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For Guild and Country!by Maxime Beaulieu from Threshold Magazine issue 3
A Minrothad / Savage Tide / Freeport mashup
by Maxime Beaulieu
Caution : spoilers ahead!
How do you create the ultimate swashbuckling campaign? Step one: don’t hesitate to mix classic Mystara with great products and ideas from other sources, like the Savage Tide adventure path or Green Ronin’s Freeport! Step two: do your research and read, listen, and watch every book, soundtrack, and movie you can on the genre. Step three: trust your players to create great character ideas, surprising plot twists and melodramatic story arcs. Mix well in a jug of Corser rum and you’ll get a 115+ sessions, six year campaign that’s taken its players from Harbortown to the Isle of Dread; from the haunted shores of Karameikos to the Hollow World. Get ready to defend Minrothad from its worst enemy: itself! For guild and country!
Fair winds guildsmen!
The article will focus on the use of various gaming sources used to create the theme, mood, and setting for a Minrothad-based high seas campaign. It revolves around Corser guildmaster Milton Drac unleashing a savage tide of lycanthropy on the Sea of Dread to seize the highest prize: Immortality! Of course, the heroes affected not only Drac’s evil plans but the GM’s prepared campaign arc, and so I’ll also be musing on how player action transformed a carefully plotted campaign into a character-controlled narrative.
Our story so far…
The campaign started in 313 Verdier reckoning, three years after the end of the Great War that saw mighty Alphatia sink beneath the waves. A band of young evems (the wealthy middle class of Minrothad) from Guild Corser were getting ready to become officers-in-training on the Radiant, under merchant-prince Verik Alexir. They got an introduction to the history of their guild, notably the simmering resentment between (human) Guild Corser and the elven guilds. Apparently the humans of Minrothad came down with a terminal case of lycanthropy a few centuries ago and the elves responded with something called the Silver Purge. So as the young officers-to-be ran around town, getting into trouble alongside the son and daughter of their captain, Vanthus and Lavinia, they also slowly discovered signs of a dark conspiracy involving the return of werecreatures, a pirate armada called the Crimson Fleet and a shadowy figure known as the Pirate King. They even started a fashion trend of Sind silks at the annual Saneer ball (not their last sartorial action…).
Finally they left port on their maiden voyage. As they traveled through the ports of Thyatis, Ylaruam and the Isle of Dawn, they uncovered more signs of the manipulations of the Pirate King, most importantly that he seemed to be infecting the Crimson fleet with lycanthropy. They also came to believe this Pirate King to be none other than the wealthy Milton Drac, main contender to the recently vacated post of guildmaster of Corser and sponsor of a new lighthouse in Harbortown. Things came to a head when they learned Drac had just been elected as the head of Corser shortly before witnessing an invasion by a Crimson Fleet armada in the city of West Portage.
That’s when things got interesting…
Free ports and harbor towns: sources and inspirations
Readers with ranks in knowledge (gaming) will have recognized several different sources in my little overview of the Guild and Country! set-up. The initial idea for the game came from the desire to run a maritime campaign after reading the excellent Freeport adventures and city sourcebooks (Freeport: the City of Adventure, the Freeport Trilogy, Black Sails over Freeport).
From the Freeport Trilogy, I gleaned the idea of Milton Drac as main antagonist, along with his plan to hide a sinister temple in a lighthouse. I kept his (successful) attempts to gain leadership over the city but changed his motivation into a more personal goal: this ex-buccaneer was on the path to Immortality, sponsored by Masauwu (who I modified slightly to be the dark reflection of Minroth, patron of the Guilds). Madness in Freeport1 also gave me a fun event, the ball where the players got to meet many of the movers and shakers of the campaign. I used the images of the various NPCs from the module to create little handouts to help the players handle the introduction of 15+ characters. The lighthouse would only get explored later in the campaign. In typical swashbuckling fashion, the players would infiltrate a convict chain-gang from a prison hulk (stolen from Black Sails…) sent to work on the lighthouse. A clear example of rule No. 9 of swashbuckling: « It’s getting back out again that’s tricky » (we’ll get back to those in a bit).
