The Super Evil Lich King of Ancient Yore reemerged from his 10,000 year nap to, once again, take over the world. He waved his arms and unleashed hordes of undead. The undead shambled across the countryside and munched on village heads.
The villagers found this inconvenient. They liked their heads.
The Lich King’s reawakening created a sudden and pressing demand in current Adventurer commodity markets. Prices for Adventurers rose dramatically. Those who were in a good place took advantage of the Lich King Opportunity (as it was later called in Adventurer Financial Press) and commanded high payouts for their services. They made vast sums of money killing shambling undead and draining Kingdoms of their coffers. They were secure, for a short time, knowing the time to bring on more raw materials (ie, Adventurers) for more Adventuring Parties had a long tail. They killed a few sub-bosses, cashed out, and retired quick.
But, because the market was so hot for undead killers, Quest Givers found the right raw materials hiding in villages and formed it into competing Adventuring Parties. These Adventuring Parties were about identical – some Fighters, a Wizard, a possible Rogue, the Cleric 100% required for turning and raising services.
The only true market differentiators between the Adventuring Parties were non-tangible add-ons. These were what the Quest Givers called value differentiators. One Adventuring Team had an aggressive advertising crew with their Bard, her followers and an ear-wormy jingle. Another one gave out logo-embossed t-shirts to local villagers after every successful undead adventure. A third shot off amazing fireworks shows after capping even the lowest sub-boss.
At their core, the Adventuring Parties weren’t fundamentally different. They all provided the same service. They all had the same rough composition. They all had logos and jingles and color schemes. And, much to their dismay, as undead destruction became commoditized, the price for eliminating the threat normalized.
The Lich King wasn’t raising fewer bodies. He was still determined to subjugate the world under his decomposing hand. Keeping him at bay became cheaper.
The Great Adventuring Guild
The Adventuring Parties didn’t want cheaper. They wanted to retire off the undead the same way as the first to enter the undead-killing game.
The medieval world of Lich Kings and Adventuring Parties didn’t have any sort of government control over the market. The Adventuring Parties decided to “form a Guild of Adventurers.” They colluded.
They got together at an Inn. Over drinks, hard bread, and the scrabble of zombie fingernails on the doors, they decided:
- They would fix the price of various adventures. Zombies cost X. Wights cost Y. Vampires, Z. They inflated prices ensuring villagers paid all Guildmembers enough to comfortably retire post-adventure.
- They would control desperate villager access to Adventuring Parties via their Quest Givers. Quest Givers ensured a high demand by artificially limiting supply and managing availability to Adventuring Parties.
- They would control any technological or magical advances. No new Adventuring Parties with Dwarven steampunk weaponry. No weird Deep Elf magic (or marketing schemes). No new improved Fireball spells. The Guild would approve all new tech or magic to ensure all Guildmembers stayed on even footing. They must provide the same service without any major market differentiators.
- They made a pact to never harm the supply ie, leave the Lich King where he is creating undead and destroying villages, thus ensuring a steady market.
In essence, over drinks, the Adventuring Parties agreed to restrict perfect competition in their markets and turn it into a fixed game. This maximized all profits across all Adventuring Parties without the need to ever lower prices. They drew up a charter. They all shook hands. They chose a logo. They declared themselves the saviors of the World.
The Great Adventuring Guild would save the world from the Lich King. As long as none of their members actually attacked and killed the Lich King.
The Great Adventuring Guild assumed, as they all departed the Inn that faithful night, that everyone involved was of a good alignment. Everyone who signed this agreement would stick to the rules they made. No one would whip out some new magic, or go into the Underdark to hire a rogue Deep Elven marketing team, or find a few Dwarves to help them clear out the nearby Vampiric Castle with full steam artillery. Or no one, on the sly, would lower their prices below the agreed menu to gain more business and parasite undead—killing business off the rest.
In essence, they assumed no one would cheat.
But cheat they did. The incentives to cheat were too great and the profits too high to leave on the table. Despite being in collusion and all wearing Great Adventuring Guild branding, Adventuring Parties all started setting their prices lower than their neighbors and whipping out weird, unearthly weapons. One Adventuring Party developed a Fireball variant so powerful it blew up the undead, and the village, and three villages over.
The Great Adventuring Guild met again in the Inn. They decided their only true course of action was instant punishment the moment they detected deviations from the agreed charter. And they needed punishment so devastating no one would think twice about deviating from the rules.
The Good parties were In.
