The Lich Kings of Avalon – A Campaign Seed for D&D 5e

D&D5 Campaign Seed

This is a campaign seed for a fantasy campaign loosely named “the Lich Kings of Avalon.”

At the height of the King’s power, basking in the glow of victorious battles, wise in years but still spry in body, and a Kingdom at peace, the Necromancer came to Court.  The Necromancer offered the King a simple bargain: he would grant the King and Queen eternal life in return for the Necromancer and his ilk to live openly… plus a nominal fee.  He had arranged financing with the Transmuter Bankers, the Necromancer said, for the magic over several years with reasonable terms – not an issue for a King with infinite time.

The King’s advisors were aghast.   The Clerics of Good railed.  Sire, they said, this is Black Magic. Your soul is in jeopardy!  The Gods oppose working with the Necromancers!  Your ancestor banished them for a reason!  Do not accept this bargain!

The King looked at his second son – his eldest and first Heir dead from disease contracted in battle these ten years past – a boy of ten years who may not live to see fifteen.  His other two living sons were young.  He thought of his forebears who had the good fortune live long and to die slowly of strokes and dementia. Ten years, the King thought, barring his luck holds, until the inevitable downslide.  His beloved Wife and Queen, his wisest councilor, she too would soon fade and pass away.  What would become of his Kingdom?  His great victories?  His lands and treasure?   Would these boys rule and grow his Empire or would they, like all other boys fortunate to inherit peace, squander it all foolishly?

The King banished the Clerics of Good from his Court to go minister to the smallfolk in the Shires. He signed the papers of the damned Transmuter Bankers (so much more evil and terrible than Necromancy with their usury and compound interest and their promises of turning Flesh to Stone for non-payment).  He revoked the law set by his ancestor against establishing a Necromancy Guild in the Capital City.  And he gave the money to the Necromancer.

Afterward, a group of High Lords and Clerics who opposed the King’s choice of entering Undeath planned a coup.  They meant to destroy the thing that was their King and replace him with his ten year old son.  They struck the Palace through the sewers in the blackest night but the King anticipated their actions.  The Diviners had tipped off the Crown and those fortunate plotters who escaped scattered into the countryside. 

Those plotters discovered and identified by the smallfolk of the Shires fell upon them and took it upon themselves to mete out the King’s Justice.  They loved the King and Queen and those who struck against them found a bad end hanging from a gallows in some unmarked barley field.

The Kingdom carried on much like it always had in the reign of the King.  Some feasting moved from the brightness of day to after the night and Government in the Capital began operations later in the day.  The King required more tenting to watch the Jousts and Tournaments.  But the Camelot the King built glittered on its Hill, a beacon of Might and a source of capital.  The small people carried on as they always had, doing business, making money, plowing land, having families and living lives.  The Kingdom found new stability and predictability.  May the King live forever! 

The King elevated the Clerics of Gods of Kingdom and Law to the places in his Court vacated by those of Good and Peace.  He had no interest in nattering priests concerned with his immortal soul when he now had an immortal body.  Freed from the concerns of primogeniture succession, he then settled in to rule for a thousand years just as foretold in legends.  He was now the Once and Future King.

Quietly, the Necromancers opened a chapter house in the Capital City for business.

The first ten years of the Risen King’s reign saw unprecedented expansion and War.  A King with no fear of Death has no fear of battle. And a King with an infinite lifespan has no fear of paying down his war debts. For the Good of Kingdom and Crown, the King reopened War with his neighbors, lead his troops into battle and began a merciless war of conquest.

This could not stand.  The other prosperous Kings (or at least those with a tax base they could squeeze) would not watch idly as this obvious military advantage graced their mortal enemy. While the Risen King raided lands and burned villages, other Kings used their own networks of Diviners and Spies to bore into the Risen King’s Court.  Once the other Kings, too, understood what they needed to do to compete, they reached out to the Necromancer Guild.

These were the salad days for the Necromancers.  Celebrated in Courts and rich with other men’s financed debt, they traveled from Kingdom to Kingdom and Duchy to Duchy to offer the gift to military supremacy through eternal life.  Everywhere the Gods of Good opposed them, but the Necromancers and returning spies pointed out the Kings could supplant the Gods of Good with the Gods of Law and Right and their Kingdoms would be even stronger.  Take the Undeath, finance it through the Transmuter Bankers (always ready with the paperwork), give up one mundane life for a life befit of true Royal Blood, and break your Kingdom from the stranglehold of succession and failure.

Those who could mortgage their Kingdoms did.  But those who could not swiftly became vassal states of Empires.

