The Murder Hobo economy is pretty frictionless. A Murder Hobo hands over a hard-earned gold coin from slaughtering some goblinoid creature and she receives an expected good or service. Mages craft healing potions. Cartographers sell dungeon maps. Starting weapon shops offer beginning battle axes and Bec du Corbins.
Remarkably, commerce runs smoothly without the oversight of regulation or the heavy hand of government institutions. The mage is not subject to periodic quality review of his healing potions. They heal d8 hit points when quaffed without concern. The cartographer’s expensive maps don’t send adventurers into Tomb of Horrors-like traps*. The weaponsmith forged the Bec du Corbins from metal and wood instead of squishy bits of rubber and plastic.
No OSHA agents stand outside the dungeon mouth demanding equipment safety and alignment checks before allowing the adventuring party to head into the bubbling, seething hellmouth.**
But there are gatekeepers.
Sometimes they go bad.
Corrupting the Guild
Let’s take the Divination Guild. Diviners are a funny bunch in the Murder Hobo economic machinery. Diviners who specialize in purely divination spells are not terribly useful in actual combat. The Diviner is not going to kill the Displacer Beasts busy chewing on the Warlock with a well-timed Legend Lore.
However, Diviners are extremely useful to the party – especially as an outside 3rd party service. They are intelligence machines. Be it communing with a Plane, identifying magic items, discerning hints to help find lost legendary treasures, producing scrolls of detect magic, and scrying the final boss monster, the party constantly hands over their hard-earned Displacer Beast cash to the local Diviner to get an edge on their next adventure.
That financial transaction has a set of built-in assumptions about the Diviners and their role:
- The internal Murder Hobo economy assumes Diviners are mostly both honest and up to a specified code of competence;
- Diviners are competent since they belong to the local Wizard’s Guild;
- That Wizard’s Guild confers authenticity on the wizard;
- Murder Hobos hiring services assume practicing Journeymen or Master Wizards of the Divination Guild passed a certain level of rigorous training, toiled years under the watchful eye of another Wizard perfecting their cash, went through ritual licensing to attain the title of “Diviner” and meet the Divination Code;
- And that Divination Code is: the Divination Spells, within the bounds of a random number roll for saving throws, work when cast by the hired, contracted, and licensed Diviner.
AKA: “I pay you 100gp, and you identify this potion for me.”
However, Guilds are not government entities. They are for-profit collective machines who create craftsmen along their internal rules and requirements. They have no external controls on their licensing. The local Guild masters set those rules and requirements. They “self-police.”
The Diviner is as good as the local overall Guild. If the local Guild is largely graft-free, then the Guild’s Diviners produce as expected and everyone gets their equipment identified in a timely, brisk, and responsible manner.
But it’s a short hop to have this line of thought instead:
- Diviners take in a fair amount of money for their services with some built in profit margin.
- It takes many years to produce a new Diviner should Orks eat him, a Medusa petrifies him, or some horrible being whisks him off to some Other Plane;
- Those many years are an expensive investment and that profit margin is not that amazing;
- Even with the expensive investment, there’s no guarantee that the initial Apprentice will matriculate into an actual Wizard; he might be something loathsome like a bard or make a pact with Elder Powers and take a route to quick power like a Warlock;
- And that money and time is lost in sunk cost.
The Guild asks: can we do this cheaper with a higher profit margin?
The Diviner’s Guild of Drumport
Take the chapter of the Diviner’s Guild in Drumport. It is a local port with an active wool trade support this bustling trade city. The wealth coming in and out of the port supports an active Adventurer’s community looking to make a quick buck taking out pirates, stomping on the Thieves Guild, and poking around in the sewers. Adventurers turn their money back into the city’s economy.
For strange reasons mostly associated with the vomiting hellmouth outside town and the theoretical quick riches found therein, the Diviner’s Guild in Drumport kept losing their working Diviners to mis-adventure. They could go the old-fashioned route for making new Diviners or import Diviners from nearby but competing guilds. But, the Masters discussed their options and came up with three possibilities when licensing new Diviners:
- Offer a group of apprentices a large bonus if they pass their exams and get their Diviner’s license especially fast;
- Give the second group the same multi-year intensive training process of Apprentice to Journeyman;
- Create a third group and let them seek their way through the Guild to figure out how to master Divination and become a Master on their own (no investment).
They did all three.
The first group, highly incentivized to become new Diviners and get into the Murder Hobo economy quickly (lovely, lovely fat bonus plus constant easy future income stream) figured out they could hire silver-tongued Bards and Thieves to bribe Master Diviners and get a license fast. Apprentices paid their bards on future-adventuring credit gotten on terrible terms. Money exchanged hands. Bards slipped Masters the bags of gold. Everyone shook hands. Thaumaturgic fireworks later, and the bribed Master signed the paperwork on the licensing forms and indoctrinated the Apprentice as a full Guild member. Congratulations, son, in less than a month, here’s your hat. You’re a Diviner!
The second group muddled through the Apprenticeship process. Ten years into a program and only a few actually made it to Journeyman. They dutifully passed their exams. Their magic books were full of first level and, if they were lucky, second level spells. Those who could pay their way higher into the Guild did so; but again, to get past Journeyman into Master they needed to pay all the licensing fees, now without the aid of the fat bonus or future adventuring to use as a source of credit. The desperate and broke adventured for high-risk payouts to make it to the next level in their careers. However, these who made it through the Apprenticeship process to Journeyman and possibly Master actually knew, and could cast, real Divination spells.
The third group largely bumbled along with adventuring groups, scooping up experience and levels as they traversed dungeons. Then, with enough knowledge learned “on the ground” so to speak, and with enough money in their pockets, they attempted the Divination exams. The spells might work and they might not. The apprentice might know the right spells, or in the course of adventuring have learned a bunch of evocation spells instead. And maybe from adventuring, the prospective new Guild Member would have the money to pay the Masters for licensing.
The first way was the most profitable for the Masters. They got their rents from merely signing pieces of paper claiming so-and-so did what and this. Bribery and graft was great for business. No one needed to actually produce Diviners. Hell, they built a whole new cafeteria on the side of the Guildhouse complete with an in-house chef on Tuesdays!
Life was so good, the Guild Masters penned a nice deal with the local Thieves’s Guild to turn the thieves into Officially Recognized Negotiation Agents. The Thieves’ Guild advertised their agency services in the local pubs. And the Guild pumped out a steady population of fresh, new theoretical 1st level Diviners for Adventuring Party Needs.
The local Transmuter Bankers cleaned up too with all the loans taken out to pay for Diviner’s licenses for adventurers. They offered terms that weren’t… quite usurious… but enough to justify opening an extremely nice Drumport local branch.
Sure, the Guild kept training real Diviners because Masters needed to eventually replace themselves, but they could luxuriate in pure nepotism. With enough 1st level chaff getting paid to pay them back to go sit in Identify Kiosks and fail to identify items, the Masters could take in their cousin’s nephew and sister’s ex-husband’s brother’s second cousin’s son to replace themselves over time. No more investing in the unwashed hordes who might more might not ever cast a basic Light cantrip. Nope, now we’re going the full corruption.
Everyone made out on economic rent seeking.
The Social Costs of Corruption
And how does one call out a Diviner who cannot actually Divine?
The so-called Diviner told the Barbarian, while taking 100gp for the identify spell, that the bright red liquid sloshing around in that tube was absolutely, positively a potion of resistance. It’s during battle, when the Barbarian quaffs it thinking she is going to get some immunity to the poisons from the thing actively chewing on her face, that she discovers much to her horror that it’s actually a potion of diminution. Or that dust of disappearance is actually the dust of dryness.
The Diviners who get their licenses through bribery couldn’t actually, well, Divine.
In the best case, these pseudo-Diviners were honest people who suddenly found themselves in a bad place, desperate to cast spells, in hock to the Thieves’ Guild and the Transmuter Bankers. They made dark pacts with horrible powers for the simple ability to cast Identify. Or, in the occasional happy stance, they spontaneously developed Sorcery and could fake it with illusions.
In the worst case, these psuedo-Diviners were Arcane Trickster Rogues or Clerics in thrall to Trickster Gods working for the Thieves’ Guild and helping to keep the economic pump of graft and corruption moving money through everyone’s hands: the Guild Masters, the Bard Agents, the Thieves’s Guilds, and the Transmuter Bankers giving out loans to keep the system lubricated with easy money. These so-called Diviners couldn’t cast an Identify to save their lives – but what did they care. They took 100gp in easy money (or considerably more for faked Locate Object, Legend Lore, Augury, Clairvoyance, Commune or Scrying spells) from adventurer “chumps.” They waved their hands in the air and got a few fireworks going. The adventurers ooooo’d and ahhhhh’d.
Sure, these fake Diviners ran the risk of the Paladin or Barbarian returning angry from a failed adventure to smash their faces in but, by time that happened, the pseudo-Diviner was long gone.
Economies have a tipping point where the graft and corruption is so high and complete, the only way to make money is to take part in the rent seeking behavior. No one does real work any more. The cost of becoming a real Diviner in this scenario is higher than the cost of becoming a fake one. Those who can become fake Diviners do so and real Diviners become a thing of distant memory. Drumport descends into a Den of Hive and Villainy.
Even the real economy of the healthy wool trade, leaning heavily on Diviners to give True Seeing and Augury services to ensure the safety of their shipments, suffers. For a while, the Guild Masters personally provide services to the real economy to ensure the wool trade sticks around, generates plenty of cover, and continues to attract outside money to Drumport. But, information and reputation means as much as money in an economy. Pretty soon, trade moves away to another port city seeking safer ground.
The only economy left is one of graft. Now, Drumport has:
- A port to attract skeezy sorts;
- Haughty fallen Master Wizards in their fancy Guildhouse on the dole;
- A fattened and emboldened Thieves’ Guild;
- Clerics of Arcane Trickster Gods hanging around;
- Random evil-worshiping Warlocks;
- Fake Diviners posting their available completely ineffective services on every flat surface;
- A hellmouth outside town still attracting adventurers;
- And Transmuter Bankers in their black cloaks creeping around in their fancy, marble-faced location with offering cheery fliers advertising financial services.
The shiny happy mostly good-aligned city of Drumport has slid into the Hell of Neutral Evil. The economy becomes mired in graft and climbing out of the pit is nearly impossible. To the citizens of Drumport, these are dark, bleak days. Most of them are moving away because their jobs went with the wool trade. Or, they are figuring out how to make a paycheck in this brand new evil world.
Where were the police and local government in all this? This process happens gradually. It doesn’t happen over night. It’s not one day everything is shiny and happy and the next day, the streets are overrun with rogues. And, during the transformation, more than a few cops more loyal to their old master of Commerce than the city go with the wool trade as well.
A few cops and local officials stayed to make the city tick again. This is their home. The only way to fix the city is to nuke it from orbit. So, the police put out a call. And what is a Neutral Evil city other than a pumping heart of the Murder Hobo economy?
That Drumport has all sorts of adventure and XP for the taking if someone wants to go out there and “clean it up…”
* Or maybe they do. See your local GM. Who is also not regulated by any outside government institution.
** Until that article gets written…