Grief of the Merchant Prince

8 years of toil, a man in vigil. Certain knowledge has been uncovered, many enemies foiled. Gold flies near unbidden from heavy purses, the wheels turn slowly… all to uncover the Alder Gate, to redeem a father.
Grief of the Merchant Prince
The City is a nexus of trade in an area not unlike Levant during some sort of Hyborean Age: hot, dry weather, farming communities ruled by largely independent city states, strange cults, greedy merchants, lustful warlords; that sort of thing. The City is the only urban center within weeks of travel by land, and about the same by sea.

Although our campaign is basically city-based, I had very little detail on it when the game began – as you can see, as of this writing the City doesn’t even have a name! I just knew that I’d want to have a Conan-style fantasy world, and I knew that I wanted a city-based campaign involving underground dungeons of an ancient wizard. Because all of these sword & sorcery cities are basically the same, I didn’t waste any time in planning the details.

The City is officially ruled by a concord of merchant houses, of which three stand above the rest. There is also a powerful semi-autonomous City Guard and the Church of Enkidu the Sun-Beast, so the city is basically a mix of interests between five power blocks. The three pre-eminent merchant houses, differentiated from their lesser essentially by the fact that they employ a wide range of semi-independent factors and wield thus much more influence than any hands-on merchant could, are the houses of Gismond, Rigeline and Fere, named for their ruling princes.

All this stuff about the city guard and church as political powers, and there even being several merchant houses with political power, developed as necessary detail in individual play interactions – players ask for stuff like potential enemies of this merchant who hired them, and I provide. In practice merchant prince Gismond, of which more below, is the one with the most significance in the campaign so far – the church Archdiacon has had a minor role, but mostly this is all just background.

The core situation

What the City is about in this campaign is motivating the characters with riches, relationships and whatever else is needed on a case-by-case basis to get them to go down and look for the Alder Gate, my McGuffin. To this end, The merchant prince Gismond (yes, he’s The Gismond; that’s how important he is to the City) starts hiring various outsiders, bums, mercenaries and ne’er-do-wells to search the caverns below the City.

In the first session I knew not even Gismond’s name, I only knew than an influential person wanted to pay for people to find the Alder Gate, had found a route (easiest of many to find) down below and wanted a map that detailed the route for later expeditions. I didn’t even know why he wanted the Alder Gate.

The Gismond has an unique reason for wanting the Alder Gate – he believes that it will be key to curing his son Gabriel Fizgard from his basically chronic wasting illness that will consume the young man before soon if nothing is done. The Gismond is a practical and ruthless man, but also willing to do what it takes to save his only son – whether this is because he wants to preserve his legacy, or because he cares of the guy, we don’t know yet as of this writing.

We found out all this background motivation stuff in the third session, more or less; the way we play the game, each new session starts with rebuilding the party out of whatever characters each player wants to play this session. Consequently the party might position socially and tactically quite differently from session to session. In the third session the characters ended up running a commando operation to “save” Gabriel Fizgard from his father’s house due to some faulty data one of the characters had gained. This became an opportunity for the characters to find out that The Gismond was actually quite genuinely worried about his son’s health, and was expending major resources in trying to save him.

Meanwhile, Gismond has his enemies, foremost of which at this writing are the wizards of the Blue Star, a cunning brotherhood with a stronghold out in the wastes, several days journey out of the city. They have their own keep in the City as well, though, and ambitions I won’t reveal here so as to not spoil my players. The wizards have hastened and, perhaps, caused Gabriel’s withering by judicious use of poison and magic.

The Blue Star wizards were introduced in the second session when the demoness Carmelita needed some occult help. I lifted the name from some old sword & sorcery stories, I think, but the concept was straightforwardly that of opportunistic, bad wizard-guys. I decided on the spot that the wizards would help Carmelita in exchange for her killing Gabriel Fizgard with some slow-acting poison, disguised to be a natural death.

Gismond has spent the last eight years seeking for hints on the elusive Alder Gate, and has only recently made significant headway by finding Carmelita, who basically confirmed his suspicions. Now that Gabriel’s condition is turning rabidly to the worse, Gismond is willing to finance anybody he trusts to not betray his cause, if they only promise to seek for the Alder Gate down below the City. The ultimate reward will basically be his gratitude, which can be negotiated into a position in the high nobility of the City, as much gold as a man cares to carry out of the City, or whatever else Gismond has in his power.

Gismond will provide financing for reasonable expenses, but expects adventurers to report on their progress and justify new expenses. He will also provide information in the form of his long-term research papers combined with the help of some of the finest sages of City history, but only to those he trusts. He will also usually send one of his own armsmen to accompany any expeditions underground.

The first group of adventurers hired by Gismond got little else but instructions to hire Carmelita and proceed to explore the Roots of the Blood Alders. Some of the survivors built some trust with him in time by sensible social roleplaying and some successful Charisma checks, while others squandered his trust by acting in suspicious and borderline insane manner (as player characters are wont to do when the player is out of sync with the fiction). Later on, the characters who developed into trusted confidantes of Gismond got him to divulge valuable facts and options theretofore kept in reserve in fear of his enemies.