I then got my hands on the Savage Tide Adventure Path, published in Dungeon issues 139 to 150. In this third and last AP published in the magazine, players seek to prevent the unleashing of a curse and sail to the mythic Isle of Dread…the actual X1 The Isle of Dread!! Of course it had to be included in this campaign and that meant the whole thing had to take place in Mystara. From Savage Tide I extracted the immediate NPC circle around the characters: Vanthus and Lavinia were childhood friends of the PCs. Vanthus was a bad-influence scoundrel and Lavinia the eventual patron once she inherited the family fortune. Vanthus would drift into becoming a pawn of Drac and play an integral part in the death of his father, the PCs’ start-of-campaign mentor. It also became obvious the Savage Tide curse would get folded into Drac’s plot to spread chaos and entropy.
So we had a villainous plot by the leader of the PCs’ home town to spread madness across the seas, a cast of allies and enemies and a set of adventure modules to run. All I needed was a home base.
A guild of one’s own: placing and fleshing out the home port
I started by checking where other GMs had placed Sasserine. Some had used Ierendi, but I was never was a fan of the “Holiday resort” vibe the gazetteer gave that nation (although there’s an excellent adaptation of Freeport in Ierendi available in the Vaults of Pandius2 that was very tempting). Others suggested placing the starting point of the AP in Davania, but that continent felt a bit barren for my taste. Then I remembered my old Gaz 9 The Minrothad Guilds. I went back and re-read the supplement and that’s when everything fell into place.
For those of you who’ve never read much on the Guilds, it’s a mercantile plutocracy ruled over by a council of racially-aligned guilds. Guilds Elsan, Meditor and Verdier are the dominant elven guilds, with humans, dwarves and hin each controlling their own. The relative weakness of humans on the islands is explained by a plague of lycanthropy which devastated the Sea of Dread about three centuries ago. The elves culled the humans till the disease was mostly eliminated, and while the survivors reorganised into a single guild the elves pretty much took control and set up the system of government. There you had it! The villain’s plan fell into place. Through the Black Pearl, an artifact found on the Isle of Dread as part of his quest for Immortality, Milton Drac was to infect guild Corser with lycanthropy. Then Minrothaddan merchants would spread it across the seas, and either Thyatis would stop it in time by crushing the guilds to stop the plague or, if things went really well, most of the Known World would collapse into savagery. In either case Entropy would be served and Drac’s Legacy would be assured. He also hired alchemists to refine fragments of the Black Pearl into a lesser version of the disease, a bestial curse (as seen in The Bullywug Gambit) which the PCs dubbed “the anger goo”. This ooze could be spread more easily, tainting water supplies and even dispersed through precipitation. The pirates of the Crimson Fleet were also part of this plan: they were to be Drac’s werecreature shock troops, a fleet of pitiless and bestial raiders.
[Sidebar1: Variant Shadow Pearls]
Those who have played the Savage Tide AP know that the plot revolves around the Shadow Pearls, created by followers of Demogorgon and disseminated by his/her mortal pawns, the Crimson Fleet. The pearls, when unleashed, transform creatures in a large area into mutated, savage versions of themselves (as seen by the players in The Bullywug Gambit). My version of the Pearls underwent its own mutation. Rather than placing them in every port in the Sea of Dread and have the players race to prevent the ritual to unleash them, I decided that there was a larger, single Pearl. An artefact of Demogorgon that caused the Isle of Dread’s present state of savagery and had since then rested on the Taboo Plateau, it was discovered by Drac and used in his plot. The Black Pearl (as I called it) slowly sheds its outer shell. Using these castoffs as a base ingredient, Drac had alchemists create a solution of lycanthropy. The players witnessed its earlier, imperfect versions in an abandoned base (not unlike the effect of the canon shadow pearl). If the PCs manage to find this large Pearl and discover a way to destroy it, the solution will become inert and Drac will have to spread lycanthropy the old-fashioned way.
Officially, Guild Corser is based out of Harbortown, a small city on Trader’s Isle. Since the city was not very detailed in the supplement, I replaced it with Freeport as fleshed out in Freeport City of Adventure. Various background elements from the sourcebook got integrated or transformed to fit the story. For example, the Halfling Benevolent Association became the Hin Benevolent Association, a front for a local thieves’ guild involved in a turf war with another (were-infected) gang. The Golden Pillar Society, the Field of Honour; the Sea Lord’s Palace - All these places became familiar to the players through the first 10-15 games. In a campaign that was going to be about traveling, it was important to create an emotional bond to the home port. It added a certain poignant element to the campaign as all the players created human characters, natives or adopted members of Corser. They quickly came to hate Drac for wanting to turn their community into a living weapon. But they also did not trust the elven guilds and the ruling guildmaster Oran Meditor, both for their desire to concentrate power into the Meditor-controlled political guilds and thus lessen Harbortown’s independence, and for the Silver Purge. Many elven NPCs alluded to a possible repeat of that sad event if Drac’s plans were not stopped. The PCs were very proud of their guild and did not want the elves to solve their own problem (or to wipe them off the map for that matter). Thus the name of the campaign… For Guild and Country!
