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:
|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|
Here’s how I interpreted the NPC cards in light of Cytherea’s overall campaign outline:
|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.
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.|
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!
Image title/artist unknown. Sourced here.