Bootstrapping the Party
Consider a typical situation: a new party, relatively low-level, searches for adventure. They want to kill some things, roll their bodies, take their stuff, keep the magic items and sell the rest. That’s the fastest path between being unproductive low-level adventurers and highly productive mid-level adventurers.
The party could wander around town hoping to get jumped by the local highwaymen, or stumble on an ogre, or randomly run into giant spiders. All these adventures would (and do) pay out in handfuls of silver pieces, rusty knives, and the occasional minor healing potion. Enough of these encounters grinds the party up from a highly dangerous first and second level to a more stable third level. The party bootstraps itself, with sweat equity and no investment, from unproductive and fragile to rolling in fat magical loot ganked from monsters that roll with magic users and cover themselves with magic wands, staves, scrolls, and the like.
This is hard. And most parties simply bite it during the first few encounters (although they provide their few magic items and high quality normal items to the dens of monsters for the next group to come along). Bootstrapping party startups is rarely successful and when it is, it’s a long, steady grind through the random encounter table. Sure, those guys “made” it to those sanctified higher levels by their scrappy selves, no strings attached, two-fisted fighting endless dull orcs and half-eaten zombies hoping for the day of that one level-appropriate monster with a hot treasure table drops.
Most parties want it a little easier. Standing up a party, especially a magic-heavy party, is a heavy spend, and wandering searching for adventure is a chancy business. They go looking for some investment juice to get off the ground fast.
Luckily, investors with fat pockets are easy to find.
Sitting comfortably in the pub’s dark corner, steamy mug in hand, is an old man who tells all the stories. He knows where the goblins hide their operations, where there’s a hellmouth to the Underdark, and about the dungeon over the hills and down the straight-away. For a refill, he’s happy to spin tales all day about the old Mad King under the Mountain, or the crazy elves who burst from the caves, or the dragon not more than ten miles away hiding in a cave. And if the party performs a few kill-and-fetch quests for him – go to this place, kill things, keep what you find – he’s willing to front the party cash to investigate these stories, and pay them after they’re done. And he’s not talking about peasant levels of scratch here, oh no. A peasant might see a gold piece a month of she’s lucky. The old man’s talking about hundreds of gold pieces. Thousands of gold pieces. A kingdom in gold pieces. And this is just to get kitted out.
What party won’t take the old man’s adventuring guidance and investment? Isn’t this simpler, and more exciting, than wandering around struggling to level up by killing random wildlife? Won’t the party level faster, get into trouble faster, and get rich faster?
The party takes the money and buys their equipment. They commission a name and a logo. They buy matching jumpsuits.
With pomp and circumstance, they march into the dungeon and…
In this relationship the old man holds all the information, and thus economic power. He has all the data, the money, and access to goods and services. The party has no way of knowing if the information the old man gives – for free! – results in a positive (and survivable) outcome, or if the old man is selling a lemon on a used car lot for his own purposes.
With the amount of investment to successfully arm a party, it’s unlikely the old man is agenda free. And it’s unlikely the quest is a red herring. Something is out there. The old man is using the party to kill it. Or feed it.
Why is the big question.
Maybe the old man is completely honest. The old many has a huge pile of money from his own adventuring days. He’s retired now and owns a peaceful peasant farm. But, the dragon in the hills threatens his cows. The undead eat his farm hands. The crazy elves who boil out of the caves keep advertising some bizarre Underdark game show on the side of his barn. He needs adventurers to deal with these problems. Good adventurers don’t grow on trees. He’s decided to make some, with his own money and his own equipment. And once the adventurers are ready to adventure, he’ll unleash them to fix his problems. He’s a pure angel investor and he wants the adventurers to succeed and walk in his shoes. This is the best possible outcome and assumes a certain level of good alignment and generosity.
Or maybe the old man is in the pay of the local church. Nothing has money – and Clerics – like a Medieval-era church. They’re willing to pay top dollar to get rid of inconveniences on land they want to colonize. Sure, those orks have a village on that land, and those ogres have lived in that cave network for generations, and both produce adorable, highly collectible, kitschy handicrafts and artworks sold at the local markets. But, the church feels it’s time to expand and build a new monastery. They want to up their wine production. And they can’t do it if the “legions of evil” are living on the land. The locals need to go.
High church officials certainly aren’t going to get their hands dirty. It’s not their thing. And priests sitting around in dim pubs spinning stories to random low-level adventurers looks pretty suspicious. The church hires a proxy agent. They arm the party and send them out to clean up their inconvenient mess for Good and God and Glory and the Safety of the Town. Once the adventurers are done, the church buys up the land cheaply.
Come! Sit awhile and listen!
Or he’s in the pay of an opposing Duke or monarch. That dragon in the hills? That dragon is border defense against local marauding mercenaries hired to burn down the town by a nearby aggressive ruler who wants the rich, black, loamy land for himself. Land is money and land is power.
The old man works a contract to hire and level-up adventurers to take out the dragon “for the good of the town.” He has a whole pocket here of stories about the terrible, uncompromising dragon evil. The dragon eats local babies. Babies! Like shish kebobs! And the old man throws in a bit about the enormity of the dragon’s hoard.
The adventurers kill the dragon, level up, take its treasure, and scram to the next awesome adventure at the next town down the road. The mercenaries ride in and enslave every man, woman, and child. The old man takes his fat pay out. The Duke sets up camp and contemplates his next move. He thinks, those adventurers were damn useful the first time and they did kill a dragon…
Or he’s an agent of the dragon, or the Lich Kings, or the Giant Lords. Those magic items from the treasure table came from somewhere and that dragon does not exactly leave her comfortable cave to go magic item shopping. Besides, a shopping dragon at the weekly market makes for an awkward Sunday afternoon.
The dragon wants to sit her scaly butt on gold coins. That’s her entire motivation. Her plan is to turn her native built-in dragonny advantages into piles of magic items and cash so she can snooze on them. The best way is to achieve her aim is to use an adventurer-based delivery mechanism. And adventurers are tasty.
Eat an old, retired adventurer. Glamour (or bribe) an old man agent and get him some seed money from the eaten adventurer’s hoard. Start a treadmill of using moderately leveled-up adventurers to go buy some stuff with her own money and bring it to her. Those adventurers will also have all their monetary gains from killing all the other monsters/highwaymen/general bad guys in the area and taking their stuff. Eat them. Take their money and magic items and drop them onto her hoard. Have the old man sell a few back, and put out the call for new adventurers…
This works fine for a Lich King or a Giant Lord building up their hoards, too. Or needing sacrifices to dark gods. Or otherwise getting replacements for their depleted single-use magic items.
Regardless of the old man’s motivation for sending adventurers head long into danger, unless the adventurers have some way of doing research and laying hands on information, the adventurers don’t know why they receive the quest in the first place. And the old man may not ping on a Detect Evil and Zone of Truth.
And the adventurers may not care! Local politics are not their concern. Killing things and taking their stuff is. So unless the adventurers run a credit check with the Transmuter Bankers against the old man and the possible Boss at the End of the Dungeon* before heading into the Tower of Blood or the Cavern Darkness, they’re at the mercy of the information they have, and the bribe they’ve received to suit up and run headlong into danger.
Unless someone sends in the bards.
Fighting Asymmetric Information with Rating Systems
Adventurers do have information about the old men handing out quests: the results of the quests from previous adventurers. In aggregate, the information across all adventurers provides a data mineable picture of quest givers and the qualities of their quests.
Adventurers could gather:
- Were the quests successful?
- What was the payout?
- How many adventuring parties died from random mishap (mismatched levels) with only one bard getting out to tell the tale of their otherwise TPK?
- Were they set up to die?
- Did anyone return to the scene of the adventure 6 months later? 12 months?
- Is there a treadmill of evil?
Arguably, this is the point of Bard Colleges: create little wandering journalists who get in with adventuring parties, buddy up, take scrupulous notes and draw pictures of the old man quest givers, pretend to act useless until they achieve higher levels, do a little buffing in battle, run screaming when the fight gets hot, live to tell the tale, and report their data back. High level bards, careful to keep their painfully collected data out of the hands of various magic guilds who will use it for their own ends, sift over data collected by their lower level brethren. From this data, they produce carefully aggregated and curated statistical data points which turn into a fast reference on quests and their delivery mechanism.
From this information, bards produce rating systems. Most bardic magic is information-based, and using message, magic mouth, and zone of truth (only so useful), bards quietly produce a survey of ratings from one to five in a vast sociological experiment on quests and quest quality. Bards of 5th level or better – those that can perform Sending – can access the rating system at will. Given a well-defined and well-known format to fit in 25 words or less, a Bard can ask the College to check against the rating books for an overall combination of number value and possible alignment. And a Bard at the College responds.
For example, when queried, an old man quest giver who has sent five parties purposefully to their death in the Dungeon of Underground Horrors and reaped their equipment for cash will return after a query with: 1 Good 5 Danger 1 Success. This tells the bard that this old man isn’t on the up and up and everyone who went before her died.
It’s up to the bard if she shares this information with the party or not. There are sticky points of philosophy between the Colleges of Lore and the Colleges of Valor. The Lore Colleges want to disseminate the data to ensure adventures have a good time adventuring by partnering early adventure parties with highly rated angel investor quest givers who rate highly in goodness and success. Bards of the Colleges of Valor, wanting to get their hosts parties into trouble to promote heroics, may value being hideously screwed over by the forces of evil so their parties rise to the challenge. For good and neutral bards, manipulating information for the good of their party, the good of the town, and the success of the quest is paramount.
However, an evil bard has leverage over an evil old man quest giver that might result in better over all financial results for the party. The evil bard, knowing from the bardic rating system that the old man is selling the party out to the local Lich King for their equipment and their blood in a dark sacrificial ritual, uses that information for blackmail, to align the party with the Lich King to get back at the old man, to appropriately size the Lich King’s hoard (from X # parties previously sacrificed and bribed with Y gold for magic items), or for future sweet sweet vengeance. Where once the old man held all the power in the relationship, it now flows back into the hands of the bard.
And, thinks the bard, what good is good when rating systems allow parties to carry out such a successful program of evil?
In fact, there’s no reason a party, busy now sliding to neutral evil through killing things and rolling their bodies for stuff through highly optimized quest choices, cannot use the information gleaned from previous parties and bards combined with the rating system to stack the deck for themselves. Quest really working for the local church? Clearly, the church has more money than the quest. Go sack the church instead. Quest is in the employ of an evil Duke waiting to come in and invade? If the evil Duke can pay this quest giver, why can’t he pay the party direct sacks of cash without going through the middle man? Why not make the evil Duke King, and blackmail him into giving this whole region over to the party where they can milk it for money and experience at their leisure?
Asymmetric information and economic power is a two way street.
And this is why the party always needs a bard. The more evil, the better. Information is their weapon, and they can use it with devastating effect when they aggregate their information into a central source.
It’s like Yelp! But for quests. Bards: disrupting the quest giver economy.
Clearly, the old men will have to fight back against this, but that’s for another 2000 words on another day.
* A credit check is something the Transmuter Bankers offers, actually, but no one ever thinks to ask before heading into the dungeon. “Hey, I know we’re going into Strahd’s castle, can we run a full credit check on Strahd?” never seems to come up before adventurers suit up and head into danger.
Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames