Monday, January 16, 2017

The Core Concepts of Arcana High

For the past 2 to 2.5 years there's been a particular idea stirring in my head for a while. An idea which as of now has several hundred pages worth of notes and draft write-ups the result of 2 campaign's worth of design. One of the campaigns was uncompleted sadly, yet still brought about several months worth of play. I at first decided to write up an adventure path for Pathfinder for this work, as a four-part series. This took a lot more time than I thought, so I decided to work on various side projects all the while hoping to one day see my magnum opus on the shelves of online storefronts one day (most likely for Pathfinder and 5th Edition). But like Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, I figured that drumming up interest over time can be a great idea. As such, this blog post is the first in a series of revealing Arcana High.


Arcana High is a hybrid four-color fantasy and magic school campaign in the vein of Harry Potter meets Teen Titans in a D&D fantasy world. For those unfamiliar with my earlier posts on the subject, the general idea is that the PCs are adolescent mages who found some magical artifacts. With these powerful relics, they can transform into alternate identities to better fight the forces of evil. All the while they must juggle their public lives as students in a world-renowned magical academy along with keeping the good people of Brancean safe from their ever-growing rogue's gallery of villains.

It was a rather popular itch I've been wanting to scratch for a while, due to the rarity of such play elements in traditional fantasy games and retroclones. When you think about it, the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons can support a pseudo-superhero style of play quite well. You have titanic dragons ravaging cities, foul cults seeking to awaken sealed evils, mad archmages brewing up new and deadly horrors to inflict upon the world, and holy forces bestowing their powers upon worthy mortals. With the preponderance of city-based campaigns and sourcebooks, diversity of adversaries, and the ever-popular appeal towards saving the world, a superhero kind of game with masked vigilantes wielding supernatural powers not for gold but for justice is not only feasible, it can work very, very well!

Major Themes

Four-Color Fantasy: Masked knights, sorcerers, and druids battle a mad alchemist atop an undead leviathan creation wreaking havoc on a port city. Thieves' Guild goons shake down storefronts and make a quick getaway on charmed manticores. A golem built by the lord-governor to fight crime goes on a  rampage due to interpreting the law in an over-literal fashion. The city's gnomish-designed printing press publishes eye-catching headlines of the PCs' latest exploits and clashes with the aforementioned threats.

A Central City of Adventure: The city of Brancean is modeled off of the real-world city of Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman Empire and then the Ottomans. As such, it is the focus of most of the setting, akin to what Gotham is to Batman and Metropolis to Superman.  It is a city of history, formed around the foundations of Highstone Academy when Aleria was but a division of independent baronies and tribes. As a principle nexus of an intercontinental trade network, it sees folk from all corners of the world (and some say of the planes). It is home to many wonderful sights, from the Colosseum where one can watch and participate in chariot races and all manner of sports tournaments; a literal Undercity home to drow, dwarves, and other subterranean beings; a 200 foot tall statue of the Goddess of Law and Civilization; and the pre-eminent Highstone Academy, of course!

Mediterranean Style Setting: The region is known as the Bowl of Levios, dominated by a central sea also called the Sea of Levios. This body of water was home to a great sea serpent of its namesake who ruled the lands as a god-king in times long past. Although in the current era there is debate as to his divinity, there is no question that he left a great mark on the land, and many of the oldest realms are seaside and underwater cities. Here are but a few lands of the Bowl:
  • the Alerian Empire, home to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Brancean and the world's most famous magical academy. 
  • the Al-Bahri Sultanate, a southern kingdom home to the Ridhai, who sail the seas on the back of island-sized Zaratan turtles.
  • the city-state of Kremdora, which suffered a devastating cataclysm while fighting an ascendant mage-tyrant and whose domain is now located within a residual anti-magic field.
  • Bristor, a northwesterly realm of small, independent kingdoms and tribes, home to knights, druids, and berserkers.
  • Tabiach, a realm of merchant princes and feuding city-states.

Imagine a Venice with merfolk and aquatic elf residents.  Imagine open-air tavernas serving pita bread dips and shish kebab street food to apprentice mages on their way to school . Imagine masked vigilantes fighting a possessed toga-clad statue of a long-dead emperor. Imagine an adventuring company accepting submissions from not just honorable knights and iconic elven archers, but also fair-haired northern reavers and steppe-borne nomads with curved swords. This is the world of Arcana High.

Scaling Powers: One of the chief mechanical principles of the two Pathfinder campaigns I ran for Arcana High was the use of magical relics. Once belonging to heroes of the distant past, they could transform a wielder into a masked form which the original heroes wore themselves. Aside from the super-genius gadgeteer, most superheroes were not known for carrying around gabs of equipment to act as the primary extension of their abilities.

For that reason, instead of accumulating gold and magic items as a primary campaign concern, I more or less made the relics into scaling magic items for the "big six" bonuses (weapon, armor, shield, saving throws, deflection, and natural armor). I also let the PCs choose from a broad array of relic upgrades which could be gained once per level. They included things ranging from an elemental energy blast attack to a Green Lantern-style major creation spell-like ability of limited duration. Magic items were still a thing in the campaign, and the PCs did have access to a pseudo-Batcave where they could load up on common gear between missions, but with the versatility of relics reliance upon the "Magic Item Christmas Tree" effect was nowhere near as pronounced. Being an all-spellcaster party helped ease things as well, for they are the classes in base Pathfinder which can best replicate a superhero feel.


I have a lot more to say about this dream project of mine, but right now I wanted to focus on the major themes instead of losing my dear readers in layers of lore I already wrote up in various documents.

What aspect of Arcana High should I focus on next?  Talk a bit more about the magic school? Perhaps a few figures from the supervillain rogue's gallery? Sample relic powers and abilities?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!