RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition

adult-ancient-armor-289831.jpg[NOTE: This post sat in my drafts folder for over a year. No, I don’t know why.]

There are two things I like to do when developing RPG settings:

First, I love to populate settings with rumours and local legends. These give a feel of being living places, and also you never know when a rumour will spark a plot hook that leads to a fun new adventure.

The second thing I love to do is crowd source ideas so that a) I don’t have to do all the work and b) I end up with a more varied and interesting range of possibilities to work with.

This post contains a series of ideas shared on twitter in response to this post:

And the ideas started coming in pretty quickly. Here they are for your amusement and RPG pleasure. (Note: I’ve taken screenshots because embedded tweets now do that thing where it shows the tweet being replied to as well as the embedded tweet, and I don’t know if that can be turned off – images serve as links to tweets)

Max Brown 1

Max Brown 2

Alicia 1

Nerdy 1

Nerdy 2

Cailore 1

Cailore 2

Andrew 1

Andrew 2

Just a goat 1

Patrick 1

Brandon 1


Shenorai 1

Jeremy 1

There was one glorious gif…

And someone even turned me into an NPC!

Sewolt 1

Then along came @DavefaceFMS who was on a roll!

Daveface 1

Daveface 2

Daveface 3

Daveface 4

Daveface 5

Daveface 6

Daveface 7

Daveface 8

Daveface 9

Daveface 10

Daveface 11

All in all, some great ideas to help bring a setting to life – most will serve to bring flavour to the setting, and some may even generate new plot ideas for the PCs to follow.

Do you have any ideas to add to this list? Post them in the comments below!


‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry

Having not written any fiction for some time, this year I entered the NYC Midnight short fiction competition to kick myself into gear.

My prompts were: Fantasy, A picnic, a single mother.

As a result I produced “Uphill Battle”.

Enjoy, critique, ignore at will.

UPDATE: I received an Honourable Mention for this story, being one of the three stories in the heat to receive a commendation but not make it through to the next round. I’m pretty happy with that result, and am currently working with the feedback provided to produce a second draft (which is unbound by the competition’s word limit!)


Uphill Battle

In the face of overwhelming opposition, a warrior seeks justice from her gods.

Saanadi crested the final stone outcropping and stumbled into the clearing. The severed head of the fire wyrm fell from her hands as she collapsed to her knees in exhaustion, drawing long, ragged breaths.

‘I’ve made it!’ She barely dared to form the thought.

Painful sensation rushed back into the many bruises and cuts that covered her from head to toe. The burned flesh on the back of Saanadi’s head and shoulders screamed, a painful remembrance of the fire wyrm’s savagery.

Saanadi looked over to the beast’s head. It’s powerful jaws capable of biting the leg off a grown woman in a single bite.

“I beat you!” Saanadi yelled at the beast’s lifeless face, “I cut off your ugly fucking head and I BEAT YOU!” Her voice grew hoarse with the power of her scream as she dissolved into relieved sobs.

“Indeed you did. And very impressive it was, too.” The thin, nasal voice cut through her sobs like a stiletto.

Before she could think, Saanadi’s body leapt into the air, turning to face the direction of the voice and landing in a defensive crouch. But as her left hand reached for the hilt of her sword a wave of exhaustion and pain caused fingers to fumble. The sword jammed in its scabbard and the force of the arrested motion threatened to throw her off balance. A foot fumbled forward before she regained her stance and drew her blade.

Perched on a large rock on the edge of the plateau sat an impossible figure. A pointed beard and high cheeks defined a narrow face, with beady eyes sunk beneath bushy eyebrows that grew to points several inches away from the face. Ridged horns protruded from below its hairline, curving backwards before disappearing into a mass of black, oiled curls. Its body was unnaturally thin, but beneath a simple ground-length tunic were the unmistakable curves of breasts and womanly hips.

The figure raised from its crouch, revealing impossibly thin limbs that seemed to unfold from within the tunic.

Saanadi recalled the image of a spider she had once seen shedding its carapace.

“It’s not just me who thinks so,” it said. “They were all watching. Some of them even cheered when you took the beast’s head.”

“They who?” Saanadi’s blistered lips struggled to form the words.

“They who?” the figure asked, breaking into an impossibly wide grin. “Them!” Its head flicked skyward, looking briefly toward the clouds. “In fact, they were so impressed, they sent me here to offer you some small respite before you make your final ascension,” the figure’s hands disappeared inside the tunic, and emerged holding the neck of a full waterskin in one, and a large hunk of cheese wrapped in cloth in the other.

