This article originally appeared in Pyramid #10
From Kaer to Eternity:
The Kaer-Based Campaign in Earthdawn
by Tom Grant
The inhabitants of the kaer have waited centuries for this day. Yet, despite generations of yearning, the event seemed far more solemn and frightening than jubilant. The elders had decided that, based on the signs and the report of the last scouting party, the Scourge had ended, and it was time to open the kaer.
The entire community pressed against the entrance, waiting to burst forth into the outside world. However, when the great stone barriers were slowly pulled aside, the tide of people that had been ready to surge out receded when the first shafts of daylight stabbed into the crowd . . .
There's a lot about Earthdawn that is subtle, and therefore easy to miss. One subtle element unique to Earthdawn that has less to do with rules and more to do with setting, character, and context is the kaer. On the surface, the kaer is just one neat idea among many in an original fantasy setting. In reality, the kaer can be the foundation of an entire Earthdawn campaign, providing a context for adventuring that many other fantasy RPGs lack. The kaer can tie the PCs to a whole network of NPCs (friends, family, etc.), provide important incentives for the PCs to put their lives at significant risk, and produce the kind of maguffins needed for a storyline. This is what I call the kaer-based campaign, a terrific opportunity afforded in the Earthdawn setting.
Kaer Today, Gone Tomorrow
Think, for a minute, of what fantasy roleplaying has often meant: a motley group of rootless adventurers wandering hither and yon, stumbling into one episodic adventure after the next. Why are they together? Simply because they share a common interest in adventuring, glory, combat or looting. What keeps them loyal to each other? Often, the glue is nothing more than the fact that they're player characters, and therefore must stick together for the adventure to continue.
A kaer-based Earthdawn campaign has a built-in reason for the characters to stick together: they're all from the same tightly-knit community. Whether they're from the generation of those who first emerged from the kaer after the end of the Scourge, or whether they're the children of that generation, an easy way to keep the character together is to make them all members of the same kaer. If new character are added because new players join the campaign, or PCs die, then other members of the kaer can join the player's circle of adventurers.
This technique ties the PCs to a lot of people. Some of them will be potential allies, while others will be enemies. Family members and friends will often provide important support, while rivals and enemies (likely to exist after being locked up in a cave for your entire lives) will complicate the lives of the PCs. In addition, the kaer itself represents a large group of people to whom all the PCs owe a degree of loyalty and responsibility. Family, friends, community elders, masters of the PCs' disciplines -- they're all there, ready-made for good subplots and dramatic devices.
My first Earthdawn session provides some good examples. I decided that the PCs would be from Blackswold, one of the last kaers to close during the onset of the Scourge. Having seen the worst of the Scourge, and being a community noted for its skepticism, Blackswold did not open its doors again until well after the majority of other kaers had re-emerged. The PCs, therefore, knew nothing about the world outside, and the entire kaer was reluctant to rush headlong into an unknown landscape where Horrors still prowled.
Therefore, the community elders decided to send out a scouting party, whose members were chosen by lot. The "winners" were the PCs, who ventured out to find the original city of Blackswold, evacuated when, centuries ago, the community fled to a safer refuge in nearby caves. With the weighty responsibility of exploring the surrounding area, learning the fate of their abandoned city, and returning to the kaer, the PCs had an instant motivation for adventuring together. Rather than basing their decisions on maximizing plunder and glory, the PCs had to carefully weigh how their actions affected the kaer, especially when they ran afoul of a Horror.
Kaer, There, and Everywhere
Deeg checked the mouldering map given to him by the elders of the kaer. "It says here," the ork explained, thoughtfully running his tongue along one tusk, "that an elven shrine should be somewhere around this valley. We might be able to find the artifact there."
Fyzz hovered near his shoulder. "Maybe it got swallowed up by that chasm over there! If it did, the lava long ago destroyed it!" The windling had a penchant for pessimism.
"We have to check it out anyway," Deeg said. "Even if it's not here, we have to find out how this valley changed during the Scourge." The rest of the scouting party nodded in agreement, with the notable exception of Fyzz.