The Risen King continued to reign a hundred years more with his Queen at his side.  Powerful beyond measure, he ushered in a new Golden Age. His sons grew up, married, grew old, founded Ducal Houses in the Kingdom, and died.  His grandsons grew to adulthood and stepped into the roles once held by his sons.  Soon they too married, grew old, and died.  Great-grandsons did not know a time without the Risen King on the Throne.  Great-great-grandsons were not sure their role in the Crown should the Crown ever fall.  Were they even of Royal Blood any more? What was Royal Blood? 

The Kingdom was always externally at War but always internally at peace.  The threat of Civil War by succession was gone.  There were the other Lich Kings of Avalon to fight, to take their towns, to raid their Empires, for the good of the Kingdom.  Where there was no War, trade and industry flourished.  Where there was War, it was merciless and brutal. 

We are always at War but we are always Winning.  The Gods save the Mighty Risen King!

The Lawful Gods of Might, Stability, and Kingdom supplanted the Gods of Good.  The Necromancers openly spread through every country and Empire. They became wealthy beyond imagining offering legal Turnings to those of High Nobility but never the greatness of the Turnings offered to Kings.  Social class dictated undeath.  Vampires lounged in the Great Courts and convinced the Risen King to pass laws allowing their legal and noble right to feast upon the peasantry and bathe in their blood (the Kingdom has so many we will never miss a few!)  Revenants, once great Generals and now Ever-living, haunted their black suits of armor on the fields of battle.  Undeath became fashionable.

Did Undeath corrupt the minds of the Lich Kings?  They ruled, for good or for ill, as they always did among their Undead Courts.  External to Court politics, the Kingdoms and Empires were much the same.  Was this the king or his succession of advisors, some undead and some the grandsons of his original advisors, maintaining eternal stability and peace within?  Or a blessing of Undeath? 

And did it matter?

The Once and Future King had returned to all the Great Courts of the World.  May the Lich Kings of Avalon rule forever!

The Murder Hobos of Avalon  

It is not entirely obvious from the outset that the undead run the Kingdom.  Much of the truth of the dealings with Kings and necromancers never became popular knowledge outside a few Government officials, High Nobles and highly ranked Clerics. The Crown’s propagandists long persuaded the populace the King’s unnaturally and bizarrely long life is a blessing to the Kingdom.  Sure no one sees the Queen much any more in public.  The King rides through towns in the countryside in an enclosed carriage.  He sits under his special tenting at his tournaments. In armor, the King appears with his visor closed and that dark visage around him is simply his God-given powers over Men and Dwarf and Gnome and Half-elf manifesting.

Besides, the doings of Kings, Dukes and Earls are so far removed from the lives of the villages they might as well be on another planet. For most people, as long as the Kingdom carries on and doesn’t bother them, they support their King.  Only through slowly peeling back the onion skins of lies and deceit surrounding the King and his Court does the horrible Truth finally emerge.

The War against the Risen King is a Shadow War.  The Risen King is too powerful to fight in the fields army to army in great cavalry charges.  Freedom from eternal peace and stability and life given back to the Living requires plots, spies, plans, assassinations, and murder.  It needs dubious Murder Hobos.

Who Fights the Risen King?

The Risen King enjoys broad based support throughout his entire realm. Few will publicly raise their fist against him lest they be dragged off and properly lynched.  But some would like the Kingdom – and all Kingdoms ruled by the Undead – returned to the hands of the true Living, even if it means enduring the chaos of succession.

* The Vassalized Kingdoms subjugated mercilessly by the Risen King as part of his Eternal Empire are not ruled by undead. They are not great and glittering Kingdoms on a hill. Their Courts are not filled with overdressed Vampires and the occasional Wraith.  These are the tax base for the Risen King’s eternal war, kept poor and forced to the soil so the King can squeeze pennies from their blood. They remember a time before the Risen King and the other Kingdoms of the World.  They remember when Necromancers were evil and not celebrated wizards and advisors to great Courts.  They remember when the Gods of Good were not hunted to the edges of the World.

However, representatives of the Vassalized Court who may or may not harbor their own dreams of attaining eternal life of a sort for themselves. Outwardly their motives are noble – freedom from oppression for their people – but inwardly they want what the Risen King has: power.  If they destroy enough of the undead Lords and seize their lands, they, too, could treat with the Necromancers.

*  Underground Clerics of the Gods of Neutral and Chaotic Good.  While some of the Gods of Peace, Hearth, and Home are unequipped to fight Courts of Undead, many Good Clerics follow Gods of Light and Nature.  Gods of Light may provide warmth and light when all around is dark but they can also burn the Undead with focused laser fire.  Nature has horns and teeth. The King’s Agents may have pursued these Clerics to the edges of the Kingdom and forced then underground but these Clerics still hold their sermons in homes in the Shires of those who hold to the Old Ways.  

