Making a Campaign: Karthasia
This is the fifth and final post in a series. In the first post, I created a fantasy setting called Karthasia. Then in the next three posts, I created example PCs for that setting. In this post, I’ll go through the process of creating an outline of a character-focused campaign using those PCs.
Step 1: The Setting
Karthasia is the name of the game world, and Drania is the country in that world where most of our action will take place. Drania is a theocratic kingdom that spans from the swampy lowlands of the south to the great forests of the north. Its capital is a port city in the south called Barotha. It is bordered on the east and west by large mountain ranges. Drania has traditionally been governed by a theocracy run by an order of benevolent priests called the Albanists (who worship a deity named Alba). Albanist priests are able, through their deity, to heal wounds, bless and strengthen others, and to create light. The police force and army of the Albanists are known as Protectors. The Protectors are white knights, complete with horses, plate armor, and blessed weapons. The Albanists, while generally “good,” are intolerant of those of other faiths. If someone does not worship Alba, or performs magics other than those that come from Alba’s blessing, they are considered to be heretics and pariahs.
Among those shunned by the Albanist priests are the Order of Arcane Brothers, a scholarly order of sorcerers who have learned to control the forces of the four classical elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Though their magic is effective at any location, being near the presence of great elemental forces improves their study, so their keeps tend to be located in remote and exotic locations, such volcanic islands and cliff faces near waterfalls. The Order is both secular and politically neutral, and requires all of its members to disavow all gods and nations when they join for the sake of the pursuit of pure knowledge.
Though the mountains on the borders mean that Drania has few foreign enemies, the Albanist government has battled for many years against The Nine Tribes, a loosely confederated nation of primitive woodsmen who inhabit the great forests of the north. The Nine Tribes are governed by their shamans, powerful shapeshifters who can call upon the spirits of the forest to control plants and animals. Over the course of several centuries, the Albanists have driven the Nine Tribes further and further into the wilderness while expanding and building new cities.
The last major faction, the Xanx, are a sect of demon-worshipping priests. They can speak to spirits, raise the dead, and place deadly curses on those who oppose them. Although they are ancient enemies of the Albanists, they have been dormant for many years, and were thought defeated. Three years ago, the Xanx performed a surprise coup, slaughtering most of the Albanist priests and protectors, and installing their own government. They coordinated this surprise attack with the Nine Tribes, and promised them that they could reclaim the lands that have been taken from them.
The Xanx installed their own rules and laws, enforced by Enforcers, black knights accompanied by fearsome hellhounds. The few surviving Albanists have been driven into hiding, and have formed an underground resistance. The Nine Tribes slaughtered the inhabitants of the northern cities, and have begun moving further south. Through the power of their shamans, the forest is swiftly regrowing, and the cities and roads of the north are broken and overgrown as though they had been abandoned for centuries.
Step 2: The Cast
- N’Kava Tharak is a warrior of the Nine Tribes who was banished for killing one of his tribesmen in a duel. He may return to his land only if he somehow convinces the government of Drania to recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation, and name N’Kava as its ruler. N’Kava is headstrong and stubborn, and doesn’t like to take orders. He doesn’t go out of his way to find fights, but when he fights, he will not stop until his opponent is dead. N’Kava fights with the traditional spear, bow, and axe of the Nine Tribes, and he is not above sneaking up on someone and killing them when they’re not looking.
- Olcanor Parin is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers who is a devout believer in Alba. He wanted to be a priest, but when forced to choose between his faith and pursuing his talent for sorcery, he chose the latter. Though he swore to renounce Alba and Drania, he was never really able to kill his faith. When he heard that Drania had fallen and the Albanists had been slain, he left the Order to help the resistance, effectively ending his membership in the order. Olcanor is a man of great moral principle. He is honest and forthright, and will only use violence when he is absolutely forced to do so. Through his magic, he is able to control the forces of Fire and Water.
