Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nest of Spies

So Sun-Lord Chris, Robert the Reaver, and Anthony of the Straits recently launched the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter. I've helped out a tiny bit in manuscript edits and playtesting. In the traditional post-game bull sessions, the topic of the Zone (and its suitability for a pointcrawl treatment) has come up a few times. And I start to think that fully fleshing out the Zone should be my next game design task.

Naturally my inspiration seizes upon something completely different. In this case, it's communications, networks, spies...intrigue.

Kalam and Quick Ben, by Nether83
For this sort of thing, it's really helpful to look at...well, some other Hill Cantons posts - particularly Chris' series on putting together networks, inspired by Top Secret. (Parts OneTwo, and Three; see also putting factions into play here.)

Sanctuary and the local environs are out on the borders of the Asbari Caliphate, certainly. but this does not mean that it's immune from the intrigues that continue to plauge the land. The Calipha assumed the throne ten years ago under suspicious circumstances during the Forsaken War, and the fallout from that transition has not yet been resolved.

Known Political Factions Within Sanctuary
  • The Black Banner opposes the Calipha and her reformist agenda. They suggest that she was responsible for her father's death, and support raising up one of the cadet branches of the family to take the throne in her stead. Mostly composed of old money and older nobles, they don't have too much of a presence in Sanctuary. Jamsheyd "Prune-Face" Rabbani, a major cattle rancher, is their most prominent supporter in the region.  
  • The Spears of Djaida come from a militia raised to defend Sanctuary during the Forsaken War. They strongly support the Calipha for ending the war, and seek to ensure that her reformist ideals are implemented within Sanctuary. They are quite vocal, but perhaps the smallest of the factions within the city (albeit composed mostly of battle-tested veterans). Serit Axe-Hand, a former sergeant, is the most outspoken member of the Spears; she can usually be found leading street demonstrations protesting the latest outrages by the Governor's personal guard.
    Horsemen Waiting to Participate in a Parade
    Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti
  • Since well before the Forsaken War, there has been a growing sentiment that Sanctuary and the western portions of the Caliphate should break free and declare independence. The most recent incarnation of this feeling, Sahabi al-Chai, maintains a vibrant though fractious street presence, and has the readiest access to street toughs and demagogues. Governor al-Hakam has been playing to the Sahabi recently. Boubakar the Tall, known to be punctilious about his truthfulness, leads the Sahabi, and is well respected by all - though perhaps others of the Sahabi less so.
  • The Sons of Marwan are perhaps the most overt of the various factions within Sanctuary, and operate under the thinnest veil of secrecy. Headed by the sage Zouman ibn Zouman, they represent the alchemists, geometers, and wizards of the city. Zouman, the fourth in his family to bear the group's leadership, has been facing pushback on the name from Hafiza bint Noora and the Whisper, female alchemists angered over the name and the institutional hesitancy towards women practitioners. 
  • The official representatives of the Asbari Caliphate are of course the Governor, Mustafa al-Hakam, and the Qadi (judge) of Sanctuary, Lord Abazu the Unsmiling. Governor al-Hakam is but recently arrived from the Calipha's court and is a relative unknown to the people of Sanctuary, but Lord Abazu is very much an institution of the city. His unbending will has recently seen the destruction of the street gang known as the Red-Eyes. While Lord Abazu is seen to be apolitical and above the fray, Governor al-Hakam has had no choice but to enter the political realm. His support from the capital has thinned (particularly as reports of his contacts with the Sahabi al-Chai have filtered back to the court), but popular support has swelled after the recent liberation of the Tower of Horns. 
Lord Abazu the Unsmiling
(photo by Alfred Eisenstadt, "Master of the Hunt")
The many cultures of Seven Cities seethed with symbols, a secret pictographic language of oblique references that carried portentous weight among the natives. Such symbols formed a complex dialogue that no Malazan could understand. Slowly, during his many months resident here, Duiker had come to realize the danger behind their ignorance. As the Year of Dryjhna approached, such symbols blossomed in chaotic profusion, every wall ine very city a scroll of secret code. Wind, sun and rain assured impermanence, wiping clean the slate in readiness for the next exchange. 
-Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates 
And of course, all of this is going to produce lots of spiders.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Webs of Intrigue

Spiders Keep Secrets.
Jumping Spider
Photo by Opo Terser via

No, I know; you thought "web of intrigue" was just a neat catchphrase. But every time a secret is born, a spider emerges from the shadows. It bears the secret, holds on to it, nurtures it and draws strength from it.

When a spider is killed, the secret is lost. If it is destroyed in a single strike, someone, somewhere, gains the knowledge of the secret that it bore. If it is consumed, the being that consumed it will learn its secret. Portions of a dead spider's secret may be recovered and extracted from the pieces of spider that are not obliterated; a shoe striking a small house spider is likely to wipe out most of the secret - if one is lucky, the words "Fahd, the bak-" might be extracted from the legs that were not crushed. On the other hand, giant spiders slain by murderous rovers armed with pointed, and not crushing, weapons might be able to recover more details. And it is often said that the scope of the spider matches the scope of the secret...

The nature of the spider is rumored to have some relation to the type of secret that it bears. Jumping spiders bear secrets of individuals, while those that spin webs bear secrets that touch upon multiple parties. Sages have debated the significance of the number of strands or the size of the web, but no conclusions have been reached.
"Queen of the Demonweb Pits," Justin Gerard

This entire discussion has obvious relevance for some traditional D&D groups, particularly those that might, for instance, have societies based around spiders and place a high premium upon noble intrigues.

In such societies it is considered taboo to harm a spider. Rather than a piece of vanity on the part of a Spider Goddess, however, this is practical advice in the great game of the noble houses. Destroying a spider means that the secret is lost; seducing a spider means that you might be able to convince it to give up its secret. Of course, you'd have to give it a new one in exchange - namely, another spider for it to devour. Gifts of spiders between noble houses are not uncommon - in some cases, they are the secrets of others, traded back and forth, while in others they are secrets of one house being given as a sign of good faith.

The Spider-tailed Adder, whose tail mimics the motion of a spider to attract prey, raises some tantalizing issues... (h/t to Jensen for this one)