This week I have been reading some Leigh Brackett planetary romance novels and thinking about the Old Solar System, the one writers imagined before the early space probes confirmed there was no life on Mars of Venus. There are some games out there that use this milieu of canals and crumbling ruins on Mars, and lush jungles teeming with dinosaurs on Venus, such as Rocket Age or Cavaliers of Mars, as well as some modern works of fiction, such as S. M. Stirling’s In the Court of the Crimson Kings.
The inspiration I had for a game, was to drop Atlantis into the Old Solar System mix. Let us just start by saying the universe and the laws of physics were different before the fall of Atlantis, and thus handwave away the boring bits of modern science. Then we drop the players and their characters into this world at the height of Atlantean power, as its empire stretches across the known worlds of the Solar System in an era of glory and shadows. We can add the “missing world” between Mars and Jupiter that people thought might have once been the source of the asteroid belt, a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun, and perhaps a Nemesis counter-Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Jupiter can have a solid surface, an area equal to one hundred Earths to swallow the armies of Atlantis in endless steppes and insectoid mound cities. The unknown worlds beyond Saturn can be a frontier of dark enigma and alien menace.
Now we all know how this story ends – Atlantis in its hubris angers the Gods and is destroyed in a deluge – so the standard D&D5E campaign of heroic defence of the status quo is not a good fit for the spine of the campaign. After all, the status quo is an imperial power that exploits its military might to colonise and exploit the other worlds. So it is easy for Atlantis to be presented in ambiguous our even villainous terms, and for the player characters to be a band of exiles, rebels, and outlaws. At any rate, part of the creative tension for the campaign is the how, when, and why Atlantis eventually falls.
As I often do at the start of planning a potential campaign, I use the Icons framework from the 13th Age roleplaying game to help think about the major personalities, factions, and organisations for the campaign. At the start of the campaign the players define their relationship with the icons, whether positive/allied, negative/adversarial, or complicated/ambiguous. Icons that are not of interest to the players then fade into the background unless needed as a B plot filler. So here is a first draft of icons for the Atlantean Solar System, mixing some ideas from Ancient Greece and planetary romance tales.
The High King
The High King is the ruler of Atlantis, his legitimacy derived from divine descent in an unbroken line of Kings back to the founding of Atlantis. As the embodiment of monarchy he is the ultimate source of order, law, and justice, and high priest to the traditional Gods of Atlantis. The current High King married a daughter of the morning star, a love match contrary to the advice of the oracles. All of the High King’s children are daughters, so he has no male heir to succeed him as High King. The High Queen is believed by many to have been cursed by the Gods, but the High King will not divorce her. In desperation, the proud High King has begun a search for immortality. Meanwhile, plots and conspiracies begin to form around potential marriage alliances with his daughters.
Nine noble houses share blood ties to the High King, and by ancient law must be consulted by the High King before new laws can be passed, or any of their number executed for treason. The Council is the embodiment of aristocracy, born to rule, with wealth based on land ownership, with no room for merchants or commoners in their ranks. While the long debates of the Council encompass diverse opinions, conservative views and traditional virtues dominate. As the High King grows weaker, unity in the Council fades, as each arrogant House plots to gain control of the succession to the throne of Atlantis.
The leader of the Fallen Star, a crashed space ship from outside the solar system. He has become a key advisor to the High King, as the lore the Helmsman and his Nepharian crew have shared has increased the technology and sorcery of Atlantis to new heights. To the envy of many, the original Nepharian crew are immortal, though their children born in Atlantis are not. Powerful people are also jealous of the influence that the Helmsman has over the High King. The Nepharians seek to repair their ship, so they can escape the doom that pursues them from across the stars.
The Vril Guild
The wealthiest merchants of the Atlantean Empire, are the Vril Guild, which has a monopoly on mining Vril from the planet Aschanda, which lies between Shalbatana (Mars) and Neberu (Jupiter). Vril is they key power source for the wonders of Atlantis, its cruel war machines, and every new feat of invention and engineering that the merchant princes can devise. Unlike most of the factions in Atlantis, the guild is open to women. The wealth from this monopoly funds every imaginable luxury and decadence, as well as the ability to influence policy through corruption. Despised by the Council and the Myrmidons, the guild knows gold can also buy a path to the throne.
The generals of Atlantis all share views that justify the expansion of the Atlantean empire. While a few see it as the duty of Atlantis to uplift other peoples and bring them the wonders of Atlantis, most Myrmidons see the endless wars as opportunities for glory, loot, and slaves. While excellent soldiers, the Myrmidons tend to be conservative and superstitious, as only the wrath of the Gods can defeat the armies and fleets of Atlantis. The foremost Myrmidon is the governor of the Atlantean possessions on Neberu. As the empire expands and bleeds on the frontiers, demands for conscripts from Atlantis, slave-soldiers from the prison plant of Vulcan, and levies from its tributary states keep growing.
