A 12th Century Tour, Part 1 - Spain and France

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. He followed pilgrimage and trade routes, visited scattered communities of Jews through the Mediterranean, and recorded where he visited.

People have a vague idea that medieval travel accounts painted a modern picture of the world, as if they were some sort of Lonely Planet guide. Benjamin's account is a perfect way to dispel this myth. He traveled along known routes, visited known cities, and described things covered by earlier travelogues, pilgrims guides, and classical texts. As we will see, the world he describes is far from complete. 

For the purposes of this series I'm not concerned about Benjamin's motives, accuracy, or exact route. Instead, I'm going to use his text to show how a medieval traveler viewed the world, and how those descriptions can be used for fictional settings. Benjamin was an outsider everywhere he went. His itinerary is therefore much more interesting than a text from the same period written by a local. For the most part, I'm going to let the text speak for itself, but I will add links, images, and sidebars when I feel there's something more to discuss.

As far as I can tell, this is the best map of  his journey on the internet. That's terrible. I'm going to work on two maps. The first will be based on Martin Jan Månsson's Medieval Trade Networks map. The second will be a customized non-realistic map, based purely on Benjamin's descriptions and not on actual geography. Who knows; maybe I'll make a hexcrawl of it one day. He describes the world by days of travel, not by miles. I'll try to provide both.

The text is based on M. A. Alder's translation. Feel free to read ahead. I'd view his introduction with a skeptical eye. It hasn't aged well.


This the book of travels, which was compiled by Rabbi Benjamin, the son of Jonah, of the land of Navarre - his repose be in Paradise.

The said Rabbi Benjamin set forth from Tudela, his native city, and passed through many remote countries, as is related in his book. In every place which he entered, he made a record of all that he saw, or was told of by trustworthy persons - matters not previously heard of in the land of Sepharad. Also he mentions some of the sages and illustrious men residing in each place. He brought this book with him on his return to the country of Castile, in the year 4933 (C.E. 1173). The said Rabbi Benjamin is a wise and understanding man, learned in the Law and the Halacha, and wherever we have tested his statements we have found them accurate, true to fact and consistent; for he is a trustworthy man.
The "land of Sepharad" is the "land of Spain", as named by medieval Jews, based on a very obscure biblical reference.

