Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ultima 4E - The Second Trilogy: Britannia! or Quest of the Avatar!

This whole campaign is the quest to become the Avatar and save the world. It's going to be a bit out of order from the original games to give us interesting things to do along the way, but it should still work. Our setting is the map of Brittannia from U4, U5, and U6 using those same locations, characters, and creatures.

The central concept of the Britannia games are the Eight Virtues: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility. There are 8 cities in the land, each associated with one of the Virtues. There are 8 shrines in the land where one can learn about each of the 8 Virtues. There are 8 dungeons in the land which reflect the opposite of each virtue. An Avatar is someone who has mastered all 8 of the Virtues and as a result has achieved a higher level of existence. I'm not going to get into real-world philosophy but this framework makes for a helluva D&D campaign setup.  Each Virtue is also asscoiated with a particular class:

The 8 Virtues are represented by the Ankh
The eight Virtues

Honesty - Wizards (Controller)

Compassion - Bards (Leader)

Valor - Fighters (Defender/Striker)

Justice - Druids (Controller/Leader)

Sacrifice - Tinkers (Artificers- Leader)

Honor  - Paladins (Defender)

Spirituality - Rangers (Striker)

Humility - Shepherds (Monks - Striker)

There is a lot of symmetry in the game - there are the 8 Virtues and each virtue is linked to a particular city, dungeon, and class.I really like this concept for this specific campaign so I'm keeping it. It does put some limits on player choice when it comes to classes but there is a good mix of roles there that should keep things interesting. Plus those limits sometimes push a player towards trying out a class they might not have examined before which can be a lot of fun. If absolutely required, it's not a big stretch to squeeze Warlocks and Sorcerers into Honesty as other types of "Wizard" , and I think even Psion could work in there too.

There is another possible approach - link each Virtue to one of the power sources:

Honesty, Sacrifice = Arcane

Valor, Humility = Martial

Compassion, Honor = Psionic

Justice, Spirituality = Primal

Now this would disrupt the original class association but not as much as you might think

Honesty - Tinkers (Artificers - Leader) - I see the Tinker as questing for the truth of the way the world works, surely a connection to honesty

Compassion - Ardent (Leader) - Remember that they can constantly sense the emotions of those around them, certainly an incentive towards compassion

Valor - Fighters (Defender/Striker) - The obvious choice

Justice - Druids (Controller/Leader) - If we assume that Primal represents the current religion, then Druids as the leaders of that religion would be the moral authority

Sacrifice - Wizards (Controller) - Wizards give up much for their power, including the ability to wear armor while on dangerous quests

Honor  - Battlemind (Defender) - the battlemind comes across as Jedi-like, implying an honor code. Portray them as secular paladins and you're good.

Spirituality - Barbarians (Striker) - those who are really in touch with the spirits behind primal power

Humility - Shepherds (Rogues - Striker) - the poor and downtrodden, who often can only afford leather armor and a dagger

Note that the Divine power source is completely absent here. There is no organized religion in Britannia and no named gods. There are druids who live in harmony with nature, implying some spiritual connection with the land and so the Primal source fits right in. The fact that the Virtue Shrines exist implies that the way of the avatar might have been a religion in the past, or perhaps they were placed there when the new world was created after U3 - specifically to be found by the future avatar.

A possibly less-popular feature of these three Ultima games is that they are human only. Now humans are pretty popular in my games because of the mechanical benefits, and my instinct is to keep this rule too. Yeah 4E has all kinds of cool races but for this campaign things are not wide-open. There's more structure here, but the point is to create a certain feel. If yo uabsolutely must have race options, I would keep it to the near-human races, perhaps explained as vestiges from the previous world (U1-U3) so I would go with Devas, Shifters, and Tieflings in addition to Humans. I would de-emphasize the physical aspects and just have everyone called "Human" with certain "bloodlines" showing specific traits, rather than having them as truly distinct races. You could probably fit Half-Elves and Half Orcs in here too if you absolutely had to, with a similar "bloodline" justification.

It isn't neccessary to play through the "First Trilogy" campaign to play this one, but it might give it a little more impact if descendants of those characters play a part in this one. Regardless, let's give the players a little backstory:

"Long ago there was a war against three evil beings. In the end they were defeated and the world was remade into its present form. Now there were gods in the old world, but in the remaking they were washed away, and in their place we were given the Eight Virtues as the pathway to a better life. For a long time life the world was peaceful and life was good. However, men can be stupid and so things began to change.Eventually great pits opened up and soon monsters roamed the land. Over time much knowledge was lost and men fell back to an earlier state of being. Now travel within Britannia is increasingly dangerousand the cities of men turn inward, forsaking enlightenment. Lord British, ruler of the land, worries for the future of his kingdom, the land, and the race of man itself. The time has come to take action or accept the inevitable descent. He has called for a representative from each of the cities of the realm to appear before him this very day - and after formidable journeys worth a song in themselves, the eight of you now stand before his throne, awaiting the pronouncement of the troubled king."

