A note to the reader: This post was originally written in November 2010 for the Burning Wheel Forums where I post as Kestral, as were the writeups for sessions one and one-point-five.
What’s the Big Picture?
Years ago, the heroes of a vast archipelago sailed into the west to deliver their people from evil – and never returned. Now the natural order of the world has been overturned: the dead have begun to return unbidden as shades, the seas turn strange and wild, and a dragon has been seen for the first time in living memory.
The PCs are the successors of vanished heroes: their children, wards, apprentices, squires. When the peace bought with their predecessors’ sacrifice is undone, they choose to leave their old lives behind and retrace the steps of their forebears to learn where they went wrong, and do what they could not.
The above is the original pitch I made to the group along with one other, and they latched on to it pretty quickly. Over the course of burning we deviated slightly from it, which I suspect is working as intended.
Influences and Tone
ATS is inspired by LeGuin’s Earthsea stories and The Odyssey with a dash of the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy thrown in as well.
The tone we’re aiming for is gently upbeat, quietly epic, ultimately hopeful, despite starting in a very dark place. If you’ve read the Earthsea stories, at least in the first trilogy, you know the feel. Play May it Be for best effect.
We also have two other out-of-game considerations at work which bear mentioning.
First, I came to the table wanting a game where the protagonists are the good guys. Almost every Burning Wheel game I’ve run or played in has had PCs who either became or started out as ruthless amoral bastards, albeit well-RPed ones with interesting motivations. For this game I wanted characters for whom the ends won’t necessarily justify the means.
Second, we wanted a more adventurous, even sandboxy feel to the campaign. Our last few games have been very location-centric, tying the PCs to a town, a court, a military encampment and the outlying areas. For this game the PCs should be traveling a good deal, visiting strange new places, uncovering mysteries and solving problems, then coming full circle to places they’ve been in the past and seeing what’s become of them over the months and years.
A vast, balkanized archipelago at the end of long years of quiet prosperity, where the natural order of the world is being slowly overturned.
What’s the conflict? What are the characters involved in? What are the sides? What problems do they face?
The characters are searching for their parents and mentors, the famed heroes of the archipelago who disappeared years ago on a mysterious voyage to confront a terrible threat to the islands: the changing of the World’s Tide, which will end the age of Men. They left no hint of their route or destination, but – as heroes tend to do – they left their mark on every island they visited on the way, like a trail of breadcrumbs. The PCs want to learn the fate of their predecessors and complete the task they were clearly unable to accomplish.
Sidenote: We’re all in agreement that the important part about the above is the search for their loved ones.
The World’s Tide and its effects on the archipelago are the backdrop for adventure and drama, but the driving force of the game is less to save the world than to resolve their issues re: their parents and mentors, who essentially abandoned them in their formative years. From a narrative standpoint, there’s no stopping the change of the Tide until their hearts are whole.
Against them is a Pirate Queen, one of the heroes who turned away from their quest and sailed back to the archipelago, a powerful cult of the changing tide which promises immortality, and a general upswing in the strangeness of the world: the drowned dead walking, shades returning for vengeance, sea-lanes which no longer lead where they should, perpetual storms, and a host of monsters from the old world returning after ages of slumber, including a rampaging dragon.
Who opposes the goals of the characters? Who are these antagonists? What is the relationship between the antagonists and the characters?
First, the Pirate Queen (who I really need a name for). One of the original heroes, she refused to see the journey through. In the years that followed she’s taken control of the disparate pirate factions and turned them into a crude but effective navy, and is setting herself up as a conquering warlord. Despite being irreconcilably opposed to the PCs, who are on the same journey she turned away from, she had a hand in raising the PCs or protecting them in their youth and cannot bring herself to kill them – yet.
Second, the Sodality of the Tide (also known as the Changers), a cult of the old, sleeping gods who ruled over the world in the elder days and were thrown down by Men. They promise protection from the unquiet dead, and seem to have power over them. Moreover, the cult promises the gift of immortality not just to their followers but to the entire race of Men should the World’s Tide change. As the seas grow strange and the outlying islands seek refuge in the interior of the archipelago, the Sodality grows by leaps and bounds. The cult’s tendrils are everywhere, and even lay Sodalites will go to considerable lengths to stop the PCs and assure their immortality.
What are the antagonists’ goals? Why are the characters in their way?
The Pirate Queen wants to unite the archipelago under her hand. The conquest is ostensibly part of a more altrustic plan set in motion shortly after leaving her old companions, but years of violence and “necessary cruelty” have drowned her once-good nature in blood. She is the very definition of the ends justifying the means, and is my shameless commentary on characters of that type. She wants the PCs to fail for the same reason she turned aside herself: after some revelation made on their journey, she could no longer conscience what was being done – or would have to be done – to succeed in stopping the Tide.
Why did the Queen turn away from her quest? What is her grand design? At the time of this writing I have no idea, and neither do the players. They expressly don’t want to know, and I haven’t had time to consider it since yesterday. I’m tempted not to think about it until after the first session or two and see what themes and struggles develop.
The Sodality wants to bring about the change of the World’s Tide. The changing of the World’s Tide is an attempt by the old gods to bring the world back to their original creation. The usurpation of the gods brought Death into the world, either as a curse from the gods or an act of rebellion from Men; the Sodality has received visions of the Change, which has promised – truly – that when the Tides wash away the current age, Men will be immortal and ageless again. The Changers genuinely want to bring this great gift to the world, and their logic is quite simple and reasonable: if consciousness demonstrably ends upon death, with no afterlife except a reincarnation which is not actually you, isn’t any alternative preferable, even slavery under strange gods? They’re quite reasonable for a doomsday cult, really.
Definite shades of Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore here, which is quite intentional. LeGuin readers will see the narrative judo going on here: Earthsea’s world is one in which immortality is such a terrible violation of the natural order that the world starts falling apart when someone achieves it, however hollow. In our setting, immortality is the natural state of the world, and the cycle of reincarnation is either a curse or an attempt to undermine the creators.
I want to deal with death and mortality in this game. At least two people in this group would unhesitatingly throw in their lot with the Sodality. Personally, I empathized strongly with Cob at the end of The Farthest Shore, and I’m well aware that I would probably have done the same as he given similar circumstances.
Imagine a scene in which all of the characters are standing in a room with the antagonists or their minions. What do the antagonists want from that meeting? What do the characters want? Parley, redress, slaughter?
The longships of the Pirate Queen have arrived on the once-peaceful island on which the PCs were raised after their guardians sailed away. The island falls within the Queen’s new protectorate, and they’ve come for tribute in treasure and slaves for the oars of her fleet. They bring the severed heads of sea-spiders as proof that the Queen has their bests interests at heart, they’d like quiet cooperation in return for the protection she’s given them. Barring that, they’ll torch the village.
The characters want to save their home from the flames and keep the villagers from paying the danegeld and becoming subservient to the so-called Protectorate. They intend to drive off the pirates.
We’ve decided that this will be the opening scene for the game and that however it ends, it will serve as the provocation for them to depart on their journey. The strange tides have reached all the way to this remote island: something must be done.
Lastly, what’s the raison d’etre: why are the characters together as an inseparable group? What is the glue that binds them? Are they family, neighbors, friends or fellow employees?
The characters are as close to siblings as they can be without the bonds of blood. They were raised together, went on fantastic journeys together in their youth, and were socially isolated from the island natives because of their status as outsiders.
What’s the big picture? What’s going on in this setting that makes it ripe for adventure? What’s changing, evolving, declining?
As the World’s Tide changes, the seas are becoming as they were in the elder days: stranger, more fantastic, more deadly.
The dead no longer rest quietly. The unsanctified dead, particularly those lost at sea, claw at the hulls of passing ships or clamber onto darkened shores. Even some of the sanctified dead return as shades to watch over their loved ones or haunt those who have done them wrong; the shades can barely affect the world of the living, but their presence is enough to cause the fabric of society to begin to unravel. The Sodality of the Tide claims power over these unquiet spirits, and have been known to unmake them for use in their rituals.
Piracy is on the rise. The Queen’s Protectorate ravages sea-lanes between islands which haven’t bent the knee, and unaligned captains are taking advantage of the general breakdown in order throughout the archipelago to step up their raiding.
Sea-spiders have begun making excursions from their hunting grounds to raid undefended shores or snare unwary ships. The spiders are territorial hunters who rarely trouble Men, and sailors can think of few worse omens at sea than the spiders willingly abandoning their hunting grounds.
Monsters of old – strange and singular beasts – have appeared on the outskirts of the archipelago. Even a dragon, unseen since that elder race flew into the sunset generations ago, has been seen ravaging islands and scattering fleets, searching ceaselessly for… Something.
Whether as a result of all the world’s strangeness or another symptom of it, the long peace of the islands has begun to break down. Neighboring islands rattle sabers over issues long since put to rest, and old rivals are building ships of war for the first time in living memory.
What’s the culture? What are the cultural analogs?
The archipelago is highly balkanized and culturally diverse: every little cluster of islands differs from the rest. We’re drawing inspiration from every major seafaring culture: Norse, Greek, a variety of Southeast Asian cultures.
As per the sandboxy nature of the campaign, we’re keeping the precise cultural allocations vague with the intention of fleshing them out in play. I don’t want to know much more than the players do about this, at least to start. We do know that there’s a Viking-esque raiding culture (very Kargad-like, proposed by someone who’s never so much as cracked the spine of an Earthsea book), and that the jeweled city at the heart of the archipelago is going to be heavily influenced by Istanbul. The island on which the game begins and where the PCs were raised has shades of the Chalk and rural England and Scotland.
What’s the environment or atmosphere like?
Mostly cool temperate, comparable to the British Isles. The archipelago runs generally from north to south, with the majority of them further north, but the southern reaches are decidedly Mediterranean.
What’s the most important place in the setting? Not the capital, per se, but the place where all the action goes down.
With the campaign’s focus on travel and diversity of experience, this one was tough to nail down. We settled for simply naming the island where it all begins: Koln.
What’s the name of a faraway place? A place that folks talk about, dream about, or mutter about under their breath.
The Maw of Eternity, a Carybdis-like whirlpool miles wide which is said to be the source of the world’s waters. When a Man dies, his spirit goes into the sea and follows the inexorable pull of the dark currents until the Maw drinks it down, emerging as a new spirit ready for reincarnation on the other side.
What type(s) of magic exist in this setting?
Faith in Dead Gods
Which character stocks are in play in this setting? Which are restricted and why?
Men and Great Spiders.
Great Spiders are restricted from play. They’re the orcs or zombies of our setting: a source of tension and urgency which creates drama.
Who are the monsters of this setting? Are they outcasts, or are they part of everyday life?
The unquiet dead, the sea-spiders, and the strange awakened beasts are all relatively new threats lurking on the edges of archipelago society. In the past, Men have had no connection with any of them except to placate them, avoid them, or kill them respectively.
What’s the currency, if any? Who collects the taxes? What do people do for work? What’s the major economy?
Strings of pearls and tokens of carved ivory are standard currency throughout the isles. In agrarian communities like Koln, the village “tax collector” redistributes wealth as the elders see fit, while larger islands have more traditional tax and tribute structures. Shepherding and fishing are the primary occupations on Koln, and their economy is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the islands: they are too small to be worth the trip for trade.