The Last Days of Constantinople (2000)
Mike Benninghof (Avalanche Press LTD)
Levels 1 – 3
It is that time of the month again where we descend back into the distant mists of history and check out (mostly shitty but always interesting) Avalanche Supplements for the d20 system! Today’s offering is an adventure by the name of The Last Days of Constantinople by Mike Benninghof, concerning the fall and sacking of Constantinople to the Ottoman Hordes. The premise and the writing rock hard, but it is ultimately an Avalanche supplement so we shall have to see what comes of it. Clocking in at 40 pages and filled to the brim with characteristically massive statblocks with criminally large margins and numerous errors, the adventure still manages to cover an amazing amount of ground if you consider its actual length. Don thine vestments and set course for the Holy Lands bitches. Tonight we Deus Vult!
The premise is based on the historical last shipment of weaponry to besieged Constantinople by Pope Nicholas V mixed with the plot of Escape From New York. My hardon for Historical Fantasy reached Iron Pillar of Delhi levels when I read the premise. It is the Year of our Lord 1453. Our adventurers are contacted by papal legate Monsignieur Marcello Di San Dimas in Chios. Byzantium has relinquished its Orthodox Faith and placed itself under the auspices of the Catholic Church in a vain attempt to buy salvation from the hordes of Mehmet II, prompting the pope to send a shipment of weaponry to alleviate their distress. This is nowhere near enough and clearly a cover for a secret mission. Once the PCs arrive in Byzantium they are to locate the Empress Maria, newly wedded Georgian wife to the Emperor Constantine XI, and spirit her away to safety (since being the widow of the direct heir of Julius Ceasar makes her the most legitimate claim-wife to just about any throne in Europe). Feudal Espionage/Action awaits!
The shit begins when the PCs enter Byzantium, the officials insist that no such Empress exists since the Georgian Princess never arrived. The adventure gives you several options:
– The habitually deceitful Byzantines are actually telling the truth (easily the most boring option)
– Constantine IX has secreted his wife away so she may die alongside him
– The Empress is determined to fight alongside her husband and has secreted herself within his elite Varangian guard in disguise
– The orthodox cleric, traitor and sorcerer Phocas has secreted her away in a cistern, hoping to use her as a bargaining chip against the Turks.
The GM is meant to write one option down “in a sealed envelope in case one of the players has read the adventure,” which strikes me as unnecessarily paranoid even for an OSR GM. What’s interesting is that the adventure points out no one in Western Europe really knows what the Empress even looks like and thus there are opportunities for shenanigans (i.e use a fake Empress) provided the players have not left a massive paper trail (i.e the real princess is still in Georgia).
This adventure mentions it is best enjoyed with historical (human) PCs and even goes so far as to suggest that magic-users MIGHT be alright since the Byzantines believed in that sort of thing (and even adopted many gnostic superstitions from the Bogomils), but anyone caught using magic in the open is killed. My advice if you are going to run this is to fuck that since it ruins the historical flavor of the whole adventure. Run fighters, rogues and MAYBE a barbarian, give everyone a backstory so fucking historical you can shake a stick at it and keep it at that. The adventure has 1 NPC spellcaster and a single cleric whose powers have been adjusted heavily to conform to the historical flavor of the adventure so keep magic to an absolute minimum is my recommendation. This is arguably the first actual flaw in the adventure.
The d20 system, bloated with its special abilities and numerous magic-using classes, is ABSOLUTELY UNSUITABLE for this adventure, which can almost pass for a downright historical adventure and gives half its aristocrat NPCs special abilities to compensate for the unsuitability of its skill system. Last Days of Constantinople would have been better if published under something like Runequest or other more agnostic systems.
The closest thing to magic (with the exception of the optional Sorcerer Phocas) in LdoC is prayer. That’s right. If you go to Church and pray (obviously the request cannot be heresy) you MIGHT get some sort of minor bonus the next day. Voila. Perfect. Prayer works. Deus fucking Vult. The only problem is that as written the bonuses to saving throws are virtually useless in a game where everything deals direct damage and magic is so rare as to be practically nonexistent.