Part 1: Spain and France

His book commences as follows: - I journeyed first from my native town to the city of Saragossa, and thence by way of the River Ebro to Tortosa.
From there I went a journey of two days to the ancient city of Tarragona with its Cyclopean and Greek buildings. The like thereof is not found among any of the buildings in the country of Sepharad. It is situated by the sea, and two days' journey from the city of Barcelona, where there is a holy congregation, including sages, wise and illustrious men, such as R. Shesheth, R. Shealtiel, R. Solomon, and R. Abraham, son of Chisdai. This is a small city and beautiful, lying upon the sea-coast. Merchants come thither from all quarters with their wares, from Greece, from Pisa, Genoa, Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, Palestine, Africa and all its coasts.
The "Cyclopean" buildings at Tarragona are massive walls of boulders, built by bronze age architects two and a half thousand years before Benjamin visited them. We do not know if Benjamin, like many people of his age, thought the walls were actually built by the one-eyed cannibal Cyclopes.
Thence it is a day and a half to Gerona, in which there is a small congregation of Jews. A three days' journey takes one to Narbonne, which is a city pre-eminent for learning; thence the Torah goes forth to all countries. Sages, and great and illustrious men abide here. At their head is R. Kalonymos, the son of the great and illustrious R. Todros of the seed of David, whose pedigree is established. He possesses hereditaments and lands given him by the ruler of the city, of which no man can forcibly dispossess him. Prominent in the community is R Abraham, head of the Academy: also R. Machir and R. Judah, and many other distinguished scholars. At the present day 300 Jews are there.
Despite being on the coast, it seems Benjamin traveled overland. Sea journeys, even short ones, were perilous adventures.
Thence it is four parasangs to the city of Beziers, where there is a congregation of learned men. At their head is R. Solomon Chalafta, R Joseph, and R. Nethanel. Thence it is two days to Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce. It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael, the land of Algarve, Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great, from all the land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben, son of Todros, R. Nathan, son of Zechariah, and R. Samuel, their chief rabbi, also R. Solomon and R. Mordecai. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud. Among the community are men both rich and charitable, who lend a helping hand to all that come to them.
The parasang is a frustratingly variable unit that changes based on local terrain. M. A. Alder equates a parasang to 3.4 miles, and states that 10 parasangs make a day's journey. Therefore, 4 parasangs = 13.6 miles. The actual distance, on modern roads, is 22 miles.
From Montpellier it is four parasangs to Lunel, in which there is a congregation of Israelites, who study the Law day and night. Here lived Rabbenu Meshullam the great rabbi, since deceased, and his five sons, who are wise, great and wealthy, namely: R. Joseph, R. Isaac, R. Jacob, R. Aaron, and R. Asher, the recluse, who dwells apart from the world; he pores over his books day and night, fasts periodically and abstains from all meat. He is a great scholar of the Talmud. At Lunel live also their brother-in-law R. Moses, the chief rabbi, R. Samuel the elder, R. Ulsarnu, R. Solomon Hacohen, and R. Judah the Physician, the son of Tibbon, the Sephardi. The students that come from distant lands to learn the Law are taught, boarded, lodged and clothed by the congregation, so long as they attend the house of study. The community has wise, understanding and saintly men of great benevolence, who lend a helping hand to all their brethren both far and near. The congregation consists of about 300 Jews - may the Lord preserve them.
From there it is two parasangs to Posquières, which is a large place containing about forty Jews, with an Academy under the auspices of the great Rabbi, R. Abraham, son of David, of blessed memory, an energetic and wise man, great as a talmudical authority. People come to him from a distance to learn the Law at his lips, and they find rest in his house, and he teaches them. Of those who are without means he also pays the expenses, for he is very rich. The munificent R. Joseph, son of Menachem, also dwells here, and R. Benveniste, R. Benjamin, R. Abraham and R. Isaac, son of R. Meir of blessed memory. Thence it is four parasangs to the suburb Bourg de St. Gilles, in which place there are about a hundred Jews. Wise men abide there; at their head being R. Isaac, son of Jacob, R. Abraham, son of Judah, R. Eleazar, R. Jacob, R. Isaac, R. Moses and R. Jacob, son of rabbi Levi of blessed memory. This is a place of pilgrimage of the Gentiles who come hither from the ends of the earth. It is only three miles from the sea, and is situated upon the great River Rhone, which flows through the whole land of Provence. Here dwells the illustrious R. Abba Mari, son of the late R. Isaac; he is the bailiff of Count Raymond.
There are a lot of prestigious names here. I've tried to link to most of them. Benjamin was clearly proud of the people he visited, and with good reason. The relics of St. Giles were a major pilgrimage destination. The saint was "the speediest of all the saints to help the unfortunate and afflicted. The author [of the pilgrim guide] himself had seen a prayer answered on the very same day. The most vivid sculpture in Provence still displays the generous gratitude with which the pilgrims of the 12th century rewarded St. Giles for his aid." (Popular Religion in the Middle Ages, Brooke)
Thence it is three parasangs to the city of Arles, which has about 200 Israelites, at their head being R. Moses, R. Tobias, R. Isaiah, R. Solomon, the chief rabbi R. Nathan, and R. Abba Mari, since deceased.

From there it is two days' journey to Marseilles, which is a city of princely and wise citizens, possessing two congregations with about 300 Jews. One congregation dwells below on the shore by the sea, the other is in the castle above. They form a great academy of learned men, amongst them being R. Simeon, R. Solomon, R. Isaac, son of Abba Mari, R. Simeon, son of Antoli, and R. Jacob his brother; also R. Libero. These persons are at the head of the upper academy. At the head of the congregation below are R. Jacob Purpis, a wealthy man, and R. Abraham, son of R. Meir, his son-in-law, and R. Isaac, son of the late R. Meir. It is a very busy city upon the sea-coast.

Trade Route Map of Part 1

Tuleda is just barely visible on the left side of the map. All of Benjamin's other major destinations are marked.

Representative Map of Part 1

This map uses only Benjamin's descriptions. If a city is listed as being on the coast, it's on the coast. If not, it's not. Small squares for towns, big squares for cities, books for centres of learning, coins for trading cities, walls and castles where mentioned.

