Sunday, 4 April 2021

An Upright Man (RPG All)

From Thomas Harman, A Caveat for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566) reprinted in the collection Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars, Imprint Society, Mass, 1973:

Yet notwithstanding, they have so good liking in their lewd, lecherous loitering, that full quickly all their punishments is forgotten. And repentance is never thought upon, until they climb three trees with a ladder (ie. are hung for their crimes) ...

An Upright Man is a skilled vagabond who makes his living by begging and thievery, in turns. Frequently they are former soldiers, or trusted servants who betrayed their trust. They're so called because they retain a certain rugged charm, and are clever talkers. They usually travel with one or more accomplices, Morts and Doxies, skilled at theft as well as prostitution. If they go to a stout yeoman's or farmer's house [and ask] his charity they usually go in packs of four or more, to get what they want by intimidation as much as appeals to the yeoman's finer feelings. At fairs or public gatherings they hang about in unremarked alleys and byways to beg, and to spy out likely targets. Their chief targets are lonely travelers, women and beggars - those who cannot easily defend themselves. Their chief defense, apart from cudgels, is their character; they're well practiced liars, bluffers and con artists. 

So in game terms we're talking about someone with decent Charisma (or the equivalent) as well as some talent for theft and brawling. This person might have had a good career at one point, whether soldiering or something else, but that's long in the past. Their biggest asset is their willingness to work together, to gather accomplices and make alliances with other Upright Men. Alone, they'd soon be caught and hanged. Working with others, having someone prepared to swear an alibi or two or pick a pocket as needed, they can do much more. 

When designing a game world, as has been said once or twice before, you start at the ground up. Design those things that the characters see every day. The basic layer, and as a reminder:

The basic layer is simply this: the things the characters encounter all the time, whether they want to or not.  The characters will always want to eat, to sleep, to move around. They'll buy clothing, toys, game consoles. They will have needs and they'll want to fill them. At the same time there will be events happening around them regardless of whether or not the players are directly involved, because everyone else in the game world has needs to satisfy too. This is at the heart of every system, regardless of setting or mechanics, and you can play with this layer in many different ways - so long as you establish it first.

The last time I dipped into this well I talked about Cheap-Johns, the base level of the market economy. This time let's flesh out the Upright Men, the base level of the non-market economy. 

If the Upright Man seems at all familiar to you, there's reason enough:


Falstaff is probably the most famous Upright Man ever to draw breath. Fat, roistering old blaggard, living off of stolen or borrowed funds, surrounded by friends yet truly beloved of none - save possibly Mistress Quickly, who delivers his eulogy. A soldier who once fought for his King and now roils for his daily bread, he's successful enough to draw in the Prince himself - yet not so successful he can keep Hal in check.

When we talk about thieves in fantasy settings it's usually painted as though they're members of some kind of elite organization, perhaps with a storied history, its traditions passed down by generations of thieves. Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar tales imagine such a Guild, its dead Masters buried with their jewels in a crypt so ancient their descendants have forgotten where it is. 

Yet historically while thieves do cooperate gangs like these are rare, often evaporating like dew. A decade, perhaps a little longer, is the most they can expect before entropy, arrests and an ageing membership brings them low. Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies and all - given enough time and they vanish into the history books, assuming anyone bothered to write their histories down. 

No, the base level of the criminal world isn't some kind of proto-Triad, swearing loyalty upon pain of death by five thunderbolts. The base level is the wandering Upright Man working in loose cooperation with other Upright Men, bullshitting and bullying their way through a world that lacks the means to bring them to heel.

An Upright Man is someone with talent. They have a little charm, and perhaps a skill - it might be shoemaking, horsemanship, service in an army, something else. Fundamentally, they're clever enough to live on their wits and charismatic enough to work as a group when the situation calls for it. They can be intimidating but intimidation is not their talent; they don't get what they want by force of arms, not unless they work with others. Their natural target is the weak, loners, children, the aged. 

If they escape punishment, it's because they have wit enough to be charming, and to bluff. As Harman remarks, repentance is never thought upon until the day it will do them no good - except in the eyes of the Lord, and possibly not then. 

Not that the hangman is an Upright Man's only possible fate. Falstaff, after all, died in his bed, though he had plenty of chances to die on the battlefield. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 

With all that in mind, a few Upright Men:

Bookhounds of London

Clarence Inkpen

Three things: fat, claims to be former constable and has a quasi-military bearing, never without his pipe and baccy.

Quote: Now, lad, don't be alarmed. I'm on your side, I am, truly.

Criminal History: Assault, bribery, pimp.

Background: Clarence is one of those people who's 'always been here.' Nobody can remember when he arrived or can reliably say what his history is. He claims to have been a police constable, but that was years ago in another city, and he keeps changing his mind as to which city. He knows just enough Law to get himself into trouble, and has a quick enough tongue to get himself out of trouble when needs must. His usual trick is the badger game, and he works with four or five different women all of whom he calls his nieces, though whether there's any actual relation is an open question. The badger game is simple: the target is lured into a compromising situation, and when things are at their height Clarence bursts in and threatens to bring the law on the unfortunate - unless the target coughs up a hefty bribe. Bookhounds know Clarence as a reliable witness - as in, 'he was with me that night, your worship, down at the pub. All night, yes indeed.' He's also a reliable forger of legal documents, and makes a decent sideline from forged pub licenses and similar.

