Wednesday, April 17, 2019

O is for Oligarch

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

O is for Oligarch. I had a few other thoughts on what "O" might stand for...things like Order of the Griffon or Offensive Stereotypes. But this one seemed like a better fit for a "revamp," thus keeping with my theme.

[going to try to make this a short post, as I've got a lot on my plate today]

In the city of Specularum, capitol of Karameikos, three Great Families struggle for power, wealth, and influence. Identified by their family name, they are Radu, Torenescu, and Vorloi.

These families, and the basic concept of their conflict, was first introduced in adventure module B6: The Veiled Society. I've owned my copy of this adventure since it was first published in 1984; it may have been the last published adventure module I ever purchased new, until 2nd edition's Return to White Plume Mountain (which is the absolute LAST Dungeons & Dragons adventure module I ever purchased new, off-the-shelf). I have an absolutely enormous collection of modules these days, but most have been picked up from used bookstores and bins, and at least a couple from eBay or similar.

B6: The Veiled Society was written by Dave Cook, co-author of the B/X Expert set and an adventure writer of whom I've spoken highly in the past. Unfortunately, B6 is not his best work; I haven't gotten nearly the mileage out of it that I have of works like Isle of Dread, Forbidden City, or even Blizzard Pass (whose small, non-solo dungeon I've used as an introductory adventure on numerous occasions).  GusL's review is pretty spot on, but as written the module may be even worse than that: take out the gimmicky cut-outs (which I've never bothered to assemble/use) and you're left with a 12 page adventure, most of which is box text or snippets of fiction. The adventure itself is next to requires new adventurers to care about a murder mystery without providing anything in the way of motivation (neither carrot or stick). Should their consciences fail to incite them to action, the adventure is all of two-three encounters (none of which involve treasure) and a tiny stretch of underground...five combat encounters, no traps, and the only monster possessing treasure is a nonsensical, and gratuitous zombie fight. That's it...nada mas.

And why should the adventurers care about the murdered niece of a wealthy nobleman? Can't he afford to pay one of the city's (multiple) patriarchs to burn a raise dead on her? The spell is available to any 7th level cleric, and there are at least three clerics of 9th+ level residing in Specularum. Small change "murder mysteries" just don't work (or make sense) in a game where any found cadaver can be quickly (and easily) returned to life.

But I digress...despite the not-so-great adventure, the idea of competing rival factions, none of which are particularly "good" (and only one of which is outright villainous) is a good one. Three groups keeps it from being a black-white dichotomy...and the fact that all of them are (more or less) independent of the Duke gives plenty of opportunity for players to align with one or another (or none) and still get up to all sorts of hijinks and adventures.

Allston found the factions good enough to retain and embellish in GAZ1 (and gave kudos and thanks to Dave Cook for B6 in his introduction). If you want to use Karameikos (close to) as written in the gazetteer, I'd recommend keeping these Great Families. Upping Specularum's population from 5,000 (as per both B/X and module B6) to 50,000 (per GAZ1) just means more power, wealth, and influence in the hands of these ruthless rivals.

They are a tad boring though. Here are some possible ideas to "spice them up:"

Radu: I'm fairly good with the Radu as the kind of medieval Cosa Nostra. If anything, I think I'd  want to "Medici them up," getting them all involved in banking and patronizing the arts, etc. Even though the Grand Duchy of Karameikos has only existed for 30 years, it's important to remember that Marilenev was a thriving trading port even 100 years ago when Thyatis took it over, and the Radu clan (a Tralaldaran family) was probably operating even before then. The Veiled Society should be even more weird and cult-y, less like KKK clansmen and more like "The Hand" or similar fantasy ninjas/assassins. These guys should have their own weird temples, some sort of weird ancestor worship, maybe a pact with a Deep One like species made long ago, back when their ancestors were just pirates raiding coastal Traladara villages.

Gao as Anton (12th level thief);
"Come at me, Flameflicker!"
The main thing that bothers me about the Radu is the lack of female representation. Anton & Co. (his brother, his sons) and all the Veiled Society thugs are male. It would be nice to have at least some women in the mix...maybe a strong matriarch (since I brought up The Hand I now have an image of Madame Gao in my mind taking the place of Anton Radu). It's not just that I'm screaming for diversity here...part of B6 involves the attempted recruitment of player characters into the Veiled Society, and it would just be a little strange if the propositioned character(s) were female and then brought into this group of all male thugs. It would be a lot less random to depict them as equal opportunity villains from the outset.

Torenescu: So, stop me if you've heard this one before: head of family is murdered by uncle, too young son is forced to assume the mantle of leadership and figure stuff out even as evil uncle tries to wrest control of clan away from kid. Yeah? Me, too...many times.

The really dumb bit, of course, is that this isn't Narnia's Prince Caspian or Disney's The Lion King or's D&D people! It's really hard for people to stay dead! At least if they're anyone that matters (i.e. anyone with a bit of coin in their pocket). You just can't assassinate a nobleman or woman and leave the body lying around...not if there's a even vaguely competent cleric in the vicinity. So why is it 26-year old Aleksander Torenescu is the head of the family and not his father, Christoph? Hmmm...

