The Emperor, the Orks and the Murder Hobos

Ork Massacres

Orks, Heroes, EmperorThe Orkish Hordes invaded the settled frontier land from the East.

The Orks came to occupy.  The Orks came to settle and make this land theirs.  Their homelands were hard and bitter.  Only weeds grew out of the grey rocks and sand.  Here, the soil was black and rich.  The land was green and good.

The peasants had no warning.

The Orkish outriders ran them down in their dirt streets.  The Orks cut down women and children.  They burned peaceful peasant villages.

From the massacres, survivors.  They crawled from beneath the rubble: a mishmash of farm hands, petty criminals, religious zealots and apprentice magic users.  They found old leather armor and broken, rusty swords in caches under ancient, forgotten hilltop fortresses.  They fought.  They lost.  They won.  They learned.  They defended one village, and then another.


They gained a reputation. They fought more. Bards told their story.  One day, they received a summons to the Capital City.  And, needing better equipment anyway, the party made their way from their current frontier outpost to the Capital City to see the Emperor.  The party fought many battles along the road. They ran three side-quests, one involving a beholder. But, they made the trip to the Capital City alive.

Tired and bedraggled, the party limped their way through the Capital City streets to the sprawling white marble Palace.  To their astonishment, the Emperor’s functionaries whisked them promptly through the bedecked halls and ushered them in to see the man himself without the interminable waits.

The Emperor sat on a glittering throne in his perfumed smog of pomp and circumstance. He wore a crown of gold and diamonds and a diaphanous robe of white silk.  He was pretty.

The Emperor smiled down at the party. He gave a short speech about how the party was the last, great hope of the nation.  He waved his bejeweled and perfectly manicured hand. The functionaries brought in thousands of gold in magic weapons, armor and money.  They laid them down at the party’s feet.  The Emperor bequeathed these gifts on the party, completely tax-free. Then he said go, save us from the… (the Emperor leaned over, whispered a question to the functionary, and sat back up) … Orkish hordes from the East.

The party, armed with their new, magical, and powerful gear, set back out on the hard road home to battle the Orkish boss fights and win the day.  Visions of heroism and peaceful peasant farms bounced in their heads.

No one asked why that was so easy.  In the party’s head, it was part of the heroic script.  Their arc, as it were.

… And the Emperor

Once they exited the throne room, the Emperor said, bored, to his functionary, “How many more parties of self-proclaimed heroes do we have today?”

“Six, Excellency,” the functionary said.

“Please wait until those peasants have cleared the building before bringing in the next group. And, please check the supplies on that magical leather armor?  We’re running a bit low.”

And the Emperor sighed, checked the notes on his monologue, and waited for his functionaries to usher in the next group of heroes.

The Emperor and his Armies

The Emperor had perfectly good, trained, professional armies paid on salary at his disposal.  He led them as their General before he decided to murder his Uncle, the previous Emperor, and assume the Throne in a bloody coup.  Being a thoughtful tyrant, he used care in orchestrating the stabbing so blood wouldn’t permanently stain the wood flooring.

The Emperor, a surprisingly smart military man who surrounds himself in ludicrous ceremony to cow those who visit his court, knows about the Orkish Hordes and the peasant villages.  He could send military units to solve the Ork problem with a wave of his hand.  In fact, he did send a military unit out months ago. They went to the frontier, took a look, and reported back.  The Emperor decided to leave this problem to the locals.

Why does he need Murder Hobos?  What calculation went on in his mind before he decided to bequeath parades of Murder Hobos with expensive gifts of arms and magic and sent them back out to die?

#1.  Murder Hobos want Little in Return for Success

Murder Hobos aren’t asking to join the army as officers. They aren’t requesting the Emperor properly arm, train, feed and pay them.  Murder Hobos want acknowledgement, upgraded equipment and lump sum cash to take care of the job themselves.  They want to keep what they find or wrest from the hordes.  And, as a side project, the Murder Hobos want to kill local pests, destroy nests of criminals, and clean out pockets of pesky undead.

In return for solving all these problems nasty little problems, Murder Hobos don’t want salary, titles, or positions in high office in the Capital.  They don’t want to carve out a kingdom and force the Empire to acknowledge them as Kings (unless neutral evil and given enough time and murder…). Murder Hobos want to retire to their peaceful peasant villages – to farm!  Stupid good alignments.

