Dragons and the Free Rider Problem

murdernomicsThe Dragon

The village acquired a dragon.

The village didn’t intend to acquire a dragon. It’s more like the dragon happened to them.  One day, the villagers were dragon-free and going about their usual daily villager life.  Next day, they had a dragon.

The village sat nestled among some hills riddled with small caves.  Before now, little black bears inhabited those caves.  They were a nuisance. The black bears got into the village garbage. Then, the dragon came and took up residence in a cave.  Presumably, she ate the little black bears as a light appetizer.

Had the dragon been of the small, black, lake-dwelling variety, or a little green thing, the local domestic so-called security forces could have worked a little pest control.  Those dragons aren’t much of a risk.  They’re annoying, but it’s like getting rid of a nasty raccoon infestation.

This dragon was different.  This dragon was serious.

The local Lord called on his Duke and said look, I have this dragon pest. It’s a big red dragon. It’s living in my hills. It’s going to eat the sheep. Can you send your men in?

The Duke made quick calculations about politics, forces, money, and how many of his expensive men the dragon would eat.  Most of his dragon-slaying mounted forces were relatives. The Duke needed them should the King decide to do something random and Kingly.  Having all his relatives dead by dragon was a good way to lose his hereditary Dukedom to his next door peers.  And the Duke said to the young Lord, what you need, son, is some Murder Hobos.

The Quest Giver told the young Lord the Murder Hobos with the right skills, magic weapons, spells, and accreditation weren’t cheap.  To get rid of the red dragon, the Lord had to pony up some serious cash. The old Quest Giver knew the right team. But she needed to lure them to the village for Great Heroics with a Quest and Serious Filthy Lucre.

In the medieval world, war is socialized but all economics are local.  The only time economics or defense becomes a national thing is if the King and his various inbred relatives ride around and burn down the local countryside.  The Duke had already turned down his plea and the King?  Come on.  No way.  The young Lord had to raise his own cash to buy his own Murder Hobos to take care of the dragon currently sort-of kind-of terrorizing (but mostly, it seems, napping) his village.

The young Lord opened his coffers and counted the 72 silvers within twice.

The Free Rider Problem

The Lord went to his village and told the villagers the following salient facts:

  • They had a dragon infestation problem;
  • The Duke was not going to help;
  • They needed to buy some Murder Hobos for Village Dragon Protection;
  • The Lord could not pay for it out-of-pocket;
  • The village needed to pony up.

Like all medieval villages, this village had of a mix of the well-off (various wool merchants), the large freeholders (small landowners), the free peasants (individual farmers) and a few of the Duke’s serfs (bound to the land).  They all had money but the inequality curve was steep.

But unlike regular villagers in medieval fantasy stories who roll over to help along the Murder Hobo’s Heroic Plot, these villagers were clever.  They figured out that Murder Hobos were a socialized solution to a social problem.  Murder Hobos serve the best interests of everyone regardless who pays or how much.  Some would pay in the best interests in the village. Some other villagers would weasel out of paying all Murder Hobo costs and still gain the Murder Hobo benefits.  They could pay zero because someone else would pick up their tab.

This is the free rider problem.  Or, in this case, the free-protected-by-murder-hobo-heroics problem.

This is the ensuing conversation.

  • The serfs said: I only have 5 coppers. I live in a mud hut. I don’t even own this land. I’m super poor.  If I give up my 5 coppers I will have nothing. But, I don’t need to pay.  See, if the rich guys pay, they cover my protection, too, because the Murder Hobos killing the dragon protects us all. The rich have more stuff to protect.  It’s a rich person problem and people should pay in proportion to what they have.
  • The free peasants said: I have a farm at risk from the dragon.  If I pay, I get rid of the dragon and mitigate my risk.  But, that’s expensive. If we force the serfs to pay for the Murder Hobos, because they’re serfs and we like putting problems on the backs of serfs, I also get Murder Hobo protection by gratis.  I’m sure the merchants will cover the remaining because they’re rich and self-interested in protecting their shops.  I only have so much money and don’t want to pay much tax because I need my money for my farm.
  • The large freeholders and the well off merchants said: I’m not going to pay for the Murder Hobo-based protection for all these serfs and free peasants. They are serfs and free peasants! That’s ridiculous! They are dirty and smelly!  Why should I dip into my savings and pay more than my fair share for protection of myself and my lands?  This is patently unfair.  I can afford to pay for myself but I won’t pay for all these other people.  This is my money.  Besides, there’s a gazillion peasants and only one of me!