- Alsa Corvino is an Enforcer in the Black Guard of the Xanx government. Before that, she was a Protector for the Alabanists, but she had become disillusioned with the Albanists, and was persuaded to betray them. Since the Xanx have taken over, she has definitely noticed a difference in how things are run, and has begun to regret her role in the coup. Alsa is tough, competent, and a skilled soldier. She is very direct (perhaps even tactless), and dislikes subterfuge. She fights in the heavy black armor of the Dark Knights with a broadsword and a shield, accompanied by her hellhound Kimo.
- Dranis Io, head of the Xanx government, and the mastermind behind the coup. This guy is most likely The Big Bad for the campaign, and consequently the most important NPC. It would be easy to just paint him as being purely evil, a pastiche of every corny villain. But it’s far more interesting if he has at least a slight degree of sophistication. So, let’s say that our villain is a former Albanist priest that saw all of the small evils and impurities that come along with trying to run a government and though he struggled to remain pure and virtuous, the realities of the world forced him to make tough, gray-area choices. Eventually he decided that being purely virtuous was impossible, and that he might as well be selfish and evil. He devoted his life to overthrowing the Albanists, so that others would not have to toil under the expectations of morality.
- Ravello Gormas, Chief Enforcer. In this case, we can use an NPC that we created when we were making Alsa Corvino – Ravello, the protector that persuaded her to betray the Albanists. Ravello is an opportunist and a mercenary who is only working for the Xanx because they are willing to pay more.
- Yavik Aresto, leader of the Albanist resistance. One of the few remaining priests, who led up some obscure branch of the church/government. He’s now considered to be the Theocrat of the Albanist church/state in exile. The equivalent of the Secretary of Education becoming the president. He’s resilient and unyielding in his faith and confidence and provides a good example for the resistance, but he’s overly cautious and afraid to take risks. He knows that if he makes a bad decision, the last traces of the Albanists could be destroyed. He was one of Olcanor’s teachers before he joined the Brothers.
- Gravin Nor, white knight. The most highly ranked of the surviving protectors. Gravin has a fiery temper and a fierce desire to take the battle to the enemy, but is kept in check by Yavik. He was Alsa’s commander before the coup, and would/will have a hard time trusting her again.
- Silas Calinathari, crime boss. Barotha doesn’t have a mafia per se, but Silas has managed to put himself into a situation where he gets a piece off of most of the action. Silas is a violent cutthroat opportunist, but he always comes through on his end of a deal.
Step 3: The Big Story
Now that we’ve established where we’re doing things, and who shall be doing them, we can finally address the question of what they shall do. The setting has one obvious story hook, the evil Xanx government that overthrew the benevolent Albanists, and consequently all of the characters have stories that relate to it in some way. N’Kava needs to get some government to appoint him lawful ruler of the Nine Tribes, Olcanor seeks to restore the Albanists to power, and Alsa seeks atonement for her role in the coup. The Big Story for this campaign is almost definitely going to be the PCs working to overthrow the government, although each will do it for their own reasons.
The most important question, when crafting a character-focused campaign, is how to get the PCs to work together in the first place. Since they don’t start as a unified party, and each has different goals for their character, this can be a bit tricky. When I’m working on a four-player campaign, I usually try to have two threads to the story at the beginning, and have two of the PCs be interested in each thread. Then later, when the two threads turn out to be related, all four PCs are working together. In the case of a three-player campaign, there are often still two threads to the plot, but one character bridges both. If you get really clever, you can create three threads, with each PC having ties to two of them. This makes them extremely likely to encounter one another naturally, but can seem a bit contrived.
I develop these plot threads by knowing my endpoint (the PCs working to overthrow the Xanx government) and my begin points (the PCs initial goals and situations) and then creating a story that leads them naturally from one point to another. In this case, the characters’ motivations are already skewed a bit towards overthrowing the Xanx*, so few machinations are required.
