Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Silk Heist - Questing through History

History’s greatest heist didn’t involve a team of specialists infiltrating a bank. There was no action-packed car chase, no laserbeam security system, no silly masks. The target wasn’t the world’s largest gem, most famous painting, nor dollar-bill moneybags.

It involved a few missionaries, a caterpillar, and a couple of bamboo staffs. But the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and in the aftermath, two world-famous monopolies were completely undone.

In the year 552 AD, two Nestorian monks heisted a number of silkworms from China. But to fully understand the significance and how we can use it to up the stakes in your games, let’s go back a bit. 

The Silk Road

By the 6th century, the Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting East to West, was well underway. Silk wasn’t the only good traded, but it was certainly the most lucrative. Discovered in China thousands of years prior, the means of its production was a closely guarded secret.

If you were, say, 4,000 miles away from China and wanted silk, well. You would find yourself at the whims of caravans coming from China by way of your stuffy neighbors, the Persian empire. Having to pay extra for every middleman along the way. Plus your neighbor decides to shut down trade whenever they go to war. So inconsiderate.

Such was the position of the Byzantine empire. The demand for silk was high, both from within and from farther west powers, but silk was expensive, and Byzantine’s supply was dependent on Persia.

Byzantine tried alternatives, to varying degrees of success. They sent caravans north and south of Persia, where they would face raging desert sandstorms, harsh mountain trails, stormy seas, and raids from bandits and Persians determined to maintain the supremacy of their routes.

Meanwhile, China clung fiercely to their silk monopoly. The penalty for transporting the knowledge of silk production out of China was torture, then death.

Enter missionaries. Two monks traveling the lands. During a stop in China they made the discovery of a lifetime: silk, the product everyone was clamoring for, was made from worms (catepillars, technically) raised in China. Knowing the value of what they had uncovered, they sought out the emperor of Byzantine and made a deal to ‘acquire’ some silkworms.

In a journey that would take over two years, the monks risked death traveling back to China, ‘acquired’ silkworm eggs and hid them in bamboo staffs, learned the methods of silk production, and managed to keep the delicate catepillars alive over the course of their return.

Suddenly, the Byzantines had their own silk. They established the silk monopoly of the Western world, breaking the global monopolies of Persian trade and Chinese production. The rest, as they say, is history. Actually all of it’s history, I don’t know why that quote exists.

The situation is dense with adventure ideas. You can slot your players into multiple, varied places in the narrative. They could be Byzantine citizens wanting to make a profit off of the silk demand, Persian traders traveling the long route from China to Byzantine (I hear Ultraviolet Grasslands was free recently), bandits making a living robbing trade caravans, Chinese business owners running a silk company, or simply travelers ready to seize any opportunity that presents itself.

Then there’s the heist of course. But if you go this route, remember, the silk ‘heist’ is interesting because it's not a simple 'get in, get out' heist. You’re not just stealing a thing; you’re stealing knowledge. This is industrial espionage. Corporate spying. You have to figure out how it’s made. And this isn’t an in and out job. You’re in a country where it’s clear you don’t belong, having to play nice with the locals who are definitely watching your every move to make sure you’re not doing what you’re there to do. This is as much a social challenge as it is a thieving challenge.

But my biggest piece of adventure advice is to embrace the sandbox. This isn’t a quest. Wasn’t a quest. I mean, you can make it a quest in your world, but I’d say you were underutilizing the material. This wasn’t a king sending a group of heroes to steal the doomsday device from a dread foreign empire. This was a couple of wanderers coming across an opportunity and siezing it. Wanderers, vagabonds, adventurers. You really can’t understate the power in this, in players having the agency and opportunity because of campaign design to find opportunities and sieze them. Because, afterall, that’s why we play roleplaying games. To make choices. Sometimes good choices. Sometimes bad choices. But (hopefully) always choices with consequences, and the bigger the consequences, the better.
Now, I could come up with some kooky scenario about a new dwarven invention, a wide collective of orcish trading cities, and a human kingdom eager to get their hands on a new technology. But I think you could do that just as easily and come up with something way better than I could. Instead, what I want to do is provide a framework for coming up with your own wide-ranging political scenarios filled with inherent hooks and enough tension to spur even the most passive PCs. Let’s call it, The Three-Player Monopoly Framework.

The Three-Player Monopoly Framework

This framework has three major players. Players can be people, groups of people, entire cities, countries. A mix of the above. What matters is that these are groups/people with power and influence.

Player 1 wants something, bad.
Player 2 is the sole producer of what Player 1 wants, but will not or cannot give it to them.
Player 3 has what Player 1 wants, but with complications.

Player 1 wants something, bad.

Every good story has at its heart, somebody who wants something bad enough to do something worth telling about. In the Silk Heist, this was Byzantine. They were the viewpoint player in the situation, but let’s take care not to make this a good guy bad guy thing. Even in fiction it doesn’t have to be the protagonist that wants something. Harry Potter only happened because Voldemort really wanted to take over the world. It’s easy to default to imagining Player 1 as the PC side, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Here's some best practices for picking a 'want':

Pick something that will resonate with PCs. If crazy politics were driving up the price health potions every few sessions, you best believe PCs would get involved.
Extrapolate the want, forwards and backwards. Is it health potions that are hard to get, or is it one rare component that’s driving up health potion prices? Maybe health potions aren’t even the focus, but with less potions there’s less adventurer-types around, and that’s Player 1 wants?
Come up with sources of demand. Player 1 wants the thing, but why do they want the thing? Who wants them to get the thing? What will they do to Player 1 if they don’t get it?
What is Player 1 doing to get the thing? Even without PC involvement, Player 1 is doing something to try to get the thing. What are they doing now, and how is it failing? What will they be doing next year? How does each thing they try affect the world?

d6 things Player 1 wants:

1. Mana-batteries. They’re powered by souls and useful for spellcasting and magi-tech.
2. The most beautiful shade of blue in the multiverse. There is no greater sign of status and power.
3. Practitioners of a secret, legendary sword technique. Wanted worldwide as mercenaries.
4. Mystberries. Coveted for their distinctive taste. Foodies claim they promote cleansing of the body's internal ley lines.
5. Planetary Warp. Instant translocation to another planet. Player 2 invented it, Player 3 acquired one from Player 2 and let's Player 1 use it. For a fee.
6. Wyvern Squirrels. Giant flying squirrels, best form of transportation through deep forest. Player 2 only trades males of the species, and rarely.

Player 2 has it, but they’re not giving it.

Player 2 is the original source of the thing, but Player 1 isn’t getting it from them, not willingly at least. Here are d6 reasons Player 1 can’t get the thing they want from Player 2. In the Silk Trade, 2 and 5 both applied.

1. Economic - Player 1 has nothing Player 2 wants enough to warrant trade.
2. Economic - Player 2 cannot afford to give/get the thing to Player 1 due to distance or other reasons.
3. Political - Player 2 has prior arrangements preventing them from giving the thing to Player 1.
4. Political - Player 2 will not give the thing to Player 1 due to some animosity.
5. Social - Player 1 is completely or largely unknown to Player 2.
6. Social - Player 2 refuses to/limits trade with outside nations.

Player 3 has it, but it’s a substandard trade

Player 3 has what Player 1 wants. Well, sorta. And they’re willing to give it to them. Kinda. Player 1 either can or is getting the thing they want from Player 3, but there are major complications that make it undesirable or unsustainable. Maybe they’re only getting enough to whet their appetite, or maybe there are some unappealing stipulations tied to the getting. Here are d6 complications to go along with Player 3’s supply. In the Silk Trade, 3, 4, and 5 applied.

1. Price Gouging
2. Low Quality
3. Low Supply (50% chance intentional)
4. Intermittently Available
5. Slow Order Fulfillment
6. Comes with political demands/obligations

A true to scenario interpretation is that Player 3 is able to get the thing from Player 2 for some reason. But it could just as easily be that Player 2 has its own, perhaps faulty, source.


The best thing about a framework is that you can slide them without doing any work and bam! instant adventure hooks. Your game looks like you spent hours constructing a careful web of politics and intrigue, but we both know the truth, and I’m not telling if you aren’t. Besides, is it really stealing if it’s from history?

If you managed to get your hands on any elusive silk, they make great tangle-resistant cloaks. Careful though, they're pretty sheer, easy to slip if caught underfoot.


  1. Another good source of idea would be the competition for the spice and tea trade from Asia to Europe. Lots of craziness and some very nasty business there.

    1. I'm not as familiar, but definitely something to look into for future inspiration. It's amazing how much stranger history can be than fiction. Will hopefully be doing many more history posts in the future.