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Friday 27 May 2016

"The King is Dead" (Sparta scenario)

This scenario is set in Sparta in the year 485 BC. To play it, you're going to need the Sparta sourcebook. And, pretty obviously, if you're not going to be running the game then you might want to look away now. Nothing but spoilers from here on in.

Still here? OK, the characters are young men investigating the death, apparently by suicide, of the Agiad King Cleomenes five years ago. That happened. I won't list all the history here because you can look it up. Our own campaign is fantasy (a trope I was stuck with - see previous post) so the characters' enquiries spun them off into an adventure involving the Antikythera mechanism, an interstellar wreck that caused the Thera eruption, and various other madly OTT elements. Frankly, if you ask me, you'd do better to keep the fantasy out of it. Maybe Cleomenes faked his death so that he could live in quiet retirement with his Athenian lover Naira. That's one possibility. It's your campaign; you decide...

The characters, having reached age 20, have been given their first staff (bakterion, a mark of adulthood), their first red tunic, and have just been inducted into their platoon (enomotia). Together they comprise a sub-unit of syskenoi, or “tent companions”, comprising a table in the fraternity (or mess-hall, syssition) to which they all belong. All have been picked to be members of the Royal Guard, the hippeis (“equestrians”) which means they are regarded as elite for their year.

Characters who attended the same school will know each other from an early age, but it’s likely they all got to know each other over the “gap years” as epheboi before they became young adults.

Each character will have a 50% chance of having an admirer (erastes). These are buddies/lovers in their 30s or 40s who, as full adult citizens of the Spartan state, can make introductions on a character’s behalf. The characters will need at least one admirer to get anywhere, because as youths they are not allowed into the lesche (club-houses) or the Agora. Having more than one admirer between them would be better because that is less suspicious (you’re not asking one person for a whole bunch of favours) and quicker (spreads the load). The chance of getting your admirer to do you a favour is based on charisma and/or appearance.

The festival

The Karneia is a week-long festival to Apollo (though also having secretive associations with Dionysos) involving dancing, sacrifices and athletic events in a sacred wood west of Sparta.

The chase
Five youths (ie 20-30 years) are picked as hunters. Starting from a stone carved with an image of Apollo Aphetaeus (“the starter”) they must pursue an agetor, an older priest who is garlanded in flowers. To win they must return with his garland, which is a good omen for the year ahead.

There is prestige in avoiding five younger trackers, so the agetor won’t just give it to them on a platter. But the hunter with the garland isn’t out of the woods yet – at least one other hunter has been sneaky enough to hang back, refreshed, planning to grab it off him as he returns and take the credit.

The kill
This is a wrestling contest, fought in three rounds. Anybody can take part. Just do those as competitive skill rolls. Only the final round (if a PC gets into it) needs to be played out.

While that’s going on, the helots have their own wrestling bouts in a field half a mile away. Some young Spartans go to watch, pretending nonchalance. But the helots are not prohibited from wrestling, so some of their fighters aren’t bad.

(What might strike the characters about the helot celebrations is that they are a much more drunken affair. On the rare occasions helots are given wine, they drink it stronger and in far greater quantities than the abstemious Spartans.)

Ankylos could speak to them here; see below.

The feast
Everyone dines in tents to mark the end of the festival. There is a rhapsody competition and anybody can join in. It’s while taking a piss away from the feast that Ankylos approaches them – assuming he didn’t speak to them already if they sneaked off to watch the helots wrestling.

Ankylos (40) is well known in Sparta. He is a veteran of the Battle of Marathon, having been in Athens at the time. (Sparta sent no army as the Karneia that year meant they had to wait for the full moon.) They would know that he is close to the Agiads.

He points out a helot called Talus from a village called Gythio. “I want you to keep an eye on that one. There’s a suspicion he’s gathering arms for a little band of helot trouble-makers. See if that’s true. If it is, deal with him. But only after you have proof – we’re soldiers at war, not crude butchers.”

If they watch, they will see Ankylos go back to consult with Cleombrotus (55), Leonidas’s brother.

At Gythio

The characters have to decide how to watch Talus. If they travel undercover, they would be best advised to do so in small groups. Together they look conspicuously tall to be helots. They would also need to hide their long hair – the mark of a Spartan, forbidden to lesser ranks (though in fact credible in any free Greek citizen, even though few outside Sparta retain that style today).

They could of course go openly as Spartans, under the pretext of official business (assessing the workers and crops, scouting locations for military manoeuvres, etc) or leisure (hunting, for example) or ritual (visiting remote shrines or relatives in the country) or indeed with no excuse at all. But any of those might make it hard to get a close look at what Talus is up to.

Or they could nominate a small group to be “the helots” who can go undercover, travelling with the rest as their servants.

Talus is a woodcutter and lives in a house next to his lumber yard, up a track about half a mile from the rest of the village. Observing the timber carts going up the track, perception roll to notice they are not empty.

If they look in the carts they find bows, arrows and hard cudgels.

At Talus’s house
Talus has very high perception skills so will not have any difficulty spotting them – not least because he knows they are coming. “Why don’t you come inside?” he says.

Inside they are met by Ankylos. He explains this was the only way to meet them well away from prying eyes. They can trust Talus, by the way; he’s a “step brother” who served as a scout for the army. It’s a sensitive issue and Ankylos says that the purest Spartans are the young. They are fresh with the ideals that too often become alloyed with convenience, politics and self-interest. That’s why this has to be completely confidential. They’ll understand when he tells them what they have to do.

(Another advantage, though Ankylos has the good manners not to labour this point, is that senior Spartans will not really take them seriously. The questions they will need to ask could raise suspicions if an older man asked them, but coming from them will seem like youthful enthusiasm, an eagerness to find out about the world. They can, in short, count on being both indulged and discounted.)

Ankylos tells them about the ex-king Cleomenes. Supposedly he killed himself five years ago after going mad. But there are enough suspicions and loose ends that Cleombrotus and his brother, the new king, Leonidas, want it looked into.

“You might do worse than to start by talking to Cleomenes’s old comrade Vabis – if he’ll talk to you, that is. Or maybe the undertaker who supplied the coffin; I forget his name. If you have any news, give it to Talus here or to my sergeant, Ktesios. If you come to any conclusions or uncover any evidence, be discreet.”

Conducting the investigation
Cleombrotus himself can’t do much for them because he mustn’t be seen to be involved, but he will send occasional information or instructions via his friend Ankylos or the perioikoi sergeant Ktesios, and he can also provide resources such as a ship if they need it.

Investigating Cleomenes’s death

Cleomenes apparently committed suicide in his cell and was buried at the Agiad vaults a few miles outside Sparta. That was five years ago.

Who had cause to want him dead? After reigning thirty years, during which he pursued a very active foreign policy, he had made many enemies:

◦ The Persians, whom he resolutely opposed his whole life
◦ Ex-king Demaratos, whom he effectively deposed six years ago
◦ The Argives, six thousand of whom he massacred ten years ago
◦ The island of Aegina, whose entire ruling council he arrested and took to Athens for trial six years ago

How to conduct the investigation
It’s not easy. As 20 year-olds, the characters aren’t able to enter the Agora or the market-places, and are generally looked on as “freshmen” by older Spartans. They have some options, though. They can get information and even introductions from their erastai (older male admirers). Also, they can try and approach people they want to talk to:

◦ At a temple
◦ In the Dromus while exercising
◦ At the Hippodrome
◦ By inviting them to a hunt (above-average wealth needed to host a hunt)
◦ By calling at their mess-hall (if they have a mutual contact to introduce them)

The arresting officer’s story
With the help of an erastes, or through their own contacts if any of them have been groomed for the Krypteia, the characters might get to talk to Akratos (42) who was one of the Krypteia men sent to arrest Cleomenes and is one of the few who have first-hand evidence of his madness:

“When we asked for his sword he handed it over without a fuss. Said how he didn’t want to spill Greek blood. Greeks, he called us. Well, obviously they had to lock him up.”

The order to arrest Cleomenes was issued by the Ephors immediately after a sub rosa meeting with him in the Senate. The meeting was at Cleomenes’s request and lasted several hours. The Ephors at the time are now private citizens (the term of office being one year) but of course they will not speak to the characters or to anyone else about what went on behind closed doors.

