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So I am the most powerful mage on the planet. A merchant offers me an artifact that is too expensive for me to buy.

With some exceptions, what makes me, the most powerful mage on the planet, not just kill the merchant and steal his goods?

Important exceptions:

  • Morality is out of the question - I don't mind killing people. But I don't want to kill this particular merchant.
  • My relationship with the merchant does not matter (brother, father, sister, loved one, stranger, or a friend)
  • Merchant should not be under a curse that will kill me or inflict any harm to me when I kill him
  • Artifact cannot be cursed
  • Merchant can be a normal civilian
  • Merchant can be a powerful mage (but I'm the strongest mage, so power doesn't really matter)
  • I am not afraid of crimes and punishment
  • Artifact can be a normal item or a magical item
  • I don't want to rob him either

So with these exceptions, what reason could make me rule-out the idea of just killing the merchant to steal his/her items?


Can you guys also help me add appropriate tags for this question? Seems hard to find a fitting tag. Thank you.

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closed as off-topic by Vincent, Rob Watts, JBH, L.Dutch, March Ho Sep 14 '17 at 12:33

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    $\begingroup$ You are the most powerful mage in the world and you can't find any way to get this item without resorting to kill? Can't you become filthy rich by being the most powerful mage in the world? I would expect that. Can't you make an offer of your magical powers to this merchant, instead of money? Can't you just charm him to make him gift you the artifact as a present? Can't you just steal it? You don't look that much powerful to me... $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Sep 13 '17 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't mean giving out your magical powers, but offering your services as a mage. There's surely something this merchant was - a woman he lusts for, a rival he wants killed, maybe he wants to fly, or a pair of enchanted boots. You can offer him to do that kind of things - after all, you're the most powerful mage in the world. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Sep 13 '17 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Given your premise, your own desires make you not just kill the merchant. $\endgroup$ – user2781 Sep 13 '17 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ I am the most powerful (tied) mage on the planet known as Earth. With the power of my mind I can shape the reality of my innermost thoughts. I don't kill merchants, in part because then I would have to deal with people actual batons and tasers. Ouch! $\endgroup$ – gmatht Sep 13 '17 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ "since magical knowledge is something like a college degree." Expensive, but ultimately worthless in the real world? $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Sep 13 '17 at 17:09

18 Answers 18

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Many of the other answers here are variations on "the merchants won't sell to you anymore" or "retribution by law enforcement, assassins, or other mages." Those have been covered pretty well, so I won't repeat them, but they're assuming you're the world's most powerful mage by a little bit. You're #1 on the leaderboards, but if you're not careful someone will take your throne.

But what if your power is truly godlike? What if your magic grants you perfect invulnerability, and you fear no retaliation from anyone in the world?

If you're smart, you still won't go knocking over random merchants. In fact, you will keep the full extent of your power a closely-guarded secret. Let me explain why.

Let's say you do rob the merchant. He objects, so you kill him. Soon the city watch shows up to arrest you, so you kill them too. Before long the Council of Mages comes to your door, demanding you stop; you annihilate them with a wave of your hand.

At this point people are beginning to talk. Dark whispers and fearful glances follow you through the streets. People are sorting themselves into three groups, based on how they react to fear:

  1. Those committing themselves to destroying you, somehow
  2. Those who want to improve their lot by serving you
  3. Those hoping to escape this whole situation if they run fast enough

If you've ever harbored dreams of ruling the world, group #2 is happy to help. Be prepared to spend the rest of your life in a long, bloody struggle for supremacy over the planet. Every new demonstration of your power will spawn some new group of upstarts determined that you shall not rule over them. Your quiet days of playing with magic and unlocking the secrets of the universe are over; instead you spend your time in strategy meetings and managing the hierarchy of people that you need to manage your armies and provinces. Even after you conquer the world, there will be no end of uprisings within and disagreements between your territories.

