Saturday, March 23, 2013

When It's Okay For Monsters to Tax PCs

Is it okay for monsters to change taxes or tolls to PCs?

And if so, when?

The idea is pretty simple - some NPCs - monsters, fellow player-allowed races, whatever - set up in an easy access to the dungeon and charge you for access.

It's not a new idea.

It happened in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign, notably here, in Ernie Gygax's "Black Reservoir" expedition. A group of elves let the PCs into an unexplored section of the dungeon in return for a promise to pay them on the way back. (This link is cached here.)

Zak S. discussed a (3rd edition? 4th? I don't know) module set in Greyhawk Castle, and mentioned a clan of dwarves who apparently make their living taxing the comings and goings of adventurers. I commented on it, if you want to read the exchange there. (Short version - he comes down pretty hard on the idea.)

It happens in the Forgotten Realms - one major entrance to Undermountain is in the middle of a tavern, and the owner charges you to use it.*

I've read at least one more instance in an OSR campaign, which I can't seem to find now - NPCs who took over the dungeon entrance and hold it against all comers, but charge you for lowering you into and pulling you out of the dungeon.

It occurs in fiction, too - the Greg Costikyan novel "Another Day, Another Dungeon" features tax collectors at the entrance to the dungeon. Apparently this kind of stuff happened in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor games, too.

But is it okay? Lots of examples doesn't means lots of good examples.

I think it can be okay.

I think it needs the following:

A Plausible Explanation: A bunch of elves hanging out guarding the stairs for some inscrutable purpose? Not bad. A tribe of orcs who live on level 1, and will let you down to level 2 if you really want to go? That works for me. NPCs who seize the entrance to the treasure-hunting zone and let people down and back up? Could work.

A clan of dwarves who apparently make their main living by charging adventurers tolls? Yeah, I agree, that seems weak. You'd need a lot of traffic to justify it. The level of traffic that would entail seems a bit iffy. If the dwarves were part of the city's defense forces and they charged people to enter the city post-adventure, that's fair (albeit annoying).

No believable reason? Bad.

Believable reason (even if it's obscure)? Good.

Avoidability: If the only way into the dungeon, period, is through the toll-takers, that's a problem. It's effectively a cost to enter. Why charge x% of the outgoing treasure instead of just giving x% less treasure?

But what if it's just the most convenient way in? "You can go in past us, or hike 20 miles into the Orclands and go in there. Take your pick." Well, isn't choice a part of the much-loved player agency? It's not a false choice - you can pay for convenience or get inconvenience for free. If the toll-takes actively work against people taking the other choice, that's fine, but not if it means you can't avoid it at all.

Can't avoid it? Bad.

Can avoid it? Good.

Otherwise Surmountable: There needs to be another way besides money to get by. Maybe they'll listen to a good reason (the elves want money to let you by, but they'd let a party of elves skate by free), or have another motive (Kill the evil thing they're guarding the surface against, no charge for you!) or can otherwise be dealt with. And there is always killing them. It's annoying if the toll-charges either have the force of law or the force of moral right behind them. If you're playing AD&D and all halflings are Lawful Good and they're the ones charging a toll, sneaking past them is Bad and killing them is Even Worse. But a group of fellow marauders who set up shop? Chop them into burger, if you can . . .

If it's a couple of ogres who charge people to use "their" stairs, or a tribe of orcs who are willing to let you go fight the monsters down deep if you just give them a taste, or another group you could legally, morally, and/or otherwise effectively deal with other means than money - I think that's fair. I think it's interesting. I also think this works because it allows for other ways to solve the problem - the guards are an obstacle. You can hack them up, sneak past them, or otherwise bypass them - or use money to solve the problem. It encourages negotiation and gives a real reward for doing so (Pay X to be unmolested, Earn X+Y in the deeps). You know your six is guarded, but you can't be sure the guards are trustworthy (will they make you disappear if you come back weak, or aid you?)

