All across the dangerous and desolate hinterlands of Fantasaria, small bands of hardy adventurers seek their fortunes. Armed with their wits, an impressive collection of pseudo-medieval militaria and supernatural abilities beyond the ken of ordinary folk, they explore underground labyrinths and mountain-top temples with a single-minded purpose: kick down doors, kill things, take their stuff.
Have you ever wondered how these strange bands came together? What possible reason could there be for murderous itinerants wandering the land? How could a pseudo-medieval society support such unproductive workers? And more’s the point, why would they tolerate them? Well dear friends, today I will answer your query. Today I will explain once and for all why Omnicidal Vagabonds (the correct academic term for the apocryphal ‘murder hobos’) exist.
Medieval Earth vs. Fantasaria
It all comes down to the question of demographics.
In the realm of Earth, the medieval period was one of great poverty and high mortality. As many as 1-in-3 children died before they reached 1-year old and many more died before maturity. With these levels of mortality, women needed to have 4-6 children just to maintain a relatively stable population size: a tricky feat itself when perhaps 1 in 10 women died during or as a result of childbirth. When you add in frequent wars trimming down the productive male population and the constant threat of infection and disease (regular killers like dysentery, typhoid, tetanus, measles and pox as well as the infrequent but society-shattering plague pandemics), you can see why the population of medieval society was a very unstable thing indeed.
Contrast this with Fantasaria. Although in many ways alike to Earth, this realm has two major differences.
The first is the nature and extent of untamed wilderness. Although much of medieval Earth was ripe for colonising and civilising, this was largely left to later generations. The main reasons for this were the difficulty in accessing much of this land and little or no expansionary pressure from a population constantly being trimmed by natural and man-made disasters. Fantasaria, on the other hand, is directly bordered with a breadth of barrens, badlands and bush. However, Fantasaria has its own difficulty here, in that much of these wilderness lands are infected with a wide range of powerful and unpleasant denizens who have a real penchant for killing civilised peoples. More on that later.
The second, and most significant difference, is magic: specifically, healing magic. Fantasaria has access to supernatural abilities that allow gifted individuals to heal others in ways that would amaze medieval Earth. We have documentary records from the annals of the previously mentioned Omnicidal Vagabonds that the healing of near fatal wounds was a relatively trivial magical act, with negation of toxins and curing of disease only a little more complex. In some editions of these documents, a single gifted individual could heal minor wounds indefinitely, requiring only minimal rest for sleeping and eating. Given the particular needs of this subset of society, it is a logical presumption that specific magics were also available to deal with the most pressing of medieval society needs: pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, it’s also clear from records of specific Omnicidal Vagabond troupes that infection was virtually unheard of, despite sustaining frequent injuries from dirty weapons in unhygienic circumstances. It’s therefore fair to assume that even the minor healing magics carried a powerful antiseptic effect. Add to this specific magics that could purify food and water, eliminating a major source of disease and infection, and you can see a very different society to that of medieval Earth.
Too many babies, too little disease
The consequence of this magical healing to Fantasaria is a massive boost in life expectancy. Much of this is driven by massively decreased infant and female mortality, but a non-trivial contribution is made by the virtual elimination of everyday infection. This leads to a number of societal changes.
The population starts to boom. With no adjustments in birth rate, a modest reduction in infant mortality combined with fewer adults dying of infection and food-related diseases will double the population in a couple of generations.
The magic that is prevalent across Fantasaria helps improve agricultural productivity. The primary impact of this is that the middle classes – tradesmen, merchants, entertainers and innkeepers – are much more numerous than in medieval Earth. Nonetheless, even with this magically-enhanced farming, population growth will soon lead to land pressure: more mouths to feed, more homes for shelter. The burgeoning population starts to spread into Fantasaria’s aforementioned wilderness lands. Although the taming of the wilderness and turning it into productive agricultural land is a labour-intensive task, this can be accomplished within a few seasons. More significant is the need to displace the indigenous peoples: more easily said than done when those peoples are militaristic Hobgoblins, savage Orcs and other such foul denizens of evil.
