Magic Items from the Jack Tales

Appalachia was fertile ground for the Jack tales from England (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant-Killer). In the mountains of the eastern United States, these folktales developed into their own genre. Jack, an even-tempered teenager from the far backwoods, is confronted by supernatural adversaries, but triumphs thanks to his own cleverness or (for Jack […]

The North Rona Island Rat Apocalypse

North Rona (or just Rona) is a tiny island in the icy waters far off northern Scotland. Its geography and animal life would make it a cool adventure site on their own, but its real claim to fame is that in 1685, a plague of rats wiped out all human life on the island, with […]

The Sudden Succession Crisis and the Fall of Askia Musa

In 1531, the askia (emperor) Musa I of the Songhai Empire in what is today northern Mali was overthrown by his brothers. But when they went to place one amongst themselves on the throne, they found one of their cousins beat them to it. This brief power struggle, its actions restricted almost entirely to close […]

Spotted Tail and the First Lakota Teamsters

The Lakota Sioux leader Spotted Tail was a remarkable – and controversial – figure in the 19th-century Great Plains. Among his many accomplishments, Spotted Tail got his band into the freight business, getting paid to haul wagons across the plains. The man himself makes a compelling NPC, and his efforts to get some of his […]

Language Windows Into the Vagrant Underworld

Since I was first exposed to D&D, I’ve thought it was neat that one of the languages you could be proficient in was “thieves’ cant,” a language for rogues. Real life and real languages are more complicated, but secret languages do exist, and they have been used in criminal activity. One such is Rotwelsch, a […]

Ports of the Erythraean Sea

The Indian Ocean has been a hub of trade as far back as we have records. Merchants have long traveled its coastlines and—in ancient eras where leaving sight of land was often a death sentence—taken advantage of its predictable annual monsoon winds to cross the ocean itself in long, daring journeys. While we know ancient […]

Lop Nor, the Wandering Lake

Lop Nor was a salt lake in the Taklamakan Desert in remote western China. The lake no longer exists; damming the Tarim River to create an agricultural reservoir doomed it. But while Lop Nor existed, it was a terrible puzzle, because every time outsiders visited the lake it seemed to be in a different place. […]

Ben Franklin’s Almanac Prank

In 1730, future American founding father Ben Franklin published his first almanac. While Poor Richard’s Almanack is famous today, Franklin had to do something to stand out in a crowded market. So he used a gimmick: he predicted the death of the author of a rival almanac, then kept the gag going for years, absolutely […]

Akbar’s Hunt

The court hunts of the Mughal Empire in 16th-century India were remarkably gameable affairs, where the army beat the bushes to gather a forest’s worth of animals into a ring for courtiers to fight. They were also tools of geopolitics, used to quell rebellions before they arose. Money changed hands, hunters fought tigers and elephants, […]


The role of the herald in Medieval western Europe was multifaceted: messenger, diplomat, announcer, and an expert in the system of personal and family insignia called “heraldry”. Starting in 1530 in England and Wales, royal heralds were sent out to verify that everyone using a coat of arms was approved to be doing so and […]

PCs on the Battlefield: Benedict Arnold Tries to Take Over

American schoolchildren learn about Ethan Allen’s 1775 seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, an important moment early in the Revolutionary War. What’s less commonly talked about is that the man who’d go on to be the war’s most famous traitor almost botched the whole thing. Right when Allen was about to start the operation, Connecticut businessman Benedict […]

More NPC Foibles from the Mughals

In my last post, I wrote about the character foibles of two of India’s Mughal emperors and how those foibles can make good quirks for memorable NPCs. Today I’m doing the second half of that thought with their successors, the last three of the truly great Mughals: the patron of the arts Jahangir, the mismanager […]

NPC Foibles from the Mughals

Back in 2020, I wrote two posts about character foibles of Roman emperors that made good quirks for NPCs. Now I’m going to do it again with the Mughal emperors of India, who were just as quirky and gameable! Skipping over Babur, the first Mughal emperor (who has his own five-part series), this first post […]

Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

Before the American Revolutionary War, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies. There were no slave states and free states, no Mason-Dixon line that people fleeing slavery could cross and find freedom. Still, there were places you could go: English Florida to live among the Seminoles, a big city to lose yourself in the crowd, […]

The Uncertain Truth Behind Thugee

The word ‘thug’ arrived in English in the early 1800s to refer to a specific kind of bandit operating in India. The concept of ‘thugee’ (the practices of thugs) soon lodged itself in the Anglophone popular consciousness, spawning media like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But real-life thugee was very different from the […]