So think this can work, and I think it's totally fair. It's just a spin on guardian monsters, anyway - monsters you can bypass with money and who tell you so. It's also just a spin on the magic door with a special key (get key, get entry - no key, no entry), the puzzle entrance, or the hidden entrance. This time the cost is money. The question is, is it fun (avoidability and otherwise surmountable are keys here) and does it make sense (plausible explanation). If it's plausible and represents an interesting challenge, I can't see anything wrong it with. Bad execution doesn't make a bad idea.

* And why are they even letting you in? What if you come back a-running, followed by monsters and/or dripping Mummy Rot? Seems pretty foolish. "Yeah, go on in and rile up the monsters. That'll be 5 silver pieces. Try not to stir them up too much." I mean, the dungeon is under a major city, and instead of dedicating military force to clearing it out and securing the city, they let random yahoos into the dungeon from a hole in a bar floor and hope they don't bring trouble back out? No wonder the realms are a mess. ;)


  1. I believe the OSR example you may be thinking of is Beedo's Black City Campaign, which has yet another variation - as I read it, the toll isn't to enter the dungeon as it is to use the guards equipment to lower yourself down. This is, I think, another instance of making it more fun for the players to strategize.

    1. Yes, it's probably that. "Beedo did it" is a great explanation for all megadungeony weirdness. :)

      And yes, it's a great way to get the players thinking right from the start, and encourage them to start looking at the dungeon in multiple dimensions - not just "go to room 1 and take a left this time instead" but "How else can we get in and out?" and an incentive to do so.

  2. If it's seen as a fee, or a tax, some players are going to balk - they're just like that. But what if, instead, the half-dozen orc guardsmen can be *bribed* into leaving their posts just long enough for the PCs to get through?

    " 'Ere, them hobgobbos make us take all the scut jobs. For a fiver - for the lot of us - we'll make like we saw sumfin' worf chasin' off dat'way, you lot sneak in whilst we's 'distracted', and no one's the wiser, right?"

    1. Though I must say I'm not certain why my humanoid monsters all wind up sounding like East End snooker sharks...

    2. Written accents; Billiards-loving dragon character; Prominent presence in Dragon magazine back when I was an impressionable youth...

      That was a remarkably astute guess...

  3. Is the idea of a tax for by a city or crown to enter a location believed to hold great treasures that different from hiring a guide to take you to the temple of evil in the wilderness?

    You are very right on one point, there has to be another option, the players don't have to like the option, but it needs to be there. If I recall Undermounten right, only the low level rabble paid to enter, anyone with real juice knew other ways in and out.

    I always thought any government imposed tax was an intelligence gathering process to keep track of what adventures were doing.

  4. I always reversed the fee for the tavern over Undermountain. I /never/ charged for the players to go /down/ the hole. I always charged them 5 SP to come back /up/ the hole. The fee had to be dropped in a bucket and hauled up, counted, and then the rope would be dropped for them to climb up. It prevented quick and easy escapes back up to the surface via that route, and made for some hilarity has a fighter just threw a handful of coins into the bucket while trying to fend off an orc attack. Of course, if they tossed in more than 5 SP per head coming up the rope, the tavern kept the extra.

  5. I think I baulk at the idea of dwarves who make their living charging tolls because there's a mismatch of power here somewhere. If the adventurers are powerful enough to take the treasure from the monsters in the dungeon, why aren't they powerful enough to fight the dwarves? Contrariwise, if the dwarves are so strong the adventurers can't beat them, why don't the dwarves just go into the dungeon and take the treasure for themselves? That way they'd get all of it, not just a toll.

    If the dwarves are strong, it's as if you've got a dragon who's unwilling to fight a band of goblins, but expects a share of their treasure for letting the PCs pass. If the dwarves aren't that strong, it's like a band of goblins saying, "Okay, you may have just killed a dragon, but now you must pay us a cut or face the consequences!"

    1. That's part of what I'd say is part of "a plausible explanation." The case you describe - yeah, not terribly plausible. Seems goofy, dwarves making a living at sitting at the top of the dungeon and charging fees to let you down.

