This article originally appeared in Pyramid #5

Roleplaying By the Sword

Primary Source for Fantasy Roleplaying!
by Greg Costikyan

What's This?
"Roleplaying By the Sword" is a mini-module designed to help you set roleplaying adventures in the world of the new Greg Costikyan novel. Obviously, it's a naked and brazen attempt to get you to buy the book. But hey, when was the last time you got roleplaying stuff, of whatever length, for next to nothing?

The World is Wide and High and Young

So begins By the Sword; and it is so. Technology is in its Bronze Age infancy, writing still a novelty, human civilization restricted mainly to river flood plains. Settlement is sparse, no culture knows anything of lands more than a few hundred miles away, and everywhere there are creatures, strange beasts out of legend. There can be anything out there, anything and everything: dragons, krakens, men with the heads of beasts, beasts with the heads of men and things beyond imagination. Adventure occurs at the interstices of the wild and civilization: too much civilization, and there is no room for the adventurous; too little, and there is anarchy, in which wealth and power are too easily destroyed. The world of By the Sword is ideal for adventure: civilized lands to which your characters may retreat, easy access to the unknown.


Two cultures are depicted in By the Sword: the Vai, nomads of the plains, and the city-states of the River Uk.

Vai means simply "the People"; so they call themselves, and most deem northerners less than human. They are divided into innumerable tribes (or Va); Nijon, hero of By the Sword, is of the Va-Naleu. Tribes range in size from a dozen souls to a few hundred. From time to time, a khan will rally the tribes and lead them forth to plunder the cities of the north. As a result, the Vai are greatly feared in civilized lands.

Horses & Cattle
The Vai live and die in the saddle. They ride almost from birth, and consider their mounts practically part of the family. It is common for a Vai warrior on the trail to cut into the neck of his mount, and suck his horse's blood. A man of the Vai can live for weeks at a time on no greater sustenance.

To the Vai, wealth is measured in cattle; they prize gold and precious stones, but cattle are the main medium of exchange. Young Vai men often raid rival tribes to steal horses or cattle. Horsetheft, in particular, is deemed a crime of the brave; therefore, captured horse thieves, instead of immediate execution, are offered the opportunity to display their courage by refraining from screaming while being tortured to death.

Because they subsist largely on meat and milk - protein-rich substances - the Vai tend to be larger, healthier and stronger than people from the northern cities. This cholesterol- and fat-rich diet might be deemed unhealthy by our culture, but then, congestive heart failure is not a concern for a folk few of whom live to the age of 30.

Sex & Power
Sex roles among the Vai are well-established: The men herd cattle, raid, war and hunt. The women raise crops, perform handicrafts, bear children and cook. The notion that either gender is superior, however, would strike the Vai as odd. Each has its role, and both roles are vital to the tribe's survival.

The chieftain is traditionally male, but is expected to consult the Women's Council, which is composed of the oldest and wisest women. Polygyny is rare, polyandry rather more common. Only the female may initiate a divorce, which is considered shameful for the male.

In principle, any man may challenge the chief to single combat for leadership of the tribe; the victor is the tribe's new chief. In practice, the support of the Women's Council is essential. If they do not approve of a chief, they will urge their sons and husbands to challenge the chief, over and over until, weakened by so many fights, he is at last defeated.

Similarly, anyone may challenge the shaman for his position. Shamans duel using magic.

Technology & Weapons
The Vai know of bronze, and buy or plunder many bronze implements; A few of them may know how to smelt it. However, there are no known copper deposits on the plains.

Mikhite weapons (see below) are common. So are stone-bladed axes, arrows, spears, spear-casters, slings and light lances. Armor is rare. Weapons are used mainly for hunting, and in raids on the north; the rules of war among the Vai themselves are strict, and designed to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. In a war among the Vai, warriors bear "coup sticks," and seek to "count coup" by striking an enemy on his back, so shaming him into retiring from the field of battle.