Does that sound like fun? Didn't think so. You're a mage, not a general or a politician--ruling the world is tiresome and difficult. But if you're not willing to live within a world run by other people, then you have to run it.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! This was inspired by the character Charlie from erfworld.com. He's a ridiculously powerful caster who has multiple contingencies for world domination, but is investing lots of effort into maintaining the status quo because he values being able to hire other casters to do things he can't. $\endgroup$ – DawnPaladin Sep 14 '17 at 3:14
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If you plant merchants, they don't grow so good.

Jingo (Pratchett)

Merchants have goods you want. They tend to repeatedly have goods you want, not just the once. A merchant might tell his friends they have goods you want, that's a good way of getting goods. If you kill the merchants and take their goods, quite soon you stop seeing merchants and have to find your own goods.

The purpose of merchants is to make your life easier, to save you the time of finding these items yourself. Adventurers go on quests to find rare and valuable items, kings have a new one made, everyone else buys off the shelf. If you're dealing with merchants then you're in the "buy off the shelf" group, maybe once this thing has been sitting on his shelf for a couple of weeks he'll be willing to sell for less. Merchants don't make money holding stock, they want to sell it.

Merchants are useful, you want to cultivate good ones, that means not killing them.

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    $\begingroup$ Economy > Magic :) $\endgroup$ – PTwr Sep 13 '17 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ @PTwr That's why economics survived and magic didn't in the real world. $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian Sep 13 '17 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak Stories will spread, whether by the merchant themselves or by witnesses/family/etc, and other merchants will quickly make sure to be more discreet about advertising wares they feel you might find "interesting", and suddenly no one seems to stock rare and awesome artifacts any more... even though every now and then you notice other mages and adventurers periodically turn up with new goodies somehow... $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Sep 13 '17 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ You can think of it less like robbery and more like piracy...if it happens too many times, it doesn't matter if they know it was you or not, all merchants will either travel with guards in that area or not go at all. $\endgroup$ – user3067860 Sep 13 '17 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ Plus, if the merchant found a rare and powerful artifact once, wouldn't it make sense to keep him alive so he can find more? Or at least let you know if any of his friends found them? $\endgroup$ – alexgbelov Sep 13 '17 at 21:41
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You don't want to be seen as a criminal - people will start sending more and more people after you to use you as a warning for other people

You mention that you don't care about morality and that you are not afraid of crimes and punishment. But really, you don't want that.

Once you become too powerful for individuals cities will start to send groups of strong mages to kill you. They don't want you walking around killing a lot of people, so they will send a few people and expect some of them to die so that you are dead. This also sends the message to other wannabe great mages that they can't just go around doing whatever they want. That would lead to anarchy, which is not good for people who want to live peacefully and have some control over their lives and others.

At this point everyone will also stop trading with you. After all you are known to kill people for what they have. This means far less supplies for you making your life pretty hard.

Once you start to become too powerful for small groups they will start to send bigger groups.

Soon individual cities will have problems with you and they will send their combined forces.

If you defeat all of those you will be seen as a major threat by a king. You won't be able to talk with anyone in his kingdom anymore because he's afraid of you and wants you dead. And everyone who collaborates with you should die too, as an example. Normal people can't do anything against the police and will therefore not want to cooperate with you.

Once a king sends every spy at his disposal to kill you and places a bounty on your head so that every wannabe adventurer will search for you the only thing left is trying not to get killed 24/7 - which will at one point get you killed.

If you even defeat this one kingdom all other nations will realize that they have a mutual enemy and that is a perfect opportunity to gain some control of the kingdom you just destroyed. They will become allies to kill you and you will have to face everyone. And that's too much, even for you.

And if you could even do this - well, there is nothing left after you killed absolutely every sentient being in the world. That's pretty boring. Therefore you want to be in good standing with everybody, especially when you are powerful, but not omnipotent.

