Undercutting the Mercere

This thread postulates that it is possible to create a more efficient communication and trade network than that currently provided by the Redcaps: delivering messages and parcels more quickly, exchanging vis at better rates, making books available at cheaper prices etc. Not everyone will agree, but if we want to discuss this assumption, I think it would be better to do so in another thread, because here it will only muddle the waters.

The question here is the following. Assume some organization starts providing better service than the Mercere to the rest of the Order. How would the Mercere take it? Would they try to snuff out the competition and restore the profitable 2-pawns-for-1 business? Or would they take stock of the situation and go "Wow! That's cool! We should totally do that too, to help our sodales."? In other words, to use modern business lingo, is House Mercere a noble non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the Order gets the best service possible, or is it a nasty international business conglomerate whose mission is to skim as much profit as possible by cornering a vital service niche?

I understand it's probably a bit of a mixture of the two, but I'm wondering which way it's leaning in your sagas. In my saga, a covenant (including two "rebel" Redcaps!) has started providing seriously better service than House Mercere, and I'd like to hear more voices before deciding on House Mercere's reaction.

If House Mercere were smart under these circumstances, it would do three things:

  1. Temporarily improve all service delivery, possibly allowing it to continue on for a decade or two in order to raise customer opinion.
  2. Drastically cut its rates, using its entrenched wealth to smother its competition (no anti-trust laws back then); kickbacks and other tactics.
  3. Persuade its friends to hamstring and/or eliminate the competition and its allies (if any).

So, if I understand correctly, you are strongly leaning towards the "greedy multi-Tribunal conglomerate" view, right?

I would think it would be self correcting to some degree. The covenant in question will get a bad reputation as money grubbing merchants within the Order, because this is Mythic Medieval Europe, and money grubbing merchants are not treated with respect, right? So less, and more expensive, access to Vis and good books, etc. Then there's the fact that the Mercere are seen within the Order as the "crippled kids" who despite their handicap do wonderful work to help the Order (Don't forget the Christmas gifts, which have kept many a poor, young covenant going!). Should be looking at Wizard's War from many old, powerful, sentimental Archmages.......

Yes, totally!
Toss in some petty service disruptions from Mercere where the covenant in question is concerned, and we have a huge peer pressure campaign that should stop the new system in its tracks. (Or not - story!)

If this was a single covenant I don’t think Mercere would be too bothered, chances are the covenant wouldn’t have the resources to effect a terribly large area or to last all that long unless they had a real ace up their sleeve. In the former case the Mercere could probably wait them out, if not they have considerable political and legal influence and could probably get what they wanted through these contacts. In the latter case, if the covenant has some sort of breakthrough magic, they’d probably still be limited regionally – spreading beyond their Tribunal probably requires releasing the ‘technology’ to the public and in that case Mercere could integrate it into their existing network and no doubt regain the upper hand. (And the other Houses would probably let them control this out of a tense of tradition if nothing else.)

All of this being said it sound like a great foundation for political and economic intrigue and with Mercere involved it would be great for companions in addition to magi.

Hm, but why would they appear to be "money grubbing" merchants if they do the same things that the Mercere do, just cheaper and better? Perhaps you are saying that they would make the Mercere appear as "money grubbing"?

The Mercere can bank on a long-established reputation for honesty, discretion, and reliability. If you entrust a message to a Mercere, you know that it won't go astray, that a copy won't find its way into your enemy's hands, and for that matter that the mere fact of the message existence will stay a secret. Frankly, given the very small price that the Mercere charge to deliver messages, I just don't see how a new organization could take that business away. Even, and in fact particularly, if they start undercutting the Mercere's prices: who is going to trust anyone who does that ? Since they obviously don't make enough money on the delivery, what's their angle ?

