Admittedly, I’m jumping around a bit.
After establishing the 12 witches and doing some development with them, including creating character sheets and writing backstories, based on their songs, I felt there was something lacking.
I’m going to jump-shift just a bit on an odd tangent. Several years ago I ran a Savage Worlds campaign with a future space-based setting. I designed a ship, crewed it with player characters and NPCs (to fill the gaps because there weren’t enough players), came up with all sorts of alien planets and story ideas. I ran this adventure for about a year before it died. Why? When I developed the idea and did a whole lot of research into stars and space travel and all that cool stuff, I forgot one very important piece: plot. My idea was that each week would be like an original-series Star Trek episode where they’d come to a new planet, meet a new alien, deal with them, and move on. Unfortunately, in retrospect, I built ST:OS, season 3. And like the original series, my game was cancelled for low ratings.
Advance about a year. I attended a 2-hour workshop at GenCon on how to build a RPG system in one hour. (The irony is not lost on me!) From that, I built a RPG system, complete with a setting. I spent lots of time on it (significantly more than an hour), of which most was spent building the setting. No details — you can find them on my forum site: http://indysligogames.freeforums.net/. I even got to play test it a bit, both with me as GM and with someone else running the game. The mechanics work, but the setting has the same problem as the Savage World setting: No plot.
Both have backstories. Both have deeply developed NPC characters with interesting, playable personalities, both have rich environmental backdrops that are well thought-out. But they aren’t fun to play. Why? Not enough conflict and no over-arching story. These are elements that are essential to building a great RPG game. Gone are the days where the GM draws a giant underground tunnel complex, stocks it with a random assortment of monsters, treasures, traps, and puzzles. Thanks to publications like Ravenloft, modern RPG players require more. More than just a backstory. More than cool monsters and challenging puzzles. We can discuss all that stuff a good adventure needs, but that’s sufficiently covered in blogs and articles you can find throughout the web. I don’t need to parrot TheAngryGM or Raging Owlbear, or the Monsters Know. I want my adventure to be fun. I want the players to spend time outside of the game talking about the challenges in the game, and how they want to go about dealing with them.
And I believe I succeeded this time. I now have two groups playing in this setting. The first group started over a year ago and the second group started about four months later. It all came about almost by accident. It was because of a curse.
Back when I was first putting together ideas for the initial Heir of Linne adventure, I was brain-dump writing the backstory. Using the story told in the song, I built around it. I created the character, Saxton Baird, who was the heir. An NPC who hired the PCs to help him return to Linne, his home city, get him there safely and help him to find a hidden treasure (he had the key) and use the money to buy back his lands and title from the corrupt steward who was running things since Saxton’s father had passed away.
Just in that little bit I had quite a bit to work with, but even more to fill in. I asked numerous questions, like, “Why did Saxton lose his title?” That was answered in song: he gambled away his inheritance, and in order to pay off his debts, he went to the steward, named John of Scales, for help. John gave Saxton the money in exchange for his title and lands.
In the song, Saxton received respite from a “nurse.” A matronly woman who agreed to help, but stated that Saxton would never be the Lord of Linne.
“Give me a slice of your bread, Nursey,
And a bottle of your wine.
I’ll pay you for it o’er again
When I’m the Lord of Linne.”
“You’ll get a slice of my bread, my child,
And a bottle of my wine.
But pay me when the seas run dry,
You’ll never be Lord of Linne.”
He took this as a challenge and reformed his life. That nurse is Syreni, one of the witches. More about her another time. Returning to Linne meant drawing a map of the land and the city. The song made a few references to the city which I used in the map: a causeway over a river, several districts, a castle, and some surrounding farms. I decided to make Linne an independent city-state. I drew the surrounding lands making Linne a nexus point between these countries by putting in a near-impassible mountain range to the west and an ocean to the east. The two countries, north and south, had to go through Linne in order to trade. Useable tension point. Throw in a third country on the south side of the mountains, west of the other, just to make things more interesting. I used a database I maintain to generate randomized names for everything else.
These three countries, along with the independent city-state of Linne led me to explore the idea of a sort of ruling council (in my original drafts, I kept misspelling the word as counsel!) However, with four members, ties would be too easy, so I needed a fifth. I didn’t want to add another country; I wanted someone who would ostensibly be neutral. How about one of the witches? Sure. Why not?
So the Council of Linne was born. They were established to keep peace between the countries and facilitate fair trade, reasonable justice, and all that. Why? Well, at one point, the countries were at war with one-another, and being in the middle, Linne kept getting trounced, burned, sacked, etc. The Twelve Witches got together, put aside their obvious differences long enough to say to the kings, lords, regents, or whatever, that “You guys are going to behave yourselves because your constant bickering is getting in the way of what we want to accomplish in the world. And since we’re powerful magic users, you’ll do what we say or else we’ll turn you into newts. Permanently.”
Oh snap. I just took away the setting conflict and turned this back into those other, failed campaigns. Can’t have that. Then it struck me. I’m using Steeleye Span’s songs for inspiration, don’t stop now! Look at those stories and mine them for conflicts. We’ll start with Allison Gross: https://mainlynorfolk.info/steeleye.span/songs/alisongross.html. The last stanza:
Then out she has taken a silver wand,
She’s turned it three times round and round.
She’s muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.
A silver wand. Magic item. Polymorph. Curse. Now switch to the song King Henry: https://mainlynorfolk.info/steeleye.span/songs/kinghenry.html. These lines from the early part of the song:
And in there came a grisly ghost
Stamping on the floor.
Her head hit the roof-tree of the house,
Her middle you could not span
Her teeth were like the tether stakes,
Her nose like club or mell,
And nothing less she seemed to be
Than a fiend that comes from hell.
And this from the end:
The fairest lady that ever was seen
Lay between him and the wall.
“I’ve met with many a gentle knight
That gave me such a fill,
But never before with a courteous knight
That gave me all my will.”
The first song talks about Allison. The second song tells of Colubra. Notably, the process in which Colubra breaks a curse where she was transformed into a hellish fiend (by Allison?) back to a beautiful woman. Thus, the idea of The Curse was born.
But that’s not all. However, this article has gone on a lot longer than I expected, so I’ll end here and continue in the next post.