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Friday, 29 May 2020

Sayings of the High One



Grim Jim Desborough gave Dragon Warriors a nice video review the other week. I'm not sharing it here out of immodesty (of course not) but because Jim accepted the geas of wearing the eyepatch of Bolverk Bor's-son, who is one of his household gods. (Mine too, actually, and that sort of thing is rare among atheist lefties like us.)

I've been finding Jim's YouTube games pretty useful while writing Jewelspider, as they're reminding me of staples of DW gaming that don't feature in our games much (the mystics' sense of premonition, for example - or indeed mystics themselves) but that the new rules should at least include nods to.

While we're talking of Legend, I should mention that there are two very tasty DW books available free on DriveThruRPG: Cadaver Draconis, which collects material that the Players Guide unfortunately didn't have room for, and The Nomad Khanates, a sourcebook for the Great Steppes. These are good hefty books written by DW authorities like Shaun Hately, Damian May, Wayne Imlach -- well, I won't list everyone here, they're on the credits page, but suffice to say you're all appreciated by me and Oliver. For anyone unfamiliar with the Khanates:
An expanse of temperate grasslands and scrub lies to the east of the New Selentine Empire. It has never been explored or mapped; its exact limits are unknown. Somewhere further east and south are the strange, tradition-steeped lands of Khitai and Yamato. More southerly are the rich countries of Zinj and Batubatan, and the Palace Under Heaven where the Emperor of the Nine Mountains holds court. In the south-west, the grasslands must abut the far fringes of Opalar. But a traveller wishing to visit any of these exotic places would take the seaward passage along the Gulf of Marazid, not travel across the grasslands. These wild plains are the home of nomad peoples as fierce and untamed as the landscape they inhabit.  
The nomads are horse and oxen herders who move continually as the seasons and the abundance of grass for the herd dictate. They obtain everything from their herd - the horses are steeds for war or hunting, cattle draw the tribe’s wagons. Both are a source of meat and clothing and bone utensils. Horn and sinew are used in the construction of the nomads’ composite bows, which in the hands of a skilled archer can rain arrows on their enemies at a range of over two hundred yards. 
The social organization of these people consists of extended tribe-alliances whose ruler is called a Khan. The balance of power shifts as tribes change allegiance and as incautious Khans are assassinated. At the time of writing, the principal power resides in Sitai Khan of the Oshkosa. Other khanates are the Katagai, the Gunguska, the Khanate of the Sweeping Vast, the Khanate of the Black Pavilion, and the Hunkunkai. 
One westerner is famous for his travels among these wild people. Niccolo of Wissenstein was sent in a party of explorers from the court of King Vorlest of Kurland, who charged them with discovering a safe land-route to Khitai. Niccolo quickly learned the nomads’ tongue and set about his task; trying to establish contact with the Khans and make a deal with them guaranteeing ‘safe conduct’ for Kurlish caravanserai. In this he was not successful, but he did produce a record of nomadic life which is quite unique. His visit to a nomad’s home occurs early in the account of his travels: 
"The clan are continually on the move, and for this purpose carry their homes with them. When the time comes to make camp, a family can set up one of these homes in under an hour. First a prepared lattice of willow hoops is raised, this being secured in the ground with heavy pegs. Large bolts of felt are wrapped onto this framework to form the walls of the home. The felt and the ropes used to lash the structure together are made from horsehair, and the clan’s herd animals provide oils to make the home proof against cold and rain. The finished home is a roughly circular tent which the steppe people call a gyur. ‘Invited into one such tent, I found the ulterior decorated with rugs and trinkets. The central part of the roof, above the fire, is left open as one also finds in the mead-halls of Mercania and Thuland. Despite this, I can attest that the home remains warm and comfortable even when the bitterest steppe wind is blowing outside. My own host, whose name was Shweymar, invited me to sit beside him on the brown rug occupying the northernmost third of the floor, opposite the entrance. This was a great honour, as the steppe people keep this area for the head of the household, his elders and guests of high status. Behind us were several idols depicting Shweymar’s household deities. In front of this area of high status, the floor is divided into two other sections. To the left of the doorway sit the women and children. The host’s sons and younger male guests sit on the right. Utensils for cooking and other household purposes are kept in the left-hand area while weapons are placed in a rack between the right-hand area and the host’s rug. I was to discover that this tradition of signifying status extends throughout the steppes, even to the homesteads of the citadels.Whether this is happenstance or real evidence that the tribes once belonged to a single unrecorded civilization – this question can never be answered."
Got any fond memories of Dragon Warriors games past or present? Share them in the comments. If we get a dozen, I'll chip in with one of my own from our DW playtesting days.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Don't listen to Hydra

It'd be a reckless gamer who'd dive back into face to face roleplaying right now. Whatever the Red Skull says, the coronavirus is not going to magically disappear. Fortunately there are plenty of online alternatives, and taking the glass-half-full view I quite like not having to travel to a game during London's rush hour or faff around cooking supper for a room full of hungry gamers.