The village stood around and shouted at one another.  They assumed one peasant class was going to pay for the other peasant classes, or the rich would pay for everyone.  And thus, no one paid for anything.  Complete political paralysis.  The Lord continued to have a grand total of 72 silver to pay for high-level dragon-slaying Murder Hobos.

As it stood, all the villagers felt the other villagers should bear the Murder Hobo costs while they free rode on the benefits. One needed to squeeze both the peasants and the merchants to make Murder Hobo dragon removal service equitable.  But, the young Lord didn’t want to squeeze by violence.

Usually, at this point, the dragon says screw it, takes advantage of the Murder Hobo-free village, and eats it.  Indecision and an aversion to voluntarily purchasing public goods is the #1 source of highly nutritious and tasty dragon snacks.  And when that happens, the problem becomes the Duke’s problem, because his village has turned into a non-producing wasteland.

Indecision was a solution.  The downside of that solution, as the young Lord saw it, was that they’d all be dead.  And that was inconvenient.

The Lord had a choice: he could go around the mess, go to the Transmuter Bankers and take out a loan and put his village up at collateral, or try to incentivize the peasants to help pay voluntarily.  He decided to try to incentivize the villagers first.  He needed to recast the problem as a threat to privately owned goods to get everyone in his village to pay what they could for Murder Hobos to remove the dragon.

Sheep and Murder Hobos

72 silver does, however, pay for a Bard.

The Bard said to the Lord, you can do compulsory taxation to pay for the Murder Hobos, but you would need to hire a sheriff and his men to do a little arm-twisting violence. You could take out a loan, but the bankers might come and take your village if you can’t pay them back.  If you want to do this on the cheap, and I know you do because you are broke, you need to give a reason for your villagers – all of them – to open their wallets and pay their fair share.

And you can do that by feeding the dragon the villager’s sheep and leaving remaining chewed sheep bits all over their fields.  Maybe, burn down a serf mud hut.

This presents a clear and present danger.

This would, of course, incite the dragon to come to the village and eat things outside the plan.  This might give the dragon the idea to eat more than its allocated amount of sheep and burn down extra, random mud huts.  The dragon might start eating the peasants.  This was the risk.

The Lord needed the peasants to work the fields and sheer the sheep.  Sheep were one thing.  Sheep were theoretically replaceable given time and the cycle of the seasons.  Peasants were another.  He was feeling risk averse and thinking about taking out the loan.

But Bards are persuasive bastards especially when there’s a great story on the line. The Bard pointed out they only needed one good incident of rigged sheep eating and a Bard to gin it up and the peasants would pay for the Murder Hobos.

The young Lord wasn’t completely keen on this idea. But, he went along with it anyway because he had limited choices. In the depths of night, when the village slept, the Lord and the Bard lead one of the sheep out by the hills and waited. And waited.  And waited.

No dragon.

The next night, the Lord and the Bard went out to the hills with the sheep and, this time, hung sausages and nice, lean cuts of mutton from the trees hoping the smell would incite the dragon.

No dragon.

On the third night, the Lord and the Bard went out to the hills with sheep, sausages, mutton, a keg of beer, a wheel of cheese, and 16 loaves of arguably stale bread on a cart. They waited. And waited. And waited.

This time the dragon emerged from the cave.  She blinked, and then followed the smell to its feast. The Lord and the Bard slowly backed up the cart to lure the dragon to some choice peasant lands owned by one of the bigger landowners.

