Monday, March 16, 2015

"Magic" School Campaigns by System and Setting: Pathfinder's Path of War

Footage from Sword Art Online

On the arid plateau of Kremdora, a city of the same name is built in a bowl-like fashion around a vast crater.  What was intended to be an act of utter devastation by the mage-tyrants of Vierks merely created a haze of null magic over the area.  After this act of willful destruction, the Kremdorans knew that the wizards would not stop until they’re either enslaved or destroyed.  Knowing that the anti-magic field would not keep them safe forever, they trained successive generations in the arts of combat, science, and other important disciplines from across the world.  The best and brightest of them founded a training facility for the new generations of Kremdora, the world-famous Battle Academy!

The Battle Academy is an impressive structure built near the central bottom of the sloped city in the Meteor District.  Much like a wizarding school, the building houses hundreds of students, teachers, and staff dedicated to training young minds in the many arts of war.  Over time the Academy accepted foreign students (along with donations from ideologically-minded families and organizations supporting said students) in recent years as well.  Here one can find northern berserkers and ascetic warriors debating the merits and flaws of using anger to fuel one's fighting prowess.  Unarmed nimble monks, confident courtly duelists, and ironclad knights-in-training can be found in this diverse environment, learning both how to improve their own abilities as well as the history and tactics of other martial art forms.

Fighting School Tropes

Panel from Mahou Sensei Negima!

The Path of War by Dreamscarred Press is the spiritual successor to the Tome of Battle.  Unlike its 3rd Edition ancestor, the game mechanics and vast majority of the book is Open Game Content and freely available online at D20 Pathfinder SRD.  It adds a breath of fresh air to non-casting martials, granting them a versatile assortment of special attacks, counters, mobility effects, and fighting styles beyond the repetitive "5 foot step full attack" or "I charge and attack" formula.  I found out that the versatility and overall themes of the Path of War make an excellent base for a "Fighting School" style of game!  Below are various tropes and plot ideas to get your creative juices flowing!

Speak with your Fists! Although social interaction and role-playing is an important part of any psuedo-high school game, a Fighting School campaign is naturally more combat-focused than most.  Although most duels are not to the death, it is a point of pride for a disciple to display his or her skill in a duel with other talented young fighters.  As a result, many students are eager to spar with each other, whether it's to settle disputes, prove their fighting style's superiority, as part of a competition, or just to get a passing grade!

Martial Lore: The Big Dumb Fighter stereotype is absent in a Fighting School game save for a few NPCs, rampaging beasts, and the like.  Stalkers and archers are encouraged to rely upon their senses to strike at their opponents' weak points and to dodge attacks; warlords and gladiators channel their force of personality to inspire witnesses and comrades; tacticians and cerebral warriors plot out quick mental calculations in the middle of an ensuing battle.  Each Path of War class has a mental ability score as an "initiation modifier" to determine the effectiveness of moves; many real-world military orders both ancient and modern encourage the develop of both physical and mental abilities.   The knights, monks, and brawlers of the Battle Academy are just as likely to focus on scholarly classes such as philosophy, military history, debate and rhetoric clubs, and other such vocations to help round out their skill sets and grades.

Show Me Your Moves: Much like wizards researching spells, so too do Fighting School apprentices research styles and attacks within tomes in the Ancestral Halls and under the tutelage of wise mentors.  Much like shonen fighting manga and Pathfinder spells, Path of War's maneuvers and stances have descriptive signature names and "ultimate attacks" capable of only being mastered by the world's greatest warriors.  A stalker doesn't just deliver a poisoned blade to the ribs: he initiates Sickening Venom Strike.  The legendary elven archer not only downs multiple opponents with a flurry of arrows; he can call upon the power of the sun to unleash a cone-shaped volley of blazing phantom arrows with a Solar Wind Nova attack!  Showmanship and cool signature moves are the name of the game here; calling out the name of your attacks are optional, but highly recommended if you want that distinctive genre flair.

