Monday, 29 February 2016

The Red Brotherhood

Do the people of Azerbaijan count as Central Asian? They probably shouldn't, what with being on the wrong side of the Caspian Sea and all; but they had shared ancestry with the people of Turkmenistan, khans (for a while), a Turkic language, and cool headgear, so I'm gonna lean towards 'yes'. Besides, including them gives me an excuse to include something based on the Qizilbash.

A Qizilbashi soldier. Note the pointy red hat.

The Qizilbash ('red-head') rebels of late medieval and early modern Azerbaijan were the last in a long, long line of political and religious resistance movements in the area, stretching back through the revolution of Babak and Banu Khorramdin, the followers of the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan, and ultimately the reformist Zoroastrian movement founded by Mazdak in the 6th century AD. You can read up on the historical details if you're interested, but the core idea is this: a thousand-year-tradition of resistance to injustice and corruption, always persecuted by the powerful, existing underground for centuries at a time only to resurface in times of great upheaval to call again for justice upon the Earth. Inheritors not just of a defeated religion, but of a defeated reformist movement within that defeated religion, adapting their beliefs to changing historical circumstances but still somehow keeping the flame alive. Remembering the possibility of righteousness. And wearing pointy red hats.

Of course, the Qizilbash themselves make no sense when removed from their actual historical context: but a group loosely inspired by them can work. Thus, the Red Brotherhood, who fulfil the narrative role of 'the resistance' within the Wicked City. They're the people on the inside, covertly struggling against tyranny, fighting a shadow-war with the Secret Police. They are the inheritors of a very, very old tradition: their ancestors have fought in uprisings and rebellions against many different kingdoms over the centuries, cherishing a dream of earthly harmony which the cruelties of history seem determined to frustrate. Their beliefs are based on the Way of Solar Righteousness taught by the Children of the Sun, but in a modified form much better-suited to the grimy practical realities of life in the world; and whereas the Children of the Sun specialise in spectacular last stands and glorious martyrdoms, the Red Brotherhood long ago learned the importance of choosing one's battles and knowing when to cut one's losses. When the Wicked King rose to power, and a sick despair spread across the hearts of the people of the Wicked City, the Red Brotherhood weathered it better than most: they organised in secret, maintaining their safe-houses, resisting corruption, keeping the faith. They had ample experience of keeping up their organisational infrastructure under conditions of tyranny and persecution: and so it was around them that the nascent resistance to the Wicked King began to coalesce.

They don't actually wear the red hats any more, of course: that would be suicidal. These days the red is purely symbolic, standing for the blood they all end up shedding sooner or later in the pursuit of their goals. They live seemingly ordinary lives, as shopkeepers, craftsmen, soldiers, and bureaucrats; they have infiltrated the hopelessly corrupt ranks of the King's Men, and they have agents in both the King's Tower and the Cobweb, although the Secret Police have so far proven completely impenetrable to them. They are, by necessity, ruthlessly pragmatic, turning a blind eye to innumerable acts of injustice in order to preserve their ability to act on those rare occasions when it really counts. They maintain hiding-places deep under the city, in the labyrinthine corridors of the Maze, and it is to these that many of them ultimately come, for this is the pattern of their lives: years of waiting followed by a moment of decisive action, and then, their cover blown, a lifetime spent lurking in the shadows, training the next generation. They are patient. They know that no tyranny endures forever.

Illustration by Luis Royo, who is a sufficiently talented artist to make it regrettable that 90% of his output is wasted on ultra-repetitive fantasy porn. I mean, come on, more harem girls?

Within ATWC, the Red Brotherhood are intended as late-game allies for the PCs, the kind of people who can help them put the last few pieces of their plans into place. They will not rush out and attempt to recruit or ally with the PCs the moment they take some kind of stand against the cruelties of the Wicked City: instead they will wait, and watch, and wait some more, keeping tabs on their actions, gauging their potential. Only when they are absolutely certain that the PCs are both competent and committed to the struggle against the Wicked King will they attempt to initiate contact, and then only indirectly. They can potentially do a great deal for the PCs - provide them with information and safe-houses, smuggle them into the King's Tower or across the Cobweb, arrange for patrols to be delayed and doors left unlocked, and so on - but as many of their most important members are effectively single-use assets, they will need to be completely certain that the benefit from using them is worth the cost. They are intensely loyal to one another, and will certainly not throw away the lives of their brothers for the sake of some hare-brained scheme dreamed up by a bunch of strangers: but if the PCs can present them with a real, credible, well-researched plan for bringing down the Wicked King, they may well be surprised just how much the Red Brotherhood can do in order to help them put it into practise. 

If it becomes necessary find out in a hurry whether the Red Brotherhood have any kind of presence in an organisation (a tower in the Cobweb, a regiment in the King's Men, a department in the King's Tower, etc), roll on the table below:

Have The Red Brotherhood Infiltrated This Organisation? (Roll 1d12)

1-4: The Brotherhood have no presence within the organisation.

5: Someone in the organisation is, unbeknownst to themselves, in a relationship with someone who is member of the Brotherhood, meaning that they have a roughly 50% chance of hearing about what happens within it after a short lapse of time.

6: The Brotherhood have established some kind of hold over someone within this organisation, via threats, blackmail, bribery, or similar. They pass on information regularly and can be pressured into performing minor tasks on their behalf, but they have no actual loyalty to the Brotherhood's ideals and will not expose themselves to any kind of danger on its behalf.

7: Someone in the organisation is sympathetic to the Brotherhood. They won't take any action that might endanger themselves, but if something happens within it that they feel the Brotherhood really needs to know about, they will pass the information on to a guy who knows a guy.

8: Someone in the organisation is a member of the Brotherhood. They will report on what happens within it, but will not take any action that has the remotest chance of blowing their cover except on direct orders or under the most extreme circumstances. (Saving someone's life does not even come close to qualifying as 'the most extreme circumstances', though saving a whole lot of lives might.) 

9: Someone in the organisation is a member of the Brotherhood, but they're under a lot of suspicion and thus have to do everything they can to display their loyalty and ruthlessness. When help arrives from the PCs, it'll be from the last person that they expect.

10: A very low-ranking member of the organisation is a member of the Brotherhood: the boy whose job it is to polish the weapons, for example, or the girl who makes coffee for everyone at the office. They don't have a lot of power, but nobody pays much attention to them, and they overhear a lot. They're also pretty handy with a set of lockpicks.

11: A fairly high-ranking member of the organisation is a member of the Brotherhood, and has been working to subtly minimise the harm it does. They could probably make it seriously malfunction once - order a regiment of soldiers to release all its prisoners, for example, or call off a government raid - but after that they'd have to disappear.

12: Someone in the organisation is a member of the Brotherhood, but unfortunately they're actually working for the Secret Police. When their betrayal comes, the cell structure into which the Brotherhood is organised should limit the damage they can do, but the PCs may well end up getting caught in the crossfire!

[Korean woman wrapped in cloak] by Cornell University Library, via Flickr:

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