Campaign Design and Goals

The Hero-Cities is a fantasy role-playing setting, featuring traditionally heroic characters, but in a society where they are valued and useful members of the community, not loners.

Often in role-playing games, especially in those influenced by D&D, the characters start as wandering outcasts, down on their luck and with few special abilities. But before long they acquire wealth and power placing them in the upper echelons of society. However, they are still treated as dangerous maverics, and usually not trusted by the authorities or assigned any responsibilities by the society. By the end of the game, they have martial and magical abilities that make them equivalent in power to armies, but still no place in society, unless they remake it to their liking. This traditional fantasy game world both assumes that maveric heroes are common, and that the social order ignores their existence.

In the Hero-Cities setting, we consider how a society might adapt to the presence of this type of fantasy heroes. It seems wildly improbable that such rags to rulership stories would go unnoticed or have little effect on a society. Instead, a society that had repeated infusions of adventuring heroes would evolve institutions whereby such heroes would have a major say in the social order, be given responsibilities in line with their abilities, and, to some extent, be prevented from going rogue and becoming menaces. These institutions would be both carrot and stick, offering prestige and advancement in power to those who handled their current power levels in a way that preserved the status quo; and keeping tabs and cutting off from advancement those who use their abilities recklessly or perversely.

My thinking on this subject grew out of conversations with John Kim and Josh Macy. Coincidently, Josh and I both came to the conclusion that one form such an institution could take would be a hero-cult, a quasi-religious organization devoted to the emulation of a legendary hero. In the ancient world, such cults often were major religious forces in a city, usually dedicated to a hero associated with the city's founding or defense. They frequently offered initiation rites, that bound the initiates together in a mystical way, but also into a fraternal and social network. Hero cults would also sponsor festivals and public works in the city-state.

In the Hero-Cities, we take this one step further. The heroes of legend are still alive, although dormant, and the initiation ceremonies allow the initiates to literally share in their legendary might. In return, the initiates are expected to use their new abilities to emulate the heroic actions of the cult figure. If they succeed, they can undergo further rituals to become ever more closely attuned to the hero. The cults are charged with both the leadership and the defense of the realm. Each city-state is ruled by a council consisting of the furthest advanced members of each cult. The council is presided over by the representative of the city-state's founding hero. The cults are social organizations that provide resources, training, and even life insurance for heroes. They each have their roles and responsibilities in the life of the state, The cults are also responsible for maintaining discipline within their ranks; some are much more regimented than others, but all will punish a rogue member.

An example adventure plot

The intention in this campaign is to feature heroes that steadily rise in power, but who become ever more integrated into the campaign world as they do so. They will continue to adventure together, but individual player characters will also have responsibilities based on their stations. Adventures will often arise out of these responsibilities.

For example, Joan is a mid-level paladin of the cult of Raq. As she stops in the Questing Room of the cult headquarters in Isthar, a messenger arrives. One of the patrols that the cult maintains on the border of the Haunted Land has gone missing.

Joan accepts the quest to investigate their disappearance, and rescue the patrol if possible. Since a patrol of paladins could not cope with the danger, she decides a mixed force might do better. She asks a few low-level (NPC) cult members to accompany her, and requisitions some holy water and other undead-fighting instruments from the cult. Then she goes to find a few of her comrades from previous adventures: Ethaliel, a bard of the cult of Ellander; Kruger, wizard of the cult of Durin; and Samson, ranger of the cult of Enkidu.

Before leaving, Ethaliel asks the elders of his cult for advice. They tell him of a hero, Caris, who fell nearby in battle with a demon. Kruger remembers that Caris weilded the magic axe Corrumsbane. He convinces his cult's head to lend the party magical weapons, on the condition that they turn Corrumsbane over to Durin's cult if they recover it. Meanwhile, Samson's mentor tells him that the cult of Enkidu has a pact with a band of winter wolves in the area, and gives him a protocol to contact them.

Thus prepared, the group goes to investigate. Samson contacts the winter wolves, who tell him of a sinister structure that the pack always avoids, in exchange for a favor to be named later. Exploring this structure, the group finds that the leader of the patrol has emprisoned his followers and is holding them captive in a wicker cage outside the structure. After defeating him in combat, the group learns that he has succombed to dark voices emerging from the cave. Intuiting that this is the legendary demon, the group frees the captives and retreats.

Reporting back to their respective cults, each of the party members is congratulated, and some are ready for the next initiation ceremony. After her promotion, Joan is sent back to replace the traitor as the head of the patrol. The others accompany her. Kruger and Ethaniel want to further investigate the demon's lair, and possibly recover the axe. Samson needs to fulfil his promise to the winter wolves.

In this example, the cults were both a resource for the characters and a motivating element. Each success raises their status within their cults, but also brings them more responsibilities. I'm hoping that this will also happen in the campaign.