The greatest and most feared weapon of the Vai is the composite recurved bow. Constructed by expert bowyers of strips of wood from different trees, animal sinew, and glue from the boiled hooves of horses, the bow of the Vai is quite the equal of the composite bows used by the Osmanli Turks or of the English longbow. Unlike the longbow, it can be fired from horseback. Proper use of the bow is a difficult skill to acquire; generally, only Vai warriors, trained from childhood, are able to wield it effectively. Composite bows are highly susceptible to water damage, and require constant maintenance and repair.

Some sorts of enchantment are wide-spread among the Vai. Rituals are often performed before embarking on a hunt to ensure its success; a stonecutter will chant a spell when flaking an axe, to ensure that the blade keeps its edge and does not break; it is a foolish young woman who does not know a spell to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

More powerful magic is the exclusive province of the shaman. In a sense, the shaman is nothing more than the tribe's magic specialist, just as it is likely to have someone who specializes in making bows, or training horses, or treating the wounded. But because the shaman is also the intermediary between the tribe and the spirits or gods, he has a religious role, and is treated with awe. Shamans are usually, but not invariably, men. Every shaman is expected to take on an apprentice, to pass on his wisdom to the next generation.

Typically, a shaman will possess a dozen or more "magic items" acquired or manufactured by his predecessors, some quite powerful. These usually have ritual significance as well as magic power, and are part of his medicine bundle. The shaman invests his own power in the medicine bundle; it can be treated as a spell or spell point "battery" that doubles the shaman's effective magical capacity. Moreover, in time of direct threat to the tribe itself, the shaman can call upon the spirit of the tribe, using the spell points/mana/life force/POW of other tribe members to fuel magic in the tribe's defense.

Befitting the youth of the world, its animal life is virtually Pleistocene: there are mammoths, giant sloths, camelo-pards and saber-toothed tigers. And there are more mundane creatures: lions, wild horses, aardwolves, mongooses, birds in profusion and not a few venomous snakes. And there are beasts unknown in our world, like the voracious matsai'e, not unlike the wolverine but standing four feet at the shoulder.

There are magical creatures as well: sphinges, dragonelles, opinici, basilisks and rocs. Dragonelles do not breathe flame, as their larger cousins do: that would lend no evolutionary advantage, not in a land prone to grass fires. And they are smaller, rarely larger than ponies, and less than human in intelligence. But they are fearsome predators, dining mainly on mammoths, which they kill with ease. They kill men with only slightly more difficulty. (Dragons have difficulty lifting off from flat surfaces, and live mainly in more mountainous regions.)

And there are many beasts of Vai legend, like the jeulaivaw'aw, a snake as large as a range of hills and with an appetite to match its size . . .


Mikhite civilization centers on the valley of the River Uk, just as early terrestrial civilizations centered on the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus and Yellow River valleys. Though individual loyalty is to independent cities, Mikhites recognize each other as "the sons of Mikh," the alligator-headed god of the Uk, racially distinct from the Vai or Motraians, and speaking cognate tongues. Economically, culturally, and technologically, they are among the most advanced civilizations of the world, but lag, perhaps fatally, behind the Motraians in military development.

Agriculture & Cities
Mikhites have an agricultural civilization, depending heavily on the cultivation of millet. Amaranth and barley are also grown, in lesser quantity, barley mainly for ale. Chickens, goats and pigs are kept for eggs, milk and meat; in the hills and mountains north of the Uk, sheep and goats are raised. Horses are used mainly as riding animals; the lack of an adequate horse collar means heavy loads are drawn by oxen. The Mikhites have no plow, but hoe and turn the soil with hand tools, restricting their agriculture to the soft earth of the Uk River flood plain. The shaduf, a counterweighted baler that must be operated by hand, helps to irrigate the fields. Mikhite peasants rarely live to the age of 30, rarely eat animal flesh, and have, under law, only slightly more rights than slaves.