Here are Scott Dorwood of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias and Joe Trier of How We Roll with a smorgasbord of suggestions for gaming over the internet. (I'll append my obligatory quibble, which is that HPL probably pronounced the "dh" in dhole as an eth. So, not like the Asian canid. But I realize it spoils a perfectly good pun, so I won't press the point.)

In our games we've stripped it all back to Discord with the Dice Maiden bot installed for the rolls. Discord supports video now, but we stick to audio because it stimulates the imagination. After a session's over my mental impression of the game-world lingers as vividly as real memories. If your games involve a lot of tactics and combat, though, you might be better off with one of the other options Scott and Joe discuss there.

One of their recommendations is ViewScream:
"Three to five players assume the roles of desperate people trapped in a world of high-tech horror. A typical game session lasts 60-90 minutes." 
We haven't had any problem with seven or more players at a time (audio-only seems to help) for games of three to four hours, but I've heard several people say that online gaming works better with shorter sessions and smaller groups, so I plan to try it out and report back here.

In the meantime, don't go drinking any bleach, will ya? Take vitamin D if you like (it won't hurt) but there's no evidence it has any effect against covid-19. As for hydroxychloroquine -- no, just no. Though if you buy into that stuff and you have a few hundred dollars to spare, why not pick up a USB stick (sic) which, as any fule kno, uses authentic quantum woo to "re-harmonize" 5G radio waves. Between Trump's twitterings and barmy internet medical myths, the coronavirus has some pretty stiff competition in its quest to wipe out humanity. Your best defences are reason and evidence. So stay alert -- to nonsense.

That's been our public health information broadcast for this week. Come back tomorrow when we're plunging into a time of superstition, plague, violence and apocalyptic fear. No, it's not another current affairs post -- I'm talking about Legend, the world of Dragon Warriors.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Making choices matter



I’m often asked if there’s a future for gamebooks. It’s hard to imagine them having anything like the success they enjoyed in the 1980s. People read less these days, for one thing, and videogames are better at the dungeon-bash adventures that made up many early gamebooks. New gamebooks do get written, yet they rarely try to keep up with the richly involving interactivity you find in a good videogame.

One advantage gamebooks do have is the special FX are cheap. The Witcher has to shell out millions of dollars on artwork, music and voice talent, but in prose you can sink Atlantis or have aliens invade, and all it costs is a few minutes’ tapping at a keyboard.


The same lessons that apply to gamebooks hold true for all forms of interactive storytelling, whatever the medium or the budget. Most important of those is that the interactivity must deepen the player’s engagement with the story. Plot choices tend to be authorial and therefore distancing. Emotional choices work better because they are more like our interactions in daily life. When a friend asks, “What should I do?” they aren’t expecting you to wave a wand and make the universe reconfigure itself. They’re looking for sympathy and support - and suggestions too, but that runs a distant third.

To see how that works in practice, let’s take a look at a traditional drama and consider how it could be adapted to include interactivity. The example I’m using here is Danny Brocklehurst’s 2014 television show The Driver. There are spoilers ahead and the story is too good to waste, so I recommend you watch it first before reading on. Go ahead. I can wait.

OK? Seen that? Good, wasn’t it? Now for how to transform it into an interactive story…

Vince (David Morrissey) is a taxi driver in Manchester. He’s borderline depressive, struggling to make ends meet, his son has run off to join a cult, and he has an increasingly distant relationship with his wife, Ros. Vince’s life needs a shake-up, and it comes in the form of his old friend Col (another superb performance by Ian Hart), just out of prison after serving six years for armed robbery.

Col takes Vince along to a poker game. At least, it seems to be a poker game but really it’s a job interview. Local crime boss the Horse (Colm Meaney of Next Gen fame) offers Vince work as his driver. It’s obviously dodgy and Vince runs a mile – what Hollywood script gurus call ‘the refusal of the call’.

Here’s where the first major interactive opportunity comes. You could encourage Vince to take the job, or you could back him up with more reasons to refuse it. Obviously it’s a bad idea, and just as obviously he will end up going back to the Horse or else there’s no story. The difference is that when it all starts to go wrong, as it inevitably will, Vince will either blame you for pushing him into it or blame you for not trying harder to dissuade him.

In the TV show, the last straw is when Vince gives a lift to two girls stranded in the rain and they rob him – and, adding injury to insult, one of them hits him in the back of the head with her shoe while the other lets his tyres down. Oh, and they piss in the back of his cab. Vince has had enough. He goes to the Horse and signs his soul away.