Swords of the Serpentine

Simonetta the Red

Three Things: Always wears red, usually in barbarian fashions; false teeth, several sets, often uses iron choppers for intimidation value; pretends to be a Vontavni Horselord but was born in the Tangle and has spent time in the House of Broken Wings. 

Quote: Crush you! Crush you! Break bones! Smash face! Money, money, money or I beat you stupid!

Criminal History: Assault, Assault, more Assault, procuring indigents for purposes of Corruption (as in, taking unfortunates from the House of Broken Wings so a sorcerer can use them as a convenient vessel for ghost possession).

Background: Simonetta dreams of being something she isn't. Right this minute, it's a Vontavni Horselord, and that's been her obsession for the last five years or so. Before that, a mighty sorcerer capable of channeling Corruption to her own ends. Truth be told she's a Tangle wharf rat, but that's not exotic or interesting enough for her. Though she hates her Servile connections she has a talent for Servility, and can vanish into the background when necessary. She has Allies among the Monstrous factions and has been known to act as a go-between, buying supplies in the Night Markets for her friends who can't afford to be seen there. She doesn't have strong connections with any of the Gangs but knows enough mooks and thugs to gather together a small-ish group of backers, if need be. Her usual racket is protection, and she works small food stalls in Sag Harbour, the ones that serve the poorer working class. She's also a freelance leg breaker for several of the larger loan sharks, and uses her reputation as a 'crazy barbarian queen' to intimidate the gullible.

Fall of Delta Green

Geoffrey Battle Lydell, aka G.B. 

Three Things: Bullet head, toothbrush Hitler moustache, claims to have worked for the FBI and does have some law enforcement training (failed a psych exam and was disqualified).

Quote: Under the authority of Executive Order 11503 I am hereby charging you with ... [insert legalistic nonsense here.]

Criminal History: Breaking and Entering, Extortion, Impersonating a Federal Officer, Conspiracy, Wiretapping, multiple violations of the Mann Act

Background: G.B. never caught a break in his life, that's what he likes to tell people, and in exactly that way - G.B.'s gonna get his one day, you'll see, oh boy, they'll rue the day they crossed ol' G.B. ... He's a political go-between, messenger and bagman for any number of less-than-savory political hacks. As such he travels the world on missions for his masters. This week he's in Washington, next week Saigon, Berlin the week after that. He got his start (after his disastrous attempt at an FBI career) procuring entertainment for political meetings - hence the Mann Act violations - and when he proved himself as a somewhat reliable hand he was given more responsibility. He doesn't have any direct Mythos connections but you don't travel the world doing odd jobs for peculiar politicos without picking up a rumor or two. Several of his recent employers have MJ-12 links and he's sometimes used as a kind of a canary in the coal mine, sent in just to see if any of the rumors about (whatever it might be this week) have substance. Though G.B. doesn't work with a regular team he does know an awful lot of mercs, from Polish ex-RAF pilots now flying for African warlords to Spanish Civil War holdouts and Arab nationalists. G.B. has some knowledge of Fringe Science and the Unnatural, but his flights of fancy are usually best ignored; though sometimes when he's drunk he claims to be keeping extensive notes about his activities, who he's worked with and what he's seen. Oh, they'll be sorry they hacked off ol' G.B., yessir ... 

CP RED

Pixie Dust

Three Things: Man mountain, tattooed head to foot including sun and butterfly on face, twitchy and paranoid (amphetamine addiction).

Quote: You hear something? I know I heard something. Like it was someone laughing, maybe? 

Criminal History: Assault, Possession with Intent to Supply, Robbery, Bank Robbery

Background: Pixie Dust is an artist. Were it not for his less-than-sparkling personality, he'd be a vid star. As it is, folks all over Night City have seen his work, not just as light tattoos but also graffiti tags, particularly in Rancho Coronado but also in Pacifica Playground and Heywood. He got his start as a legbreaker working with the Coronado Pagans, but has since become a semi-independent contractor. Even the Pagans think he's a loose cannon, about to blow, and they don't want to be too close when he does. Still, they love his work. There isn't a Pagan who doesn't have some of Pixie's ink on them, and he's no slouch at customizing their rides either. He often works with Perfect Trung, the braindance-obsessed fixer, and due to his talent he has plenty of Rocker and Media friends too - though friends is perhaps going too far. Drinking buddies, the sort who deal in favors rather than cash. Pixie often claims he's waiting for the day when he can pull off his big score, whatever that is. It's going to be huge. Talk of the town stuff, big media blitz stuff, the kind that will put him on the path to fame and fortune. Nobody's sure what it is, exactly, but they all know it's coming soon to a braindance near you.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

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