The great conquerer Babur (1483-1530) is best known as the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, but he got his start a thousand miles away. He was born in what is today Uzbekistan, and at the age of eleven was thrust into the snake pit that was Central Asian geopolitics. His time as a teenage king in an era of cutthroat competition is a fascinating story in itself – and it has some great ideas you can mine for use in your ongoing campaigns!
This is the first of five posts I’m going to draw from Babur’s remarkable autobiography. I’m going to release one a month, mixed in with other posts. The last thing I want is for you to get tired of this guy’s wild life story!
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Around Babur’s birth, Central Asia was a shifting patchwork of holdings led by members of two lineages: one descended from Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai, the other descended from Timur (or Tamerlane), the legendary 14th-century conquerer. Babur was both! He was Timurid on his father’s side and Chagatai on his mother’s. All these petty kings were constantly forming and breaking alliances, moving their courts to better cities when they seized them, fleeing to worse cities when they lost, rising, falling, appearing, and disappearing as the political winds changed. These inconstant kings were themselves supported by inconstant vassals. The most powerful among them swapped their allegiance from one king to another as proved convenient. This was the sort of place where kings were deposed often enough that there developed a traditional way to conduct the execution. Politics in 15th-century Central Asia was complicated, fast-moving, and lethal.
Babur’s father died in an accident when the boy was eleven, making Babur king of the much-coveted city of Andijan. His family was initially going to flee, but the city officials promised they weren’t going to seize the opportunity to grab power. Warily, the child Babur took the throne. He was fortunate to have advisors he could rely upon. Chief among these was his grandmother, Aisan-Daulat Begum, who’d been playing politics her whole life. It’s probably safe to assume she acted as regent for at least the first few years of Babur’s reign.
Not all of Babur’s relatives were so trustworthy. Sultan Mahmud Mirza was Babur’s uncle – his father’s brother or half-brother – and was king of the lands south of Babur’s. As soon as Babur’s father passed, Mahmud started working to get rid of Babur and take the city of Andijan. Mahmud identified two people he could suborn. The first was Jahangir, Babur’s younger brother, whom Mahmud felt would be easy to control if placed on the throne. Mahmud would not be the last to pit the two brothers against one another. The other weak link was Hasan-i-Yaq’ub, the man who commanded the soldiers who controlled the city gate. Babur later gave him mixed reviews: he was brave and good at archery and polo, but narrow-minded, stupid, and liked to cause trouble. Not the best person to run the gate, perhaps, but Babur’s father had appointed Hasan. To remove him might have been an insult.
Sultan Mahmud Mirza sent an envoy to Babur to deliver a present. While at court, the envoy bent Hasan’s ear. He convinced the gatekeeper that his fortunes would be much improved if Mahmud were in charge. All Hasan had to do was wait for Mahmud to show up with an army and then open the gate.
The same stupidity that made Hasan-i-Yaq’ub easy to flip also made him a poor double agent. Five or six months later, he started acting rudely towards Babur and his family. He ran his mouth around his soldiers about what he was planning. Word spread. Four loyalists brought the news to the twelve-year-old Babur and his grandmother, Aisan-Daulat. She decided to have Hasan killed. Loyal soldiers were sent to arrest Hasan and his troops. But the move was badly timed! Hasan was out of the city on a hawking expedition.
Hasan heard he was a wanted man. He took his retainers and moved against one of Babur’s forts. The fort heard about this (remarkably few secrets around Andijan, huh?) and sent a detachment to scout him out. In the middle of the night, Hasan and his retainers surrounded the detachment and showered it with arrows. Hilariously, the retainers’ aim was awful. One of the arrows fired from the other side of the ring hit Hasan and he died.
At your table, a fictionalized version of the situation in Babur’s court is immediately gameable. A new king is crowned at much too young an age. The PCs overhear two soldiers talking about how their leader is plotting with the king’s more-powerful uncle to depose him and replace him with his more-tractable younger brother. (Might want to genderswap a few folks in your fictional version; lotta dudes there.) And the PCs saw the traitorous gatekeeper leave town on a hunting trip. What do they do? If they run to tell the king (and his cool regent grandmother), it might be too late to catch the traitor. If they go after the traitor themselves, the king won’t know the party is loyal; he’ll just see the PCs attacking one of his officials. Or maybe the PCs might want to join the plot. The king’s uncle is awfully rich. He’s probably got gifts to spare!
What if the PCs do none of these? What if they don’t get involved? I’d recommend a different response depending on the reason. On the one hand, maybe the players just aren’t into it. You’ve dangled a plot hook, but they’re not biting. That’s fine. Slide them along to the next plot hook. Maybe they’ll find that one more fun. On the other hand, though, maybe the party is chicken! Maybe they didn’t get involved because they’re scared to pick a side. In that case, I’d say that by failing to notify the king, they picked a side. Loyalists get word to the king, who arrests the traitor and his soldiers – and learns the PCs might have known of the plot and didn’t tell him. Now the PCs have to flee town in a hurry!
A few months later, Babur’s uncle, Sultan Mahmud Mirza, died unexpectedly. He controlled Samarkand, Timur’s old capital and one of the jewels of Asia. Mahmud’s death set off a struggle for control of Samarkand. The game of musical chairs lasted for years as sieges, betrayals, revolts, and more sieges passed Samarkand from king to king. One of these kings was Babur, who took Samarkand at age fifteen. He would come to regret his victory. As long as Babur was in Samarkand, he couldn’t be in his home city of Andijan. He had to leave trusted subordinates back in Andijan to rule in his stead. We’ve already seen how relying on your subordinates could get a king in trouble. And Andijan was a tempting target for Babur’s neighbors.