Hell, farming only costs a few acres of land.  Here you go. Enjoy retirement!

Good military is very expensive.  Murder Hobos are cheap. From a macro perspective, Murder Hobos want some investment capital and turn it into a pile of wins for the Empire.  From the Empire’s standpoint, this is an amazing investment opportunity.  And in return, the Empire gets everything and Murder Hobos get a pat on the head. Done.

#2. Murder Hobos are a Dime a Dozen

The frontier, in the Emperor’s mind, is an unmanageable mess.  Yesterday, dragons.  Today, orkish hordes.  Tomorrow, armies of undead. Yawn.  And from that mess comes self-proclaimed Heroes. What the Emperor didn’t tell the party was this:

The party was the fourth to come before the Emperor seeking help for the Orkish Hordes on the Eastern frontier that week.

What, did the party honestly believe they were the only self-proclaimed heroes to band together and fight back against the Orkish menace?  They were the only survivors, the only ones to pick up swords and fight? Volunteers always appear when the world presents a lucrative murdering opportunity and here was a murdering opportunity.

And, the Orks already obliterated the previous three Murder Hobo bands.  Oh well.

Compared to the cost of arming, housing, and training the army, Murder Hobo contractors-for-hire are an unbelievably cheap investment.  Give them some money and a bit of magic equipment. In return, defend the frontier on the cheap.  Magic equipment for seven people costs pennies compared to arming a large, professional army.  And so disposable.  And so many people waiting in line to die!

The Emperor merely took advantage of the opportunity brought to him via Bards.  He figured, what the hell, hire them all.

#3. The Army is Busy

And the army has better things to do than defend peaceful peasant villages on the far frontier.  Yes, if the frontier falls, the Empire faces consequences.  Some of these consequences could potentially harm the Empire.  But, the Emperor has to think big. And on thinking big, he’s thinking about his heartland where he grows the food to feed the overly perfumed population of his core cities.  The frontier brings him nothing.  His cities, everything.

From a geopolitical standpoint, food and trade hold the Empire together, especially an Empire based on cities and taxes.  The tax base of productive citizens working specialized trades in Empire cities pays for that army and government bureaucracy.  Cities need to be fed.  The fruit of specialized labor must travel, trade, and be taxed.  The Emperor needs safe roads, internal security, and security for his main farming regions. His cities need walls.  His roads need pavement.

His armies go there.

What’s on the Emperor’s mind are big enemy nations: those with buckets of money he must destroy.  Orks are pretty low on the stuff-having scale.  The Emperor is thinking about the meatier prize of annexing the Elvish lands to his growing Empire and forcing the rich, plump jewel of Elvish taxes under his banner.

The Emperor isn’t going to burn his armies on something as tedious as the frontier when he has volunteers standing in line to defend it and die on the cheap. No, he’s going to unleash his dark armies on his neighboring nation-states and take them, instead.  Orks, after all, don’t pay that much in taxes.  Elves,well. Elves do.

So here you go, Murder Hobos. As much stuff as you want!  Why don’t the seven of you take the best of the magic equipment!  While meanwhile I arm this 300,000 man army…

#4. Politics  

Who speaks in Court for the peaceful peasant villages of the frontier?  Maybe a lower level aristocrat owns those lands. Maybe no one owns those lands and they villages are a collective community of tiny oligarchies. Maybe they are voiceless and hope and pray Murder Hobos defend them from the rampaging Ork Hordes of the east.

Without some representation in Court, no one’s voice is heard.  Without a voice, those lands are good for the Empire to have, but honestly, how much tax do they generate? How much do we care about peasants? Can’t they get some sticks together and defend their villages on their own? Why does the Empire have to spend money on them – and not only a few magic wands and maybe a magic sword.  We’re talking real money.  Money with weight.

The Emperor must balance all these voices of the various factions who swirl around him at Court: the heads of religious orders, the military Generals, the high-ranking aristocrats looking for an edge, the Mage Guild heads, the flat-out rich, and the bankers looking to get their loans paid.  (Maybe the Emperor shouldn’t have green lit that loan for that new giant religious complex downtown…)   If no one insists the overrun frontier is more important than, say, the Emperor’s plans to invade the Elves and take their lands, he sends no army.