Summary of Part 1

From Tortosa, where Benjamin starts tracking his travel time, he traveled 433 miles / 703km to reach Marseilles. Estimated travel time in total is just over 14 days, presumably with long breaks and His average rate of travel is 40 miles / 60 km a day. He writes of:
-mythical prehistoric ruins
-a commercial city with every major power represented
-a learned vegetarian recluse
-the relics of a quick-acting healing saint
- a great river
-an outsider who serves as the bailiff of a count

In Part 2, Benjamin reaches Rome, and his itinerary begins to include unlikely, mythological, and fantastic elements.


OSR: Invading Orcs, Part 2

I'm using Orcs as medieval invaders. In Part 1, I covered theory and background. You should probably read Part 1 first. In this part, I'll present 3 different types of Orc to crash into your setting.
The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.  
-Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, via David McGrogan's very interesting article here.
Alex Brock

Option 1: Classic Orc Hordes

Their Appearance: Brutish. 
Light but functional armour. Weapons designed for use from the back of a beast. Bows. Warpaint. Sneers and slabs of muscle. A language that sounds like dogs fighting over a bone.

Their Tool: Cavalry. Hog cavalry.
Horses, bless them, are neurotic and fragile beasts. Pigs are smart. Possibly too smart. A really evil horse will try to kick you when it thinks you aren't looking (but you are). A really evil pig will watch you until you blink, then feign a charge, allowing an ally to nip you in the ankle and toss you onto your back.

These Orcs have riding boars. Self-foraging, self-organizing, rubber-fat coated boars. Their mounts are as smart as hounds and they bite just as hard. They won't beat a horse in a sprint, but the Orcs don't need to sprint. You have one horse. They each have three or four riding boars and they can change mounts on the move.

Their Goal: Loot.
They come from a harsh and impoverished land. Your cities are full of treasures. Your lands are unguarded. Your armies are slow and disorganized. The Orcs can ride a  hundred miles in a day. A hundred miles! And they can attack multiple targets at once.

They smash into a region, grab anything that isn't nailed down, and ship it back to their homeland. Art and artisans, books, gold, icons. Doesn't matter. If you look soft and literate you'll get chucked onto a wagon and shipped away. They love food, drink, and simple comforts. It's not difficult to bribe them. Cities that pay tribute are spared. In some cases, the tribute is less than local taxes and rents, so it could be a net benefit.

Their Leader: A huge, scarred, cunning Orc.
Killed his rivals, wears his heads as trophies. Broke the old tribes and forged his own. Whip smart, utterly focused, enormously charismatic, endlessly adaptable. He doesn't lead from the front. He has generals - brothers, sisters, old allies.

There might be a Dark Lord somewhere, full of ancient malice and cruelty, but probably not.
Rostyslav Zagornov
Their Rule: Orc-lead Meritocracy.
They respect skill. If the PCs have a plan and are willing to work with the Orcs, their status could change overnight. Pay a set tribute from dungeon loot and get a castle? What a deal. The Orcs killed the guy in the castle and they know the PCs won't try anything. They took the castle once; they'll do it again in a heartbeat. Really, they just want loot, comforts, and power. Don't stand in their way and you'll do fine.

They don't care who you worship, as long as you don't mind who they worship or try to pretend you are better than them. Your gods clearly aren't effective. Similarly, they toss aside the old social order. Princes work in the fields next to beggars. Poor but intelligent soldiers rule cities; rich but slow merchants fight in the front rank of the next invasion.

Their Methods: Scout, Strike, and Slaughter.
Their invasion was planned. They sent scouts, bribed merchants, purchased maps. Converted goblins and other outcasts. In some areas they deliberately cut down trees or piled up stones for their siege engines. Nobody noticed or put the pieces together. Their assault is designed to crush resistance before it can form. Their armies arrive ready for battle before your armies are even awake. And then they kill almost everyone. It's pragmatic; there's going to be a famine, and the Orcs don't mind eating people. The survivors glue their lives back together under Orc rule.