Mikhite cities have primitive sanitation; disease is common. A city of 50,000 souls is considered a vast metropolis. Perhaps 10% of the total population lives in cities; these are the privileged few. 90% of the urban population are laborers, craftsmen, or slaves; the remaining 10%, 1% of the total population, comprises the nobility, bureaucracy, priesthood, merchants and artists of the society. This tiny fraction carries on the whole political, religious and intellectual life of the nation.

Each city, save for those subjugated by other cities, is its own polity, and all are constantly at war with the others. Warfare is considered the normal state of affairs, and peace the rarity. Citizens of one city feel free to enslave or steal from the citizens of another, unless a treaty specifically forbids this. Merchants take care to purchase citizenships in as many cities as possible.

Most city-states are kingdoms; many are republics, with the nobility electing a ruler from time to time. Some are religious states, ruled by the leaders of a cult; a few are "democracies" (with voting rights limited to the free, non-peasant, literate portion of the population, i.e., the 1%). And a good many are now satrapies of the Motraian Empire.

The Motraians derive originally from the Byrathine coast; culturally primitive, they have the continent's best military machine. They speak a tongue unrelated to the Mikhite languages. Their empire is divided into semi-autonomous "satrapies," and they do not attempt to impose uniform laws or codes on their conquests. They have subjugated nearly a third of the cities of the Uk, and evidently have designs on the rest. Mistrust, fear, foolhardiness, and Motraian meddling have so far prevented the formation of any anti-Motraian league among the Mikhite city-states.

The most advanced cultures of the world are in the Bronze Age. Galleys are common on lakes and inland seas, but are rarely used outside the summer months, and almost never far from land. Primitive sailing vessels exist as well; most trade travels by sail, and some captains voyage far in search of riches. However, none can sail very close to the wind, and sailing out of season is deemed dangerous. The ram is a recent innovation.

Although a few cities have begun to mint coin, many purchases are still made with ingots, nuggets, or gold dust. Merchants employ scales to weigh the offered gold. Coins are often shaven (no milled edges).

Mikhite merchants are ambitious and daring; they are among the farthest-ranging of any culture. Some have voyaged as much as a thousand miles away; if their knowledge were pooled, the Mikhite cities might have a pretty good picture of, say, a tenth of the world. That will never happen, of course: what merchant would sacrifice the competitive advantage his knowledge of distant lands provides?

Weapons & Warfare
The great weapon of war is the axe, for bronzen swords too easily bend or break. Neither stirrups nor the horse collar have been invented: most cavalry is used for scouting. Chariots, sometimes with blades affixed to the wheels, are often used in battle. Both slings and arrows are in use; the best Mikhite bow is equivalent to a short bow.

Knives are common, but usually have broad, leaf-shaped blades - less likely to break or bend. Spears are common, but pole-arms are not well developed. Crossbows, which require advanced metallurgy, are completely unknown.

"Star-metal," or meteoric iron, is prized even more greatly than gold, for its strength and ability to hold an edge. It is extraordinarily rare; it is doubtful that, collectively, a hundred pounds of iron exists in the entire Uk basin. Probably six or seven pounds is concentrated in the sword of Nijon, By the Sword's protagonist.

There is no equivalent of full plate or chainmail. Padded or quilted armor is common, among soldiers, as are small, round shields. Motraian spearmen carry larger, rectangular shields. Greaves and helmets are common; breastplates exist, but are rare.

Until recently, the way a Mikhite city waged war was to gather all its men at arms and point them at an enemy city. There was no notion of discipline, training, military hierarchy, unit tactics, combined arms, or any of the niceties of warfare in later eras. Battles were bloody, chaotic, and usually inconclusive.

The Motraian Empire possesses a permanent military apparatus, divided into military units with a hierarchy of command. Soldiers are trained to stay with the unit, follow a leader's commands, and cluster together in several formations. This is still primitive by the standards of, say, the Alexandrian phalanx, but it is enormously superior to Mikhite practices.