Clinging to the fiction that he is “just the driver”, Vince thinks he can avoid getting drawn in. He hides the big pay packets the Horse gives him and tells his wife he’s doing some off-the-books work for “a local businessman”.

Waiting for it all to curdle? That’s not long in coming. Col ropes Vince into an attack on a rival criminal, whom he beats severely and dumps in a sealed pit in some waste ground. The job was ordered by the Horse but it turns out Vince wasn’t meant to be involved – Col just wanted moral support, but now he shrugs off what he’s done whereas Vince’s conscience won’t stay quiet. In the interactive version, you’d be his conscience – or else you’d be the voice telling him not to be such a pussy.

In the drama, Vince goes back to the waste ground in the early morning, hoists the badly-injured gangster out of the pit, and takes him to hospital. It’s likely he’d do that in the interactive version whatever you say but, as before, whether you are complicit in the decision or you counsel against it will make a difference later. All of these choices are affecting your relationship with Vince.

Vince goes back to the Horse to tell him he wants out. But now the bad guys are closing in. The Horse has found out his rival is in hospital and naturally he blames Col, who he thinks didn’t do as he was told. So Vince gets to watch his childhood friend beaten to a pulp. See how your advice earlier is going to colour how he feels about you now?

And then Vince goes home to find the police waiting to talk to him – of course, because he dropped that guy right outside the hospital where the CCTV picked up his car licence plate. Maybe you would have advised him to do that differently, to park around the corner or just dump the guy by the roadside and call an ambulance. Your advice might have spared him the extra problem of having the police taking an interest in his affairs.


Ultimately this story is guaranteed not to end well, but every step of the way your decisions are making a difference to how Vince feels and how much he trusts you. Alternatively you could be playing a game where the choice is whether to turn left and fight some orcs or turn right and solve a dragon’s riddle. Which kind of interactivity do you think would be more compelling?

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

An adventure in a box. On cards. With an app.



Looking for something to keep the kids occupied? Or the parents, come to that? How about Expedition, which is billed as a "lightweight roleplaying game". That's not strictly accurate -- it's more of an app-plus-card game for playing gamebooks with friends. Hmm, that reminds me of something...

It looks like the gamebook is at least partly procedurally generated with some authored content. Personally I'd prefer to play either a real roleplaying game with improv and left-field surprises (see below) or else a card game (try this or this), rather than a hybrid of the two. But in this lockdown or the next I've got plenty of time to change my mind about that.

Friday, 15 May 2020

God's favourite angel


In last year's Kickstarter for The Walls of Sypte, the apocalyptic finale to the Blood Sword gamebook series, the top reward was for a personalized piece of artwork by Russ Nicholson. The price tag was €600 -- which might sound steep but, trust me, it's a bargain for a Nicholson one-off. Teófilo Hurtado obviously thought so too, because he snapped it up almost as soon as the Kickstarter was launched. The original artwork now presumably hangs in his home, but Russ has kindly given permission for me to show it here. (The Magus in the middle has Teófilo's own face, which must make for a spooky sensation when he's eating his cornflakes.)

Over to Yeats for some lines that didn't in fact inspire me when I created the Magi of Krarth, but easily could have done:

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye, 
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones 
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky 
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones, 
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side, 
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more, 
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied, 
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.



Thursday, 14 May 2020

Coover story


I just read “The Babysitter”, a short story by Robert Coover which ought to be of interest to anybody who aspires to write interactive stories. I’ll begin with a confession: I’d never come across any of Coover’s work before, which is quite an omission seeing as he has spent his entire career experimenting in nonlinear and game-like fiction.

I won’t spoil “The Babysitter” except to say that it resembles the text of a gamebook with the choices removed. So you get to see a superposition of multiple overlapping possibilities. That’s actually one of the things I like about writing gamebooks – coming up with all the variations on a theme, all the outcomes that might flow from each story node – so it’s a little surprising I never published anything like this myself. (Even if I had, Coover would have got there way before me; "The Babysitter" was published in 1969.)

I’m going to be adding a lot more Coover to my already teetering to-read pile. If gamebooks and interactive fiction is your thing, do read “The Babysitter” before taking a look at any reviews that might spoil it. (There was a movie too, but I have a hunch it’s probably better to disregard that.)

Friday, 8 May 2020

Clueless


Did you ever read any Ellery Queen? I’m thinking of the early novels such as The Roman Hat Mystery. I’d get one from the library on Friday afternoon after school, then having done my homework I’d read as far as the point where the challenge to the reader was issued: ‘You now have all the clues. Can you solve the mystery?’ Then the next morning, after finishing the rest of my homework, I’d decide on my solution and then read the final chapter to see if I’d got it right.

Ellery always figured out the answer, of course, and pretty often I did too; the fun of the game was standing or falling by my own reasoning. But those classic puzzle whodunits are a very artificial genre. Life isn’t like that, any more than most problems in dynamics can be solved as neatly as the applied maths questions I was doing for homework at the time.