GM Notes:
This is all fairly generic. If you'd paid for this content, you might have grounds to complain. You can reskin this type of invasion (Gus L. did a fantastic job), or take an entirely different (and more positive) view, but let's take it in a different direction.
Georgios Dimitriou

Option 2: Aztech Orcs

Their Apperance: Refined.
They come from across the sea in huge ships, sailing against the wind, sails stacked as high as the clouds. Travelers say they first landed far to the south, but who knows; they are here now.

They are tall, thin, and strange. Some people say they dye their flesh. They seem to love jewelry. They seem to be confused, like people lost in a dream.

Their Tool: Guns.
They have astonishing guns. Our guns are noisy, slow, and liable to explode. Their guns are small, quick, and accurate. Their smallest weapons fire six shots before reloading, and each shot kills. Their long guns fire twenty shots. Each one is pointed like an adder's fang. Each leaves behind a curious metal shell, as if the bullet hatched or grew from a pot.

Their Goal: Crops.
The seem to be lost. Their first invasion force took a few cities almost by accident. They killed everyone who resisted and any priests they could find, but left everyone else alone. They want us to plant their crops; tall grain, green and sticky with sugar. They take any treasure they find, but nothing else seems to hold value. Sometimes, they send surveyors and map-makers and plant-collectors.

They killed all our horses. They ride slow but gigantic beasts with hooked claws and herd a kind of furry pig. Every field is planted with their grain. Everyone who does not work in the fields works in the mines or on one of their colossal building projects. They appoint local overseers and torture them to death if they fail.

Their Leader: Do they even have one?
Some of their armies have clear leaders. The smaller groups seem to fall apart or choose new leaders frequently. Sometimes they even fight each other! Perhaps all their leaders are back across the sea. They do not seem to have a single strategy, but try new methods each time an army arrives.

If they have a Dark Lord, it's a Dark Lord Cutler Beckett.
Manuel Castañón
Their Rule: Merciless Rebuilding
They care only for grain and blood.

Each month, or on special days, they sacrifice someone on the altar of our cathedral. They smashed out the windows and tore down the icons and put up icons of their own; beasts and men and stars. They have a thousand gods. They do not care if we believe in their gods, but they will not tolerate worship of our own. They say their gods killed and ate our gods.

Perhaps they are right.

The PCs should probably avoid direct alliance with these Orcs. They are unlikely to be treated as equals. Fighting them by disrupting their networks seems like the best plan. It's also possible to exist outside their society; despite their technological edge, they have a limited understanding of local terrain, politics, beliefs, and factions.

Their Methods: Siege and Collapse.
They kill our armies in the field. We retreat to our cities. They sit outside and wait. Anyone who leaves is shot. Anyone who looks over the walls is shot. When the siege ends, they tear down the walls and build new structures. They kill arbitrarily, send thousands across the sea in great ships, and give the survivors new names and ranks.

They don't think of us as people. They think of us as obstacles or resources or, at best, lost children.

GM Notes:
17th century colonialism steamrolls a 14th century medieval society. Take advice from here and here to fight back. Emphasize strangeness. Watch Aguirre The Wrath Of God; the PCs are watching from the riverbanks.

Marauding Orc hordes might crash a setting and set up camp in the ruins. The Aztech Orcs will rebuild the world in their image. To the PCs, this will look like madness.

Aztech is deliberately spelled that way. Tech advantage, you see?

Randall Mackey

Option 3: Orcas

Their Appearance: Alien.
Fat, but not obese. More like armoured, coated, rolled in mud and left to dry. Their skin is obsidian and ivory. Their eyes are inscrutable. Their teeth are sharp. Their warriors are eight or nine feet tall. They wear well-made fur coats and thick steel armour.

It is said they come from the far north, beyond the long-bearded raiders. Their cities are half in the sea and half on the land. Their poets sing of wars beneath the ice; generations of wars to hone their culture into a killing weapon.

Their Tool: Magic.
Therianthropy is a spiritual disease. The soul forgets the body's form and overwrites it, changing the creature into something new. The Orca have weaponized therianthropy. They can shift from their peace-forms into strong and vicious war-forms or sleek swimming-forms.

They have other spells; scrying, seeing through the eyes of others, commanding the weather. Spells to raise the dead and break bones. In their land, spellcasters know the counter-words and wards, but we do not know them. Their most powerful casters use spell-thralls and cast from the safety of their glacier towers, a thousand miles away from any battlefield.

