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Monday, August 31, 2015

Role-playing in Zendikar, without too much Battle for it! #dnd #mtgbfz

With my already long-time friend Gonzalo we once delved into the Zendikar world with D&D.
He mastered a great adventure that in true Zendikar style was a puzzle-heavy dungeon delve in an exotic land (Tazeem).
It stopped short of turning into a full campaign, because of defections of players and the impracticality of forums. But it was already starting to include a bit of Eldrazi in it. It was an element of Zendikar nearly impossible to ignore, even if it's been confirmed that they didn't originally belong to the setting, in the designers' view.

Some time later I took interest in the very D&D-derived 13th Age table-top RPG, and more than in the game itself, in its approach to role-playing and setting-building. The concept of Icons, the Non-Playing Characters with enough influence in the setting to become political forces, and the relationships of playing characters with these Icons, fascinated me.
So I went on to create the "Icons of Zendikar", and an incomplete but usable set of locations and story hooks to go with them.
I also kind of attached a few parts of our campaign story (especially the parts that actually never came to be played) into the story hooks, advancing a bit the whole story-line. Eldrazi where largely absent, mostly due to my personal dislike of them.

My dislike for Eldrazi is mostly due to a love for Zendikar: when you love something, you don't want to see it spoiled and ruined. Other than that, I also think they did them too well: they are really alien and it shows. And I don't like that. I would have liked them more if they would have been less alien, more Zendikari. But then their purpose would have been defeated, so I still "accept" them. I just prefer not to deal with them in role-playing.

Now Battle for Zendikar is coming, and with it a new wave of excitement and will to role-play into Zendikar (shared with Gonzalo!), but also a new wave of Eldrazi madness.

So this post will be a brain-storming about how to make a cool adventure set in Zendikar, even in the Battle for Zendikar times, but without much influence of the Eldrazi.

"I search for a vision of Zendikar that does not include the Eldrazi."

Wall of Omens flavor text

So where in Zendikar could we have an Eldrazi-free or Eldrazi-light experience?I have multiple answers.
We know from the story released so far, and the lands artwork, that Tazeem still has pockets of uncontaminated nature. But it's basically a continent under siege, so it should be largely excluded.
Bala Ged, one of my favorite continents (actually defined as a sub-continent of Guul Draz, a bit like India is a sub-continent of Asia), has been completely destroyed. And apparently, Sejiri was destroyed as well, I guess being the continent from which Ulamog came out (but that's not canon, just logic because I wouldn't see the titan going there to destroy something, since there's little life anyway).
These leaves us with three continents: Murasa, Ondu, and Guul Draz.

Murasa: the "Retreat to Kazandu" option.

One of the spoiled cards caught my eye and mind immediately: Retreat to Kazandu.

It clearly represents a place where the "allied forces" have found shelter, free of Eldrazi presence and contamination. 
Murasa has also been quoted in the wonderful Canopy Vista dual land:

So it's even more clear that Murasa itself, not only Kazandu, would be a great location for such a campaign: the Eldrazi would arrive mostly from the sea, and even if they would corrupt the ground, the "canopy" would still be free.

I would say this could be the "classic" option: getting to Murasa is still as difficult as before, so half of the challenge could actually be the arrival by boat in the dangerous Sunder Bay, and finding a way to go up the canopy. But then it could turn into the kind of "pure Zendikar adventuring" that I like, although maybe focused on finding some answer to the looming Eldrazi threat (which could be found in Murasa's vast subterranean cave complexes, including the mysterious Glint Pass and Visimal the hidden city.
Good stuff!

Guul Draz: the "Another Kind of Evil" option

Even without playing an all-vampire game (which could still be fun), we have a quote from the new set stating that vampires could be the only effective force against Eldrazi. Although it's a quote coming from a vampire itself...

It would be extra-cool to have a sect or other powerful group being sure that victory is already in the hands of vampire lords. And already busy brokering the spoils of Zendikar coming from the eventual aftermath! Nimana, "the free city", would be an obvious starting or central point of such a campaign, in which the vampires would be a shadow darker even than the Eldrazi, maybe even using the Eldrazi to gain more power. After all, Sea Gate has been all but destroyed, and it was basically one of the very few "points of light" in Zendikar: some powerful vampires might be thinking that that's the opportunity of a lifetime to actually rule all of Zendikar.

