Terra Incognita

This article originally appeared in Pyramid #9

The Intercession

by John M. Ford

Every conflict needs a neutral ground. No matter how absolute and vicious the enmity between sides, there has to be a place where contact can safely be made. The Intercession is that place.

Its usual appearance is as a small inn or hotel, appropriate to the universe in which it appears. In the standard-issue fantasy world, it would be an inn with ceiling beams, wooden tables stained by decades of spilled ale, tiny rooms up the wooden staircase, past the swing-rated chandeliers. In a contemporary setting, it is a small townhouse hotel, or country bed-and-breakfast, with a discreet sign on the door -- no neon, no Michelin rating, no credit cards. In space opera, it might be a hazy dive on the edge of the starport, or a self-contained orbital platform. If the war has been really vicious, it could be behind an inconspicuous door in the bombed-out shell of a once-grand hotel. And so on.

The important thing about The Intercession is not its appearance (which has been known to change, anyway); it is that, inside its door, all active forms of conflict are suspended. This applies not only to physical violence, but to such actions as non-consensual telepathy. Reading minds with the permission of the subject is allowed, and even encouraged. Most weapons must be surrendered upon entering, though no physical search is involved. This isn't a test of ingenuity in defining "weapons;" it doesn't apply to such "normal" items as eating knives. Members of cultures that require personal armament may keep it . . . the truth is, it won't do them any good anyway.

No one seems to know if the neutrality of the place is simply by mutual agreement among all the parties who use it, or if it is enforced by a Higher Power. The rules are normally observed without problems; people who find The Intercession, or are sent there, either understand already what it's for or learn very quickly.

As the saying goes, however, there's always two percent who don't get the word, and an awful lot of them are player characters. People who insist on attempting violence tend to find Murphy smiling upon them especially brightly: guns misfire, swords get stuck in scabbards, laser optics are dirty and batteries are dead, spellcasters get the hiccups, blunt instruments hang up on the drapes, ninjas trip on loose boards, vampires get an awful toothache . . .

In a campaign where opponents are normally beyond truce, such as In Nomine, it may be necessary to clearly state that something beyond either side keeps the peace, that the truce is not an invitation to clever treachery. (The motto above the bar, taken from Dante, is "This Has Been Willed Where What is Willed Must Be." Wherever that is.) There are, of course, limits: Cthulhu isn't going to show up for a quiet brandy with his mortal opponents, but some of his human minions might. (Especially if they had just lost control of one of their summonings. Again.)

Vampire: The Masquerade already contains a version of this idea, as "Elysium." In a Vampire campaign, The Intercession might exist as a point of contact between Kindred and others -- Lupines, for instance, or even vampire-hunters. Perhaps the Government's Weird Incidents Investigative Team goes there to meet Kindred, the joke being that the vampires are preserving the Masquerade by pretending to be the Illuminati, or extraterrestrials . . .

It is generally assumed that people in The Intercession tell the truth, or at least what they believe to be the truth. This can be especially important in, say, an espionage campaign, where everyone is normally lying about their knowledge and intentions. It is up to the GM, however, whether honesty is enforced, normally observed, or purely optional.

The Intercession is operated by four people. As with the decor, their appearance fits the local background: human in a human world, a mix of species in a fantasy or SF setting. (They are described here as human merely to set the general tone; feel free to modify appropriately.) All can speak any language the visitors know, including sign languages. They display telepathy only if there is absolutely no other way for visitors to communicate.

Dante seems to be in charge. He is a large, blond, bearded man, always genial and polite, but very firm about the rules of the house. He greets visitors just inside the door, checks baggage and weapons, and invites everyone into the bar (or equivalent) for a friendly drink (or whatever). Nobody is given a bill here, and tips are politely refused. (In a realistic world, the house is financed by the groups that use it for meetings; in a fantastic setting, who knows?)

Beatrice is slender and darkly ethereal. She speaks very little. She handles practical affairs: providing supplies or equipment (say, paper and pens, a Swahili dictionary, or a laptop computer), arranging to have things mended or replaced.

