Saturday, July 13, 2013

Campaign Idea - Sailing the Irish Seas

Among other things (whiskey, warp-spasms and fierce women), the ancient Irish had a knack for telling stories about great sea voyages. Seven of these tales, called Immrama, have survived, with the most famous perhaps being the voyage of Saint Brendan.

Most of these voyages were taken by men in currachs, wooden-framed boats covered by tanned hides. Imagine if you will an entire campaign built around a party of adventurers setting off from the coast of Ireland into the Atlantic Ocean in one of these small boats, their sights set upon glory, treasure and reaching the Blessed Land beyond the sea. When Uí Chorra embarked on his voyage, he took with him a bishop, a priest, a deacon, a musician and the craftsman who built the boat, as well as his two brothers. Uí Chorra and his brothers were bandits who turned over a new leaf. In D&D terms, this would be three clerics (one 6th level, one 3rd level, the other, well, who knows), a bard, a 0-level human (I guess we know who was stuck carrying the torches) and three bandits (probably fighters).

So, where did these fellows go? Well, as in all sea voyage tales, they went from island to island – apparently the Atlantic Ocean was lousy with them. In essence, each island could be something like a dungeon in its own right. A list of island visited by Saint Brendan and Máel Dúin follows:

  1. The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants' intention is to eat their boat
  2. The island of tame birds
  3. The island of the horse-like beast that pelts the crew with the beach
  4. The island of horses and demons (demonic cowboys?)
  5. The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all ate, drank, and gave thanks to God
  6. The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights
  7. The island of the "Revolving Beast", a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles and loose skin; it cast stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat (cool!)
  8. The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere (vampiric animals?)
  9. The island of apples, pigs, and birds
  10. The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat (awesome!)
  11. The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colors as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island in fear of changing color
  12. The island of the pigherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen
  13. The island of the ugly mill and miller who were "wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded"
  14. The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewmen who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath
  15. The island with maidens and intoxicating drink
  16. The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin
  17. The island of colorful birds singing like psalms
  18. The island with the psalm singing old man with noble monastic words
  19. The island with the golden wall around it
  20. The island of angry Smiths (azer?)
  21. A sea of like green crystal, in which they found only rocks, no monsters
  22. A sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters
  23. The island with a woman pelting them with nuts (halflings?)
  24. The island with a river sky that was raining salmon
  25. The island on a pedestal
  26. The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)
  27. The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir
  28. The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed (cleric’s stronghold)
  29. The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman
  30. The island of the fire people
  31. The island of cattle, oxen and sheep
  32. An island with a boy who brings bread and water
  33. An island of sheep
  34. The island of Jasconius
  35. An island that is the Paradise of Birds, and the birds sing psalms and praise the Lord (Lawful birdmen?)
  36. The island of the monks of Ailbe, with magic loaves, no ageing, and complete silence
  37. An island with a well; drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1, 2, or 3 days based on the number of cups each man drank
  38. A "coagulated" sea (Sargasso?)
  39. An island of 3 choirs of anchorites (monks) who give them fruit
  40. An island of grapes
  41. A gryphon and a bird in battle
  42. An island that is actually a whale
  43. A "silver pillar wrapped in a net" in the sea
  44. An island of blacksmiths, who throw slag at them (see above)
  45. A volcano inhabited by demons that drag people down to Hell
  46. Judas sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the middle of the sea
  47. An island where Paul the Hermit has lived a perfect monastic life for 60 years wearing nothing but hair and being fed by an otter

The great thing about this formula, of course, is that it can be used in genres other than medieval fantasy. Voyages of this sort were reported in later centuries, and the same formula could be used in a pulp adventure of exploration and sci-fi planet-hopping adventures as those in Star Trek.

To run a campaign like this, you’ll want a hex map covered with islands (when I get around to mapping the South Seas of Nod, you can use it), good rules for sea voyages (ship to ship combat tables maybe, especially if you’re using a larger boat than a currach, a random table of seaborne disasters, etc.) and a pretty good number of pre-drawn dungeon maps that can be pressed into service when a landing is made and the adventurers get drawn into trouble. In fact, you might also want to review a few Star Trek episodes to get some ideas about how to draw the adventurers into the island’s dangers.

Well, back to plant monsters tomorrow - and a couple other fearsome foes that popped into my head today.


  1. I just taught the Voyage of St Brendan back in January to college students. It's a wonderful text.

  2. Very cool stuff. Have not read the primary sources but somehow got the idea they did not eat the food set out on the otherwise empty island and that Brendan also saw a wierd crystal island that was possibly paradise?

  3. This is exactly the sort of thing that I latched onto for my own D&D campaign. I set out to use equal parts Celtic folklore, voyages of Sinbad and Ursula LeGuin's Eathsea.

    There are several elegant features of an Archipelago setting. You already mentioned the self-contained, Star-trek like episodic nature of islands (which means for instance, that even a terrible danger on an island need not pose a direct threat to the nearest settlement).

    Sea-travel is faster and likely over much longer distances than land travel, which further extend the possibilities for exploration. This also means that a robust trade network can exist (again without too much threat from the dungeon-islands Sea-trade became one of the key concepts for my campaign).

    Thirdly and as a result of the above, the campaign is incredibly modular. Despite my initial sources I was able to seamlessly add a Caribbean-pirate type region and a Love-craft style icy-horror region. And any unexplored island could be home to unexpected exotica; I did not plan plan to include automatons (my major civilizations being at peak-classical level technology) but one player wanted to play a warforged-like character. After a short time hashing it out we had invented an island of origin which turned out to be really exciting and mysterious with all sort of adventure ideas attached. A similar thing happened with a half-giant PC and again with a player who wanted a particular type of cleric.

    So yes I'm a huge fan of 'Salt-box' campaigns and the stories like St Brenden that inspire them. If you're interested, my initial campaign notes are on the wiki here:


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