The Lord and the Bard never did explain adequately why, in the morning, the peasants discovered a smoking serf shack and a live but somewhat confused sheep standing among the remains of cheese rinds, bread ends, sausage casings, meat bits, and broken beer keg.  But a good (and cheap) Bard can work with this.

This wasn’t any dragon, dammit, the Bard told the villagers.  She wasn’t only going to eat your children and burn down your homes. This was a dragon, the Bard said, that was also coming for your stuff.  Look at the proof!  She’s a cheese eating, beer swilling, sausage chewing, baby eating dragon!  (Never mind the lack of eaten baby.)  This worst kind of dragon!

She’s! Coming! For! The pub!

The pub!

Don’t you care about the pub?


The Bard said look, it’s either your stuff or your cash.  The dragons – all of them, worldwide – are coming for your beer and your way of life! Aren’t you afraid?

It’s a funny thing about an appeal to stuff.  Take the average serf with only a mud hut and 5 coppers. Given the choice between his 5 coppers or his mud hut, the serf chooses his mud hut. What else does he have?  The serf cannot sleep under 5 coppers. He needs his hut. The same for the free peasants, the free holders, and the well-off merchants. Before the choice was pay up or nothing.  Now, it was the stark terms of free protection or the village’s security.

The freeholders and the merchants were not pleased about getting soaked. But soaked they were. The tax finally passed.  The Lord collected the taxes.

The Murder Hobos arrived at the pub promptly. The Lord gave them a little spiel about the dragon terror.  He might have over-sold it a little. The Quest Giver gave the Murder Hobos the quest.  The Murder Hobos went into the hills.  They fought a great heroic battle.  They killed the dragon.  They collected their immense reward.  They saved the day!


The Bard wrote a story.

That is the story of how the small peaceful peasant village paid for heroic Murder Hobos to save their village from the grip of the terrible, somewhat drunk, and often napping great red dragon.

And when the Murder Hobos finished but had not yet gone to their next job, the Lord asked himself this question:

Now that he could get the village to pay a tax for Murder Hobos, should he soak the village to pay for the Murder Hobos in perpetuity?

Permanent Military Footing

Was there any reason to de-escalate from dragon-destroying footing and de-militarize?  Why get off permanent military footing?  Theoretically, the Lord now had at his disposal an extremely tiny but effective army of mercenary murderers. The village made bank off left over dragon bits (super rare) and the steady stream of tourists visiting the Heroic Place where the Dragon was Defeated.  Letting the Murder Hobos go would help protect some other village from some dire threat. But then, the young Lord would lose this useful tool.

The Lord could conquer the nearby villages and add them to his demesne, but that didn’t feel Murder Hobo heroic. They wouldn’t stick around for that.

Besides, the Duke kind of screwed the Lord.  And the Lord knew the Duke’s men were not equal to the Murder Hobos.  Otherwise, they would have come and killed the dragon in the first place.

The Lord sold the Duke to the Murder Hobos as the “evil, oppressive Duke.”   You know, taxes, civil wars, compulsory conscription, personal ambition, that kind of thing, pretty standard high nobility in the Middle Ages.  The Lord pointed out to the Murder Hobos that he was benevolent and loved his village.  He brought in the Murder Hobos to protect his people!  Maybe it’s time for a change?

After all, the village had all these new tourists. The sales tax alone from dragon-based t-shirts bulwarked the village’s coffers enough to pay the Murder Hobo fees.

And the Duke’s castle wasn’t that far away.

Later, the new Duke commissioned a statue to the dragon.

As for the Bard, he bailed.  There was a big world out there to destabilize in the name of Good.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames


  1. Bravo. Seriously fantastic read.

  2. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    I remember when the Murderhobos would throw in with the dragon giving him/her/it a crystal ball establishing a total surveillance apparatus, and using the gathered Intel to plunder other sites of interest splitting the loot with the dragon. No forward planning these modern murderhobo.


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