Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Surfeit of Lampreys

So for many years I've been vaguely interested in doing some pseudo-historical D&D.  Something with real historical figures as NPCs and a timeline of actual events that would take place should the PCs not muck things up too much.  Back in the first half of '09 I hashed out an idea for just such a game set in quasi-fictional Japan in the 13th century, right around the time of the attempted Chinese/Mongol/Korean invasions.  The thing is, I don't really know until I've worked quite a bit through a campaign concept whether or not it revs me up enough to actually run or not.  That's one of the reasons (alongside the usual limits of scheduling and player interest) I blog about more campaigns than I run.  Until I get my thoughts typed out I don't really know if the campaign concept is going anywhere.  So here's a go at another such campaign.

I first stumbled across the period of English history known as the Anarchy (1135-1154) back in my undergrad days.  I was taking a class on the Romantic poets and in the back of a volume of Keats' verse was King Stephen, an unfinished play written along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy.  We weren't going to talk about it in class, but I read it anyway and every couple of years I come back to it.  Keats never got past Act I, but what he wrote features several battle scenes.  The titular king of England is captured and brought before his enemy Empress Maude.

The basic tension in the period starts when Henry I's only legitimate son is killed in the White Ship disaster, which is kinda like 'What if the Titanic had  on board the heir to the throne of England?"  Then Henry goes an gets himself killed by gorging himself to death on a "surfeit of lampreys", his favorite food.  I find that detail sublimely ridiculous, hence the title of the post and the campaign.  Between these two disasters good ol' Henry makes his barons and various churchmen double pinkie swear that upon his death Matilda (a.k.a. Maude), his one legitimate daughter, will become queen of England.  Most of these douchebags totally go back on their oath when Henry bites the dust and his nephew Stephen of Blois hauls ass to England and gets himself crowned king.

The result is a total fiasco as Matilda and Stephen go at each other over the throne.  Stephen ends up fighting brief wars against Scotland and Wales as well as Matilda and her kin.  The whole country goes to hell in a handbasket.  Stephen is captured (as depicted in the play) but later set free as the result of a prisoner swap (!) and things start right back up.  Matilda blows her chance to be crowned queen by being a jerk to the citizens of London.  Dogs and cats living together.  Mass hysteria.  I.e. a perfect time for adventurers to get into shenanigans. 

But I'm no expert on English history, so I've decided to give myself a little wiggle room.  Any historical campaign is going to run into problems with 'accuracy' and 'authenticity' before we even talk about adding orcs and magic missiles to the mix.  So to put the fact that This Ain't Your Momma's England front and center we're going to run a pseudo-historical campaign in a quasi-real region of that Blessed Plot.  Namely, the game will be set in Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy's classic boxed set, Wessex.


For purposes of eight novels, a book of short stories and a volume of verse Hardy rubbed the serial numbers off southwest England and rebranded them as the Wessex counties.  Exeter becomes Exonbury, Oxford becomes Christminster, etc., etc.  Hardy's work is set in his own period or slightly before, so the main things he would contribute would be new names and some plots that can be reworked to include more warlocks and unicorns.  Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire county is pretty much the same idea as Hardy's Wessex but smaller.  I haven't ruled out trying to cram it onto the north edge of the above map, perhaps right under the label "Thomas Hardy's WESSEX".

So that's the basic concept for A Surfeit of Lampreys:  A dozen or so years set in a not-quite-real corner of England.  Put some dungeons on the map for standard D&D fun but occasionally ruin the player's plans with wars and rumors of wars.  Give them the opportunity, if they so desire, to muck up history.