* Great-grandsons of the Risen King who want their Blood Right as King.  Via primogeniture they claim the right of the Throne and Kingship but a long dead King occupies their Throne.  They have money and their have their Ducal Lands but they want the Throne and are willing to open a bloody war to get it.  Problem is there is now more than one of their little group who also can claim the Throne. Backing one Great-Grandson may mean opening Civil War with another.

* Agents of other Lich Kings of Avalon pretending to be employed with the Vassalized Kingdoms or the Gods of Light.  The Wars have long stagnated between Kingdoms and the only way for one Kingdom to gain an upper hand over another is for a Lich King to find a quick True Death at the hands of enterprising Murder Hobos. That way, the other Kingdom’s hands are clean, a Kingdom falls into complete Chaos, and the War shifts from equilibrium and into another Lich King’s Court. 

In the hundred years of stability, stagnation and growth, Kingdoms have had plenty of time to work out the kinks in their elaborate spy and Divination networks. All they need is to make a move.  In the name of Good and Freedom.  

* Enemies of the Necromancers who want their little Guild closed down, them removed from world Courts, and cast back into the Shadows.  While they rarely dabble in undeath themselves, they are the peddlers of the high fashion of the nobility.  They bring eternal life to the Courts and guarantee endless War and Empire. Destroying the purveyors of undeath will begin to free the world from their pernicious presence.  But they are rich and powerful and have high up friends and will not go down without a fight.

* Relatives of those murdered and fed to the Undead Courts for their blood feasts to maintain their eternal lives.  One of those vicious Earl Vampires ate a wife, a son, a family in wartime – legally.  The endless cruelty and evil must come to an end and the lives of the dead revenged in Holy, Purifying Light.

* Demons of Chaos and Hell who want their souls brought to them in payment for services rendered.  Eventually that bill for eternal life comes due and the demons want their flesh. The Necromancers may or may not have mentioned this part. Sometimes they forget.

* Transmuter Bankers who want their debts paid in full and are willing to have eternal life forcefully removed from a client and liquidate those estates to get it.

* Disciples of Chaos who simply want to watch it all burn for their own glorious financial gain.

The fight against the Risen King is a long slog.   One cannot merely walk into the Court and kill a century old King.  Besides, many have tried. One needs to get through his layers of protection, chip away at his support, and murder his most powerful vassals before coming face to face with the King.  And, in the mayhem aftermath, there are 10 more Kings out there just like him. 

Law vs. Good

This is a story designed to turn the normal fantasy Good-Evil axis on its side and ride along the Law-Chaos axis. If you want to turn this campaign seed into an actual campaign, the recommendation for constructing the first few sessions is:

1. Start the players off in an oppressed vassalized Kingdom saving villages from standard orcs and trolls and leveling;

2. Encountering clerics of Good and Light to spin out their tale of being banished to the edges of oblivion;

3. Come to the attention of Agents – either of the Vassalized Kingdom or an enemy Kingdom – and employ the Murder Hobos to destroy an undead lesser Noble Lord and let them figure out how to accomplish that task; 

4. Leave clues that the undead conspiracy goes all the way down.

After this, it is more about PC choice than unspooling a complex plot. Preference is to making all the “Good Guys” appear Good with loads of dark Neutral Evil motives.  The Undead Courts and the King are, without a doubt, undead, but only some of them are evil.  But this is only a suggestion – don’t run campaigns on rails.   

The Risen King entered this contract with the best of intentions; these Kings and High Lords are the disciples and Saints of the Gods of Law.   Do the Neutral Gods care if their most powerful agents in the Realms are dead as long as their power extends down to the smallest freeloader and feeblest villein?  Law is a powerful construct.  It crafts Governments, it holds together Kingdoms,and it pumps life into sprawling Empires.  The Risen King has provided stability for his people and might against his enemies. If a Lawful Good God must face outcomes that expands his Domain in spite of embracing some Evil, does he send in the Murder Hobo death squads anyway?  

Yes, those filthy fashionable Vampires of the Risen King’s Court are ridiculously evil but they were ridiculously evil when they were alive. If the PC choice is to go after the Risen King and kill his Undead Court in the name of Good, remember this is also in the service of Chaos.  The Vassalized and oppressed home Kingdom will definitely be freed in the aftermath of disturbing a century of expansion and stability.  And maybe that is a victory condition for the PCs.   They will leave a Civil War in their wake.

Lay out the philosophical dilemma, provide the choices to the PCs and see what happens.

Writer’s Note: Big thanks to Beth McCoy and family for providing me with this idea!  It’s a good one.  Also I listened to tons of White Zombie while writing this.

