Cargo Cults in the Murder Hobo Dark Ages

The End

When the Dwarves attacked the Empire, the Empire pulled all its military from its far-flung edges to buttress its own survival.  The troops defending the security and stability of the Island disappeared overnight.

The Royal-appointed Governors sent a panicked letter to the Emperor begging for the Empire’s defense. In response, the Emperor sent back a manual on how to train troops from local sources.  Believing this was some strange and horrific joke, the Governors sent another letter begging for support.

They never heard from the Emperor, or the Empire, again.

“Well, okay,” thought the Governors.  They elected to carry on business as usual.  While trade with the outside dropped to a precarious trickle, trade between towns continued on.  Farms farmed.  Towns towned.  Governors appointed judges and tax collectors.  Wizards maintained the magical edifices keeping clean water flowing into homes and automating daily life. Despite dwindling contact with the outside, life carried on and, for a long time, no one missed the Empire’s hand.

This state of affairs could not last forever. Without protection from the Empire, the towns were rich pickings.  The long marginalized goblins and orks charged from the swamps.  They attacked, rampaged, gnawed, murdered, and burned towns down. Townsfolk picked up swords and headed to old military fortifications.  Mighty Murder Hobos sprang from the hard-pressed ranks. They quested the mighty Quest to keep the old order of civilization while rolling bodies and taking stuff.

With townsfolk forced to man the old forts and ancient walls left by the Empire, no one collected the harvest.  Workers fled their lands and disappeared into the forests.  While the Governor-appointed officials futilely ordered everyone to return to work, starving people fought over food scraps.

Towns rose against towns.

Along came powerful Murder Hobos, leveled up on a steady diet of orks, goblins, and ogres.  They called themselves Generals.  They formed armies and went to war with neighboring towns for food.   They fought enormous wars against other local Murder Hobos generals looking to enrich themselves.  800 years later, people remembered these Murder Hobos in legend and tale.

And the Murder Hobos won. For a time, life in the Old Empire returned.

On the eastern side of the island, one Murder Hobo declared himself King.  He needed troops to defend his holdings.  He reached out across the sea and imported mercenaries by the thousands.  He dreamed of establishing a new Empire on the Island with him at its head.  He would force the other Murder Hobo generals to their knees, and they would place laurels upon his head. He would wear the purple, stand in the last Governor’s palace, and return the Island to its old splendor.

The mercenaries checked the place out.  The few still-standing towns had walls, roads, and running water. The land was black and fertile.   The orks and goblins were no threat to these battle-hardened mercenaries.  Neither, frankly, were the Murder Hobo generals busy fighting among themselves.

They made the obvious decision.  The mercenaries murdered the Murder Hobo King. They established a beach-head, built a dock, and imported their tribes en masse.

This is how the Empire finally ended.  Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Cargo Cult

Wuffa was King of the Wolf People.  He claimed a pedigree going back to the old country’s mythical Kings and their God of War and Death.  His actual pedigree went back two generations to a strong man mercenary who seized an opportunity to better himself.  Before that, his ancestors were random guys. But as King Wuffa and his entire tribe had no written record about who descended from whom, Wuffa told a story about descent from God and through great Kings.  It sounds good, and it impressed the tribes, so Wuffa went with that.

Wuffa and his tribe never knew life in the Empire.  Their ancestors were forever kept out by walls and armies.  They came from the wild steppes and forests. Their lives were tribal and hard.  They know of the splendor but never experienced the true splendor for themselves.

The tribe camped in this abandoned city center with the still-standing theaters, magic schools, manor houses, marketplaces, and tattered government centers.  The gleaming walls stood covered in ivy and vines.  The perfect paved road ran north to south.  In some houses, the magic still worked and clear water still ran. The people were ghosts.

Deep in the city’s civic works, notes hung from pipes and magical devices.  These written instructions to the future explained how, step by step, to keep the city’s internal magic system running.  Yet, the tribe could not read.  They used these notes to start their fires and keep themselves warm.

Wuffa dreamed of becoming the King of Kings.  Every tribe had a King.  The Island had thousands of tribes, so the Island had thousands of Kings.  But Wuffa wanted to rule over all the tribes. Back in the time of the Empire, the Emperor was King of Kings.  He commanded great armies and fought great battles.  The Emperor was a great War Leader who did War.

