This post was inspired by the series of posts made by Skerples on the book Albion’s Seed (here:Coins and Scrolls).
If we want to breathe fresh life into our RPGs, we must search for new sources of inspiration. Other games may offer new mechanics and different takes on old subjects, but new material not yet related to gaming has the potential to inspire and make our games more engaging.
In the book “Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate”, by Charles Arthur Whitmore Monckton (free at project Gutemberg), we have a description of what could be an excellent base of operations for a new party, complete with cemetery and a clerk that is awaiting a trial for murder (obvious choice for a henchman or replacement murderhobo party member, if the magistrate allows):
Samarai boasted neither wharf nor jetty; our cargo was therefore simply shot over the side into the multitude of canoes and thence ferried to the beach, with such assistance as the ship’s boats could afford.
Dinner Island, or as I shall from now on term it, Samarai, is an island of about fifty acres. The hill, which forms the centre of the island, rises from what was then a malodorous swamp, surrounded by a strip of coral beach. The whole island was a gazetted penal district, and the town consisted of the Residency, a fine roomy bungalow built by the Imperial Government for the then Commissioner, General Sir Peter Scratchley—the first of New Guinea officials to be claimed by malaria—and now the headquarters of the Resident Magistrate for the Eastern Division; a small three-roomed building of native grass and round poles dubbed the Subcollector’s house; a gaol of native material, the roof of which served as a bond store for dutiable goods, and a cemetery: the three latter appeared to be well filled. There was also a small single-roomed galvanized iron building which served as a Custom’s house; in it was employed a clerk, unpaid; he was an affable gentleman of mixed French and Greek parentage, and was at the time awaiting his trial for murder. Two small stores, the one owned by Burns, Philp and Co., of Sydney, and the other by Mr. William Whitten, now the Honble. William Whitten, M.L.C., completed the main buildings.
The paltry surroundings are further described with two very common denominator among economically minded parties: sleeping in their tents and spending on booze. However, a very practical way of determining how much each one should pay is shown:
A few sheds, occupied by boat-builders and carpenters, scattered along the beach, complete the buildings of Samarai. Of hotels and accommodation houses there were none, but then there was no travelling public to accommodate; gold-diggers to and from the islands of Sudest and St. Aignan camped in their tents, which as a rule consisted of a single sheet of calico stretched over a pole; traders lived in their vessels. Alcoholic refreshment was dispensed at the stores; Burns, Philp’s manager, for instance, or one of the Whittens, ceasing from their book-keeping labours to serve thirsty customers with lager beer or more potent fluids over the store counter. Whitten Brothers had a large roofed balcony with no sides, situated at the back of the store, and here at night, as to a general club-house, foregathered all the Europeans of the island. Under a centre table was placed a supply of varied drinks, and as men came in and bottles were emptied, they were hurled over the edge on to the soft coral sand. In the morning one of the Whittens caused the bottles to be collected by a native boy, counted them, and avoided the trouble of book-keeping by the simple method of dividing the sum total of bottles by the number of men he knew, or that his boy told him, had visited the “house”; each man therefore, whether a thirsty person or not, was charged exactly the same as his neighbour.
But nor the island or Mr. Monckton are the focus of this article. Our real-life adventurer is a guy called Nicholas the Greek, described by Charles as one of the “ruffians”, which is a great euphemism for murderhobo:
Among the traders were two picturesque ruffians, alike in nothing, save the ability with which they conducted their business and dodged hanging. Each had spent his life trading in the South Seas and had amassed a fair fortune. Of them and their exploits I have heard endless yarns. Of one of these men, who was known far and wide through the South Seas as “Nicholas the Greek”—Heaven knows why, for his real name sounded English, and his reckless courage was certainly not typical of the modern Greek—the following stories are told.
We can tell that when Charles meet this “greek” fellow, he’s already a seasoned adventuring veteran. His first exploit told, suitable for a 1st level party, was tackled on his own:
A vessel had been cut out in one of the New Guinea or Louisade Islands—which it was I have forgotten—and the crew massacred. When this became known, a man-of-war or Government ship was sent to punish the murderers, and in especial to secure a native chief, who was primarily responsible. The punitive ship came across Nicholas and engaged him as pilot and interpreter, he being offered one hundred pounds when the man wanted was secured. Nicholas safely piloted his charge to some remote island where the inhabitants, doubtless having guilty consciences, promptly fled for the hills, where it was impossible for ordinary Europeans to follow them. He then offered to go alone to try and locate them, and, armed with a ship’s cutlass and revolver, disappeared on his quest. Some days elapsed, then in the night a small canoe appeared alongside the ship, from which emerged Nicholas, bearing in his hand a bundle. Marching up to the officer commanding, he undid it, and rolled at the officer’s feet a gory human head, remarking, “Here is your man, I couldn’t bring the lot of him. I’ll thank you for that hundred.”
Just like in most modules, searching for the enemies is not something an ordinary person can do. A certain amount of recklessness and bravado is necessary. Thus, with minimal equipment and no hirelings, Nicholas kicked ass and got his bounty, just like an adventurer should do. But Nick the Greek needed a party or, as told, a full blown crew:
Another story was that Nicholas on one occasion was attacked and frightfully slashed about by his native crew and then thrown overboard, he shamming dead. Sinking in the water he managed to get under the keel, along which he crawled like a crawfish until he came to the rudder, upon which he roosted under the counter until night fell and his crew slept. Then he climbed on board, secured a tomahawk, and either killed or drove overboard the whole crew, they thinking he was an avenging ghost. This done, badly wounded and unassisted, he worked his vessel to a neighbouring island, where, being sickened and disgusted with men, he shipped and trained a crew of native women, with whom he sailed for many years, in fact, I think, until the day came when Sir W. MacGregor appeared upon the scene and passed the Native Labour Ordinance, which, amongst other things, prohibited the carrying of women on vessels.
Surely you don’t want to mess with his amazon warrior crew, even though he was wise enough to disband them after the local man in charge prohibited women on boats. This didn’t preclude him from kicking more butt, and fooling everyone else, just like a dude with wits matching his brawn should:
Of Nicholas also is told the story that once, in the bad old pre-protectorate days, so many charges were brought against him by missionaries and merchantmen that a man-of-war was sent to arrest him, wherever found, and bring him to trial. He, through a friendly trader, got wind of the fact that he was being sought for, and accordingly laid his plans for the bamboozlement of his would-be captors. Summoning his crew, he informed them that his father was dead, and that as he had his father’s name of Nicholas, his name must now be “Peter,” as the custom of his tribe was, even as that of some New Guinea peoples, viz. not to mention the name of the dead lest harm befall. Then he sailed in search of the pursuing warship and, eventually finding her, went on board and volunteered his services as pilot, which were gladly accepted. To all of his haunts he then guided that ship, but in all the reply of the native was the same, when questioned as to his whereabouts, “We know not Nicholas, he is gone. Peter your pilot comes in his place. Nicholas is dead, and ’tis wrong to mention the name of the dead.”
Finally, Nicholas is described with a cliché, but wholly scary if you think that we’re talking about a real man:
It was said of him that on no part of his body could a man’s hand be placed without touching the scar of some old wound—a story I can fully believe.
I won’t be finishing this piece with tables or encounters inspired by the reading above. Encounters dealing islands, natives and seafaring hurdles can be found almost anywhere, and most experienced DM’s can cook their own challenges.
However, I think that the exploits attributed to Nicholas make a great background, without the need for further embellishments. Even the description of the island can be lifted whole from the book and just inserted in your regular module.