Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Riding the Storm Out

Here's one I've been meaning to post for a while, now.

Twenty years ago TSR was looking for a new campaign setting. I proposed one called Storm Front (also called Stormfront) which involved ships sailing on clouds. These days every anime seems to have ships sailing on clouds, and I will point back to Peter Pan for an earlier incarnation, but here were looking for a new concept (a "gizmo") to hang the game on. 
Inspirational Illustration from Winsor McCay.

I had lost the original two-page proposal, but Steve Winter (who had mentioned it in a podcast) did not, and dropped me off a copy, which I am presenting below. The other sources referred to in the first paragraph were other concepts that were bouncing around at that time, which were either naval-style campaigns or monster-dominated "reverse dungeons" where the bulk of the world was hostile. So this is the last of a series of similar proposals, and reflects the input of others on the TSR team.

I am leaving the text as it was originally written, with corrections in [red brackets] and footnotes.

The story of how Stormfront came to be, and what happened to it, can be found here. I wanted to get this out there before an entire year had passed since my last mentioning it. Some fans have responded to the stories about it with interest, and now you know as much as our management did at the time about the product. 

Storm front1
A Campaign Setting Proposal by
Jeff Grubb
5 January 1994 

Note: This proposal combines elements of a number of previous proposals from other sources, including the Under Siege collection of monster-dominated worlds, the Water Worlds, including Sea of Shadows, The Illythids, and the Earth-Sky proposal[s], and I hope it to be a synthesis of those ideas, dealing with the objections raised for each.

The Nugget: Man shall live on Mountain-Tops, and the world beneath is wrapped in clouds, storms, and shadow.

The Images: A world of eternal cloud cover and storms, where the forces of good and law can only survive on the few mountain-tops which pierce these clouds. The cloud layer is at a set altitude and is regular, and cloud-traders sail its surface in magical ships. Beneath the surface of the clouds the land is ruled by evil and chaos, by huge ever-changing nations and gangs controlled by beastly monstrosities known as the Abominations.

The Back Story: Long ago, Stormfront’s world was much like the Realms, perhaps a little further advanced in the magical department. A human dared to challenge the power of the sea gods, and best [bent] them to her will. The harnessing of the sea gods brought a golden age of power to the land, but in the end the powerful sea-deities revolted. The gods could not deluge the land without wiping out followers or causing other gods to step in, so they instead pumped much of their water vapor into the air, enchanting it as they did so. The result was a continual cloud cover which wrapped the cloud [world] save for its highest mountain chains. The land beneath the clouds changed, and its people changed with it. Lush vegetation in riotous colors broke out everywhere, deserts flooded, cities were inundated, fields became swamps, and civilization collapsed. The good and lawful races retreated upwards in the face of this onslaught. Those which remained were twisted by the magical rains in warped forms, and the most warped of these developed great powers – they became the Abominations.

Life Above the Clouds: The Nations of Light survive among the peaks of what were Stormfront’s highest mountains, and the largest of these is the Spine, a ragged archipelago with a main island a thousand miles long and a few hundred miles across at its widest. Spine is heavily populated and its population is clustered into huge cities, the bulk of its land needed for farming to feed its people. Where the mountain-nation descends to the cloud level is the Fogwall, a continually-guarded fortified wall which keeps those creatures which climb the mountains at bay.
            In addition to the Nations of Light, there is a polyracial alliance known as the cloud-skimmers. When the clouds first overlook [overtook] the world, their founding wizards found a method to travel on their tops. They are the transportation and communication guild, and are as powerful as any nation. They also may be dealing with the Abominations, but this is merely rumor.
            The other races live with the humans, but a few have their own settlements. Dwarves tunnel beneath the peaks, seeking to extend their domains downward, eventually linking up with their original homelands beneath the cloud level. Some elves have abandoned the world entirely, forming great floating orbs hovering over the surface of the cloud-ocean. Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-skimmers, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers2. The gnomes dominate the cloud-skimmers, particularly in the higher reaches of power, and are a more solemn, threatening people.