How do you introduce players to a new fantasy setting like Earthdawn? The kaer-based campaign lets your players learn about Barsaive along with their characters. By starting the campaign with the first day the kaer emerges from hiding, you can introduce the players to Barsaive piece by piece, carefully controlling each revelation for dramatic effect and roleplaying value.
For example, early in their exploration, my Earthdawn players encountered a beautiful and disturbingly manipulative Theran explorer (i.e., spy) who maneuvered one of the PCs and her elf lover into a duel. As the PCs talked with the Therans, the players along with their characters learned about the new Thera, and they uncovered some disturbing questions about the Theran Empire's intentions toward Barsaive. Again, rather than hurling the players into a new setting and expecting them to keep up with a detailed campaign background, the newly-emerged members of a kaer gave the players a chance to learn the Earthdawn setting a little bit at a time, instead of throwing an encyclopedia at the players to assimilate.
Kaer and Back Again
"I'd like to advance you to the next Circle, Fyzz, but I don't believe you're ready."
The pronouncement felt like a slap in the face to the windling. He believed that his advancement as an archer was assured. Hadn't he helped kill a Horror that had plagued the community? Hadn't he uncovered the Theran spy in the merchant caravan visiting them? Was he not acknowledged as a hero to the kaer for these and other deeds?
"However," his mentor, Teglish, continued, "there is a task you can perform for me. If you fulfill it, you will have learned what you need to advance to the next Circle . . ."
As mentioned earlier, you can use the kaer-based campaign to provide a lot of convenient plot devices, intrinsic conflicts, and other important story elements. A long-simmering rivalry among families can turn ugly. The village leaders can decide to send the PCs on a quest. A PC's mentor can decide that the character needs to perform some task before advancing in her discipline. These and other events can begin an extremely dramatic adventure.
For example, when the PCs in my campaign found Blackswold, they discovered that someone else had already settled it. When the PCs approached, the inhabitants of the town chased them off. To make matters worse, a large sigil had been added to one of the town's walls, which the characters later determined to be the sign of a Horror.
Who were these people in the town? Why did they chase the characters away? What was the meaning of the Horror's rune? This presented an immediate mystery that the players had to solve. Without the bond to the kaer, the players might decide that this was an interesting mystery, but not worth their while to investigate further. With their ties to the kaer, the PCs were compelled to uncover the mystery.
Later, they discovered that a Horror had marked the entire community, and was holding several children from the town hostage. Raised by the Horror, they had come to see the monster as a friend and benefactor -- exactly the kind of perverse situation the Horror wanted to construct. The children vastly complicated the PCs' task of slaying the Horror, and it presented a whole new avenue for later adventures. After all, only the children themselves knew what they would do after they were returned to their parents . . .
In fact, the situation at the end of the first adventure presented several good story possibilities for later adventures. What would the Blackswoldians do about the people who had moved into their town? Would the Therans return in force to raid or conquer the area? Would the children invite other Horrors to infest the town? Would the community want the PCs to explore further, looking for more information about Barsaive, avenues of trade, and potential enemies?
The biggest plot device in the kaer-based campaign are people in authority. Your parents, the village elders, and the masters of your discipline can all have good reasons for sending you on errands that may turn into adventures. It will be hard for players to say no to them, and refusing these authority figures may lead to interesting situations in themselves . . .
It's a Skaery World Out There
The world was busier place than anyone in the kaer expected. Already they had narrowly fought off an ork scorcher raid, been visited by merchants, run afoul of a Horror-tainted madman, attracted the attention of a cabal of mages eager to pilfer magical artifacts -- all in the first month since opening the kaer.
Of course, when the characters do finally explore the surrounding area, the neighborhood should be interesting. With a kaer-based campaign, you should think carefully where you want to locate the kaer. I chose an area in the southwest portion of Barsaive, where the PCs would encounter a lot of interesting people and places: an area southwest of Jessup, in the southwest corner of Barsaive, between the Liaj Jungle and the Twilight Peaks. This area is on the edge of the Badlands, the ultimate dungeon-crawl terrain, and close enough to Thera to provide an occasional Theran-based adventure. In addition, the region is criss-crossed by ork scorchers, crystal raiders and merchants, and for the scariest story imaginable, the player can take a trip on the Death's Sea.