Gismond’s armsmen are a constant part of the party of adventurers; we’ve already went through several of these characters with different players. Basically anybody happy to play a straight-and-narrow officer type or a grissly semi-mercenary gives himself a leg up in this campaign by declaring that this is another heretofore nameless guy from Gismond’s guard, tapped for his initiative to escort the latest expedition underground.

If Gismond is dealt with fairly and an adventurer proves competent and willing to enrich himself by helping Gismond, the merchant prince will provide valuable knowledge about the historical lore surrounding wizard Azgart.

Azgart and the Alder Gate

The City was founded by Azgart the Wizard some 300-500 years ago. Initially it might have been just an adjunct to his Arboretum, while the actual core of the residence was the underground keep of the wizard accessed in various mysterious ways, but in time the City grew around the Arboretum until it enclosed the park completely.

The core challenge of the Alder Gate campaign is finding a way to breach the underground keep of Azgart, which by some accounts might be as much as hundreds of feet below-ground, mined in bedrock with no obvious man-passable way in. This feat is most practicably managed by passing most of the way through some ancient tunnels. Anybody intimately familiar with the history of the City can make a stab at listing some likely candidates for such tunnels:

  • It’s well-known among the groundkeepers of the Arboretum that mysterious tunnels are dug into the soft earth there, to disappear into darkness below. The Roots of the Blood Alders deal with this in detail.
  • There are actual severs under the city, the sort that they built in high antiquity. These were set up by Azgart himself, legend has it. Presumably one might find some sort of maintenance pathways that ultimately end up in his keep?
  • There are also catacombs under the oldest church building, the Chapel of Enkidu Triumphant, in the City. It’s not obvious that these are not just another way into the severs, and getting in might be difficult: I’ll write about this in more detail if the campaign moves in this direction, but it’s already been established that the Archdiacon is unwilling to let anybody get into the walled-in catacombs due to some sort of ecclestical embarrassement that happened with his precedessor.
  • Out in the harbor there are below-water tunnels that might lead to some place fruitful in the city – this stuff is mostly known about by smugglers and such, and the tunnels might not be usable due to watermarks having shifted through the centuries. I’ll write about this more when I get to the Wheel of Time.

In the very first session I already listed for the players the most prominent options for finding a way into the ancient laboratory of Azgart the wizard, mostly because they happened to have Carmelita with them, and it’s not a good idea to keep information from players when they could be using that information to make interesting strategic choices, instead. These are really just ways for getting “deep into the earth”, with actual link to Azgart potentially somewhat elusive in some cases. In the first sessions the players braved the Roots of the Blood Alders in their search, while sessions four and five were concerned with the Wheel of Time, of which I’ll write more later.

I of course know what the Alder Gate is and other such background information that pretty much follows from what I’ve had to establish through play, but I won’t write about it more until the players reveal it in play. The Alder Gate was pretty much my original linchpin for starting the campaign, so good luck with trying to get me to reveal what it is and does before somebody pries the secret from the heart of Azgart’s keep.

Keep of the Merchant Prince

As a matter of practicality, the great merchant houses of the City each have established small enclaves that protect their core operations and personnel from the sort of infighting that might break out – the city Guard as a matter of jurisprudence stays out of any small-scale civil war operations between the houses, which have their own private forces anyway.

Gismund has just such an enclave in a central block of the City, large enough to house himself in grand style, as well as his family, servants, closest specialists and most important factors, as well as warehouses for the most valuable investments he currently has going on. The keep is a veritable merchant fortress, with a high wall and large doors that are opened each morning for merchandise flowing in and out.

Our third session became a rather interesting side-trek for the Alder Gate campaign, as a motivated player character formed a team of adventurers to spring Gabriel Fizgard and bring him to doctors, apparently with the mistaken impression that his father was letting Gabriel waste away on purpose. This stuff about Gismond’s house is mostly what we established then to frame this rescue attempt.

Characters trying to use force against Gismond might endeavour to catch him unaware outside his compound, but more likely they’ll have to steal into his house at night. This is possible by scaling the walls and avoiding the guards, or through the severs, provided one finds his way through them, takes with him tools for getting through some iron grating, and doesn’t mind getting dirty. A third likely way in is to walk in during the day with some believable business, and then perhaps to hide oneself until nightfall within the compound.

Our brave adventurers decided on a two-pronged attack, with one character scaling the severs to disable guards, while others would follow over the wall. Ultimately the severs guy didn’t anticipate being blocked by an old grate, and had no way of signalling his allies, which led him to being late by several hours – because the sever plan was uncertain, the group had agreed that the rest of the party would try to steal over the walls regardless, which they succeeded in doing.