The Tournament Arc: It is common in shonen fighting manga to devote a piece of the story to a world-famous martial arts tournament which the heroes and villains join.  It's an extremely useful plot device for various reasons.  One, it's a good way of introducing new adversaries quickly.  Two, time between matches when the PCs aren't participating can allow for a nice change in action as well as some role-playing.  Three, it can allow the PCs to engage in no-holds barred fight scenarios which ordinarily wouldn't come up in a typical campaign, such as with allies, mentors, or even each other (perfect for seeing if your ninja-sorcerer can win against the party's holy knight).  Fighting in front of a crowd of thousands with a colorful announcer narrating the results of the fight in a dramatic fashion, is a great way to add to the fun of an otherwise 'plain' battle with minimal fanfare and showmanship.

Team-based duels should be encouraged, as having one PC do all the fighting while the rest of the players sit around watching the melee can get unfun.

Martial Traditions and Cliques within the Battle Academy

Image from the Irregular at Magic High School

At its founding, the Battle Academy was home to eleven practitioners of renowned martial disciplines who passed on their training and talents to any who would learn.  Their disciples in turn were expected to share their learned wisdom with other prospective students who came to the Academy.  Each teacher had their own way of doing things and reserved their own training centers, eventually turning into full-blown cliques and schools of different martial arts.  Today the school's leaders are part of the Council of Seven, each member a master in one particular discipline.

Classes and courses in the Battle Academy are split into “general studies” which are useful to any warrior, and the seven disciplines representing each martial tradition.  There is nothing preventing a student from taking courses in multiple traditions, but dividing up one’s talents into too many fields is too much for most newcomers and so most students start out with joining one tradition.  In addition to spartan dormitories, classrooms, and training fields, the Academy also houses centuries' worth of books on combat and warfare in its Ancestral Corridor.

Black Seraph: No longer a discipline taught at the Battle Academy, its founding teacher left the school in exile after his harsh training regimen resulted in the insanity and death of several disciples. Rumors among the student body say that the surviving scrolls and tomes of the Black Seraph disciples lie hidden in encoded messages and secret passages within the Ancestral Corridor, detailing forbidden secrets and blood oaths of power to otherworldly patrons.

Broken Blade: Those who join the disciples of the Broken Blade are expected to live meagerly in all aspects of life.  Forced onto a bland diet and plain training uniforms to wear, they learn to overcome both combat and life’s struggles with nothing but their own training and force of will.  It is taught that coin, wine, and earthly pleasures weaken one’s body and soul, softening them physically and morally.  Unsurprisingly it is not a popular school, but nobody can deny that its students are some of the most resolute and hardworking at the Academy.

Golden Lion: Clad in black and yellow uniforms, the Golden Lion disciples understand better than anyone that no true warrior stands alone.  Students are encouraged to put their trust in each other, and everything is done communally; newcomers are paired with an older classmate to serve as their “shield-kin” and the junior as a “sword-kin.”  Both are responsible for each other’s welfare, although the shield-kin’s senior position raises their duty to a higher standard.

Golden Lion classes place a heavy emphasis on social skills as part of their curriculum, including theater and debate clubs.  There is a fierce rivalry between them and the Scarlet Throne school, in part due to their shared affinity for regal command and their differing ideologies of collectivism versus individualism.

Iron Tortoise: Its founder a valiant knight who guarded a bridge against a goblinoid army outnumbering her forces ten to one, Iron Tortoise training uniforms are literally clothed padding one usually wears below metal armor.  "Being able to defeat one's enemy is a necessity in battle, but so is protecting yourself and the ones you love."  Iron Tortoise classes grade students on defense as well as offense, with sport-like training courses where opposing teams do their best to guard detachable flagpoles, zones, and designated "VIP" apprentices from the other side.  By themselves, Iron Tortoise apprentices are resolute, strong-hearted warriors.  Together, they are an unyielding wall.

