Magic from the Arco

My Fate players and I finally got together on Saturday. We sat down and created characters for the PCs, a couple of NPCs, and some setting concepts.

We have Garosh, the heir to a doomed barbarian tribe. Garosh is big, beefy, all muscle, but a keen hunter, especially out in the wilderness. He’s also got a big mouth. He’s at the Arco trying to raise money and resources to bring back to his tribe and hopefully help them fight off the Blackheart Horde. If he fails, his tribe will doubtless die out or be assimilated by the Horde.

And Symon Ashworth, the seventh son of Lord Ashworth, an industrial-focused noble house of the Arco. The Ash is the gigantic furnace that powers most of the Arco’s mechanical abilities and gadgets. The Ashworth house is full of hard-working inventors and engineers, constantly looking to create more efficient ways to deliver steam to the rest of the city. And Symon is…. different. His signature invention is a set of turbine arm guards that empower him with control over wind. In a family born of fire and earth, he is air and flight. He’s also, as the least important member of the house, the bearer of a cursed artifact, one of the magical items in this world. Symon’s player was very specific– he wants it to be something kind of “trickstery” that always twists its gifts around on him.

I already had an artifact in mind, and have sent him a description of the White Rose of Ashworth. It’s a white, metallic rose. Its previous bearer is a maiden aunt who is quite daft. The rose tends to choose its own bearer, and when the aunt claimed it had moved on, everyone thought she’d just lost it. In truth…. it had passed itself along to Symon. He can’t get rid of it until it’s ready to move along– it might disappear for a while, but it always makes its way back to its bearer.

I also created two NPCs and tied them to the characters: Em the Scroom, a laborer who is kind of lazy, but who is a big fan of Garosh. She always knows what’s going on with Garosh. She also either has or pretends to have a lame leg from an industrial accident. And Tink the emotion-seeking golem, who Garosh knows (Tink is a member of Garosh’s tribe), but who doesn’t actually know Symon. When Tink heard about one of Symon’s misadventures, however, he laughed for the first time.

At one point during character creation, Garosh’s player had a flash of narrative inspiration, and jotted down an idea for something he wants to happen, somewhere in the distant future. At this point, I grinned, because I had wanted to include the concept of a “Character Destiny” or “Doom” to this game.

The character doom comes from a little game called Archipelago, which is an RPG that tries to give an epic feel to small-picture PCs. In it, players write down a destiny for the other characters, and the player decides on one of them. That PC cannot die until their doom is fulfilled. A lot of times, the results are some doom that is vague and mystical-sounding, like “the sun rises over his army.” Now, if there’s a very appropriate moment for that character to die, perhaps a noble sacrifice, etc.– then he may find himself feeling cheated if not fulfilling his doom means he cannot make that sacrifice and cannot end his story. At that point, he narrates a flashback scene, in which his doom came to pass somewhere in his past, but he simply did not notice (perhaps he was playing with wooden soldiers at daybreak when he was a child, for example). In addition, once they have met their doom, they are free to continue adventuring– it’s just that they’ve achieved their main destiny, and are now into waters uncharted.

So, Garosh has his doom, and it’s DARK. At some point in the future, he will steal an artifact and take it to his tribe, hoping to save them. In truth, the artifact will end up being the death of his tribe.

We then talked about Symon’s doom. I suggested one that could be either light or dark, depending on how it plays out, and he agreed: Symon’s doom is that he leaves House Ashworth, forever. Could be for a very positive happy reason, like becoming the Emperor, or marrying a barbarian chieftain’s beautiful daughter. Or he could be cast out. Or exiled. Or run away. Or kidnapped! Basically, there’s a lot to work with, in this doom.

The two dooms also work very well together. If I want both of them to meet their dooms at the same time, I can manipulate the narrative to do that fairly easily.

It was at this point, I asked the players how much they want to know about how magic works. See, this is Fate– they’re always supposed to know how the mechanics work for anything. But… we always wanted magic to be somewhat mysterious. I’ve written up the system of magic, how it works, what the costs are, so I know what his artifact is and does. But Symon only knows that it’s magic, kind of cursed, and nobody in the family has ever really benefited from it.

Both players agreed that, as long as the GM knows how it works, they don’t want to know. Let the mystery unfold as the story does.

This is excellent, because the default quest of the story is “go find this artifact and bring it back to be neutralized.”