I started constructing this as a D&D5e campaign and now I wonder if it isn’t better as a weird sort of Night’s Black Agents Fantasy game or a Dungeon World game.  Running this with Gumshoe would take some interesting rejiggering of the system to make it work but it’s loose enough to fit into most molds.  And of course Dungeon World would allow the players to “fail up.”

Featured Image by Lorc under CC BY 3.0

The High Price of Fantasy Kingdom Wars or Your Lawful Good King is a Dick

Hordes of Orks mass on the border of a far-away kingdom. They rampage, causing horrors and havoc.  The tales of the Bards are full of terrors.

Your King is a man who styles himself after King Arthur: Good and Proud and Right and Just.  In peacetime, he rules over his self-styled Camelot, a place of feasts and jousts and general hugging.  The King’s Lawful and Neutral Good advisors council the right thing to do for a Good and Just King is to take the war to the Orks and save those distant people.  The religious authorities, representing Lawful and Neutral Good Gods, explain the Orks worship Gods of war, blood and death.  Righteousness dictates the King must defend peace and love from the horrors of the Other.

The King half-listens to his council drone on. Meanwhile, he envisions himself in future Bardic tales as an authentic Arthurian Upgrade.  No longer a myth, future Kings – no doubt descended from his blood line – will take inspiration from his great victories, War in his name, style their Courts after his Courts, and rule as he ruled.  They will tell tales of him, a better, more shining, and more awesome Monarch.  He can march his great armies out to the fields, do war on the Orks, and return home, covered in Glory.  As a bonus, he gets to murder some Orks.

The King tells his advisors he has decided to go to War.  Make it so.

Rule #1: Wars Cost Money

Wars are expensive.  They are really expensive.  They are mindboggling expensive.

The Crown must shell out for the following, at minimum:

  • Provisions for a large army;
  • Equipment for whatever part of the army belongs to the Crown;
  • Transportation for a large army, including ships;
  • Siege weaponry of various sizes;
  • Bribes to Noblemen to convince them going to War in some far off land is a good idea and they should pack up their armies;
  • Bribes to Highly Prized Murder Hobos (re: PCs) to convince them to fight with the Army instead of randomly attacking it;
  • Bribes to other Kingdoms to allow the King’s Army to pass through;
  • Bribes to Pirates just because;
  • General paying off anyone who happens to demand money for services, like re-provisioning armies in the field.

Medieval-based fantasy armies are not run solely by the King. Instead, he forms the the army from a loose confederation of private armies consisting of Lords, mercenaries, pirates, high level Murder Hobos, wizards, and the occasional group of hyper-powerful Good-aligned clerics.  The King must convince/cajole/bribe all these people – especially his feudal Lords – this War is a good idea, in their best interest, they should come along and bring 3000 of their closest, most heavily armed friends. 

“About five hundred thousand gold coins at the minimum,” the beleaguered Treasury Secretary says to the King right before the guards arrest him for uttering that number out loud.

Nevermind the real cost of running the Kingdom left in the hands of someone arguably competent – perhaps the Queen if the Kingdom is lucky, or the King’s highly ambitious second son if not – as the King and his first son go off to War.  Kingdoms even in peacetime are expensive.  Kingdoms built roads, ran government and judicial systems, maintained castles, kept military readiness, bribed churches and paid interest on the loans from the last war.

That last one is the fiddly bit.  If the Kingdom is flush, this War with the Orks is doable.  But the hard reality is Kingdoms, unless large and with a stable economic base, are rarely flush because Kings keep looting their economic base for cash to run their Wars.

Rule #2: The King must Fund His War

The money has to come from somewhere because it’s certainly not in the Treasury.  Luckily, the King and the Crown follows a convenient Kingdom Looting Script faithfully.

1. Squeeze the Peasants.  Always start with squeezing those who are the least equipped to fight back.  However, these are also the least equipped to have any money.  Also, the local Lord of the land gets ticked off when his peasants are over-squeezed because then they cannot buy food, they starve to death and they die. Dead peasants cannot harvest the local fields so the Lord cannot sell his produce and cannot make any money.  That money goes to paying for the Lord’s private army which he needs to go out into the field and follow the King for glory.  

“No can do,” says the Lord. “You already looted my peasants so I cannot afford my man-at-arms or pay for more Murder Hobos.  Good luck fighting those orks!”

Worse, if the King insists on squeezing the peasants and insists on forcing Lords to follow him to War without something in it for them, the Lords will find a bored King’s Brother they suddenly like more who taxes their peasants less. The Kingdom falls into Civil War.  Everyone gets distracted. 

