It happens to the best of us. Whether it is the start of a new campaign or two years in to an ongoing, persistent world, sometimes coming up with a great adventure hook is tough. The same old fantasy tropes we’re used to in our games can get boring. One more orc, one more dragon, one more litch.
When this happens to me, I do what comes naturally to me. I reach back, way back. Past the Tolkiens and Vances to the set of myths and legends that have inspired me the most. The Matter of Britain, the collective mythos concerning the legendary kings of Britain.
The matter of Britain has morphed over time. The Arthur we read about in the 13th century manuscripts isn’t the same Arthur that Stewart, Lawhead or White present us. That’s a great thing – that means we can pick and choose what works best. Here are a few of my Arthurian go-to scenarios and the adventure hooks you can use with them in your own campaigns.
The king is the land and the land is the king.
With roots well back into Celtic myth, the concept of a wounded king (or kings, often a father and son) ruling over a failing land can be seen often in Arthurian myth. These wounded kings are the latest in the line of rulers guarding a fabulous artifact – think grail. They are almost always wounded in the legs or groin, and rule over a land that is subsequently infertile, wasted and almost unable to sustain life.
Because of this, there is little left for the kings to do other than fish in the local lake, which is why they’re often known as the Fisher Kings. Knights from around the world attempt to heal this wounded king, and restore his land to prosperity, but only those ‘chosen’ to do so can accomplish it.
Your party is traveling, and notice that the further into a particular realm they go, the more desolate and ravaged everything is. Eventually they find themselves outside a run down keep, within which is a ruler (no reason to keep it a king, queens, dukes, princesses all qualify) who is gravely wounded.
After speaking with them for a time, and the ruler is eager to speak, not having many visitors, your party finds out that they were wounded by a magical weapon. Along with being wounded, they were cursed to rule over a realm that would never be prosperous while they are unhealed. The wounds will not heal with regular medical care or by magical means.
The party must determine what can heal these wounds – either another, equally powerful item or the original weapon that caused the damage. Then they must retrieve it from wherever it may be. It could be hidden, it could be in the possession of a rival ruler or powerful mage who has been angered.
If the party is successful, they will find that almost immediately, indeed magically, the land has begun to restore itself. The sun shines again, wilted plants are already reaching for life, and the rivers which once ran dry are starting to flow again. The party could receive a reward, ranging from material gains through a small fiefdom of their own, depending on the campaign.
One of my several really amazing Medieval Studies professors took the philosophical concept of Telos and applied it directly to Arthurian myth. In this respect the Telos is the quest object that supersedes all others.
This is the truly mythic quest item The item that all seek. Some may succeed, most will fail. Mostly, those who fail do so through faults or deeds of their own. In Arthurian mythology, this is not Excaliber, it’s the grail – the most magical of all, that which can only be obtained by those who are pure in heart and deed.
Sounds like a great idea to throw at a high level group!
Your group has done quite a lot, and seen even more. They’ve acquired items of incredible power, developed their own skills beyond what most mortals could hope for and have taken down some very powerful foes.
Now they are up against the biggest problem they’ve yet faced. They must recover an object so powerful that is rumored to be unobtainable. It is needed because the gods themselves require it to thrive, or a party member will face dire consequences without it.
The problem is, it is literally almost unobtainable. At least, no one who’s ever tried has succeeded. In fact, there’s no reference to where this Telos item even is! What is known is that it is real, and it is necessary.
Here’s where you allow your party to shine. This object can’t be found by just anyone, it needs to be found by a group dedicated to uncovering it, a group who’s powers must all be used at the correct time. If you have a party with five members, then that is what is required. Each character finds out they must perform a specific task, with the backup of the rest of their group. A task that can only be performed by a character of their class.
Traveling great distances together, overcoming obstacles both physical and mental, finally, after each party member has shown just what their class can do, this object is obtained and even the gods rejoice!
The Failed Utopia – Camelot
Camelot represents what every good leader would hope to achieve for their people. A near perfect city, ruled over by a near perfect group of good and just people. The very city reflects this. Shining with beauty, ringing with justice for all who dwell there and full of those people who you really would like to have as your neighbors.
