So you've rolled 'bandit' on the Wilderness Encounter table? Roll 1D12.
I used to live about 5 minutes from Dick Turpin's grave
These bandits are…
1 …cannibals. They are happy to take captives, but don’t bank on a ransom. Degenerate human beings with teeth filed to a point and crude tattoos on their face, their lair contains piles of human bones, the flesh boiled and picked off. The leaders of this band wear bone armour. They show little interest in the wealth of their victims, taking any useful tools and some decorative items, while leaving what anyone else might think ‘treasure’ at the site of the ambush.
2 …children. Feral children wearing feathers and scraps of animal skins ambush travellers by hurling rocks, using slings, and firing makeshift bows. Dangerous enough – they are twice as numerous as an equivalent adult bandit gang – they can take down small groups of travellers through a combination of surprise and complacency. Local folklore often mistakes the children for goblins. The children mainly raid for food supplies. The leader, a fat bully of a boy who calls himself the Wild Boar, is protected by three ultra-loyal bodyguards equipped with stolen short swords and shields. Though they are happy simply to seize supplies, they are capable of vile sadism if they capture adults, while captured children are brutalised into becoming a member of the feral horde. If the gang has existed for more than a few winters, it is likely they are being used, unwittingly, as a proving ground – a cadet force, so to speak – for some greater evil.
3 …revolutionaries. Motivated by a political concern, these bandits are fighting to overthrow or cast out the local oppressors. The ruling class of the area is of a different religion and/or culture to the ordinary people and the petty landowners, or perhaps their target is simply the very idea of a ruling class. These bandits will pick and choose their targets according to their cause, but revolution is not cheap, and they will be more than happy to rob and ransom strangers with no interest in local politics. These bandits may well be ‘part-time’, taking off their disguises and melting back into local settled life after each job, slowly building strength. Their wilderness camp is likely mobile and temporary, so prisoners kept for ransom might find themselves being ‘educated’ in the cellar or outhouse of a sympathetic local while they wait for a ransom to be paid. Worse fates await those suspected of being agents of the ruling class.
4 …heroes. These are the bandits that the minstrels sing about. Local heroes, those running the wrong side of these bandits you will likely find little help from the ordinary people. They maintain their hero status by a combination of methods. Essentially proponents of progressive taxation, these bandits prey on travelling merchants, redistributing some of their loot to the local villages and hamlets who offer them covert support. More, these bandits are usually happy to settle for a ‘contribution’, preferring to arrive at a peaceful end to an ambush. This preference for peaceful resolution rather than bloody murder is not only, nor even mainly, the product of any moral sense. Rather, having a reputation for leaving travellers unharmed and in possession of at least some of their wealth is safer and more profitable. Surrender is definitely an option.
5 …disinherited nobles. These bandits are certain that they are really too good for all this. Young men who were brought up to expect a life of privilege and ease, these bandits make a speciality in preying of the poor and weak – there is nothing more galling to a landless, destitute noble than a commoner with any property or wealth. People of ‘class’ are more likely to be treated with respect, as nothing would bar their route back into high society quicker than acquiring a reputation as someone who overturns the natural order. The very worst that a noble traveller might face is a contest, for a healthy wager, in a suitable noble pursuit – a joust, perhaps, or falconry, or even a poetic challenge.
6 …ghosts. But they might not know it. The ghosts of hanged bandits, perhaps even an afterlife assembled super-group of famous bandits from centuries past, these bandits are in it for the gold. But they can never handle it, they can never amass any wealth. Much less spend it. However, joining with (or using) a banditry minded adventuring party for one last big ‘score’ might well be a tempting path to eternal rest.
7 …murder cultists. These bandits worship a local murder god, most probably a deified bloodthirsty bandit leader of a few centuries past. One of these is Mick o’ t’Moor, portrayed in lurid wall paintings as a grinning, black-eyed, throat-slitting madman. This groups’ banditry is a religious imperative, and with religion comes rules. These bandits are bound by a strict code of ‘ethical’ behaviour and taboos all based on the life of Mick o’ t’Moor, as portrayed in popular ballads. Core beliefs are that the must never raid on the first day of the week – this is the day of ritual preparation – or the last – this being the day of (similarly ritualised) debauchery. The group always aims to take their targets alive, as this allows the cultists to kill their captives by using a garrotte or curved dagger, depending on which version of the ballad they follow. After each raid there is the ‘Candlelit Account’, at which the group evaluates the monetary worth of their latest haul with a series of call and response chants. There are, however, several versions of the ballad, each with their own, implacably opposed, cult of bandits with slightly different rituals and taboos. Nothing pleases the evil god that is worshipped as Mick o’ t’Moor more than murder, so in this case the improvisation of troubadours might well be divinely inspired.
