The Great Game
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City-states are in a constant state of competition. They all need the same resources - food, ores, trade goods, and so on - and most of them will do everything in their power to get them in sufficient quantities and low prices. Likewise, all of them try to sell their own products to the highest bidder. Thus, even cities on the friendliest of terms will have some people plotting against their counterparts in the other city, while cities on less friendly terms will do everything in their power, no matter how foul, to get ahead of their competition. This struggle and competition between city-states - in whatever form it appears - is generally called "The Great Game", and some of the means used in it are examined below.


Knowing your trading partners is important. Knowing your enemies is even more so. Since public contracts aren't normally given to the lowest bidder, but made behind closed doors after much wheeling and dealing, knowing just the right people and what kinds of incentives they are amenable to can make all the difference between vast earnings and going broke. In times of conflict this is even more vital - a good diplomatic network can mean that you will have many allies standing by your side against your enemies, while a bad or nonexistent one means that you will be overrun without any warning.

Consequently, the diplomats of Rothea are always busy. There are always more people to meet, and it requires a charming manner to make new friends, and a keen mind to distinguish the true movers and shakers of a city from those who will only waste the diplomat’s time - or worse, drag him into a scheme that will ultimately be harmful to his agenda.


Sometimes, normal diplomatic channels won’t be enough - sometimes, you need to know exactly what your enemies are up to, and you need to know it now. While there is some overlap between diplomats and spies - being able to talk your way out of a situation is a useful skill for spies as well - spies tend to move around unseen, sometimes hiding in the shadows and sometimes hiding in plain sight. Diplomats have the disadvantage that their name and appearance is generally known to all in their social circles, but a good spy will only be detected long after he is gone - if ever.

A good spy who can learn of any enemy plans and evade any obstacles in his way, whether mundane or magical, can demand almost any price - if he seems trustworthy to his employer. But in this business of deceitfulness, betrayals and double-crosses are all too common, and most spymasters learn to anticipate them.


Once you have learned of your enemies’ foul plans, you must try to stop them - or perhaps you want to start some plot of your own, and want to hinder the enemy’s ability to stop you. Sabotaging the enemy’s equipment or infrastructure can certainly make his life difficult, and even assassinating key personnel can be considered to be sabotage of sorts. If you can point the blame to yet another enemy and sow confusion and distrust among your foes, then so much the better.

The easiest way to sabotage something is to bribe one of the enemy’s employees to do it. After all, they know their workplace - and its weaknesses. Roving saboteurs who can infiltrate a hostile installation, pick out the most vulnerable points, and damage them without anyone noticing it until it is to late are far rarer - and highly sought-after specialists.


Sometimes, simple sabotage isn’t enough - or too difficult to pull off - and it is time to send actual soldiers to harass enemy operations. The aggressor side in such a conflict tries to keep a layer of deniability - any of their soldiers caught by the enemy are usually said to be “acting without orders” - but while this keeps the conflict from being true warfare, no astute observer is really fooled about the nature of the conflict.

The goal here is to disrupt enemy operations in a remote locale - such as farms, ranches, mines, or military patrols - in such a way as to make them unprofitable and cause a withdrawal of the enemy. It is fairly common to hire mercenaries for such activities - which adds another level of deniability. Payment depends on the difficulty of the tasks, but there are only few highly-trained experts that can expect to get rich from such a career, while most die an early and lonely death in the wilderness.

Limited Warfare

Sometimes, hostilities between two cities boil over to such an extent that a shadow war spills into the open, and the competitors enter a state of war. Nevertheless, trying to assault another city-state is an extremely costly undertaking that would leave even the winner exhausted and stretched to the limit - a state of affairs when other city-states traditionally enter the fray and finish him off. Therefore, the concept of “Limited Warfare” was born - the two cities come to an understanding (sometimes a verbal "Gentleman’s Agreement", sometimes an actual written treaty) to limit their conflict in scope. Usually this kind of war is fought over a specific resource that both covet, and this resource marks the center of the battlefield - but sometimes both parties want to avoid any damage to this resource, and agree to pick another battlefield.

This kind of warfare gives a great opportunity for rulers to induce their people some civic pride, and they are usually quick to emphasize any victories, and downplay any defeat. Often, the effect on the morale of a city-state becomes more important than the resource itself - a quick victory over some hated enemy can distract an angry population from the problems caused by corrupt and incompetent rulers.

All kinds of people can get involved in such a war, and mercenaries prefer this kind of conflict over any other, since the “Rules of War” that are in place at such an occasion mean that if they are taken prisoners, they will be released at the end of the conflict instead of being executed for “war crimes”. But spies and saboteurs matter just as much in a conflict when the pride of an entire city is at stake…

All-Out War

When even limited warfare isn’t enough, and a city is willing to do anything to conquer or destroy a hated enemy, then the Rules of War are abandoned and all-out war begins. The objective is to conquer or destroy another city-state - or at least make the enemy city incapable of being a competitor in the foreseeable future.

Most cities have massive and multiple defenses, starting from the nexus towers to multitude of well-trained troops to hidden traps, stockpiled weapons, and other tricks. Thus, conquering an enemy city requires a massive effort that usually starts with extensive espionage (often years before the actual invasion starts!) to ferret all the contingency plans the rulers of the city might have. Then there will be multiple strikes by highly-trained specialists who try to take out as many enemy commanders, nexus towers, and other fortifications as possible, and throw any defending forces into confusion before they have time to organize a counterattack.

Then, once the main defenses are disabled, the normal soldiers move in and begin to suppress all opposition. Usually there is intense urban fighting with remaining enemy forces which survived the initial raids, and which can inflict horrendous casualties on the invaders. After this, there will be a few days of quiet while the remaining defenders retreat underground and try to take the measure of the invaders. Eventually, the occupiers will have to relax curfews and other measures somewhat to keep the occupied city functioning - but this usually means that they will be subject to increasingly effective guerrilla strikes by the survivors. Any crackdowns will usually cost the lives of innocent bystanders - whose relatives will now have a new cause for fighting the invaders.

All in all, there are many things that can go wrong with this kind of warfare, and all too often the invaders find themselves stretched to the limit in terms of money, resources, and manpower - a situation that other city-states will invariably try to take advantage of. It has been all too common in history that a city-state wins a war, but ultimately looses the peace. Wise rulers know all this, and take care never to let affairs degenerate to this state - it is usually far more effective to dominate your enemies through other means than through sheer force of arms.

Adventure Ideas

Designer's Notes & Resources

The original "Great Game", of course, referred to the political, diplomatic, and military movements between the British and the Russian Empires in Central Asia. But the term seemed apt enough for general intrigue between city-states, so I appropriated it here.


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