No fiction this week! Instead, I present the early Christmas gift of gaming tools.
Last week, I took a look at using a tontine in a gaming context. A tontine is an investment pyramid scheme. Shareholders derive a profit while they are living, but the values of the shares devolves to the other shareholders, and not the owner’s heirs, on death. The tontine’s most extreme form is an all-or-nothing game where a joint investment goes 100% to the last living shareholder. Through machinations, it always ends in vile murder.
But, in fact, throughout history, the tontine takes a number of forms. Over its 200 year lifespan, until countries wised up and banned the instrument as a “bad idea,” many countries and institutions used tontines as an early, decades-long lottery system to raise money for public works. To convince people to “subscribe,” or invest their hard-earned cash into a government-backed pyramid scheme, tontine rules loosened. Governments allowed changes. And ingenious 19th century investors messed with the starting conditions. It, as always, got weird.
With a couple of tweaks, filing off the serial numbers, and squinting, these early modern investment vehicles are a great inspiration for one-shot, short campaigns, and, in some contexts, longer running story arcs. Feel free to take any of these and apply them to any genre – fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, the apocalypse, etc.
Follow along for a quick look on how to apply one obscure 17th century financial instrument to games.
#1: All in the Family
A group of adventurers stumbles upon a Prize: a great deal of magic power raising the characters to a level of demigod. Much like in Highlander, the power splits between them. When one of the group dies, the other adventurers in the group receives a bump. The winner ascends to a sort of Godhood and ultimate Power, although what that Power is remains undefined.
When this game begins, the players are aware of the power they carry because someone, before the game began, murdered one of their kind. Now, the players must decide if they’re going to fight to maintain equilibrium or if they should try to kill one another to get their final, final prize. The way the game plays out is up to the characters. They can maintain good vs evil lines or they can go for the jugular, Agatha Christie-style.
When a last winner emerges, the game begins again. The last standing player becomes the final boss. A new party comes to fight the last-standing player and reset the initial power levels.
Tontine Settings: This tontine is at its purest version. A small group of investors holding shares in a finite resource. When one investor dies, all the investors immediately benefits. The only way to grow the investment is to murder the other investors.
Options: This is the most straight forward version of the story. GMs can tweak this in a couple of interesting ways:
Used as a backdrop in a campaign. Six great powers rule the land, three good and three evil. The evil hires and sends its hordes to destroy the good, and the good fights to maintain equilibrium. Should one of the great powers die at the hands of player characters, the equilibrium breaks. Suddenly, it becomes a 3 on 2 situation and the race is on to kill one of the other great powers – good or evil. Meanwhile, the great powers have received a power bump…
This is compelling as a bit of mythology behind the Gods or Great Powers of a setting. It provides motivation for why Group A hires Murder Hobos to kill Group B. Power and winning.
With the one shot (Fiasco), the party fights a dragon and receives a Dragon’s Horde. They make a pact to always have each other’s back. Whomever dies of old age gets the rest of the horde. Then the thief starts stabbing people. It turns into a murder mystery – who killed, who died, and who is going to kill again? Meanwhile, as the Murder Hobos investigate the murder, they inherit more money so they can, theoretically, upgrade their equipment…
Outcome: Murder. Everyone dies.
#2: Shares Most Liquid
The highest level members in the Thieves’ Guild build themselves a little investment club. It’s kind of a bet. They have money, they have time, and they love competing against one another. Because they all believe through raise dead, resurrection, undeath, and other fun life expanding vehicles that they’ll live forever, they use their own lives as the risk pools for initial investment vehicle. But, as forever is a long time, they modify the rules: investors can sign over shares before they die to someone else. Then, that person becomes the new investment vehicle.
They all agree and they raise a fat sum of cash – the final prize. Then they let the game run.
Now thieves, staring death in the eye (one giant one in the case of a beholder) can throw their shares over the wall to their party members on the cusp of death. This keeps shares viable even if the original investor receives the business end of a disintegration ray.