I imagine the keep itself as a fairly straightforward palace-type solution with several floors mostly consisting of residential sections, with servants living downstairs and important people on higher floors. One can scale into a window or go in through a door and find stairs to get access to important people, especially if they have some way of avoiding the servants and guards moving about even at night.

It’s a good idea to put in some interesting “random” encounters for characters going about the keep furtively, as it’s an opportunity to gauge the goals of the characters. Any given night after Gabriel Fizgard’s turned for worse in his condition it’s highly likely to encounter a room full of arguing medicine men even in the middle of the night, for example – the argument is of a nihilistic sort, as the doctors are trying to craft a common diagnosis they can each sign to blame some external force outside their power for the mysterious illness, while not one of them cares one whit to take the professional risk of actually recommending a cure to something they’re baffled with. In different political conditions the characters can encounter different people residing at the keep, of course.

One of the player characters in our play pretended to be a herb healer of some sort and ended up in the middle of this argument of doctors. She was disinterested in the final outcome and signed on with the troupe who decided to blame the illness on poisonous black poiture prominently used by a rival merchant prince. Essentially, the doctors wanted to turn Gismond against one the other powerful houses in the City to cover for their own lack of ability.

Gismond himself, as well as his son, reside in the keep’s second or third floor, however many the GM feels like having in the keep. The security is not ultratight by any means – if a character manages to pretend at a believable position within the house, say, or has some means of bypassing alert guards, he can probably get in and have a moment of privacy with Gabriel Fizgard. Gismund himself is a different story, as he’s usually guarded by the captain of his guard or one of his lieutenants at all times, often from hiding – still, a quick assassing would basically be able to attack from darkness and perhaps hurt or even kill him with impunity, at least if they cared nothing for their own survival. (This in contrast with the typical RPG tendency of making important NPCs unassailable with some sort of foolproof magic or whatnot; Gismond is mighty and has the best security money can buy, but no more.)

Gismond is a very smart and realistic man with no illusions of omnipotence despite his elevated status; he won’t whimper and make bad judgment calls when armed men threaten him, for instance. He’ll confront uncertain situations with a stone cold bluff and genuine verbal probes to figure out where he’s standing with a situation. He’s the sort of guy who won’t hesitate a moment to risk a bone-breaking leap if dying at an assassin’s blade is the option – he’s no fighter, but give Gismond some space and materials to work with, and he can be deadly in many other ways. This realism extends to his enemies as well – Gismond is well able to take a former enemy and turn him into a tool if the situation requires, and he won’t harbor grudges, only character evaluations.

In our game the interaction was pretty interesting, as a character scaled into the keep, but mistook Gismund’s apartment for Gabriel’s. The character didn’t at first realize that the oldish, humbly dressing man was the master of the house, mistaking him for a scribe. This was probably one of the smartest judgment calls I’ve seen in this campaign so far – the player desisted from threatening the man or provoking him in any way, and instead told him basically a true story about why he was in the keep when the other asked. And when Gismond required the character, whose bravery and competence in getting into the compound had impressed him, would stay as his guest, the adventurer went with the guards voluntarily. I can’t count the number of times a player has gotten his character killed in similar situations through the years.

Gismond has also proven his wit and insight more than once at this point – in the context of our game he is a level 10 Merchant with Will and Wits around 15, which makes him pretty much unassailable on several fronts for the player characters. Most of the time Gismond can lie to them with impunity, while they can’t deceive him.

Gismond is likely to feign hospitality and promise rewards to interlopers in his house if that sort of tack is likely to work. He has access to rare poisons, including component ones and those he has antidotes for, so he will poison both himself and his guest if necessary and then hold the promise of antidote over their heads. He has secret signals for his guards and servants, and can often communicate with them even while observed, especially when inside his immediate quarters in the keep.

Rewards and Consequences

Messing with Gismond the Merchant Prince can be highly rewarding, if perilous. Gismond uses money as a tool and won’t hesitate to pay, given the right motivation – finding his money in the keep itself is somewhat challenging, not least because of the complex locks involved, but even the carpetry on the floors and other household stuff is worth something. Looting the warehouses in the compound would also be highly lucrative if the thief had some way of transporting the wares and getting rid of them afterwards – cooperation of one of the other great houses or a specialized fence from a mediocre merchant house would be a necessity.

Assuming that a character is not in position to outright kill Gismond (always a possibility in the sword & sorcery context, where everbody’s life hangs by a thread when weapons are drawn), he will form an opinion on his opponents based on their actions. This can be a crucial reward or consequence, as Gismond’s trust or distrust can make life easier or more difficult in the City.

Ultimately the attack on the merchant’s keep was perhaps the most disastrous operation the adventurers have undertaken in the campaign so far – two of the participants ended up sold into slavery after Gismond decided that it was too risky to trust their motivations, considering their inability to explain their actions against him. Two others ended up getting a job, though, as Gismond was impressed by their actions and judged that they’d serve him faithfully for a suitable reward. Of course, having poisoned the adventurers in question, Gismond had something of an upper hand in that negotiation.

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