So I’m giving another listen to Dr. Kenneth Harl’s Barbarian Empire of the Steppes series from the Great Courses. This is maybe my fourth listen-through. Especially with Dr. Harl, I can listen to these series over and over again.
In episode three, Dr. Harl discusses early Chinese contact with the steppe nomads, and he talks about the Warring States period. He mentions how many of the northern states started building the kind of defensive structures that evolved into the Great Wall, and as is my wont, I started thinking about how cool that would be as a setting.
I can imagine a group of soldiers overseeing such a construction. The workers are peasants with whom the soldiers might have a lot in common, but the PCs saw that there was social mobility in the military. Some might be mercenaries, and some might be “auxiliary” troops, soldiers from neighbouring cultures hired into the military. The base of operations would be a fortified camp.
This could actually be something similar to the Hell on Wheels TV series which is a Western action-adventure retelling of the construction of the railroad. Like that, there would be characters conflict, cultural friction, and fights within the camp, with actual incursion by the steppe nomads a rare occurrence.
The easy over-arching plot is the rise of a leader that could unite the steppe nomads. The first hints would come from defectors, leaders from assimilated tribes unwilling to bend the knee to this new ruler. Attacks might become more coordinated and the PCs notice troops from different tribes/cultures raiding together. The PCs might be trying to get a warning up the chain of command but – as always seems to be the case – no one listens. And then the camp is overrun. The PCs are behind enemy lines, trying to link up with another military unit, possibly also trying to protect civilians.
A different narrative might see sickness spreading through the civilized lands and news keeps reaching the camp of this town or this village succumbing to the sickness. The reports are wildly exaggerated – as happens – but no one in the camp knows that. A local nomad leader comes with their shaman and warns the camp that unless they abandon the wall and come to join the nomads, the sickness will consume them to. The shaman has seen it in the oracle bones.
In both these cases, the chain of command is focused on the wall above all else. More raids? Not our problem. But you’re behind schedule on the wall. The village where you purchase supplies lost half of its population to the plague? Not our problem. You know you’re behind schedule on the wall, right?
This could also be a framework for a more traditional adventure, with ancient sites near the camp disgorging supernatural threats that the PCs are then sent to investigate. There might be a big evil rising from its slumber, attempting to bring the steppe nomads under its control so it can re-conquer its ancient empire – basically the plot of the Sword’s Edge campaign I just wrapped up.
Education, great on its own but also awesome for inspiring RPGs!
You can find out more about Barbarian Empires of the Steppes here.
I’ve discussed Hell on Wheels elsewhere.
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