I continued reading crime novels into my teens, but not the Cluedo variety. I was more interested in the why than the who. Ellery Queen’s later novels were more like that. On TV we had Columbo, shabby raincoated embodiment of the criminals’ guilt, who hounded them like Nemesis until he prodded them into making a fatal mistake. In comparison, puzzle whodunits concocted for the little grey cells felt as outmoded as cloche hats and the Charleston. And that branch of the crime fiction family tree survives up to the present day, as author Anthony McGowan points out:

It’s curious, then, that investigative role-playing scenarios often feel like they’re stuck in that primordial era of crime stories when a paper trail of clues would lead an infallible detective to the culprit. The unexamined goal of the scenario often seems to be to cast the player-characters in the role of Sherlock Holmes (how often in a fantasy context are we expected to match the feats of a Conan or Elric? more often we're the luckless foot soldiers who hope never to meet them) and the job then is to make sure they don’t miss the clues they’ll need to reach the correct conclusion.

Justin Alexander addresses that with his three-clue rule. In brief, it supplies the players with three different ways to figure out the next set-piece in the storyline. Certainly I think that if you’re going to have clues, you shouldn’t usually be getting the players to roll Spot Hidden or Search rolls to find them, because there are few ways in which simply not finding a clue leads to more interesting outcomes than finding a clue and drawing the wrong conclusion.

But as Robin Laws points out here, ‘The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story.’

Indeed, it’s also the story if they signally fail to solve the mystery. In “Murder Your Darlings” my players got totally the wrong end of the stick. And so what if they did? Sometimes the dog meows in the night-time. Unsolved crimes are just as interesting as the ones that get neatly wrapped up. Miscarriages of justice are more dramatic than tidy endings.

That said, I’d recommend anyone planning on running (or just playing in) an investigative scenario to try Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. You’re chasing around Victorian London, maybe seeing the whole of the picture, maybe seeing a part of the whole, or possibly cooking up a theory that’s entirely different from the truth. Crazy explanations are also fun, and at the end the Great Detective ties it all up with a bow for you. That’s a boardgame, and I wouldn’t enjoy any roleplaying session that felt so constrained, but it's a useful experience for thinking about mystery scenarios.

Or if you’re more into the thankless, foot-slogging reality of policework, why not try "Keeping the Peace", a mini-campaign I wrote a couple of decades back? It’s designed for Tekumel, but with a little tweaking you could fit it to any urban game setting.


Thursday, 7 May 2020

Bats


Dominic Cummings, the Svengali of British government, said on his blog recently that he's looking for "super-talented weirdos":
"We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB. [...] By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for but I want people around Number 10 to be on the lookout for such people."
I think I know what he means and blimey, Dom, I can do that. Read a pop science book and draw specious conclusions about entirely unrelated subjects? Child's play. For instance, while pondering the question of exit routes from the coronavirus lockdown, I came up with a humdinger. See what you think...

Obviously a vaccine would be nice. An all-purpose antiviral (such as the Gates Foundation has been funding research into) would be even better, as it would insure against the next (possibly deadlier) virus. But what we really want is a once-and-for-all solution that will stop all viruses dead.

It’s possible to create synthetic nucleotides. Instead of A, C, T, G call them Z, Y, X and W. So far research has concentrated on getting synthetic nucleotides to code for new amino acids so we can build new proteins that don’t normally occur in nature. But how about we instead get them to code for exactly the same amino acids as the existing 64 ACTG-based codons?

Then it becomes possible to rebuild the entire human genome using ZYXW-based codons. There’s a one-to-one correspondence; they build exactly the same amino acids; you still get a human being – but the difference is that the genome of this ZYXW human makes no sense to any existing virus. If a virus enters the cell of a ZYXW human, any instructions it gives the cell to replicate itself will be meaningless. Viruses would literally be speaking an unintelligible language as far as humans are concerned.

You might think we’d have to replicate the whole human microbiome as well as the H.Sap genome, but those gut bacteria (etc) would all function perfectly well in the ZYXW human, because the phenotype is unchanged. It’s only viruses, which work by subverting the cell’s DNA machinery, that would be stymied.

I should get my application off to Whitehall right away, don't you reckon? With a noggin full of notions like this I'd fit right in with Dom's dream team. But enough wild surmise -- tomorrow we're on firm ratiocinative ground with a look at investigative scenarios.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Come with me to the far lands of Baghdad


Here’s a sandbox roleplaying campaign I ran a few years back. The setting: Baghdad in 800 AD (183-184 in the Hijri calendar). I often like to start out with just a setting and characters, and the intrigues that go with them, then I throw out a bunch of threads and see which the players will grab hold of. The advantage of that approach is they’re familiarizing themselves with the background at the same time as various adventure leads are warming up.

(As for the rules, we used GURPS or you might try Tales of the Caliphate Nights or Basic Roleplaying. Or even write a PbtA version if you have the time; the variety of characters certainly lends itself to that kind of system. Those are all fantasy versions set in "the Arabian imaginary", though, and if you prefer a more historical take, as I do, Guy Le Strange's Baghdad During The Abbasid Caliphate will be your most treasured sourcebook.)


The deep background to the campaign postulated a forgotten era when aliens travelled to Earth and enhanced some humans (the likes of Gilgamesh) to assist them in returning to the stars. Some of that ancient technology yet remains if the characters know where to look.

There’s no magic in this setting, but psionics exist (though very rare). Still, you don’t need to stick to any of the assumptions or storylines here. Just chuck some of these ideas at your players. All they have to do is react in character and the story will shape itself.


BAGHDAD LOCATIONS OF INTEREST

The Shammasiyah Quarter. The inhabitants of these suburbs are Armenian Christians, transplanted en masse by order of the Caliph from their original village. The centre of the community is the Samalu Monastery. Any Christians among the PCs can get lodging here if they need it, but the practices of Armenian Christianity are different from those of the Franks and tensions could soon develop.

The Mamuni Palace is on the east bank of the Tigris opposite the Palace of Eternity. This is Jafar’s residence.

The Bab-at-Tak, the high arched gate at the eastern end of the Main Bridge, is renowned as a meeting place for poets.

The Palace of Eternity (Kasr-al-Khuld) was built twenty-five years ago in the reign of Harun al-Rashid's grandfather, the Caliph Mansur. Its majestic gardens are said to rival the beauty of paradise, and it stands high above the Tigris opposite the Khurasan Gate, free from the gnats that swarm in lower-lying areas.

The four Houses of Wisdom stand south of the Gharabah Gate. Each has a professor and seventy-five students, and in the entrance hall to the campus rests a famous water-clock called the Chest of Hours. The libraries of the Houses are arranged and catalogued to make information easy to find, and for a price the students can copy any work that characters require.

For colour the referee may wish to allude to markets and professional quarters such as the Needle-makers Wharf, the Market of the Perfumers, the Date Market, the Cotton Market, and the Tuesday Market. Also canal names such as the Fowls' Canal, the Canal of the Dogs, the Canal of the Cooks, and the Thorn Bridge over the Nahr Isa canal, adjoining the Market of Shawk-Sellers, these thorns being used as kindling for ovens and public steam baths (hammams, a staple of daily life to be found throughout the city).

The Kufah Gate ("Pilgrims' Gate") in the south-west is where those setting out for Mecca leave the city. And no tour of 9th century Baghdad is complete without mentioning the Office of the Poor Tax (Diwan-as-Sadakah) which stands opposite Dromedary House.



PRINCIPAL NPCs

HARUN al-Rashid (37) the Caliph.

JAFAR al-Barmaki (33) the Vizier.

ABBASSA (28) the Caliph’s favourite sister; very smart.

ASMA (32) another of the Caliph’s sisters; schemer but not very effectual; resentful.

MAMUN (20) the Caliph’s eldest son; good at statecraft, sciences and arts, but no soldier. Likes astronomy. Mother: Marajil, a Persian slave. Advisors: Fahl ibn Sahl and Hasan ibn Sahl

AMIN (17) the Caliph’s second son; good military mind, poor  at politics & leadership; a bit strident. Mother: the Princess Zubaida.

QASIM (15) the Caliph’s third son. Honest, trustworthy – far too much for his own good. Tutored by Prince Malik (see below). Mother: Qasif, a lowborn slave.

MUTASIN (12) the Caliph’s youngest son.

COURTIERS & GENERALS

TAHIR ibn Husayn (30): a Persian general, known as Zol-Yamanein (“the warrior with two right hands”) as he fights with a sword in each hand. 

ALI ibn Isa ibn Mahan (34) a general of Bedouin ancestry, secretive and inscrutable, loyal to Prince Amin’s faction.

Prince MALIK ibn Salih (50) a troublesome character – effective general, member of the Abbasid family, proud, he chafes and gets impatient when not given a task. Has mentored the Caliph’s third son, Qasid, since he was a child.

KHUZAIMA ibn Khazim (48) grizzled chief of police, cautious, plays the political spectrum and is careful not to offend any powerful factions.


IN KHORASAN

FADL ibn Sahl and HASAN ibn Sahl
Brothers (Zoroastrian converts) who are destined to advise Mamun as viziers – assuming that the player-characters do nothing to change the course of history. (As if.)

OTHER BAGHDAD NOTABLES

AHMAD ibn Hanbal (20) an Arab of the Banu Shayban tribe; young zealous scholar who regards the sect of the Caliph to be heretical, and openly preaches such, but is too popular simply to throw in prison.

ALI al-Rida (45) an imam and Dean of the House of Wisdom, seventh descendent of the Prophet, rather unworldly mystical type, mentor of Maruf al-Kharki.

MARUF ibn Firuz (42) “al-Kharki”, a Persian convert from Christianity, extremely ascetic, a hardliner who looks for heresy and impiety. He was formerly the slave of Ali al-Rida.
  • SARIK al-Saqati (33) disciple of Ali al-Rida and bodyguard to Maruf ibn Firuz. He is a Sufi martial artist and also has a psionic power to make people forget their family and become detached.
Archdeacon BARADAN (60) of the Samalu Monastery, a shrewd operator who keeps a low profile.

  • Vazak, Musheg and Sahak (all mid-30s): assistants to the Archdeacon.

OTHER MONARCHS

The Byzantine Empire is ruled by Irene of Athens (42), who recently (797 AD) deposed her son Constantine VI and had him blinded and imprisoned. She pays a tribute to the Caliph to avoid war (the Byzantines already have their ongoing war with the Bulgars and rivalry with the Franks to contend with) but it’s known that her finance minister, Nikephoros (45), opposes this.

Charlemagne (58) has recently been crowned Emperor of Rome.

Al-Hakam I (33) rules as Emir of Al-Andalus (Iberia) which is the last surviving stronghold of the Umayyad dynasty which formerly ruled the entire Muslim world, until the Abbasid rebellion in which the Umayyad line were hunted and massacred.

Idris II (16) rules as Caliph of the Berber kingdom of Morocco. His father was poisoned by an assassin sent by Harun al-Rashid sixteen years ago, so there’s no love lost there. Still a teenager, Idris is said to be “a person of almost magical ability”.

Ibrahim I (44) is due to be installed as Emir of Ifriqiya (modern Libya and Tunisia) to rule there on behalf of the Abbasids, a response to the ongoing rebellion of the Berbers against their Arab governors.

Krum the Horrible (43) is Khan of the Bulgars. Said to drink from cups made by lining his enemies’ skulls in silver. The clue is in the name.

Obadiah (30) is Khan of the Khazars. Like most of his nobles, he is a convert to Judaism, but most of the Khazars are Tengrists (kind of ancestor-worship meets animism).

She (Hiya = “she” in her native Arabic) is ruler ofthe lost civilization of Kôr in the heart of Africa. She is an immortal, born 900 years ago in Arabia, but who has gained access to some ancient (and possibly non-terrestrial) technology and has been busy learning about it.

In Kôr, Hiya has a Chamber of the Far-Travelling Carpet which has a pattern of tiles on the floor that create a dimensional “carpet” which allows her to travel across great distances. The effect is like teleportation, and the portal remains hanging in the air until she returns to it. Using this, she has been disrupting the Silk Road trade from a hidden mountain fortress above Samarkand.

She wants the arrow (qv) from Nubia, and has sent an android assassin and three mortal but devoted followers to get it. The android is a killing machine with ebon hair and paper white skin. In ordinary human terms she is mindless, and cannot speak or interact socially; nor can she  be detected with ESP. (Tekumel fans may recognize the type.)



ADVENTURE SEEDS

These aren’t presented in any particular order, but note that some are dependent on earlier threads having been picked up.

The Envoy from the West
Charlemagne (known in Baghdad as “Shah al-Ma'in”) has crowned himself Emperor of Rome, and has sent emissaries with gifts for the Caliph. If any of the player-characters are to be European Christians, that’s how they come to be travelling to Baghdad.

Order of Succession
The Caliph is due to announce this shortly. Not even Jafar knows what he’s planning. Traditionally, the eldest son, Mamun, has been the heir apparent, but his mother was a slave whereas the mother of the second son, Amin, is an Abbasid princess.

The ceremony involves the closing of the four gates of the Round City (see below). The Caliph then proclaims that Amin will be heir, and the order of succession will thereafter pass to Mamun, who in the meantime will go to the city of Merv to take up the governorship of Khorasan (Persia). Tahir of the Two Swords comes to Baghdad to fetch him.

The Gates
To mark the announcement of the order of succession, the four gates of the Round City are all closed at noon prayers. It can be seen that each gate is covered in an array of cuneiform-style glyphs.

On close examination:
  • the metal of which the gates are made is an unknown alloy.
  • they are covered with some kind of graphical cipher, perhaps indicating coded charts.

History: the gates were brought by order of the Caliph’s father from the town of Wasit, which stands on the site of Zandawad, a city built by order of King Solomon. (Unknown history: they were brought originally from Uruk.)

Deciphering the glyphs reveals a kind of stylized map centred on the site of Uruk. It’s clear that there must be a fifth set of gates somewhere, containing missing information required to complete the map, and after consulting the records the characters find that these other gates were sent to the Mosque of Mansur but never fitted. The Imam, Ali al-Rida, refers enquiries to Maruf ibn Firuz, who of course refuses all requests to see the gates.

The fifth gates are being kept at the Bukhariot Mosque in the Lion & Ram Quarter, west of the Round City. Even having found out that much, the characters have to somehow get to see them – not easy, as they are packaged, piled up and far too heavy to lift, and of course the imam of the mosque, Halba ibn-Jubaya, has been told not to grant access.

The fifth set of glyphs firmly pinpoints a location at modern-day Warka, which will lead the characters to the Hairy Man adventure (see below).

A Hairy Man
The ruins of a huge city wall are found by workmen digging irrigation channels for the modern town of Warka. This is part of the ruins of Uruk. This is not widely reported, so unless the characters have deciphered the map on the gates (qv) they will never get to hear about it.

If the ruins are excavated, a tomb is revealed in which lies the perfectly preserved body of a big (7 foot) hairy man with strong, almost ape-like teeth. This is Enkidu, an immortal, who has remained in a state of suspended animation for millennia. The characters may be able to revive him, but ensuring he becomes an ally rather than a rival or enemy is not so easy.

Running Amok
There have been several violent incidents in the Atikan Quarter. The first few were individuals running amok, then larger groups. Usually the pattern is attacks on property, escalating to violence or even murder, and afterwards the perpetrator claims to have only a vague memory of their actions, as in a dream. All except the first incident happened on a Friday.

First of the perpetrators was Hisham of Basra, who is due to be executed in three days. He didn’t kill anyone, but was heard shouting blasphemous remarks. If questioned, he may reveal that he had gone to the Jewish Quarter to try to catch a glimpse of a girl he’d seen.

The actual cause is a teenage girl, Anonui bat-Ezra, who is developing psionic powers that as yet are not under her conscious control. She belongs to a wealthy Jewish family (her father: Ezra bar-Adom) and travels to the bath-house each Friday in a covered litter. One incident occurred on Friday evening outside a house in the Jewish Quarter used as a synagogue.

The Road to Samarkand
Reports are starting to trickle in of disruption on the Silk Road. Caravans have been attacked by bandits out of the hills, who seem to have become unnaturally bold of late. The merchant Yao ZHANG, who claims to be an emissary of the Chinese Emperor Dezong, recently arrived with a report of having been overtaken by a sandstorm crossing the Karakum Desert, and his companions were whisked away “by bridges that walk” – or, at least, the translator thinks that’s what he said. This connects to The Forty adventure.

The Caliph’s New Palace
The Caliph no longer wishes to reside in the Golden Gate Palace, but instead plans to move out of the Round City to the (larger) Palace of Eternity on the west bank of the Tigris. Naturally this raises concerns about security.

The Arrow
A dignitary from Egypt brings the Caliph an arrow that can cut almost anything. (This is literally true; it’s like a vibroblade.) He says it was brought by a traveller from Nubia. The Caliph orders it placed in the palace vaults.

Cursed Ship
Reports from sailors in the Gulf describe a “high, bronze-hulled” vessel, “like a floating castle”.

Prince Mamun's farewell party
This episode follows Order of Succession and The Arrow. There is a party for Mamun on the eve of his departure for Khorasan.

During the party, a guard staggers up from the vaults where the Caliph's treasures are kept. He collapses in front of one of the characters, revealing two long deep sword-cuts across his back.

In the vault there is a circular pattern of rainbow light on the floor. An albino warrior with a fixed, insane expression stands ready to fight as three men with jet-black skin search the racks and boxes. This is the group Hiya (“She”; qv) has sent to fetch the arrow, and can ultimately connect to an adventure based on H RiderHaggard’s novel.



The Forty
This is the eventual result if the characters investigate The Road to Samarkand adventure seed or travel to Persia and end up investgating attacks on the trade routes.

In the hills above Samarkand, the Forty are a group of heretical rebels from Afghanistan. They have come across an ancient alien facility with a huge circular door that opens on a voice command. (One door only partly opens. There’s a smaller postern gate but they don’t know the command for that.)

FORTY THIEVES
Sword 18                                 2d+2 cut
Knife 17                                  2d-1 cut
Javelin 16                                2d+2 impale (with thrower)
HP 15                                      Parry 13, Dodge 12, Perception 17, Stealth 15
Armour: Kevlar-like material (7, weight 20) on torso; mail (4) on limbs, head.

Inside: a tunnel thirty feet tall with gantries (partly collapsed, but now reinforced with wooden poles) to a series of apartments. There are lighting globes, about half of which still work. At the end of the tunnel is a hangar where the Big Spider (a sixty-foot-tall military robot) is housed.