8 …environmentalists. These bandits are ‘men o’ the green’, armed worshippers of Jack Leafbrow, a misanthropic nature god. They have no interest in ordinary travellers. That is, unless they leave the litter of civilization in the woods, befoul the streams, start fires, chop down trees, kill game (especially for ‘sport’) – in other words, unless the travellers behave as ordinary travellers. However, while the followers of Jack Leafbrow might well kill travellers who have defiled their sacred wood, they would much rather extract penance. Rarely is this penance monetary – what use do they have for coin? – but often takes the form of some service, or sacrifice. This might, at worst, involve the travellers volunteering the life of one of their number as a blood sacrifice to purify a sacred grove, but might be as simple as offering worship to Jack Leafgreen, or providing the bandits with some extra muscle, magic, or mundane skill, that their group is currently lacking. Given that Jack Leafgreen is watching in the woods, refusing, or attempting to trick these ‘bandits’, might have extra-natural consequences.
9 …smugglers. They don’t want to take your stuff, but they likely have few scruples about lightening your load. It is doubts about the security, and, more than that, the secrecy of their own stuff that is most likely to produce conflict. Travellers will most likely not think the smugglers are anything other than ordinary merchants, unless, by way of an adventurer’s curiosity, greed, or simple accident, they learn of those crates of black lotus hidden under the inordinately well-guarded turnips. Given that the smugglers are in it for the profit, need to maintain their routes to civilized lands, and more than likely have all their wealth, and some of the wealth of some very powerful and brutal people invested in the cargo, a peaceful resolution is preferred. Or, at the very least, a resolution that neither upturns the ‘apple’ cart nor attracts any more attention.
10 …collectors. These bandits want something very specific. It might be that they want it for their own leader, or that they are stealing to order for a greater power. The thing that they want might be an item – a magic item, or item of great craftsmandship carried by one of the travellers, perhaps – or a person – there are more than a few decadent keepers of humanoid zoos in this world, and, as with works of art, the story and origin of the ‘item’ is at least as important as the object itself. Even, it might be an ‘item’ within a person – an idea or a story, perhaps. More than any other, these bandits are most likely to be well organised, with a plan formed with the travelling party in particular in mind. Anyone rich enough to be a collector will hire professional mercenaries, intelligent, skilled, and equipped, but also with a keen sense of when the danger exceeds the promised rewards. With people willing to pay for their swords across the known world, these are not desperate men.
11 …slavers. Travellers waylaid by these bandits stand a good chance of surviving. Unless they are sick, old, or simply too strongly spirited. These bandits are well connected – it is difficult to move a train of people across country unless there are at least a few eyes turned away – and work a regular route. They will often attempt to force surrender with as little actual combat as possible, and will pretend to be more interested in goods and coin, which people part with more easily than freedom, until the victims are securely bound. Then begins a forced march to the nearest city in which slaves can be sold at market, unless, that is, they are collecting slaves for some greater evil – a wicked baron or demon-aided sorcerer, perhaps, who have out-of-the-ordinary plans for the use of human life. While the slavers might make a terrible example of one or two of their captives, they usually have an interest in reaching market with their wares in good condition.
12 …privateers. When you want to damage a neighbouring barony, kingdom, or city state, but don’t want to start a war, what do you do? You might ‘encourage’ banditry just over the border. These bandits are armed, rewarded, and deliver ‘taxes’ to some neighbouring power. Their allegiance might well be an open secret, but there will likely be no appetite to escalate the conflict to full blown war. What there will be an appetite for, however, are heroes willing to clear these bandits from the borderlands, and more, to capture any of the leading bandits – who also happen to be well connected men in the political and military hierarchy of the sponsor. Capturing and discretely ransoming the son of a guildsman, a young knight, or an officer in the city watch might be a more powerfully effective solution to the problem of bandits in the borderlands than the sacrifice of blood and treasure demanded by the gods of war.