The Tontine

usual suspectsA Bard Tells a Story

The bard at the bar in the Adventurer’s Guild picks up his drink (his unfortunate third) and finishes his story:

“… the seven Tiefling Warlocks chase the Demon Lord to some netherworld plane and trap it in an underground cavern,” he says.  “They have a spectacular fight. All kinds of magic flying around the place, taking out stalagmites and blowing up walls. Big fireworks show.  In the end, they corner the beast.  The beast is enormous.  Must be seventeen feet tall. At least. Huge horns brush up against the ceiling.  The Demon Lord warns the Warlocks if they kill him, he will curse them.  And yeah, they kill him.

“But here’s the thing – that Demon Lord was protecting some magic gizmo.  Soon as they kill the Demon Lord, the gizmo breaks, and it releases a… a soul, I guess.  The seven of them each absorb one-seventh of the soul.  The Warlocks figure out later it gives them a big boost to their magic. So they assume the soul was the ultimate treasure for killing the Demon Lord.  Being Tiefling Warlocks, they decide this is pretty cool and don’t think too hard about the later consequences.

“The seven of them go on another adventure and a beholder disintegrates one of their number in battle. Tragic. But, the moment that happens, the remaining six receive a noticeable power bump.  Conservation of the soul is preserved in the group.  As you can imagine, the last six eye each other and think, well, you know, I like you guys, but I like power more.”

The bartender-slash-Guild Master gives the bard another drink, and asks, “What happened to the Tieflings?”

“Hell if I know,” the bard says. “After that, I got out of there.  Six crazy power mad Tiefling Warlocks and a single grand prize among them?  Would you stay?”*

The Adventurer’s Guild

The Guild Master wanted to expand the Guild and move to bigger facilities.  The Guild was doing well financially, and with the rising ork hordes outside in the wastelands, the Guild member roster was growing.  And with all the available quests, the Old Man Quest Givers took most of the seats at the bar. On Friday nights, it was a 2:1 Old Man Quest Givers to Adventurer ratio due to space restrictions.

The Guild Master planned to retire the old building and build a new building across town with improved facilities for the members.  He thought about taking out a construction loan from the Transmuter Bankers, but inspired by the bard’s story a few weeks before, he chose to use a different investment vehicle.  What he presented to the Guild Members was this:

Every individual Guild member could invest some of their adventuring take in the new Adventurer’s Guild.  In return for that money, they would receive a share – a bond.  The Guild Master would use that money to build a new Adventurer’s Guild building.  During the life of the investment, anyone holding a share would receive a periodic payments  based on profits from rent, services, the bar, and the like.  The invested money would turn into a long-term income stream for retired adventurers.

Here’s the hook: the Guild Master-slash-investment manager sets the total number of shares in the investment pool. Once the original investment period closes, it closes forever.  Over time, as share holding Guild members die, the value of the remaining shares increases proportionally.  For example, should a share-holding adventuring party enter the wastelands and ork hordes wipe them out, the total value of everyone’s share rises by the value of the dead party’s shares.  As one small complication, members participating in the investment may only nominate their own lives as collateral against the shares.  No fair nominating the Immortal King of All Elves, the Lich King of Andor or the Gods of the Abyss.

The entire investment ends when seven Guild members, enough to fill one complete adventuring party, still live.  At that time, the shares mature, and the seven split the original investment plus appreciation plus shared ownership of the Adventurer’s Guild building.

“This is a Tontine,” the Transmuter Banker tells the Guild Master as she underwrites the investment vehicle.  “And considering adventurers, a terrible idea.”  And then she signs the paperwork because, in her mind, Adventurers + Investment = Funny.

Adventurers, motivated by enough bar space so they can all sit on Fridays, buy up shares in this new scheme.  The Guild Master soon raises enough money to build his new building.  And the Guild Master begins paying out dividends.

Raise Dead, Resurrection, and Other Thorny Legal Issues

The tontine works as expected for a while.  Orks wipe out squishy lower-level parties, who unwisely invested their tiny hordes in shares instead of improved equipment.  Everyone else’s payouts increase by a small amount.  Higher level, evil-inclined parties, over drinks, consider this survival of the fittest.  When the squishy ones die, it’s right and proper the stronger benefit.

The problems start when the first real party gets wiped out in an adventuring mishap.  Halfway through a nasty battle, two of the fighters fall to a nasty Umber Hulk.  Bad luck, they say afterwards.  At the end of the battle, instead of reporting their deaths back to the Guild, the party clerics raise the fighters.  Word gets back via sitting around in a bar that investment-holding fighters fell in battle, were raised, and no one’s payouts changed.  The way this should work is that shares increase in value until someone drops dead, then those shares become worthless, and everyone else benefits.

This raises all sorts of questions:

  • If someone who holds a share dies in battle, and a cleric raises them, are their shares still valid?
  • Is there a post-death reporting period?
  • Whose job is it to send a Sending back to the Guild Master so he can mark those shares void?
  • How long should a party member be dead before everyone’s shares receive a proper bump?
  • Are there classifications of dead?  Is someone stabbed to death different from someone missing bits?
  • What about undeath?
  • Is there a lawyer in the house?