Their Goal: Luxury.
It cannot be easy, living in a land of ice and stone, where no crops will grow and no cattle can be herded. The Orca are tired of surviving. They want to live.

A harsh mountain pass is nothing to them. They attack in the winter, using frozen rivers as highways. They hunt with water-wolves and tracking spells. They are willing to negotiate terms, trade prisoners, and accept tribute, but their end goal is clear. They want to rule.

Their Leader: They say they have a Queen.
They don't. They have a council of elders and war-leaders, with special leaders elected for special occasions. The council's identity is kept secret by the use of shapechanging, spells, and the occasional diplomatic murder.
Their Rule: Adoption and Corruption.
They understand our rulers and our laws. When they take a city, they are careful to preserve our records. They declare themselves barons and dukes and princes with all due ceremony. The brutality of their initial assault - children devoured, buildings torn apart, ghosts raised and set loose in the streets - is followed by serene normality.

They let each town and city keep most of its ancestral rights. Inconvenient ones are, of course, quietly removed from renewed charters. They promise peace and order and deliver it. In some regions, their taxes and demands are lighter than the old lords. They are slowly changing the world to suit their needs.

Their Methods: Winter Siege, Summer Growth.
They sent scouts at first. Sailors, branded with strange runes and stripped of their memories. The Orca saw with their eyes, heard with their ears. Then, in the winter, the first assault. It was a bitterly cold year. Our troops could not be rallied. Our lands could not be defended. The Orca took city after city, massacred anyone with expertise in warfare, and prepared for spring. They negotiated for peace, returned a few cities... and the next winter, attacked again.

They established new schools and new churches. Attendance is not required, but outsiders are not promoted or favoured. It is frightening how much they know about us, and how little we know about them.

GM Notes:
I'll probably be using the Orca in my game. Some ideas were taken from Dan's post here, but I'd had the core idea sketched out ever since I found Randall Mackey's art.

I think they are a better foil to my group than the Classic Orc Horde or the Aztech Orcs. They keep the feudal structure intact, but weaponize it. They have a secret. Even I'm not sure what it is. They invite exploration into to the frozen north or the sunless deeps.


OSR: Invading Orcs, Part 1

I don't have Orcs in my setting... yet.

They exist, but they haven't been defined. They live somewhere beyond the edge of the map. Spend a few months in a major city and you may meet someone who has met someone who seen them. At the moment they are remote and inconsequential.That may change.

I'm not going to use them as bandits or raiders; I've got people for that. A medieval setting has no shortage of small hostile bands. I'm going to use the orcs as invaders.

Stanton Feng
Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 
The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; 
A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: 
And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. 
And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. 
-Deuteronomy 28:48-52

In the same year, for our sins, there came unknown tribes. No one knew who they were or what was their origin, faith, or tongue, and some people called them Tartars, while others called them Taurmens, and sill some others called them Pechenegs. Some say that these are the people of who Methodius of Patar spoke and that they came came from the Yetrian Desert, which is between the North and East. [...] Only God knows who these people are or from whence they came. The wise men, who understand the Books, know who they are, but we do not.
In this way did God bring confusion upon us and an endless number of people perished. This evil event came to pass on the day of Jeremiah the Prophet, the 31st day of May. As for the Tartars, they turned back from the Dnieper, and we know neither from whence they came nor whither they have gone now. Only God knows that, for he brought them upon us for our sins. 
-The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, covering the arrival of the Mongols in Russia

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests. 
-Iain M. Banks
Justin Sweet
The fear of invasion and subjugation by an unknown power is very, very old. Everything seems to be going well. Your enemies are known; their methods and tactics are predictable and match yours. You are focused on a hundred different local issues. And then, just as you are preparing for the summer campaign, your rivals turn up at your doorstep and beg for help. Your rivals say their cities were attacked by an unknown enemy, using tactics and tools unknown in this region. The enemy achieved total, uncontested victory.

So you put aside centuries of tradition and ride out with your rivals. A grand alliance. If this were a different sort of story - a heroic allegory, a national myth - you'd succeed, but you don't. Your armies are engulfed and destroyed. 