Wuffa was smart and Wuffa was cunning. Determined to rule the Island’s eastern coast, Wuffa lead his people into battle against other petty, tribal Kings. He defeated them with axe and screaming.  Then, he folded those tribes into his own and rose up to defeat other tribes.  After an orgy of blood, he crowned himself a King of Kings. He made his capital in this abandoned Empire city with its magic running water and great marble pillars.

But Wuffa couldn’t simply be King without resurrecting the Empire.  The Empire was where it was at.  The Empire meant civilization. Conquest. The Empire was power, strength, and rule.   It was… something long dead but awesome. It was amazing.

Wuffa fetishized the trappings of the Empire.  He moved his people into the eerie, weirdly complete cities and ordered his people to act like Citizens of the Empire.  When Wuffa walked anywhere in his Kingdom, in times of battle and peace, he ordered standards in the Empire tradition carried before him.  He gave himself the name Emperor Wuffa.  He edited his pedigree so he descended from God, Petty Kings, and the long-dead Emperor-KingsHe sent his Murder Hobos through forgotten cities overrun with goblins and orks for ancient artifacts he could display.

Wuffa dreamed of resurrecting the authority inherent in the Empire.  Sure, these standards looked nothing like Empire standards.  They weren’t tall nor square and they displayed flapping bits of tattered raccoon skin. The scepter Wuffa carried around was not a grand scepter of office but a (nicely) carved tree limb.  Dammit, he looked like an Emperor, he felt like an Emperor, and he would rule his tiny Empire of Citizens.

Wuffa’s people went along with this because they, too, hoped to lay hands on the cool stuff of Empire. They weren’t sure what any of it was or what it was for but it looked cool. The people fused the Empire’s religious symbols with their own faiths. They created Gods who ran screaming naked to war and then returned home in the evening for a proper family supper.

Wuffa’s Murder Hobos found great success in their hunt for things. They returned from raiding an ancient Governor’s palace. They met Wuffa with his tribal leaders at the city’s marble and vine-covered plaza.  They pulled from a sack a gleaming golden diadem.  Here was the greatest trapping of the Empire: a bit of kit conferring authority in the Empire itself.

Wuffa desired it more than anything.  This crown would resurrect the Empire. He, Wuffa, would be the next, true Emperor.

The Murder Hobos handed the crown to the tribe’s Druid.  The Druid intoned words to the tree spirits, the water spirits, and the earth spirits.  She held the crown high over Wuffa’s head and, set it upon his brow.

It slipped down his head and hung around his neck.

Tall, elegant, beautiful and cultured Elves built and ruled the Empire.  What no one in the great annals of history mentioned was this:

The mercenaries who migrated to the Island, conquered the local people in bloody conquest, and made themselves Kings, the inheritors of Empire…

…were Halflings.

The Time of Murder Hobos

Wuffa exists in a time of darkness, blood and mayhem. His people live and die by the sword. Enemies surround their tribe. Orks and goblins storm from the swamps to stage raids on the weak.  The Men who worked the land under the Empire assimilate into the tribes and rebuild new villages —  their time and rise will come.  The Elves, once the Empire’s Lords and Governors, escape to the far edges of the Island, hide in the forests and plot their revenge.

The Halfling-Elf war broils for years. A century after Wuffa’s death, the war turns hot and Wuffa’s descendant, Udda, decides enough is enough with the damn forest Elves and builds a giant ditch through the Island with the Halfling Kingdoms on one side and the Elves on another.  He fills his side of the ditch with nasty, pointy sticks pointed at the Elvish side.   “Jump that,” he says.  Then, Udda built a series of torches along the wall to signal when Elves attacked.

Udda got these ideas from his Empire/Halfling clerics. They deciphered enough of the Empire’s forgotten military manuals – in particular, a popular one they found in the ruins about training local militias and building local defense. They used this knowledge on the Empire’s last true heirs.  Irony waits for no Elf.

Meanwhile, Wuffa’s time is a great time for the unfettered Murder Hobo on the go.  The level cap is the limit for Murder Hobos in the time of the Halfling Kingdoms.  Wuffa wants artifacts to Cargo Cult the Empire and the Murder Hobos are the team to get them.

