by Robert Collins
Next to the venerable "dungeon crawl," no scenario idea is commoner than the one where a few brave warriors are asked to defend a village from bandits. It's dramatic, full of danger, and rife with character interaction. And it can be used in almost any game background. Most versions of this scenario are inspired by the western The Magnificent Seven. Yet it was only a remake of The Seven Samurai, one of Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa's epic masterpieces. There was even a science-fiction version of the story called Battle Beyond the Stars.
I like the story so much that I'm tempted to include it in any campaign I run. But I didn't want it to be a simple adventure. I want to capture the spirit of the films, the drama, the power. But how to do it? Here are some ideas to bring drama to this scenario.
The setting is very important. For the adventure to work, the area must have no powerful authority, no law enforcement. Otherwise, why hire warriors to do the job? Just call the cops. The authority can be distant, indifferent, or too busy. With the authorities unable to come in, the PCs will have no one to call for backup. They are on their own.
And the town should be poor. The PCs should know in advance that they will get no pay, nothing save meals and shelter. This means that the PCs must either be broke, or so wealthy they can afford to work for free. The former is much better; it lends the proper element of desperation. And if they're broke they won't have lots of weaponry and equipment.
An adventure like this one doesn't belong in the middle of a continuing campaign, unless the group is really down on their luck. Part of the drama of the story is the way these different individuals manage to combine into a unit. Thus, it's far better to use this adventure to start the campaign.
The peasants (or townspeople) live in constant fear of almost everything. To them, anyone with weapons is a potential foe. Many of them will worry that if the "hired guns" fail, the bandits will become still more merciless.
The GM must make use of this. It will make the PCs' job of training the villagers for the upcoming fight harder. It will keep the PCs from asking more of the villagers. The PCs may also find themselves the object of arguments and fistfights.
The warriors, or the villagers, may decide that a separate "warrior class" is necessary. It sets the PCs apart from the villagers. Anything they do that would annoy them, no matter how slight, could be blown out of proportion. This will tempt the PCs with the special pride that comes with being part of an elite.
And then there's the matter of the bandits themselves. While The Magnificent Seven portrayed them as "real folks," Samurai made them almost an impersonal force of nature, like rain or drought. The GM should decide which approach he'll take. That will set the tone of the adventure, and the options open to the players.
If the bandits are simply other NPCs like the villagers, the adventure will take on a "test of wills" atmosphere. PCs can try to play on the abilities and fears of their enemy. Infiltration and stealth will become important. Discovering the motives of the attackers might lead to a non-violent resolution.
It will be vital for the GM to keep very detailed records, as each bandit will be different, and what one does will affect the others.
On the other hand, if the bandits are like a natural force, their character sheets will vary little. The bandits will react in set ways. They will attack in groups, and the scenario will start to resemble a war. The PCs should feel as though they're fighting a flood, instead of human foes. (And they'll probably have as little human feeling for their enemies – which will give the GM a chance to shake them up by having an occasional individual bandit show a human side, probably as he dies.)
The first option could include moments of comedy or romance, while the other will be a grim and desperate struggle against the inevitable. In the former, if "Hoss" is leading four other bandits, and "Hoss" gets snuffed, the other four might panic and retreat. In the latter, snuffing "Hoss" won't matter; all five have to die (can you say "count the corpses?").
In any scenario, the bad guys should have a distinct advantage over the defenders. In low-tech backgrounds, this will simply be a matter of numbers. Forty horsemen with swords will be more than a match for seven, even if those seven have ranged weapons.
At medium tech levels, the advantage starts to drift towards the defense. Mounted men with guns won't have the accuracy of emplaced shooters, unless the mounted men have automatic weapons and/or vehicles.
That's compounded in the Autoduel universe, where even low-income duellists will have significant firepower. Of course, broke duellists may not be able to afford repairs or reloads. But that will turn the cars into pillboxes. The only way to avoid this is for the town to have more vulnerable spots than there are cars to plug the holes. And the GM should impose draconian limits on vehicular ammunition.
At the highest tech levels, the battle may involve tanks or GEVs, mecha or starships. The defenders will have to have much more skill, or much better equipment, to avoid being swamped.
A wise GM will not have the bandits attack in full until the very end. The first fight, in fact, might involve only as many bandits as defenders, if they don't know the village is being defended. Then, as the war wears on, more will be committed to each attack. Finally, the bandit leader should throw everything he's got into one last assault.
The PCs might want to carry the battle to the bandit lair. There are only two times when the GM should allow this: in the beginning, to force a lethargic foe into fighting, and to bring the numbers down (Samurai); or towards the end, which should lead to failure and possibly the town's capture (Magnificent).
When a half-dozen warriors (the PCs) take on a force five to six times greater than them, there will be casualties, and not just among the NPCs. As has been said before, GMs need to take care when PCs near death. In this case, die rolls shouldn't be adjusted too much, unless the bandits threaten to win right away. Any PC who dies will fall in battle, which is obviously heroic. It might be a good idea to let one or two PCs be brash, bravado types who'll be bearable for one play session . . . then let their brashness kill them.
Other PCs might fall in love. This is a nice romantic angle, but it will cause problems. Example: a samurai falls for a pretty peasant girl, but with classes strictly separate, marriage would be unlikely, even disadvantageous. It might be different, in a more "upwardly mobile" society, but how could a poor PC support a dependent? Of course, this won't be a problem for a hero who fails to survive the last battle!
With just a bit of preparation, a careful GM should be able to turn this classic, but somewhat tired, situation into a dramatic adventure. It will challenge the players and their characters. It might even encourage some careful thought about the universe these warriors inhabit. Give it a try (watch those movies first), and you'll have some real roleplaying adventure.
Copyright © 1997-2020 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.