Thursday, December 20, 2012

Isla del Diablo, From the Journal of de la Torre

The idea behind the Spanish Main campaign is to put the players in possession of a large number of leads, in the form of excerpts from the journal of a deceased monster hunter, the Spanish priest Luis Diaz De La Torre, a Solomon Kane figure in Catholic garb.  The Spanish Empire has exploited the Caribbean for 150 years before the start of the campaign, long enough for there to be ruined castles, lost colonies, and dark secrets littered across the turquoise sea.  De La Torre encountered both monsters and vast wealth during his decade in the Caribbean.  As I accrete material for the campaign here on blog, I'll also sprinkle in excerpts from De La Torre's journal.  It’s a pretty interesting approach to providing plot hooks for a sandbox game.

July, 1636, Off the Mosquito Coast
Today, I caught sight of the Isla del Diablo from starboard, but the superstitious captain would not lay to and launch a boat.  We continue on towards Campeche and then Vera Cruz for my "appointment" with Senor Gomez.  I've marked the place as 12° 12' north, 81° 40' west, nearly 100 miles off the Mosquito Coast.  It is an ominous place, with an ill and foreboding look.

I had heard rumors about Isla del Diablo even back in Madrid, from Cardinal Anaya.  Unable to quell an outbreak of demoniacs appearing in the highlands around Seville, the holy church endeavored to exile them with the annual flotas to New Spain.  This forsaken island was chosen to be a kind of prison - it was believed the demons would be trapped on the island, ringed as it were by hundreds of miles of trackless ocean.  I'm thankful the practice ended decades ago, and we now have humane treatments for folk afflicted with "evil spirits".  The cardinal's records indicated a church was built on the island back in the time of Phillip II, and I hoped to visit such a ruin, give it what blessing I could, and bear witness to the many deaths on the island during those less enlightened times.  It’s unlikely any could have survived the decades of deprivation and tropical disease.

Unfortunately, the captain informed me that all ships of the flota chart a wide berth around the place, and he is forbidden by his contract to pass nearer to the island - he only dared to come this close out of respect to my station.  The fear stems from an incident in 1627.  During that summer, a galleon foundered on the eastern shoals of the island while making the trip from Cartagena to La Habana.  A survivor claimed they were drawn by lights in the dark, appearing like the stern lanterns of the ship they followed, and the helmsman steered the galleon directly onto a reef.  150 men were lost, and tons of Venezuelan gold and emeralds must still lie among the wreckage in a few fathoms of water, for no salvage was mounted.   Landing parties were sent to explore the island for survivors, but it's unclear what they discovered; the captain told me that some of the explorers were driven mad on the island, and came to reside in the monastery at Vera Cruz.  Perhaps they're just sailor stories, for these men are a superstitious lot.  But fear of the place runs very deep, and it was even stricken from many charts.

For now, my investigation into the practices of Senor Gomez, and the cloud of suspicion that surrounds him, is of paramount importance, so I will have to delay any further inquiry into the mysteries of Isla del Diablo until such time as His Grace and the will of God allows.

Wow, that little excerpt ended up as more words than I hoped.  Perhaps brutal editing can winnow it down to something more manageable for the players.  Let me know if you agree.  The meat of the rumor is meant to convey a lost island, possible inhabitants abandoned for decades, and a sunken ship full of wealth waiting for someone with a stiff backbone.  Are there actual demons there?  Maybe the exiles were just insane folks, mishandled by ignorance, and now feral and hostile.  Or perhaps there were actual possessed people, but the spirits are like the alien Yithians from Lovecraft, and not demons at all - inimical star creatures.  Or just maybe the Church was right, and the island is now a demon-haunted waste, while the larger world is just a bit safer.  (If so, stay away from the wild pigs, oink oink).  It's wide open.  Players with a ship are free to mount a salvage operation, hiring divers, and standing off the coast of the island while recovering sunken loot.

But the lure of clean water, firewood, game animals, and fresh fruit is probably too great to resist sending at least one landing party to look around, am I right?  It only takes a little opening to let the horror in.


  1. It's been a while since I ran a story centered campaign, rather than a sandbox style. One thing I found was that my players like more, rather than less. I think, for it's purposes, your excerpt is about the right size. I found that the more I gave my players, the more they improvised off of what they were given. It was, admittedly, more work for me. However, it let me blend sandbox and story centered styles for the longest single campaign I've ever run. We had three years of a lot of fun and there were opportunities to really have fun with what we were doing together.

  2. This will definitely be a sandbox campaign. "Isla del Diablo" is a site-based location sitting in a hex, on a map, and can be discovered just by random travel. The rumor from the journal excerpt is really just a more elaborate version of something you might pick up in a tavern, "I heard about a ship wreck and a lot of treasure off the coast of this spooky island..."

  3. I'm completely onboard with Derek. That is a fantastic excerpt, I can visualize the Spanish grandee, sitting in his stuffy cabin writing the journal entry by a flickering light. You've caught the tone perfectly.

  4. Although it is a good read, I would try to compress it. Players sitting around the table, especially when they find multiple hooks, are too lazy to read through such long texts.

    This actually brings me to my second point: how are you going to handle providing hooks? Let the players read a few entries in the diary or give them one randomly or something completely different?

  5. I distributed information a few different ways. We used excerpts like this that were almost always passed out a week before the gaming session. I made up a "newspaper", really just a two pager that was laid out like a paper. Then, there were emails where the subject line stated which NPC/character it was from and then the subject so we could track stuff that way. Those filled in for both emails (since it was a modern setting) and as regular mail.

    Worked out well. Most things were out at least a couple days if not a week pretty consistently. The players read them away from the table and brought the info with them.

  6. I have to tip my hat - this is just beautiful work! This kind of journal just seems like the perfect way to set the scene for a sandbox game, and the way this journal entry manages to both warn off and entice the players, and also provides them with opportunities for researching the place before venturing to it... stellar.

  7. Thanks all for the positive comments - this idea might just have some merit.

    @Ynas: I tend to think I'd prepare 4-6 excerpts to start; there's a balance between providing enough interesting choices, and overwhelming a group with too many choices. Even that might be too much - analysis paralysis and all that. Maybe 3-4 initial excerpts is enough.

    Progressively, as the players decipher more of the journal, I can introduce more excerpts to avoid a big info dump. Perhaps many of the notes are written in a cipher, delaying their understanding. (Practically speaking, you tell the players out of game that you're not going to dump the entire journal on them all at once - they'll appreciate it).

  8. Perhaps following some of the clues in the journal lead the players to a number of old contacts, places or other things that can help them decipher more of the passages? That might be a bit "railroady"? On the other hand, it hands control back to the players; when and if they want to learn more from the journal, they know where to go.

    1. Folks are so uptight about even the appearance of railroading or "leading" the action - it's a misuse of the term. It's the DM's job to provide information (ie, plot hooks). I've been thinking the same way as your note - that the journal would have its own pointers (plot hooks) that lead to quests to unlock more of the journal's content.