Now, the vis trade, that is another matter. The Mercere do, in fact, make quite a large profit from it, and vis is vis. I expect the Mercere would have little choice but to lower their standard prices, and bank on their large organization to outlast their competitors in the long term. Institute whatever reform are necessary to stay competitive (if the other side can do it, so can they !). And they would almost certainly use all their political power to 'discourage' their competitors. I'm assuming a large organization here, Merceres won't be bothered by a handful of covenants in a Tribunal arranging their own internal trade.

For my sagas:

If the upstart trading group starts operating, I'd expect to see bounties of vis offered for magi who want to hamper the competition. Expect Wizard's War declarations from magi who see a quick way to earn some vis, combined with general antagonism of the old guard who have benefitted from Mercere generosity in the past.

How fast the house repsonds would depend on the local redcaps. If they are affable and non-antagonistic, they may ignore the players for a while. If they're more hard-nosed, they will probably strike swiftly - with the most likely target being the vis stores of the competing group.

All that said, I think the 2:1 vis trading if not combined with a stronger 'friendly' presence by the Mercere is practically asking to be undercut - even if it is just between a couple of allied covenants engaged in private trade. If the Mercere instead engage in visible generosity, vis-paid work contracts, cheap second-hand item trade, book trade, etc. then the covenant in question may well not want to lose access to those by annoying the redcaps.

I was making an effort to post in the spirit of the OP's topic. If someone is going to try and go up against House Mercere, the items I proposed are all reasonable reactions assuming the House is being "smart". I had no idea how the OP's Mythic Europe was shaped in regard to the power of House Mercere (I was vaguely assuming 1220, and the House is supposed to be getting more powerful by that time), so I could only post in general.

There are other possible reactions, including indifference ("What, a couple of people pretending they can out-perform us? Pshaw!"), or perhaps only the local portion of the House reacting.

I personally view House Mercere's Redcaps as an Order-wide network, controlled centrally from Harco, but with varying degrees of success at different times; and as for "power" I think they would have more power to affect those attempting to start up a new operation in their own bailiwick depending on the era in question. For example, in the variant Stonehenge ("Britannia") Tribunal I am designing, there are only going to be two-three Redcaps (and one Gifted member) for the entire zone, making them overworked and the magi of the area under-informed. Because it is just after the Schism War (1047), there is little to nothing Harco can do to reinforce the area. An attempt to compete with House Mercere in the courier business in my variant would probably go easier.

It also doesn't hurt that there is a network of three or four allied ship-based covenants operating in the Mediterranean, up the west European coast, and in the Baltic and north European coast that trade Vis with local covenants. As I have differing Vis rarities based on regions, this makes moving common Vis to where it is rare profitable. House Mercere is engaged in this, but so does the trading group. As the group has been established for some time (since around the early 800s, before House Mercere, in my opinion, had the power it did later on), House Mercere chose to work with them and the ship-covenants carry large or bulk goods around the Order by sea on behalf of House Mercere in addition to the group's own shipping activities. It's much safer to move that giant collection of Dragon bones in a ship-covenant of the Order than on a mundane ship.

I've got a question: are the methods used by "Courier Startup" replicable by House Mercere?

I don't see the answers you put forth as the only ones. Far too binary.

If the methods used are easy to reproduce, then I simply see the Mercere spending maybe a year or two reverse engineering the method, and then presenting it to the Order backed by House Mercere's superior resources, reputation, and relationships. The upstarts then are not used by the bulk of the Order, as they still are unproven compared to centuries of Mercere support of the Order - unless the potential client has a beef with House Mercere.

So, in my mind, competition breeds improved offerings, and if a business like House Mercere can leverage its strengths AND take advantage of a new approach to their job, they would do so.

That's not giving you a Mercere Bad Guy Antagonist, however, but I don't see why it would unless you need it to for a saga idea. House Mercere can operate like a business without becoming a caricature of an Evil Mega Corp... unless you want to run a HermetiPunk 2020 campaign. :wink:


I know I am - that's certainly the feel I got from HoH: TL, and have seen in every Mercere PC in this edition (possibly save one)

I have House Mercere as a business , that provides efficient service and maintains goodwill as much as possible.
Any infraction by Redcaps is taken seriously and dealt with in an above board manner.

