Friday, September 30, 2011

The Library of de la Torre: A Weird Fantasy Campaign Idea

Now that the September short adventures are almost behind me, it's time to start thinking about the next thing - if I were going to implement a wide area sandbox, what would the campaign be about?  The elevator pitch goes like this:

It's the mid 17th century.  The infamous witch hunter Luis Diaz de la Torre is dead, but his notes describe the existence of secret cults, blasphemous books, evil artifacts, and crazed wizards, working dire magic in remote places.  What will you do with the information contained in the dead priest's library?

The idea here is that at the beginning of the campaign, one of the characters, or perhaps a patron, inherits the library of this priest who was once part of the Inquisition.  In an alternate version of earth, those investigators carrying out the Inquisition do indeed come across evidence of sorcery and dark practices.  The characters inheriting the dead priest's library would come into possession of dozens of potential plot hooks right at the beginning of the campaign, and many of them could be local, allowing the group to plan their own expeditions and test the veracity of the priest's scrawls right away:

I fear the Bishop of Zaragoza is secretly a vampire - why does he shun the daylight?
Must investigate the coastal village of Braga - rumors of sea devils and gold trinkets from Atlantis.
They live beneath the streets of Cordoba, and they eat the corpses of the dead.  I will not go back down there.

Perhaps the priest's journal hints at a widespread conspiracy, or alludes to a global cult that links demon worship in the Levant with the sea gods of the Greek isles and horrible golden statues brought back from the conquests of Central America.  Many of the books in his library wouldn't be accessible at first, at least until the characters learn languages like Greek and Arabic, or fantastic languages like Hyperborean (or develop the right spells).  The plot hooks gained by reading the books, over time, would be more detailed, and would hint at larger places like the Nameless City, the sleeping god beneath a Teutonic Knight's castle in Poland, or how to find the entrance to the underground Serpent Men kingdoms in old Pictland (now northern Scotland).

The early modern period provides a lot of mobility with the advent of navigation techniques and good ships, and these plot hooks provide reasons for the group to travel across post-war Europe, into the Ottoman territories, or to see the New World for themselves.  The stories could be very modular, and many of the hooks could be developed as one-page "dungeons".

This campaign approach supports a strong aesthetic for weird horror; the human world is predominantly mundane - the waxing power of the church has marginalized arcane magic, and demi-humans (if they exist at all) live on the fringes of the human world.  Travel will have the usual hazards - bandits, pirates, religious intolerance, the risks of war, and plague; there will be banal challenges of duels, honor, social standing, and the law.  But when the characters explore the ruined tombs in the necropolis, the ancient catacombs beneath Paris, or the remote mountain fastness, they cross over into a place where the monsters are real.

If I go forward with this, where's that leave the Black City?  I'll just roll the timeline forward and use the idea of a ruined alien city on the island of Thule as is, except instead of a Viking camp up there, perhaps it's whalers that discover the city in the north.  I wasn't satisfied with how the vibe was developing; a little too much like a zoo for the weird horror aesthetic I originally wanted (unless I just embrace the gonzo and go 100% megadungeon with it).

I don't know that I'll definitely do the Library campaign framework - next up would be an overview of what the toolbox might look like if I were going to build this out, so I can get a better sense of the effort.  But once the basics of the sandbox are in place, the fact that the adventures themselves could be small and modular is very appealing.