Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: economics

The Most Profitable Writing Genre: Ransom Notes

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.



The Subjective Nature of Skill Rolls

The GURPS rules largely exempt PCs from being manipulated by others’ social skills. Perhaps because of this, I’m seeing a different class of skill being used for intrigue among the PCs. I’m not sure what to call them – In fact, that’s why I’m writing this particular post, to work through and organize my thoughts about the matter – but they seem to be the skills that involve a contest.

The most common example would be the regular pouch-snatching, where there’s a contest of the thief’s skill against the Perception of any observers. (According to the Rules As Written, the thief should be using Filch, but I made the decision early on to fold that skill in with Pickpocket. Perhaps an error on my part, now that I think of it with the benefit of hindsight…) Given a high enough level of skill, the thief can pretty much count on getting that purse. As we’ve seen, though, when circumstances conspire to raise the observers’ Perception score, as with Mississippi Jed’s PER+Magery roll to see magic when Needles lifted the ogre’s pouch, it’s not always a sure thing.

Another example came up during discussion, as a pure hypothetical. Like most of our hypothetical discussions, it concerned PC-on-PC crime. The question was, could Jed be trusted to sell off the loot? If he left with the goods, and returned with cash, how could the others know he hadn’t pocketed much of the proceeds already? One of the other PCs offered to simply go along and keep an eye on him. That put the kibosh on any intricate plan to just stick the money in his own pocket, but… Jed has the Merchant skill, and the observer doesn’t. What if he gets tricky, as con-men are wont to do?

Well, I reasoned, if Jed were to go out of his way to perform some white-collar crime (as a sideline to the more blue-collar crime that the entire party engages in, as a regular thing), and wanted to conceal it, we’d be talking about a contest of Merchant versus Merchant. Likely IQ-based for the con-man, and PER-based for the observer. (I dunno, I could see IQ-based for the observer as well, if it matters.) At that point, considering the relative effective skills, either the dice gods speak an unlikely judgement, or Jed wins and takes the money.

What would this look like?  Any transaction more complicated than “same time, man, I don’t know you!“, I would say. Once the two hagglers start talking about delivery fees, and handling, and points*, and… well, let’s just say they can snow an unskilled observer.

A skilled magician can fool the untrained eye. As far as the person watching is concerned, that coin vanished. They could swear in court that that is what they saw. Because their PER roll couldn’t beat the magician’s Sleight of Hand.

A ninja assassin creeps up behind her target. Contest of Stealth vs Perception. When the ninja wins the contest, the target never knows what hit him.

In combat, there’s the Feint. If the rolls go against you, you don’t know you’re being set up until it’s too late.

There was actually a great example that came up, over and over, in the Space Cowboys game, and it even had to do with the Merchant skill:  when the PC goes out to do wheelin’ and dealin’, that PC almost always comes back thinking it was a job well done. He took the deal, after all. If you know the contract is going to screw you over, you don’t sign! It’s only in time, if at all, that the PC might notice that he lost the contest of Merchant after all, and let the cargo go for less than the going rate… even if the player knows immediately that he rolled a critical failure.

No matter what the skill, there’s a point where the expert can just overwhelm the layman. There’s a point where the layman just can’t tell the difference between “this is over my head” and “this is bogus”. In GURPS terms, we find that point with a contest of skills.

Revisiting the question of an unskilled observer keeping an eye on Jed, who’s out to line his pockets at the expense of the group**:  what’s the observer to do?  Sure, he could step in and put a stop to anything he doesn’t understand, but then, at best, we’re talking about using the observer’s Merchant skill with Jed’s reaction bonus. I’d have to be feeling really generous to allow that, even. More likely, in that situation, I would say it’s really the observer who’s attempting the roll, so it’s the observer’s stats that count… but with a -1 or -2 penalty for the annoying backseat driving.  Imagine two bankers trying to negotiate a mortgage deal while one is constantly interrupted by a kid saying “I don’t understand that” and “Why don’t you just do this”.

If they want to reap the benefits of the high skill, they have to give that PC a free hand to operate. A character with a skill of 18 is going to do things that the character with a skill of 6 never thought of. The character with the 18 might even do things that the character with a 6 knows as mistakes!  (“Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re experts.”) But, then, by definition, this means that the actions of the character with 18 can’t be followed by the character with 6.

Even if one PC can’t Fast-Talk another, they can still manipulate one another. They just have to manipulate each other’s subjective reality, by controlling the available information. If you never see it, if you never perceive it, it doesn’t exist for you.

* Please keep in mind, all of this is just fluffy background for a Quick Contest of Merchant. I’m not at all advocating any sort of complex financial arrangements in Dungeon Fantasy. Personally, I’m pondering on how much further streamlining of the loot-selling process I want to do…

** Also keep in mind that, to my knowledge, Jed hasn’t actually done anything like this, nor really offered to do anything like this. As far as I know, he was playing as straight as a crooked man can… until the party mentioned how they had whacked his former partner. I’m not sure what his mental state is, after that.


Cave Calamari and Roasted Rat

There’s been some talk of “going native”, so I’ve been thinking:  If you’re living off Survival (Dungeon), what kind of fare should you expect?  The flip side of this question, of course, is, what are all the creatures in the dungeon eating?

At the bottom of the food chain, we find slime and fungus. Subterranean fungus grows on wood, refuse, corpses, or anything organic. In a DF world, some fungus, like the Crushroom, can walk around under its own power, while other fungus sheds light through bio-luminescence. It’s not too much of a stretch to expect a fair amount of edible fungus. It’s also not too much of a stretch to inflict toxic damage and/or Hallucinations if a character without Survival tries to sample them.