Being powerful means that people will more easily fear you. And when people start to fear you they will do everything they can to get rid of you. A knife in your back will still be trouble an if there are enough people trying to put a knife in your back at one point one of them will succeed. Killing one merchant and getting his artifact is not worth it to have to run away for the rest of your life and getting killed by angry people.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for reminding me that powerful != invincible or immortal. Facing against multitude of threats would be too much of a hassle 🙏 $\endgroup$ – Bwrites Sep 13 '17 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Bwrites Once a king sends every spy at his disposal to kill you and places a bounty on your head so that every wannabe adventurer will search for you the only thing left is trying not to get killed 24/7 - which will at one point get you killed. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Sep 13 '17 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ This would be a great story though! One great wizard that wiped out an entire planet after he killed a single merchant! $\endgroup$ – Michail N Sep 13 '17 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ @MichailN That's probably how most villainous Wizards start. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Sep 13 '17 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ I was going to propose something along the lines of this answer: you can have all the magical power in the world, but as long as you still bleed a lowly farmer with a pitchfork is just as capable of killing you as a dragon is if you're unprepared. $\endgroup$ – Cronax Sep 13 '17 at 12:56
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The obvious one is that if you kill the merchants that have things that are interesting to you, no merchant will offer you more interesting things at all.

A variation of this is social status; even if the normal people cannot punish you they will not be happy to deal with you if you are a cold blooded murderer. They will no longer come to seek your help or advice, will not talk to you more than what is strictly necessary, will stop giving you surprise birthday parties.

And, of course, MAGIC:

  • maybe the artifact has some mystical power that protects its owner, with a magic more powerful than yours. After all, this must be something interesting if it is worthy of such a powerful wizard.

  • maybe the power of the artifact will disappear if it is obtained in a violent/illegal way (Rudyard Kipling used the opposite effect in "The Bisara of Poore")

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Artifacts are not just things to be owned by anyone.

Artifacts are filled with magic and certain artifacts, the ones that are really powerful, have their own will and they have conditions for ownership.

Some might just prefer their owner to be murdered before they allow themselves to be taken, some might not want their owner's murderer to own them and some might just even disappear along with their owner.

The merchant has to be willing to part with the artifact.

This particular artifact won't interact with anyone who means harm to their owner and will only change ownership if its owner wants to give it up.

This might be interpreted as "I could just coerce him to give it up." but that won't work, because the artifact will know that you meant its owner harm and it won't cooperate with you and will even go so far as to destroy itself if you ever try to use it.

It might even want revenge and call the second strongest mage in the world, in a manner similar to The One Ring in Lord of the Rings, and that might just mean it becomes the tipping point between you and the second strongest.

You wouldn't want those possibilities to become reality, even if they're really improbable, so you decide not to harm him in any way but to either convince him or pay him some way.

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What good is it being a master vintner if your clients just guzzle your wine like any rotgut? What good it is being a master painter if your audience only sees the bare boobies? What good is it being an ubernerd fanboy if no-one has heard of the anime you know in such depth? If you have no-one who can really appreciate what you do, it is lonely.

Prospero, banished from https://revisionworld.com/a2-level-level-revision/english-literature-gcse-level/tempest-william-shakespeare/key-characters/prospero.

If you are a master of and devotee of the magic arts, you need people who can appreciate the finesse and depth of what you do. You need peers. And with peers come peer pressure.

Wizard society can be contemptuous of muggles like this merchant, but there are understood rules for interacting with his like. To kill and rob a defenseless muggle with magic is gauche and below a master of magic. If it came out that this archmage had done such a thing, he would be teased by his peers. "Hide the kittens! Here comes Vituperus!". "Hey Vit. Thanks for not killing the serving wench... yet. Haw haw!".

The thought is intolerable. But avoiding his own kind is unacceptable too - he is the best among them and he can see the admiration in their eyes when he works his art. He can see how they try to imitate his skills and he nods smugly. Among the plebians there is only fear and blind worship - what is the point of perfecting his craft for such as those?

He would not kill the merchant because he could never live it down.

