The Last Days of Constantinople - Role Playing Adventure in the Byzantine Empire

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.  A d20 adventure for 1st through 3rd level characters, from the scripter of the best-selling computer strategy games Panzer General 2 and Silent Hunter 2 (SSI).  Find the young empress – if she even exists.  Stand alongside the last Roman emperor in a climactic fight to the death.  Fight Vlad the Impaler, nastiest of the Sultan’s allies.  Meet the Eastern world’s most exotic temptress.  Wield new weapons: Greek Fire, arquebuses, and the Great Cannon.  And as the Turks pour into the breaches, opportunities to hack abound.  A stand-alone adventure, or use its detailed background as source material for your own campaigns!

The capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turks is a pivotal historical moment.  Many reckon the end of the medieval world by the fall of this last vestige of the Roman Empire.  Learned Greeks fleeing the city for Italy brought with them knowledge of ancient classics that helped fuel the Renaissance.  And as Constantinople stood at the crossroads of the east and west, the loss to Christian Europe helped fuel the pursuit of passage by sea to Asia, which in turn led to the discovery by Europeans of the New World.  The perceived cruelty and barbarism of the Turks by Christians who wished to launch a crusade to wrest the city from Muslim hands seems largely to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s orcs.  While the fall of Constantinople was widely seen as inevitable, the siege in April and May of 1453 almost ended in a Turkish defeat.  The Turks were nearly ready to give up when a small gate (Kerkaporta) was found open, and the Turkish army exploited the gap to seal the city’s fate.  At the same time, Genoese mercenaries fled the city with their wounded leader.  When the weight of history rests on such small events, the presence or absence of a hero or group of heroes might be enough to decide events – making it a perfect opportunity for role-playing historical fantasy.  

The adventure is organized into four parts.  The first part, Introduction, provides information on historical Constantinople, including recent events and cultural norms.  This background information is useful for detailing or expanding a city based on Constantinople in any game, and is generic enough to be used with nearly any setting.  As the conflict in this book is between two different religions, the adventure seems to go out of its way to explain that two people that commit the most savage of punishments against each other can both be ‘good.’  Many of the ‘rank-and-file’ soldiers on both sides of the conflict are Neutral Good.  The sultan, Mehmet II is Lawful Good; as is Emperor Constantine XI.  Rather than trying to explain how someone can impale civilians and still be considered ‘lawful good,’ it might be better to just do away with alignment in any game of historical fiction.  The motives are much more complex than simple ‘good versus evil.’  Even with morality so clear in D&D 3.5 (killing evil creatures is good), the adventure does try to set up several moral quandaries.  

The adventure begins when the characters are summoned by a representative of the Roman Catholic pope.  In historical fact, the Orthodox Church has been extremely wary of the Roman Catholic west, particularly since the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by a Crusader Army.  The adventure posits (and may be historically accurate) that Emperor Constantine will recognize the supremacy of the Pope in Rome over the Orthodox church in return for aid in fending off the Turkish siege.  Such aid is not forthcoming.  However, the pope will send a ship with weapons for the defenders, and the PCs will be included as well.  Their mission is to find and rescue the Empress before the fall of Constantinople.  Again, history and the adventure are not in strict agreement.  The adventure actually posits that there are several options regarding the Empress from there is none to she is in the city and is held by one or another person for a particular reason.  History indicates that, while Emperor Constantine XI was to be married to a Georgian princess in the spring of 1453, the siege by the Turks prevented her from being brought to the city.  But, if she does exist, the widow of Constantine XI will be highly desirable to European Monarchs for the legitimacy she offers in connection to the descent from Roman Emperors.  If the pope is going to be matchmaker, he’s going to need the PCs help in recovering this unknown Georgian Princess (Mariya, for the purpose of the adventure).  This first part offers no ‘traditional adventuring’, simply a role-playing opportunity as they accept or reject the mission.  The adventure assumes that they will accept – no other possible hooks are presented.  However, since this hook involves no real ‘adventure’ other than ‘someone asks you to take a mission’, a DM that chooses to involve the players via another means won’t be losing much in skipping this section.  

Part 3 is a similarly short ‘adventure prelude’.  The PCs get on a ship that will take them into the city.  If the DM feels like making it a little more adventuresome, the PCs will be attacked by a Turkish ship as they approach the harbor.  This is combat for the sake of combat, and does not advance the plot of the adventure in any meaningful way.  The ship can also be hired to take the PCs from the city before it is completely overrun by Turkish forces when it inevitably will.  Please note that I do say inevitably – in this case, the adventure is pretty clear that the actions of the PCs will not be enough to save the city of Constantinople from being sacked.  The adventure doesn’t even address the open gate which allowed the success of the Turks before they would otherwise have given up.  

Once the PCs enter the city, they also enter Part 4 of the adventure.  Part 4 is everything that can happen in the city, and it includes a fair amount of intrigue.  There are various powers in the city with different objectives.  One group wants the PCs to betray the Emperor and sell out to the Turks.  Another wants the PCs to kidnap Constantine to save him from a sure death defending the walls.  The Emperor will try to convince the PCs to provide military service.  While several of the possible intrigues are optional, the adventure pretty much assumes that the PCs will serve as defenders.  There are several encounters where the PCs can attempt to stymie the advantages of the Turkish besiegers.  For example, they can raid the Turkish camps (and it is there that they might fight Vlad the Impaler among either the Wallachian levies or the Turkish Janissaries).  They can attack Turkish gun emplacements and even destroy the cannons (though it does not provide details like hardness and hit points), and they can use countermines to prevent tunneling under the Turkish walls.  The problem with these missions is that success has no tangible benefits.  Even though the use of the cannons to destroy a section of wall is the method that the Turks will use to gain entrance to the city, destroying them does not prevent the breach or the subsequent attack.  Eventually enough defenders will fall defending the breach that the players will either die fighting or realize that they cannot hope to turn the tide and they may flee.  Depending on if there is a princess or if they chose to ‘rescue’ Constantine, they may want to take survivors to the boats in the harbor.  There, a number of refugees, including women and children, are pouring onto the boats to escape.  The final question is whether the PCs will sacrifice themselves to allow innocents to take their place on the boats.  

As an adventure featuring a real historical event, the author makes one critical error – the actions of the PCs can’t really change the events.  On the one hand, that make sense – it is a historical event, and the PCs are taking the role of ‘real people’ experiencing those ‘real events.’  But from a gaming perspective, that’s not very satisfying.  Who would play Axis and Allies if the Axis forces could never win?  The fun in any game of historical recreation is exploring what COULD have happened differently.  If the players realize that their actions have no real impact on the adventure, it will make it that much more dissatisfying.  A DM running this adventure would do well to consider ‘victory conditions’ that allow the PCs to change the events enough to save the city and beat back the attackers.  And if the fate of the city really does hang in the balance, they could conceivably play as the attackers getting through the potent defenses of the most heavily defended city in the western world at the time.

The Last Days of Constantinople - Role Playing Adventure in the Byzantine Empire
Author: Mike Bennighof, PHD Publisher: Avalanche Press
Publish Date: 01/2001 ISBN: 09707961-0-2
Pages: 48 Rating:
Retail Price: $9.95