Everything was ready: setting, NPCs, adventures… but something was missing. Something to give focus and help establish a clear mood. The answer would come from a four page article in an old Dragon Magazine: “Swashbuckling Essentials”, by Robin D. Law.
Love life and life will love you back: a campaign contract
A lot of people have written about the use of social contracts in setting up a campaign (just type “social contract rpg” in Google). The contract can be as formal or informal as you want -- it serves as an agreed-upon set of rules and guidelines for handling anything from player arguments to treasure allotment. It can also support the mood or theme of your campaign. Issue 273 of Dragon Magazine was a special “Swashbuckling” issue, with articles like “40 Daring Adventure Hooks” and “Touche”, which gave good ideas on fun character concepts and a great fiction and non-fiction reading list and recommended movies to inspire the GM and players alike. The movie list also gave me a great starting point to create soundtracks for the game, based off movie original scores. In Robin Law’s article “Swashbuckling Essentials” the author gave 12 tips to help dungeon delvers adapt to the world of high sea adventures and dashing heroics. I read the tips at the start of every session for the first few sessions and they completely suffused the campaign. Six years on, the players still quote them when an appropriate situation comes around. I won’t relate them all, but here are a few
He who hesitates is lost - Swashbuckling heroes don’t dwell too long on plans or agonize over details. They charge into a situation and trust they will be handled properly. Whenever the players would spend too much time fretting on a problem or situation, someone would quote the tip and everybody would smile and tell me “Enough talk! Let’s go!”
The world is on your side - This one is most important for the GM, I think. It also has two meanings. On the surface it encourages the players to use the environment in fun, creative ways and urges the GM to go along for the ride. Think swinging chandeliers, using improbable items as improvised weapons, that sort of thing. It also led me to relax rules on iconic moves like disarming for example. But on a more philosophical approach, this tip encourages the GM and players to take a more easygoing, fun approach to the campaign. Sure, the bad guy wants to accomplish terrible things and tragedies can happen, but in general a swashbuckling campaign is one of laughing heroes and hopeful adventure.
It’s getting back out again that’s tricky - This one led to a lot of fun, as players would willing consider zany schemes to infiltrate villain’s lairs or enemy ships because getting in is easy. It’s getting out that’s the hard (and fun) part. This lead to many situations where they got into trouble, and the entertainment came from trying to get out/escape/blow up the enemy ship!
I could quote more tips, but the point is that the entire mindset of both players and GM were basically on the same wavelength thanks to these rules. We were playing the same game, with the same expectations of what would be easier or harder, of what was acceptable character behavior and what was “deviant” (which could make for cool role-play, when some acted out of style). It gave an energy and panache to player actions and guided villains’ responses. I think it’s one of the reasons why my players still enjoy the game after so long and why it’s still so fresh for me. It definitely has convinced me to use similar guidelines in any future campaign I will run, regardless of genre, setting or system.
Love turns foes into friends: when NPCs don’t turn bad
Armed with setting, modules and dice, we started playing For Guild and Country. And true to form, the players quickly unraveled key elements of the campaign, notably the transformation of Vanthus into a villain. Three of the PCs were childhood friends of the Alexir siblings and we worked together to imagine a common upbringing, with incidents serving to set up future roles. Vanthus started the campaign having return from a “reform school” meant to teach discipline and he was to accompany the PCs on their apprenticeship on the Radiant. I had planned for him to grow angrier and distant in the early part of the campaign, as his youthful resentment towards his father fanned into outright hatred. For example the very first adventure had the players sent by captain Alexir into Scurvytown to recover Vanthus from a scummy dive named the Chum Bucket. He got them involved in a duel with visiting Thyatian legionnaires and introduced them to his disreputable “lady companion” Brissa.