The world is young, and its magicians have not yet gained the knowledge, skill and power of sorcerers on other worlds. Oh, certainly there are wizards of enormous power, but they are few, and they guard their wisdom carefully.

At a low level, magic is everywhere: in the soldier's blade-sharpening enchantment, the courtesan's spell to bedazzle a man, the potter's chant to ensure there are no bubbles in the clay to flaw the pot when it is fired. And there are many wisewomen, street magicians and mountebanks who know a spell or two.

But the Mikhites treat any knowledge as a prized personal possession: something to be guarded from others. The potter's skills are his livelihood; the gods forbid every Tsaum, Dekh and Chari should learn how to make pots, or he'd probably starve. Sorcerers feel no differently.

For a sufficient bribe, a sorcerer might teach you a spell or two, but certainly not his best magic. Or you might find scrolls inscribed with the words of a spell, or plead with a god or spirit to teach you. But knowledge will always be difficult to obtain.

The Mikhite gods - like those of the Vai, and of Motraia - are therianthropic, possessing both human and animal characteristics. Indeed, all three cultures recognize many of each others' deities as being the same entity, if by a different name - just as the Romans might term a Gallic or Syrian god "the Apollo of such-and-such," recognizing him as an aspect of their own deity.

The gods are very real, manifesting themselves in both animal and human form - usually to those deprived of food or water, or besotted by drinks or drugs. Often, they will go incognito among humans. Sexual congress, and the resulting half-divine offspring, are common, at least in legend. The gods may be divine, but don't seem to behave any better than people, getting into all sorts of quarrels and even wars, much like the gods of ancient Greece. Unlike the Egyptian therianthropic gods, the gods have some kind of literal relationship with the animals on which they are patterned; thus, Mongoose will go out of his way to protect mongooses, while Mikh might not favor a warrior who hunts alligators.

Some gods do seem local in origin - but then, not all species of animal are widespread. There are also undoubtedly spirits of widely varying nature, some approaching the godly in power. Ghosts and ancestral spirits often show themselves; prayer to propitiate the dead is common in all cultures.

Not too many wild beasts live in the areas of heavy Mikhite cultivation, but it should be remembered that "civilization" is a thin line along the river. Vast stretches of country, even within the ostensible borders of the Mikhite city-states, are unpeopled. And there, all manner of creatures live. There are tribes of the folk called "ogres" - protohumans, who speak but a few words; the chakhmish, horse-men, with the forequarters of humans and rears of horses, who are reputed to have an ancient culture of their own; dragons, of several kinds; the Leviathan, the slow-moving creature capable of devouring whole cities; and lesser entities, like the fays who flit about forests in the dimness of the gloaming, or the rakhree, the spirits of bereaved lovers who lure men to their doom. A thousand thousand such strange things live in legend, and none can say which are real and which imagination.


Character Generation
Because the technology of the world is more primitive than that of the usual medieval, Iron-Age fantasy game, some character classes or skills may not be available. Fighters are certainly common; magic, at least at modest levels of power, is not uncommon. There are innumerable gods, each with its own followers; clerics from different cults may have different sets of spells.

Any weapons or equipment consistent with a Bronze Age, Mesopotamian world are permissible; see the above for specific suggestions. The Vai have few class distinctions; when generating Mikhite characters, all characters should be from the privileged 1% - this still leaves a wide range of possible backgrounds.

You might want at least one of your characters to be a demigod. This lets you mess around with his life whenever you want, in the role of Dad or Mom. And he or she won't object, because being a demigod brings with it powers and abilities beyond mortal ken. (Like what? Nijon can sense magic, has keen senses, and is fated to slay all of the serpent kind. [Including dragons? That would be telling.] Three is a nice round number; give them three similar little benefits.)

