Sunday 9 April 2017

The Wicked City: Story Hooks

Turkic warriors guarding the Doors of Tamerlane. Tamerlane, anglicized form of Timur-i-Lang ('Lame Timur' or 'Timur the Lame') (1336-1404), was a Turkic conqueror, born in Kash near Samarkand. He waged several devastating wars, conquering Persia (1392-96) and northern India (1398), and defeating the Ottomans and the Mamlukes (1402):

I've written a fair bit about the Wicked City since starting this blog, but one thing which could probably have benefitted from being addressed more directly is why on earth PCs would end up there in the first place. The standard D&D dungeon has a built-in reason for people to want to go there, despite its dangers, in the form of treasure; but unless the campaign premise is 'liberate the Wicked City', why would your PCs ever want to go to this horrible half-ruined police state to begin with? My intent has been for the Wicked City to be a very 'sticky' location, insofar as once the PCs arrive, there's lots of things around to prompt them to either remain for longer than they intended or to make repeat visits in future. But first you need a reason for making that initial visit - so here are twelve...

Reasons for a brief visit to the Wicked City
  1. To buy something which is only for sale in the markets of the Great Bazaar.
  2. To seek out the clockworking expertise of the city's Steel Aspirants, which has no parallel elsewhere in the world.
  3. To hunt down a wanted criminal who has fled to the city.
  4. To seek out information known only to a famous spy, who has since taken up employment among the families of the Cobweb
  5. To evacuate a specific individual or family from the city. 
  6. To retrieve a magical or sacred item from the Maze.
  7. To make contact with the Red Brotherhood on behalf of a foreign government with an interest in undermining the rule of the Wicked King.
  8. To make contact with one of the Cobweb families, on behalf of a foreign patron who needs access to some knowledge or object which only they possess. 
  9. To locate and free someone who has been imprisoned by the King's Men on trumped-up charges, probably because they looked like a good target for extortion. 
  10. To broker a marriage between one of the Cobweb families and a foreign aristocrat who really, really needs to marry into money.
  11. To locate and free someone who has been captured by the Brigands of Noonday Dark and sold into slavery in the Wicked City.
  12. To make contact with the embassy of the Scarab Men in the Wicked City, as this is the only channel of communication known to exist between the Insect Queen and the outside world.
This is the old City of Yazd. Old brick and mud houses and arches taking their natural light from the opening in the Arches. A desert city on the silk Route.:

Once they're in the city, of course, their opportunities for becoming entangled with its horrible destiny multiply. PCs who appear to be competent (or simply cheap and expendable) might find themselves recruited as agents by any of the city's factions; idealistic PCs may be moved to take a stand against the city's injustices, especially if they've formed personal connections with some of its inhabitants, while more vengeful ones might turn against its government after one too many shake-downs by the King's Men. Then again, they could just be given some kind of mission that is likely to involve a lengthy stay in the city, as they gradually work out how to achieve their goals. Here are twelve possible reasons why PCs might find themselves needing to stay in the city long-term:

Reasons for a long-term stay in the Wicked City
  1. One of the PCs, or someone close to them, has unwisely become hooked on some horribly addictive narcotic, and only the Serpent Folk of the Wicked City can supply them with their regular fix.
  2. One of the PCs, or someone close to them, has fallen in love with one of the Wicked City's residents, and the Man With Stones For Eyes won't let them leave.
  3. To find some way of liberating the Cloud Castle from the city's government, as a way of earning or repaying a major favour from the Blue Folk.
  4. To free the spirit of the ancestress of the Children of the Pines from the King's Tower, as a way of earning or repaying a major favour from them.
  5. To steal some kind of experimental military technology from the Clankers or the Air Corps on behalf of a foreign power. 
  6. To rescue someone being held captive by the city's secret police in the Ministry of Information.
  7. To free a peri who has been captured by the city's government, and is currently being used to power a weird perpetual motion machine somewhere in the King's Tower.
  8. To find out what's going on at the top of the King's Tower, and who (if anyone) is actually running the Wicked City.
  9. To steal the war mask once worn by the Wicked King before his disappearance.
  10. To find out what has happened to the city's spirits.
  11. To lay the groundwork for a rebellion against the city's government, preferably with the aid of the Red Brotherhood, the People of the Rubble, and the various inhabitants of the Maze.
  12. To discover the city's true name, and the true nature of the Wicked King.


  1. Did you get the term 'sticky' from 'Antibirth'? Awesome movie.

  2. These are all super-evocative and sound as if they would kickstart an amazing chain of events, bringing the adventurers deeper and deeper into the heart of this city.

    Reading through them, I am filled with pangs of sadness as I know that my players wouldn't bite at a single one. So much of the OSR is written by GMs and appreciated by GMs, but I think a significant portion of the content in the scene doesn't answer the seminal question of RPGs: "Why would this group of murderhobos care?"

    1. I think the answer to that question is: you have to tell them to. Setting player expectations from the beginning is important. So to get them to care, you have to say from character creation, we are playing romantic fantasy. That means that violence isn't always the best option. If you put murderhobos into the wicked city, they probably wouldn't care. But if you made them start acting like murderhobos, then it's your fault as well.

    2. Yeah, if you want a socially-driven campaign, it'll need to be agreed up-front with the players or it'll never work. (I still remember the day our GM had a noble warrior-queen step out honourably to negotiate in good faith with our lurking murder-hobo party. We shot her in the back and ran off with her magic sword.) But even if your PCs are an amoral and murderous bunch, I'd like to think you could get some mileage out of this material, even if it's only in the rather crude form of people bribing and/or threatening them into doing jobs on their behalf. 'Find this valuable thing in exchange for large sums of money' is a perfectly legitimate murder-hobo motivation, isn't it?

  3. nothing wrong with murder hobos - easily driven by big scores, power, offer them control of western drug distribution, find a cartels plans to do so then players will want to enact them first, tempt with some hordes like griffons gold which dont turn out to be true but then offer local adventure. Make the party pariahs so the have too flee after they murder some prince who slummed it in disguise as a poleboy.

    The Tartary, Slumbering ursine dunes and others could overlap with this content

  4. This is timed perfectly my party is gonna to probably make it to the city in their next session.

  5. Wouldn't be the best way to have the PCs in the WC is to have them be like born in it ?

    IMSHO, its like you have two completely different (and great) settings: the Romantic Central Asia and the Weird Wicked City. Would it be absurd to separate them?

    1. You could do that, although most of the stuff I write assumes an outside perspective. I find settings like these tend to be much easier to communicate to players if they're coming in from the outside both IC and OOC, and 'outside intervention shakes up the stable (if horrible) equilibrium of the Wicked City' is a fairly obvious story to tell...

      And, yeah, they're pretty detachable. The Wicked City is written as a Silk Road city, but with a few minor adjustments it could be pretty much anywhere!

    2. One of the things I mandated for the players first round of pc's was that they be foreigners making their way through these lands.

      I limited access to just the base classes and have actually told them very little about the setting in specific besides like - what their characters would know to be possible ( clockwork, spirits, etc) but little about the actual culture in specifics.

      I'm taking a lot of advice on running this front Yoong-Suin, which suggested that approach.

      You're dealing with a setting that is pretty far removed from your standard d&d westrn setting, theres a lot density that you can't assume in the same way wih those games.

      I've found the foreigner approach to be pretty effective for revealing the world piece c by piece and offering the players meaingful character options as they contextuaize them through their own adventures.

  6. I... am... bewitched.