The last mile problem was first discussed in communications but it also has applications in logistics. The redcaps in the early versions of the game were basically a postal service, but they are now essentially a logistical service: they spend a lot of time buying stuff for magi. They own merchant ships, for example, and have a network of factories (a term which means something like “warehouses” in the period). The Last Mile is a problem for them either way. Let’s define terms.

The Last Mile Problem is that when you ship something from one place to another, half the total shipping cost is paid in the final little part of the trip.  The Mile is a metaphorical measurement. In Australia we call it the Last Kilometre problem, because we have have no Webster spelling and base ten measurements. It happens because most of your economies of scale are stripped out in the final mile.

Say I want to move a box of scrolls from a covenant in Normandy to a covenant in Scotland. The item gets picked up by a guy who comes on a schedule and grabs all of the stuff to go from all of the magi, not just at your covenant but on his route.  He drops it at a certain point (Confluensis, in this case). Sailing is the fastest, cheapest way to get around the Britain, so all the stuff from Normandy gets shipped to a Mercer House, presumably near a large port like Leith. Then a redcap has to deliver it. They  need to go to a port and walk, or ride. If you are riding, you need to maintain horses.

Notice that, from House Mercere’s perspective, the cheap bit, on a per message basis, is in the middle? Having a postie on a route is less expensive than a courier making individual deliveries, but both are a lot more expensive that if they could just get magi to have a post box and turn up to collect from it. I’m guessing that this makes Venice, which has chapter houses from all over the place, a mail node. Similarly, House Tremere has a Tribunal every year: that makes it a seasonal mail node, I presume: it must be given the quantity of stuff exported. While that’s not on, they have a house covenant with the Quaesitores at a decent port.

So, messages travel faster, and more cheaply, between these high volume nodes. I’m kind of surprised we have not tried to map this, since it obvious that there’s high volume traffic of valuable items and information between these sites. One problem is they seem to exist only erratically.

Let’s assume Magvillius is a node. I’m not sure why it should be: it’s so close to Venice there are good reasons for it not to be. Assume it has worn a strong historical groove into Hermetic society, and so it has inertia?

Does each Tribunal have at  least one node? There are good reason to assume each is near a port. It doesn’t need to be the largest city: Paris, as an example, is less good as a distribution node than Confluensis is, because sea travel is just better than land travel.  This means that, for example, there’s some question as to if Icy North in The Greater Alps is a node, or if the whole thing is run from Magvillus. The Alps are crossed by only two paths, and getting ships through Gibraltar is annoying enough that the network might need a logistical station in the mountains here.

We know there are some obvious points for nodes: Shrouded Glen in Transylvania, Alexandria in Thebes, London Mercer House in Stonehenge. There’s an obvious lack of a central house in other places. Three Lakes, in Novgorod doesn’t seem to have this infrastructure. Is it Fengheld or Durenmar in the Rhine? In Iberia, it might be Barcelona?  It’s the best fit of the four described, although it’s still not great.  I’m tempted to suggest that it is unlikely, because trans-shipping between the Provencal and Iberian nodes are one of the ways to avoid the whole Alps business.

The other is to put a canal between the Rhine and Danube. Charlemange wanted one, but if you made one, how would you keep it secret?  Could you make a tunnel?

When a system is obviously imperfect, that leads to story ideas. We can see, if we look at the Order using the Last Mile Problem as a key concern of House Mercere, that there is a need for several new nodes. That’s a great reason to have a spring covenant that is constantly forced to maintain the network, travel to the other covenants, and source rare materials.


Photo by Arek Olek on / CC BY

One thought on “House Mercere and the Last Mile Problem

  1. It seems your conflating an organic social network and one that is made using Logic. By definition the Mercer houses will be the nodes in the Red Cap network, even if they don’t make sense due to changing conditions, politics, wars etc. Certainly things will change through the eras, and I would expect Chapter Houses (for those tribunals that use a version of that system) to spring up, then slowly pull in the rest of the Covenant. I have seen this in my limited professional life a number of times.
    In the small closed Red Cap and Hermetic society, I would expect that there would be a HUGE impact from personal bias as well. Some Red Caps will focus on this or that community/covenant (for friendship, or family, or a really great pub, or they got robbed once and f— that guy or that covenant). The nodes are where they meet, where ever that may be and for whatever reason.
    Ars has always shined because it recognizes the human foibles in the system; and plays on those foibles at the great strength.
    For all that, the Last Mile Problem is legit. However, ever it seems like something that is a personal problem… the last mile is where the gryphon attacks, the last mile is where the Wizard War issues arise, the last mile is where the vis starts reacting for some unknown reason and starts warping the town folk.


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