Monday’s post gave a taste of the game that I’m preparing, but didn’t go into any details about what would follow. That was intentional. If there’s any chance that I’ll run this game for you, I strongly suggest that you don’t read what comes after the break. If you want to see some of what I’ve come up with, and maybe a bit of how I came up with it, read on.
It all started with telling myself a story about a lake. I wanted to create a West Marches-esque setting in which I could let players roam free, and as such I decided to make up some good background material for the area. I wanted the players to discover some of the stories which had shaped the landscape and its people, after all.
Then, while talking with my housemate Ben, I became more than a little pissed off. I had, unconsciously I think, wanted to make this setting so that I could run a fantasy game that Ben could play in. But my housemate is very particular about games, and told me flat out that any game had to have a deep underlying story in order for it to be at all interesting. Not only did it have to have a deep underlying story, that story had to be slowly revealed through play and essentially feel like a novel (or an author’s vision of one). I felt like Ben was being whiny, picky, and all around difficult, and then I decided to *prove* that I could make that kind of game. I’m more than a little tempted to get my revenge by not letting Ben play. I mean, why should I reward someone who frustrated me by giving them what they wanted in the first place? But being vindictive is probably not the best route, and besides, all that frustration *has* resulted in a game that looks exciting.
Anyway, after resolving to make something more complex, I had to return to the drawing board. That lake I mentioned earlier still intrigued me, and I knew I wanted to include it in the game. But now I needed some way to bring the players there for a little while without the story necessarily being all about the lake. How, you ask, could a story be all about a lake? Let me tell you a bit of history…
The lake of New Kraskya is a little more than a thousand years old. Before the lake existed, the land was covered by the city of New Kraskya, a beautiful place which straddled a large river several miles inland from the sea. There were a series of disputes between the city dwellers and the beings which lived in the sea close offshore, and in time the tensions gave way to war. The balance of the conflict went back and forth for some time, until the sea-dwellers finally decided that enough was enough and recognized that there was only one way to be sure that they would win: they summoned a bolide some distance above the city, and let potential and kinetic energy do the rest. There’s still a song known as the Ballad of the Night of the Falling Sun, which tells of this event (though, uh, the various translations from the original to the modern version have left the actual course of events somewhat unclear).
The sea-dwellers moved into the lake which formed in the city’s cratered ruins, and founded their own city while the environs of New Kraskya crumbled in the resulting chaos. Many hundreds of years later, a black dragon took a shine to the cities of New Kraskya (both ruined and new) and slowly poisoned the water, choking out the aquatic creatures that had made the lake their home. The sea dwellers tried once more to summon a bolide and destroy the dragon before they were killed, but this time something went wrong and they simply created a portal into the upper atmosphere several hundred miles away. The dragon Kraathrax finds the resulting whirlpool in her lake to be endlessly entertaining, and a wonderful reminder of the futility of opposing her. She is quite happy with her multiple ruined cities.
Back to the game I mentioned on Monday…
Who doesn’t love dropping bolides on their enemies? It only took me a little while to recognize how the lake would play a part in the story. Someone, to be determined, wanted to use the spell that the sea-dwellers had cast a thousand years earlier. This would mean defeating or parleying with a black dragon, and then casting the spell on some appropriate target. It only took a little while to piece together the idea of having a lone wizard traveling to acquire this knowledge, just a few steps ahead of the pursuing players.
But wouldn’t it be more fun if the players don’t necessarily know that the wizard is about to drop a bolide on people? I can leave all the clues in place, but it’s up to the players to put them together in time to realize how important their job is. I knew I needed a reason for a wizard to be on the run, a reason for the players to be chasing them, and a reason for the wizard to want to drop a bolide, but it took me a little while to come up with my eventual solution: the wizard thinks that dropping the bolide is the only way to stop something far worse, and has no reason to trust the King anymore.