The Evil parties had to decide:
- Was the threat of Paladin-based punishment credible?
- Were they making higher profits with the collusion strategy versus the deviation strategy?
Enough evil Adventuring Parties decided the threat of punishment was not as great as the profits they made by charging a larger discounted rate for their services. And, more villagers hired the evil parties to destroy (or work with) the undead than good parties. Villagers felt it was equivalent services (undead stopped eating their heads) for less money. Much less money. Why hire Good when Evil performed the same work for cheaper?
The Good parties had no choice but to chase the Evil parties all over the countryside. Breaking the charter meant fragmenting the market for all. The Guild was at risk.
Before long, the Good parties spent all their time hunting Evil parties. They meted out punishment for breaking with the charter. If Good grabbed an offender, they beat the offender bloody. No one could break the pact and get away with it!
Good spent no time killing the undead. And Evil was slippery.
The result: a surge in undead across the countryside. The Lich King continued to produce supply. More villagers with their heads eaten. And, more work for Evil parties to undercut in their price war!
The Evil parties cut their prices to the ridiculous rate of one gold piece for Mummy and Death Knight eliminations. Instead of fighting with Good, they decided to force Good out of the market. Once they eliminated Good, they figured, Evil would rule! This was their chance! Then, Evil would get together in one giant Guild! Where they’d all cheat and undercut each other again. Then, fight each other again! And, more would die and fewer Adventuring Parties would pull together into a cartel to control the market with violence and bloodletting…
The right thing, Good told Evil, was to find a pricing equilibrium where they all colluded and still made tons of money. They’d force outsiders out and protect the world from the Lich King. Evil said Good was stupid.
Both Good and Evil forgot about the Lich King and saving the world.
Meanwhile, the Lich King was sad in his castle. No one came to have a final showdown with him. He had a fireworks display planned and everything.
He wondered if anyone remembered him.
An Outsider in the Market
There’s really a few ways this ends:
- The Guild beats itself with punishment and eliminations until only one Adventuring Party stands to save the world;
- An external governmental force breaks up the cartel and enforces laws against collusion in the market;
- Or, an outsider enters the market with product so technologically superior the rest of the cartel collapses.
And in this case, that’s what happened. The third one. The Deep Elves emerged from the Underdark annoyed. They showed up on the Lich King’s doorstep with Lloth-powered InterWeb technology. Good? Evil? It all looks the same to them.
What happened between the Lich King and the Deep Elves was never recorded – at least, no where public. And, the Deep Elves promptly disappeared again. The topside world isn’t their home what with the sun and annoying Guilds and Good and Evil and all. But, they left the world with the tools of transparency. They dropped the ability for people to see what was going on and talk about it with each other. For good or for ill, they left Cults of Lloth-worshippers dedicated to bringing the InterWeb technology to all.
Using Cartels in your game
Cartels are only stable if:
- The cartel’s violent punishment is greater than a cheater’s possible profits;
- Few firms collude and share equal profits;
- Firms compete in more than one market;
- The market is transparent between cartel members;
- The firms are all the same size.
Looking at, say, high-tech drug cartels in cyberpunk games, none of this is ever remotely true. One member of a stimsense cartel will grow bigger than the rest and start “forcing” competitors out of the market through extreme violence. They have no market transparency. And, the only way they stand each other is if one sells stimsense and another sells cocaine, thus differentiating from each other.
Cartels are most interesting when they are in an unstable state. They will try to eliminate each other while they grow in power. Monopolies are more powerful than oligopolies. Forcing all cartel members from the market means ultimate market dominance and infinite profits. They’re all incentivized to cheat and maintain stability.
A few examples of arguing cartels:
- Vampire clans collude over control of the blood supply of a city to ensure vampire population stability. But, one gang of vampires decides to bring in some ancient magic to reap more food and power, faster. This breaks the pact and unbalances political control. Either enact punishment, quickly, or grab the ancient magic and ensure everyone has access to it. And the gang, with their ancient magic, fights back;
- Enormous cyberpunk firms all collude over wetware products. One introduces secret tech that unbalances the playing field and potentially brings vast profits for the inventor. Vast profits mean power, and once one member gains power it can force everyone else from the market. PCs must steal the wet-ware so the cartels re-establishes equilibrium before the first member runs off with all the profits;
Cartels are a tool to set up antagonists. Drop the PCs in media res. Let the PCs sort it all out while the cartels kill each other – and the PCs – around them.
Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames