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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.)


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.)

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.

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
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.
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.


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.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! My thinking is that one-off scenarios aren't enough for these troubled times -- people need an entire world to escape into, hence campaigns like this and Camelot Eclipsed. Let's just hope the lockdown doesn't continue for a thousand nights and a night.

  2. Speaking of worlds to escape to... how’s Jewelspider progressing? The rules look as though they’re shaping up nicely. How about the Legend material? Would be nice for it to include some epic campaigns like the original DW books did. (Playing Prince of Darkness atm on RPoL (albeit with some tweaks) and it’s still a gripping tale!

    1. I'm having a big rethink about the rules in light of recent playtesting. It's all good as long as it's a case of one step back to go two steps forward. Oliver is much better than I am at creating epic quest-based campaigns (as you'd expect from the publisher of the Hodderscape imprint) and there are two or three of his that we could publish. They might be a better fit for Dragon Warriors than for Jewelspider, though, being quite combat-heavy.

  3. Hmmm. Okay how to coax those out of Oliver? Whom to publish them? How do we throw money at Mr Johnson to get said epic material?!?!

    1. The process is basically this: Oliver gives me his hand-written notes, I decipher them and type them up, add whatever stats are needed, typeset them, add any necessary maps, and we're good to go. So really time is all it takes!

  4. Sounds like a truly symbiotic relationship! Are his notes in Ancient Kakihurian? Well I’m keen to buy when you’re ready to sell! Or would it be thru Serpent King? Not sure who has DW rights these days...

    1. I think we based Kaikuhuran on Oliver's handwriting; half the time he can't read it himself. I think I have finally convinced him to use a keyboard (he ran the latest campaign with his laptop in front of him rather than pages of notes) so hopefully that will speed things up a bit.

      We're intending to renew the DW licence with Serpent King Games, but Oliver and I will probably self-publish Jewelspider to give us something to do in retirement. Thanks to the Patreon page we have enough to cover the cost of a few pieces of artwork for that.

  5. Sorry I rudely forgot to add...Thanks! Looks like a great campaign setting!

    1. You're welcome, Nigel. (And I just realized I hadn't put in links to any Arabian Nights RPGs, now corrected.)