But of course, PCs are PCs and the players would have none of his guff. But instead of pushing him away, they decided to help him clean up his act. No amount of lashing-out, no angry tirades discouraged them. Heck, they even decided to assist Brissa in kicking her drug habit by getting involved in a local turf war between rival gangs. It became less and less believable Vanthus would turn out bad. He might still be mad at his father, but the PCs were clearly his friends, and refused to abandon him despite his jerky ways. When push came to shove, he didn’t betray his father, and a large part of the campaign turned on its head.
Lavinia, for her part, was supposed to stay behind and manage the Alexir estate while the PCs were away. However, one of the players started romancing her and the others clearly noticed she was slightly jealous of them getting the chance to sail away on an adventure while she had to be the dutiful daughter. And so they hatched a plot to convince her to come along and snuck her aboard, even going so far as forging the ship manifest to introduce a new sailor named Alex Levin (or Levin, A. according to the manifest.). Great Disguise and Bluff checks, a fair Forgery result and “the world being on our side” allowed this scheme to came to fruition. A bit corny? Perhaps, but a perfect match for a swashbuckling campaign and a source of great roleplay as the players felt torn between their loyalty between their captain and their friendship with Lavinia. She ended being a full party-NPC, still accompanying them on their away missions and even following them to the Hollow World...
For the World is Hollow and I’ve seen the Red Sun… : Player actions and the campaign
And here we come to the main story deviation caused by player action, one that took the campaign on what could have been a major sidetrack but turned out to be a pivotal moment. In the background fluff I had given the players (notably through a handout-newssheet called the “Shipping News” taken from the Freeport supplement), they had been introduced to the concept of the Hollow World. They read Claransa the Seer’s book on her voyages to said Hollow World and attended her conference (the PC bard even got the author to sign her copy of her book). But it was more of a backdrop element. Until the invasion of West Portage...
Returning from a trading mission while most of the crew of the Radiant stayed in West Portage, the players were witness to a massive maritime assault on the city by Crimson Fleet pirates. The ships had been magically transported to the harbor en masse by a mysterious maelstrom that churned the water but left ships unharmed. My plan was for the players to dash through the city battling raiders to their ship, arriving just in time to witness assassins killing merchant-prince Alexir. The Crimson Fleet would depart, leaving the players as the trainee-officers in charge of the ship. After chasing the pirates they would learn of the source of the curse on the Isle of Dread and the AP could unfold. But then players happened...
Someone proposed to capture a docked pirate vessel (either to battle other pirates or reach the Radiant faster). Donning red bandanas and grabbing “loot” they walked onto the Beautiful Ana and quickly seized the vessel. By interrogating the crew, they learned the commanders of the fleet were using a powerful item called the Maelstrom Tree to transport the fleet to and from their hidden base named Baraga. They even learned of the code to trigger a reversal of the transport (to be used in emergency, like the appearance of an Imperial fleet or stiff resistance). They triggered the code, canceling the assault and sending the Crimson Fleet back through their watery tunnel. And of course, the players decided to stay on the ship, masquerading as pirates to infiltrate their lair. I asked if they were sure, they of course answered “He who hesitates is lost!” I described their passage through the maelstrom and their arrival in a strange land with a red sun. The Crimson Fleet main base was located in the Hollow World (in the Merry Pirate Seas of course) reached through a powerful Immortal artifact. We then paused for the night.
In retrospect, I should have predicted they would choose to embark on this path. It seemed both dangerous and crazy, hallmarks of the genre we were playing. I knew it would strand the players for a long time, but they didn’t. It profoundly changed the path of the campaign. They stayed in the Hollow World for a full year. They met the main captains of the Crimson Fleet, got a crew for the Beautiful Ana, encountered new allies and enemies and discovered that Sunken Alphatia was still around, floating in the sky of the Hollow World. They even got to travel to the Empire and resolve one of the PCs background quests. On one hand, it got the players in the heart of enemy territory and netted them lots of useful information. For example, they learned of divisions amongst the pirate captains, notably Harliss Javell (an important figure in the Savage Tides adventures) who was dubious at the advantage at being turned into a werecreature. The players were able to recruit her and a fellow captain into defecting from the Crimson Fleet and becoming privateers. They also discovered the Fleet was recruiting heavily in the Hollow World (mostly in the Merry Pirate Seas and Azcan Empire) thus giving them a large pool of replacement troops. On the other hand, it delayed the Savage Tide AP even after their return from the Hollow World. By then they were powerful enough to get involved into national politics. They met the heads of various guilds, learned more about the elf wielding the Maelstrom Tree and made (tentative) peace with Oran Meditor.