Besides, the Churches of Goodness tend to object – something about their Gods not being so keen on kicking peasants in the name of Good.  So that strategy has limited effectiveness.

2. Squeeze the Local Minorities.  Squeezing the local conclaves for Elves or Gnomes for cash can result in some decent returns. (1) They rarely don’t have Lords protecting them and they worship weird Gods.  Sure their Gods might also be Lawful and Neutral Good but they have no God Representation in Court so they totally don’t count.  The King can squeeze them as much as he wants and no one will jump to their defense.

Problem here is there are so few of them.  Funny thing, every time the King wants to go to War, the Crown squeezes their communities for cash and, after a few cycles of this, they pack up and find somewhere a little less squeezy. Maybe those Orks out on the frontier… they heard about them.  Let’s try those guys.

3. Squeeze the Rich People.  Arguably, squeezing the towns has the best possible returns. They don’t contribute to the overall war effort. They are loaded. Guilds are nothing but little money fountains and, besides, how did these non-noble and non-royal jumped up peasants get so much money in the first place?

Except many of these guys are both smarter than the average government tax collector and wizards.  Funny, they get Bards to perform for them, too, (2) and they heard the tales.   By time the government tax collectors show up on their doorstep demanding extravagant tax hikes and payments to the Crown, the money has long been off-shored.  

“Sorry, man,” they say.  “Our money is allll tied up in banks in off-shore accounts and in the businesses.  Wizard bankers, you know. Maybe if we didn’t have to pay for our own personal Murder Hobos to protect our stuff when we transport it to market we’d have more money to give you.  Good luck with the Orks!”

The King also has a bit of it-goes-around-comes-around with taxing the rich people.  He squeezes them for cash and then turns around and pays them all the taxes back – with a markup to make a profit – when he then needs to purchase dried provisions in massive bulk to feed his armies in the field. 

4. Squeeze Religious Institutions.  The King cannot send the Crown after the Good and Neutral Good religions supporting his cause.  It wouldn’t be right and besides, he needs them to contribute clerics to his cause. 

But surely, his Kingdom is full of Neutral and even Evil Temples to Gods.  Aren’t there some out of work Murder Hobos around here?   How would they like to make some cash and magic items on the side while extracting some “taxation” from the local Temple of Complete Evil and its followers?   It’s Evil!  It says right on the side of the building!  Sure it’s not hurting anyone and it was named in a sense of great and hilarious irony but it has a treasury room and the King needs to pay his Lords and start buying provisions.

That works to help flush out the war budget but the Kingdom only has so many Temples of Complete Evil.  There’s a serious Evil per square mile crunch which keeps this tactic from being a major contributor to the financial war footing.  Once the War is over, the Crown will need to work with religious leaders to lure more Evil to his land, surreptitiously of course, so the Crown can send Murder Hobos to loot it for future wars. 

5. A Loan from Wizard Bankers.  Oh God. Wizards.

The Transmuter Bankers have the entire half million gold pieces up front and ready to loan to His Majesty with a nice 20% interest rate. Wizards have no time for talk from preachy Clerics about the evil of usury and the horrors placed upon Kingdoms by those who would charge interest rates.  Besides the terms state the loan is payable over an incredible time span.   HIgh-level wizards have nothing but time. Take your time. We will get our money.

And if the Kingdom misses a payment?  Why, the Wizards have Teleport and Disintegration.  And hell, maybe in some future upcoming Civil War they will happily give loans to the other side who will, of course, promise to pay.

In the end, the King has to go with the wizards.  He signs on the bottom line. 

Now the King has money.  He has pissed off Lords, angry peasants ready to revolt, uncooperative religious institutions, fleeing minority groups, rich merchants making a fast buck, and wizards.  But he has money!  He can go off to Glory!

Rule #3: The Local Glory is Faster and Cheaper than Heroic Glory Far Away

It takes nine months to muster the entire military, arrange any Naval support, secure passage with bribes, and procure enough rations to march in Glory in the Far Off Land of the Orks.  But march they do with the King at the head of the line, his shining son the White Prince next to him, banners fluttering in the air, Cleric tunics all nice and white, and accompanied by singers and drummers.

First, the food runs out.  It goes bad. It gets wet. The baggage train washes away in a river.  But this isn’t a problem.  Surely those villages along the route will throw the entire army a grand feast fit for a King!  And if they do not, they are evil and we must destroy and loot and add their grain stores to the baggage train.

If looting peasant villages along the way doesn’t keep the army fed, then looting peasant fields certainly will.  Those cows over there are now the King’s cows. Those peasant fields are now the King’s fields.   Nevermind that perhaps these are the lands of a different King. We are saving the world from Orks!   The Orks are Evil!  Loot those cows!  Bring the King a steak!  On the rare-side, please, with a nice merlot.

