StoryCraft is a new section of Ancient Scroll website where we will publish adventure ideas written exclusively for us by famous RPG authors. Robin D. Laws agreed to be the first host of this section. Look for new adventures in StoryCraft every two weeks.
Genre: fantasy (dark historical)
Springboard: During one period of the Byzantine Empire, it was legally permissible to enslave shipwreck victims when they washed up on one’s shores. If that same group of people made it safely to the pier on an intact vessel, they were entitled to the full legal protection. Nor could slavers cause the ship to founder. But if it did, they were permitted, upon rescuing the survivors, to clap them in irons and sell them. By a wrinkle of fate, their prior status was erased, and they became human commodities.
Or so says Edward Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Later scholars have debunked many of the claims made in his then-impeccably sourced, pioneering historical work. For its current purposes as a roleplaying adventure seed, let’s call this particular fact too good to check.
Setting: Set this adventure in your fantasy world’s closest equivalent of the Byzantine Empire. This surviving annex of a once-great empire that has elsewhere fallen and been replaced by later, localized forms of national government. It might be as decadent and ossified as the Byzantine Empire remains in our popular imagination (thanks in no small part to Gibbon), or, as would be closer to historical reality, the still-thriving continuation of a mighty tradition.
For the purpose of this article, let’s give the empire the placeholder name of Zanthos.
There, legalism trumps all. Questions of good, evil, or even logic matter not a whit. If it’s in the law books, it’s right. Whatever reason the empire once had for allowing the shipwrecked to be enslaved has long since been forgotten. Now the practice justifies itself.
Premise: The wealthy merchant Aranios Ermanum contacts the group, perhaps through one of its past clients. He bases himself in a port city that does business with Zanthos. If that also fits the description of the PCs’ home base, so much the better.
Aranios has received word that the Hawk’s Crest, a ship bearing his daughter Hajada and her guardian Gonderim, has been wrecked off the shore of Zanthos, near the fishing village of Chalast. Though it is possible that both perished in the disaster, Aranios knows the Zanthosian laws of enslavement only too well. He engages the PCs to go to Chalast and find out if his daughter lives. If she’s been taken as a slave, they’re to buy her freedom. Should her owner balk at this, they are to rescue her by force. And if anyone has mistreated her, they are to wreak vengeance of equal cruelty.
(In a morally ambiguous setting, Aranios might himself have traded in slaves, including those captured on Zanthosian shores. He may conceal this information, making him seem shifty, or prostrate himself in remorse. Choose according to what you guess will be the more interesting response from your players.)
Unless your fantasy world includes the magical equivalent of modern telecommunications, it has taken several months for word of the wreck to reach Aranios, and will take several weeks for the PCs to reach Chalast. Barring their own wondrous means of transport, they travel on Aranios’ fastest ship, the schooner Far Arrow.
As Far Arrow nears the coast of Chalast, the ship is attacked by a sea monster, such as a kraken. To avoid being wrecked themselves, they must kill the creature. Now they understand what has been causing the wrecks. If it sinks the Far Arrow before they slay it, it eats a few sailors but misses them. They drift to shore on the wreckage and must fight the men who come rushing out to capture them as slaves.
Slavers of Chalast
Even with a sea creature causing regular wrecks, the slavers of Chalast don’t capture slaves full-time. They’re just a particularly well-armed and martial group of local fishermen, who take victims opportunistically. Against dazed, half-drowned victims they do as well as they need to. Knowing their limitations, they’re not looking for a scrap with well-equipped adventurers. They’ll only attack if the PCs wash up onshore after a losing battle with the sea monster. Should the slavers win, the adventurers must regain their freedom in a subsequent escape sequence.
Remind forgetful players that these men are engaged in a legal activity and can’t be slaughtered with impunity—not unless the team wants to make its way through Zanthos as fugitive outlaws.
With a little persuasion—perhaps in monetary form—the slavers reveal their buyer, a woman named Uslada, who works out of the main slave market in the imperial capital.
After spectacle, pomp, weird local color, and opportunities for the PCs to get mixed up in tangential encounters that express their personalities, they attend a slave auction and find a way to make Usladi want to talk with them.
Afraid of the man who bought Hajada, Usladi fudges the truth, claiming that she sold both the girl and her guardian to a scribe named Irnoc. They might sense this and somehow pressure her to tell the whole story, allowing them to skip to the Wizard’s Catacomb.
Gonderim, a proud old man, has been sold to a cruel bookseller, Irnoc, who forces him to copy manuscripts for resale. He’s already been badly beaten for resisting his new owner. Do the adventurers make trouble for themselves in the city by rescuing him, or, because it’s not their mission to save him, coldly let him rot?
Either way, he saw who bought poor Hajada—a weird, stooped man who covered his face in bandages. Everyone around him was clearly terrified of him. His name was Somphor.
The Wizard’s Catacomb
Asking around, the group learns that Somphor is a three-hundred year old sorcerer. Not even the Emperor dares cross him. All of Zanthos would be grateful, however, if some fool foreigner bravely killed him. Somphor occupies what used to be the funerary catacombs beneath the city, and has populated it with thugs and monsters.
Horror, or Glory?
After as long or short a dungeon-bash as you require, the group comes face to face with Somphor.
Whether he survives the climactic encounter or not, they learn that his immortality magics were wearing out, and that he intended to become a lich. He took Hajada to have a concubine for all eternity. This entails a terrible sorcerous experiment to turn her into a monstrous, undying creature.
In an escapist fantasy world, they arrive with the experiment still in progress, and are able to stop it.
In a dark world, she has already been transformed, and begs for the mercy of death.
Or you can leave it up to the success of the characters in combat—do they stop the machinery during the fight, or watch helplessly as it lowers her into the bubbling vat that will make her a monster?
AUTHOR: Robin D. Laws
Robin designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Upcoming projects include Hillfolk, the first game using the DramaSystem RPG rules for personal interaction, and his eight novel, Blood of the City, available August 2012 from Paizo‚s Pathfinder Tales line. There Goes My Dream Job, the second volume of his comic strip, The Birds, is now available from Pelgrane Press.