The old comrade’s story
They can also try talking to Vabis (55), the king’s long-time campaigning comrade who has fallen on hard times and is now an “inferior”, so can be approached (which is why Ankylos suggested it) – though he still has his pride and may bridle at being questioned by mere youths. A good time to approach him might be while he’s exercising on the Dromus. They will need to impress him somehow to get him talking.

Vabis knew of Cleomenes’s love for the Athenian Naira and spoke to him when he came back to Sparta just before his arrest. Cleomenes said he wanted to forge an alliance of all Greece against the Persians.

If they ask about Naira: “She was the wife of the archon of Athens, only the Athenians booted them out despite King Cleomenes’s support – or maybe because of it. The archon and his wife moved here, only he died about six months later. Ten years back, this was. Just after that fuss about burning those Argives alive in their grove.”

If pressed, Vabis admits to wondering if love of Naira drove Cleomenes to poison his friend Isagoras, her husband and the former Archon of Athens, and the guilt drove him mad. Certainly he can attest to Cleomenes being increasingly obsessed by the threat of another attack by Persia, and that he had come to believe that the only way to deal with that was to unify the whole of Greece – an idea that, to most Greeks, certainly seems insane.

The jailer’s story
In jail Cleomenes was guarded by a one-armed helot called Hogros (50). The characters will probably assume he’s a lot older than his fifty years, incidentally, because helots lead a hard life. Hogros admits to giving Cleomenes the knife he killed himself with:

“He said bring me a knife so I can cut this bread up. Well, I’m not going to argue with a king, am I? Or any Spartan come to that. Then he said bugger off and let me eat in peace. So I did. And he did himself in while I was gone, and I’ve not had a nice job like that since.”

Where was Cleomenes imprisoned? In a small lock-up just off the Street of Barriers. Hogros was assigned to stand guard outside the door.

Where was the fatal wound? Hogros can tell them as much as the undertaker Eumaeos can (see below).

Who came to visit Cleomenes? Hogros knows where “that fancy lady” (he doesn’t know Athandania’s name) lives and will try to get money for taking them there – he says she came to the cell but he was under orders not to let her in, “nor that Athenian bint neither” (ie Naira). Cleomenes did see “the king and his brother” (Leonidas and Cleombrotus) and a couple of the Ephors. “Other’n that, just me.”

The undertaker’s story
They can talk to the peroikoi undertaker Eumaeos (39) who lives in Therapne, a town south of Sparta. He collected the body for burial but instead of bringing it back to his mortuary, he was instructed to take it to Cleomenes’s house and bring the coffin there. He tells them that Cleomenes slashed at his arms several times, leaving multiple cuts, then finally drove the knife into his heart.

Who was the last person to see the body before it was placed in the coffin? “The Athenian woman, Naira. She drew out the knife with her own hand. Ice-cold, those Athenians.”

If they probe further, Eumaeos will mention that Naira was accompanied by a Spartan noblewoman, Athandania. He was specifically ordered not to treat the body in any way, just put it in the coffin.

The family friend’s story
They can talk to Lady Athandania (40), a cousin of Cleomenes. They’ll need to arrange a meeting, possibly inveigling an invitation to one of her afternoon salons at her decidedly non-regulation grand house in the outer suburbs of Limnai.

Have each player roll 3d6 for family wealth. Anyone with above-average family wealth is eligible (13+ on 3d6) then make a charisma, poetry, or appearance roll to get an invitation. Or a player might come up with a clever way to get themselves invited, of course.

Athandania thinks that the Ephors murdered Cleomenes and hushed it up. She’s not too discreet about keeping this view a secret, though she wouldn’t come out and say it to a bunch of youths. If a character eavesdrops on her, he may hear her mention it to an Athenian guest.

She is willing to tell them that her friend Naira (40) left Sparta right after the funeral, having lived here in exile from Athens for nearly twenty years.

Where did Naira go? “I had a letter from her a couple of years ago saying she was living in a remote place and missed other women to talk to, but she expected to be back in the swing of things in a few years. Oh, and she said something about how she ought to be able to see Aphrodite’s birthplace on a clear day.”

[Naira is actually now living on the island of Antikythera, about three days’ sailing to the south. A lore/mythology roll is needed to identify Aphrodite’s birthplace as Kythera.]