      It would work better if they've got another reason to be there - say, they're mining nearby and just guarding the way down (making it more of a shakedown than a formal toll), their forces are stretched kinda thin and can't go down yet (so they can't stop you, really, but killing them is like finding one Hell's Angel and beating him up - dude, more will come next time), they literally can't handle what's down there (it's immune to what they have) or they judge it's not worth it, etc. But they need some other reason to be there besides tolls, I totally agree with that.

      As to why the players don't just kill them all - well, why don't they? Probably for any of the usual reasons - legal repercussions if they exist,

    2. Another reason for Toll Takers, you can have them as a last stop able to guard the players mule train, keep their extra provisions, maybe be available to care for the party members that are too wounded to continue. The 'toll' covers fees like how Everest Climbers have to hire Sherpas to guide them up the mountian. Maybe these dwarves can guard the gates and keep stuff down there...down there but are much more content to fix armor, make new arrows, sharpen swords, provide meals and keep what's in the the dungeon.

  6. The point isn't whether it makes sense or not.
    The point is if people are going in and out of the dungeon so much that you could make money charging admission then the dungeon isn't a special. mythic, scary place any more, it's just DragonMirth fodder.

    PCs can do whatever they want and be silly if they want. The setting doesn't have to be stupid _for_ them.

    1. Okay, although that assumes I want the dungeon to be a special or mythic place. I'm not sure that is necessary. For my games, it suffices if the dungeon is dangerous and interesting. And if the PCs want to try this, they can, but they'll run into the same difficulties I mentioned above and you brought up. That is, how do you make a living at it? Probably can't, even in my megadungeon game.

      Also, though, I think you don't need to make a living at it in order to be willing or able to do it. All it needs to do is be more profitable or more valuable than opposing people passing through your territory. It doesn't even need to happen often - I'm not talking toll booths and baskets for your PCs to throw gp into here.

    2. "Okay, although that assumes I want the dungeon to be a special or mythic place. I'm not sure that is necessary."

      Maybe you should change the name of your blog to like "Dungeon NotFantastic" then.

    3. So, I'm doing it wrong and my blog is poorly named?

      Thanks for the "help."

    4. Sorry! It's hard to sense tone on the net.

  7. I always made toll takers make sense. Unless you are goading players into a battle anyone who is going to ask for a fee from the obviously superior beings walking to dungeon X...or the Mountain pass to the Valley of doom is going to radiate the dangerous prowess that any toll take would take note of unless they are too new to the craft to live long. In which case there would be a quick fight where the ones smart enough to flee would then get an expensive lesson in when you don't bite off more than you can chew. Otherwise , toll takers are providing a service or services . Just think they invite the players to eat with them discuss conditions on the way in , give them any number of potentially vital intelligence on the place they are going to . Of course within the 'friendly' nature of the experience they could also be gathering intel on the party for later takedown. These types of encounters should be made more common as some places can be like being in a tourist trap - so many services, so many hands out. Or that mechanic from the vacation movie - How much is it going to cost? 'How much you got?" Played often enough for the players it becomes a minigame - the Security Men guards the way into town, the main road to the place, the pass into the mountian.. the players would have to read the situation decide if these sec men are a threat make themselves look potent enough but not overtly hostile and start the parley and take it from there. With some encounters being bad and bloody and others a source for fresh bread, good beer, and good will. If tolls and taxes become the culture they players will be used to tipping and paying their way like superstars and mafia do , or just outlander ugly american's do in euro tourist traps. Above all , have fun with it.

    1. That makes me think, maybe oddly, of D1-2. There are kuo-toa bargemasters, a shrine you can either attack or merely pay a fee to, plenty of drow you could negotiate with for passage and/or help, people to trade with. A lot of them can fill a similar roll - and in a huge egosystem like the underground tunnels of the D-series there is plenty of room for a real genuine toll-based system. None of which seems even odd, actually, since it's reasonable that races engaged in commerce with other races will regard adventurers as just more of the same.

      Like I said, I think the execution makes it good or bad.


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