civil war.


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