“So this really is…” Saanadi’s eyes flashed as she considered the strangers words, “Have I actually made it to the…”

“Yes,” the figure gave a little flourish with its hand and spoke in formal manner that bordered on mockery, ”this is the Serpent’s Basking Stone. Pinnacle of the Fell Mountain. Gateway to the Chambers of the Gods,” the figure nodded its head towards a clear patch of rocky earth, “Now sit. Eat. Rest.”

Saanadi stood frozen as she watched the figure’s stilted stride to the centre of the small clearing where it placed the offerings on the ground. She adjusted her grip on the leather-strapped hilt of her sword, watching carefully for any sign of deception.

“You said ‘they’,” Saanadi’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Are you not one of the Heinengar?”

“I am of them, but I’m not strictly one of them,” it sighed. The figure sat, crossing its long, thin legs beneath its torso. “I suppose it’s fair to say that I work for them, performing certain tasks, and in exchange I get to live among them and enjoy the fruits of divinity.”

Saanadi thought she saw the flicker of a tail moving beneath the tunic as it sat. “What sort of tasks?”

The figure looked Saanadi up and down for a moment, then popped the cork of the skin and took a long, slow drink from the spout. A small trickle of golden liquid escaped from its lips to run slowly down its chin and get lost in the tangle of its beard.

Saanadi’s stomach growled at the sight.

“Until very recently I was the keeper of one ancient fire wyrm,” the figure’s knowing look flicked to the beast’s severed head, then back to catch Saanadi’s eye. “I imagine that soon I’ll be sent on a journey to the Ormen range to steal a fire wyrm egg, and then I’ll have to learn how to raise a hatchling monster that breathes fire and feeds on charred flesh.”

It gave Saanadi a pointed look before taking another swig from the skin.

“And on this occasion, I am tasked with greeting a mortal warrior who fought her way up the side of a mountain in pursuit of the gods, and offering her some mead and cheese while the gods figure out how to greet her,” it used the skin to gesture to the bundle sitting unceremoniously on the ground. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever overcome the Serpent of the Basking Stone before.”

“You’re Ormur,” Saanadi said, “servant of the gods.”

The figure’s eyes widened as it drew a sharp breath.

“That’s right,” said Ormur, the too-wide smile returning to its face, “though I consider myself more an of emissary, representing their interests beyond the bounds of their sacred halls. The gods seldom travel to the mortal realm, these days.”

At this, Saanadi sat, placing her sword within arm’s reach, and picked up the bundle Ormur had offered. The cheese was soft, but with a hard rind, and when it was cracked, the soft yellow centre released a burst of creamy and nutty aromas. After days without food or water, she could have feasted on the smell alone.

Breaking off a small chunk, she placed it on her tongue and closed her mouth, chewing cautiously while watching Ormur’s reaction closely. But as her palate filled with a sensation of softness and warmth, any fears of poison quickly disappeared. Saanadi broke the cheese in half and bit deeply into the soft centre.

“It’s divine, isn’t it?” Ormur grinned at its own joke. “Here, try this,” its impossibly thin arm extended across the space between them to place the skin before her.

Saanadi took the skin, removing the stopper with a swift flick of her thumb on the way to her mouth. Her cravings for water were so strong that she gulped down several mouthfuls before she bothered to taste it. It was unlike anything she’d had before. It was mead, but it flowed like harvest wine, light and cool on her tongue.

Saanadi could feel the warmth of the liquor fill her stomach and spread throughout her body. The warmth brought with it a sense of lightness, as though she was floating slowly out of her own skin. Then, a feeling of tension released as she realised that the constant pulsing pain she had been pushing to the back of her mind was rapidly dissipating.

She looked down at her forearm where a fell hound’s fangs had left their mark. The wound was slowly flaking away, evaporating like steam from her skin.

Her hand darted to the back of her head where the wyrm’s breath had burned away her warrior’s braids, leaving only blackened flesh. Saanadi’s fingers found unblemished, pain-free skin. Surprised, she looked at Ormur.

Its eye twitched, as if about to wink, but otherwise sat unmoved as Saanadi explored her body, feeling the places where serious wounds gaped only moments ago.

“So,” Ormur interjected, breaking the silence, “do I get to know who you are?”

“Saanadi”, she said.