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You may the most powerful mage, but this does not make you omniscient. So you can kill the merchant and take the artifact that you really want. But do you know how to use it? Imagine that using the artifact is non-trivial and only the merchant knows how to use it. You may try to use your powers to force him to tell you, but nothing guarantees he will teach you how to use it(knowing that if he tells you the truth, there is nothing stopping you to kill him).

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Don't break a deal or a promise unless the fallout is really worth it. And by extension, don't murder merchants unless the fallout is really worth it.

  • A mage might be vulnerable to a dagger in the back. Relatives of the slain merchant might come after him. And even if the mage can defend himself, doing so can be bothersome. Getting the crisped corpse out of the spell trap, and all that. So don't antagonize muggles if you can help it.
  • Less powerful mages might resent it if you give mages in general a bad name. And the mage does not want to get other mages mad at him. For one, they would make more effective assassins than the relatives of the merchant, for another, the mage might look for assistants one day.
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Depending on how famous the mage is, and how willing he is to continue to murder for anything he wants, and how long-term he is thinking, I would say economics is a good enough reason not to do it.

If the mage just goes and around and kills for anything that he wants that is out of his price range, then a spate of merchant deaths within a certain area is going to make other merchants and traders reluctant to visit the area where he lives.

Suddenly, there is a shortage of trade to a particular region, and having a shortfall for imports means that those merchants who do brave the area will have more of a monopoly on the market, allowing them to put up their prices as there is less competition.

These same traveling merchants and traders can also buy goods from the locals for a cheaper price, as more people will be trying to sell their goods to the fewer merchants that travel there, and these merchants can make the locals sell to him at a lower price, as they would not be able to sell them to anyone else otherwise.

This will affect the local economy, and have a dual effect of making everyone who lives there poorer, as everything that comes in to the area is more expensive, whilst those who are selling will get less money for their items, if they can even sell their wares at all.

Also, because of the decreased inflow of foreign and interesting goods and poorer citizens, that will mean anyone else such as acting troupes, mercenaries or basically anyone who is looking to make money will have less incentive to travel there, as there is less to buy, less to see and less to earn.

Now, the mage has essentially driven up the prices of everything he buys, he has less choice of what to buy, and he has less to do.

If he had this foresight, and enough time on his hands, he could use his skills as the strongest mage to make his area incredibly safe, attract more people to live and work there, which would bring more merchants and traders, which would give the people more choice in what to buy, which means the merchant he wants to buy from will have to drop their prices to compete, and he can now afford the artifact.

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As the Greeks used to say:

Even Hercules can't fight two.

meaning it doesn't actually matter how powerful you are as an individual - if you can be killed at all that is - if you're surrounded by people who hate you and want your head as a lawn ornament, you are screwed.

There are a couple of lessons from DnD worth mentioning here also:

  1. You can't fight the city watch.

    A party, no matter how powerful, cannot fight thousands of angry, armed professionals regardless of how big the individual power gap is.

  2. If it has stats we can kill it.

    The only beings in any setting that are beyond retribution are those who aren't there at all. Even gods can die if they're dumb enough to take the field in person.

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A simple reality of human kind is that they constantly infight. That is, until there is a much bigger threat, in which case they will unite against that threat.

You may be really strong, but not stronger than all other mages together, so you really don't want to appear as a threat, because when you do, they will stop infighting and come for you.

It would already be quite difficult for you to not be aquired on their threat list, as ambitious mages could see you as a rival, the mages in general may see you as that lingering blade hanging above their necks. Any of this may already be enough for them to start a preemptive strike, even though you may have never done anything to offend them, simply for existing.

So, in conclusion, you not only want to not have people fear you for what you do, but you'll also have to hide how powerful you are, so they don't also fear you for what you are.

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If I was the most powerful mage on the planet, why would I advertise that fact? Only to have every two-bit adventurer come ringing the doorbell looking for a quest? People lining up to ask me for favors?