You see, we also talked a bit about what kind of adventures they want to go on. I asked if they’d prefer a big, epic campaign path, or something more episodic. Epic campaigns can feel like a railroad, while episodic stories give you a chance to change and adapt more easily to the narrative. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how to deliver an epic campaign within the episodic structure, much like how Buffy and other Joss Whedon series deliver a big story arc within smaller episodes.

They both wanted magic to be part of the central storyline, and I asked if they minded taking a direction I’d like to go– kind of a Warehouse 13 meets X Files. They’re a buddy team who go out to find and retrieve artifacts for “Agency Y.” They know nothing about the agency, really, except that it pays them pretty well for the work they do (which is good, since neither one took “Resources” as a skill). Their contact is a Nick Fury-like guy. He’s a nobleman, but he’s clearly operating outside of House Shadowriver’s purview. Which means he’s a great mentor for young Symon! It also means he’s a continual thread in the narrative, something to point them to the railroad tracks and set them on their way.

In terms of campaign design, I am left with some core things to work on between now and our next game:

  • Current Issues, from Fate, which are problems that the world needs these heroes to solve. In this case, our current issues are “Otherworld Entities” and “The Blackheart Horde.”
  • “Fronts” in the Dungeon World sense– a set of organizations and NPCs that present complications to the PCs. One obvious front is Agency Y. Another is anyone from Vinweed– a district that both Symon and Garosh have encountered before. 
  • The artifact that Symon is carrying. I need details on it, since it’s going to be a centerpiece.
  • Some basic setting and worldbuilding details, like the names of the central bank, the courier service, what kind of police force is in play, and so forth. I suspect these will come into play in our first adventure, so I want to make sure to have these details ready.
  • And of course, the bones for our first adventure.

As it turns out? The first adventure practically wrote itself. I’d already written up an artifact when I was testing out and examining the magic system. I wrote a basic adventure structure, then tilted my head and thought “how can I make this more interesting?”

If you’re one of my players, here’s where you should stop reading.

I had started out with the artifact known as the Mask of Hallowed Life. This was my prototype artifact I’d made, and I decided that it was a good one for them to pursue in their first adventure. The Mask’s properties are not entirely known, but it has an almost hypnotic/opiate effect on the user, entering into a kind of dream-like fugue state, where their ability to connect clues and information is supernatural. It also, however, can instantly kill a person. The two states– entering a dream and euthanizing someone are part of the continuum of the entity behind the mask’s power.

And someone in the Arco has learned how to use those powers.

I originally had the PCs going to a job offer, only to find a scene of bloodshed and death. They investigate and eventually track the perpetrator down, cornering him before defeating him. That was… well, boring. How could I make it more interesting?

This artifact is a mask, so instead, I’m having the main action sequence occur at a masquerade ball hosted by one of the districts for both nobles and the wealthier merchants. A gigantic spider decoration and silvered spiderwebs hang, glittering, in the noisy, crowded ballroom. Everyone is in masks, although Symon can identify at least 80 percent of the guests from their postures and appearances.

As an added bonus, I can count on Garosh complicating this storyline quite a bit. He has a big mouth, of course, so he’s bound to do or say something to offend everyone around him!

And one of the “fronts” in this adventure is the Vinweed Spirits Coalition, a winemaker/brewer/distiller “guild” that is a thinly-disguised organized crime syndicate. I look forward to seeing how the coalition can muck things up, especially since they’re going to be attending the masquerade en force tonight.

In short: armed with a couple of issues and some rough-but-viable complications, I have a Fate adventure ready to go. After this adventure, they’ll meet their Agency Y contact and begin their careers as artifact recovery agents.

The question of “How can I make this more interesting” is the core question to ask in any RPG, but especially in Fate. If you think of the narrative as existing anywhere between the PCs being dead and the PCs ruling the universe, I want to keep the story quite a bit above “I go to work at the factory, do my job, and go home.” Everything that makes the story more interesting and complex and fun improves it.

There’s a point in the distant future, somewhere around their Dooms, where I plan to put in a potential, major shift in the setting and tone of the adventure. It’s part of the “epic feel” that the players indicated they want out of this campaign, and I hope when it arrives, they will be so excited about it and where their heroes have gone, that they’ll jump on board with both feet and a crowbar.