“Just Saanadi? I thought your people had endless honorifics after their name. Doesn’t each great victory get added to your name as some grand title?”

Saanadi took a bite of the cheese and chewed slowly for a moment. Memories of taunts and humiliations hurled at her from the huts of her village drifted to the surface. A wave of anger pushed the memories away and she sat upright in the resting warrior pose. Years of training and muscle memory allowed her to relax into the pose and calm the rapid beating of her heart.

After a long moment Saanadi looked from the ground to lock eyes with Ormur.  “Just Saanadi,” she said in a tone that dared the creature to ask again.

Ormur tilted its head, quizzically.

“You must know that you are the first mortal in… the gods know how many centuries to overcome the Trail of One Thousand Deaths to scale the Fell Mountain,” Ormur watched the expressions of Saanadi’s face closely. “Why did you do it? For what reason would you risk your life to face the gods directly?”

Saanadi stared, debating with herself whether to share her story with the creature.

“I was wronged,” Saanadi said, finally. “I was wronged, and I plan to petition the gods for justice.”

Ormur burst out laughing. Even in the thin air of the mountain peak the laugh filled the space. Saanadi bristled, the toned muscles of her forearm rippling as her sword hand clenched and released above the hilt of her weapon.

“You fought your way through the forest of whispers!” Ormur spoke loudly through his laughter. “You’ve climbed the icy peaks! You took the head of my fire wyrm! What justice could you possibly seek that you’re not able to take for yourself at the tip of your sword?” It watched as the woman clenched her jaw tightly.

“I was wronged by the gods,” Saanadi spoke quietly, but with a fierce intensity that belied the deep well of grief threatening to break through her controlled demeanour. “One of them, at least. I’ve come to petition the gods that I may face the one who wronged me.”

Ormur’s face lit up, its eyes wide with excitement at the possibilities hidden within the woman’s tale. It leapt to its feet in a crouch, hands pressed against the ground as it leaned forward eagerly.

At the sudden gesture, Saanadi’s training took over and her hand grabbed the hilt of her sword as she kicked away from the ground to roll backwards. Her feet found purchase at the edge of the clearing as she came to rest in a low stance with her sword raised.

It was the first time in days Saanadi had felt all of her muscles moving without pain or tightness.

“Sorry!” Ormur blurted out, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Please, how were you wronged? And how do you know it was a god?”

Several breaths passed before anyone spoke again.

“I was… taken, “she said, “against my will. Someone came to me in the form of my husband and we made love through the night. But I knew it couldn’t be my husband. He had marched with the Kahn’s army last spring and there had been no mention of their return. I knew it couldn’t be him, yet somehow…”

“So because of that you assume it was a god who lay with you?” Ormur interrupted as its eyes widened in bemusement. “And if they did, what of it? You say you knew it couldn’t be your husband but didn’t stop?”

“My body was not my own!” Saanadi’s outburst echoed off the rocks around the clearing. “I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop it. It’s like my mind couldn’t control my body to tell him to stop!”

“That doesn’t mean it was a god!” Ormur protested. “Had you been drinking? I saw how quickly you quaffed the mead without care for its potency…”

I was not drunk!” Sanadi’s face turned red with fury

Ormur’s excitement lessened as it took in the anger on Saanadi’s face.

“And for this one thing you would risk your life? Could you have not just put it out of mind and gone on your way?” Ormur’s voice suggested genuine concern.

“I was left with child,” Saanadi clenched her teeth against rising tears. “My people knew that my husband was half a world away. They named me ‘the weak’, and stripped me of all position and authority when my belly started to show.”

Ormur’s incredulity showed plainly on its face. “And what of your husband? Did he believe your tale?”

“He died in battle,” tears began to run down Saanadi’s face. “A messenger came with news of the Kahn’s defeat and the death of his army. My people said I was cursed, that my treachery had brought disaster to our doors. They sent me from the village. I survived the last weeks of my pregnancy by scavenging and trapping small game. I couldn’t even hunt!”

The passion of her words was quickly whipped away by the mountain winds.

“But if you’re right, then you have lain with a god! Are you not blessed? Are you not the mother of a child of the Heinengar? Surely that does you great honour!”

“Have you ever heard of a mortal child of the gods? It’s not a blessing, it’s a curse! Our flesh cannot house the energy of the divine. My baby was born deformed. It had to fight for every breath, and could not even feed at my breast! For days I had to watch my baby waste away until it died in my arms,” Saanadi shouted her anguish into the wind, giving voice to the pain that had, until now, remained buried, fuelling her anger. “One of them did this to me. And I am here that I might have justice.”