Making Torenescu interesting hinges on answering this question. While my Game of Thrones addled brain goes immediately to some sort of incest problem (the son with the father, the son with the uncle, the uncle with the father...your choice) that led to the clan not wanting Christoph raised from the dead, that's maybe too cut-and-dry. What if, instead of poison (also easily neutralized about raising...if not before), Christoph had been murdered in "the usual fashion" (garrote or a Charley Manson Special) and it took the loyal clan members a fortnite to find where his body had been dumped? And what if, upon finding Patriarch Aleksyev (leader of the Church of Traladara) was unable to raise Christoph (having passed the max number of days as limited by his level) they had taken the body to Patriarch Jowett, the 18th level head of the Church of Karameikos? And what if he had refused to perform the deed, on the grounds that they were outside the True Faith (being native Traladarans, natch) and had been rumored to be behind several religiously motivated attacks on the church (or at least the culprits had been members of the Torenescu controlled guilds)?

Heck, if you want to retain Jowett as the goody-good guy he's portrayed as (we'll get to him in a later post), you could say he was indisposed at the time and only his fanatical #2 (the 14th level, Traladara-hating Aldric Oderbey) had been available...and no way he was going to raise a tithing member of the rival church! Do you think maybe the Torenescu clan might (because of this) bear a bit of a grudge against the Church? Even as they already bear a grudge against the Duke for his "invasion" of 30 years prior that cost the family so much of their power? Make Torenescu the REAL Machiavallian schemers behind the scenes, not Radu.

Aleksander Torenescu:
"Vengeance is mine."
And make young Aleksander the new Lareth the Beautiful...just for fun.

Vorloi: And speaking of "forbidden worship," let's talk about the Sea Kings. Because that's what these guys are, right? Baron Vorloi as a "successful merchant prince" by the age of 30 (and in Thyatis no less). He has made his fortune (and continues to undercut his competition) by having the biggest and best fleet of merchant vessels operating out of Karameikos. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Karameikan navy is financially beholden to his house. From whence comes this maritime power?

Reading between the lines, Vorloi is a jerk, but I don't want him to be a chaos least not of the mutating, Warhammer variety. But I would like him (and his family) to be secret cultists of some forbidden, "pagan" sea god (or goddess or demon...your choice). "Neutral," not chaotic, but utterly inhuman and lacking human compassion, empathy, or morality. A force of nature whose worship has long been prohibited in Thyatis (and would be in Karameikos, too, if Stefan had any inkling that the Vorloi clan were perpetuating its vile worship). The "idiot, feebleminded" son of Baron Vorloi? A necessary sacrifice to their deity, even as Phillip's older sister Michaela was similarly offered up and replaced with fey creature. Every generation's firstborn is given to their patron, receiving a strange changeling in the child's place...the weird offspring of the sea god.

Puny mortal
Thus does the Vorloi clan ensure their ships' fortune. The Baron's daughter Marianna knows that she, too, will someday need to give her own child to the Sea, if she wishes to continue the success of her clan. Will she be willing to do so? And will the father of her child acquiesce to such a tradition?

All right...that's enough for tonight.


  1. '...a murder mystery without providing anything in the way of motivation...'

    Thats not entirely true. The carrot is political power, and unfortunately so is the stick.

    There are a number of suggested adventures in the back of the Gazetteer. You should either throw them in to this adventure or combine them aa a Part 2 adventure. There are also tie ins to other gazetteers. Evil Uncle Torenescu has a cousin in Glantri who provided him with the poison to kill christoph. A magicuser. So the poison was probably not a poison that could be neutralized- and prevented being you from raised from the dead anyway. If its glantrian then it might be one of the seven crafts like witch craft or alchemy or runes, or necromancy.

    1. Eh? I don't see a carrot or stick. Arrested at the scene, they are quickly proven innocent (so long as they submit to "clerical tribunal") and released. Nothing is offered to them...besides, can't BECMI clerics raise dead (or even speak with dead?)? Sure they can.

      I'll have to review my Glantri book but I do see dispel magic, remove curse, and neutralize poison all on my (Mentzer) clerical spell list. Crafts are different but...jeez, if you're going to have magical help why not just polymorph the guy into something or arrange an illusion of a natural death, or...I don't know.

      This type of murder mystery works a lot better in something like Warhammer, than D&D.

  2. You might be interested in the interview I had with my dad about this module

    1. @ Lance:

      I *love* your interviews with your father, you should do more of them. I saw your ones where you talked about B1 and his beginnings in the hobby...I missed the post about B6. Do you have a link?

    2. we've recorded a few more interviews, I just haven't posted them because I haven't transcribed them yet. I'm working on putting them up as a podcast on anchor. I will probably make a blog post linking to the podcast in the next few days.

    3. the podcast is up,

    4. I'm in the process of listening to these...very interesting reflections (especially the praise for B6; I haven't seen much of THAT around the internet). Currently listening to the B2 podcast.

  3. I've been digging this series.