Friday, 17 April 2015

The Price of a Hauberk in Gomorrah

It seems almost obscene to extract something gameable out of the brutal and depressing revelations in Roberto Saviano's undercover account of the organized crime economy in his native Naples, Gomorrah. Nonetheless, this paragraph struck me, from the chapter titled Kalashnikov:
To calculate the state of human rights, the analysts consider the price of an AK-47. The less it costs, the more human rights violations there are, an indication that civil rights are gangrening and the state is falling to pieces.
It's made me rethink the usual scheme by which the party adventures out in the boondocks but then has to travel to the big civilized city to get the best deals, or any deals, on the materials of war: weapons, armor, foot-soldiers, and in a fantasy world, usable items like potions or battle charms.

It was not a good day.
But what if the opposite logic holds true? What if the best ratio of supply to demand is not found in the big city, which has to stay peaceful and organized to attract trade and reap taxes, where the state is strong, and men, arms and magic are regulated - and as a consequence, arms are sold only in black markets at greatly inflated prices? What if instead the deals are to be found on the borders of civilization, where swords and mail are regularly looted from the slain? Stocks in the house of war have to be high, for any day now a warlord could strut by looking to garrison a castle or equip a company. And if magic items are bought and sold, the ones useful in a fight are more likely to command a good price in a place where the line between life and death is as clear as the sea's horizon.

And human rights violations. Of course your adventurers (read; your players) are not the kind who would burn a hut to shake loose a few copper pieces, kill cows for experience points, right? But guess what, other adventurers are. And just as much as you lay waste the orcs, the orcs are equipped to lay waste the village, which means that they too have their hidden source of cheap arms and provisions. Consider: have the adventurers gotten to a point where they turn their nose up at loading a mule with the fallen goblins'crappy hauberks and scimitars? There are those on the other side who do not. You may even meet them someday.

Finally, Saviano devotes a lot of space to the economy and mystique of the Kalashnikov, its ease of use, its democratization of mobilization and massacre. A phenomenon confined to the industrial age? Maybe your medieval or Renaissance world is about to experience a rude awakening as one or another evil warlord figures out a way to stamp out reliable longswords with minimal craft. Or - more frightening still - maybe what is being mass-produced is enchantments on swords. Not straight pluses, that would be convenient to the party as loot, the glass-cannon wielders easily overcome. No, these are equalizer bonuses that give a flat attack roll as if you were 5 Hit Dice, and a flat damage bonus of +3 excluding strength. Effects like that get a little closer to evoking the sheer panic of well-armed, low-numbered adventurers who, like the knights and samurai of old, are going to have to get used to the triumph of the masses over the hero ...


  1. Fantastic post! I have never really given the relative access to the tools of war of peaceful cities versus war-torn villages before. You've given very good reasons to turn this old mainstay of rpg's on their head.

    1. Gygax's model for the old "stuff is expensive in the boonies" paradigm was the gold rush boom town. Of course, gold rush boom towns were a post-industrial phenomenon -- Stuff was cheaper near the factories and more expensive in the sticks largely because of transportation costs. But in an ostensibly medieval setting, where your industrial capital largely consists of an anvil and tools, or perhaps a bunch of spell books, I don't think that model really applies anyway. If there was really a remote boomtown populated by adventurers flush with gold, why wouldn't smiths and fletchers and enchanters simply move out to such a ready market themselves?

  2. In the classic Japanese movie, Seven Samurai (1954) by Kurosawa, the employed ronin find ample arms hidden by the villagers who pillaged them from fallen samurai. Perhaps the theory of finding equipment outside of major cities, and their controls, while counter-intuitive, might have validity. Peasants need cash and loading up on equipment from a routed army might just pay off the farm. That’s good thinking out of the box.

    Your comment about the masses of armed commoners over knights is one reason why firearms such as early hand cannons in the hands of knaves, were outlawed from the beginning as they could down a knight wearing a fortune in armor with a lifetime of training. Also after the Japanese Civil War ended with a victory for Tokagawa, the shogunate quickly put a curb on guns. Mind you this was after they demonstrated that troops armed with these matchlocks could mow down the flower of samurai in battle. Consider in RPGs that magic might also be treated in the same way as “weapons of mass destruction”, making it doubly difficult to find that spell or magical component.

    The quoted theory that civil rights are linked to the high price of weapons, while thought-provoking, requires a bit of review. In dictatorships (communist, fascist, cult of personality, or despotism, you name it), weapons are often illegal and civil rights are generally trampled despite a scarcity of arms. Throughout the ages (from ancient times, through medieval, renaissance, up to the industrial age restrictions on weapons were often enforced on a class basis. Keep in mind I’m trying to put this in a gaming context, rather than a modern political statement. If your party seeks swords and armor in a despotism and they are not of the accepted cultural warrior class or aristocracy of that area, they may indeed seek outside the city for their equipment. Additionally, the SF RPG Traveler had law levels, which limits on ease and legality of acquisition. Again, you blog is quite thoughtful and I enjoy reading it.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts and additions.

      I think the big irony is that although the players may want to side with the peasant revolt and Robin Hoods, their position after a few levels - encrusted with high-grade arms and items, highly trained, sitting on piles of wealth - puts them exactly in the position of knights and samurai who most fear the equalizer. Well, either that or join 'em and use your treasure hoard to hire a mob of weaponed-up peasants.

    2. You’re right, it’s certainly ironic enough. The life cycle of revolutions generally has the founders of the revolution executed by the radicals, who themselves eventually become “the man” and then the rise counter-revolutionaries feed the flames. The 20th century is rife with examples. According to my readings on the subject, the majority of peasant revolts and uprisings in the middle ages were to reestablish their ancestral rights, rather than to set up a new order. The generally wanted a return to the “good old days”.

      One interesting revolt that wanted to make something new was the Hussite Wars/Revolution. See also their innovative war wagons and heavy use of hand cannons as well as, interestingly enough, flails. Their novel war tactics are worth reading.

      Overall a good book on the subject of revolutions is The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton.