PCs on the Battlefield: The Crusades

Many RPG campaigns involve wars. But wars are enormous affairs, with tens or hundreds of thousands of combatants on each side. How do you make a single party of PCs stand out? The received wisdom is not to put them in the center of the battle, where gameplay is repetitive and the PCs can’t contribute much. Instead, put them in special situations where they can really shine! Here, we’ll look at three such moments during the Crusades where a handful of Muslim fighters turned the tide of battle!

In 1096, two Seljuk spies brought down the notorious People’s Crusade. Some 40,000 Catholics – mostly poorly-armed rabble, not real soldiers – marched from Europe into modern-day Turkey. As they went, they pillaged harvests, slaughtered villages, and burned mosques and Greek Orthodox churches alike.

This was the territory of Sultan Kilij Arslan, who did not much care for the depredations of these crusaders. So he laid a trap for them. He emptied a fortress named Xerigordon. A company of six thousand crusaders on a long-range pillaging expedition took the bait and seized the fortress. Little did they realize Xerigordon’s water source lay outside the walls. The sultan’s forces besieged the fortress. After a week, the crusaders surrendered. The sultan executed most of them.

Then it was time for the spies to go to work. Two Greek agents of the sultan posed as crusaders and infiltrated the main crusader camp. They told their “fellows” that the pillaging expedition had seized the sultan’s capital of Nicaea. The pillagers had no intention of sharing the booty with the rest of the army. The undisciplined rabble that was the bulk of the People’s Crusade formed a mob. They demanded to march on Nicaea immediately to share in the looting. This route would take the army right into a Seljuk ambush.

But then the worst happened! A survivor of Xerigordon arrived in camp. He revealed the disaster that had befallen his comrades and put the lie to the claim of free loot in Nicaea. At your table, your PCs (who are probably playing the role of the spies) would be wise to kill or discredit the survivor – or flee for their lives!

In real life, things worked out fine for Sultan Kilij Arslan. The mob still wanted to march on Nicaea, just now to “avenge the martyrs”. The spies sent word to the sultan. The disorganized crusader advance sprung the Seljuk trap, and the sultan handily sent them fleeing back to Europe, killing some 20,000 crusaders in the process.

In 1112, Baldwin, the Crusader King of Edessa, lay siege to the city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. The crusaders built a fearsome siege engine to break into the city. The device was a wooden tower on wheels. Inside its first story was a battering ram 90 feet long, with a 20-pound iron head. Its higher stories were filled with bowmen who could fire from close range while protected by the tower’s walls. The siege engine doesn’t seem to have been tall enough to overtop the wall and disgorge troops. I haven’t been able to determine why that’s the case, but there may have been an intentional mound at the base of the wall to make taller siege engines tip over.

Inside Tyre there was a sailor from Tripoli (the one in modern-day Lebanon, not Libya). He was probably a refugee from the crusader conquest of his city two years earlier. He saw what was happening, went to a smithy, and forged a whole bunch of iron grapnels. When the siege engine came against the wall and started hammering a hole in it, the defenders hooked the tower with their grapnels. They pulled and heaved until the tower threatened to tip over. The crusaders inside were forced to wheel the tower back to safety. The Tyrians repelled several attacks by the tower in this way.

Ultimately, the Tripolitan sailor secured Tyre’s victory. When the grapnel trip stopped working (maybe the crusaders reinforced the structure?), the sailor devised another solution. He installed horizontal beams that poured jars of human waste on the tower. The gagging crusaders could no longer operate the ram. The Tyrians then dumped flaming baskets of oil, bitumen, and firewood on the tower. The crusaders scrambled to extinguish the flames with buckets of water and vinegar, but the Tyrians followed up with baskets of boiling oil. The tower became a torch. As the crusaders fled the pyre, the Tyrians sortied. The crusaders fled. The siege was broken.

At your table, having the PCs be on the receiving side of a siege can be a great test of the players’ ingenuity. Throw a novel siege engine at them and force them to come up with some clever way to negate it. If you want to reward thier creative thinking, while the besiegers fall into chaos, the besieged army can sally forth as at Tyre and break the siege!

Example siege towers

In 1220, a crusader army was holed up at Damietta, in Egypt. They were supposed to march on Cairo, a vital seat of Muslim power, but opted to wait for reinforcements. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had proclaimed his intent to sail for Egypt with tens of thousands of soldiers. The crusaders expected him by the spring of 1221. By the summer of 1221, he still hadn’t arrived, so the crusaders marched on Cairo. But they’d waited too long.

Before the modern damming of the Nile, the river flooded every summer. As the crusader army marched south, they failed to notice the river was rising. By mid-August, the land was so muddy that forward momentum ceased. The crusaders started to retreat.

Then a band of Egyptian soldiers tore down the river’s dikes. Floodwaters burbled across the landscape toward the crusaders. The mud, which had been a problem, became a nightmare. Horses and carts were stuck. The army was trapped.

The Egyptians could have massacred or starved out the crusaders. Instead, they dictated terms. The crusaders would have safe passage out of Egypt, provided they gave up Damietta and agreed to an eight-year truce. The crusader army returned to Europe in defeat.

At your table, breaching dikes along a major river is a great way for a small band of PCs to reshape the battlefield and ensure victory! Can they sneak past the enemy scouts to reach the dike? Can they enlist the help of local farmers to breach it? Can they hold off enemy outriders while the farmers work? And, finally, can they and the farmers escape before the floodwaters make the area impassable?


Source: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf


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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