Olcanor is actively seeking to restore the Albanists, so his earliest actions are most likely going to relate to finding the underground resistance. As the resistance is underground, that should be no easy feat, especially since he, as an Arcane Brother, is persona non grata in their religion. There is no way to know exactly how a player might approach this problem, but there are a few obvious lines of inquiry. The first would simply be to walk into town and openly tell people in taverns and the like that you are looking for the resistance and want to help them. Another way would be to seek out people who are likely to know about things that go on outside the law and ask them. This could be a place where Silas, the crime lord would come into play. There could be some fun tension between Olcanor’s morals and the tasks that Silas would ask of him for payment. Either path has the potential to get him in trouble with local law enforcement, and consequently put him in contact with Alsa.
N’Kavak’s first goal when he gets into town is going to be to contact someone in the Xanx government to try to get them to name him as the leader of the sovereign nation of the Nine Tribes. There are a lot of different ways that he might go about that task. He could walk into the temple/government offices and demand to speak to someone, or he might ask around in taverns and try to arrange a meeting with someone. Either way is likely to attract attention, especially since he’s probably the only Tribesman in the whole city. If he causes a ruckus, I would be inclined to have the cops come to get him, and finagle a way to make sure that Alsa is part of the group that comes to pick him up. If he is particularly tactful and/or clever, I actually think that it would rockmost for him to be allowed to speak to Dranis Io, the head priest of the Xanx government. He could plead his case in person to Dranis (with guards, including Alsa, present) and be told that there is no way that the Xanx will ever recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation. In either case, it shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange a circumstance where he will realize that the Xanx will not negotiate with him. The real question is what happens after that?
In order for his story to progress, he would need to find and join the rebellion, but his character lacks the sort of social skills that will make that task a reasonable one to rely upon. So I think that we have the rebellion find him instead. Since he’s a savage in the city, and the savages have been, well, savaging other cities in the north, he is likely to be attacked. As he’s not the type to walk away from a fight, and has a disadvantage that requires him to fight to the death, he’s likely to have more than one scuffle that others will see. Additionally, he is well-suited to escaping a small number of guards – he wears no armor, carries light weapons, and is very quick and agile. Evading a few armored men carrying heavy swords and shields long enough to climb up on a building should be a reasonable task. All of which is to say that his presence in the city is likely to cause a stir, and he would probably come to the attention of the rebellion.
This way, it doesn’t really matter how N’Kavak proceeds through the story; if he causes a commotion but escapes the cops, the rebellion can approach him with a promise of safety and a place to hide. If he ends up captured and locked up in prison, then they could arrange a jailbreak, or a covert operation to have him freed. Why would they want him? Well, maybe they have a need for a stealthy warrior to lead a strike in the capitol. Or perhaps they need someone to go to one of the captured and overgrown cities in Tribesman territory to obtain a powerful item, and they need a guide. I like that last one, as it could make for a good setpiece.
Now let’s look at Alsa. My intended story arc is to have her be forced to do and see things that make her decide to turn against the Xanx and work for the resistance. We’ve also established above that she will probably be the “glue” character that ties the PCs together, so she’ll have run-ins with both Olcanor and N’Kava before she is given an incentive to quit. All of this poses a tricky timing problem. Without our characters feeling railroaded, we want all of them to join the rebellion at more or less the same time. Olcanor is on a direct line to find and join them, N’Kava has a little bit of legwork to do first, and Alsa has a fair amount of things to do beforehand. We’ll need to add some buffer for the other two.
There’s also the problem, for Olcanor and Alsa, of convincing the rebellion to accept their help. Olcanor is a heretic and a pariah in the eyes of their church-in-exile, and Alsa was(or still is, depending on how she chooses to play it) a high-ranking Enforcer. If this were a video game, she would be required to go on a quest to bring back an item and prove her worth. But since this isn’t a video game, we have more subtle options at our disposal, and I think that we can do better than that. What if she captured a high-ranking member of the rebellion, or freed one who had already been captured? That seems like it would go a long way towards getting them to trust her.
In fact, depending on how N’Kava’s story came out, the same jailbreak that freed him might be the one that released one of the alliance leaders. In this case, he’s probably not the target of the jailbreak, just a lucky beneficiary that they pick up since they’re already there. We could bring Olcanor into it by creating some task as part of the jailbreak that requires his unique gifts.