Ormur stood, seemingly taken aback by the display of rage and pain. “Have you ever stopped to consider what you may have done to draw the attention of the gods?” it asked, gently.

“No!” Saanadi cried “It was not my doing!”

“That you have survived to reach this place shows that you are a woman of extraordinary strength and skill,” Ormur gestured to her sword. “Perhaps it was that strength that caught the attention of the gods. You may have suffered, yes, but such is the burden of the extraordinary…”

Saanadi’s blade flashed through the air, and Ormur fell silent.

Slowly, the horned head of the divine servant fell from its neck to land heavily on the ground. The knees of its long, thin legs began to bend, and the body collapsed in a writhing, gangly heap.

The warrior woman flicked her blade to shed the strange black ichor that clung to it, stepping forward to spit on the lifeless, still-surprised face that stared up at her from the ground.

‘Serpent of the basking stone, indeed,’ Saanadi thought.

Wiping away tears and mucus with the back of her forearm, Saanadi’s face was again a mask of grim determination. She adjusted her grip on the sword, and began looking for the gateway that legend said would take her to face the gods.

The First Singer – A DnD 5e Bard variant

E.g. Chorister / Cantor / Hazzan / Muessin

This Bard is the leader of a religious rite or congregation. Their songs are drawn from the myths, legends, and rituals of a particular god or gods and their chants are part poetry, part prayer or mythic storytelling.

As a First Singer, the bard might be a part of a temple, leading worship and rites for the crowds, or they might be a wandering preacher, carrying the word and songs of their gods across the land. They are adept at engaging a large audience, and capturing a crowd with their mythic storytelling and song.

A First Singer is different to a Cleric, in that they find their inspiration in the stories and music, rather than more devout forms of worship. A First Singer need not even be a true believer, and may find religious songs a helpful ruse as they ply their crowds for donations and rumours.

Inspiration for a First Singer bard can be found in many cultures and times. The ancient greek chorus used to chant and sing and dance their epic tales as part of grand religious festivals, wearing masks and using small drums, cymbals and beat sticks. Among the many variation of Christianity you will find the Cantor, who leads a congregation in prayer. A similar role is played by the Jewish Hazzan, while the Muslim Muezzin leads the call to prayer to bring people to the mosque for worship.

Alignment: A First Singer’s alignment will usually partially align with the god whose stories they tell, or the temple in which they lead.

Instruments: Instruments that keep rhythm, like tambourines, drums, prayer cymbals or bells are very common among First Singers. Some may have stringed instruments, though would favour those like a lute that have a chamber for resonance and can be heard over a larger area.

Bard Colleges:

Bard(Web) (1)
Johan, a Cantor of Pelor. Image by @EthanMAldridge

College of Lore: A First Singer who joins the College of Lore may pursue the greater truth of the universe beyond the teachings of a particular god or belief. They may become mystics or gnostics who recognise a greater mystery of the world beyond a single deity.

Their spell choices will likely favour detection and dispelling, and the ability to perceive and cross into the meta-planes in pursuit of the ultimate, world-creating song.

College of Valor: It’s an easy step to go from leading a choir in song to inspiring an army with a battle hymn. First Singers who walk the path of valor may become the heart and soul of a fighting unit, crying inspirational charges and rallying songs, and soothing soldiers during brief respite.

Spell choices will favour those that inspire others to greater feats of heroism, heal the wounded and aid the Bard’s own fighting skills.

College of Whispers: These First Singers use their knowledge of ancient tales to invoke holy terror in their enemies in order to seek out heresy. Their chants and songs take on a darker tone as they seek out enemies of their god and deliver appropriate punishment. These questioners are not well liked, because they are often the vanguard of a full blown inquisition, and sometimes even their very presence, if known, is enough to create a religious panic and invite all manner of accusations between neighbours.

Questioners learn spells that distract and terrify their targets, compel truth or otherwise give the Bard an advantage in squeezing confessions – true or otherwise – from the subject of their investigation.

Netflix’s Bright and the problems of world building

Netflix’s Bright is certainty getting a lot of attention, as is the division between critics and fans, genre fans and fans of the movie, and just the general disagreement over whether it is actually “the worst film of 2017” or something to be acknowledged for its originality.