Second, the murder hobo and mercenaries wander off.  Murder Hobo and mercenary companies will stick around a long time as long as the King keeps them fed and housed and there’s something to fight. Looting, pillaging and burning the occasional peaceful peasant village is tons of fun and they make all kinds of money.  And they can justify it to their Lawful and Neutral Good employers – that village was housing a portal to the Underdark.   And that village over there secretly worshipped a Dark God.  The third had a dragon if you can believe that!  It was a tiny dragon with only a teeny horde but it was a dragon they swear.  It had killing coming to it. 

Eventually, the army begins to unravel and the mercenary companies find something better and more profitable to do with their time.  They leave in the night with not even a forwarding address.

Third, the local Kingdom is easier to invade than the far off Kingdom of Orks.  After all the King is passing through some foreign Kingdom with a large and well-manned army.  He needs money to pay off those damn Wizard Bankers.  And if he adds some territory to his Crown, he grows his Kingdom’s dominions and tax base.  Then he can pay for more Wars which brings him more glory and adds to his Arthurian mystique.  Then he can really take the war to those Orks.

Besides, those Orks aren’t going anywhere.  They will still be there in a few extra months, right?   This is only a small diversion.

The King comes up with some claim on the local Throne through his father’s sister’s husband’s cousin allowing him to press for legal Du Jure rights over the land.  He claims Kingship of the local environs for himself.

The King declares War.  The clerics get to some hard core proselytizing to the local devastated populace in the names of their Lawful and Neutral Good gods. Everyone believes the war will last four months.  This war lasts the next 40 years.  But that is a future problem for future people.

Naturally, the cities of the invaded Kingdom in question had plenty of warning and prepared for siege.  They are well provisioned.   The cities have Walls and the occasional Evoker Wizard with a single, well-placed fireball.  But hey, the mercenaries have stopped wandering off, the King’s Lords are gaining glory, and as cities fall, it adds to the war chest to pay back the pernicious loans.  Everything is coming up King.

It’s a super bummer when one of those well-placed fireballs kills the King.  Too bad the army burned all their diamonds of resurrection paying for food to keep up the siege.  Now the guy is toast.  Literally. 

The King is dead, long live the King, may his son, the White Prince, rule long and well!

Rule #4: The Orks are Done Rampaging

A large portion of the army stays behind to help hold the newly taken lands won in their war.  A few mercenaries get lucky and declare themselves Lords of castle they take giving themselves promotions.  Yet, some bedraggled portion of the King’s original army, lead by the White Price, with some mercenaries, murder hobos and clerics, after years of pillaging, adventures, sieges, war and mayhem, will stagger to the great Outer Kingdom where the Orks rampage just as the Bards told.  

Or were rampaging.  At the looks of the place, either the Orks are all rampaged out or the people of the local Kingdom put up one hell of a resistance.  Either way, it’s kind of quiet here now and the Orks settled back down.  Would have been nice if someone had, say, established an early outpost and sent messages back or something. 

Although there’s certainly other interesting local wars to get involved in. You know, with the Orks. They now have this little Kingdom of their own that can contribute land and glory to the Kingdom.  They have established treaties with some other local small kingdoms made of formerly oppressed minority groups. Other murder hobo-based trading companies are already here making some quick cash. And the wizards are offering the Orks war loans at great rates.

“But it’s sort of a shame to waste the last of this army and these loyal Lords,” the White Prince, now the White King, says to the last of his circle of advisors, now including a particular Murder Hobo group. “Besides, the Clerics still insist their Gods tell us Orks are evil.” With that, he follows out his original mission and declares War on the Orks.  In they charge for one last great battle!

The White King’s ransom is enough to firmly financially establish the Ork Kingdom.

The Glorious Conclusion to the Great War Against the Orks

It’s a shame about the King and his son the White Prince nee’ King but everyone comes out pretty well in the end in this story. 

History celebrates the King, who died in glorious battle, as a great and noble chivalric King who died a warrior’s death, just like Arthur.  His legend grows every year helped along by opportunistic bards who swear they don’t get kickbacks from the Crown. 

The White King finally staggers home after being ransomed and is also hailed as a great hero and King until he, too, gets killed in a particularly ironic way and opens civil war between his brother and the supporters of the White King’s son. 

The Kingdom fights to keep its not-entirely-legally-taken-lands for 40 years which presents young Lords many opportunities for glory cheaper and closer to home.  The people of these lands are not as thrilled.  Eventually the Kingdom loses those lands in a series of bungled sieges lead by the King’s great-grand-nephew.