Orpheus is slight and dark, quite young in appearance. His specialty is communications: working out the details of conversations between visitors, finding languages they can mutually understand. His presence has a calming effect on others.

Eurydice is tall, strong, and fair. She is a magnificent cook, and the house physician. Her medical ability is the best available in the outside world: that is, if magic works outside, she has all the known healing spells; if high technology exists, there will be a fully equipped surgery.

No other staff are ever seen, though somehow the beds get made and the place stays clean. This does not mean that the place has to be supernatural; a sufficiently efficient house staff is indistinguishable from magic.

It is important to note that while the staff help to make communications possible between visitors, they are not there to actually negotiate, assist in agreements, or even suggest solutions. The Intercession is a place for the opposing sides to meet and look for solutions, not in itself a solution.

Visitors may stay in the comfortable rooms (the hotel always has Just Enough Space) for as long as the situation requires: the duration of negotiations, the time it takes an injured party to heal. It may not be used simply to hide out from the hostilities outside, though an important NPC may be sheltered there temporarily (see below).

Communication with the outside world is available, but limited to information access, and strictly one-way. If newspapers, television, and computer datanets exist outside, they will be available inside; Beatrice can come up with almost any book the visitors might need. However, direct communication is not allowed: visitors may watch television or read the papers to find out how the war is going, but not send or receive letters. "I have to check with Headquarters" is no excuse: the people at The Intercession have the authority to do what's necessary, or they don't get in.

Computer access is a particular case. Any net that exists can be accessed from The Intercession, but only for purposes of obtaining information from data stores -- not for e-mail. Illegal system cracking, however, might be allowed -- say, to produce the secret evidence that would convince the Other Side that "we didn't really do that," or scrambling the go-codes for the mad dictator's nuclear bombers.

In the Campaign

At the Beginning: The most straightforward use of The Intercession is to set up an adventure: the group is sent there to meet with agents of the Opposition, who explain why they need the enemy's help. Maybe somebody on their side is about to Go Too Far. Or one of the heroes' superiors has gone renegade, and only someone on the inside can stop him. Or it's the good old Third Party that wants to blow up Our Side and Theirs.

An entire spy campaign could be built around this idea: the players are a Special Liaison Team whose specific job is to stay in touch with the Other Side (presumably a team just like themselves) and deal with crises that run over the normal lines of Us and Them.

In the Middle: The inn can be used to change the direction of the story. Events that seem to have been leading toward Armageddon, or just eternal stalemate, are altered by a surprise meeting with the bad (or supposedly-bad) guys. This can happen either as a pre-planned plot point or an emergency course correction (yes, you and I would never lose control of the action, but some perfectly nice people might, sometime).

The meeting may be informational, or it may involve receiving a McGuffin -- a treaty, a program cartridge, an important person -- that must then be delivered, probably with agents of both sides trying to prevent its safe arrival.

Or the visit can simply provide some time out from tension and action, a quiet session of character interaction -- with the possibility of providing some important information. It also makes a useful deus ex machina when the characters are wounded and starving in otherwise hostile territory.

At the End: Here the meeting at The Intercession resolves the adventure. Instead of the usual climactic shootout, a summit meeting negotiates a settlement, or the evidence is prsented that convicts the hidden villain (and, in the way of these stories, clears the heroes), the information and skills of the two sides (or however many you've got) are assembled to avert the disaster.

With this option, it's the getting there, and the picking things up on the way, that make the adventure. Somebody's always out to stop the heroes. Usually they've been framed, and everybody's out to stop them. Information -- evidence, computer codes, ancient artifacts, the ability to speak the right language -- has to be acquired, mostly the hardest way available. The most important thing to be learned may be the location of The Intercession itself -- despite its sometimes supernatural appearance, it does not necessarily appear wherever it's needed.

Where it Fits: Any campaign in which two or more factions are at each other's throats. Which is to say, just about all of them . . .

Article publication date: October 1, 1994

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