Recently, I posted seven campaign ideas I would love to play. One of those was a dark fantasy campaign, set in a remote village beset by weird forces. I wrote that and put it out of my mind. Then Vincent Baker (the creator of, amongst other things, Apocalypse World) mentioned his dormant Apocalypse World: Dark Age project on Google+. That sparked that idea once more.
In this post, I’ll outline how the game could look as a reskin of Apocalypse World (AW). I feel that AW is a pretty good fit for this kind of game, even if Apocalypse World is a post-apocalypse game and this would be dark fantasy. Both games are about isolated settlements, beset by both internal and external forces threatening their survival. A number of things would have to be adapted, though. I’ve made a quick outline below, and after that is a list of possible playbooks.
The game takes place in a small-ish village far a good distance away from the Imperial mainland. This allows them to remain their independence, but it also makes them vulnerable to things coming from outside. And there are many things around them to threaten them. The woods teem with wolves and robbers. And in the shadows, weird creatures lurk: fairies, trolls and undead, looking upon the Humans with unkind eyes. Meanwhile, something sleeps nearby. Maybe in the mountain, maybe below the lake, maybe in the minds of men. Something getting ready to stir once more, sweeping aside all that stands before it.
This is also a game of more human conflict. The Old Gods and the spirits of Nature have taken their tribute for many generations. But now the followers of the Light Above arrive together with the Imperial Bureaucracy, asking for exclusive devotion and promising sweet gifts in return.
And so the characters will play the parts of prominent people in the community who work to mount a defence against the threats to their existence. Fairies, overzealous Imperials, raiding barbarians – or the other characters.
Stats: The stats would have to be adapted, but to start with, I think I would mostly change the names, and keep them roughly equivalent to the AW stats. Weird might be Spiritus or Wyld, but would still govern the supernatural and mystical. Similarly, Hot should perhaps be Mien, Bearing or Charisma, but would still be about affecting other people.
Basic Moves: Again, some of the Basic Moves probably need new names, but mostly, I would keep them functionally identical. I might want to change the dynamics of violence a little, but I think the two moves that are there now are probably roughly sufficient. Seduce and manipulate can stay almost as they are, though maybe with minor modifications to account for Debt (see Currencies, below). The one I want to change the most would be Open your mind, which would become When you entreat powers beyond your understanding. It does basically the same thing, except you appeal to something beyond you – and preferably something specific. That will be part of framing the world: which entity/entities people appeal to. The Old Gods, the Sidhee, the Light Above, Mother Nature … all are possible.
Currencies: I want at least two currencies in this game, Coin and Debt. Coin is, like Barter in AW, an abstract measure of a certain amount of value. In this case it’s a certain amount of the coinage of the society beyond the village. Coin is useful mostly for goods, particularly from foreigners. Foreigners generally prefer Coin. The locals, meanwhile, deal just as much in Debts. Debts are governed by a Move, affecting both player characters and non-player characters:
Whenever another character does something that helps you in a meaningful and significant way, and they do it without payment and without waiving repayment, you owe 1 Debt to that person.
This Debt can then be used later to extract services from you, or it can be used as leverage against you. In certain circumstances, Debt can also have mystical effects. You may not want to have Debt to a Fairy, for instance. I considered calling it Favours, but I want to put focus on the obligation of the ower instead of the opportunity to the owed.
I might want to include a third currency, Stock, or some other way of representing the materials needed for survival. Particularly if long time survival might be part of play, trying to get by throughout winter.
When it comes to playbooks, I have some ideas for playbooks that could work. Many of them are somewhat similar to one or two playbooks from AW, but the feeling of them should be quite different – the world and the theme of the game are quite different.
- The Liege Lord: the closest thing to a Hardholder. He owns a major mansion with a small serving staff, and is owed obligations by the community. The obligations go both ways, though, and if he forgets that, torches and pitchforks might be in his future. Has both a lot of coin, and a fair amount of Debt, both ways.
- The Proclaimer of the Light Above: The village priest. Maybe a little similar to the Touchstone. Inspires people, and conducts minor miracles. Has a lot of informal power over his parishioners.
- The Wizened: A wise woman or cunning man. Their dealings with powerful forces makes them shrivel up before their time, and so they may look older – and feebler – than they are. These are in contact with supernatural forces, and can use them for many subtle effects, like healing and cursing people. Drawing out somebody’s shame could be another effect, crippling them emotionally. More powerful effects might be possible. I think they might also be able to manipulate the animals of the world around them.
- The Keeper of the Peace: A sheriff, appointed to keep the peace in the area. Probably a common man, with a few people deputised from the general population. He has several martial abilities, and can serve as the voice of the Village, handing out sentences and demanding reparations. This also means, of course, that if he loses the support of the Village, he loses much of his power.
- The Emissary of the Imperial Bureaucracy: An official, sent from the Empire as a representative for the machinery of government and progress, to collect tax, and to ensure whatever the empire needs. He has one or two assistants, and can demand things on behalf of the Grand Majesty. He has a good amount of Coin, but is vulnerable to Debt – he may owe, but the locals see him as outsider, and so may not be so keen to honour their Debt to him. The Emissary also has his own currency, Favour at the Court, by virtue of which he can gain concessions from the Empire.