Maybe the enemy disappears. You have no idea who they were or why they came or when they'll be back. It's what the Novgorodians thought of the Mongols. It's presumably what people in Persia and India thought of Alexander the Great. Or maybe they stick around and rule for a few years or a few centuries. Maybe they never leave.

These days, we need to rely on aliens or demons or whatever to get the same effect. Our world is known and mapped. Hordes cannot ride over the horizon. Everyone's potential enemies are mapped and categorized. But in a medieval setting, where the world is small and badly mapped, the fear of a hostile nation arriving and destroying the local order is always present. It has happened before. It may happen again.
KILART (choe, heonhwa)

The Invaders

They slam into your existing setting like a sledgehammer.

1d10 Above all other tools, they prize... They are heralded by...
1 Horses. Smoke on the horizon.
2 Bows. Thick, unnatural fog.
3 Whips. The sound of distant thunder.
4 Spears. Refugees.
5 Trained war-beasts. Wildfires.
6 Swords. Rain and hail.
7 Siege engines. A strange smell in the air.
8 Magic. A maimed captive tied to a horse.
9 Handguns. Nothing - they attack by day.
10 Cannons. Nothing - they attack by night.

1d10 They wear... They are adorned with...
1 Next to nothing. Piercings and scars.
2 Dyed cloth. Gold and silver trinkets.
3 Stinking furs and rotting leather. Bone idols.
4 Strange cloth, woven by an unknown art. Brightly coloured paint.
5 Plates of bone or chitin. Long, braided hair.
6 Thick padded cloth, sewn into patterns. Wild, unkempt hair.
7 Wooden armour, as strong as steel. Grisly trophies.
8 Bands of leather and iron. Feathered cloaks and helmets.
9 Metal armour, thick and crude. A simple design or mark, repeated.
10 Metal armour, lighter and stronger than ours. Glass beads and gems.

1d10 Rumours say they are... They seek...
1 The harbingers of the apocalypse. All the gold and silver we have.
2 Numbered beyond counting. All the gold and silver we have and all that we can mine.
3 Summoned from the earth, not born. All our food and livestock.
4 Creatures without fear, hunger, or mercy. A rare but worthless tree, herb, or plant.
5 A nation briefly mentioned in our holy texts. Our children and warriors, to serve in their armies.
6 The invited guests of our ancient enemies. To replace our rulers in all respects.
7 A scourge sent by heaven to punish us. To tear down our churches and destroy our religion.
8 Seeking vengence for an ancient wrong. A rare but worthless mineral or gem we sometimes find.
9 Messengers from a new god. To exteriminate us.
10 Demons clothed in flesh, escaped from Hell. The destruction of our cities and towns, down to the last stone.

Weta Workshop
Much like the Plague, an Invasion has several stages.

1. About to Happen
2. In Progress
3. Just Past

1. About to Happen

The PCs get 1d6 days of warning, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. On a 1, the Invasion arrives at nightfall the same day.

See the "Heralded by..." table above. One thing precedes the invasion. It is unnatural, unseasonable, and worrying. The PCs won't know what is happening, but they will know something is happening.

2. In Progress

The Invasion arrives.

Exactly how it arrives will depends on the nature of the Invaders. They might use scouts. They might open with a bombardment, a carpet of cavalry, a spell, a mass raising of the dead, a furious charge, or an endless column of foot troops. Their way of making war is the rock to your scissors. They outnumber you.

If the PCs are in a city, the city is besieged. If the PCs are in a village, the village is burned. If the PCs are in the wilderness, outrider groups, scouts, or roving bands of soldiers search for wealth and resistance.

The PCs have never seen anything like the Invaders. They have no frame of reference. They do not share a language, a religion, or a worldview. If the Invaders have magic, it is not like the local magic. If they have beasts, they are not like the local beasts. Ideally, they aren't even creatures the players know, to reinforce the unknown and inexplicable nature of the enemy.

Side Note: A slow marching pace is 3 miles per hour. On level ground, on a clear day, the horizon is about 3 miles away. Isn't that convenient? Of course, most armies move considerably quicker, but an entire block of troops could be invisible one hour and on top of you the next.

Chances are good the PCs won't have sufficient resources to fight the Invasion directly. When armies start tearing the setting apart, the PCs have a very limited number of options if they want to survive (and many options if they want to die).