Should someone else start a better service , they would see what The Code of Hermes had to say on the matter.
If actionable , they would take the matter to Tribunal.

There is a Shadow Covenant operating in the background of my saga.
They have been in existence since The Schism War.

What they would do , is target the rival covenant in some manner.
Low scale harassment to start with.
My favoured tactic is the "Ride-by Shitting" , as my players call it.
An item invested with "Torment of the Loose Bowels" (A&A) , Target: Structure with at least +50 Penetration ,
is used , at night , on the entire covenant.
Some time later , possibly after a month , a second attack takes place.
This item uses "Taste of the Spices & Herbs" , to make all food taste like shit , literally , for Moon Duration.

If they dont take a hint , they create incidents , that the covenant needs to investigate.
Hopefully serious enough to impact on their business venture.
Banditry on supplies , damaging roads enough that no travel can take place , etc.

If all else fails , they will attempt to implicate the covenant in serious mundane crimes
and murder people , never magi , as a last resort.

They don't have infinite resources , so if the covenant is particularly resilient , no further action is taken.

Exceptionally badly. Its the house main reason for existance at all!

OTOH, im not so sure anyone could seriously outcompete it. In the short term and by stealing off the "easy routes" and trading in the safe and established places that does alot of trading... But the reactions at the tribunals where they DONT, and quite likely CANT provide this service will start getting seriously annoyed when the Mercere warns that if the current competition keeps up, they will be forced to raise "pricing" in hard to reach areas.
Combined with the support and allies they have overall, it might take a few years, but eventually they will very likely clobber the intruding organisation. Politically or by some friends taking more "direct" action. Or simply by undercutting the competition until they cant keep up.
Or if the newcomers have any sort of advantage, quite possibly try to take it over, or take the new organisation over, based on tradition.

There´s also the question how anyone else would get access to the information needed to even FIND many covenants.

They can react very hostile and still be "a noble non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the Order gets the best service possible".

Argh, double post!

Direwolf hit on something I was about to log on and post about.

House Mercere does not just have logistics and relationships on their side, they have information.

How to deal with forest spirits, how to get through a Regio, how best to avoid the Ghosts of Durham Field if travelling at night. They've been doing this for hundreds of years, so they have a big leg up on someone who has to blaze new trails, even if they have two "rebel" Redcaps with them, they're facing a House with the best combined Tribunal Lores and Area Lore likely in the known world. Besides a delivery service, Mercere brings news. If I am researching a foe I plan to engage in Certamen or even Wizard's War, Mercere is of use to me to determine his Arts.

They are also woven into the legal framework of the Order in many instances. They know where vis sources are in the Normandy Tribunal, you must register Wizards Wars through their assistance, etc. I'm not sure offering faster or better service lets you immediately take over their traditional role as assistants/supporters to the Code. In fact, that aspect might let them make a lot of trouble for the upstarts.

That said, I guess what I'm saying is I think Mercere will still handle scale better than an upstart, who might need decades to match the Mercere's ability to handle things. The upstart over time might force Mercere to alter how they operate or what services they charge for. At the extreme end, as Primus of House Mercere, if the two "rebel" Mercere were know quantities, I would have no problem Wizard Warring them as House Mercere is founded on trust and confidentiality, so loose agents are a problem. Have the "rebel Mercere" got a good reason to rebel? Is Mercere already an Evil Megacorp?

I also don't see such terminal actions on House Mercere as evil - I'm cool with Mystery Cults wizard warring their rogue members and Mercere deals with stuff more sensitive to the Order as a whole - but perhaps such actions are pragmatic and motivated by a desire to cover the House's behind lest the rogue agents bite them in the ass.


