Young men alternately dressed in traditional flowing bedouin robes and imported Belgian skinny jeans stand in a single line, warbling a keening hymn as their shovels bite deep into the packed soil beneath the desert. Here or there a sandstone column or eroded wall peaks out of a dune, so old that you could be forgiven for thinking they were natural formations, only to disappear once more from human memory as the sand shifts and crawls in an unenthusiastic breeze.
Military trucks older than most of the diggers’ fathers are parked haphazardly alongside an apparently stolen U.S. Army Humvee, with poorly maintained AK-47s set up in crude pyramids near the dig site.
You can see the faint hint of something more in the contours of the waste: a city as vast as it is hidden.
The ground collapses beneath three of the diggers, and they fall into darkness. A crowd gathers. Something stirs below.
Several thousand feet above them, an unmanned aerial vehicle circles, high-definition and infrared cameras rotating to capture the scene with robotic precision. Half a world away, in a dimly lit subbasement below a deliberately nondescript Virginia office block, you look away from the screen.
They found it. They cannot be allowed to keep it.
Bad Guys in the Desert
As I write this, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — ISIS to most, but also occasionally ISIL (“al-Sham is Arabic for the Levant, hence the substituted “L”), Daesh (a relatively popular French transliteration of an Arabic acronym for ISIL), or just the “Islamic State” — controls a vast swath of territory across the Middle East and North Africa, centered on the lightly populated deserts of eastern Syria and Western Iraq. The state’s self-identified Caliph, whose nom-de-guerre is Aboubakr Elbaghdadi, commands a loosely organized army that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, as well as (presumably) an unknown number of terrorist sleeper cells awaiting activation in Western and Arab cities across the globe.
It and its supporters are brutal, aggressively intolerant, and, if I might suggest, instantly credible bad guys for just about any game set in the contemporary era.
ISIS is also rich, funding its conquests with black market oil sales to the tune of $3 million dollars a day. Its second most significant source of income, however, is something you might not expect: sales of looted antiquities. In fact, ISIS made more than $35 million in sales of ill-gotten artifacts from just one region of Syria last year. If nothing else, it’s a clearly successful form of fundraising.
But let’s be fair: it’s almost never nothing else.
Prime Real Estate
Those looted artifacts are coming from a region commonly referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization,” a title that’s hardly hyperbole. Temples to the old gods of Sumer, Assyria, Akkad, and Babylon beside and below cities built by Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and even the Caliphs…and that’s assuming you stick close to ISIS’s “home territory” in the Levant. Go a bit further afield to Palestine, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia — all places ISIS has at least attempted to claim as its own — and you can add in the treasures of the Canaanites, Pharoahs, and Phoenicians all the way to old Carthage.
No matter where you focus, they contain treasures of unimaginable value even if you play the whole thing straight-laced. ISIS’s black market artifact trade doesn’t need to be anything more than colorful background for the suitably ancient MacGuffin (magical or otherwise) in the contemporary-era game of your choice, but it could be so much more. ISIS may profit from the sale of mundane historical artifacts to the black market, but the real story is in what they would keep to use for their own ends. Do an initiated few hunt the true treasures of the dunes — perhaps powerful amulets from the court of Solomon, clay tablets containing lost magic or alchemical knowledge, or even advanced technology credited to the supposedly extraterrestrial Anunnaki who ruled the earliest kingdoms of Sumer?
Behind the Veil
For all the group’s claims of Islamic piety, there’s no reason your game couldn’t include a(n even more) degenerate faction using Islam as a smokescreen for some true old time religion, digging in the desert to forward their own sinister ends. The potential Lovecraftian angle here is obvious, what with the mythical (if not mythos) Dagon (who we also discussed, at least in passing, here and here) having been a major part of the ancient pantheons of the region through the rise and fall of Babylon. And of course let’s not forget that the region is also home to Lilith, queen of demons (and perhaps mother of the vampire myth).
The supernatural angle is pregnant with possibility. Egyptian tomb robbers emboldened by the chaos of the post Arab Spring world (some no doubt not employed by ISIS) have apparently encountered enough trouble from the spirit world that they’ve started employing local sheikhs to appease angry djinn and other vengeful spirits who haunt the tombs they so callously rob. We’ve previously speculated that the whole modern Sunni jihadist movement is nothing but a front for an interdimensional djinn conspiracy, so maybe the movers and shakers in ISIS don’t even need a local sheikh to get what they’re looking for. Or maybe they’re just possessed, and the djinn simply recognize their own kind.
In the real world, Western intelligence agencies have devoted billions of black budget dollars to the fight against ISIS. Now imagine a world where they are amassing a horde of ancient weapons. Perhaps a nearly mothballed Predictive Services Division, a conceit we dreamed up way back in our last rumination on magic spies in the Middle East, gets called up out of obscurity to combat them. Think 1 part Declare, 1 part B.P.R.D., and 3 parts Night’s Black Agents and you’ve probably got the gist.
Your heroes can be suave 007 types squaring off against the mad, mystical descendants of the Hashishin (who were probably Shi’ites, but hey magic isn’t real either) led by a megalomaniacal latterday Hassan I Sabbah, or rough and tumble special forces types stumbling into a war far greater (and stranger) than the one they thought they were fighting. What happens when you kick down the door of what you thought was an IED facility and it turns out there’s nothing there but stacks of cuneiform tablets…and hey is that one glowing?
Give the thing a layer of fantasy cover — perhaps making the concept a little less on the nose — by substituting orcs for ISIS, and make your PCs agents of a beleaguered king attempting to stem a tide of cursed black market magic items coming in from the wastes where an ancient empire once stood.
But as they say, there’s no better setting than the real world. It’s certainly got no shortage of proper villains.