Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The East Indies D&D Company

Welcome to Sakabutra, Gaelia’s colonial beachhead in the southern hemisphere. The castles, cathedrals and creature comforts of your homeland are half a world—and two months hard sailing—away. Here, the seaside forts of Sakabutra are surrounded by troubled seas, deep jungles, rival great powers and restless natives—some of which are even human.
That's the campaign opening. The catch is that the PCs haven't arrived of their own free will. They're convicts cast into this new colony to work off the cost of their passage and then make their way as best they can.

The New World
I am avoiding some creative heavy lifting by borrowing from two different worlds I developed a while ago, one for the New World and the other for the Old. I developed many of the elements that will go into the Colonies as a sample world-creating exercise in a chapter I wrote for the Masterbook Companion.

Remember that brainstorm list? I used it to rough in my sample world:
  • A fantasy world in a South Seas colonial setting. The stereotypical European fantasy nations may exist, but they are far away. Here, the seaside forts of the westerners are surrounded by troubled seas, deep jungles, wild port towns, and restless natives (few of them human). The main business of the day is keeping the trade routes from the tropical spice fields and diamond mines to the western nations clear of pirates and the privateer craft of enemy nations. Magic will definitely put the locals on a more equal footing on the colonizers than were their historical counterparts in southeast Asia.
  • Fighting sail stories: elements from the worlds of Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower, with a bit of Harry Flashman mixed in for good measure. I’ve always enjoyed the works of Patrick O’Brian, C.F. Forester, and George MacDonald Fraser, and have been wanting to do a fantasy take on their worlds for awhile. Instead of cannon and grapeshot, how about sorcerers schooled in the arts of naval warfare?
  • A civilized ogre king attempting to bring his backward barbaric nation into the “modern” world as projected by the Western colonizers. I picture a nonhuman version of King Mongkut (the 19th-century king of Siam immortalized in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I), or the various Tokugawa and Meiji-era daimyo of Japan. This fellow is cultured, urbane, well-educated, and desperate to modernize his nation fast enough to keep westerners from invading and colonizing his kingdom. Our ogre king will be an important figure in the local balance of power.
  • I’m already seeing an Earth convention I want to turn on its head (in this case literally), just for a change of pace. Let’s turn the globe upside down, and put the pseudo-European powers in the far south rather than the far north. Let the backward colonies lie to the north for a change. If this little departure from the European model serves to remind the players not to make assumptions about the campaign environment, it serves my purposes.
  • Oh, what the heck. Let’s give the colonists a bit of an Aztec flavor just for fun. Let’s not be too conventional and boring, here!
  • Giant swans. Geez, talk about avoiding convention! On the face of it, giant swans sound silly. At least I hope they do; I’m counting on the players thinking so, anyway, until the massacre begins. I was reading a book on children’s book illustrators, and saw a fanciful painting by Kay Nielson featuring several fierce roc-sized swans swooping down to devour a party of panicked Persians. Despite their common image as peaceful tranquil animals gliding along on glassy lakes, swans can be fierce birds. Normal swans eat tiny fish, but what might huge swans eat? People, maybe? Pelicans might work better than swans in a sea setting.
  • Mermaids. I’ve always liked mermaids, and they certainly fit the genre. I’d like to do something a little different with them, though. I don’t know exactly what yet.
  • Pirates. Of course. They may have their own war mages. Even the local human and nonhuman outrigger navies might have powerful shaman aboard.
  • Elements from southeast Asian cultures and myth, and maybe a bit lifted from Persian culture. Things like giant turtles, bird gods, and so on. Then again, the colonists might have a bit of this themselves, depending on how closely I decide to stick with the Aztec idea.
  • Bamboo glades, bright green and misty. I picture a verdant and peaceful forest of bright green bamboo stalks, gently tonking and clacking against one another in the breeze. This is a little atmospheric element I’d like to work in somewhere (not all of your elements need to be major).
  • The presence of a pseudo-Chinese empire, which has a complex culture and Byzantine political structure, with endless ranks of skilled bureaucrats, diplomats, and governors. The assignment to the campaign area is seen by the government officials and merchants of this nation as an exile. Perhaps they are out of favor at Court.
That's my original list from 1996. Not everything on it will make it into my 2009 campaign. (I wouldn't post actual spoilers here, guys!) For example, the Aztec flavor is out, as are the swans, and I have a fairly good idea of what the mermaids are up to. I've also read Outlaws of the Marsh since then, which gives me some ideas...Next time, some tidbits on the New World, and a bit later after that, some thoughts on how these ideas are gelling.

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