A Low-Powered World
The world is young; knowledge is scarce, because not much has yet been discovered. There are not many high-level characters here, because few have yet figured out to become so powerful, and those that have aren't telling.

In game terms, this is a low-powered world. Characters advance slowly; gaining the equivalent of a "level" should be a major event. But once they have gained a few levels, they are more than a match for much of what they encounter - heroic figures in a low-powered world.

Not too many experience points, I trust. No dragon hoards left lying around, please, at least not if you give experience points for treasure.

Spells, in particular, are difficult to come by. A magician who gains power should not automatically gain a whole slew of spells; instead, he must learn each spell in turn, and finding a sorcerer who will teach him, or a tome of magic, should be a big deal. This provides the GM with an opportunity; rather than using your game's list of spells, you can provide your players with a rather different list, both introducing your new ideas and canning spells you never much liked.

Virtually any monster can exist virtually any place. The world is a strange and dangerous place, and none can say what may lie beyond the next horizon. The odd and inexplicable is preferable, in fact, to the mundane. What's the challenge, after all, with something plucked straight from the rules? "Ho hum, another dragon. Hmm, not a plaid; is that the Stuart tartan? Yes, a Stuart tartan dragon - 12D, hmm, breathes, I see. Ah, the number six sword, please, Reginald." Give them something odd, make them experiment to learn its strengths and weaknesses. Bring back the moment of terror and discovery they felt when they first began to game.

Meddling Gods
It's always nice to be able to give the players a kick in the seat of the pants. Or to have an easy way to get them moving in the right direction at the start of an adventure. The gods are good for that. They meddle in human affairs, they've got the same vanity and greed as people, and they'll show up - or fail to show up - as whim takes them.

Even if none of your players is directly related to a god, one of the gods can easily take an interest in their affairs. Then, they can call for divine intervention and get it (when it doesn't matter), or fail to get it (when they really ought to save their own bacon, thank you). Or a god can show up, incognito, and tell them about this terrific magic spring down the road a bit and halfway up Mt. Lotsadragons. Or whatever you need to get the story moving.

If you want to be creative, you can set up a whole campaign in which the players are trying to sort out the gods' problems. Think of the players as Sam Spade, gradually uncovering some skulduggery among the local pantheon. But they're dealing with deities, of course, beings with fantastic cosmic powers who can crush the characters like ants if they want to. How do you bring that kind of mystery to a successful conclusion? Alive, we mean.

Cynicism & Chicanery
The Vai have their own bloody-minded sense of honor, but see nothing wrong with bilking those who are not of the People. And Mikhite civilization is above all commercial, concerned more with the here and now than with religion or discovery. The predominant tone of By the Sword is cynical, and in your campaigns:

Heroes One and All
By the Sword is a novel of heroic . . . Scratch that. By the Sword is a novel of larger-than-life characters, vastly more powerful than those among whom they move, capable of slaying dragons, rescuing damsels, toppling empires - and getting home in time for lunch. As much as we like dismaying players with seemingly impossible tasks, this is not Paranoia; the seemingly impossible should lead to resounding triumph. Even a beginning character should be able to smite a dozen peasants like the Sunday Times landing on a cluster of ants. Of course, player characters don't go up against peasants; they go up against lions, dragons and the very gods themselves. You're urged to bring out the old epic feel:

Happy Gaming

We hope this has piqued your interest in By the Sword; and even if you don't set adventures in its world, we hope you'll find some ideas here to steal and use in your own campaign. In any event, happy gaming - and don't take any wooden empires.

Copyright 1993 by Greg Costikyan. All rights reserved. Designed by Greg Costikyan. Published by Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Printed in the United States of America.

By the Sword is a new fantasy novel by Greg Costikyan, five-time Origins Award winner, and designer of MadMaze, Paranoia, Toon, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, and 18 other games. $18.95 from Tor Books. ISBN 0-312-85489-7. Look for it wherever books are sold.

Article publication date: February 1, 1994

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