Zany PC Schemes from Xenophon

Normally I write material for GMs, but players, this one’s for you. Any player worth her salt is always coming up with clever schemes to bypass the GM’s obstacles. That’s part of the fun of the game! It often happens, though, that these schemes are a little… unconventional.

“You’re crazy!” the GM cries. “That would never work in real life! I’m trying to run a sober, well-plotted story about fear and loss, and you want to fill a pig with hydrogen and catapult it over the Berlin Wall! It’s completely unrealistic!”

Now, I can’t vouch for your Pig-denburg shenanigans, but when I was reading Xenophon recently, I came across two Spartan battle plans that just screamed ‘Zany PC Scheme’. So the next time your GM complains that your brilliant plan is unrealistic, point her to this blog post. Hopefully, she’ll come to see that – compared to the unrealistic nonsense that reality sometimes gets up to – your zany scheme is downright grounded. Who knows? She may even give you a bonus on the roll to enact it.

The ruins of the theater at Mantineia

Image released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany. Modified from the original by Heinz Schmitz.

In 385/4 B.C., Agesipolis, the boy king of Sparta, was besieging the walled city of Mantineia. Now, Mantineia had a river running through it. Agesipolis wasn’t interested in a long siege, so he had his troops dam the river where it exited through the city walls.

It was like plugging a bathtub drain with the water still on. The entire city flooded. Xenophon doesn’t record how high the water got, but he does say it overtopped the foundations of the city’s buildings, so presumably the interiors of all the buildings flooded. The bricks at the bottom of the city wall cracked and sagged. Presumably, water started to spray through holes in the mortar like a pinhole in a garden hose. The Mantineians tried to prop up the wall with timbers, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the entire city wall collapsed. The Mantineians surrendered.

The port of Athens

Our second scheme is naval in character. In 387 B.C., the Spartan admiral Teleutias sailed his fleet into the Athenian harbor. Somewhat complicating this decision was the fact that Sparta and Athens were at war, and Athens was unquestionably the superior naval power. Also, there was the minor issue that Teleutias had only twelve ships, while the Athenian navy – the largest in Greece – was headquartered in that very same harbor.

But Teleutias had a plan. First, he had no intention of actually fighting the Athenian navy. Second, he was counting on the Athenian sailors not actually being aboard their ships. See, Greek warships were cramped, dark, and smelly. Why would anyone choose to sleep aboard one when he could rent a room out in town?

As Teleutias’ little flotilla passed Athenian warships at anchor, they paused for a moment to damage them a little. They might have snapped some oars or fouled their lines. The goal wasn’t to sink the ships (which would have taken some time), but just to make them unseaworthy enough that the Athenians couldn’t pursue the Spartans. While the Athenians milled about like ants, with every man racing home to grab his sword and spears, the Spartans boarded the Athenian merchant ships. These vessels were loaded down with valuable goods. The Spartans got them ready to sail. Some of the bolder Spartans even jumped onto the quay to rob some of the storefronts there. And then the whole Spartan flotilla, captured merchant ships and all, sailed out of the harbor while the Athenians stood on the docks and shook their spears in impotent fury.

Teleutias sold the merchant ships and trade goods his sailors seized. He made so much money he was able to give his sailors a whole month’s worth of advance pay. When Teleutias was finally replaced as admiral, he was so popular with his sailors that they covered their departing commander in garlands and threw flowers into the sea to show their devotion.

Teleutias’ ships would have looked a lot like this model trireme.

Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Modified from the original by Deutsches Museum, Munich.

So yeah. A siege resolved by filling up a city like a bathtub and a bloodless, cheeky smash-and-grab in the heart of your enemy’s power. If that’s not some PC-level bull, I don’t know what is. So go tell your GM that your zany scheme not only deserves a shot, but is thematically appropriate for real history too!


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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