I’ll say up front that I’m glad this movie exists, because it’s bringing new attention to genre fiction in film (or, in this case, genre mashup fiction), and that Netflix chose to make its first big budget movie production something of this nature is not insignificant.

As a long time fan of Shadowrun, I’m 100% behind the aesthetic of fantasy races and magic in a familiar urban setting. But from the perspective of world-building and setting development that are intended to inform a cohesive story, Bright offers many examples of the dangers of being lazy in your approach.

The setting of this movie is so incongruous and lacking in internal consistency that I was unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to be taken anywhere by the story. It seems the writer, director and producers just flat out ignored some simple premises of setting development – namely that when you add an element to a setting, it has a ripple effect over time that affects the world around it.

In Bright we see a lot of world-shaping elements added without any evidence of those elements having had an impact on the development of society over time.

In Shadowrun this works because the story is that the world as we know is developed, and then in the early 20th century magic returned to the world, transforming a section of the population into elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. And as the magic rose, long slumbering dragons woke up.

But in Bright, we hear about the 2000 year long history of the races having lived together, and yet see little to no evidence of those significant changes to human history having shaped the contemporary world in which the story takes place. Somehow, after centuries of social development that includes humans, orcs, elves, centaurs, dragons, magic, fairies and even more magical creatures that are never seen on screen, they still ended up with modern day suburban L.A.

This blog post arose from a conversation on Twitter, and so this next section gathers together the many questions I have of the setting which I just couldn’t rationalise based on the information presented in the movie.

It started here:

We see no evidence of the many races having had even a superficial impact on the shape of society.

‘Elf-town’ is a part of the city, and elves are described as a race of people ‘running everything’. So either they’ve always been around and in a position of influence, or at some point there was a war or some other takeover when elves took charge. As there is no mention of any elf war, or elf take over, or even any great resentment shown towards elves as you might expect of a conquering people, we can only assume that elves have always been there, and yet have had no more meaningful impact on the shape of society than to fence of a section of a large city.

Humans do that without being magical super-beings.

Elves seem to primarily exist in this movie as analogies for the wealthy, and this movie gives them little more depth of representation as a people than to make them look like the high end of New York or Hollywood. Everyone drives a super car and looks like a movie star, but they live in mundane looking buildings on asphalt streets that are identical to contemporary America.

However, in a world with magic and non-human races, why does America exist at all in it’s current form?

Many of America’s early settlers emerged out of the religious turmoil following the reformation, so in this world of magic and elves and orcs, did the Catholic church still dominate Europe for centuries? And was the reformation a multi-species issue?

How did Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, dominate in a world where an actual war was fought against a ‘Dark Lord’ of unknown magical power? We hear mentions of the orc saviour who unified the races against the Dark Lord (and are then expected to ignore the fact that despite this, orcs were still the subjugated race for thousands of years) yet see no evidence of that having any real influence on religion or belief or societal structure.

And then there’s dragons. Are they apex predators or super evolved magical beings?

Either way, for a dragon to fly, unmolested across the city (as shown in an almost throw-away establishing shot) is to suggest it has some accepted place in society, but where is that reflected in any part of the setting we see?

We are shown a dragon flying over a city that, in the movie, shows no sign of accommodating, protecting against, or interacting with dragons. They don’t even talk about them; Will Smith’s character makes a Shrek reference, but no-one mentions dragons.

This same question applies to the design of cars. If giants and centaurs are millennia-long allies of humans and elves, living in an integrated society, why did they develop cars that neither giants nor centaurs could ride in?

While xenophobia might provide an answer (thanks Litza) the movie doesn’t really bear this out.

The races are millennia-long allies, supposedly living with a level of integration that makes the exclusion and oppression if the orcs a singular thing.

The first orc to become a cop is a big deal – it’s a major subplot of the movie – but when we see a centaur cop being part of an orc beating, no-one bats an eyelid. Centaur police are an accepted part of the police force, suggesting that, in contrast to orcs, they’re a more accepted part of society.

In that scene, not one car looks capable of comfortably accommodating a centaur. There isn’t even a contemporary horse float! (something I imagine centaurs might find a bit degrading). Nor do we ever see such a thing anywhere else in the movie.

We know there’s a centaur police officer who, in stature, stands quite some distance above his human colleagues, but every doorway we see in the police plaza is the same width/height as contemporary human buildings. Do centaurs never come inside? Even as part of their jobs?

Was the centaur, like the dragon, just set-dressing without thought given to the implications of what it means to have centaurs in this world?