The setting of Byzantium is covered briefly but gives you a pretty good idea of the “feel” of the place, covering dietary habits, the increasingly debased currency of Byzantium, the Byzantine penchant for lying, pacificism and obsessive hygiene and so on. The whole place screams ‘decadence.’ Contrast this with the fucking Turks, who are actually cited as a possible inspiration for fucking Orcs, if Orcs had superior discipline, siegecraft, weapons technology, a penchant for impaling captives and fearsome elite soldiers raised from young age from Christian villages. The Ottomans as a looming threat are awesome and have far more depth, cruelty and credibility then any nonhuman antagonist could ever achieve. To counter the Arquebuses and superior cannons of the Ottoman, the Byzantines have only their crossbows and of course the alchemical secret of Greek Fire, which is like Napalm only in a medieval period. Anyone taking a direct hit from a 60 pd. vessel of Greek Fire is fucking dead, no saving throw, and the area of effect damage is horrific. Perfect.
I fucking love the commitment to historical accuracy in this adventure which would probably trigger the oversensitive and perpetually outraged grievance mongers of the current Year were it published today. Yet the adventure also does not hesitate to point out that Christians were not blameless and meek and that Venetians would often trade with the Ottoman Empire for Christian Slaves, and Byzantium still has slavery.
Anyway, the game also gives you a beatdown on the alignment front, utilizing a sort of quasi-moral relativity where your alignment determines how well you follow your own code of ethics, which is semi-acceptable in a system with three monotheisitic religions with countless subsets and corresponding creeds. In this setting it is also Lawful Good to put enemy prisoners to death, though not necessarily honorable. Harsh.
Last Days of Constantinople attempts belatedly to give the PCs two new Carrots besides xp and gold (since it correctly assumes they will most likely fucking die anyway) known as Honour (personal) and Glory (public) but these subsystems are not connected to anything else and the task of integrating them into the rest of the game is left to the GM, which is lazy as fuck and renders them pointless. The idea behind these mechanics is solid but it has all the added functionality of a fucking video game high score system right now. Useless.
The city itself is described vaguely, beyond a map of the city as a whole. The only buildings that are even given a floorplan are Gina’s House of Joy, the Basileus (Emperor’s Palace) and the Church of St. Fiacre, which is a possible hiding location of the princess. Events proceed in a linear (albeit variable) fashion but the conclusion is open-ended and the linearity could potentially be disrupted at any time. The general vagueness and lack of keyed maps helps facilitate this. The adventure excels not in location but in Characters.
And what characters they are! Almost every character, from the noble Last Emperor Constantin XI to the toothless catamite known as the Baron (oh yes there is a toothless catamite) and his incontinent eunuch master Koprostes has not merely distinctiveness and personality but also an Agenda. Most want to escape and will attempt to utilize the PCs to facilitate this end. As soon as you meet the Emperor bearing your Papal writ the intrigue proper begins, with multiple NPCs with conflicting agenda’s approaching the PCs for various favors. The GM is given free reign to arbitrate the whole, but since the execution of these agendas depends on the location Empress this is actually a sensible decision.
All possibilities, from joining the Turks to agreeing to kidnap the Emperor from under the nose of his elite Varangian bodyguard and spiriting him away despite his determination to die with his city are covered. You get a general idea of how everyone acts, which is crucial in resolving the final act (there is no way to prevent the Turks from seizing the city with their army of 100.000 men, but who lives and who dies is left open). The existence of a secret escape tunnel in the Imperial Palace that only certain people know about further adds complications and variation.
The Last Days of Constantinople is vague, lazily so at times, but the outline is great and its the details that help bring the whole thing to life. After the PCs come bearing weaponry and a papal writ they are encouraged/drafted (this is optional if your party likes some combat in between the Intrigue) to perform a nighttime trench raid with the intent of sabotaging the siege guns of the Ottoman. On the way you encounter captured Byzantines, impaled but still alive (fuck!) and random patrols, which must be avoided or fought. While an encounter with Ottoman Arquebuseers alone is enough to ruin anyone’s day (d12 damage at x3 critical makes up for a loading time of 8 rounds imho), you are really only properly fucked if you roll 91-100 which means an encounter with VLAD TEPES, PRINCE OF WALLACHIA. His stats make no sense (19 Str, 25 Cha etc.) and his attack bonus doesn’t match up with his stats but none of that changes the fact that you just encountered VLAD TEPES, THE IMPALER and his retinue, and you must now run the fuck away or get yourself impaled.
