Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

The Last Days of Constantinople

Jerry Stratton, June 19, 2004

Avalanche Press has produced a number of extraordinarily reasonably priced historical sourcebooks, modified somewhat for a fantasy setting. “The Last Days of Constantinople” by Brien J. Miller costs only $9.95 for the printed version and only $3.99 for the PDF version. It contains 45 pages of historical and adventure information.

The basic story is that the player characters have been hired by the Pope to provide aid to beleaguered Constantinople. This being the Byzantine Empire, there is a lot more to it than that. Byzantine political intrigues are bound to catch the player characters in their nets. It is April 1453. “For a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire has been civilization’s guardian, carrying on Rome’s legacy. Now 100,000 battle-hardened Turkish warriors have surrounded the great city and are making ready to storm its mighty walls.”

Not Your Father’s d20

It is billed as a d20 adventure for first to third level characters, though with minor tweaks it could handle higher-level characters. It isn’t dependent on d20 information at all. It is mostly maps and descriptions. The non-player character information is presented succinctly and in a format that makes it easy for non-d20 game masters to use as descriptions for their own rules.

There are no prestige classes wasting space in here, no special feats only usable in D&D. Just lots of cool ideas.

Vague Problems

At times, the text is annoyingly vague. Describing one of the intrigues, it says (with names removed to avoid spoilers for players):

Another offer will come soon afterwards from NAME, who cannot conceal [their] contempt for the adventurers but needs muscle to achieve [their] ends. Once again [they] will come to Gina's, sneering all the while, or command the presence of the party at [their] office in PLACE. NAME will arrive only if you have chosen the option that puts the young empress in [their] clutches.

Huh? Does this mean that another offer will not come if you’ve chosen that option, or does it mean that NAME will not arrive at Gina’s but instead will call them to their office? While the intrigue mentioned can involve the option chosen, as part of a bribe, it isn’t really related to it. This sort of thing is all over this book.

But in the context of the rest of the work, that is a minor complaint. It’s a sourcebook, not an adventure, so you can easily decide on your own what the author “meant”.

Another “problem” is that you will continually want more information about what really happened in history. This is a “problem” only because the work is so interesting that you want to know more. It could easily have been double its 45-page size and I would still want more.

Fantasy and Real World Collide

It has its biggest challenge trying to integrate a real-world event--the fall of Byzantium--with a fantasy world that generally has easy access to magic. The sourcebook will work best in low-magic campaigns. This may be the real reason behind the back page’s limitation to “1st through 3rd level characters”. The Byzantines hate magic as the work of Satan, and are likely to assume that anyone manifesting magical ability is a Turkish invader or worse.

However, this is a great sourcebook for many campaigns, even ones that do not take place on Earth in this historical time period. In that case, the limitation on magic, and thus on character level, need not be so strict. It will be easy for any game master to modify the names and parties involved to take place in any ancient city fallen on hard times and now besieged.

This could well be the start of a militarily-focused adventuring campaign. Once the renamed Constantinople falls, the renamed Turks might continue on into the rest of the campaign world. The player characters, having seen the ferocity and terror of the conquerors first hand, will need to organize the remaining lands to resist the scourge.

Or perhaps something else somewhat more Byzantine. If you’re running a long term campaign you might also pick up their Vlad the Impaler work.

Avalanche has made a really nice, if sparse, work here, well worth its $10 price. I recommend it, and I recommend keeping an eye on these folks.

Aside: Rome and Tolkien

Reading this, and having recently read a history of ancient Rome, I cannot but see The Lord of the Rings as a fantasy retelling of the fading Roman empire. Constantinople is the white city, holding back the Turkish tide from the fledgling European nations. They fear the evil eye. The legend of the Orc itself, according to popular etymology that Tolkien was certainly aware of, comes from the fear of Turkish ferocity.

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