  • The Empire’s cities still stand. Their magical modern conveniences still run – some magic has a time limit, but this sort of utility magic has staying power.  The tribes greatly desire that convenience magic so they can live as the Empire lived, if a wizard can learn the spells and reproduce it.  Whoever has the most is the most “civilized.”
  • The Empire’s wizard’s are gone and they cleaned out their workshops as they fled.  They likely didn’t take everything.  And who knows what, in the intervening centuries, took up residence in those old wizard halls.  Or what happens if the ancient Empire magic falls into the wrong hands.  Or, better yet, into Wuffa’s enemies hands.  Wuffa isn’t the only tribal leader who dreams of being Emperor.
  • Wuffa will gleefully send Murder Hobos into abandoned tombs of Great Leaders of the Past or the fallen Murder Hobo Generals who tried to defend the Island.  Yes, artifacts precious to future archeologists fill those dungeons.  But screw those guys – Wuffa will look fabulous in this ancient purple cloak while the Murder Hobos take all the magic weapons for themselves.
  • Goblins and Goblin Armies are a real, serious threat to the Halfling Nation’s survival.  Heading into the swamps to clean them out results in some heavy XP and loot.
  • Wuffa needs Murder Hobos to help him defend his tribe, lands and kingdoms.  Any tribes not assimilated into Wuffa’s Kingdoms are the enemy. They raid at any time.  Wuffa’s wars are small-scale, highly personal affairs: a single battle on a hill, a single tribal raid, defeating a mini-boss.
  • It’s a time of tribal magic, of things haunting the forest, and of the Old Gods – or even Older, pre-Empire Gods. Creatures repressed by the Empire now roam, hunt, and kill. Murder Hobos should plan appropriately.
  • And Murder Hobos can make themselves King of Kings and either try to oust Wuffa or carve out their own banana republic Kingdom on the Island – and then go to war with Wuffa over who is the “most Empire”.

Yet, Wuffa’s time means none of the modern conveniences of the more modern Murder Hobo on the Go:

  • Without integrated trade, stores full of magic items or standard equipment are exceedingly rare except in the few tiny trading centers. Even then, pickings are thin.
  • The rare magic-enabled blacksmith or wizard makes all the magic weaponry and armor.   Few tribes have either. Repairing magic items is itself a quest.
  • Wizard schools are non-existent.  Masters teach wizard magic master-apprentice style. Those are difficult to come by – the few remaining Wizards are hard to find.
  • More natural magic like Warlock, Sorcerer, and Druid is much more prevalent.  But Warlock and Sorcery comes with great tribal stigma (she’s a witch!)
  • Clerical magic is a bizarre blend of the last dregs of the Empire and the tribal cult magic of the Halflings.  The Gods conform to their believer’s inclinations but they grant inconsistent spell lists.
  • No one has re-invented the pub, let alone rebuilt the Quest Givers Guild (or, for that matter, any guild).  Murder Hobos are on their own to discover their own fun. Luckily, Wuffa wants stuff.
  • Towns themselves are rare and they lack inns.  No one has the money or the luxury of maintaining empty beds for Murder Hobos.
  • Rare coinage.  Ancient Empire coins found in dungeons are very valuable.  No one mints new coins – at least, not yet.  Trade is largely barter-based.  A single gold Empire coin can buy an entire tribe.
  • Elves will just outright kill Murder Hobos.  Even if the Murder Hobos are Elves.

It’s a time of darkness. It’s a time of blood.  And it’s a time of big scores and creating of personal legends for the common Murder Hobo.

Writer’s Note: The Cargo Culting of the Romans by the early Anglo-Saxon bretwaldas appears in Bede.  Wuffa is named for Wuffa of the Wuffingas, a ruling dynasty of Anglo-Saxons in East Anglia who may have come from Sweden. They are also mentioned in Bede and claim they descended from Woden.  Udda maps to Offa of the Mercians, first real King of England, of whom we will likely hear more about.

Cargo Culting of Rome goes all the way to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire by Otto the Great, so it’s not simply an end-of-Roman-Britain thing but found in Dark Ages Vikings, Franks, Normans, etc.   And the Elves are the Welsh, who are total badasses of history.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Great article! It appeals to both my gaming and anthropology interests. 🙂

  2. Yay! Happy to appeal to anthropology interests. 🙂

  3. Of course you realize goblins are just a branch of the human family tree that got bullied out of the cave for being too short, hairy, and the victim of vicious rumors they were spawning Goblin subspecies like barghest with wild dogs, pooka with wild ponies, and Hobgoblins with the ancestors of Elves.