It's the Medieval era. You're going to see some conservative behavior. Transforming House Mercere's methods as a whole based on the methods of some new startup would be, in my opinion, the most extreme reaction House Mercere could take and it would face considerable internal opposition.

I have other concerns for the OP:

  1. What makes the new start up-group accepted by the Order's covenants and magi over the Redcaps and House Mercere? Price?

  2. Since House Mercere's Redcaps carry Order-wide news gathered by a large number of others, I cannot see how any start up group could possibly compete... I guess I am a little unclear about what exactly the new start up group you mentioned is doing. One of the main functions of the Redcaps is to distribute news of the Order. Courier duties and Vis exchanges are available but occur less frequently than news delivery. If your group is just carrying goods for a price, I think House Mercere might be considerably less interested than if your start up group were trying to deliver news along with those goods.

This is true, but I think considering the environment being dealt with is one of Hermetic Magic wherein improvements to Magic Theory are readily accepted and spread through out the Order, the concept of reacting to a New Thing when you see your coffers begin to deplete due to Courier Startup may not be as foreign as it would be for the average peasant used to a life of labor and tradition without variance.

Thanks for the replies folks!
Since it was asked:

  1. The covenant is currently operating on a Tribunal scale - they deliver to every covenant in the Rhine. They have also easily expanded to another half a score "border" covenants in Normandy, Novgorod and Greater Alps.

  2. We assume that, after just one Tribunal meeting, every covenant in a tribunal knows about almost every other covenant in the same tribunal. We are talking about two dozen locations here, plus a handful of chapter houses etc. Learning a route is simple: if the other covenants want to have you visit, they'll teach it, otherwise there's really no point to visit. But, honestly, pretty much every other covenant in the Rhine was at least mildly interested - wouldn't yours be in your saga? It's an alternative to the current monopoly; even weren't it better (and it is!) having an alternative makes a covenant's bargaining position that much stronger in the vital areas of communication and trade. The routes to the border covenants in the neighboring Tribunals were learnt because they entertained direct relationships with covenants in the Rhine.

  3. The means are nothing extraordinary; just a healthy assortment of magic. House Mercere could certainly do it too. The covenant can deliver letters and small parcels within the day using "teleportation", bulkier stuff within a few days by flying ship (no, it does not use magnetized sand :smiley: ). Loans with collateral are made at a 10% yearly interest, and vis is traded with approximately a 20% spread (in other words, let's say Aquam and Animal vis have about the same availability and demand, you can "buy" a rook of Aquam for 11 pawn of Animal and "sell" it for 9).

  4. It all started because the covenant was not happy about how slowly communication went with the two/three covenants in the same area of the Rhine. We may have made the wrong assumptions, but we assumed about ten active redcaps, each visiting 4 covenants/season (as per HoH:TL). Assuming about 25-30 locations to account for a few chapter houses, this yielded no more than 1-2 visits /season to a smallish covenant! So the covenant spent a little effort to equip itself with the means to communicate more quickly and efficiently. At that point, the covenant realized that it did not take that much extra effort to scale its operations to encompass the whole Tribunal...

I have been receiving reliable and sure service from Viator ex Mercere since I moved to Custodes Hiberniarum. He brings me news of the tribunal, and keeps me up on news on the wider Hermetic world (we have merchants to get news on the mundane side of stuff). He visits every second week after the new moon and we can trust that our messages are delivered free of scrying. He even forced us to allow him to use our eats-man-of-dude-lying-in-front-of-it on him to grant us his total reliability. I trust him and have actually taken a liking of Ciarann, his apprentice. He looks like a smart boy, and I am sure he will take on the role eagerly once Viator once our trusted ally retires from active service.

If some wannabe competitor comes up and asks me to give me my personal, private and secret correspondence with other covenants to see an end to the dominance of Blackthorn in the British Isles, he will get a frown the first time. By he third time he will be accused at tribunal of trying to steal my magical secrets.

Sincerely yours,
Archmagus Corvus ex Bjornaer