I'd lay low, maybe pretend to know just a little bit of magic - you know: enough to charm the ladies (or gents) but most often let folks know that I'm just not that good. Why not just create the illusion of money and hand it to the merchant? Chain it with some follow-up illusion that he's been robbed a few weeks later and you have a merchant why remembers vividly getting paid for an artifact and then getting robbed by some brutes far away from that friendly low-level mage who gave you so much money, even more than you asked for, too bad the robbers got away with it. And nobody's the wiser....

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I'm reminded of the Paul Twister stories, in which the protagonist is immune to magical attack because he twists and nullifies whatever magic he touches.

In those stories, Paul's ability is unique, but in yours, maybe it's not? If being a magic-drainer is something that occurs in a certain small percentage of the population, it likely wouldn't be uncommon for such people to be be hired as bodyguards (or, depending on the morality of your world, pressed into service through other means) by powerful interests such as kings and nobles, military commanders, and wealthy merchants.

When Dagrolf the Black stepped into the merchant's shop, he could feel something slightly off about the place. As the merchant gave him a smile and a hearty greeting, he surreptitiously opened himself to the Aether and glanced about with his Second Sight. What he saw sent a shiver down his spine: the stocking clerk working in the back had a black void where his soul-aura should be! The unnerving sight gave him pause as he realized that his usual bullying tactics would be useless here. Magebanes were rare in the Kingdom, but not unheard of, and he knew he needed to refrain from throwing spells around; doing so too close to a Magebane could open up a conduit that would rip the magic right out of him... or possibly worse.

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The merchant has entrusted the artefact to a trusted confidant, and asked that person to hide the artefact in a location unknown to the merchant, or perhaps even pass it on themselves to a third party, who may pass it on to a fourth party, who may pass on a decoy to a fifth party while entrusting the real artefact to a sixth party etc. etc.

The merchant instructs their confidant to only return the artefact if the merchant can prove to them that they have received the payment for the artefact.

If you kill the merchant, their confidant doesn't get the signal, and the artefact stays lost to you.

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How much more powerful then then second-most powerful mage are you? A lot, or just a little bit? More to the point, are you more powerful than all five of the mages on the payroll of the merchant's union put together?

Even if you are pretty sure you are, is it really worth the trouble?

If you're so strong you can take out a whole team of opposing mages without breaking a sweat, you're probably overpowered for this storyline. (Not to mention the question of why expense is a barrier for the world's most powerful mage in the first place...)

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The more power you have, the more the consequences of your actions impact the balance of the world and make a difference on how people perceive you, feel about you, rate you, remember you, and not least of all, how you yourself do feel about you.

You are yearning for the artifact for a reason. Something you want to accomplish with it. Even if it's just the envy or admiration of others regarding your possession. Murdering over it will connect the possession with the murder and also connect the external value of it and the things it might enable you to do with that murder.

It's like "I want to become president since then I can pardon myself in the case I am caught shoplifting". That's a stupid risk to take, and it wouldn't work in that manner.

The more powerful you are, the more important it becomes to walk in a straight line regarding smaller things. It might be a straight line of evil, but that's an uphill battle that only makes sense to undertake when you are in it for evil itself.

But your premise does not sound like it.

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All the useful answers here just boil down to one thing: do you have anything to fear from the consequences of killing the merchant? Given that you haven't really said what the limits on the mage's powers are, it's hard to know whether that's the case in the scenario you're envisioning. But if there is no reason to fear those consequences, then (given that you've excluded some self-limiting "morality), then there's no reason not to kill the merchant.

In fact, this is a likely AI scenario: an exceedingly powerful entity with no reason to fear the consequences of actions that we might regard as abhorrent. Such an entity will do whatever it wants.

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Besides the fact that you do not want to do it there is nothing stopping you. You can do anything, anywhere. The only problem would be if there are other planets. You might be the most powerful mage on the planet, but this probably does not apply for the entire universe.

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