The Kingdom never pays off its loans.  Instead it refinances the debt so many times it becomes the basis of their own major banking system.

Orks grow enough financially to expand their borders aggressively and spend hundreds of years in fun pitched battle with other Kingdoms willing to economically exhaust themselves.  They figured out not all evil comes from butchering the local populace.  

The expanding Ork Kingdom gives the Lawful and Neutral Good churches a tasty shibboleth to rail against which brings in the donations and the volunteers for their swelling ranks of clerics.

The Wizard Bankers make a mint off interest rates and all this economic activity.

The Merchants make enough to fill the banker’s coffers by war profiteering.

And our friends, the Murder Hobos, through all the years of adventures and wars and sieges and small dragons and Orks and pillaging, make 20th level.

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Writer’s Note: This is all based on some very real fun the French had in the midst of the 100 Year War when they all got bored of losing to the English and went on Crusade against a burgeoning Ottoman Empire and completely collapsed at the Battle of Nicopolis.  The Turks found the Crusade of Nicopolis “hilarious.” There’s some callbacks to the Peruzzi’s who lost their shorts financing Kings.  If only they had disintegration spells…

(1) This is why Elven parents tell their children not to venture out into the human world.  Somewhere out there somewhere there’s some Good and Just King who will come along and take their stuff for better Good and Justness.   The Dark Elves don’t hide in the Underdark because they’re evil; they’re just tired of human taxation policy. 

(2) Bards will perform for anyone, especially if they are spies. Perhaps spies in the employ of a Kingdom of Orks.

The Great Failure of History Theory

Textbook writers lard up High School history books with the Great Man of History Theory.  This theory states that every once in a while a Great Man appears on the scene and with his overwhelming Greatness and Amazing Good Looks pushes history along its course.  The rest of humanity is merely Styrofoam packing peanuts on history’s great froth, unable to do anything or make anything or build anything for ourselves until this Great Player Character of History comes along.  Humanity is the packaging to the Great Man’s super cool deliverable into the stream of time.

Naturally, Great Men are men, white, Western European, flawless of complexion (nary a zit to be found), tall, and with a full head of hair. Unless the Great Man in question is Napoleon. Then they are white Western European men free of acne with amazing hair whose great contribution to history is not the conquest of Western Europe but the uproariously hilarious lack of stature.  Dude was short!  And an Emperor! A short Emperor! Can you believe it?      

The Great Man theory has all sorts of obnoxious and occasionally pernicious effects – a belief than no woman contributes to the overall arc of humanity’s story, a strain of thought which fetishizes “Great Men,” and a mindset of built-in helplessness of humanity’s masses. When the dragon comes to the village,the villagers won’t go get their bows and pikes and take care of their problem; the villagers summon a Hero to rescue them and cower in their homes. When the kingdom faces a great problem, it’s the King who solves it, and never the annoyed wool merchants and clerics and advisors who sit the King down and explain in Parliament how this is going to be solved.  The great generals save the country and the day.  

This is all kind of silly.

Anyone who spends five minutes reading a history book with any depth quickly discovers this theory is garbage.  It’s arguably worse than bad because it presents a view of history where people are helpless against it.  Historians counter the Great Man Theory of History with a more anthropological view.  History is a story of people, movements, thoughts, and adoption of technological change. Historical figures appear like air bubbles rising to the surface of a great sea of change and pop on the mighty timeline of humanity.

This makes somewhat more sense assuming history is a process of economics, people, thought, and change coming together to create a continuous narrative.  And it does match an awful lot of human history.  But it doesn’t explain some of the more pernicious pressures of change usually caused by someone being some kind a dumbass.

I put forth for comment the Great Failure Theory of History.  It states:

At any time or any point in history, a person or group of people will rise to the occasion to fuck up, pull acts of epic douchebaggery or otherwise completely fail at critical junctures when people would really rather prefer a little bit of competence. This opens up opportunities for great change usually to the determent of everyone else and/or someone showing up to clean up the mess. 

This predicates the course of history is gloriously failure-based. History is less defined by the heroic efforts of Great Men but by the incredible and jaw-dropping screw-ups of individuals and collective groups of people.  Usually with pre-meditated intent.

Three examples just to get the mental meat juices moving:

1.  In 1347, the Mongols put the city of Kaffa in the Crimea under siege.  When the Mongol Khan of the Golden Horde, Jani Beg, came down with Yersina pestis, his army had the bright idea to take bodies dead from plague and fling them over the city walls.  Genoans, knowing when it’s a good time to bug out, fled back to Genoa. Too bad their ships were loaded with rats.

