Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The end of the Line

While it's unlikely that the title of this post will evoke a Tolkienesque reference, it's a steampunk play on "The Road Goes Ever On." But rail-lines do not. And this adventure has finally, after nearly two years, ended. What began in May of 2008 has been concluded. My apologies to those who have followed our adventures for not keeping you informed as well as I should have. For anyone who stuck around, here's how it all ended after the Damnation episode:

First, the character of Tari underwent some radical moments, due to scheduling conflicts with players, resulting in a convoluted backwards timeline. Everything "Tari" did in Damnation was actually the work of a Nightblade, an assassin specializing in magic related to poison and deception. The Nightblade took on Tari's appearance and mannerisms and infiltrated the heroes' ranks. It explains a great deal about how the rest of the action played out, so it requires a mention at this point.

The Nightblade Tari reported the actions of the company as they headed west to the Ashen Shores to protect the Frontier against the Second Darkness's assault. This was why their defense would be met by a massive airship strike. Upon arriving at the Ashen Shores, Maeliana, Braith, and Sterling took flight upon Roac, and were accordingly the first to spot the airships. The forces on the ground were occupied with repelling a naval attack, which the Eagle Crew had done much to thwart. Ultimately, the airship strike could not be stopped by the Eagle Crew, and they were forced to abandon their companions. During the battle, the last King was killed in a heroic attempt to stop the Witch King's airship. An explosion buried Rusty, Aiden, Spooner, and Klovis. Chance, the "new face in Damnation" was also lost in the battle.
The image that inspire the Black School.
At this point, I shifted the game to Orthanc, to engage in an experiment of PC dynamics. What would happen if everyone was a magic user? Further wanting to riff on steampunking popular fantasy, I made Orthanc/Isengard into The Black School, a Steampunked-Middle-Earth version of Hogwarts, but in a universe where 'Voldemort' effectively won. So the students are learning magic, but they're also convinced that the current world order under Saruman and the Witch-King is the right one. I won't get into excessive detail here, except to say that we explored how industrialization of magic items would affect a world like Middle-Earth, thinking of magic as an energy source, and thus introducing an energy crisis to the game. Ultimately, the student PCs became aware of Saruman's deceptions when Morsein, now Lord of Moria, brought the defeated Balrog's Maiar essence to become the power source for an infernal machine: a great colossus. The students then struck out from the school for the Library of Annuminas in the North Frontier, believing the key to defeating Saruman might lie there. Tari was one of the students, having left for the Black School by invitation, the action which got her out of the way so the Nightblade could take her place. Tari was instrumental in changing the PCs minds' about Saruman and the Second Darkness.

Steampunk Gandalf?
Meanwhile, Eagle Crew met up with Gandalf, in a steampunked homage to the return of Gandalf in LOTR. However, due to the magical energy crisis, Gandalf has not returned from the Undying Lands in the wake of his battle with the Balrog, but has rather been rebuilt by the Dwarves of Moria, who found his ruined body outside the West Gate, where it had fallen. I got the idea from this image of Samuel Colt as rendered in the Steampunk Legends and Myths challenge at CGSociety. As in LOTR, Gandalf has returned to tell the three remaining companions (Braith, Sterling, and Maeliana) that they are needed to protect the princess, the King's daughter. The trio rescues the princess from an airstrike on the ruins of Far North (Fornost) where the remnants of the resistance had fled to.

While all these events unfolded, Klovis, Aiden, Chance, and Spooner awoke on an airship, taken captive by the Witch King. Nightblade Tari is with them, and while they find it odd that she is there, they accept her as part of their company. They escape their cells, and in the ensuing battle, Aiden ignites the airship. As the airship falls burning from the sky, Aiden mortally wounds the Witch King with Narsil, which was on the deck of the ship as a trophy from the battle at the Ashen Fields. Chance is killed in the battle: Klovis, Aiden, Nightblade Tari, and Spooner are transported to the shores of Lake Nenuial, scant miles from the ruins of Annuminas. Unconscious, the Nightblade is revealed for who she truly is, and the group sets out for the ruins to the south.

In a bit of a deus ex machina, all the characters converged, so that PCs were playing two characters at once at times. They have all come to the Library of Annuminas, but to what end? The campaign ended in a two-part "Library Crawl", a tribute to the roots of roleplaying's classic Dungeon Crawls. Inside the library were found ancient texts of taboo magic, books of theology relating to the Valar, and rooms filled with herbs and seeds from before the Second Darkness. Two powerful rooms are also located: a room which allowed time-travel, and a room with a floor detailing a map of Middle-Earth, which when activated, showed weather patterns, and movements of large bodies such as airships or armies. Using all these elements, the group decided to go back in time 20 years, build a printing press, print the books of magic and the Silmarillion and distribute these and the seeds as a quiet revolution.

Two of my players (Braith and Sterling) had taken the princess to Tharbad for a secret coronation. They were the witnesses of the change that came over the world in the blink of an eye when the timeline of the past was altered. They immediately forgot it, but at a gaming level I was able to show how the quiet actions of ecological and ideological revolution changed the world and ultimately defeated the Second Darkness. It was the perfect ending, and allowed me to tie up loose ends in a sort of "cut scenes" exposition at the end of the game.

So ends the thought experiment. What happens when you steampunk Middle-Earth? A lot. And ultimately, I concluded that you can't have the Shire back, as Tolkien also wrote. The industrialization of Middle-Earth could not be undone, but the minds of the people living within it could. And a balance between the pastoral romanticism of Tolkien and the technological ambivalence of steampunk was found.