At the cemetery
They will need to sneak into the Agiad burial vaults as there are patrols of veteran Spartans. With timing to run in between patrols, an uncontested stealth roll will do it. Failure means the sentries come searching and you need a hide roll.

(An important question is how many of the characters will attempt this. Too few and they may not be able to open the vault where Cleomenes’s coffin is entombed – or may fail to find a clue. Too many and they will be spotted.)

To open the vault quietly requires a difficult strength roll Failure makes a noise and they’ll need another hide roll – or one of the characters could make a run for it to decoy the sentries away.

Inside the vault there is room for three characters. The coffin is open and the body is not here. Make a search roll to spot an obol (intended to go under the tongue of the corpse) in the broken remains of the coffin.

After making the report

They again arrange to meet at Talus’s house, only this time Cleombrotus, the king’s brother, comes with Ankylos. Naturally he only hears the bits that interest him.

“There’s going to be war with Persia. The old king Demaratos has gone over to their side. No doubt they’d love to turn up here and restore him as their puppet. We don’t want any legitimacy issues.”

Ankylos: “It might be worse. There could be two ex-kings drifting around out there. A madman and a traitor. To have a challenge to the Eurypontid line is bad enough, but suppose there’s an Agiad pretender too.”

“Even if Cleomenes is alive, which I don’t believe, he would never side with Persia. He’d sooner – ”

“Slit his throat? He did that already. It’s a risk, is all I’m saying. And this isn’t a good year to be taking risks.”

They turn to the player-characters:

“Go and look into that last expedition, when he went to arrest the council of Aegina. Whatever drove Cleomenes over the edge, it happened on that trip.”

Investigating Cleomenes’s final expedition

The year before his death, Cleomenes took a fleet of fifteen ships (ie his entire Royal Guard) to arrest the twelve councillors of Aegina who had paid tribute to the Persians. He had been thwarted in an earlier attempt to do so by his co-regent Demaratos, but since then he had managed to replace Demaratos with a new Eurypontid king, Leotychidas, who was his ally.

The councillors fled east towards Rodos, but Cleomenes intercepted and captured them in the Aegean on his flagship the Hydra’s Tooth. He then returned them to Athens.

Talking to marines
Some of the Royal Guard who accompanied Cleomenes’s expedition are willing to talk about it. (As the characters are royal guards themselves, it’s not hard to find a pretext for meeting.)

Xiphos and Stibades are a couple of guardsmen whom the characters might end up talking to. They’re not clear about details like navigation, but they can relate how there was a storm, the flagship got separated from the rest of the fleet, they found the Aeginetan ship in a lagoon and there was a boarding action.

“Twenty of us, thirty Aeginetan marines. Not much of a fight.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been, only – ”

“Oh yeah. We hit a rock and the king went overboard. Full armour, you don’t come back from that.”

“Only he did.”

“He sure did.”

It comes out that Cleomenes was thought lost but later showed up on a nearby island. “Must’ve got his armour off and made it to the shore. Sixty years old, too. Fitter than a man half his age.”

The difficulty is getting details out of the Royal Guard without pressing the point too much. In addition, they aren’t giving a statement, they’re reminiscing – embellishing the bits that stuck in their minds, glossing over things (like precise navigation) that aren’t what they know or care about.

Talking to the sailors
To look for some of the sailors who were on the expedition, the characters need to travel to the port of Helos, about twenty miles south of Sparta.

It’s pretty easy to find sailors who can talk in general about the fleet – where it sailed from (Helos), when (early 491), where it returned (Zarax, though five ships went to Athens), when (late spring 491), and so forth.

Use streetwise or diplomacy skills to find a sailor in Helos who was actually with the fleet. Roll once a day. This is easier in ports along the east coast of the peninsula (Zarax, Kyphanta, Prasiai, Tyros) in which case allow a bonus to the roll. A special on the roll indicates a sailor who was actually aboard the Hydra’s Tooth.

Any sailor can relate the basic facts of the expedition: that the Aeginetans seemed to be heading for Rodos, a Greek colony that has been in Persian control since 490 BC but which was then (in 491) autonomous. The fleet was scattered by storms in the Cyclades. If the characters think to ask, the prevailing winds were driving the ships south of a true course from Aegina to Rodos.

