Seeking Sanctuary in RPGs

On the way to work this morning, I listened to the podcast by “Dirk the Dice” ( @thegrognardfiles ) and friends on Cities in RPGs and on the “Thieves’ World” multi-system RPG supplement. That podcast is here .

In case you didn’t know, “Thieves’ World” is a shared world anthology series from the late 1970s and 80s. The name is the nickname for the city of Sanctuary, founded by runaway slaves from the Kingdom of Ilsig, later conquered by the Ilsigi and then later by the new power in the area, the Rankan Empire. Sanctuary has fallen on hard times, and is now a hive of scum and villainy to which the step-brother of the Rankan Emperor has been effectively exiled as the new Governor, an indication that as well as tales of larceny and magic, the stories will be inspired by the uncertain political situation, which even leads to the Gods of Ilsig and the Rankans clashing.

My first introduction to city based fantasy was the occasional city based Conan story or the Fritz Leiber “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series”, but for RPGing it was Judges Guild’s “City State of the Invincible Overlord” which I used for AD&D and The Fantasy Trip. Where the city and surround became not only a place for the adventurers to return between adventures, but also where thievery, underground excursions and dirty dealings could take place.

Judges Guild City State of the Invincible Overlord

Random tables helped this along, including the slightly comical tables in the JG “Ready Ref sheets” (designed for original D&D) and tables in the DMG, but in in the early 80s, I was switching to Chivalry and Sorcery. My campaign was based on lots of sources, including Middle-Earth, The Young Kingdoms and historical nations, and into that got coopted “Sanctuary” as an outpost of the sea-faring Korondarian Empire, with the Rankan and Ilsigi elements lightly adapted.

"Cities" from Chaosium

“Thieves’ Word” gave the GM background for the city and characters, it had essays on topics such as portraying fantasy realistically (you can read that one here ) or how you might portray aspects of Sanctuary life, it had tables for City encounters that would see life separately later on in the Midkemia Press/Chaosium “Cities” supplement (itself rebranded as RQ Cities at some point) and, importantly, among the nine systems for which character statistics were provided, was my FRPG of choice, Chivalry and Sorcery” by one of the original authors, Wes Ives. They were very bare bones, not many of the derived statistics or information that C&S was famed for, but I figured the numbers out as I need them

Like “Dirk the Dice” and his chums said, it was a puzzle at first on how to adapt this. We had a group of characters who were basically wandering exiles, but well connected, much as Prince Kadakithis was to his brother. So a mini campaign developed around a diplomatic mission that intruded in a power struggle between factions, Rankan, Ilsigi, criminal Hawkmasks and the mysterious cult of Dyareela. A chance to use the C&S influence and favour rules!

But once that finished, what to do? The characters were visitors to the city with no reason to stay. They moved on and Sanctuary played very little part from then on. I lost my copy in the intervening years, though I still read the original books now and again.

"In the Labyrinth" - The GM's book for "The Fantasy Trip" RPG

Wind forward nearly thirty years. For my birthday my most Excellent friend Dave Elrick bought me a copy of the Thieves’ World set and the Companion, which extended the information into the time of a later invasion by the mysterious Beysibs. I had been thinking about starting a solo RPG campaign using “The Fantasy Trip” (coincidentally I was thinking of starting with the multi-part City based adventure “Irillian”, published in White Dwarf and also mentioned in the podcast) but the arrival of this set gave me a better idea.

Central casting - Heroes of Legend by Jenelle Jaquays

Instead of my planned old-fashioned dungeon bashing campaign, I decided to create characters not in the depths of the criminal society of Sanctuary, but on the fringes, hovering between respectable lower class and the actual villains. So a freelance mercenary bodyguard, an apprentice mage, a scribe ok one actual thief. A few others. The mix in any adventure could change anyway through depending how the action went. I used tables from “Thieves’ World”, “Cities”, Jennelle Jaquay’s “Central Casting – Heroes of Legend” and other resources, mostly story/plot generating tools. Employers came and went with missions of varying legality and danger and so far it’s been lot of fun.

I can recommend that to anyone else wanting to use Thieves’World. Don’t necessarily get involved with the main characters and events, the whole series is predicated on the colourful nature of the fringes of society, so go for that and the location seems to have a much longer longevity.

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