Friday, 10 May 2013

Leaving Londinium (Part Four)

Warning to my players. Possible Spoilers ahead, as I peel back the curtain on some of the story stuff happening... read at your own risk, or else wait until the season wraps.

One of the first story problems I had to deal with, approaching Season Three of Sunset Empire, was the presence of a character that I fully expected would be dead by the end of Season Two...

William Gull. They HATE this guy.
Player characters are a contrary lot. They invariably act in ways that GMs have great difficulty predicting. That's a good deal of the fun in roleplaying, of course. But sometimes it throws you for a loop. And despite the fact that the player characters pretty much universally despised William Gull, the grouchy, willful leader of the Royal Magisterial Corps, damn if they didn't rescue his ass from certain death at the hands of Mithras.

It was my intention to let Gull go down fighting, in an epic duel of magic with Mithras that would at least highlight his formidable spellcasting prowess. But Mudlark and Matthias teleported into his office at the last moment, spiriting him away before the vampire lord got a shot at him.

So my first realization was that I had to give Gull a "third act". He had to change in ways that made him more real, and less of a cardboard bureaucrat that made the heroes' lives difficult. Gull would sincerely want to right as many of the wrongs he'd inflicted on London and the Corps as he could, before his injuries, physical exhaustion, and the long term toll of several strokes (and basic old age) caught up to him.

The second part of Gull's presence was that, since the players had made such a great effort to rescue him (despite their personal feelings), I had to give them some tangible rewards for that action. The easiest part of that was that Gull is remarkably well-educated and informed in the occult lore accumulated by the Corps; despite the loss of the Tower library and archives, Gull knew much of the important information that the players would need to plan their attack against Mithras. Gull explained the origins of the shadowy dome over London -- created by an ancient magical artifact used in sieges, known as the Eye of Ahriman. (The idea being that the Eye creates an expanding zone of shadow that both demoralizes the enemy and kills crops. Of course, vampires have an entirely different use for it...)

There is more that Gull must do, if he is to convince the prickly Lucy that he has truly changed... especially since he allowed Prime Minister Gladstone to be subjected to a ghastly death as a vehicle for a message from Mithras.

It is worth noting that part of Gull's change of heart has to do with a thematic concern about the character of Lucy. Lucy's deal is that she has no power or place in the world -- she is the quintessential marginalized female in a male-dominated (Queens Victoria and Titania notwithstanding) Empire. She was born to servitude, essentially, and much of her personal conflict so far has had to do with defying figures like Gull and the leader of the Watchers, Lord Emerson, as emblems of that male power and privilege. With Emerson dead (as seems common with the Watchers' Council, their headquarters in York was dynamited by the vampires' Fenian allies) and Gull at least making an attempt at reconciliation, it directs her ire towards Mithras himself. And Mithras is quite capable of symbolizing all the worst elements of male power and the cruelty of Empire.

I picture Mithras looking like Ciaran Hinds from HBO's Rome. Cold and severe.
Here is Mithras' speech from the end of Episode 3.1, "Anarchy in the U.K.", to serve as nightmare fuel:

“It has been almost eight hundred years since I last faced a Slayer. I must say, I relish the opportunity. The last one was great sport. She was a good swordsman, but not good enough. I defeated her… but that was not the end of my sport. For you see, I know the secret of your line. Strike one Slayer down, and another will rise. That was troublesome. So I spared her life, and merely cut off her arms and legs. I kept her alive, in a deep, dark hole, for seventeen years. Seventeen years of darkness, and silence, with no hope of release. She was quite mad by the end. It was my seneschal, Valerius, who finally convinced me to grant her mercy. He was right, of course, because she had been a worthy foe. I roasted her alive on a spit, and fed her to my men. The meat was terribly stringy, and quite tasteless, of course, but it was intended to be symbolic.”

“My advice to you, girl, is to run. Get away from this city and this country. Find yourself a husband and raise fat children and forget. Forget what destiny demands of you. For Valerius is dead… and with you, I will not be merciful.” 
Brr. Tomorrow, more inside stuff from the end of Empire.

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