Tontine Settings: In this setting, tontines are derivatives. Investors can trade, sell, and exchange these shares for other investments, including other tontines from other cheeky Thieves’ Guilds. As long as someone, somewhere, holds a share, and they are not dead, the shares pay out and the game goes on. Only if someone dies with the share still in their possession does the share lose its worth and all the other shares receive a bump.
It becomes a weird game of tontine chicken.
Options: Once the tontines are liquid, all sorts of wacky things happen.
- Death renders the shares moot – although transfer to undeath does not because the undead are mostly alive. To nullify the shares, investors must completely die. Raise Dead and resurrection doesn’t help. But the players can throw the tontine shares to each other right before boss fights. “Cleric! My tontine investments now belong to you!” And, the cleric can sign them back afterward. Unless the cleric keeps them… Hopefully, someone in the party has high levels in High Speed Lawyer. (“We can’t go fight the boss monster until the investment changeover paperwork is properly notarized,” the Warlock/Lawyer says.)
Speculators who lay hands on these shares (bards, certainly) will want to sign them over to children or elves so the shares pay out as long as possible. How does one get elves to accept some weird investment vehicle from a long forgotten Thieves’ Guild which backs to a theoretical treasure hidden somewhere by said thieves? That’s up to the players, of course.
If these investments become popular enough, paper from tontines shows up everywhere like a kind of demented treasure IOU. The party fights some high level intelligent undead. The undead stuffs at the end of their monologue some weird legal langauge about handing over all their shares. And, the party finds the paper in the Lich’s robes. If the original thieves enchanted the shares, they magically attach to the party like a legal monkey’s paw…
Once enough shares concentrate in the hands in one person, the prize automatically triggers – if the party wants it to or not. The trick is finding the prize – and fighting through whatever protects it.
Outcome: The game runs for a long time. A very long time. Elves get stuck with a bunch of dead paper and have no idea why. Tontine paperwork shows up in boss fights. But, the GM can start the game near the end with plenty of hand-waving history. If the party assembles enough of the investments in the tontine, they can trigger the payout. The trick is finding the original investors, or their descendants, and finding the treasure.
And the investment paper is a random distraction. Or, there is an actual race on to kill/transfer/trade/find as many shares possible to trigger the payout conditions before a terribly evil competitor does.
#3: To Live or Die
Again, the thieves’ guild builds a little investment club. They allow tradeable shares. This time, they nominate different people’s lives (not themselves) to secure against the investment. Now, the thieves can develop pools of investment across risk categories. But, they need real names to place into their risk pools.
Other new rules: The last intact pool standing is the one that pays out on the investment. Upon the death of one member in a pool, the investor only loses shares dependent on that life. The pools shrink as their unknowing marks die.
The thieves then nominate classes of innocent people: various adventuring groups, Elven children, a conclaves of vampires, a dragon living under a mountain, a group of celestial beings, and a couple of demons. They write names into the original contract. (This likely took some adventure research, magic, and/or these are NPCs who are Old and Powerful). The thieves then stand up their little trading market. They begin trading shares in these groups among themselves – and with anyone unlucky enough to buy into their game.
May the last pool standing win!
Tontine Setting: This is the traditional 19th century tontine which morphed into investment risk pools for insurance. However, in the 19th century, investors used doctors to find the “healthiest” children. Investors put the children (without any consent) into their risk pools for their bet. Then, as the children died, other risk pools became more valuable. Repeat until only one risk pool stands. Whomever owned shares in the final risk pool received their proportionate share of the final prize.
Options: This has a ton of fun options to tweak and change. A few:
This is a Planescape game. The original investors in Sigil built investment pools around different classes of immortal beings on the Planes. Now, they need to off each other’s risk pools. They need some dumb adventurers to head out and Murder Hobo the right people – for a high price.
The Planes hold plenty of immortals. It’s player characters who make some immortals a little more mortal. Invested heavily in the Abyss? No problem! We have some Murder Hobos here to help “protect” that investment. Spent a ton of money on Limbo? We have people here who can either protect or destroy Limbo. Or both!
The higher-ups of Planescape live a long time, and place their bets with care. But they pull the strings of Murder Hobos to ensure their investments pay out… forever.
