The Most Profitable Writing Genre: Ransom Notes

by mshrm

Part of the real-world loot from the recent sale at Warehouse 23 was Pyramid 3-47, which includes David L. Pulver’s “Eidetic Memory” column on monster slavers. In the second paragraph, he tosses off an idea that got me to thinking: “Intelligent monsters like orcs often fight to the death because they see no hope of mercy…. unlike knights, monsters lack wealthy relatives to ransom them.”

In my experience, and from the stories of others, I would say that most PCs often do the same, and for the same reason. It never occurs to them that losing the fight might mean something other than summary execution.

I’ve heard a lot of people give the opinion that players also have a hearty dislike for having their characters taken captive, but I think that worry is often overblown. I’ve been a player in that situation, and more often, I’ve seen “we’re captured and enslaved” as an excuse to really break loose and let ’em have it.* Sure, sure, take their stuff and they’ll sit up and take notice, but most gamers are genre-savvy enough to know that once you strangle the dumbest of the guards with your chains and sneak past the first guard post, you’ll find all your gear, neatly stacked and packaged for shipping. 😉

I think a lot of players haven’t ever had a character in that situation. Even if they have, there’s nothing that says they’ll trust a new GM like they would trust the old.** I would like to think that my guys would trust me not to arbitrarily smear their characters… but on the other hand, I’d like to think that they would trust me to have the slobbering Lovecraftian beast ignore their white flag of truce and eat them all after blasting their sanity to tattered ribbons by its very existence.

But I digress.

We already know that Tembladera has a market for slaves. It’s a pseudo-medieval setting, and slavery is part of the medieval experience. It’s like peasants, the plague, and bad roads. All part of the colorful scenery.

It also provides another decision point for the PCs:  do we kill ’em, or capture ’em to sell? Mississippi Jed has already selected the quirk, “Opposes slavery”. It might even rise to the level of “Abolitionist”, I’m not sure.

But, as the quote from the article mentions, there’s another historical medieval tradition that adds both color and financial options: ransom!

My thinking is, this could cut both ways. Anyone with wealth and friends or family might be captured and ransomed back to those allies. If the orcs capture a knight, they could strip him of his gear and sell him back to his liege (or whatever substitute authorities might be willing to stand in). If the knight captures the orc tribe’s shaman, the tribe might be willing to pass the hat to get him back. Of course, this isn’t going to work with outright monsters (like the otyugh), the brainlessly aggressive (like zombies), or those who can’t scratch up the dough (like the goblin tribe of the late Ghorbash)… but it will work for most PCs.

Here’s how I’m thinking of working it. Let’s say somebody, either a dungeon delver or a dungeon resident, captures a foe. What can be done with them?

Starting with the quick, easy, and unprofitable, the first option is always execution. You might be able to eat ’em, or sell ’em for parts, but you’re not likely to get any large cash reward beyond their treasure. Still, it’s very little trouble, so it’s often the default option. (Dobby wasn’t much interested in feeding prisoners, you might recall.)

Second, if one has access to the proper markets, one might sell the captive into slavery. I’ll be using the pricing guidelines from the article, which means your average orc, in good health, will sell for over $7000 as an unskilled laborer. There are various complications for selling gladiators or skilled laborers, and for races with different Disadvantages, but there’s a reasonable baseline.

Finally, some captives can be ransomed back to their friends at a greater profit than selling them into slavery. The question is, will anybody pay anything, and if so, how much?

There are cases where the answer is obvious, like the otyugh. The captive can’t be too much of a loner, or else there’s nobody willing to pay a ransom. Even if they’ve got friends, they might not be willing to go to the trouble. In the absence of other indicators, I would consult the dice.

Over in DF3: The Next Level, on page 11, there’s a sidebar, “Almost Monster”. It mentions a chance for a character to be denied entry if that character attempts to go into a settlement, for those who have Social Stigma (Savage) or (Monster). If the captive in question has either Disadvantage, I would roll that chance. If it comes up “would be denied entry”, I would read it as “insufficiently civilized”, and have the negotiations fail for that reason. (My orcs tend toward the Klingon. “Proud warrior race” and all that cliche. They might tell you, if the guy got himself captured, it’s proof he’s not worth buying back.)

If I were feeling particularly random, I might roll a Reaction roll between the captive and the negotiating allies, to see how well they’re getting along. When they pass the hat to take up donations, the unpopular officer is going to come up short. However, truth be told, I would probably skip this in the interests of simplicity, unless there were some impressive modifiers in play.

More important, I would say, is the Wealth level of the captive. Nobody buys back peasants, even popular ones. I’m going to set the price similarly to the way the “Monster Slaver” article sets the price for pleasure slaves. I’m thinking a ransom of $1000 per point invested in Wealth is a good starting place. This means, if the captive doesn’t have at least Comfortable wealth, they can’t be effectively ransomed. It also means a high-ST character, or one who would make a good gladiator or pleasure slave, might be worth more on the auction block than ransomed!

In the end, the average orc is still fighting to the death. Even if the tribe is willing to pay, the price is too steep. But, if Sir Player-Character gets himself tackled and dragged off into the depths, it’s not an automatic death sentence, just a steep fine. Of course, in Dungeon Fantasy, even death isn’t a death sentence… if you can afford to pay for a Resurrection.

* “Ever seen a half-elf bite an orc’s ear off? The other way ’round, sure, but…”

** In the same campaign where the half-elf went berserk and dined on orc ear tartare, during the great escape from the slavers, there was another instance, later on, where the same half-elf got captured by different enemies. For some reason, the same DM who played out the great escape, quite successfully, decided it was a good idea to have that captivity-and-escape story play out off-camera. The story went off the rails when he decided to include the torture and crippling of the PC in question. Off-camera, by GM fiat. I recall that decision going over so well that it pretty much ended the campaign. First time was epic, second time was an epic failure.