I. Survive the Initial Assault
Someone sets the PCs' house on fire. Chaos, confusion. Warriors in the streets, cutting down civilians indiscriminately. The gates are breached. The siege collapses. Screaming and flames.

Run standard combat encounters with groups of two or three enemies, or run a decision tree like Deep Carbon Observatory's. The PCs should find transportation and escape or find a place to hide until the chaos subsides and the killings end. Swimming across a river, grabbing fast horses, dubious teleport scrolls will get them away from the initial invasion, but they are not out of danger. Hiding might work, depending on what the Invaders are after, but running gives you more options.

II. Evade Capture
Even if the Invaders are after something else, they will seek to contain and control the local population. An ordered, numbered, contained, and disarmed population is a pacified population. Rebels will be executed in public as a warning to others.

This is a slow, cautious phase for the PCs. Resource management becomes important. Did the PCs grab any supplies when they escaped? Starvation and disease are allies of the Invaders. The landscape changes. Safe roads become deathtraps. Inns and strongholds become barracks. Landmarks to gallows. Roving patrols, wandering idle soldiers, bizzare construction projects, fields of labourers, caravans of loot moving back to some unknowable destination.

III. Evaluate the Invaders
The Invaders gradually move being an incomprehensible force to a comprehensible force to an accepted part of life. The PCs can study them, learn their goals, learn their culture. Who holds power, and how is it exercised? What do the want, in detail? They aren't Lovecraftian monsters or truly unknowable forces.

Knowing what they want and sympathizing with it are two very different things. You might understand why the Invaders want skulls - the cultural goals, the biological needs, the complex alliances - but this may not make you any more likely to give up your skull.

3. Just Past

Once the PCs understand the Invaders they can begin to profit by them. Meet the new boss, not so different from the old boss. Local interpreters, guides, and hunters will always be valuable to the Invaders. The bleakest option are hunting down people who escaped the initial massacre, assisting in the next invasion, or directly enforcing the new rules. Depending on what the Invaders want, the PCs could also mine, trade, scout, hunt monsters, offer advice, and meddle with the usual PC nonsense.

In a heroic game, fighting the Invaders directly is viable, but again, this isn't that sort of game. You can definitely make them leave and make them lose, but you can't do it by killing them one at a time in D&D-scale combat. You need a very good, very complex plan.
Andrius Matijosius

The Invaders Have A Plan

And it's a very simple plan. It's been used for thousands of years. If you want to control a group of people and make them serve your interests rather than their own:
1. Disrupt the existing order, usually by killing a lot of people.
2. Insert yourself into existing structure and impose new structures.
3. Do not allow the old order to reform.

This applies to both social and economic structures. The Mongols ride into your lands and burn your cities. They send your best artisans, artists, musicians, and poets back to their capital and mix them in with captives from other nations. (1) Law, food, daily life, rituals, and status all come from the Mongols. (2). Captives are kept busy. New social groups and microcultures form, but in a Mongol-dominated environment. (3).
Colonialists... interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits. 
-Richard G
Before the Invaders, you had a method for punishing criminals. Now you have one - and it could be the same - but it needs to go through an Invader. You had a system for determining the ownership of land. Now you have a new one, in the language of the Invader. You traded in one kind of coin. Now, you trade in their coin, buy from their merchants, sell to their soldiers.

They will do their best to suppress any local structures that they cannot infiltrate and control. Religion is often the first to go. Break down cultural and familial ties. Take children from their homes and raise them in new areas. If a culture or group has something that makes them distinct - dietary laws, costumes, languages - ban or restrict it. Punish dissent. Destroy or co-opt charismatic leaders, centers of belief, and rallying points.

These things aren't necessarily evil or good. The Invaders might have a nuanced view of their own actions, or they might be ruthlessly pragmatic, or they might consider their actions justified by religion, civilization, or economics. They could replace a cruel hierarchy with a meritocracy or religious oppression with benign toleration.

But the Invaders will always try to benefit. They are not changing the world for you. If you were deeply invested in the old system, they are almost certainly evil.

In the next post, I'll cover reasons for invasion, possible encounters, and the Orcs of my setting.