DESIGNER’S NOTES – Part 1.
By Kevin Ross
Greetings, sword-brothers and sea-dogs! My name is Kevin Ross, and I’m one of the authors of Waves Stained Crimson, the forthcoming campaign for the Conan roleplaying game. The publishers have asked me to talk a bit about the origins, inspirations, and development of the campaign, so pull up a bench and grab a drink and I’ll spin ye a yarn...
I was lucky enough to be able to contribute to the Conan: Adventures in Age Undreamed Of core rules, notably the section on the tales involving Conan and the pirates of the Hyborian age. I’ve been a reader and fan of Robert E. Howard’s writings for close to half a century now, and a piracy aficionado for about half that long. So, being allowed to try and recreate the setting for Conan’s piratical tales was a thrill for me. I saw Howard’s pirate port of Tortage as analogous to the rough, skeevy, and uncivilized historical pirate ports of Tortuga and Nassau: a wild, untamed, brutal place teeming with ramshackle taverns, gambling dens, and brothels. I pictured Tortage as being very much like the port of Nassau in the Starz TV series Black Sails, though even more primitive and lawless.
As the Conan line of products developed, my old compadre Todd Woods and I pitched a campaign-length adventure in which piracy would play a major part. Todd’s an even bigger Howard fan than I am, and his bona fides include the fact he created the venerable Howardworks website, a sort “visual bibliography” of Howard’s published works. We wanted something that was true to Howard, with generous dollops of the atmosphere and carnage featured in the Savage Sword of Conan comic mags of the 70s, 80s, and so on. Todd and I hashed out ideas, supplemented by contacts with Conan’s then line-editor Jason Durall, and Todd’s conversations with various Howard scholars at the annual Howard Days weekend held in Cross Plains, Texas. I gave the project its title based on a boast of Conan’s from “Iron Shadows in the Moon”: “This keel will stain the blue waves crimson wherever is plows.”
We took the corebook’s suggestion of starting adventures “in media res” to heart, kicking off our campaign with the adventurers aboard a ship attacked by an infamous pirate captain whose sorcerous companion would help overpower the heroes and put them in immediate danger. It was difficult to set up the situation so the player characters wouldn’t immediately fight back and end the campaign before it could get started, and hopefully we pulled it off. As it is, this encounter should give the adventurers a number of reasons to want to track down their piratical nemesis -- there’s no better motivator than sweet revenge. And rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a wealthy Argossean noble seems likely to earn a hefty reward as well.
After we set our hapless heroes adrift at sea and put them up against a bizarre monster, we gave them an opportunity to become pirates, or at least gave them a pirate ship and a scurvy crew to work with -- and you know those guys aren’t gonna’ want to sail the straight and narrow. It seemed likely that the players would want to take up piracy themselves for a while, given they have a ship and a more than willing (one might say “insistent”) crew. This sets up a trip to Tortage in search of repairs to their storm-wracked ship and information about their enemies. This also gave us an opportunity to show off the brutish culture of the pirate stronghold, and give hints at the nature of the elusive Captain Herge Daimos and the mysterious sorcerer Maledict Mer. I also took the opportunity here to introduce Howard’s mentioned-but-unseen Vanir pirate captain Red Ortho, who cameos here but returns later in the campaign. Much of this section and the one following are very sand-boxy, giving the player characters a chance to partake of some nautical thievery, if they’re so inclined; for this reason I cobbled together some quick and dirty optional naval combat rules for this section. Next is a stopover in Messantia to see the kidnapped bride-to-be’s father where a bit of courtly “civilized” intrigue is subtly introduced in the form of rival merchant houses -- a different kind of treachery than the adventurers have encountered thus far, and a nice change of pace before the action really heats up in the campaign.
The player characters’ enemies’ trail leads to Maledict Mer’s island lair, where clues to his inhuman origin and his ultimate plans are revealed. The players may be able to set the sorcerer’s feuding acolytes against each other to gain access to these secrets, but not without facing monstrous summonings and catastrophic consequences. This is another change of pace, as it’s relatively low-key and probably not what the players are expecting, yet it still has a few stings in its many tentacles...
We’ll be back soon with some more of Kevin’s notes on the development of Waves Stained Crimson – available to pre-order NOW!
About the author:
Kevin Ross wrote, compiled, and edited material for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game for over 30 years. He helped create the Lovecraft Country series of books, designed the game’s infamous -- and now ubiquitous -- Yellow Sign symbol, helmed the award-winning 3rd edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight, and created the award-winning Down Darker Trails (old west) and forthcoming Colonial Lovecraft Country (18th century American) settings. He has also contributed material to Modiphius Entertainments’ Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of RPG and Mantic Games’ Hellboy RPG. His latest work is a sourcebook detailing William Hope Hodgson’s sf/horror novel, The Night Land, for Cthulhu Reborn Publishing’s Apocthulhu RPG. Kevin also edited two Dead But Dreaming anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction, and (with Brian Sammons) the western-horror fiction anthology The Edge of Sundown. He lives a reclusive life in the midwestern US.