Friday, May 24, 2013

Return to Mar Tesaro - Setting the stage

When I was dreaming up the campaign that would bring players back to Mar Tesaro, my goal was to update the setting.  While I could always just run that same story again, it wouldn't really be mine.  I wanted to keep the island, keep the key events and characters, but move time forward so that it's effectively a different place.

In order to set the stage, it probably helps to look at the state of things when the first campaign ended.
War is hell.  Unless you're playing games.  
Then war is awesome.
Mar Tesaro is an island nation with a lot of problems.  The most prominent feature of the place is a mountain that dominates the southeastern portion of the map, which is home to an overprotective nature spirit, Fiore.  Some time in the past, that spirit was locked away so that people could mine the vast deposits of gems and minerals from the mountain in a wrath-free environment.  Wars came and went as people fought over the mountain.  Eventually a lich took the throne and threatened the global balance of power.  Three nations (human, elf, and dwarf) came together to knock him off and took control of the island for themselves.  More wars came and went, this time of the internal variety.

When the first campaign started, the players were strangers to Mar Tesaro.  A civil war had just finished up, and the elves were the grand winners.  By the time the campaign had ended, the players had freed (and re-imprisoned) the lich-king Mordan (not to be confused with that other guy), released the trapped mountain spirit Fiore and restored balance to the force.  Well, most of the above.

Since I want to advance the setting several years after these events, what are the premises from that campaign?
  1. The primary economic engine for the island is now defunct. With Fiore released, it is no longer possible to mine any minerals or gems from the mountain.
  2. The military might of the island is mostly depleted.  The elven forces crushed the humans and kicked out the dwarves.  Then Mordan returned, taking a chunk out of what remained.  
Clearly, the victorious Queen Alessia has some issues on her hands.  So, what would any good leader in a fantasy setting do?  Hire adventurers.  (See the rest after the jump.)

It's a trope for the genre, but it makes sense to me.  They have a shortage of fighting-age men, so conscription isn't going to cut it.  Having limitless wealth available from the mountain, the army was likely equipped with powerful magical arms and armor.  Adventurers tend to like that sort of stuff.
"We were just using these things as paper weights, anyhow."
So here's how the story plays out, or at least, how I sold it to my players:
Alessia's reign after the war was uncontested.  With the mountain unattainable, there was no need to subjugate the humans, and fighting over the mountain no longer seemed worthwhile.  The dwarves settled at the foot of the mountain, content to worship the mountain spirit from afar.

In the aftermath of back-to-back wars, the island was devastated:  Pockets of uncontrolled undead still lingered in the wilderness; several cities had been reduced to rubble, and a great majority of fighting-age adults were lost.  Worse, the loss of the wealth of the mountain would make rebuilding nearly impossible.

What was available in large quantities, however, was enchanted arms and armor.  They became the de-facto currency of the realm:  Adventurers flocked to the island to claim them, clearing out monsters and undead, apprehending brigands, and generally keeping the peace.  Mages broke down the enchantments to use the base materials for repairs and reconstruction of the island's infrastructure.

The good news was that, as mercenaries and other warriors flocked to the island in search of fortune, so did common folk seeking new lives and the gold that the adventurers brought to the island. The island's population began to rebound. The bad news was that the population of mercenaries began to increase far beyond what the needs of the island could handle.

The problem came to a head five years after the end of Mordan:  An invasion from the frozen nation of Dawnstar to the north was thwarted only by the combined might of Alessia's army and the adventurers who rallied to the island's defense. Alessia realized how fragile her peace was; the total number of adventurers dwarfed her standing army. If anyone organized them against her, the island could devolve into endless war again.
While the immediate aftermath might have been an interesting place to take the players, given all the adventure-ish type things available to do, I really wanted the setting to evolve further.

The invasion from the north felt like a natural progression.  Shamus's campaign took place within a larger series of campaigns, with a larger campaign setting.  I never really had much connection to that world or those stories, so I've treated the outside world lightly; since the new campaign would focus on Mar Tesaro, having a well-detailed broader world wasn't really necessary.  Merchants come and go, but aside from that nasty business with the opportunistic neighbors to the north, the ancestral homelands tend to stay out of Mar Tesaro's business.  (As an aside, you might recognize the name of that "frozen nation" from elsewhere.  Sometimes you borrow material to use at the table.  It happens.)

So how did the Queen decide to settle her mercenary problem?
Thus was born the Tournament of Champions. To give the warriors of the island an outlet for their ambition, Alessia enacted construction of an enormous coliseum 15 years ago. Known only as the Coliseum, it would eventually host games day and night, attracting spectators and competitors from all over the world and rewarding its competitors with fame and riches. As spectators arrived, so did merchants and craftsmen seeking their own fortunes. Many who arrived chose to make the island their home, settling in the villages around the island.

As the tournament became central to the life of the island, guilds began to organize, sponsoring individuals or teams to compete in the Coliseum and providing them an advocate with the authorities. Over time, the largest and most successful guilds also achieved significant political influence.
This looked like a suitable solution to the problem of over-crowding, or at least one that makes sense in a fantasy game.  I also figured that the Tournament would provide a point of interest for the players:  Inter-guild politics, potential material for backstories or personal goals, that sort of thing.  From the GM's perspective, it's an easy source of "things to do" as well.  If I ever had trouble coming up with a bit of action for the night, the players would be sent to battle in the Coliseum.

Except none of that happened.  While one of my players had gladiatorial dealings in his backstory, the group did not find being part of the tournament interesting enough to unite them or serve as a campaign premise.  The tournament has spent the entirety of the campaign as white noise, more or less.

What did my players latch on to?  I'll cover that next time when I talk about the various factions inhabiting the political landscape of Mar Tesaro.

This place just overcame a curse that resulted in centuries of war?
Sounds to me like they need another war.  

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