In case you haven’t guessed yet (reading the previous post might help), the wizard in question is Castanedra. She and her compatriots (Xavier & several others who still need names) made a career for themselves as well intentioned adventurers (yeah, Xavier was totally landed because of his adventuring career, and his companions were the other party members). The only reason I could come up with for a fairly decent king to execute his subordinates was if they had shown themselves to be treasonous, so I decided that Count Xavier first refused to raise his levies in support of his King and then drew his blade in the king’s presence. The fact that Xavier drew in anger and was about to call out a man he suspected of being a cultist of Gralloch, the God of Slaughter and Disembowelment, was quickly covered up by the cultist(s).
I’ll take a step back here; dangerous cultists attempting to summon their god seemed like an excellent reason to drop a bolide, and they fit the expanding scope of the adventure quite nicely. I reasoned that, if Count Xavier and his companions had been secretly fighting and suppressing the cult wherever they encountered it, it might not be surprising if they decided not to raise their levies for a suddenly declared war… especially if they suspected that the cult of Gralloch had been infiltrating the king’s councils. Why give the servants of the God of Slaughter more fodder, especially when that will just undo all the work Xavier has done to keep Mont Mondal’s people safe and prosperous?
So Castanedra manages to escape with her life while her companions are imprisoned and the whole bunch of them are charged with treason against the throne. The adventurers were right about the cultists, and the cultists manage to suppress the Count’s true reasons for drawing his sword while playing on the king’s well known temper to convince him to execute the traitors. Castanedra receives word of her friends’ deaths while desperately trying to arrange an escape for them from the safe distance of Mont Mondal, and this is the last straw. Regardless of whether or not the king is a cultist himself, she’s certain that the cult of Gralloch has grown too powerful, and knows she needs some way to destroy them. She knows the truth behind the old Ballad of the Night of the Falling Sun, and so sets out to learn and use the spell herself.
Now the PCs enter the picture: they are charged with retrieving the traitorous wizard and bringing her back for the the king’s justice. Castanedra has fled across the wilds, traveling towards New Kraskya as quickly as she can, and the PCs will have to struggle to make up for her week-plus worth of head start. Castanedra has sealed the vaults of Castle Mont Mondal, after removing a few good dragon-bribes, and by the time the PCs arrive the castellan will be desperate for help against the resurgent local bandits and monsters who’ve reappeared in the absence of Xavier and his crew.
From there, what happens is largely up to the players. The cultists of Gralloch really are behind the war that is brewing in the east, and Castanedra is right to fear that they will raise their god from the bloody field of battle. If she isn’t stopped, Castanedra will acquire, learn, and kill herself in casting the spell that draws bolides from the heavens. She’ll also destroy the capitol and whomever is in it, kill the royal family, and probably obliterate a large portion of the leadership of the cult of Gralloch, setting them back a great deal. The king does actually want what is best for his kingdom, but he’s a bit arrogant, has a temper, and is surrounded by worshippers of Gralloch who are determined to raise their god from the charnel house of battle. There may be a way to solve things without letting Castanedra use her bolide, but there isn’t much time to do it before the war gives Gralloch’s followers the chance they want and need.
Mont Mondal will represent the PCs’ first chance to learn about the cult from the deceased Count’s staff, and some of them might know about the ballad and what it represents. The race to the west, in pursuit of Castanedra, will be rife with difficulty; the PCs will either need to cut through wilderness following in Castanedra’s footsteps, or travel a longer path on clear roads. Either way will see them encountering a number of problems, ranging from ruined bridges to troublemakers who see the departure of the levies and militias as a brilliant opportunity. What the players don’t solve on the way out is likely to have gotten worse by the time they come back in the other direction.
This game is envisioned as a D&D game, and the PCs will *not* start off at a high enough level to deal easily with many of the problems they might later face. At some point, unless they get stupidly lucky, they’ll have to talk to a black dragon. Doing that without having acquired additional loot with which to bribe it will be disappointing at best, and quite probably suicidal at worst. I’ve got enough room for side-quests to help the players establish themselves along the way, but they’ll still be racing against the clock whether or not they know it. What do you think?