The most brilliant, charismatic, and treacherous leader from Atlantis now languishes in exile on distant Kayamanu (Saturn). Loved in many quarters for unexpected victories against great odds, they are also hated for their philandering, corruption, and dueling victories against many nobles. The Tyrant indulges in smuggling drugs from the twilight shrouded fungal forests of Kayamanu, designing new superweapons, and annoying distant rivals with multi-layered conspiracies, while awaiting the inevitable recall from exile to deal with some future crisis that threatens Atlantis.
The most brilliant, charismatic, and ambitious leader in Atlantis is a rabble rousing hero of the people, and the best admiral in its fleets. Exploiting the decline in the High King’s authority and the divisions in the Council, the Orator offers a vision of a better Atlantis, one where all male citizens can vote for their rulers and their laws, and share equally in the wealth of the empire. Unpopular in the highest circles of Atlantis, but fearing riots if he were to be assassinated, the Orator has been “promoted” to the office of governor of Shalbatana in the hope that the Warlord or the Red Queen will prove his undoing.
The leader of the ancient Saurian civilisation on Ninsi’anna (Venus), which once had colonies and outposts throughout the Solar System, before abandoning them and withdrawing home in some long forgotten crisis. A tributary state of Atlantis, the Saurian pyramid cities have many wonders and legacies form their Age of Glory. The Priest-King balances sharing some of this lore with Atlantis, against the desires of his people to keep their traditional way of life intact. The Priest-King is also the foremost alchemist of this age, with many elixirs and potions derived from the fecund flora and fauna of the tall forests of dawn star world.
The Amazon Queen
A leader of a hidden city, where women rule. The Amazons once defeated and invaded Atlantis in an ancient war, earning rights of free travel throughout the Solar System. Individual amazon warriors sometimes fight for Atlantis, and sometimes against Atlantis. The Myrmidons would love to find and plunder the secret fortress city of the Amazons, which they believe lies concealed somewhere on the Tellurian Moon. The Amazon Queen has an unmatched reputation for courage, wisdom, and virtue. Like the High King, she also claims divine descent from the Gods. Of late the Queen’s brow is furrowed by dire portents from her oracle.
The leader of the nomad tribes of Shalbatana, the Warlord is the most honourable foe of Atlantis. Pledged to fight until the Atlantean oppressors are removed from the red soil and canal cities of Shalbatna, the Warlord is a dangerous and wily leader of seasonal raiders, professional bandits, and all the dispossessed refugees who have sought refuge from the harsh laws of Atlantis in the untamed dryland deserts. The Warlord faithfully follows the ancient traditions and customs, even when it poses a risk to his cause. His base is usually a wilderness camp or cave system, changing with every passing season.
The Red Witch
The last free Queen of the city states of Shalbatana, the Red Witch is the most implacable foe of Atlantis, seeking vengeance for a family slaughtered by the Myrmidons. The Red Witch uses terror, black magic, torture, assassins, and revolutionaries alike in pursuit of her feud. Some of her followers will occasionally act as mercenaries for other factions, but the Red Witch is unrelenting in her opposition to the works and men of Atlantis. Among the canal people, she is both feared and loved, in the dryland wastes she is considered without honour, but in Atlantis she is feared and hated. Great would be the reward for the hero who can humble her in chains before the High King.
The Storm Wolf
Leader of the pirate clans of the Great Red Storm of Neberu, the Storm Wolf is a fearless, reckless thief. From the safety of storm hidden bases, unassailable to the Atlantean fleets, he raids convoys and cities alike, with swift attacks and rapid retreats. His followers have links to smuggling networks, and other bands of criminals throughout the solar system. The Star Wolf can offer sanctuary to the enemies of Atlantis, for a price, which includes access to the myriad debaucheries of his free city. The Storm Wolf is also infamous for freeing slaves found aboard the ships he plunders, and recruiting them to join his clan.
In ancient days, the Titans were overthrown by the Gods, and imprisoned in deep and dark places. In recent years one of the imprisoned Titans has begun calling out to people in their dreams. These dreams convey secrets and ways of accessing powers never meant for mortal minds and hands. A hundred cults have secretly bloomed in Atlantis, and elsewhere in the Solar System. Some cultists are content with a few crumbs of power and pleasure, others have become zealots who search for the hidden prison of the Titans.
The unifying theme for all the icons is hubris. Nearly all of the icons display elements of excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance, conceit, vanity and similar traits. They all believe that they are right in the views of what should happen, and that compromise is a fatal weakness. Thus are the seeds for tragedy sown.