BIG SPIDER
Acrobatics 17; Danger Sense; Combat Reflexes
Leg swipe 15               9d crush (1-3 per round) knockback
Barbed darts    18        4d twice (large piercing -> +50% damage) & reel in*
Blades 18                    3d twice (half armour)**
Dodge 7                      Armour 11      Perception 25
HIT POINTS 120
All its attacks can only be defended against with Dodge.
*If both darts penetrate armour, delivers electrical stun (3d direct to Fatigue) and reels victim in. Victim has two rounds to break free: ST vs effective ST of [damage taken x d6]. Then reaches blades and is wrenched: roll ST or HT vs effective ST of 30 or take 4d crush to neck or limb.
**Used when victim reeled in; remember that these are monomolecular and halve armour.

The Big Spider is not under the control of the Forty, but it recognizes that they control the doors. When the doors are open, it periodically patrols its route and attacks people crossing the border without authorization (ie everybody). It collects all their items, brings them back, but then discards them as nothing matches the items it is programmed to search for. When “parked”, the spider also projects a local view (5 mile radius) of the terrain as seen from a satellite.

The Forty therefore have treasure here worth about 5 million dirhams in the form of gold, gems, spices, silks, artworks, weapons, etc. This wealth is what enables them to bribe a network of informers in Samarkand, allowing them to cow the government there by assassination or bribery.
           
Samarkand
The city is ruled by a Council of Three: Arash, Jamsid and Kazem, all of the House of Aramanth. As it’s Persian, politics is less religiously dominated, though it is not so free and cosmopolitan as Merv or Nishapur.

The Grand Imam is Ardeshir al-Yaha, a moderate, originally from Baghdad.

The leading light in high society is Princess Parisa Esfani, mid-40s, bossy, rich.

The local agent of the Barmaki clan is Sitvar ibn Ghabani, a young and very serious fellow, more resourceful than his callow appearance might suggest.


WHAT HAPPENED IN OUR CAMPAIGN

The player-characters realized the trouble in the marketplace (Running Amok) was caused by a psionic and identified the likely culprit as Anonui, daughter of Ezra the rug merchant. But they couldn’t get access to Anonui until her two older sisters were betrothed, whereupon it would be possible for a third suitor to visit Anonui. So they went to Ezra and three of them asked to marry his daughters.

Charlemagne’s two emissaries, Lanterfrid and Sigimund, were due to return home. The Caliph (at Jafar’s instigation, after a recommendation by the player-characters) appointed Ezra to take some fine rugs to the new Roman Emperor as a gift. Oh, and a white elephant called Abulabaz as well. That gave Ezra and incentive to marry his daughters off, so that they would be taken care of while he was away from Baghdad.

However, Anonui was by now learning to control her power, even though largely unaware of it. She caused Ezra to demand an impossibly huge dowry of 30,000 dirhams for each of her sisters (Buran and Huldah).

Two of the PCs now decided that the best way to deal with Anonui bat-Ezra, the nascent psionic in the Jewish quarter, was not to marry her but to kill her. Yes, I know; I thought it was a dark turn too. They sneaked off without telling the others, crept into her bedroom at night, and smothered her with a pillow. When the other PCs confronted them about this, they fell back on the argument that it was better than waiting till she grew too powerful. (You may recall Nick Fury saying something along those lines. Cap wasn't impressed.)

Hashim was still executed for blasphemy, as the presiding judge Maruf ibn-Firuz (aka al-Kharki) would brook no plea for leniency. But it’s not clear whether Hashim’s fate ever figured in the characters’ calculations anyway. As one of the players put it in the write-up:
“We killed the carpet seller's daughter, making it seem that she died in her sleep. We tried to paint her as a witch to exonerate the young man due to be executed from blasphemy. He was executed anyway.”

At the ruins of Uruk, their map guided them to a hill which turned out to cover a huge man-made dome. They were able to break into this and lower themselves fifty metres to the floor below. Some falling rocks gave them gashes and bruises, but that was nothing compared to the sentry spider-robots that attacked using circular blades on their legs.

They entered what some might have considered a burial chamber, though it was obviously built with a different purpose in mind. Banks of instruments on the walls were now so damaged that only an occasional light blinked on and off. Waking up the power source briefly displayed a holographic star map filling the whole room which showed a planetary system located close in to the galactic core – not that they were able to interpret what it meant.

On a catafalque lay the hairy body of Enkidu. (His hair having continued to grow very slowly over the centuries he’d been in “Odinsleep”.)

A player said in the write-up:
“I think we activated a homing beacon, but it seemed to point straight up into the night sky where there are no ships. Are there? And we saw something that might have been a star map, but there just aren’t that many stars in the sky. Are there?”
Thereafter, having been afflicted by a device called the Eye of Humbaba, they travelled to the heart of Africa to seek help from Hiya. Or did they go to steal her power? It depends which of the players you ask.