This is a little heavy handed, but it gets things moving quick and avoids a lot of the "how did we get together" debate you might otherwise encounter. Besides, it's something I've never done with my players so they will be so shocked I can run right by them. Let the players work out the rest of the details - were they actually appointed b ythe leadership of their city or were they perhaps the only ones in their city that took it seriously? Oh, and your players need to make up 8 PC's - Seriously.  Even if you only have two players, let them make up four characters each and rotate them out as they wish. The whole group should level up at roughly the same pace so that your players can pick from a pool of 8 characters of the same level. Assume the others are doing things off-screen and keep them maybe one level below the highest character if they are not getting played. Anyway, back to the kick-off:

"Lord British stands and announces that he is worried about the future of his people and his realm and so he has decided it is time to restore the old ways and set an example for all - it is time to take on the Quest of the Avatar!"

So Heroic Tier begins with a quest handed down directly from the king! Several things need to be done so let the players tackle them in any order.

 - The cities need to be reconnected so there's a fair amount of wilderness bandit-clearing to be done and local lord convincing to be undertaken (Major Quest either for each of the eight)

 - Lord British knows the shrines exist but no one knows where they are, so each town must be visited for information on the associated shrine

 - The existence of the dungeons should be discovered along the way

 - The existence of the Moongates should be uncovered as well

 - The ruler of each town must swear fealty to Lord British as the true ruler of the land - even more opportunity for diplomacy or intimidation

This should keep a typical party busy for at least 10 levels. I would suggest that the ceremonial gathering for the swearing of the oaths be the capstone of Heroic Tier, with the heroes introduced with their new Paragon Paths after returning from the liberation of the first shrine.

For the first adventure I would use Town British, home of the Bards and the Virtue of Compassion. A corrupt organization is running much of the town as an old and ineffective leader runs things on the surface. If the PC's meet with this leader his lack of ability for the job will become evident quite quickly - he is an old friend of Lord British but he has no heirs and has not found a suitable successor. The bardic college is a shadow of it's former glory. Poor citizens starve in the streets. The local "organization" has taken over the town, including the town guards and sucks up every gold piece they can find. They are, however, overconfident. They will accost the PC's in the street in a rough manner and things could get violent in a hurry. The PC's need to take a firm hand in dealing with the crew and then seek out and break the power of the leaders of this group. If they do this, the old lord will either die in the fight or resign when he realizes his error. In the aftermath, one of Lord British's trusted advisers, Lord Blackthorn, will ride to the rescue with some of the royal knights (even if it is not needed) and will be appointed temporary governor, becoming the permanent ruler in the big ceremony later. Or, if one of the PC's wishes to become the leader of the town (maybe not likely but certainly possible) then Blackthorn will feel snubbed as this upstart nobody is put in this important position.

When it comes to specific encounters I leave that up to the DM. Ultima has some specific monster types (take a look here) but many of them are just a name change from a typical D&D monster so if you're comfortable using alternate names then it could help the flavor. Ultima has Orcs and Demons and Dragons and Sea Monsters just like any regular D&D game so use your Monster Manuals without fear!

Paragon Tier is spent finding and liberating the rest of the shrines (Major Quests). Part of the process for mastering each Virtue is entering and clearing the dungeon associated with each one, and that's where a lot of the XP will come from. As the dungeons are explored, a huge Underground is discovered along with another intelligent race - the Dragonborn! They live in a huge underground realm and are extremely hostile at first, seeing the dungeon expeditions as an incursion into their homeland. While finishing up the shrines, the PC's must also take the lead in beating back and possible negotiating peace with the underworlders. After mastering the 8 virtues, the PC's muct locate the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and read it to become Avatars. Unforttunately it's in the Abyss, and only the Dragonborn know the location. The big finale here is the expedition to the Abyss, the recovery of the Codex, and the ascension to Avatarhood - 21st level; time to choose some Epic Destinies! Joy abounds, Lord British makes grand pronouncements and offers the characters their own domains within the realm, and all is well - for a while.