We simply see no evidence of society accommodating centaurs.

Finally, there are the orcs. As well as being another fantasy race, they’re super-humanly strong. In onc scene we see an orc single-handedly lift a car to retrieve a kid’s ball.

This means that humans, elves and all the other races had enslaved, or at least oppressed, a race of super-strong warriors for thousands of years, and the world they built off the back of that labour force was identical to contemporary downtown L.A.

So what does all this mean…

For a setting to be engaging and immersive, elements that define the setting have to be evident in the details. Sure, there is a certain amount of handwaving that goes on, but when creating a setting in which you want a story to play out, it is worth considering the broader effects of each new element you add. This ads depth that helps bring the setting to life, and it is what is painfully missing from the world of Bright.

In many medieval fantasy settings, different races are often segregated and, while they may trade and interact with each other, it’s more reasonable to expect such a thing as ‘dwarven architecture’ to be different from ‘human architecture’ to meet their different physiological needs in their own, somewhat closed-off regions of the world. But in an integrated multi-racial society that has supposedly developed over centuries parallel to our own society, many of these gaps are simply too big to overlook.

Still, I reiterate that I’m glad this movie exists and that it’s apparently getting a sequel. If it is successful in kicking off a new trend of urban fantasy in big-budget film and TV production, I just hope that there’s a bit more thought given to the details of the setting in future. beyond “let’s throw a dragon in the background, that will look cool!”

Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.

The GM & the Tarot: 5 – long-term plots and event timelines

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Arising out of the request that led to Cytherea’s Civil War was the need to create a way to use the cards to create significant plot events that could define a campaign. In order to provide enough complexity and variety, and ensure it was a sustainable system that could be used repeatedly without too much chance of repetition if used repeatedly in the same game.

In devising this particular use of cards, I drew on a couple of assumptions:

  1. These plot events were primarily to involve the Player Characters (PCs), rather than define a timeline of events that would occur no matter what.
  2. That every plot event should have some point of conflict at the core. Conflict is what drives stories and either forces the PCs to react or is the result of the PCs actions.

I maintained the rules for interpreting cards that any Major Arcana meant there was some relation to one of the major NPCs (and if it was an actual NPCs card then it related to that characters) and that the court cards (Page, Knight, King, Queen) meant a significant NPC, even if only in the context of that story arc or event.

I also retained the idea of using inverted cards to indicated that something was hidden or secretive, though in this case I would not be drawing an additional card to ‘mask’ the hidden action or intent.

With those ideas in place, I settled on the following approach:

Draw 3 cards

  • First card – defines the main plot event
  • Second card – modifies the main event
  • Third card – identifies the point of conflict

It is up to you whether you interpret the cards in sequence or together, through my preference in this instance is to take them all together and consider the interactions between cards rather than adhere to any strict sequence of events.

As an example, here’s the first plot event from Cytherea’s Civil War:

First, draw 3 cards:

  1. Princess of Pentacles (inverted); explore and seek new things, but in secret.
  2. 2 of Pentacles; balance, equilibrium
  3. 6 of Pentacles; generosity of spirit

An interesting twist of coincidence (or poor shuffling) that three Pentacles cards came out together. Pentacles, despite the often mystical associations of the 5 pointed star, is most commonly associated with the material world and physical aspects of life. Money, property, business, etc.

That the key event is to revolve around a significant individual provides a sound introduction to a new story, and given the plot ideas already set in play by the draw of NPCs and their relationships to the characters, the element of secrecy is also quite fitting.

As it’s the opening of a campaign involving characters in a foreign land, there are some elements that seem unavoidable. Arriving, establishment, meeting locals. However the nature and style of these events are shaped by the cards.

So here’s how I defined the opening event…

Plot event outline:

The Vermillion legion (PC faction) arrive in An-teng and are welcomed by the matriarch of a village (the Princess card) in the outer regions where they set up camp. The PCs faction have been sent in support of House Ledaal’s legion who are there to help quiet tensions in the area after a minor uprising in one of the outer provinces (restore balance/equilibrium). Their true mission, however, is to seek out the location of a rumoured first age weapon that would give house Tepet a significant advantage, but the leadership of the legion are under orders to keep the true nature of their quest strictly need-to-know (seek new things, but in secret). Therefore, only a few of the legion’s ranking officers know the true objective. A conflict arises early between the two generals when the Ledaal general takes a very forceful approach to engaging with the local populace and the Tepet general intervenes at the behest of the Matriarch (the general’s generosity of spirit provoking conflict).