And to hold on to his frontier, the Emperor must invest in a parade of Murder Hobos.  Murder Hobos who might work out.  Politically, if the eastern frontier falls, it looks bad.  If the Murder Hobos stave off the orks, it looks great.  So let’s go with that plan.  Arm ‘em all.

#5. Murder Hobo Investment Pays Dividends

And, for the sake of argument, the Murder Hobo investment in some cash and equipment pays out. The Murder Hobos win the day. They are overwhelming successful.  The Murder Hobos get a huge, end-of-Star-Wars-like celebration in the Capital City for saving them all from the Orks.  A princess gives them medals and proclaims them heroes. YAY!

From the Empire’s standpoint, they win:

  • A stabilized frontier with decent farmland;
  • Thousands upon thousands of dead Orks;
  • Heroes they can wave at other nations to frighten them;
  • A tax base expansion into the frontier lands.

For a pitiful investment, the Empire gets to flip the frontier into a stable strip of Empire.  They weren’t expecting to do so but hey, now it’s here!  Sure it’s far from the Capital City and inconvenient to tax.  But such a prize.  Any tax is greater than zero tax.  Now we send out the army to stabilize and build the edifices of government.

Can we give the Murder Hobos two medals?  Three?

Consequences of Murder Hobo Failure

Winning is all good. But this is all a big gamble.  Ignoring the frontier and leaving the problem in the hands of Murder Hobos to solve the problem is a risk.  It’s possible, even likely, the constant parade of hopeful Heroes runs dry.  Then, no one defends the farmers.  The Orks are successful.  No one wins the day.

The outcome depends on what the Orks want.   If they simply want better land, the consequences are long-term obnoxious but not Empire-ending.  The Orks overrun the eastern frontier.  They secure borders.  Then, the Orks settle their people.  They build villages. They farm.  They declare themselves their own tiny nation-state.  They crown one of their own Khan.

The Empire begins trading with the Orks and heavily taxes the transactions.  The Empire fills their coffers with Orkish grain.  Eventually, the Empire sends in missionaries to show how, if the Orks comply and change their society to closely match the Empire’s society, they get financial benefits. The Orks change. Eventually, the Orks become a satellite state.

100 years later, as Orks immigrate to the Empire, people write treatises on how Orks are taking the jobs Murder Hobos don’t want.

But if Orks want raw conquest, the Empire has a real problem on their hands. The Orks don’t stop.  They expand their invasion past the frontier.  They take an actual city.  That city was a trade hub.  All trade from that city collapses.  The goods and money flowing from the conquered city to the other Empire cities dries up.  Those other cities see a major economic decline.  The Empire’s economy goes into recession.

The Emperor has a choice.  He can either cede that city and those lands to the Orks hoping they settle – and if they are world conquest minded, they won’t – or pay his army to stop invading the Elves and fight the Orks.  But with the Empire in financial recession, the Emperor risks running out of money to pay his army.  And if he cannot pay, the army deserts.  So anything else – everything else – is cut to pay for the army including protecting other frontiers and borders. Then those frontiers collapse to Orkish invaders…

This looks bad.  If only the Emperor he had a Hero.

If only.  But the Emperor doesn’t care any more because he’s dead.  His nephew murdered him in a bloody coup. Now the rapidly collapsing Empire is the nephew’s problem.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. MadRatatosk says:

    Yet another piece of pure genius 😀

    Got me pondering, though… any chance of a piece on the orkish economy? All those cheap magic weapons from all the dead murder hobos, but despite the well-equipped boss orks, their raiding parties are always so poorly equipped… and how do they handle the economic impact of so many small-scale genocides? What about their agricultural base? Seems like they don’t really go in for crop farming, so where do the slaves they so notoriously collect go to work?

    So many questions, and only you, Multiplexer, hero of dungeonomics, can answer them. . . you’re our only hope! Here, have a longsword +1, off you go now.

    • The orks may be herders. They need the land for grazing their cattle to sustain their high-protein diet. As such, slaves are needed to (1) tend the cattle, (2) grow grain to feed the cattle.