As Epic Tier begins it turns out that while the heores were off in faraway places not everyone was thrilled with the new movement. There is some unrest in each city but no violent outbreaks yet. Peace with the Dragonborn could be the last straw - it depends on how your campaign is going. Regardless, Lord British disappears and Lord Blackthorn becomes the regent in his abscence. Things soon begin to go wrong. To ratchet up the tension, have him disappear while exploring the great underworld, throwing some suspicion on the Dragonborn and threatening to reignite the war.Blackthorn begins applying the Virtues as law - his interpretation of the law, and one that grows harsher and more twisted as time goes on. Taking action, the PC's soon discover that three mysterous beings known as the Shadowlords are advising Blackthorn, and they are soon revealed to be powerful outsiders intent on twisting the Virtues into a mockery of themselves. I would have them be the returned souls of the Triad of Evil, sent back to wreak havoc in the world again. Defeating them (individually) is the first part of Epic. Freed of their influence, Blackthorn realizes he has made many many mistakes and resigns in dishonor. Lord British is still gone though, so another regent is appointed - a PC or NPC that has played a role in the campaign - and the PC's prepare to go get their king - from the Nine Hells. Fighting the Shadowlords reveals that they are devilish agents and that they kidnapped the king, spiriting him to the Ninne Hells where he remains. With a clear target, the heroes can undertake their final and greatest quest (which can last as long and involve as many levels of Hell as you need) to bring back the eternal lord of Britannia, Freed of outrside influence, the realm can finally begin its new path towards enlightenment for all people.

Now those knowledgeable about Ultima will realize I have taken some liberites here:

 -  The Heroic Tier is fairly faithful to U4 but the Underground Dragonborn storyline is originally from U6 and the other race were known as Gargoyles. I think the Dragonborn are a better fit for a D&D campaign so I went with them. I also think the whole conflict fits better as a backdrop to the upper levels of the Quest for the Avatar rather than the finale to the whole campaign.

- In U4 the Codex is located in a special dungeon named the Abyss. We're talking 20th level D&D characters here so I think it makes for a bigger better finish to just make it the literal Abyss

- The Usurper/Shadowlord plot is from U5 and Lord British is kidnapped and taken into part of the Underground (before the Gargoyles/Dragonborn turn up). The Shadowlords working behind the scenes to corrupt the Virtues and place a usurper on the throne sounds like a devilish scheme since 4E paints them as the deceivers and infiltrators rather than just raging engines of destruction like the demons. After dealing with the demonic threat at the end of Paragon, rescuing a king from the Nine Hells sounds like a pretty strong and satisfying finish for Epic to me.

This is a fairly story-heavy campaign, moreso than I have run in the past, but the buy-in is all up front - if the PC's accept Lord British's quest at first level, then everything else flows naturally from that. Technically, they achieve Avatar status at level 21, but hey, the universe doesn't always cooperate. That would be a natural break point if the group did want to do something else for a while, leaving the Epic scenario outlined above as an option for a later return - "after years of peace...". There is a fair amount of freedom after the kick-off as the party can go deal with cites or search for shrines in whatever order they choose - clearing the countryside of threats is part of the plan too, so not every encounter has to be tied to a virtue. Sometimes the hydra living in a cave near the town is just a hydra living in a cave near the town and you can kill it, drive it off, or ignore it as you choose, it has no other significance.

As I see it, knowing what your party will likely be doing several levels out is not railroading. Attempting to have a specific starting and ending point for each tier is not railroading, as long as they have plenty of choice in between. Laying everything out in a linear order including specific shrines, towns, and adding in specific NPC's would be a railroad. They key is making sure the players feel like they have a choice about where they are going and what they are doing in eac hsession, and I think that's easily achievable within this outline.

All that said I really like this concept, but no, I don't know when I'm going to get to run it. I like it enough to try and work it in, but even I can only play so much D&D, and I like the campaigns I'm running now too so I'm not dumping them. I will gather more material, put togehter some interesting encounters as they come to me, and see if I get a chance down the road.


Higgipedia said...

I haven't really been much into 4E over the last year or two, but I would play in this game in a New York Minute. Any chance of a Google Plus game? I might make time for it!

Blacksteel said...

See, I felt the same way as I started working through it - it's a really strong outline for a full campaign - if I can't play it, I could at least run it.

I'm not sure about the online thing. I haven;t fooled with it much before as I;ve usually had my hands full running the in-person games but it's worth considering. I'll put you down as one raised hand and we can see if anyone else likes it enough to say "Me too".