The Underdark Hellmouth
It starts with an improbable village perched on the edge of an Underdark Hellmouth.
The village hadn’t always perched on the edge of an Underdark Hellmouth. In the beginning, the village was just a village. It specialized in sheep. It held a weekly market. The proper sheriff was a nice local boy despite working the tax collection circuit. It had its Lord, but he wasn’t a mean Lord. He was the sort of Lord who came down from his manor house on Market Day, knew the names of all the village children, and gamely bought pairs of misshapen shoes from the cobbler.
It had little bits of sleepy village excitement. For example, the local baker had a keen idea about using loaves of bread as the basis of a currency. The baker pushed this idea even when the other villagers pointed out that a loaf of bread does not conform to the size or shape of a trouser pocket. And also, edible. But this did not put the baker off his plan.
This quiet, sleepy village character changed when the Hellmouth opened next door. The Lord sent his men in there to investigate, but none ever returned. The Lord sent word to his superiors.
The Lord’s Lord, the Earl, in a cloud of Pomp and Circumstance, swung by the village to check out the Hellmouth for himself.
The Earl studied the open vapor-spewing mouth of the cavern. The Earl knew the Earl’s incompetent son-in-law lead his military forces. Various cousins filled out his ranks. The Earl’s entire military was, in reality, about ten men strong. He imagined his son-in-law descending into darkness and an Umber Hulk eating him. The Earl was briefly cheered. Then, he thought of the look on his daughter’s face once he told her that terrors from the dark ate her husband.
He sighed, turned, and said to the local Lord: “I’m not sending my men in there. They’ll get killed!”
And then, the Earl left.
The Lord held a village meeting. They voted unanimously to put out calls for the only thing more dangerous than the Hellmouth: Murder Hobos.
The village pulled all they had together into a pile of filthy Murder Hobo-luring lucre. They imported an actual Quest Giver of the Quest Giver’s Guild from the nearby city – over 10 miles away! They decorated their Inn in Murder Hobo-approved attire with old axes and blood-colored tablecloths. They changed the Inn’s name from the “Dog and Pony” to the “Kill and Be Killed.” And they waited.
The Professional Murder Hobos arrived. The Quest Giver offered them the prize (with extra, now stale, bread) for solving the Riddle of the Hellsmouth and Saving the Village. Murder Hobos took one look at what the village could pay, then the Hellmouth, and split.
The next village over, see, paid them much more for killing off the safer and better understood plague of sewer rats.
On Wage Differentials
Take two different jobs. Both jobs require the same level of education and physical ability. For example, Job A is lifeguard. A lifeguard sits on a beach all day. He checks out people in bathing suits, listens to the surf, and occasionally jumps in the water to save someone from drowning. Job B is Sewer Cleaner. The sewer cleaner must battle enormous plague-infested radioactive rats, navigate mazes of confusing tunnels, and fight an end mini-boss.
Given sets of identical Murder Hobos, and assuming both jobs pay the same, Murder Hobos will gravitate en masse to Job A. No one wants to work Job B. This is now a fantasy world of secure beaches with little risk of drowning. But, sewers are overrun with giant radioactive rats and overflowing flush toilets. Also, few people get XP and level.
A job being difficult, dangerous or disgusting determines the wage differential. The more a job fits one of those three categories, the higher the wages to offset the horrors and attract labor. Job B pays more than Job A because it fits all three categories. It’s difficult (navigating a maze in the dark), it’s dangerous (radioactive rats! mini boss!) and it’s disgusting (sewers).
Murder Hobos are natural risk assessment machines. They will risk their current gains in equipment, XP, and cash if they believe the wage offered to complete the Quest by the Quest Giver matches the right amount of risk/grossness/weirdness they must assume. (A wage might not strictly be in gold; it may be magic gear, acclaim, huge XP drops, or other awesomeness.) Murder Hobos will not risk current gains on too low a payout for a job too difficult or dangerous for their current level. Death might be super inconvenient.
They will, however, take easier jobs for quick money.
Quest Givers can do little to make quests less disgusting. Murder Hoboing, by its nature of going around stabbing things, letting them explode, and then rolling corpses, is fundamentally disgusting. But, the “dangerous” and “difficult” parameters on quests are tunable. A Quest Giver makes the quest easier by providing maps, light spells, hints, complete walkthroughs, and magic spells that invoke little floating arrows pointing toward the mini-boss and saying “GO THAT WAY.” And a Quest Giver reduces the dangerous parameter by providing single use healing items. Lots of single use healing items.
Once the Quest Giver turns down the dangerous and difficulty knobs, they can offer the quest to a wider range of Murder Hobos in a bigger band of level sets. They can also reduce the wages (payout, above) of Job B closer to fit Job A. More applicants means more downward wage pressure means lower wages. Safer quests means more quests for everyone at reduced payouts. But, more quests are successfully completed! Everyone wins!
Why single-use healing items? Because, the Quest Givers have a deal going with the local Temples to offer a specially branded line of Safety Items at low, low rates, undercutting the usual marked up prices at the Temple Store. And, the Quest Giver will buy back unused potions of healing/scrolls of raise dead/scrolls of resurrect to flesh out his supply. The Temple gets a kickback and the Quest Giver gets to keep the differential between how much a Quest would have cost for Murder Hobos to complete it and what it did.
Everyone makes money.