The Old Man Quest Givers (Mr Johnson in Shadowrun, Quest Givers in D&D, etc) invest in this tontine scheme. They’re not autonomous old men sitting in the shadowy corners of Inns paying players to kill the Dragon for good, freedom, and happiness. No, they’re connected members of the original Thieves’ Guild.
This Old Man Quest Giver has his investment wrapped up in Vampires, but he knows his pal Phil invested heavily in the Dragon risk pool. He needs those Dragons gone to make his investment in Vampires pay out. And, old George the Quest Giver needs the party to kill these evil thieves because Kevin the other Quest Giver invested in the evil thieves’ adventuring party. He’s trying to wipe them out.
It’s a conspiracy, a secret war, between Quest Givers. Whichever Quest Giver goads the party to kill off the most risk pools, wins.
Outcome: At first, to the players, it looks and feels like useful quest givers send the party out on quests to “do good.” And this goes on for a while. The players might or might not ever connect the dots and realize their quest givers collude.
The players are unwitting agents of financial change. It’s up to the party to unmask the shadowy network that sends them to Limbo, or off to the Prime Material Plane, or to the Vampire’s castle, to kill specific, unconnected dudes.
The party is unlikely to murder each other. But, they may not feel too charitable about their local, friendly side quest giver should they ever find out.
#4 The Life of the King
The same Thieves’ Guild – these guys love to speculate – decide on the following rules:
- The tontines are tradeable shares so the thieves can build a viable derivative market;
- The thieves back the tontines by risk pools of named people who live a long time;
- When those people die, the pools shrink and the other pools gain more liquidity;
- Investors can nominate kings, heads of state, famous wizards, and others who are well protected by enormous militaries.
These thieves bet on the lives of various heads of state. And then, the thieves start trading investment in the lives of Kings and Dukes like they’re Magic cards. Some are worth more than others, some less, and oh, look, one of them died in a war. How unfortunate, someone update the actuary tables.
The thieves organize the heads of state by countries and regions to build risk pools around invasion and war. Only when one King stands does the initial investment pay out to the thief holding the winning paper.
Tontine Setting: This is another variation on a popular form of the 19th century tontine. Investors nominated heads of state and other popular figures as their risk pool for their investment. No one has better health than a King. This is often true; these tontines were the longest lived, took the longest to pay out, and were highly valuable. Eventually, governments felt backing investments against the lives on their Monarchs was “distasteful” and made this illegal.
The motivation is to hire player characters to put into motion the events that end in the loss of life of a major head of state.
The high level player characters get pulled, through layers of Quest Givers, Bards, and other figures, into schemes to start wars, invade countries, destroy empires and fight rival kings on fields of battle. Are those Kings evil? Should the characters back this invasion plan in this other country? Have the player characters found themselves in the center of a bloody civil war? Or is someone behind the scenes manipulating the lives of millions in hope for a fat payday on some investment in a shadowy back room?
The high level player characters are the risk pools for the tontine. They’re rich, they’re famous, they have tons of spells and potions to keep them alive. Why wouldn’t a smart investor back their investment with high level player characters?
This explains the constant stream of full, lower-level parties who constantly jump the party in dungeons, in towns, in taverns, in castles, in the Underdark, and anywhere the party hangs out.
Why are parties attacked by intelligent, random encounters who ought to know better? Because they’re hired by competing shadowy thieves in this Thieves’ Guild to take out a rival’s investment risk pool.
Outcome: This option has the widest scope – one where the player characters get used to change the world for someone else’s financial gain. Or they are someone else’s financial gain, and tracking down the shadowy cabal behind closed doors is the only way to stop the constant attacks. Either way, the goal is to end the shadowy cabal – or to buy into it as investors and become the ones pulling the strings behind great movements of history.
That was fun! Four various options to using an old and illegal financial instrument to drive play. They can be freely modified to fit any number of play style. For example, the final one, where Kings lives are traded like Pokemon, can adapt to wide spanning Science Fiction Galactic Empire play where a shadow cabal ultimately controls and bets on the lives of various worlds – and sends military to destroy them – all for their world-spanning fun.
No column next week due to Thanksgiving.