A sailor called Sophilus who was a crewman aboard the Hydra’s Tooth can tell the full story:

“We caught up to them in the lagoon of Callista. We needed to intercept them before they got to the open sea because that was a trim fast ship – we’d never have overtaken it under sail. Hurrying to get across their bows, we ran her onto an oddly shaped rock in the lagoon and the whole ship nearly went over. I remember old Thrulon saying, ‘That’ll blunt the tooth.’ The general went over the side – ”

“The king.”

“King, was he? So he went over the side, gone like a stone, but the Spartans mopped up the Aeginetan forces – their chief told them to surrender, in point of fact. We were resupplying water on one of the islands there – not Callista itself, but an island on the north-west of the bay where the water’s less salty – and the rest of the fleet showed up. A few days later, the top men went to make an offering at an old shrine to Apollo. Well, they say it was to Apollo – I saw it and it wasn’t like any shrine to Apollo I ever saw. Anyway, who do you think they found there, naked as a babe and twice as lifelike? Only the old king that was thought drowned. So that was a lucky escape, only they do say he went mad and killed himself, which just goes to show a man can’t cheat Hades for long. If the gods want you dead, they’ll first take your wits away.”

Travel at sea

Ankylos can provide them with a letter from Cleombrotus to secure a twenty-oared galley in Helos, along with fifteen other rowers (five perioikoi, ten helots) which means that five men can be free as marines at all times. If that's where you want to go with the scenario, you could do worse than look at Tim Severin's Argo as an example of a twenty-oared Grecian galley. This article by Lionel Casson has everything you could possibly want to know about sailing speeds in ancient times.

Friday 20 May 2016

Obedient to their laws

Maybe you noticed the Sparta roleplaying sourcebook that popped up in the sidebar recently. Here’s the story with that. One of my group’s longest running campaigns is the Immortal Spartans, devised by Tim Harford, in which a bunch of young Spartans discover they have Highlander-like regenerative powers. As a meta-campaign, it has proved a robust armature on which to hang individual mini-campaigns set in Alexander’s empire, Caligula’s Rome, 9th century Baghdad, and even 1930s New York.

The irony is, the campaign hasn’t till now had a whole lot to do with Sparta. We began the game already on the march to Thermopylae. (We could hardly slink back home afterwards. You know how the Spartans treated deserters?)

But as a long-time Tekumel enthusiast, I’m always more interested in the social and cultural side of roleplaying than all the scary monsters and super creeps. So I got to thinking it would be fun to run a prequel game before our little band became immortal, back in their salad days as junior soldiers of the Spartan state. That meant drawing a map – I always like to start with a map. And so I got to researching Spartan society from a gaming perspective.

I should insert a caveat here. Nobody knows a lot about daily life in Sparta in the early 5th century BC. Our best source is probably Herodotus, writing only a generation later. Pausanias’s descriptions come from the 2nd century. Plutarch was separated from the heyday of Sparta by half a millennium; by his time all that was left was a sort of theme park Sparta for Roman tourists. The upshot is that I had to create a Sparta, not necessarily the Sparta.

Another caveat: there are no women player-characters in this campaign. We do have one woman player, but her character is a man because the game required us all to be soldiers in Leonidas’s royal guard. Women in Sparta at this time actually have a pretty good life compared to, say, Athens, where they would be shut up behind closed doors or obliged to go about veiled. Spartan women owned property and conducted business, they were confident and outspoken, they mingled on the street with men and wore no veils. In fact, they were sneered at as “thigh showers” in the rest of Greece because of their revealing split skirts. Meeow. So you could have a game based around a group of Spartan women, but it would have a very different character from one involving Spartan men.

The best equivalent I can think of off the top of my head is the way men’s and women’s roles are portrayed in classic westerns. Out on the wild frontier, men are men and they let their fists and six-guns do their talking for them. But that society is at heart matriarchal. Women don’t take a back seat the way they would in the drawing rooms of cities back east at the time. Think of the Spartan mother pointing to her son’s shield as he set out for war: “With it, or on it.” They could be as laconic as their menfolk, those Spartan dames.

