The players are involved with the creation of the campaign world through an improvisational process called "Johnstoning." Within each round (devoted to a specific large-scale topic), each player makes an assertion which is then extended or modified by the other players. The topics for our five rounds are:
- The Wider World: allow everyone a chance to establish a desired detail about large-scale geography or culture.
- Physical Plant: develop the location, architecture, facilities, etc. of the school of magic.
- Local Neighborhood: what groups/features are around (but outside of) the school itself? Places, allies, threats, etc.
- Campus Culture: traditions, rituals, discipline, are there Hogwarts-style "Houses" or freshmen and senior dorms, and all that.
- Personalities: Prominent NPCs who may play a part in the campaign or be remembered after their demise.
Round 1: The Wider World
- The King of Burgundia is dead, some say by an assassin's hand, and the queen and the heir to the throne have come up missing! The kingdom is in turmoil, and two factions are struggling to rule in the absence of a king: the traditional nobility and the wealthy merchants. The nobility are secretly in the thrall of some dark power and, if the nobility succeed in getting control of Burgundia, these dark allies will soon urge them to look to their neighbors as potential conquests.
- A stranger with a silver arm has been appearing in taverns and courts throughout Albion, gathering support for his people. Some of his fellows sport even more bizarre features, though some of them are fakes to "fit in." Frightened peasants whisper tales of seeing the silver arm wandering by night on its own. Yet, despite the rumors, the nobility seem interested in allying with the man in his mission.
- The art of casting arcane magic was re-discovered only relatively recently by the people of western Europa, in your fathers' and grandfathers' days, largely from a few grimoires smuggled from the ruins of the library in Alexandria. However, once in a great while Orcs are born with the power to channel raw magic by will rather than by training. The Rakashans are rumored to have the oldest arcane magical tradition, but even their most potent wizards command a mere fraction of the power of the mightiest sorcerers from the Shadowed Age. Magical artifacts from earlier times are still found around Europa, to the great interest of lords and mages alike.
- Kazimir Grazyna, second in command of the orc army of Polscia, is a werewolf! All his troops know it, and there are rumors that he rewards his most stalwart supporters with the "Moon's Gift." He has found or created "moonstones" which allow him to change more often than just one night a month; this control allows him to be an even more fearsome warrior on the battlefield. During the early years of his affliction, the orcs would call a truce just before the full moon and deliver the young general unarmed to their enemies as a show of their "good faith" -- thus bringing about the saying, "Never trust an orc signaling truce."
- They say the saurians are the oldest race in the world, far older than any of the others. Due to their cold blood, a small sect of sun-worshipers has arisen, and has begun to gather real and tangible power; no-one is sure whether from some deity or perhaps from inborn talents suddenly manifesting. Ancient tools, or even ruins and magical relics, sometimes turn up in places all across Europa, indicating a wide-spread civilization predating our written histories. Many of the ruins contain cyclopean portals sealed with lead, bearing undecipherable runes of silver; though these portals are rumored to allow transport between them, scholars speculate that they can only be opened by creatures who possess a bloodline descended from the original creators.
Round 2: Physical Plant
- The school is located in southern Frankland, centered around an ancient cathedral to a dead god, and hidden from prying eyes by dozens of enchantments and wards. The school was moved to this new location after some experiments went awry in a populated area. In the catacombs underneath the building there is a strange portal sealed with lead, bearing undecipherable runes of silver. Students who can't or don't secure housing elsewhere sleep in the catacombs; very few do this willingly.
- Several senior members of the academic staff had to deal with an issue at the new site before the school was established at its current location. They were unable to give their lectures for several weeks, during which several students formed their own secret societies and cliques. The "issue" came in the form of a perfectly preserved egg of a species thought long extinct; the egg distracted most people from further questions, particularly when it hatched to yield "Struthi," who grew up to be a school mascot -- and very fond of grazing on the headmaster's alchemical herb garden.