Primal Fury: The Council seat now vacant, the apprentices of Primal Fury are an urban legend among Kremdorans.  It is said that they live in the caverns beneath the city where the null magic zone does not reach, either stalking the tunnels for hapless spelunkers to kill or hunters of fell abominations and spies from Vierks.  The truth is that the subterranean disciples recruit from Battle Academy apprentices who seem the most worthy of their training.  They view the city as a temporary shield against Vierks and a willing prison for its inhabitants.  As such, they teach that true warriors only improve when they're out living in a hostile world.  Disciples live a vagrant lifestyle in the tunnels and surrounding plains, learning the behaviors of animals and how they survive to supplement their fighting arts.

Scarlet Throne: The Council member a sultan whose skill with the blade matches his wit for governance, Scarlet Throne apprentices are disproportionately drawn from the aristocracy and society's well-to-do.  Emphasizing light weapons, quick strikes, and superior mobility, this flashy yet efficient fighting style has a tendency to attract students whose egos and desire for attention match their talent.  Whether this is due to such folk gravitating towards more "showy" styles, or the Scarlet Throne engendering confidence in its training, depends on who you ask and whether or not the one who answers is a Scarlet Throne disciple.

Silver Crane: Many cultures understand that heavenly entities watch over mortals, and this is just as true in magic-less Kremdora as it is anywhere else.  Although no known members of the Battle Academy practice this style (in part due to its dependence on supernatural maneuvers), students who show traits of compassion, mercy, and a desire for justice receive visions in their dreams of a masked celestial clad in silver.  Those who accept her offer to learn the secrets of the Silver Crane often go on to lands where virtue and value are most needed.  Along the Kremdoran-Vierksian border many folk report witnessing masked silver soldiers distracting Freedom Guard patrols and spiriting away refugee families from the watchful gaze of the mage-tyrant's minions.

Solar Wind: Students of this discipline hold classes in the Academy's towers and open roofs, where the view is greatest and the winds are strongest.  The floating paper lanterns, decorated hanging circles, and other targets are what the apprentices test their bows, firearms, and throwing weapons on, trusting in the light of the sun and moon as well as their own instincts to guide their aim.  Although such activity is punished by teachers, it is popular for Solar Wind practitioners to stand upon the roofs of the school, tie a written message to a blunted missile, and initiate a dazzling maneuver while firing it at some they intend to receive the message.  Most disciples ask students if they'd like to participate in the "Solar Delivery Service" as a way of testing their willingness for this fun diversion.

Steel Serpent: Clad in dragonbone masks and bearing strange titles in lieu of names, the disciples of the Steel Serpent train in a reclusive tower in the Academy's southeast.  There are lots of rumors about what goes on inside the walls, from prayers to foul patrons, murder for hire, and the raising of venomous beasts for poison.  The masked practitioners are tolerated because their killing arts grant them significant medical insight, and graduates go on to be accomplished herbalists beloved in the city.  In spite of the disciples' reputation, the Steel Serpent Council member is loyal to Kremdora and would fight to the death to protect its people from Vierks.

Thrashing Dragon:  Although one member of the Council of Seven represents Thrashing Dragon, in practice this discipline is taught by two teachers with very different philosophies.  The Council member is Sedef Mataraci of the Bronze Reach, a seemingly emotionless and jaded woman.  The other teacher is Nurullah Uzun the Bold, a joyful and headstrong warrior who most students can't remember ever seeing him frown.  Classes are an improvisational, chaotic affair as both teachers encourage students to adapt to the changing environment of battle (even during midswing!) instead of sticking to a single plan.  As a result, even the stoic apprentices of Sedef are as unpredictable in tournament matches as Nurullah's brash daredevils.

Veiled Moon: Like Primal Fury, the disciples of Veiled Moon do not practice their techniques within the city proper.  A strange and elusive bunch, the elder members are actually comprised of planar scholars and spellcasters who found themselves cut off from magic after the meteor fell.  They found out that they did not need spells to tap into the Astral and Ethereal Planes, as their lore about the mortal and spirit world allowed them to bridge the often-misunderstood gap between what is natural and what is supernatural.

The Veiled Moon warrior-mystics have an alliance of sorts with the Battle Academy.  They visit the city at rare times, but do not linger for long as they find the null magic zone disconcerting to their senses.