Unfortunately for us all, this utopia is inhabited by people, with all of their failings, bad habits, greed and desires to take the short and easy route rather than the hard but just route. Because of this, it is doomed to fail in the end.
Your party has found their way to a wondrous place! A vast and shining city without poverty, need or neglect. Those who are ill are healed, those who are poor are given all that they need. Magic abounds and smiles can be seen everywhere!
Why then are these very rulers turning up dead, or fleeing this utopia with all of their worldly belongings?
As the party are enjoying themselves, they’ll begin to notice a few crumbling corners in the perfect facade. Suddenly, they are thrust in to the middle of a rather delicate and dangerous political situation. The mighty ruler of this vast city has been betrayed by a person who is very well loved by all of the populace. Not only betrayed, but the person who has committed this betrayal has also committed a heinous crime.
The ruler has no choice but to enact the law and put this popular figure to death, much to the consternation of just about everyone else. Who is really in the right here? The party begins to uncover evidence that perhaps the accused party is not actually guilty, or is it that they have committed a crime far worse than originally thought and seek to wrest complete control over this amazing city and turn it in to only a shadow of it’s currently glory, all for their personal gain?
Mythic Monsters – here I’m not just talking about goblins, giants or faeries. I mean a monster of some type that cannot be defeated without appropriating a personal quality that didn’t exist before or some new item. Often the two are linked. Item required when personal scope expands. These can be used with *any* level character, so long as the GM avoids the storm the room/take out everyone with a fireball trap.
The Mordred Effect
Mordred – the enemy of Arthur, who is also his own son. Born of incest, although most often in myth Arthur and his sister are unknowing or unwilling lovers, Mordred is Arthur’s antithesis. He represents betrayal at the basest level, standing against everything that Arthur stands for. Although he is destined to mortally wound Arthur, and die himself on the same field of battle, Arthur cannot bring himself to hate Mordred, and often in myth spends time and effort trying to force some kind of reconciliation.
Remember the utopian setup in Camelot? Mordred is the opposite of this – he embodies all the anger, rage and greed which will eventually topple Camelot.
From seemingly out of nowhere, the party is being harassed by an unknown agent. Someone is out to ruin their day by sending minions, assassins and other nastiness. They are relentless but have yet to show their face.
As they party investigates and hopes to piece together enough clues to save their own skin and discover this new enemy, they come to a realization. That barmaid that the Bard jokingly seduced a while back? The young man who the druid had a dalliance with? Well it seems that there was a consequence, appearing roughly ten months afterwards. (The incest bit I’ll leave to the GM’s discretion). The party had either moved on without knowledge of this, or a child was born to one of the party members.
Through means beyond their control, while still very young, that child was whisked away (with or without the mother or father) to a strange place where time passed differently than the mortal realm. While not abjectly raised to hate the party member who brought them in to this world, a strong sense of resentment has been building with them as they grow in age and power.
Now, back in the mortal realm, they first seek to know their lost parent. Perhaps they pose as a beggar or a peasant and approach, only to be callously brushed aside by their own flesh and blood.
Resentment and curiosity evaporated and were replaced by rage. How dare their own kin brush them aside, after abandoning them! A power base is established, followers are bought and coerced and a campaign against the party and that specific party member is launched.
This is a great place to start from, giving you a few adventure hooks you can use to include such fun things as failed utopian societies, incestuous hatred, unobtainable objects and far reaching sickness. This is also just scratching the surface of the Matter of Britain and obtaining interesting ideas for your fantasy campaigns. You can go further back to Celtic lore for some earthy, fun and ultimately strange adventure hooks. You can also move forward to some more modern interpretations of the Arthurian myths. And we haven’t even touched on the romance part of it all.
For some excellent resources and further reading on what I did touch on in this article, here are a few books that may interest you.
Le Morte D’Arthur – a pretty good basis for most of the modern Arthurian works. And think on this – why is a book that is concerned with the life and times of King Arthur called “The Death of Arthur”?
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature & Legend – Oxford, Arthur, enough said.
Arthurian Resources – great site for traditions and legends based around King Arthur.
The Camelot Project – go to the source with many documents available online.
[tags]rpg, role playing games, king arthur, arthurian legend, myth, camelot, mordred, gaming[/tags]