- The Fay-touched: The Fay-touched may be a changeling, or they may be someone who was once a plaything of a fairy. Now, they are a little odd. Their contact with fairies has taken over their life. This results in them being somehow very fair, but also disquieting to others. They can make deals with fairies, and can use deals with others to create powerful effects.
- The Equestrian: A combination of Driver and Gunlugger – a hard-hitting warrior when he is on his horse, he prefers to pick battles where he can fight mounted. That goes both for physical and other – he will also gain social advantages when on horseback.
- The Lore-Hoarder: A scholar, hoarding books and scrolls containing ancient knowledge. Some of it may be arcane, and a lot of it will definitely be powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands. The Lore-Hoarder can go into his library to look for certain kinds of knowledge, though it may well come at a price. Obviously somewhat related to the Hoarder.
- The Dabbler: An alchemist and experimenter. He is in many ways similar to the Savvyhead, in that he can make many interesting potions and contraptions in his laboratory (think workspace), but they will often come at a cost.
- The Chief: The leader of a band of armed men. Maybe a group of mercenaries, a gang of robbers or a local war band. The Chief can lead them – as long as he provides them with whatever they crave, whether security, loot, excitement, fame … and if not, I’m sure someone else has dreams of leadership.
- The Luminary: A person, touched by …something. Maybe the Light Above, maybe an old spirit, maybe something entirely else. In any case, this person radiates with inner light. Among their gift may also be a certain prophetic vision. Of course, they never just see the good things …
- The Mysteriarch: A possessor of mysteries, a leader of seekers. This is basically an abbot or some other form of leader of a religious community. A bit like the Hocus, but with a more tight-knit group of followers.
- The Pure: The leader or instigator of a group of religious fanatics. They are their own thing, believing that they alone have the true way of purity. The name is taken from the Cathars, literally “the pure”, a group that gave name to the Danish word for “heretic”. But the pure might also be flagelants, or they might be remnants of an old cult of the Old Gods.
- The Huntsman: A hunter and knower of the wild areas. He knows the lay of the land, he can set traps, evade detection in the wild, and he has at least one type of hunting animal for his use – hounds or birds of prey are most obvious. Of course he might easily attract somebody’s attention, out there in the woods.
- The Gracious Host: The innkeeper. He can host people, make them feel at ease and make peace in his home. A bit like the Maestro D, I think. An important figure in his community, because his place is where people gather, it is where deals are struck, gossip exchanged, and often also where people meet in case of a crisis. The inn is also where strangers come when they arrive in the village, and so he knows almost everything that happens.
- The Night-Man: Some things are too dirty or unsavoury, either physically or morally, for regular folks to deal with them. Emptying latrines, removing carcasses, procuring illicit goods … the Night-Man takes care of all this and more. He is an unofficial, but essential, member of the ecosystem of the village. A lot of people owe him great Debts – but they will not acknowledge this in public. He knows this – and he waits until he is alone with them to cash in. Of course, the reverse is true as well. None would admit to having done anything for the Night-Man, so he can ignore his own debts in public.
- The Headsman: Officially, nobody knows who carries out the dirty work of justice. Unofficially, everybody knows who the man with the mask is. The Headsman is a two-faced character. On one hand, he is a respected member of the village. On the other hand, when he puts on the Headsman’s mask, he turns into the dirty warrior of Justice’s Vengeance. This transformation is not just cosmetic: When he wears the mask, he channels the spirits and heroes of bloody Justice.
Fronts and Threats
I think the basic framework of the Fronts and the Threats will remain the same. I want to include some Encroaching Menaces, though – powerful things coming closer and closer to the village, getting ready to devour it. These are a kind of Super Threats, orchestrating or somehow unifying many other threats. In many ways, I think they are comparable to the Campaign Fronts of Dungeon World, though I don’t want that game’s structure of adventures forming campaigns. I guess they should serve as a hideous crossbreed between campaign fronts and countdowns: in the beginning, these things are vague and far away, but throughout play, they get more and more concrete as they come closer to the village.
There are a number of different kinds, tying into the themes of the game:
- The Tides of Progress: The will of the Imperial Bureaucracy will not be held back. The village will adapt and conform to the needs and requests of the great minds of the Empire. The Word of the Light Above will be spread to every darkened corner of the world. If that will choke the way of life of the village, then so be it.
- The Devouring Hordes: Barbarians and invaders are threatening to invade the country, and sweep the village up in tides of war and destruction. Chiefs dream of conquest, while Imperial nobles dream of reliving the glory of long-dead heroes, carving out Kingdoms for themselves, at the risk of throwing the country into chaos and turmoil. War rides out, with Pestilence and Famine close on her heels.
- The Courts of the Night: The King of the Trolls, the Prince of Fairies, the Dead Thane in the Burrow. Any of these might be holding their court in the wilderness, watching these humans encroaching on their Domain. Or maybe, deals were struck with them in olden days, and now they come to collect …
- The Unspeakable Powers: There are strange and terrible powers resting in the mountains, in the water, and in the minds of men. Old gods, alien creatures and terrible intellects. All of these might be waiting to arise, shaking off insignificant humans in the process, or maybe using them as pawns.
I’m quite fascinated by the possibilities of this idea, and I bet it could turn into a really interesting game with the right people. Also, while the game still needs a whole lot of work to be done, I think most of it could be done while we play, exchanging mechanics as we get to them.