      I get the impression that the Orks are the Mongols/Turks, and the Empire is the Persians, or the Caliphate, or the Romans.

  2. Of course you realise that the previous emperor, on the advise of one of his high charisma, high intelligence followers having an actual grasp of the situation and orcish went and sent the fellow beyond the frontier…to put up some advertising: ‘this land is now part of the empire. Why live here in ‘national park’ on the frontier when you can pick up some nice farm land back in the empire.’
    The Emperor then had dinner with his nephew and really planned on telling him how the empire just increased its land holding and would now declare this new frontier open for colonization by the displaced populace except the nephew murdered him before he could announce it.

  3. If Murder Hobo parties are so effective, why does the Empire need that much of a standing army at all?

    I was part of a group from college that did play-by-email fantasy gaming, where each player controlled an empire. Which ’empire’ was mine was usually fairly obvious, as I can’t put myself into a fantasy monarch mindset, so I was always an Enlightened Constitutional Despotism or an outright republic. I also couldn’t form anything more than a small militia, not for lack of trying because I wouldn’t conscript troops and didn’t have a professional landed knight caste. Yet people would not go to war with me, because I had, effectively, Murder Hobo guerrillas. A fantasy army is good for battlefield triumph, not counter-insurgency. As soon as your military strategy goes from ‘control territory and eliminate enemy armies’ to ‘do as much economic damage to the enemy as possible’, you’ve changed the whole paradigm of warfare, and people that are stuck thinking in terms of ‘archers vs knights’ because that’s what fantasy warfare is have already lost.

    The orkish invaders still need to get supplies from somewhere. Non-good Murder Hobos are perfectly fine with burning supplies still in friendly territory before they can be captured. Water supplies can be poisoned, and animals can become diseased (the only thing scarier than an empire researching biological weapons to kill human(oid)s is one researching biological weapons to kill plants and animals). Granaries, corrals, and even settlements catch fire really easy, especially with fireballs. It’s much more satisfying to put up pyramids of human skulls, but much more effective to have the remains of the army slowly making the trek back home, eating the last of their mounts along the way, to a homeland ravaged by disease, and most rulers realize that it could be them, next…

  4. Madam this is one well written and thoughtful piece of commentary about the functionality and place of a band of murder hobos in a fantasy world setting.

    However I do have to wonder just how destabilizing and effect having to create and hand out +2 and +3 weapons and armour might have. They aren’t cheap to make and sure you mostly want to arm your soldiers with good old fashioned simple weapons along with masterwork stuff for the officers but even so the MW sword to +1 sword ratio alone is 10-1 under the DnD system, and at for regular 8gp swords I believe its roughly 125-1 and only gets more gross from there on up.

  5. I’m pretty tired of the assumption that groups of heroes are common. How does this scenario change if you remove that boring factor?

    • MadRatatosk says:

      Hey there friend! I’m the etiquette fairy. Let’s try this again!

      First Lesson! If somebody puts a lot of work into creating something that you like (and maybe even if you don’t like), don’t make the only thing you say negative! Say, “This is really great! But I was also thinking…” so that you don’t come off as a grumpy-pants who just wants to be mean!

      Lesson Two! Grown-ups don’t use critical adjectives unnecessarily. Remember, being a grown-up isn’t really about age, it’s about how you comport yourself! Even a kid can be a grown-up, and even an old man can still not be one. Being negative about somebody’s work when it doesn’t help the conversation is kid stuff! Let’s get rid of the nasty ol’ adjectives you put in there, add in the polite comment above, and see what we get!

      “This is really great! I noticed that your world usually assumes that groups of heroes are common. How would this scenario change if you remove that factor?”

      Look at how much better that is! It reads like a real sophisticated, grown-up comment on an impressive piece of work that someone put together just so you could have the pleasure of reading it! Who knows, maybe you’ll even get a response (not from the etiquette fairy though, teehee!)

      Happy (polite) commenting!

      • Well said, MadRat! I like the sweet toned sarcasm and I fully agree with your message!

        This article was great! I even took a note or two for my own campaign and I see that one of the other comments took note of the same idea, hobos losing magic gear in the frontier when they die.

        I thoroughly enjoyed this. It’s right up there with the dragon who wouldn’t kill sheep no matter how hard they tried to bait it.