The subterranean world of DF isn’t devoid of plants, either. They just can’t get their energy from sunlight. Carnivorous plants do just fine for themselves. Some exotic plants might draw sustenance from geothermal heat, like hot springs or lava flows.

Next, there’s all the vermin and little creatures that don’t even get stats. We’re talking about normal insects, non-poisonous spiders, centipedes, mice, bats, rats, and such-like. In areas with water, one might find cave fish. The dwarves that built the ruins used to keep guinea pigs for their meat. The cave goat is not only domesticated, but is also found roaming the caves around Tembladera, wild.

Finally, you’ll find more exotic sources of nutrition, like the “cave calamari” of the title: fried darkmantle. Many nuisance wandering monsters can provide a meal after they’re dealt with. Giant rats are just as edible as their mundane relatives. Some of the more pragmatic species of underground dweller count goblin as a staple meat. According to the sidebar on page 24 of DF15: Henchmen, it takes a Recipe perk to dress out and prepare monsters as a meal. I imagine it’s a pretty popular perk, deep in the underground world.

In the real world, cold-blooded creatures with low metabolisms can live for astonishing amounts of time on little food. Some snakes can go months between meals. The same would apply to many of the “disguised trapper” monsters, like the mimic, the cloaker, the piercer, and the various oozes and jellies: anything that sits and waits for food to walk up to it can’t be burning that many calories, and ought to be set up for a long wait.

Sentient inhabitants of the dungeon might forage outside, at least where there’s easy access to the surface world. The goblin tribe formerly ruled by Ghorbash practiced a mix of rat-herding and night-hunting, as well as going on raids against traders’ boats. They supplemented their subterranean food sources with mountain goat jerky, gathered herbs, and stolen foodstuffs. Delving adventurers bring their own surface food into the underground world, as well.

Overall, I would say that the dungeon is probably on the leaner side, as far as foraging opportunities go, but I still wouldn’t rate it as bad as a desert. Nearly, though. Using the system from GURPS Low-Tech Companion 3: Daily Life and Economics, pages 4-5, I would say that most dungeons tend to be Poor foraging territory, with rare areas of Very Poor or Desolate territory, and even rarer areas with higher ratings. Any area rating Good or better would likely be treated as a oasis, either a neutral place to be shared by many or a resources to be hotly contested.


Who Looted The “Fine Turnip”? And is it magical?

Inspired by a post over at Dungeon Fantastic, I got to wondering how my players record their loot.

I’m the kind of guy who tries to fill the dungeon with “interesting” treasure, rather than just piles of coins. Sometimes, I feel like it’s a little wasted, since I expect the players will end up classifying everything as either “stuff to keep”, “quest coupons”, or “pawnable”. There’s some value in that extra level of detail beyond what the players care about, as camouflage for clues and so forth, but in the end, that gorgeous piece of treasure is going to turn into a pouch full of coins, which will itself turn into a barrel of beer and some enchanted ironmongery for the knight. At any rate, I know my players would be happier if the treasure came pre-sorted into bundles of magic items and stacks of coin.

So, I wondered: what have they been writing down, when I describe the loot?

Luckily, I can check. My group elected one player (Rho/Kadabra/Mississippi Jim’s) as the keeper of the list of shared treasure. (They also elected him chief mapper, and thus far, he’s been handling the selling of loot back in town. Really, they decided that he was going to be the guy with the pencil and the calculator.)  He keeps his party notes in a particular notebook, which goes in the party folder, which gets stored on my shelf in between games.

What I found in the notebook surprised me.  At first, I thought I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.  All I found was scratch paper and rough maps. Finally, I discovered a couple of lists, folded up in the back of the notebook.

The answer to the immediate question is, yes, my players write down “comb 1500 silver”, just as Mr. Dell’Orto observes. Drat, they’re not taking notes on all my boxed text. Oh, well, that’s pretty much what I expected. So long as they’ve got enough notes to let me track down which item they’re actually talking about, they’re OK. If they find one harp on a given trip, they just need to know “the harp”; if they find two, they need to be able to tell me if they’re selling “the one with the carvings” or “the one glowing with obvious magical power”. If that gets noted as “harp” and “glowing harp”, great.

But then I took a closer look.

It seems that someone found a “fine turnip”, right around the time of the fight with Ghorbash. I’m not sure who put points into Connoisseur (Root Vegetables), but they estimated its value at $10 million.

I bet Gabby made off with it.


Lean Times In Tembladera

At the end of session #1, the “delving band with no name” ended up with $541* in cash from the sale of loot, plus $6000 in “goodwill” with the church, thanks to the return of the Golden Book. Split five ways, that’s $108 in coin, and a $1200 I.O.U., each.

The bad news is, the church doesn’t deal in large amounts of coin, so that goodwill is going to have to come out in the form of trade. I’ve ruled that the church can provide room and board, simple goods (robes and sandals, but not boots and definitely no armor), scrolls (divine magic only) and potions, and spells and enchantment. 

One thing to note is the gonzo nature of DF magic, which lets off-screen NPC clerics enchant items with no regard for the enchanting rules from GURPS Magic. In particular, clerics can bless weapons and armor with any enchantment. Lighten, in particular, has received some player attention.

Alric, the northern barbarian, has already declared his intention to camp outside the walls. It’s my understanding that the others will be hard-pressed to come up with the $150 in cash for a week at an inn, so I expect the others will be sleeping on straw tick mattresses and eating gruel with the monks. Somehow, I doubt this lives up to the dreams they all had when they got on the boat…


* All prices in GURPS dollars, of course. We’re using the suggested conversion from DF, where $1 equals 1 copper farthing.

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