Provided you do not in fact get yourself impaled, the objective of the raid is left kind of open. You are supposed to take prisoners, get as much food as you can carry and optionally hamper the siege by killing the gunners (Christian mercenaries that are almost impossible to replace). The only problem with this section is that the adventure mutters something about glory before trudging on and the successful completion of the raid has no effect on the outcome of the battle. There should be some sort of reward for success or failure goddammit.
There is a second optional encounter before the final battle involving the digging of a counter-sap to prevent the Turks from blowing up a part of the wall with some variable encounters (a crutch the adventure uses often) ah la soldiers equal to the number in the party and so on and so forth.
This is a frustrating adventure because it is more of an outline and it is remarkably stingy in giving detail but when it does deign to engage with the player it does so BRILLIANTLY. Where could the princess be located if not for in an ancient cistern, guarded by a GIANT SEWER CROCODILE, CHARMED BY THE EVIL SORCERY OF PHOCAS, IN ACTUALITY A WORSHIPER OF THE DEVIL but again where is a proper encounter map damnit?
Even the Ottoman camp is only partially detailed, especially the area around the Sultan’s quarters. You can forget entirely the possibility of his assassination (though the possibility is not dismissed outright), but a raid is certainly possible. However, the possibility of bargaining with the dreaded Mehmet II is accounted for. His retinue is as diverse and divided as that of Constantin IX. Expectation is subverted and historical fact makes things feel real. Mehmet admires bravery and honesty and actually despises traitors, though he will certainly make use of them. The Janissaries are portrayed as cruel and ruthless, utterly contemptuous of weakness in their abuses of anyone who is taken prisoner.
The siege of Constantinople is given beautiful atmosphere by the inclusion of diverse historical military units, from the Emperor’s Varangian guardsmen (originally Vikings, now Englishmen) to the Ottoman Janissaries, the fanatic Bashi-Bazouk and the Wallachian levies. The siege battles themselves are straightup combats that are A) boring and B) there is no suggested way to handle mass combat 😦 but on the other hand A) It has detailed notes on the valor and actions of the Emperor and the Genoese commander Giustani during the last days of fucking CONSTANTINOPLE and B) You are given a chance to face off against Hassan, Byzantine Janissary champion and the finest swordsman IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE in single combat. How do you want to go down in history. After this there is the possibility of retreat, followed by the inevitable rape and impalement by the hordes of the Ottoman. BUT THERE ARE MULTIPLE WAYS TO ESCAPE. The description of the (historically accurate) miracle during the sacking of the cathedral fills one with awe and respect and the opportunity to give up one’s birth on the last ship to escape (provided the PCs ACTUALLY ARRANGED THIS) and the reaction of the Emperor and others are awesome and should generate some kickass roleplaying.
Pros: Glorious historical adventure. Deus absolutely Vult.
Cons: More of an outline, Glory/Honour mechanic that goes nowhere, completely unsuitable for the d20 system.
From impressive set pieces to a remarkable degree of nonlinearity for a historical adventure to the pathos of the tragic fall of a great civilization, The Last Days of Constantinople makes me wish it was a better adventure. The stat blocks are a mess, the Glory/Honour mechanic is poorly thought out and the adventure is almost more of an outline then an adventure but on the other hand, the historical detail is delicious, the commitment to open-ended gameplay is admirable, the characters are lifelike and awesome and the premise is fucking kickass. What really would have helped this unwieldy but glorious mess of an adventure is the inclusion of sample PCs, complete with a paragraph of glorious historical detail. I suggest a Knight of Rhodes, a Teutonic Knight in full Platemail, a Venetian spy masquerading as a monk, a Burgundian Cat Burglar and a Welsh Longbowman who has fought in the 100 Years war.
If nothing else, The Last Days of Constantinople convinced me to check out more historical fantasy. As it is, it rocks hard and you can run it but it is absolutely RIVEN with flaws both cosmetic and fundamental. Shit will require work by the GM to make it playable. And whoever did the stat blocks at Avalanche deserves an Impaling. Someone needs to rewrite this for Runequest or WHF. 6.5 out of 10.