The party stands on a beach on the other side of the world facing down an army of 30,000 heavily armed but lightly armored orks. And they wonder… how did we get here?
King Stephan II is at war with his neighbor. He no longer remembers what the war was about or how it started. It began in his father’s father’s time. All King Stephen II knows is war is expensive and the Royal Treasure is heavily in debt to a number of incredibly dubious concerns. He’s not worried about the debt, though. King Stephen II is phenomenally concerned about a more pernicious virus working its way through his Kingdom: boredom.
When war is good it’s very good. The realm has no professional standing army. Instead, when it’s time to go to war, the King bribes his Dukes to mobilize their private armies. The Dukes bribe their Barons, the Barons bribe their Knights, and the Knights rape and pillage the land to raise money for armor, weapons and horses which flows back to the Faires where the brokers make their cash.
The military is a loose confederation of adventuring groups, mercenaries, Knights and their buddies looking to grab a well-paying hostage, Barons trying to get ahead, and Dukes eyeing the Throne. Theoretically, all these groups show up at the same place at the same time after a fun trip through the countryside where they force local peasantry to fete their betters with enormous and locally expensive feasts. If all goes well, they route the enemy. The victors grab as many hostages as they can reach, and the Knights go on a rampage burning down the local villages. Everyone makes out well and the local treasury overflows with its cut from this heroic misanthropy.
The enemy has been busy with their own internal problems leaving King Stephen II with a multi-pronged problem:
- Bored nobility.
- His treasury holds dust and his creditors are circling.
The Good and Wise King can debase the coinage – he’s done this a few dozen times before – to raise more money for his treasury and squeeze the peasantry as the harvest is good. But his real problem is the nobility. King Stephen II is Half-Elven by some tangential definition of “Half Elven” – he claims an ancient ancestor was an elf and he possesses some great and noble elven blood. So do almost all of his nobility, even the Duke of Shoral, even though that Great and Wise Duke is clearly a half ork. (The Duke of Shoral claims not only an ancient ancestry of elven blood, he claims his half-orkness is a special expression of that blood.) King Stephan II is in truth only a man and he needs his nobility entertained otherwise they will begin to entertain themselves with each other. Nothing is worse than bored heavily armed personal militaries.
Wizards, or at least their agents, live on the Trade Nexuses. The Glorious and Most Serene Republic of Bavoria is just such a trade nexus. Built on the ruins of an ancient harbor left by the previous civilization who had excellent taste in city locations, Bavoria benefits from a wide, protected harbor, access to timber in the nearby foothills of the mountains, and excellent roads. In the far-flung past, Bavoria mostly did trade in honey, wax, and wine. Now it trades everything its network of brokers can buy from all over the world. With trade comes money, and with money comes the academic trades – the writers, the poets, the painters, the sculptors, the philosophers, the alchemists, the libraries and the universities. With the universities and an access to expensive and rare reagents come the Wizards. And the banks.
The Doge of Bavoria is a Transmuter and sits at the head of the Colainni family, an ancient family who were among those who built Bavoria in the mists of history. The Colainni family was a proud family exclusively of wizards but today most of the family business is in finance and murder – much more lucrative than wizard’s robes and runes. And the hats? Oh, the amazing hats. The Colainni family has managed to fuse the Merchant’s Guild with the Thieves Guild and Wizard’s Craft Guilds to build a small banking empire to Kings.
Doge Uberto Colainni has a pirate problem. He’s always had a pirate problem. Before, they could be bribed to pay back a cut to him of what they stole but they’ve not paying up and they’re putting a dent in the profits. Normally, he would send out the Bavoria fleet to take care of the problem but King Stephen II is in to him for 1.2M gold plus interest from the last little adventure in War five years ago. The Doge knows the good King has an entire kingdom of Knights and brave adventurers who might be getting the hot idea to come adventuring right at him. The Doge prepares a courier and sends a message. In returning for forgiving a bit of that war debt – debt the good King will run up again – the Doge will send his Knights off somewhere that will keep them occupied for a while.
The King’s Men fan out across the Kingdom and position themselves in Inns offering adventure. An old man wearing the King’s colors tells a thrilling story around the fireside of sun drenched cities and horrible pirates and a chance for glory and stuff. The King himself is calling adventures to join the cause. The adventurers can keep any booty they find! All the adventurers need to do is rendezvous with the contact in Bavoria – here’s a name – in a month’s time and they can take part in this, well, let’s not call it a crusade, really. A fight for Chivalry. Pirates are evil! Rar pirates! Go good! Fight evil! Go over there so you stop draining our coffers!
And a bunch of Random Encounters later, the adventures find themselves in Bavoria. A city of money! A city full of crime! A city where scoundrels will roll the party blind! But it’s also a city of wealth, of wild parties, of politics, of murder, and of ancient ruins the party can go through and level in if they are a little under-leveled. The Guild of Diviners will identify magic items for quick cash but then we’re back to the problem of actually selling magic items. It doesn’t help that the diviners are also in the pocket of both the Thieves Guild and one of the other great families of Bavoria, the Campise, who is standing up a competing Thieves Guild-slash-Financing House, and now they know the party has magic items and of what size and what kind and from where… but first, pirates.