The end result is that after the Hollow World and running up and down the Sea of Dread resolving sidequests, background issues and basically enjoying having their own ship, they’re finally arriving at the Isle of Dread. They’re now 18th level and way too powerful for the Savage Tide AP as written, but the campaign became theirs in a sense. They wanted to find a cure for a beloved NPCs’ mother’s curse? Well I wasn’t going to tell them no! I always tried to place little elements of the campaign as they adventured: a clue here, a link to the main story there. In a sense their actions freed me from having to run the adventure path as written and forced me to deconstruct the adventures, rearrange them, swap events and places. Savage Tide became a sandbox for the adventure that was the PCs life. No plan survives the test of reality -- I guess no campaign survives it’s players.
The fiend is in the details: bringing a world to life
I tend to run rules-light campaigns: my adventures are more on the storytelling side of the GMing spectrum. But I did recognize that certain rules could encourage or distract from the mood we were trying to implement so I established a few house rules. Notably we used the defense bonus system from Unearthed Arcana3, basically replacing armor and shield bonuses with set numbers determined by class and level. It even became a point of pride that the PCs were NOT wearing armor, as opposed to the lumbering guards and soldiers they often battled. We also used the action point rules from the same book, using I-Ching coins (pieces of eight!) I got from Chinatown, where I also procured little wooden boxes used by the players to store their action coins and figurines. Each PC had his own little treasure chest! We also eventually integrated Paizo’s Critical Hit Deck (great for those flashing rapiers) and Plot Twist Cards (used many times to create classic swashbuckling role reversals, surprising betrayals and other trope-appropriate twists).
My players also contributed to the atmosphere in lots of little ways: someone brought rope and a guide on making nautical knots: instead of doodling between turns in combat they’d often end up practicing their use rope skill. Someone else got a lexicon of ship and sailing terms and we tried to integrate them into our speech. I made a few soundtracks using movie scores (The opening of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life The Crimson Permanent Insurance is the best swashbuckling song EVER!) And my awesome players even made me a great ship birthday cake (gluten free, too!)
Sailing into the sunset...
I’ve been GMing for over 25 years now and I have to say For Guild and Country is my most consistent, complete game. Through the use of various background books and supplements fused into a single coherent whole and by adopting a clear campaign philosophy the players could integrate and adopt, I think I’ve run my favorite adventure so far. My players, most of them not familiar with Mystara, enjoyed their visit to our favorite shared world and contributed in its growth by steering the campaign into unexpected directions. They sailed forth on the Sea of Dread, and when the final battle with the Pirate King will be joined this spring, they will proudly shout:
“For guild and country!”
[Sidebar2: Of Dreadful Encounters]
The crew of the Beautiful Ana saw many strange things as they sailed the open seas. Here are three examples of their encounters on the Sea of Dread:
An Ironclad ship from Honor Island, adrift after the fire elementals from their boiler ran amok;
The raft city of Kron, as an unexpected safe harbour;
The haunted coasts of Karameikos. How the players came to hate that realm: every small fishing village seemingly more riddled with Demogorgon cultist than the last!
David Cook and Tom Moldvay, X1 The Isle of Dread, TSR, 1981
Deborah Christian and Kim Eastland, Gaz 9 The Minrothad Guilds, TSR, 1988
Aaron Allston, Hollow World Campaign Set, TSR, 1990
Robin D. Law, “Swashbuckling essentials”, in Dragon Magazine 273, Wizards of the Coast, 2000
Matt Forbeck, Hal Mangold, and Chris Pramas, Freeport: the City of Adventure, Green Ronin Publishing, 2002
Brian E. Kirby, Rob Lawson, William Simoni, and Robert J. Toth, Black Sails over Freeport, Green Ronin Publishing, 2003
Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, David Noonan, and Rich Redman, Unearthed Arcana, Wizards of the Coast, 2004
Chris Pramas, William Simoni, and Robert J. Toth The Freeport Trilogy, Green Ronin Publishing, 2005
Savage Tide Adventure Path, in Dungeon Magazine issues 139--150, Paizo Publishing, 2006-2007
The Pirate Kingdom of Ierendi (AM2) by John Biles
1 The second adventure in the Freeport Trilogy.
2 The Pirate Kingdom of Ierendi (AM2)
3 The D&D 3e book published in 2004. http://www.d20srd.org/srd/variant/adventuring/defenseBonus.htm