In the depths of wild Guul Draz, another possibility opens us: these lands were not only left untouched by the Eldrazi, but also by the vampires. And they might hide artifacts and ruins of great power, from the ancient past of pre-Eldrazi Zendikar. The Planeswalker's Guide to Zendikar clearly states that in Guul Draz "there are more ruin sites here than elsewhere". Complexes such as the Hagra Cistern could be "mana engines" capable of countering the Eldrazi influence, or who knows what else.
Plus, there's another power hidden in Guul Draz: its name is Ob Nixilis, and if you're reading this, you know how important he is!

So I would say that Guul Draz offers as many opportunities for an original, "pure Zendikar" experience as Murasa, although more bent towards "evil parties", who could feel at ease negotiating with vampires and demons, maybe because they're vampires themselves, or maybe because they even plan to double-cross the vampires in a gigantic game of powers!

Ondu: the "Sea-faring Adventures" option

The mainland of Ondu is not a very interesting place, and the description of it coming from the new dual cards doesn't sound similar to the one given with the old Planeswalker's Guide... There is probably some confusion among the designers themselves about what's in Ondu and what's on Murasa, because it seems like they regulary mix the two continents, in terms of environments, in particular regarding the "verticality of the landscape" (which I like to think to as a constant of Zendikar, actually!)

The Turntimber forest looks and sounds very similar to the the forests of Murasa, although at least one main difference remains: Ondu's forests are (or were) the resting place of Omnath, one of the "avatars" of Zendikar that could be counter the Eldrazi.

There's few places worth mention in the mainland of Ondu, like Graypelt Refuge. Instead, the big islands that surround Ondu are the truly intersting places.

There's Agadeem, which is both home to the "church", in my interpretation of the setting, and to some very strange roil effects involving hedrons that are no longer aloft. It could have been the very first place where the original Three planeswalkers started working on the big ward against the Eldrazi, since that would explain why the hedrons stopped their levitation here before stopping elsewhere. The Crypt of Agadeem is still one of the most mysterious places in Zendikar and could have something to do with the Three, or maybe with the demons.
If I would have to bet on the next target of the Eldrazi invasion, I would bet on Agadeem, before even Ondu's mainland.

Then there's Beyeen, with its interesting port settlement of Zulaport, which I detailed in this blog. Zulaport could mirror Nimana in being one of those "bad cities" that can still work as a hub for both good-aligned and evil-aligned adventurers.

And last but not least, there's the mystery of mysteries: the Isle of Jwar. This place is so inaccessible that most Zendikari never even dreamt of going there, before the Eldrazi. After the Eldrazi, it could become a safe haven, target of a mass exodus both from the rest of Ondu, and from other continents. it's described as tiny, but since it was home to a prehistoric civilization which littered it with the "Fadun" statues (very much like the Easter Island heads), and it's still home to the Strand of Jwar, a strange magical or meteorological phenomenon centered on the island, Jwar could be made into a more prominent setting, either by adding a large underworld connected to its surface, or by stating that the Strand of War is actually a giant illusion magic that screens a much larger land-mass from the sea-farers.

So the campaign set in Ondu could be a sea-based campaign, in which reaching Jwar and unveiling its mysteries could require an intricate voyage, from Tazeem to Beyeen, then from Beyeen to the mainland, from mainland to Agadeem, and finally from Agadeem to Jwar. Not only that, it woud be easy to add some small islands in-between. Pirates would abound thanks to Zulaport, and the Eldrazi could become just a distant thought in all of this.

Other options remain!

I also like to think about more radical approaches, which I will just list briefly as "bonus ideas":

  • Bala Ged is still alive! -  Bojuka Bay was such a hidden place that not even the Eldrazi found it...!
  • Aerial Tazeem - The highest floating parts of the Vastwood are still safe havens, and Emeria could be the ultimate exodus target.
  • Hidden Islands - After Jwar lie more islands that are somehow warded off from the rest of Zendikar, maybe thanks to the Strand of Jwar. Old isolated civilizations could be still living there as they used to before the very first advent of the Eldrazi, 3000 years before!
  • New Continent! - Much like the above but bigger: the Zendikari explorers suck, and they hadn't mapped all of the continents yet!
  • Underwater Sejiri - Sejiri is destroyed, but under its ice, an unexplored underwater world remains, where the Sejiri Merfolk are planning a counter-offensive, or maybe just want to remain hidden...
  • AKOUM - Yes, I had forgotten about it, no, it wouldn't be a main option since the Eye of Ugin where the Eldrazi where released from is exactly here..!