Saturday, February 14, 2015

Magic School Campaigns by System & Setting: Spears of the Dawn

Official Artwork by Luigi Castellani

In the venerable Three Lands, there are two kinds of magic.  The first kind is that of natural miracles, invoked by bardic loremasters known as griots and called upon by the spiritualist rites of the marabout.  There are many kinds of spirits, each controlling various aspects of reality, who can be petitioned by mortals to enact tasks on their behalf.  The art of the griot calls upon the existing social norms and customs of their culture, which are not empty rituals in this campaign setting.

The second kind of magic is known as ashe, having nothing to do with the gods, spirits, or society.  It is essential and fundamental to the make-up of the material world; ashe grants wetness to water, cunning to the wise, and heat to the fires among other things.  Those who can manipulate ashe are known as ngangas, a rare talent one can only attain through circumstances of birth rather than training and study.  Even though they're scorned in most lands, an untrained wielder of ashe can accidentally curse his or her fellow villagers, making it a necessity in most lands for local witches to train the sorcerer. This way, they can bestow their magic only on those in need of its protection and afflict the village's enemies with their powers.

The verdant southern nation of Lokossa treats the art of ashe differently; here the mages are the nobles, and claim that their powers are physical evidence of their right to rule.  In fact, the bloody rites of the Sorcerer-King and the ruling families are often all that prevents the monstrous Night Men from swarming the nation's cities and beyond.  Even commoner witches, griots, and marabout are not exempt from this, with the former being adopted into a family of high birth and the latter two inducted into one of many noble priestly societies

The Academy of Dankyira

In the village of Dankyira, a marvelous school of the same name stands.  For unknown reasons the people of this rather small village have a gift for producing folk talented in sorcery, enough that the royal Asona family could not continue the traditional master-apprentice role anymore.  To incorporate as many budding sorcerers as they can, Kusi Asona of the Red Blade traveled through the Five Kingdoms.  He bargained with the charms salesmen in the bustling marketplaces of Sokone, poured through the archives of the old imperial colleges of Nyala, listened at the feet of the olabuns of the Meru nomads, and even ventured into the dangerous Black Lands to the east.

Even for an esteemed nganga of noble ancestry, the mysteries of ashe and the ways and traditions of foreign sorcerers were too much for one soul to know, so he wrote down the most pertinent bits of lore and persuaded, charmed, and bargained with fellow mages to come to Lokossa with him.  In a mere five years the old abandoned shrine of Dankyira at the village's edge grew into a formidable center of learning.  Unbeknownst to all but Kusi and a trusted few, the shrine actually sits upon the ruins of an Eternal tombhouse, its hieroglyphs containing the blasphemous whispering of forbidden magic.  Sometimes an unknowing apprentice would feel the call below the earth, and venture into dark corners best left forgotten.

The academy's former inhabitants are far from the only dangers.  Enemies and rivals of the Asona family worry at the increased number of sorcerers (both nganga and marabout) being trained and inducted in Dankyira; the fact that a few such apprentices are from foreign lands only fuels rumors about the family hiring outside mercenaries for territorial expansions.  They petition the Ahonsu, the Sorcerer-King, to do something about this seeming threat.  For now Lokossa's ruler tolerates the Academy as it brings many ample bodies to the war lines holding back the Night Men.  And that's not counting the cliquish conflicts between Dankyira's students who are noble-born, those who were once commoners, and those completely foreign to Lokossa's lands.

Although Dankyira's academy focuses primarily on knowledge of magic, the Asona hierarchs are not above using the apprentices for their own ends.  As part of a 'course' to demonstrate their supernatural aptitude, a teacher might send off a few pupils to take care of a distant village's zombie problem to gain favors and 'gifts' from the chieftain.  Or they might be sent out into the bush to a rumored spot of great power so that they can harvest the arcane energies dwelling there.  Those who do well enough on tests might be summoned on an annual visit to the capital of Kaeati, where the masked faces of the Ahonsu's court silently watch and judge the "exemplary village mages" and the Asona family by extension.

Mechanical Considerations

Unlike many other retro-clones, three of the four classes in Spears of the Dawn possess spellcasting capability, even if many of the griot's songs are more the manifestation of worldly knowledge and skill than outright magic.  Only the Warrior class is the outlier, which actually can represent thieves and any adventurer who relies upon their own wits and skill instead of external magics.  Without a Warrior, the party will not have the physical staying power or diverse skill-set possessed by the class (Athletics, Stealth, and Tactics are class skills only for the Warrior).  However, certain choices and builds can make up for this.  The War sphere of the marabout can grant access to some good offensive magic when in the thick of combat; the Passion sphere can also make for a good party face if nobody's playing a griot.  All three of the classes have the Scholar skill, while the griot's "remembering" songs can reveal important lore about the world.  Certain PC origins can bolster non-class skills, and when taken in conjunction with the "any one skill" bonus skill for each class can help save some skill points down the line.

It's also inevitable that nganga PCs will share learned spells with each other, making them otherwise more versatile and thus powerful than in other kinds of campaigns.  This should not be discouraged, primarily due to the long learning time (one week per spell level), and for the difficulties inherent in gaining enough favor and trust to learn higher arts from the teachers.

Even though they are teachers, the seniors at Dankyira Academy are still first and foremost interested in making sure that their pupils will not turn against them in the future, and many favors, chores, ethics and loyalty tests, and giving of occult connections (fingernails clipping, lock of hair, etc) are required before the teaching of a new spell can begin.  PC students with a knack for getting into mischief or disagreeing with a teacher too much might find their progress halted, or sent on a dangerous quest in the hopes of them not coming back.  On the other hand, Dankyira does its best to foster a sense of belonging in the students who act admirably, granting them food and shelter at the least and participation in local ceremonies and holidays.  This works particularly well on foreign ngangas, who would otherwise be pushed to the outlying of society, visited rarely except for when the community needs their powers to lift a curse or lift a sickness.

Due to Spears of the Dawn being a sandbox game, it's understandable that a location-centric school campaign under strict tutors might be initially hard to accept adjustment-wise.  Instead of treating the school like a prison and forcing them to stay, give the PCs incentives to stay.  It is a pre-eminent center of learning the Three Lands, and they can gradually build a network of sympathetic allies among the teachers and student body who will mostly treat them well if they don't act like jerks.  Additionally, allow the PCs the opportunity to perform adventures beyond the village and academy like in the aforementioned 'tests' listed above.

Instead of adhering to a main plotline or quest, write up a few sidequest ideas to toss as adventure hooks to the PCs and let them handle the tasks in any order they wish, picking and choosing what interests them.  Be sure to play upon their existing interests and relationships to spur their motivation, and if all else fails you can always have a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl in the Eternal catacombs beneath the school!

And should the PCs wish to end their time at the Academy and head off into the wider world in search of adventure and more arcane power, let them!  The Asona family might not be very happy, and might send agents to 'encourage' them to return, but that can be a great adventure seed in an of itself.  At this point the campaign becomes more like a typical Spears of the Dawn game, but instead of belonging to an order of folk heroes and undead-slayers they're a party of fresh-faced yet formidable mages traveling the land.