Ever wonder why a Quest Giver offers special items to Murder Hobos at the beginning of the quest? Because, without the special items, the Quest Giver must pay the Murder Hobos for the full value of the Quest. With the special items, they can reduce the payout, use cheaper Murder Hobos, save money, and get the same job done.
Back to the Hellmouth
The Quest Giver makes these structural and managerial changes to ensure Murder Hobo Success:
First, he imports a Temple with a bunch of cleric suppliers from the City. The Quest Giver has worked with these guys in the past – they’re good, real good. The clerics set up their mini local “healing Temple” in a nearby abandoned barn. The Quest Giver invests some of the village money in the clerics for startup seed. They start pumping out potions.
Second, the Quest Giver imports a magic item Artificer from the City and sets the Wizard up as the Local Identify and Cheap Magic Scroll Making guy. A bit more village money goes into him. Wizards as a whole aren’t cheap. But, freshly graduated Wizards from Wizard College are always looking for an interesting and educational post doc.
Third, he set up the village market to buy/sell whatever magic items the Murder Hobos dump on them from Underdark Hellmouth loot caches. This meant taking a loan out from the City’s Transmuter Bankers at low rates for seed cash. Also, the village market must run every day. Never mind your fields and your family! The Quest is more important (and more lucrative!) Make enough money and the village can pay off the bankers and import food. It’s a service economy now.
Fourth, he set standards for the safety and regulations for entering the Hellmouth. The questors must have a minimum level. Everyone must wear +1 Magic Armor. Everyone must wield a +1 Magic Weapon of some sort. Everyone must carry at least two Scrolls of Raise Dead (for sale here at cheap prices!) The party must have a Cleric/Paladin/other healer to ensure Party Longevity. The Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock must have X levels to cast area effect spells. Don’t forget to prestidigitate!
The Quest Giver hangs signs to post around the opening to the dungeon.
Fifth, he set up the Local Lord with a script to pontificate to the incoming Murder Hobos. Dress the Lord in a fur hat and gold chains. Have him monologue about the history of the sleepy village and point them in the Inn’s direction. Put in a little pop at the end for the Quest Giver’s Branded Healing Items.
Sixth, the Quest Giver threw out the stale bread.
Then, the Quest Giver lowers the payout for venturing into the Hellmouth. He set tiers of quest. Kill X level thing, get Y reward. If you want more quests, we’ll send you deeper and deeper until you fight the Deep Elves themselves, but after completing quests A-C. Safety for our beloved friends, the Murder Hobos, the Quest Giver points out, is our number one concern. Safety is important for everyone!
By this time, the village pleads with the Quest Giver. “You’ve destroyed our way of life,” they said. “You made our local Lord kind of a pompous jerk.”
But the Murder Hobos came. Now that the Quest required lower levels, the Murder Hobo population hungry for XP was larger. The Quest was less risky. It was more fun. The quests had less opportunity for instant death but more opportunity for finding magic swords down in the darkness. Sure, it was still disgusting, since killing Otyughs is killing Otyughs. But, it was less difficult and dangerous. And cheaper!
Besides, the Quest Giver didn’t want the sort of extreme high level and expensive Murder Hobos who could actually venture into the darkness, find the root of the Underdark Hellmouth, kill a bunch of Deep Elves, and close the dungeon. That would turn off the spigot of opportunity.
When lower level Murder Hobos quested, the clerics made money from healing items, the wizard made money from identifying equipment, the villagers made money by buying unwanted gear from the dungeon and selling it back to the City (still 10 miles away!), and the Lord received attention. The pumping heart of economy ran. Who didn’t want that?
The village economy boomed.
People migrated from all over to set up shop. The villagers built the clerics a real Temple instead of keeping them in a barn. The Wizard bought a fancy storefront. Real magic item Artificers moved in. The Lord enjoyed his huge new tax base until the Earl came and took most of it “for the King.” Guilds showed up. The Transmuter Bankers built a bank. The village morphed into a city.
Murder Hobos arrived from all over to run the quests and get stuff. The Underdark Hellmouth pumped out, on command, monsters like Umber Hulks, Grells (wtf?), Orks, Giants, Creepers, Beholders, Purple Worms, Grimlocks, Hook Horrors… all with hefty treasure ratings. Murder Hobos, now wrapped in giant inflatable magic Sumo Suits for their Protection, descended, warbled around the top levels of the Underdark Hellmouth, killed a thing, took its loot, and spent that loot liberally in town.
No Murder Hobos killed one of those horrible, nasty, evil spider-worshipping Deep Elves. They always escaped at the last moment with some cunning plan. Next time, next time the Good Guys will finally kill the Bad Guy!
We sort of leave this fantasy village right where it is. It’s doing pretty well except for the baker who does not get to use bread as currency. Nothing bad happens to the village until, years later, Big Heroes of Legend decide to Close the Hellmouth For Once and For All. And then, the villagers run the Big Heroes out of town for being bad for business. And, the Quest Giver receives liberal kickbacks from his close friends, the Deep Elves, who turned an embarrassing roof-exploding accident into a monster testing opportunity.
The Lesson Here is This
If you want a dungeon menace solved and a boss monster actually killed, keep the dungeon unsafe but be prepared to shell out some serious hard-core cash.
But… if you want the dungeon to be a lucrative source of constant income, remember, Murder Hobo friends: occupational safety is your friend! If you feel the dungeon is insufficiently safe or you are not provided an adequate number of healing items, please see your local Quest Giver Safety Board.
Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames