The Deep Elf Game Shows

game the gameThe Company annoyed the Deep Elves.

The Company kept sending Company Men into the Underdark to kick over things, take stuff, and set up forward bulwark settlements. Once they achieved a foothold, the Company Men began importing all the comforts of home. At one point, they built an actual tavern. They served surface-dwelling tourists “Hellmouth Beer.” And they neither paid for land nor gave kickbacks to the Deep Elves.  As if no one already lived there!

At first, the Deep Elves launched into guerilla warfare to clean these jokers out of their homes. Murdering the Murder Hobos and taking their beer (which honestly wasn’t all that bad) was fun. But, the Company Men kept coming.

The Deep Elves fought for a while. Then, they decided fighting was boring. It was slow, it was hard, and it was messy.  The Deep Elves are clever; they could come up with something cooler.

The Marketing Department got together and talked through the problem. Murder Hobos want prizes. Deep Elves have prizes. Maybe the Marketing Department could merge the desire for prizes and murder together in an entertaining bundle?

The Marketing Department decided to make the incursions by Company-backed Murder Hobos into the Upper Underdark into entertaining game shows. They had all the necessary elements:

  • True Seeing eyes to hang in all the interesting corners;
  • Attractive and flashy settings with super exciting monsters with tentacles;
  • Ever increasing but harder to attain rewards;
  • And a stream of interesting contestants who performed interesting and unique contestant tricks!

And, in the end, this was a pretty successful gambit.

The Economics of Game Shows

Skill-based game shows are an economic balancing act.

On the one hand, game shows must promise the chance of producing winners.  Someone must win the Big Prize, some of the time, to keep the allure of winning alive.  An unwinnable game show is a game show lacking in any suspense.  Why watch, night after night, if no one ever wins? What’s the fun in watching new contestants try knowing they will lose?

But, if everyone wins all the time, the game show loses its allure and its sense of risk.  Constant wins produces boredom.  A game show with no sense of end-game risks loses all sense of drama.

The trick is ratchet up the sense of risk while narrowing the funnel around chances of success.  Early in the game, the tasks are easy, but the rewards are low.  The risk to reward is small and manageable.  Anyone entering the game (or the Underdark) can win the first round or two and walk away with modest prizes – a +1 long sword, 5 potions of healing, etc.  And, contestants are always guaranteed some prize on the first round of the game.  That’s how the producers hook contestants and the audience. Once the contestant has skin in the game, they want to keep playing.

But, as the game progresses, the risk grows proportionally.  The next dungeon has twice as many tentacle-filled spike pits.  The dungeon after holds a bored brain-eating Illithid with Illithid pals. But the rewards, likewise, are proportional – if they pay out.  The next drops might be +2 long swords flame tongue, boots of striding and springing, or a cases full of 5th level mage scrolls.  But, the drop might be 10 silver pieces with a taunting note. The game goads the Murder Hobos deeper into the Underdark where they are, hopefully, shredded like meat in a sausage grinder.

At the end of each round, the contestants must decide if they want to continue deeper into the Underdark for greater risk to reward or if they want to take their winnings and go home.  This is classical behavioral economics. The Murder Hobos must decide on their appetite for Underdark risk.  The allure is better drops further down into the darkness.  But risk of a total team wipe-out grows.  Do Murder Hobos take their winnings and go harass someone else on the surface, or do they plunge deeper into the darkness?

Murder Hobos must to weigh their choices before moving to the next round.

The mechanics of the Deep Elves game show balances all factors to ensure:

  • Enough Murder Hobos “win” to escape and inform the surface of their “great victory” to keep the game fun;
  • Lure enough Murder Hobos into the game to grind the Company-backed Murder Hobos into sausage and, thus, leave the Deep Elves alone deeper in;
  • And keep the game full of entertaining risk for the home audience!

Setting up the Underdark as a Game Show

The Underdark lends itself to game shows.  Piles of gems embedded in walls!  Evil, tentacally monsters! (And can we get more tentacles?) Tastefully placed lights, explosions, traps and mirrors!  And, best of all, a conga line of attractive contestants with their own little and hilarious personality quirks.  Will the Paladin get along with the bard?  Will the Tiefling feel racial injustice?  Will the Cleric’s god forsake her halfway through the challenge?  Will the party all run out of food deep in the Underdark and start eating one another?  Tune in and find out!

The Deep Elves hung True Seeing eyes in every corner of the upper Underdark.  Expensive to produce, but worth it.  And, they cultivated the monsters, built elaborate sets for “boss monsters” to inhabit, and crafted somewhat useless but sexy, revealing armor for some of the capstone risks.  Keep playing, Murder Hobos, and you can fight the end game boss, the “High Priestess of Lloth!”

And Deep Elves beamed the boss fight right into Deep Elf homes live via the actual Lloth Interwebs.

Deep Elves even summoned Cambions from the deepest Abyss as Game Show Hosts.  Attractive Cambions mug on magically beamed tele-TV with their flowing hair, developed muscle tone, red skin, horns, and giant wings. Not only are Cambions imposing (and ask for enormous salaries with ridiculous benefits), they look fabulous in enormous black, hooded cloaks.

One cunning Deep Elf added a fun facet to the game. The Cambion poofs into the game magically wearing this giant cloak. He offers one of the contestants a “deal” right at a risky moment.  They can turn to the dark side, take a buy out and flee, or otherwise betray her team members for magical advantage.  It’s great drama.  Will the Murder Hobo take the deal?  Will she fall for the sexy Cambion game host?  Or will they have another boss fight right then and there, a boss fight the Murder Hobos are destined to lose?

These game shows are immensely popular to the Deep Elves.

And that one Game Show that Failed

Game Shows are like insurance pools.  They bet on a certain amount of winnings paid out over time. But, they expect to make a certain amount of revenue from ad sales to make up for the winnings. The overall balance turns out even.  In this case, they’re basically enormous insurance policies keeping the Deep Elf population safe.  Low winnings with occasional high winners for some definition of high guarantees drama, but also keeps the payouts low.  In a well-balanced game, a cache of magic items might survive 10 years of incursions from Murder Hobos before they deplete the entire supply.

Deep Elf game show producers run the economics of a new game before they unleash it on the Upper Underdark.  Too low winnings fail to lure in a constant Murder Hobo supply.  Too high winnings loots the supply of the monsters, winnings, and equipment in a single season of a show.  A game show that pays out too high ends up getting canned after a single season.

And, sometimes, this happens.  For example, a Deep Elf Producer named Elmon Sylna tried for higher viewership by drastically raising the prize payout while cranking up the end boss difficulty.  Her numbers showed a majority >80% of Murder Hobos would make it to the final round but only 1% would defeat the final boss and get the big drops.

She set up her game and leaked word out to the Company via Bards. This particular Hellmouth leads to easy looting, the Bards said.  Easy for Murder Hobos to crush the game.

Instead of small steps up to the main prize, she made it multiplicative.  Instead of double the winnings, it was 10x the winnings!  Most Deep Elf game shows build a slow ramp to keep the Murder Hobos in while murdering them.  This is not unlike putting crabs in a pot and slowly turning up the heat until they boil.  If the first team to run the game wins, they know, it brings in a tidal wave of Murder Hobos wanting to loot the place.  And then Deep Elves have to get out the army, and they have to murder Murder Hobos the old-fashioned way.

But the 10x winnings were too attractive to the Company.  They sent in max-level Murder Hobos imported from abroad and kitted out to kill anything,  anywhere. And run the game they did.  There weren’t enough intermediate boss fights to ratchet up the tension or get the viewers to “know” the Murder Hobos.  The Murder Hobos considered the risk at the end of the game – a giant dracolich surrounded by paralysis and poison causing undead – and figured they could take it.

Once the dracolich was dead, the Murder Hobos burst through the back of the set. They wreaked all sorts of off-television havoc on the show’s support crew. The Deep Elves scrambled to teleport them, confused and bewildered, laden down with winnings, back to the surface.

Wherein the Company took one look at the winnings and sent another crew right in.  Most of the Murder Hobos died, but enough won and lived that the game bankrupted itself after a single season on the air.  It was unfortunate, too.  Instead of a Cambion, the Deep Elves summoned a hot lady Balor who looked fabulous in tight black spandex.  Luckily, she landed a new gig.

A few more Murder Hobo major wins, and Elmon Sylna was out of a job.  She admitted in a later interview that cranking up the winning to prize ratio skewed the economics of the game.  The prize was big enough to encourage Murder Hobos to “go for it” and take the risk even with the risk was high.  High risk to high payout meant enough successful Murder Hobos to bankrupt her game.  “So it goes,” she said in a later interview.

Elmon Sylna was last heard developing a new game involving asking Murder Hobo a series of obscure and increasingly more difficult trivia questions in return for fighting capstone boss fights.

Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games –


  1. Welcome boys and girls, step right down for the thrill of “The Fun-geon” (TM)!
    Of course, there is the minor issue of the labor and supply costs. I want to run this now just to have to turn around and offer other murder hobos and their kept wizards the job of wrangling newer, more exciting monsters. Viewership flagging due to the same old Race for the Cure (d8/round Dex poison) event as last season? Try getting a few bulettes this time and jumping the (land)shark! Or what about the tired old “no guys really it’s totally a cloaker” gag? Gag! Pah! Let’s try a beholder with summoner levels! Sure there’s the risk that it will accumulate more levels, become epic, ‘accidentally’ breach contract and enslave the dark elves, but that’s what gladitorial-style season finales are for!
    Ooooh, and I just thought of a legit use for Elemental Swarm. Quick, I need at least four high-level casters with Augmented Summoning! We’ll call that event the Four Seasons!

  2. I swear I just listened to this story on NPR’s Planet Money podcast. #714, Can a Game Show Lose?
    Great adaptation!

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