Anyway, if you pick up the Sparta sourcebook, bear in mind that it’s just designed for roleplaying male characters. Which is also something of an irony, as the game I chose to run didn't involve any of the fighting for which we nowadays think the Spartans famous. This scenario was 90% investigative. The players are tasked with uncovering the full story of King Cleomenes’s suicide -- if it was suicide. That scenario would have been equally suited to female characters, but as it was a prequel I was stuck with the characters we already had. If you play it (coming up next week) with women characters, drop a note in the comments about how it went.

Setting the scene for the PCs

The year is 485 BC – five years after the Battle of Marathon, but Persia remains an ominous storm cloud in the east. You are Spartans youths who, at 20, have just entered the lowest category of adulthood. Who knows what the future holds for you. Great things? But to you as individuals that is meaningless; a great future means a great future for the Spartan state which is your whole lives.

In creating your character, recall the advice given at Delphi. First: know thyself. You are Spartans, trained for the specific purpose of being hoplite infantry, the world’s most effective shock-troops. Never mind what you later became; maybe the seeds of that were in you even this early, but right now you are soldiers of the phalanx. Secondly: nothing in excess. There’s a temptation to max some stats and minimize others, but a well-rounded character may do better in the long run.

The virtues of a Spartan are: obedience, loyalty, courage, steadfastness, and piety. Reflect those how you will, but bear in mind that you are the aristocrats of your society – the knights, in effect – and civilized behaviour is important to you. Your principal training is in spear, shield, javelin and military manoeuvres. And yet you are very far from the brutal, half-savage warmongers of 300. It is said that it is easier to convince ten thousand Athenians to go to war than one Spartan. To draw an anachronistic parallel with today’s Marines, you are the sheepdogs. Your training is aimed at making sure that, while Spartans rarely start a fight, they can be sure of being able to end it.

While choosing your other skills, you may want to consider how you spent your late teens – that is, the “senior high” of the Agoge. This is where you pick up those extra-curricular skills.

Maybe one in ten of the 18+ group are considered as recruits for the Krypteia (think: Special Branch meets the Freemasons) and to test their mettle this “regeljugend” are sent out into the countryside to spy on helots and murder any who seem like they might be trouble-makers. So in that case you might pick up stealth skills and outdoor survival, for example.

Other late teens focus on subjects like diplomacy (learning languages, history and oratory) or on religious matters (lore and ritual) or on athletics and sports (especially the rugby-on-steroids ball game episkyros). Or maybe you’ve stepped out of one of the main school paths to do your own thing: travel, hunting, even medicine; those would count as eccentric choices but are tolerated in moderation.

Friday 13 May 2016

Do I gotta draw you a map?

Actually, you'll be glad to hear that the map is by Russ Nicholson, not me. (As if you couldn't tell, right?) This is the one you've been waiting twenty years for: the map of Ankon-Konu, soon to be opened up to exploration by The Serpent King's Domain, seventh in the Fabled Lands series. Paul Gresty is hard at work on that now and it's shaping up to be the best FL book yet. Don't take my word for it, try the demo for yourself here.

The Kickstarter campaign was planned and run by Richard S Hetley, our editor, line producer, and invaluable consultant on the series. I asked for his thoughts on getting this dazzling new map from Russ:
"As always, it's been great to see new work from someone who helped build our favorite game worlds. It's also been interesting watching the notes from Paul, which quite literally were a printout of the old Ankon-Konu map covered with marker and pencil doodles, iterate into something that gives a sense of place. There was only one spot where I thought there was a bit of a hiccup: in Smogmaw of the first draft, there was a mysterious plain triangle sticking out of the top of the city. Was it supposed to be a rooftop? Perhaps a misplaced decoration like a flying bird? Or a gigantic pointy-cap mushroom? Russ took this feedback (I didn't mention the mushroom bit...) with all the rest and made the final version you see here. It communicates very well."
I'm not showing the whole map in all its multicoloured glory here because I think it's only fair that the Kickstarter backers get to see it first - as they will in the hardcover edition to be published by Megara Entertainment. A few months later Fabled Lands Publishing will release a paperback version, but for that one you'll have to make do with black and white.Still looks pretty spectacular, though, wouldn't you agree?