Life Beneath the Clouds: The land beneath the clouds is one of continual shadow and darkness, at its brightest the color of an overcast day. Storms move a random across its surface, and rains of blood, dead animals, snow, and insects are common. Those humans which remain beneath the layers are worn, beaten, and very, very depressed, such that most have abandoned hope of the light and follow dark masters.
            With the transformation of the oceans, new life appeared beneath the cloud cover – sea creatures and their twisted spawn now could live in the wet, thick air, and air-sharks, orcas, flying squid, and coin-bright swarms of piranhas are common. Locathah and sahaguin live on the surface (though they cannot live on the mountain tops of light, and hate the inhabitants there for that reason).
            The most powerful creatures of the darkness are the Abominations – creatures that once may have been mortal, or even human, but now are a combination of life and living natural force. These are the most evil and chaotic, and each seeks to establish itself as the dominant Abomination on the planet, slaying or enslaving everything else (This permits a variety of powerful bad guys, one of which may succeed the next over time).
            In the shadow of the Abominations are the Mind Flayers – non-psionic traditional types who interact among the Abominations much as the Cloud Skimmers3 do among the Nations of Light. They have their own secret societies and hidden agendas, and seek to gather enough power that they may control the Abominations, and with it the rest of the world.
            The land is wet and dark, the ground generally marshy and uneven. Areas are regularly flooded, and even recent mays may be altered at will. The level of the true oceans has dropped as a result of the god’s [gods’] manipulation, and the swollen rivers now wind far out from the original coasts, pitching finally over the edge of the continental shelf in huge waterfalls. In these extremely salty oceans lay the domains of the sea gods, still angry regarding their once-enslavement.
            The land beneath the clouds also holds the remains of the human nations and cities, and the knowledge within. The Nations of Light must continually send brave adventurers down into this rain-darkened land to recover now-long [now-lost] magical knowledge to keep the Abominations and the forces of darkness from completely taking over the planet. That’s here the adventurers come in. A typical “dungeon crawl” may be taking a Cloud Skimmer out to the location of an Ancient City, parachuting down (a difficult, but not impossible task), raiding, and the (the tough part) walking back.
            If we need an epic (after the first year or so) here goes – the level of the clouds is rising, and threatens to finally consume the Nations of Light. The heroes must seek out the most powerful Abomination to destroy his holy McGuffin and return the world to stability (in [if] not to the time before the floods).

Benefits of this world:
·         Takes advantage of the water-worlds (new monsters, sea travel, swashbuckling, pirates) without the disadvantages (drowning rules, 3-D movement on a regular basis, fire and spell modifications).
·         Gives us a large number of bad guys in the form of the Abominations (similar to the various evil organizations in Faerun or the Lords of Ravenloft).
·         Gives us a “gizmo world” (a physically different world from standard AD&D) which uses standard AD&D rules.
·         Gives us a world with one big problem (the gizmo – in this case the continual cloud cover) which cannot be cured – that is the status quo. A lot of little problems (abominations, other nations, the cloud skimmers, pirates) become problems the player characters can deal with.
·         Creates the “surrounded citadel” approach of good besieged by evil, without making that citadel dark itself. (the nations are in light, not in a dungeon, but still surrounded).
·         New monsters as the marine creatures have “thick-air” variants.

What do you think, sirs4?

1 – I would like to say the “Storm front” name, with its odd capitalization, was a pretentious affectation intended to make the name look artier, but it looks more like a globby typo after I went back and forth between two words and one.
2 – This is probably the most unclear sentence in the presentation – It should read – “Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-ships, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers.” The gnomes would be a dominant force in the magical/merchant version Cloud Skimmers
3 – The cloud-skimmers became the Cloud Skimmers (as an official organization) over the course of writing the proposal, and the word was used to refer to both the organization and the ships they sailed. The legal department once got mad at me for Spelljammer, which I used as a noun, a proper noun, a verb, and would have been an adjective if I could have gotten away with it. I did that sort of thing again here.
4 – Yes, that is a MST3K reference. 

More later,