How do you get your players into an adventure? The standard fallback used to be “a man rushes into the pub…” I confess I’ve used it myself, with variations. In gamebooks, you want to get through the set-up fast because the player isn’t getting to make any choices. That’s not so important in a roleplaying game, where just talking in character is as much fun as agency. So over time I’ve allowed the lead-in to an adventure to become a session in itself – the equivalent in comics of decompressed storytelling.
Here’s an example from our Immortal Spartans game. The meta-campaign was Tim Harford’s brainchild to allow multiple referees to run a series of linked campaigns – think Highlander, only Spartan not Scots. In the campaign I ran the characters were based in Constantinople in 877 AD, so at this point they’d been alive for well over a thousand years. In all that time they had encountered only three other immortals like themselves: Enkidu, a deranged being called the Etruscan, and Hiya (= She), originally from Arabia but now ruler of a remote civilization in central Africa.
20 Ἡραῖος (October), 6386 Anno Mundi. The evening of the races. The Spartans are having dinner at their waterfront mansion (see cutaway above) when their major-domo comes to say that a vessel is approaching the dock. At this time of night their harbour gate should be shut, so it is surprising news.
The boat is a small single-masted schooner under oars, with a crew of a couple of dozen tall, well-proportioned, handsome men and women. All seem to be Africans. The captain gives his name as Yoruba, and he greets them respectfully with his eyes downcast. He is a servant of “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and he presents them with a document from her. The document at first appears to consist only of a hieroglyphic eye-symbol, but Ganymedes’s eyes* reveal writing:
“Just a little experiment in optics. Yoruba will bring you to me. Please come at once. – Hiya”
Hiya’s palace is on Spoon Island, which is located between the islands of Fortress Island and Saddlebag Island about 12 miles south-east of Constantinople. It is the second-smallest of the Princes' Islands, with an area of 0.006 km2 (0.0023 sq mi).
They are met at the quay by an old African major-domo (whose name is Gotali) and some torchbearers. All keep their eyes on the ground as they address the Spartans, saying they will conduct them to their audience with the Goddess.
They are led by woodland paths strung with lanterns towards a palace through whose open colonnaded windows they see many artworks of antiquity. It seems more a museum than a home, and they are led right along the terrace (an Egyptian mosaic) and across a wide lawn towards a grotto encircled by trees with a fountain in the middle.
The servants silently draw back into the shadows. A light appears in the fountain and there is a suppressed intake of breath from some of the servants. The light grows brighter, then suddenly seems eclipsed so that the centre of the fountain is a block of shadow surrounded by a bright nimbus.
Then they see Hiya’s face appear in a blaze of light across the trees, a flickering image that is sometimes huge and distant, then flickers to lie across the paving stones or the bushes nearer at hand. Her voice comes from all around, as if the night itself was speaking.
Hiya says she is allying with the Tulunid government in Egypt to attack the Abbasid Caliphate. She is providing ten thousand men whom she is currently teleporting to Sinai. She has forty ships with arms and armour here in “Byzantium” (as she refers to it) ready to sail.
The plan is that at the same time the Kingdom of Galicia and the County of Barcelona (under Guifré the Hairy) will attack the Emirate of Cordoba and incite an insurrection to drive the Muslim rulers out of Spain. Hiya expects that after the initial attack, the Pope’s alliance in Italy will send troops to support the Spanish Christians. The Caliph meanwhile will be replaced by Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi **, an elderly philosopher of the House ofWisdom with radical ideas.
She doesn’t expect the Caliphate to fall immediately. This could be the start of a campaign spanning years or decades. But she is confident that with the Spartans in command they can change the course of history. Hiya’s (very) long term goal is to unify Christianity, Islam and Judaism in a largely ceremonial religion allowing freedom of science and art and without the innate sexism of the Abrahamic faiths. She recognizes that her final goal is still at least a century off, but the first phase is the overthrow the Abbasids.
She wants the Spartans to take the fleet, supply her troops in Syria, then accompany them as commanders in the advance on Baghdad. The fleet will sail in ten days, on 30 October.This gave some interesting scope for roleplaying in several different ways. First you have to realize that the player-characters had known Hiya for almost a century, and acknowledged her as another immortal like themselves. They saw her as a potential ally. The way she chose to communicate with them, in a display almost stage-managed to portray her as the goddess her subjects believed her to be, therefore raised eyebrows and even hackles. She presented it as merely experimenting with a new and unreliable technology, but the way it came across to some of the characters was as if she was pulling rank, especially after the mysterious way she’d summoned them to the island.
Some of the group excused her, knowing that she (sorry, She) had probably been too absorbed in her various political plans and scientific experiments to consider a little matter like hurt feelings – in modern terms we might put her “on the spectrum”. But that was enough to plant a little seed of disagreement among them. This is how Eidolon, one of the player-characters, described the encounter in his write-up:
“Our servant arrives to tell us of a boat in our private harbour, having passed what should be the closed gates of the harbour walls. We descend prepared for battle, but with relief it is evident that Hiya has sent emissaries to invite us to her counsel. Heading out on their small ship, we pause briefly to discipline the indolent sentries who allowed the ship ingress while they gamed at dice. I make an example of one, that the others may know that discipline is life.Then, when they returned home, they received an urgent message that required them to travel to Northern Europe without delay. They were already undecided whether to help Hiya with her hundred-year-plan, and now they had the dilemma of having to choose whether to participate in a military plan many of them felt had been foisted on them, or to deal with the threat to their mortal agents in Britain and in doing so risk making an enemy of She Who Must Be Obeyed.
“The ship takes us to a tiny island, where Hiya greets us in shadowy form, her face hanging as upon the wind, flickering at times in a breeze, her words carried to us across the airs of continents. She tells us of her plan. She would enlist our help as generals to lead her army, assembled and ready, against the Abassid Caliphate. Allied with the Tulunid rebels, her forty thousand Africans would smash the centres of the Abassids and, on the back of this display of divine displeasure at their rule, allow her to install a Tulamid reformist at the heart of the Islamic empire.
“Thus far, her plan seems bold. As she develops her intentions fully, she reveals the goal of fracturing all of Western civilization, bringing down the extant Abrahamic faith authorities and liberating all from shackles of class and gender. Moments after this revelation, her far-speaking magics*** fail and we are left darkling, to discuss our reply. Our concerns are several, our views divergent. Firstly, that this plan is revealed at such a late stage to us. Secondly, that learning may be lost in times of war. Thirdly, that the centres of civilization which will be swept up into this maelstrom of conflict already shelter some of the more enlightened views on the protections and entitlements for women and slaves, when compared with the Northern barbarians and the Bulgars. Fourthly, the danger that centuries of war will disrupt trade and set much that is valuable ablaze.”
Hard choices, eh. That’s what a good adventure is all about.
* Ganymedes (one of the player-characters) was blinded under torture as a captive in Persepolis in 479 BC, but by this time had replaced his eyes with prosthetic devices of unknown origin.
**Al-Kindi is still alive in this timeline, thanks to Hiya’s intervention.
*** The campaign is actually science fictional, but to the player-characters (if not to the much more logical Hiya) that ancient and probably alien technology was indistinguishable from magic.