This weekends crazy idea is mashing up the West Marches concept, with the imperial succession mechanic of the Empire of the Petal Throne. In order to avoid a debilitating civil war, the Imperial succession is determined by a contest to acquire secrets and relics, and to reach a specific location at the right time, plus defeating any other challengers. But rather than one isolated temple or maze filled with death traps, the contest (and the hexcrawl) takes place on an isolated island filled with ruined temples and labyrinths filled with hazards. There might also be official imperial treasuries and tombs, just filled with loot awaiting early appropriation by an Imperial heir.
The main difference from a standard West Marches campaign, is the hard time limit on the finish of the campaign. Perhaps its a year and a day of game time from the start of the campaign. It could be longer, or it could be triggered at any time. Another way to do it, would be to have a final count down to the ritual occurring once one contestant crosses a threshold, leaving everyone else until the the next full moon to join them. For the wrap up, only players who know where the coronation ceremony is going to take place get to have their characters turn up for the finale.
I think the time limit should be known to the players from the start, but another option is for that to be a major game secret as well. The time limit also means that spending a few weeks healing from injuries or recovering from disease is a major setback.
This is something where the greater number of players in a West marches campaign could prove an advantage, as several players could play candidates, while other players play opportunists hoping to back the winning candidate. Each player could have a candidate, sponsoring quests that other characters are sent on. Some definite scope for intrigue and betrayal. Perhaps the true contestants all need some identifier, a relic like object, or a magic tattoo on their skin.
A few other things that could be added into the mix:
- Neutral Officials, there to stop the contest from getting out of hand (such as sabotage of supply ships or burning down the ports). But perhaps they can be bribed.
- Fanatically Neutral Officials, there to silently enforce the rules by assassinating heirs suspected of cheating, bribing neutral officials, and any trouble makers who look to be fostering civil wars.
- Deadly decadent court – perhaps the contest is like the succession for much of the Ottoman Empire, where the new Caliph had the rival heirs executed, raising the stakes of the contest. If you don;t want to win and be supreme ruler of the empire, how do you survive? Hole up as a hermit on the island for the rest of your life?
- More imperial factions – perhaps the franchise for the contest is wider than just the imperial family, and a range of guilds, cults, generals, villains and heroes all enter the contest.
- A free for all – if anyone can enter the contest, so long as they can reach the island, then there could be a rush of the desperate and dangerous, all hoping to strike it rich. The landscape could be littered with the bones of peasants who had dreams of glory – this could be an ideal set up for a “funnel” session zero, where you start with a large pool of “level zero” PCs and play through the dungeon until the last few survivors “level up”.
- Borrow from The Player of Games and have most of the imperial government participating, either directly or through proxies (for the aged and infirm), all competing for their place in the hierarchy after the succession is determined.
I imagine an island with a north-south mountain range, with arid/desert landscapes on one side, and dense forest/jungle on the other side would make for a good contrast in exploration. A few ports scattered around the coastline provide the safe bases for rest and recovery between expeditions. The local economy is probably having something of a gold rush boom town vibe, which could well attract some criminal gangs or even a pirate raid.