This approach seemed to work fairly well for its intended purpose, so the next step in finalising the Civil War plotline is to generate a series of events to provide the opening structure of the campaign.

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2)

Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>

NOTE: This post assumes some knowledge of the setting and characters of Exalted.

One of the main gaming forums I inhabit is Onyx Path Publishing’s Exalted forum, and after I published the first 4 GM & the Tarot articles, I posted links here for some feedback from forum users, and offered to apply the process on behalf of anyone else’s campaign starters to see what emerged.

Forum user Cytherea took up that offer, providing the following idea:

“If you’re still up for it, I’d love to hear what your system can come up with for the game I’m currently planning.

It’s going to be a campaign about the Realm civil war beginning in An-Teng with a conflict between Tepet Ejava’s Vermillion Legion (the PC faction), the satrap and their local Ragara interests, and General Shuri the Scarlet representing House Ledaal. Of course, other factions like the Tengese Princes, the Lintha, and the First and Forsaken Lion will be causing trouble as well. I’m in the middle of trying to come up with a rough timeline of events for this mini civil war, sort of like the guide in Return of the Scarlet Empress. Could this system handle something like that?”

Can it handle something like that? Well, I was certainly willing to find out.

This request has two distinct parts. The first, and the subject of this post, is developing a campaign landscape using the method of drawing and interpreting tarot cards described primarily in post two of this series.

The second part, to come in a future post, was to come up with a method of determining large-scale timeline events to drive a campaign.

Choosing the deck

I have a number of different decks that have different images and themes to depict the common characters, events and ideas of the tarot. For Exalted games, I usually use the Manga Tarot. I like this one for a couple of reasons; primarily it uses images of characters, creatures and objects inspired by Japanese history, culture and mythology that has a strong resonance with the setting and style of Exalted, but it also inverts the typical gender associations of the major arcana and other characters depicted in the deck.

One of the ideas I’ve always found attractive about the setting of Exalted is that because people of all genders exalt (awaken to/be granted demi-god like powers) in roughly equal numbers, there is not an underlying culture of sexism informing most of the societies in the setting. For this reason, I like the greater number of prominent female figures in the manga tarot deck, partly as a reminder to constantly question my own assumptions about issues of gender and identity when creating key NPCs and plot elements for the game.

The Campaign Landscape

The first series of card draws involves drawing only major arcana to inform a series of 8 NPCs, followed by a second draw, again of only major arcana, to inform NPC motivations. The second draw allows inverted cards as an indicator of hidden motives, and which usually prompt subsequent draws to identify the public face of the character’s intentions.

So for this campaign that intends to lead up to a civil war between major houses of the Empire, I drew the following:

NPC Card Motivations
02 – The Priest 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted)
08 – Justice 19 – The Sun
11 – Strength 13 – Death
12 – The Hanged Woman 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement
16 – The Tower 8 – Justice
18 – The Moon 15 – The Devil
19 – The Sun 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength
21 – The World 21 – The World

Devising NPCs

Here’s how I interpreted the NPC cards in light of Cytherea’s overall campaign outline:

Card Meaning/s NPC
02 – The Priest Spirituality. Advice, non-materialistic vision, teaching. “The spirit is a garden to be cultivated with love”. Respected elder of An-Teng, mortal necromancer, ‘keeper of the pact’ who negotiates with the denizens of a local shadowland.
08 – Justice Equity. Do right, objectivity, perspective. “Doing the right thing is the most difficult thing.” Imperial general – Tepet, believes in service to the empire but values immaculate philosophy principles of caring for those beneath one’s station, and so questions orders that seem to serve personal, over broader, goals.
11 – Strength Energy. Self-control, perseverance, resistance. “All know how to be weak, all know how to be strong.” Imperial general – Ledaal, devotee of military strategy, master martial artist, values victory above all.
12 – The Hanged Woman Equilibrium, sacrifice, training. “equilibrium comes from the inside” An-teng political leader who serves as a local advisor to the satrap, is privy to various factional plots that seek the leader’s endorsement and resources.
16 – The Tower Ashes. Ruin, destruction, things going up in smoke. “The storm breaks only what does not bend”. Tengese prince who is the figurehead for an army preparing to reclaim an-teng from the empire.
18 – The Moon Going beyond appearances, dreams, thoughts, ‘Harmony in giving and receiving’. A sidereal of the Silver faction, believes a compromise is necessary between the ruling order of solars and lunars, due to the solars reduced numbers.
19 – The Sun Truth, light, decision, ‘Live in the light’ A sidereal of the Gold faction, seeks to return creation ‘to the light’.
21 – The World Soul, Completeness, understanding, perfection, achievement, ‘Everything in the right place’ Pirate captain, serves their demonic patron (soul) in their mission to return things to the right place. Believes they have established a life of balance and perfection walking between worlds (land and sea, creation and malfeas)

This collection of NPCs primarily served to represent the primary factions already identified as part of the campaign, with only the addition of two sidereal characters, manipulating matters from behind the scenes.