Two years later, uncounted millions were dead.  Feudalism was over. 50 years later, Europe would Reboot and start a new operating system called the “Early Modern Age.”  Thanks army of Jani Beg!  You guys are the best.

2. This year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta which brings to mind King John Lackland, a King such magnificent failure in history Disney animated him as a confused, scrawny, scared lion. (At least he was voiced by Peter Ustinov, which is something.)  Never expecting to lead men he never bothered to learn how to become a leader of men.  In a time when all disputes were settled by particularly pointy pieces of metal, John enjoyed law, legislation and the occasional bout of vicious drunken murder.

He was a French guy who lost a big chunk of Normandy and was now stuck running a hostile island full of blood-thirsty Anglo-Norman lords and pissed off, heavily armed Welsh.  To get back the Empire he managed to lose, he needed an army.   Anglo-Norman lords laughed at the little Norman who misplaced his entire country. They weren’t going to fight for John. He needed mercenaries and mercenaries require cash.  So he squeezed everyone for cash – Lords, monks, merchants in the nascent wool industry,regular people.   The Pope, a bit pissy, put the entire island under Interdict for three years so no one was allowed a burial until John begged back into the Pope’s graces. And John blew all that money and didn’t even manage to get Normandy back. 

Sick of this crap, the Lords forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and give up absolute his ultimate unquestionable Feudal Lordship.  Sure, the Pope threw out the Magna Carta immediately but by 1225 it was English Law.   Funny thing, though… it was written to only apply to Lords but the Anglo Saxon populace with their non-French idea of freedoms thought it applied to them and it became a fact.   Thanks John for being terrible at Kinging!   

3. One would think the bomb that bounced off the open car, rolled into a group of bystanders and exploded would be a hint to Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia on June 28th, 1914.  Maybe get inside.  Get some actual security protection.  Abort the rest of the day’s schedule.  Don’t drive around a highly heated and well-armed Sarajevo in an open car.  Instead, Franz Ferdinand gave his speech in public while his car still dripped with blood and core.  And then, they decided to go tour hospitals with injured soldiers. When they got lost, turn down a blind alleyway where karma caught up with them.

Even with Archduke Ferdinand dead, WWI didn’t need to happen.  Maybe if Kaiser Wilhelm II was a teeny bit better at leading his empire and less freaked out about competing with his English cousins on Who Is Most Imperialist.  He didn’t need to declare war on Russia, start a two front war and activate the chain of alliances.  It could have been a regional war between Austria and the Balkins.

But no.  WWI is a entire chain of people making terrible decisions.  Especially Winston Churchill’s disaster in Gallipoli which lead to much of the mess in the modern Middle East…  Sure it broke Europe with the old world and ushered in the 20th century but the cost of hubris is high.

Spend five minutes thinking about almost any event in history, dig around and find the idiot or great movement of idiots standing right behind it going: ”Oops.”

Quick Thoughts about Gaming Hooks

When we write settings and stories for games, they tend toward Great Men.  The hero saves the day.  The old king wisely rules his Kingdom. Problems are solved with the use of force, pointy bits of metal, and a fireball. Get the power-up and win the game.  Tie up the loose ends neatly with no messy consequences.

Success is fleeting but delicious failure is forever.  Stories evolve from messy details, wrong choices, going left when one should have gone right, and staying outside after an attack instead of sensibly taking cover.  We can learn from history – the lessons our history teacher never wanted us to learn. Failure is fun. Failure creates narrative.  Failure makes space for so-called opportunistic Heroes to appear.  Failure brings the low up and the high low.  Failure creates huge opportunities for change.

And most of human history is run by people being humanly stupid.

So… 

1. Big failure is way more cool than an endless string of success.  Success ends the story.  Let the party fail. Not fatally. Just enough to cause themselves more headaches which turn into more story with more consequences.  This turns into story.

2. Trying to clean up the mess from the original failure often results in even more failure.  Let that one sink in for a while, and then roll with it.  

3. Someone out there looks and smells like a super competent Hero with shiny perfect teeth and immaculate hair. People love him and will follow him.  That guy is the villain.

4. Historically, women in seats of authority are uber-competent because they schemed for it and earned it.   Men, not so much.  Kings refuse to King.  Generals lead armies into blind canyons. Great Leaders launch bloody and fruitless wars over dick-measuring competitions.  The quietly competent woman is a thousand times more dangerous than the slicked hair Super Hero.  She’s probably the one who deployed the Hero in the first place.

5. Perception of the past is what wins.  Whatever people want to believe happened is what is recorded and what happened. Truth? My reality is way more cool than yours.

History is the story of the failure of great and powerful people.  The more power, the bigger the unintended consequences.  We can learn a bit and work this inspiration back into gaming narrative for the good of us all.