In other words, there's a lot going on in this region, with plenty of variety. In addition, some interesting recurring characters (a madman from the Badlands, the Theran spy mentioned earlier, the leader of an ork tribe, trolls from the Twilight Peaks, adventurers en route to the Badlands or Death's Sea) practically wrote themselves into my campaign.
People Who Kaer
If you've found this article persuasive enough that you want to establish a kaer-based campaign for Earthdawn, you will have to design your own kaer with some care, since it will be the seat of your Earthdawn adventures. When devising the kaer, answer for yourself the following questions:
Racial Composition -- Which Earthdawn races are represented in the kaer? In what numbers? Are any groups clearly dominant or oppressed?
Kaer History -- Who were the original inhabitants of the kaer? When was it opened? What important events occurred while the kaer was closed to the outside world? How did the kaer protect itself from the Scourge? When did it decide to reopen its doors to the outside world? How many people now live in the kaer?
Governance -- Who governs the kaer? What factions exist? Are the factions based on kinship ties, race, allegiance to the Passions, or something else? What political conflicts exist among these groups?
Available Information -- What information does the kaer have about the outside world? How accurate is it? What inaccuracies might lead the character astray?
Families, Friends, and Acquaintances -- What relatives of the PCs (and other important people in their lives) are currently alive? (This question is best answered with the help of the players themselves).
To speed the process of designing a kaer, here is the Random Kaer Generator, for referees who need a little randomness to get their creative juices flowing:
Roll 1d6+1 for the number of different races represented in significant numbers in the kaer. Roll a d8 the same number of times to determine which races live in the kaer. If you roll an 8, or you roll the same race twice, roll again.
The kaer is located in (roll 1d6):
- A cave.
- A fortress.
- A mine.
- A mountain peak.
- An island.
- A magically-protected city.
Roll 1d4+1 for the number of events, and then roll a d12 for each event. if you roll a duplicate event, roll again.
- A Horror broke in and killed many inhabitants.
- Open war erupted among factions in the kaer.
- A scouting party explored Barsaive prematurely and never returned.
- Passion visited the kaer.
- The kaer unlocked the secret of a powerful magic item.
- Knowledge of an entire discipline was lost to the kaer when its adherents died.
- A disease swept through the kaer.
- The questor of a mad Passion caused great trouble in the kaer.
- The existence of a secret society within the kaer was revealed.
- The community was split over the use of blood magic.
- A coup changed the leadership or government in the kaer.
- Victims of the Scourge pleaded for refuge in the kaer. They may have been admitted as refugees, or turned away.
The kaer is governed by (roll 1d8):
- A council of elders, elected by the community.
- A king or queen from a longstanding dynasty.
- A king or queen from a newly-established dynasty.
- An oligarchy of mages.
- An oligarchy formed by the masters of all disciplines.
- An oligarchy formed by the questors of the Passions.
- A secret council. The identities of the members are kept secret.
- A charismatic leader.
The kaer's information on the outside world (before the Scourge) is (roll 1d4):
- Excellent, based on a large library of references.
- Good, though many gaps exist in the available texts, and in memories of the world before the Scourge.
- Poor, riddled with holes and inaccuracies.
- Abysmal, based on myths and misconceptions.
You Don't Kaer For Me Anymore
After spending some time working within the framework of the kaer, you and your players may decide that you want to move on. Perhaps the kaer is becoming too limiting, or maybe the players are impatient to travel more widely throughout Barsaive. The end of the kaer-based campaign should be a significant event. The event can be quiet, with the players simply bidding their relatives and friends farewell, or it can be extremely dramatic. Several possible ways of ending it on a more climactic note include:
- Enemies of the players politically maneuver to have them expelled from the kaer.
- The kaer is raided by the Therans and everyone is enslaved.
- The community grows fearful of the attention the PCs attract from their enemies and politely ask them to leave, to preserve the safety of the kaer.
- The players are asked to join Throal's armies in a war against Thera.
The end of the kaer-based campaign, therefore, can be a memorable event, an important part of the growing legend of the player characters.
Article publication date: December 1, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.