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.


  1. British TV is currently screening an excellent adaptation of Ken Follett's Pillars Of The Earth which deals with this period of history. And it struct me as very D&D-worthy!

    At school, when we were charged with learning the life story of a king (or queen) of England, I chose Stephen as he had the shortest rein (I believe).

  2. Pillars of the Earth covers the Anarchy well.

    I recommend Robin Hood from I.C.E

    It has two settings and the Forest of Dean. The Forest of Dean is useful for the Anarchy time period.

    I also recommend Columbia Games Lionheart which is a exhaustive gazetteer of Medieval England.

  3. This sounds like big fun, Jeff. I've only occasionally felt the pull of this era and the idea of approaching it semi-realistically (reading Pillars triggered that though a few years back), but you make it sound damned enjoyable. And the idea of using Hardy's proto-Yoknapatawpha is gold, man. Enjoy those lampreys!

  4. At one point I had a similar idea for a campaign based on the Brother Cadfael mystery novels by Ellis Peters, which take place at an abbey near the Welsh border during the anarchy. Aside from the notional mysteries, they contain a great deal of background political events that the characters are peripherally attached to and occasionally become entangled in, as well as the threat of possible incursions from Wales.

    It seemed ideally suited to name level play, when characters would set up strongholds, but I'm sure that less experienced characters could do fine as well.

  5. And you should totally drop a heady number of vampires into the mix.

    Y'know, because of the campaign title...

  6. One of the grimmest and most enjoyable historical novels I have ever read, Knights in Anarchy (the title alone makes me want to jump into a mosh pit), was set in this period. A third of the way into the book the protagonist fights a desperate siege of his little wooden motte and bailey and loses dreadfully.

    Bad guys castrate him no less (oucha) and then he goes on to be a revenge machine bouncing from the Battle of the Standard to all the major conflicts of the Civil War.

    Good fun.

  7. Yup, I'd bring my dice to that table.

  8. Sounds like an awesome game of Ars Magica. As D&D...not sure. I suppose it could work but D&D's magic system and the execution of its monsters would through me off a bit.

    Curious to hear how it goes.

  9. Awesome idea and great choice on the time period, Be sure to include a ruins of Worminghall dungeon from the older period of King Giles of the Little Kingdom-Tolkien sort of covered a similar geographic area, and I think that would be cool.

  10. If you haven't checked it out, Pendragon has alot about running campaigns were the history is already there (in this case, Arthurian England.)

    The Boy King supplement in particular dealt with it.

    OK, I like Pendragon. It is my favorite game I never played.

  11. Do yourself a favor and read Dorothy dunnett, llymond chronicles, about a band of mercenaries roaming Europe around the 16th century.

    Llymond--the (anti-ish) hero is a bad mother...shut yo mouth, and would be really inspiring. Dunnett hews quite close to historical accurate as well. The last book has him in malta.

    Really worth the read.

  12. Thomas Hardy's D&D? I never thought I woudl see that or want to play it. :)

  13. If you're not wedded to D&D, Chivalry & Sorcery/C&S II does this period very well - lots of material for generating manses and fiefs, if you want to go down that road.

    And the Orcs will kick ass big-time.

    Sharon Penman wrote several historical novels set around this period (Simon de Montfort period from memory), which were very good reads.

  14. What do you imagine the characters doing? Fighting in the political struggle, dungeon exploration, or something entirely different?

  15. Also set in the Anarchy are the historical murder mystery novels, Cadfael.

    I confess I haven't read them! But I have watched a couple of seasons of the BBC series. The Anarchy does enter and complicate the plots of several of the stories, even though I've heard that the TV series is lighter on history than the novels themselves.

    At any rate, the series would be great for visualizing the period. In one episode there was a funeral procession, which included an odd fellow with a green mask on a pole, which he would present to people and grunt!

  16. I also recommend the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters (21 books in the series) as well as the videos with Derek Jacobi.