Then, after the three PCs have joined the resistance, they get sent to a city in the north to retrieve the powerful McGuffin of McGregor or somesuch. They return to the city, McGuffin in tow, and then plan and execute a raid on the palace to overthrow the heads of the Xanx government (for the sake of cinematic story, we can assume that the common folk hate the government enough that they will rise up in other cities once the central power has been removed). Sounds like a campaign to me.
Step 4: The Small Story
As we decided above, we’re going to have to come up with some stuff for Olcanor and N’Kava to do so that the timing with Alsa’s story coincides correctly. So first let’s lay out Alsa’s story to see how much time we need to pad for them.
The first couple of sessions in a campaign are really critical, and I have specific goals that for them. Firstly, we need to give the player a chance to get the hang of their character, and to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. We probably want to create some sort of minor combat for them, and a situation where they have to use some of their other key skills. Basically, it’s a chance for them to find their feet before the stakes go up. The tricky part here is giving them something to do where they can afford to fail, but what they are doing still matters to the story somehow.
For Alsa, her occupation makes it easy for us to craft a scenario where she gets into a winnable fight early on. Her boss, Rovello, tells her that they have a tip about a rebellion hideout. She’s to take a handful of Enforcers and go capture or kill them. The battle can last just long enough for her to take out a couple of people, and then the rebels surrender. During the fight, she sees a tall, young guy with snow-white hair sneak out through a secret passage. One of the captured rebels is a big deal leader-type. She takes him back to the palace and delivers him to the dungeons. As she’s leaving, she can hear him being tortured for information.
The next morning, she gets sent to collect taxes from a family that hasn’t paid. The family is very poor, and she ends up having to take one of the oldest brothers into state slavery to pay the debt. That afternoon, she runs into one of her informants, who tells her that there is some foreigner in robes asking after the resistance. She goes and has her encounter with Olcanor – either fighting him** or just telling him to lay off.
The day after that, she ends up having to deal with N’Kava in some fashion, depending on how he handles things. On her way back to her quarters, she sees Ravello, along with a whole bunch of Enforcers. He orders her to accompany him. They go to a cellar where some rebels are hiding, mostly women and children. They fight off some guards, then board up the cellar and set fire to the building. She can hear the screams from inside and smell flesh burning. This (hopefully) will be the trigger that makes her decide to join the resistance instead. From there on out, we can’t really script what will happen.
So, she encounters Olcanor on day 2, and N’Kavak on day 3. That means that we need to give Olcanor something to do before he gets into the city. He’s coming from a volcanic island by ship, so how about pirates? Everybody loves pirates. For a character with Fire and Water magic, a wooden boat at sea should be a fun place to test out his abilities. To tie it in to the story, we can have the ship captain mention that the pirates are actually paid by the Xanx to collect “taxes” for the government.
N’Kava needs two days worth of lead time before he hits town. Since we know that we’re going to be sending the players to one of the ruined cities in the north, we could have him start near there. He’s traveling on his way to the city and gets hired on by some merchants for protection. They are looking for a specific item from the city, and have a map to the temple where it is supposed to be found. A minor dungeon crawl ensues, with some battles with beasties. For his second session, they are ambushed by Tribesman as they camp in the city. He can choose to fight for either side. Then, in his third session he gets to town, (almost definitely) gets into trouble, and runs into the law.
And that’s about it. As the GM, we’d need to polish off some of the details. First we’d flesh out some of the NPCs mentioned above (the merchants, the informant, the captured rebel leader, etc). We’d also need draw a rough map of the northern city (which needs a name) and the temple within it. Once those things are done, we’re ready to get started.
*As I mentioned above, this is because I really only provided one interesting hook for the setting – the evil government in charge. If I wanted a more complicated campaign, there would probably be a handful of other interesting forces and things going on (all of which would end up being related at the end) for the players to latch on to.
**I think that it’s totally fine for the PC’s first interactions to be confrontational, and to even result in combat. Players enjoy fighting against players when given the opportunity, and they will usually find a way to end the confrontation non-lethally.