The Reapers of Strife - War Profiteering Made Easy
by Andy Collins, Dragon #313
"War seldom enters but where wealth allures." - human proverb
"Sounds good to me." - Duke Johan Ortelius
At their core, the Reapers of Strife are profiteers, making a living (and a good one, at that) from the miseries of war and conflict. The group originated as a loose affiliation of like-minded merchants operating under a gentleman's agreement to work together to maximize profits during times of strife. Under the agreement, the merchants pledged not to undercut each other's prices or otherwise interfere with each other's businesses.
But about a decade ago, the unthinkable occurred: A series of peace accords between various enemy governments were signed, bringing to an end several long-running (and very profitable) wars. In the space of mere months, profits dropped away as prices returned to pre-war values. No longer could the merchants get away with rampant gouging, price fixing, and general economic mayhem. It seemed that their profitable agreement was at an end.
One wealthy backer of the affiliation wasn't ready for the gold to stop flowing into his coffers. Duke Johan Ortelius, one of the group's more vocal investors, proposed a bold new plan: Rather than rely on the various peoples of the world to provide opportunities for profit, why not ensure the steady stream of income by fomenting strife themselves?
Many of the merchants protested this new idea. This was a far cry from mere profiteering, they claimed. If implemented, the naysayers warned, this plan would make the group more than simply businessmen profiting from the inevitability of conflict. They would indeed become the very reapers of strife itself! What Ortelius suggested was more than ethically dubious, it was morally wrong. The duke solved their moral dilemmas by buying out their interests, thus becoming the majority stakeholder in the group. Relieved of such annoying consciences, the group rededicated itself to the pursuit of profit above all else. Always appreciative of irony, the duke even took the epithet - meant as an insult - as the group's unofficial title.
Size And Resources
In the last ten years, the Reapers of Strife have grown from a small but wealthy affiliation of merchants to an organization with tendrils in virtually all sectors of the metropolis of Darasca. As a Medium organization, the guild can afford to spend up to 50,000 gp each week on any one item or in pursuit of any given objective. These resources can come in the obvious form of arms or mercenaries, but can just as easily take the guise of bribes to local officials, payoffs to the local thieves' guild for information or enforcement, or just about anything else the group can think of. Almost everyone in Darasca owes the Reapers money, favors, or both - many without knowing the ultimate owners of their debt.
Reapers of Strife (Medium): AL NE; 50,000 gp resource limit: Membership 80; Mixed (human 142, dwarf 6, half-elf 9, halfling 5, elf 4, gnome 2, other 2).
Authority Figures: Duke Johan Ortelius, male human Ari14.
Important characters: Durok Stonethews, male dwarf Exp19; Tyresia Windling, female half-elf Ari7; Celia Lidal, female human Exp9: Nulanda, female halfling Rog4; Allanleigh Silvertongue, male human Brd3.
Others: Mixed; Ari3 (2), Ari1 (12), Brd1 (3), Exp4 (2), Exp2 (4), Exp1 (134), Ftr3, Ftr1 (3), Rog2, Rog1 (3), War4 (1), War2 (2), War1 (5).
Alignment And Leadership
A man of big ideas and grand tastes, Duke Johan Ortelius (male human Ari14, NE) has ruled the Reapers with an iron hand since taking control. Despite his love of luxury and opulence, Ortelius can also be extremely tight-fisted with his money. Every copper piece that comes out of his pocket has a purpose, and he has impressed this attitude on many of the newer members of the guild. Ortelius is rarely seen without his bodyguard Pontus (male human War8, N), a veteran of several conflicts engineered by the Reapers themselves.
Although the group began as a neutral organization with regard to morals and ethics - perhaps with a slight tendency toward order over chaos - under the duke's leadership it has become quick to disregard the suffering of the weak and innocent. More to the point, the group has actively sought to create situations where profitable suffering is commonplace. This complicity in pain and death marks the group as distinctly evil, although most of its members would hotly deny that. "If war is inevitable, why not just get to the point?" they might ask.
Membership And Demographics
Thanks to his strong personality - not to mention the economic success of his initiative - the duke has few rivals to his position of power. Almost to a person, the members of his organization agree with his strategies and tactics in accomplishing their goals.
Much like the city itself, most of the Reapers are human. Experts - merchants, craftsmen, and tradesfolk - make up the majority of the organization, as befits its nature. The most notable of these is Durok Stonethews (male dwarf Exp19, NE), who might be the only person in the group more tight with a gold piece than the duke. Stonethews controls most of the city's (and thus, the entire region's) trade in arms and armor, and thus is the most influential merchant in the organization. Among those under Durok's purview is Celia Eidal (female human Exp9, N), the most talented of the local smiths and the proud owner of a brand-new forge bought by Durok himself.
