Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ravenloft: The Five

Welcome back to the continuing saga as I discuss the process of creating a campaign for my RPG group. As this adventure will be a revisit to a campaign where I ran the published adventure, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, last time I discussed what had changed in Barovia since the original campaign ended. This time, I plan on expanding on a topic I touched on very briefly: in Barovia, there are a group of primordial powers that hold power over the very land, having kept the influence of the gods far away from this land of dread. I will discuss where they came from and what part they may play in the course of the upcoming campaign.

(Unlike previous entries to this series, this article will only have very minor spoilers about the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure and any spoilers that are present will only really affect the group with which I am playing. If there are any prospective GMs or Players for the Castle Ravenloft campaign, feel free to read ahead.)

How 'The Five' Came to Be

Throughout the course of the original campaign, I ran into an issue: during one of the earliest encounters the party had with Strahd, one of the players attacked the vampire. Though this was not to be unexpected, what was surprising was that the player rolled high enough to completely vaporize the vampire lord in a single shot. Obviously, I did not let this action take full effect; I allowed the attack to somewhat effect Strahd, to the point where the player felt they had actually proven themselves, but I was forced to reevaluate a few things because of the interaction. 

Firstly, on a broader note, the experience taught me the importance of narrative and dramatic intercession. What I mean by that is that sometimes, as the storyteller, it is more important to preserve the story (and the sense of drama) by interceding when necessary. If I had let the player kill Strahd so early, they would have felt very accomplished but the entire remainder of the story would have been abandoned and the entire endeavour would have been a waste. Moving forward from that experience, I have striven to provide reasonable explanations for why a specific course of action may not succeed and always offer alternatives so that the players do not feel cheated. Which brings me to the second point:

Because I had interceded and performed some deus ex machina to save my main villain, I was forced to provide a reasonable explanation for why the players could not so brazenly attack Strahd and defeat him. Thus, I went over the campaign notes and an idea began to form. In the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft adventure, a portion of the gameplay must be given to reconsecrating places of power about Barovia. Each place of power gives Strahd strength (in the form of in-game abilities and resistances); once the players discover these places, they must reconsecrate the ground in order to take that strength from Strahd (thereby giving it to themselves).

Extrapolating on that idea, I decided that each place of power was tied to a specific element of nature. This led to me adding a place of power to the world to round the number out to four (one for each element) and coming up with a very basic premise of how the places of power would present themselves. Ultimately, this idea evolved into each place of power being a place where a primordial power of nature was bound, forced to give their strength to Strahd through some dark ritual. These powers became god-like beings made of pure energy and who had control over specific elements in the world and the portfolios surrounding them.

At the time, the only real primordial power that I had extrapolated on was the Greenspeaker: as the master of most living things on the ground, the Greenspeaker had allied with the werewolves in order to defeat Strahd and, ultimately, free his primordial siblings. Both Jack Vitous and Usopp Sogeking encountered the Greenspeaker in their travels, after the original group separated, but neither managed to encounter any of the other primordial beings before the game ended.

Since then, I have expanded upon my original premise and have created a number of other primordial beings that the new party will encounter in their travels. I'll talk about them below:

The Origins of The Five

Indulge me, a bit, as I relay the 'fluff' I've created regarding the Five. This is the story as one would have been told in Barovia, as the land there is so separated from the rest of the world that they have their own belief system:
In the beginning, there was chaos. In this chaos swirled all the elements of nature, including that of life itself. Fire, water, earth, air, life, death; all these things swirled about in a cosmic sludge that eventually began to shape the world as we know it. In time, the earth and the heavens and the seas and everything we know in creation came to be, and the cosmos began to slow.