First, another of Babur’s kingly uncles (this time his mother’s half-brother) demanded Andijan as a gift, even though he’d done nothing to help Babur take Samarkand. Babur claims that if his uncle had approached him before Babur took Samarkand, the two might have been able to work out a deal. But this demand after the fact was unacceptable.
Then two of Babur’s semi-independent subordinates demanded Babur hand Andijan over to his younger brother, Jahangir. Like Babur’s late uncle Mahmud, these two subordinates thought they’d get a better deal out of Jahangir. Jahangir was now old enough to desire power and was sympathetic to these rebellious vassals. Babur refused, Jahangir left Andijan to join the rebels, and the rebel army besieged Andijan. Babur’s mother and grandmother ruled in his stead. They sent him letters pleading for him to abandon Samarkand and return to Andijan to break the siege. “Samarkand was won by the strength of Andijan. If we keep Andijan, we can have Samarkand again.” If Babur left Samarkand, he knew he’d lose it. He was an occupier with no local base of support. As soon as his army was clear of the walls, the local officials would bar the gate against his return. He couldn’t leave anyone behind because he’d need his full army to break the siege at Andijan. What was he to do?
While deciding, Babur fell ill. For four days, he was so sick he couldn’t speak or drink. His retainers had to give him water by squeezing it from a cloth into his mouth. While he was sick, an envoy from the rebel nobles visited Samarkand with some unacceptable proposals. Some idiot on Babur’s staff showed the envoy the terribly ill teenage king, maybe to explain why Babur couldn’t receive the envoy. The envoy immediately left Samarkand and rode to Andijan. There he met with some of the officials holding the city on Babur’s behalf. He reported that when he saw Babur in Samarkand, the king seemed on death’s door. He even swore a sacred oath that he wasn’t lying! The keeper of the gate at Andijan panicked and let the rebels into the city while Babur’s mother and grandmother fled out the back.
Meanwhile, Babur was well enough to travel. He decided to heed the advice in the letters he’d received and rode with his army for Andijan. As expected, he lost Samarkand as soon as he departed. But when he was halfway to Andijan, he learned what had happened in his home city. After holding Samarkand for only 100 days, Babur suddenly found himself a king without a kingdom. It would not be the last time. Much of Babur’s early life was a sequence of losing a kingdom, then gaining another one through luck or good leadership, then losing it again.
At your table, there’s a bunch of ways you can create a fictional scenario inspired by Babur’s first downfall. They might be in a city with a nosy envoy and a sick king who needs their help but is too weak to speak. They might be running the blockade around a space station when a messenger ship arrives, and they can influence the station’s elites as they debate what to do with the information on the ship. My personal favorite is the idea that they bump into the envoy on the road. The envoy has seen that the nearby potentate is dying, and intends to use this information to change the course of a nearby siege. The envoy is proud and full of herself and brags about all this to the party. How do the PCs respond? Do they offer to help? Do they waylay the envoy? Do they rush to the sick king to tell him what’s about to happen?
The next year, Babur was sixteen. He had no kingdom, but he still had a decent-sized army and the devil’s own luck. The rebels in Andijan (and their patsy Jahangir) proved tyrannical. One of the nearby towns rebelled against them. One of the rebel nobles took a force to retake the town, but Babur heard about it, outmaneuvered this force, and soundly thrashed it. The other part of the rebel army was away from Andijan on other business. They rushed back to Andijan to find the gate barred against them! The official they’d left behind to govern Andijan in their stead had betrayed them. He thought he liked Babur’s chances better than theirs and refused to let them in. The rebel army scattered, Jahangir with them, and Babur re-entered Andijan unopposed.
Now Babur faced a tough problem. Most of the soldiers and officials in Andijan had willingly served under the rebels. Many had taken the opportunity to rob Andijan blind. Punishing them for this crime would go a long way towards making the population glad to see Babur again. That’s not nothing – remember that a popular revolt in another town is what cost the rebels Andijan. But the rebels were still out there, led by a noble named Tambal and with Jahangir as their figurehead. If Babur punished his newly-regained soldiers too severely for their theft, they might conclude they liked life better under Tambal and Jahangir, betray Babur, and turn Andijan over to the rebels.
At your table, a fictional teenage ruler might turn to your PCs for advice on how to handle a similar problem: do the right thing and earn the loyalty of the people, or do the wrong thing and earn the loyalty of the military? It’s not a question with an easy right answer, which makes it a fun roleplay opportunity. Regardless of what the king decides, he might ask the PCs’ help carrying out the edict or helping handle the inevitable negative response to it.
Babur opted for a just verdict over a cynical one, though he tempered his justice a bit. He didn’t punish anyone, but he ordered everyone to return the goods they had stolen. In response, a big chunk of his army deserted and rode off to join Tambal and Jahangir. Babur later admitted he made the wrong choice, propelled by the rashness and inexperience of youth – and maybe with a little youthful idealism too. He should have overlooked his soldiers’ crimes in exchange for their loyalty – at least until Tambal was truly defeated. What happened instead is that Tambal remained a credible threat to Babur for years. Jahangir came and went, sometimes on Tambal’s side and sometimes on Babur’s. So too did many of Babur’s most important vassals. And with Tambal out there constantly trying to take Babur’s cities and spoil his alliances (and often succeeding), Babur never had the operational freedom to effectively respond to other changes yet to come.
And big changes were coming to Central Asia! While the Timurid and Chagatai kings fought amongst themselves, the Uzbeks (ooh, haven’t mentioned them before!) were consolidating under a bold, effective new king. In time, this Uzbek king would conquer the Timurid and Chagatai kingdoms one by one and leave Babur once more as a king without a country. But that’s a story for next month.
Until then, come on back for more of my regular weekly content!