Sure enough, Knights and Lords from all over King Stephen II’s kingdom filter into Bavoria. They feted on the backs of peasants all the way from their capital city here. And they are ready to kill pirates. Oh are they ready to kill pirates. Is the party ready to kill pirates? The NPC knights are all about killing pirates!
First problem: no one can take horses. The boats don’t have enough room for all the armor and the squires and the mercenaries and the adventures and tents and supplies and horses. The boats are only so big. The horses must go, and due to a sudden glut of horses, they’re going at half price. Now Bavoria has a lively but short-lived trade in horses! A win for everyone!
Second problem: the clerics of King Stephen II’s Kingdom are slightly different from the clerics of the Republic of Bavoria so no one agrees on the right blessing. After an altercation and possible cleric-and-paladin fist fighting, the party has a problem to solve. They can solve this however they see fit, including allowing the clerics to hit each other until they’re unconscious and then have the party cleric bless the mission. And clerics? They’re mean.
Finally, everyone boards. The boats cast off! They float around on the sea for a while. They fish. They have fights on the sea with pirates! And the party lands on shore surprisingly fresh.
Here’s where maybe someone should have asked a few questions. The Doge of Bavoria did not have King Stephen II or his Knight’s best interests in mind.
- The pirate generator is an enormous walled city surrounded on the shore by a river and otherwise surrounded with desert.
- If the party thinks to ask no, no one brought any siege equipment. Why would we bring siege equipment? What those walls?
- The NPC Knights, however, did bring many barrels of wine.
- The pirates, knowing the Doge was getting irate, called their buddies who called their buddies and they have bored warriors and mercenaries, too. Now just off the city is an army of 30,000 heavily armed orks on horseback.
- The orks on horseback don’t seem interested in attacking. They mostly seem interested in sitting just out of range and laughing.
- Also Knights? In the desert? In heavy plate armor? Without horses? All those good Knights and Paladins aren’t going anywhere fast.
This is where the party is at. There’s all sorts of interesting possibilities the adventuring party can pursue:
- The party can be super clever, figure out a way into the city through some ancient sewers and destroy the pirates from the inside. The city is not a normal city full of people kept hostage. It truly is full of nasty goblins, orks, evil demi-human races, hobgoblins and the occasional bugbear. Meanwhile, outside the city walls, the NPC Knights will try to make a single siege weapons out of driftwood (which burns) and mostly die of heat exhaustion in their metal cans.
- The party can have a throw down with the champions of the ork army after sets of skirmishes. In some twisted ork tale of honor, if the two champions of two armies meet, the one set of champions who survives is the winner of the war. Winning will disperse the ork army.
- The party can attempt to oust the useless head of the NPC Knights, one of the erstwhile Dukes but not the Duke of Shoral he was too smart for this, take over the army and actually hold a useful siege. But they won’t get any respect unless their head is also Nobility of King Stephen’s Kingdom.
- The party can get back on boats and fight the pirate menace on the seas. Sooner or later they will meet a Pirate Boss who will give them an epic fight.
- No doubt there’s all sorts of interesting exotic places to explore off the beaten path: other ruins, interesting trade cities with strange cultures, and more clusters of pirates.
The head of the NPC Knights, a Duke of Canet, who claims descent from elves and the royal line of Kings, has little interest in anyone’s advice. He will bat it away with one hand and drink hot wine under a hot sun in another. To him, this is a big party and the longer it lasts, the better. The siege entertains his men and occasionally one of the small skirmishes results in booty. He has to milk this siege in a far away land for all it has.
Regardless, the NPC Knights after a long time of hanging around in tents with bright banners, screwing around, getting each other killed in skirmishes, and generally failing to do anything useful, will eventually tear down their tents, get on boats, and go home. Unless the party manages to take the city and defeat the pirates themselves, the Knights return to Bavoria totally and completely successful in their own minds despite it looking pretty, well, like a huge failure.
But someone wins in all this. Who wins?
- The Doge wins because regardless what happens, the pirates back off a bit giving him a great financial victory which he will use to hire assassins and off members of rival wizarding families.
- The pirates win because they still have their big army, their pirating base, and they made a bunch of knights look like jerks. The tiny war thinned their numbers so the pirates back off for a bit but check out the recruiting propaganda they get in return!
- The party wins because they get to go on cool adventures and take stuff.
King Stephan II gets rolled. Sure, he gets his Knights out of his Kingdom for a while but the Knights didn’t return with much he could put into his treasury. He’s still in debt to the Doge. And his neighbor is still having its own civil war problems and can’t come fight him. But the Doge is thinking of going to war with his neighbor, the Glorious Republic of the Iron Isle and could use some Knights. He’ll be happy to forgive some debt but King Stephen II will have to arm them…
The moral of this long drawn out story: Maybe the old man in the inn giving out adventures doesn’t have the best of intentions. Also, more importantly, wise rulers keep a constant war at the edges of their kingdoms far away from their central cities and bases of power. Campaigns work best when they send adventurers out to the far reaches of civilization. D&D is essentially a western.
As you can probably guess, this was all based on real history of the Crusades which were exactly as dumb as this. And every bit as successful.