The duke's successful courting of a number of the city's nobles has paved the way for a strong relationship with local leaders and fattened the group's treasury. Tyresia Windling (female half-elf Ari7, LE) has become the guild's second largest backer (after the duke himself), and Ortelius has lately been entertaining plans of a more official "merger of assets" with the recently widowed noblewoman. He has no idea that she has similar plans of her own, and in fact engineered her husband's death to make them possible.
Ortelius has also forged strong bonds with the local thieves' guild. Reasoning that competition with this organization would only cut into profits, the duke instead hires the guild to perform tasks ranging from debt collection to spying to the occasional timely assassination. This work is so regular that the guild has assigned an official liaison to work closely with the Reapers: a young up-and-coming rogue named Nulanda (female halfling Rog4, NE).
The final leg of the organization rests upon public relations and rumor control. To this end, the duke has forged an alliance with a local tale-teller of some repute, Allanleigh Silvertongue (male human Brd3, NE). The bard handles the twin tasks of keeping public sentiment aligned with the group's needs while simultaneously sowing the seeds of future conflict. If the Reapers need to sway the public's attitude against a neighboring city-state, a few well-placed stories or ballads by Silvertongue or the trio of 1st-level bards who work with him usually does the trick.
Swaying Public Opinion
Sometimes, you might be more concerned with planting information or changing local attitudes than with gathering rumors or making contacts. This is more time-consuming and expensive than gathering information, but it works in a similar manner.
To place a rumor into public awareness and sway public opinion, a character must spend at least a week around town and spend 5d6 gp. At the end of this period, the character must attempt either a Bluff check (if the information to be placed is basically false) or a Diplomacy check (if the information is basically true). For each additional week and 5d6 gp spent before making the check, add +2 to the skill check, to a maximum bonus of +10 after a total of six weeks. If you have 5 or more ranks in Gather Information or Knowledge (local), you may add a +2 bonus to the check. Others can assist your check by spending an equal amount of time and gold, but each assistant after the first suffers a cumulative -2 penalty to her check (because of diminishing returns) and the total bonus from assistance can't exceed your skill modifier (including the bonuses noted above).
The DC of this check depends on how widely you seek to sway the public's opinion. To plant a rumor that the public is likely to believe (such as making the local elves believe that the dwarves are overcharging for weapons) is DC 15. More significant attitude shifts, such as rousing an otherwise docile population to rally for war, requires at least a DC 25 check. Rallying the people to revolt against a beloved ruler would be at least a DC 40 check.
In most situations, the attitude shift is temporary, lasting no more than 2d6 days. If you beat the DC by 5, this increases to 2d4 weeks, If you beat it by 10 or more, the shift is permanent (until affected by other events).
You can retry the check if you fail by 4 or less, but if you fail by 5 or more the public has become so put off by your rumor mongering that you can't try the same tactic again for 1d6 months.
If another character wants to learn the source of the rumors, he must make a Gather Information check opposed by the Diplomacy or Bluff check you used to plant the rumor or information.
In Your Campaign
The Reapers of Strife function best as a behind-the-scenes force, subtly manipulating events to maximize their profits. Unlike many secret organizations, the Reapers don't have the physical or magical power to face a competent adventuring party head-on; instead, they rely on the protection afforded them by local laws and their allies in business and government. Characters who publicly oppose the Reapers might find themselves barred from their favorite taverns, blacklisted by their guilds, or generally shunned by all. While this might seem petty to the characters at first, when they start having difficulty replenishing supplies after adventures - or finding healing at a local temple - they'll certainly take notice.
Here's a list of some of the ways the Reapers can make the PCs' lives miserable:
- The PCs' rooms are rented out to other guests who were "willing to pay a little extra - it's just business, you understand."
- Prices for mundane arms and armor increase by 10%, 20%, or even 50%, "due to increased demand" or "because the last shipment was stolen by goblins."
- Local potion- or scroll-sellers are suddenly (and perpetually) out of stock of the characters' favorite items.
- The wizard the characters counted on to upgrade their magic weapons or armor is "too busy" to help them.
- Pickpockets target an unwary character for simple theft.
- If the PCs belong to any local guilds, their memberships are revoked because of associations with "the wrong type of people."
Retribution should rarely, if ever, take the form of actual physical conflict. The Reapers simply want the characters to feel unwelcome enough in the city that they move on. They don't need the characters dead - just out of the way.
Remember, no one in the city sees the various members of the Reapers as anything more than local merchants and aristocrats. Even if the characters could prove an alliance between these individuals, most would simply see it as a guild affiliation or business partnership. The leaders of the organization are respected members of society, not bloodthirsty villains. (Maybe a bit bloodthirsty, but only indirectly and discreetly so.)