Determining Motivations

Next came their motivations, which offered the chance to develop these NPCs and open up the possibilities of their involvement in the story.

I interpreted the cards this way:

NPC Motivation Cards NPC motivation
The Necromancer 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted) The necromancer is secretly providing intelligence to ancestor spirits about the workings of politics and imperial happenings in An-teng. They believe the ghosts will help to free the region of Imperial forces, but are unaware that a Deathlord is direction the actions and inquiries of the ghostly forces who plan instead to wipe out all of creation. Many other factional leaders seeks wisdom form the dead via this NPC, but they are genuinely unsure of who, if any, deserves their help.
General of the Vermillion Legion (PC starting faction) 19 – The Sun The Tepet leader of the Vermillion legion believes that something is amiss about the current state of their orders and, while fulfilling their duty, seeks the truth of their orders, and the actions of the other imperial legion in the area.
General of the Ledaal legion 13 – Death The Ledaal general seeks glory through greater challenges, grows tired of suppressing rebellions and fighting off beastmen on the fringes of civilization and wants to test their mettle against legendary enemies of creation.
The Satrap’s Advisor 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement The Satrap’s advisor hides beneath a veneer of judicious leadership, balancing the various interests and factions that threaten to upset the peace of the region, however they secretly want to purify and heal their homeland.
Prince of An-Teng 8 – Justice This Tengese prince is the local mirror of the Ledaal general. They believe they are fighting a righteous war and are dedicated to their cause.
Silver Faction Sidereal 15 – The Devil This Sidereal, while pursuing a return to power of the celestial exalted in creation, also wishes to be celebrated for their achievements. They hunger for recognition and reward, and feel frustration at the effects of their arcane fate.
Gold Faction Sidereal 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength This Sidereal presents an image of dedication to the protection of creation, claiming that the celestial exalted are the strongest defence against chaos, however they secretly get a thrill out of upsetting the status quo. After a life dedicated to order and fate, this individual has found perverse pleasure in impulsiveness and unpredictability, and part of their motivation is to cause chaos and see what emerges.
Lintha Pirate Captain 21 – The World The Lintha pirate capatin is pure in their service to the malfean ideal. They want to help bring down the masters of creation so that their demonic parents can rise again. Everything they do has an angle connected to a plot to set people against each other, cause strife, and encourage others to further fray the fabric of creation. In time, this NPC may be a prime candidate for Infernal Exaltation as a reward for their service.

NPC-PC Relations

The final part of determining the overall landscape is randomly determining the overall relationship these major NPCs will have with the PCs. This determines who their allies, enemies, and associates will be over the course of the game.

I shuffled the cards and ended up with this result:

(strongest allies/supporters at the top, down to direct antagonists at the bottom)

  • The Moon – Silver Faction Sidereal
  • The Tower – Tengese Prince
  • Hanged Woman – Local Advisor to Satrap
  • The World – Lintha Pirate
  • The Priest – Mortal necromancer
  • The Sun – Gold faction Sidereal
  • Strength – Ledaal General
  • Justice – Tepet General

Now this was a fascinating outcome! The leader of the PC starting faction was to ultimately become their greatest adversary, with local political figures and revolutionaries as their closest allies.

That the gold faction sidereal was to be in a more antagonistic position made sense, seeing as the Terrestrial Exalts overthrew and murdered the solars all those centuries ago.

Ultimately, it seems the characters will start the game as members of an Imperial legion on a mission from powerful royal luminaries, and eventually find themselves in conflict with their initial allies and in stronger alignment with local interests, perhaps becoming sympathetic to their plight or even joining or helping lead their rebellion.

And that sounds like the beginning of an epic civil war story about loyalty, values and conflict!

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2) – Countdown to war!

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>


Image title/artist unknown. Sourced here.