The four elements in anthropomorphic form. Not a
direct representation of the Five (but still pretty awesome).
Life, as a pure energy, was able to take no form itself; instead, it imbued itself upon all the other elements and helped create the first forms of sentient life on this new world that had been created. When earth and life combined, the Greenspeaker took form, a primordial being that reigned over the trees and the grass, and the creatures that ran on foot beneath the leaves. When air and life combined, the Cloudsleeper took form, a being that ruled over the heavens and the stars, and all winged creatures that bore no burden to the ground. When water and life combined, the Deepdrinker took form, a being that ruled over the deepest depths of the sea and all the aquatic life that took the water for it's home. When fire and life combined, the Firewalker took form, a powerful being that powered the sun and provided warmth to all of the creatures alive on Earth, and who took only a few creatures under its protection as guardians to that warmth.
The Dark One is seen only in shadow and darkness.
Lastly, when death and life combined, the Dark One was created; this being, while not evil, ruled over the dead and guarded the passage from the living world to the other side, where a being's energy would rejoin the swirling cosmos. The Firewalker, the next nearest guardian to the very essence of life, became close companions to the Dark One, a normally very secretive and singular being; the Firewalker took on the responsibility of ushering passing creatures from this world to the next, and guiding them to the gate where the Dark One waited. Only the Dark One could pass through the gate to the cosmos and return unscathed; even the other primordial beings were unable to risk such a journey, for fear their own power would be stripped away.
And so it was that the world passed and evolved. Gods came into existence from the chaos itself and, through their battles and troubles, brought many races to the world. Humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, halflings; all were the product of the gods, but all ultimately owed their existence to the Five.
In time, the world began to forget about the Five, instead favouring the gods and their more understandable (and visible) impacts on the world. As the world began to worship the gods more fully, the Five withdrew from the world, allowing the people to choose their own path. Still, the primordial beings were present behind everything, helping the very course of nature along and ensuring that the world did not collapse into chaos once again.
Some of the gods began to intercede with the portfolios of the Five; Nerull, and then the Raven Queen, began to take a more active part in the passing of life from one world to the next, forcing the Firewalker and the Dark One to take a more withdrawn approach to assist without making themselves known to the gods. A few of the gods began to take a larger presence within nature, proving difficult for the Greenspeaker and the others to remain hidden. So it was that, eventually, the Five found themselves without a place to act and live.
That is, until they found Barovia; the secluded land, simple in their ways and beliefs, still held dear to the teachings of the Five and offered thanks to the primordial beings for all they did to keep the world alive and well. The Five decided that Barovia would be the best place to continue their work, uninhibited by the gods, and exerted their power amongst the townsfolk there. Their power was so potent it grew to the point where the gods could not influence the land of Barovia without express permission from the Five, something that would only be allowed in the direst of circumstances.
And so the Five have existed (and will exist) for all of eternity, commanding the elements and ensuring the existence of the very world.
So this explains where the Five came from, in terms of the world and the story. But how will the players be interacting with the Five? Well...

What Part The Five Will Play

As mentioned earlier, somehow Strahd bound each of the Five to himself, taking their strengths and power and using them to rule over Barovia with an iron first. In the course of the original adventure, the party managed to free the Greenspeaker from Strahd's control, wresting the power of the earth away by performing communion over one of the places of power and reconsecrating the ground there.

Seeing as each of the Five are attached to specific places of power, and the campaign will focus on freeing the Five in order to fight Strahd, the party will be required to travel to each of these places of power to free the primordial beings and allow them to face off against Count Strahd. Of course, this will require the party to first discover the locations of each of the Five, make their way to the Five and perform the reconsecration ritual on the place of power in order to free the primordial being within. The journey to reach each of the Five will involve many puzzles, some combat, some dungeon-delving and a host of other trials before the party will find and complete their task.

I loved the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time. Just sayin'.
The story arc I have crafted for this campaign is essentially broken into five 'acts', each of them involving different topics and taking inspiration from different sources. Finding the Five will take a good portion of time (I'm planning on each trial to last an entire session by itself) and I consider freeing all of them to be a single act of the overarching story. In many ways, this act will be taking inspiration from the Legend of Zelda series -- the Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask especially. In each of the Zelda games, there are multiple temples the protagonist must venture through in order to quell the evil within. For this game, each 'temple' will have to be searched and the place of power must be found in order to free the Five but, much like a Zelda game, there will be puzzles and combat on the way to the objective.

Part of me believes that the fourth act (the one where the party frees the Five) will be the most enjoyable of the entire campaign but I don't want to set my expectations too high. Running an RPG is all about crafting a story with your players and working together to create the best possible experience; taking too many expectations into the process can ruin the experience as you try to force your thoughts on others.

Necessary Options

As I am hoping to have an equal number of players to members of the Five, in order to shift focus around the party and let each character shine, I have realized that I may need to add more primordial beings (and their 'lairs') to reach the proper balance. At the very least (read: ideally), the campaign is designed for four players, but could possibly expand to five or six players depending on the size of the group interested in taking part.

If more players join, I have considered adding another primordial being: the Stoneshaker, a primordial being made entirely of stone, who holds dominion over everything below the surface of the earth. The Stoneshaker would work very closely with the Greenspeaker, as they both hold dominion over the earth and the creatures that live in tandem with it; the only difference would be that the Stoneshaker would control burrowing creatures and beings made entire of stone, as opposed to the dryads and the deer and such that the Greenspeaker controls.

If a sixth player joins, I would be hard-pressed to think up another primordial being to join the pantheon, though I suppose it would be easy enough to create a primordial for the energy of Life. It would require a slight rewrite of the fluff but would keep with the theme and would not be entirely without merit.

Final Thoughts

So there it is: my concept for the Five, the primordial beings that reign over the natural world within Barovia. It greatly changes the flavour of the original campaign, taking it from a purely gothic horror tale to one of more swords and sorcery flavour. That being said, I hope to establish the oppressive horror early in the campaign and then eventually build into this portion of the story. Beyond that, the search for the Five will still provide a great many opportunities for the horror to present itself, just perhaps in different ways than originally expected. And, of course, Strahd will notice his strength start to wane as each of the Five are freed, and will redouble his efforts to stop the party from continuing their quest. But we won't get too far into that; we're quickly approaching spoiler territory!

Once again, thanks for reading! Stay tuned next time when I discuss how I decided to divide the story into acts and speak broadly on the topic of storytelling. Cheers!

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Next: Ravenloft: Stories and Acts

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