An evil party takes the Umber Hulk-afflicted party to… court? Yep, to court. Because where else does one go when arguing over money in a way that legally and clearly benefits the party? A bewildered judge, wondering why evil would go through the ugly sausage making machinations of the law (because we’re lawful evil!) decides, if the party has not reported the death and manages to raise the party member back to normal health, the shares still remain valid.

The evil guild members, miffed at losing their court case, starts straight-up murdering clerics.  They don’t do it in the streets, or the Adventurer’s Guild, or obvious places.  They follow parties on adventure – trailing a discreet distance, of course – wait for a good moment, and then shiv the cleric good.  And, of course, report their deaths back to the Guild Master via Sending for proper share value recording. If the clerics weren’t tontine holders, no big deal.  Someone in the party is. Without constant healing, things were going to get hairy out there, where the monsters roam.

The Adventuring Guild’s clerics begin fleeing. “You can keep your investment,” they say.  “We’re out of here.”

But parties can make do with buying up scrolls and magic items.  Expensive, sure, but lucrative to those who make scrolls and magic items. The local economy saunters on, and even grows until the evil parties burn down the scroll stalls.  Arson?  We don’t know anything about arson.  Arson happens around here,  spontaneously.

The free market has a way.  Too much money washes around town to keep the magic item purveyors out, arson and murder or no.  New underground markets where parties must know a guy spring up around healing scrolls.

Things get particularly ugly when, two years later, a party resurrects one of the original shareholders, killed by a disintegration ray (these things happen).  The party journeyed through an entire module-length epic to bring their beloved friend back from beyond the vale.  And here was their friend returned to them, hale and healthy.  And the member, wanting his payout, went and sued the Guild Master to reinstate his shares.

This one threw the court for a loop.  Does the Guild Master need to rebalance everyone’s payouts to account for the newly resurrected member?  If a member is dead, and reported dead, do they lose their investment even if they were resurrected and standing here, in Court, obviously not dead?  Do they also receive accumulated interest payments?  How does one calculate that?

While the courts were figuring out what to do about the legal puzzle of the resurrected member, the evil members got their claws into their own evil cleric, one who hadn’t yet fled town. They went on insane quests across the planes to find the right magic items and transform themselves into varying states of intelligent undeath.  One party member, a fighter, brazenly wore a t-shirt: “Have you hugged a Vampire today?”

If the good guys were going to raise each other, heal each other, and even resurrect each other out of love or some nonsense, the bad guys were going to game the system by living forever.  And then, kill the good guys with their new-found awesome undead powers to reduce the shareholder pool and up their quarterly interest payment.

What is love against a reliable investment instrument and long-term payout?

The Adventurer’s Guild New Building

This devolves into the Undead vs the Elves vs Lawyers.

The Elves, long-living, position themselves well to invest. They would wait until the shorter-lived races died and collect.  In court, they point out that the undead are actually dead and thus violate the contract.

The undead are upset that court keeps getting held during the daytime. They argue, if raised and resurrected members can regain their shares then the undead, who are only mostly dead, can as well.  The undead are less dead then raised or resurrected members, who were all the way dead and now not dead.

The courts spend time puzzling this one out and build a significant body of undeath-based case law. While the court dithers and digs through ancient records, the now high level undead and the equally high level elves try to settle this the old-fashioned adventurer way. They play out the oldest story in the books – the towering good versus the most horrible evil, alive versus dead, the fate of the world in balance.  And with a distinct lack of clerics to help either side, their parties get picked off, one by one.  And their individual payout grows.

The Guild Master, meanwhile, takes the original investment, a tidy sum of money, and builds a new building right on the main square of downtown.  It has multiple levels and bright, clean rooms upstairs for those staying overnight.  The bar has plenty of stools. The Old Man Quest Givers spread out and hand out quests in relative privacy.  The downstairs floors houses small shops – hopefully not lit on fire by the now legacy undead evil parties-slash-joint building owners – for the adventuring party on the go. The Guild roster is up.

And now that the problem with the orks has wound up to a grand conclusion, there’s a whole new set of adventures.  Something about horrible, unstoppable, highly intelligent high-level undead and the minions they fling at the nice, wise, good, older elves.  Both sides are financially bolstered by being the waning members in the investment. They fund their growing schemes with their payout from the same Guild sending adventurers to fight them.

All this over ownership rights in a building.

The world gets trashed, good sort of triumphs over evil, and everyone gets a commemorative mug.  Parties level, bards write epics, and someone tears down a mountain.  When the tontine pays out to the final seven members, hundreds of years later, the meeting is super awkward with looking away and embarrassed feet shuffling all around.

The Transmuter Bankers can’t stop laughing.  And they point out to the Guild Master:  next time, instead of destroying the world, pick a different investment vehicle.

* Yes? What happened next is such a tasty bit of dangling plot.  I must pull that thread at a later time.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    Which is why the Dungeon master makes sure the cleric is the first to die or adheres to the rules that restrict the number of hours you can be dead before raise dead fails to work.

  2. Missed you.

  3. The concept you describe in Bard story (a great opener, BTW) is the same idea used for the comic book series Rising Stars, published by Top Cow and written by J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame). In that story, a number of children in utereo are exposed to energy from a meteor before they were born and later manifest super powers. The fun happens when someone starts killing them off as adults and other notice an increase in their abilities.

  4. Ah, the Tontine, the very definition of Moral Hazard, and exactly why most bonds can pass to heirs, or be sold.


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