(A quick aside: it is quite clear from Fantasarian records that the native inhabitants of the wilderness were definitely, irredeemably and existentially evil, their moral choices restricted by the Gods before any individual was even born. The moral impact of this purely demographic argument would be very different if there was any evidence that these were intelligent, morally dynamic societies as were the indigenous peoples of medieval Earth)
Initially, Fantasarian society responds in a similar way to medieval Earth. Militias are formed, land-linked military service creates a ruling-class of warriors, the myriad churches sponsor their own military orders. In addition, the over-sized middle class allows for large professional armies and mercenary bands while the magically-enhanced agriculture that supports the enlarged middle class also allows for armies to be gathered in greater number and for a longer period of time than those of medieval Earth. Bloody wars are waged against these indigenous peoples. There is a huge cost to this, in terms of both casualties and resources. As well as being horrid and evil, the indigenous peoples of Fantasaria are like-to-like superior warriors to the civilised peoples and tens of thousands are slain. However, demographics are on their side and eventually Fantasarian society triumphs.
Fantasarian Tunnel Fighters
Or so they think. Rather than being utterly defeated, the wily denizens of the Fantasarian wilds simply retreat and regroup. Hiding in underground complexes, licking their wounds in jungle fortresses, planning their revenge from cave networks deep in the hills. These locations favour the denizen’s greater individual strength, whereas the open battlefields favoured the superior numbers of the Fantasarian army. Early expeditionary missions against these hold-outs result in 90%+ casualty rates. The Fantasarian army simply cannot compete.
The magically-boosted demographic explosion continues apace and it’s not long before the newly conquered lands are full to bursting with civilised people. More land is needed, more food production is required to support this burgeoning society. Once more, Fantasarian society finds itself clashing over territory with the indigenous races. Now, however, the battlefield has changed. The denizens of the wild have learned from their earlier defeats. They fight a guerrilla war from a position of strength, using their tremendous individual potency to sow fear and death throughout the frontiers.
This is an issue of scarce resources, of supply and demand of land: in other words, an economic opportunity. And where there is an economic opportunity, the burgeoning middle class created by Fantasaria’s unique demographic circumstances responds. The Workers are busy keeping society fed and watered, albeit greatly helped by the ministrations of priestly magic. The Ruling classes maintain an ordered society and protect the borders, whilst enjoying the trappings of wealth. The bourgeois middle is free from the responsibilities of the Working class and aspire to the affluence of the Ruling class. They are the ones who exercise whatever means they can to earn a living, taking their cut by providing services to those above or below as they see fit. Creative, opportunistic, driven by market forces they little understand, inevitably the first Omnicidal Vagabond troupe is formed.
First Glimpse of an Omnicidal Future
The first troupe was almost certainly made up of former members of the Fantasaria armed forces. They would need to be skilled veterans to survive any period of time in the wild. However, they would also need a very different set up to the massed ranks of the Fantasarian army: able to move quickly and, when necessary, stealthily. They would need direct access to the very healing magic that underpins the society that created them. The numerous faiths would encourage this, as taking a leading role in taming the wilds increased both their temporal and spiritual power. The first troupe may have been a specific unit within the armed forces, but high mortality rates and the sight of the potential wealth flowing straight into the officers of the Ruling class meant there was little incentive to serve. Instead, they went freelance. An entirely new subset of the middle classes arose: the Adventuring class.
The Adventuring Class was typified with higher than average skill levels, usually in specialist areas. It also had incredibly high mortality, far higher even than might be seen back in medieval Earth. However, the risks were commensurate with the rewards, the most successful few of the adventuring class able to establish themselves among the elite of the Ruling classes. Even when, after a few generations, birth rates began to level off to a new equilibrium, there was still plenty of excess capacity in the population. In turn, this ensured there was a steady flow of middle-class, displaced working class and landless ruling class to form into troupes of Omnicidal Vagabonds.
The healing magic and infection control that led to the initial population pressures had one more significant part to play. Death came to the majority of those pursuing this most high risk of occupations, but unlike medieval Earth the most puissant warriors don’t perish to infected crossbow wounds, as befell King Richard the Lionheart, or falling from a horse, as did Genghis Khan. Magic minimises deaths by accidents and misfortune and battlefield injuries, reinforcing the natural evolutionary pressure for the most fit to survive, gain more skill and in so doing further increase their ability to prosper in the wilderness. In turn, they become an example for others, a vision of what is possible for those brave enough and skilled enough.
Through an inevitable combination of demographics and economics, the omnicidal vagabonds arose.
Author’s notes: I did a little digging on the internet to find the data on medieval birth rates, mortality and such and will share the links in a later post. I have also begun to create a fairly basic (and yet still very complex!) population model in Excel (I’ll post this too once I get it to a suitable state). The lack of detailed data means many of my assumptions are guess work, but what it does show is how infant survival is probably the one most significant factor in determining the size and make up of a pseudo-medieval population. Change that and you change everything!