- There are places in the school that students are not allowed to go. Access to some of them is restricted due to privacy by the school's professors, but at least one room has had to be permanently sealed after magical research went awry. At least one of the secret student societies has found a way around the wards and rooms, and now visit the forbidden places in secret. A few places, such as the reliquary are guarded by golems in addition to wards and seals. One of the forbidden places is "Doctor Albinoni's Chamber of Soulful Scrutiny," a room which creates full-sensory illusions drawn from visitors' inmost desires and fears. But the bell tower in the cathedral is the one place that no one goes: not students, not faculty, no one.
- The Academy has many fine amenities, including an elven arbor and a dwarven forge. Most were donated by wealthy nobles to ensure admittance and the finest education for their children. The Academy has display cases full of fine weapons, armour, objets d'art, and other more... esoteric... items which have been given as gifts over the years. Several of the gifts are said to be haunted, cursed, or worse. One of the unofficial pastimes of the students has been trying to steal or replace various items in the display case -- occasionally thefts have been engineered, and the goods then planted, to get rival groups in trouble, since most of the items (unless protected by exceptionally well-built wards) can be traced by the faculty. Though the faculty outwardly frowns on the thefts, in order to harness the student's bad behavior for education, the faculty have taken to making a show when receiving a new gift and a ceremony of placing the item in its case; these items, however, are low-powered dupes, and the originals are kept in a more secure vault. The breaking down of wards and seals show a fundamental understanding of their inter-workings. Even so... every decade or so a few exceptionally gifted students make their way into the real vault. One item went missing very recently, and the faculty have not been able to divine its location.
- In the week leading up to the catastrophe, students complained of terrible dreams and a bad headache. One student complained of coughing up a foul black substance after waking from a particularly nasty nightmare, and some students even claimed visitations by a shadowy apparition. Several of the terrible dreams involved spiders or worms -- being chased by giant ones, overrun and buried by swarms of little ones, enmeshed by thick webs and slowly devoured, or eaten from within by wriggling masses, etc. Students begged the Dean to consult the local priests to try to resolve the situation, but the priests were unable to find any evidence at all of anything wrong, leading them to either think the students were overreacting or that the problem was not of this world.
Round 3: Local Neighborhood
- The local duke has granted the school's headmaster the feudal status of a baron, making all peasants in the area (but not citizens of any separately incorporated cities) his vassals, bound to offer taxes and service. Recently the headmaster announced a drastic hike in taxes. Some of the locals took such great umbrage that a couple of students were beaten up while in town. A small cadre of students, in return, are working to undermine the school's authority and set up something more akin to a democracy. These events have set Duke Montesquieu on edge. Several students have received letters from home, urging them to stand against this upstart democracy, and Duke Montesquieu and a sizable unit of soldiers are due to "visit" campus soon, to assess the situation and take whatever actions are necessary.
- The school is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. To the south in the mountains, a blind Rakashan hermit lives in exile. Once a month, on the night of the dark of the moon, the headmaster is seen leaving the school toward the south along a sheep trail towards where the hermit lives. Rumor has it that the hermit is actually a sorceress, and that the headmaster visits her to learn lore whose teaching is forbidden in Burgundia and the other western lands. No recent students have investigated the sheep trail for themselves, because dragonets in the mountains (unbeknownst to all, serving as the sorceress' eyes and ears) ignore mundanes and livestock but eagerly sniff out bearers of magic. Also, around spring, terrible storms sweep in from the hills and into the valley. Terrible things whirl around in the downpour, but none have figured out what they are.
- Many folks of the village actually like having the school nearby, though tensions between the school and nearby village can run high. They provide many trades and services to the school, and the town has actually been growing by leaps and bounds as more and more trades are called in to service the college. Some enterprising students, specialists in magical artifice, have worked with local tradespeople to create mechanical devices to aid them in their daily work. Famous Iberian scribe Angelito Castilla has arrived to document the impact of magic upon society -- but there are rumors that he is actually a spy for the royal crown, trying to root out those plotting against it. Not all local interactions are friendly or successful: the local miller's reaction to a demonstration of earth-elemental-driven grain querns was, shall we say, memorable. But still other townsfolk embrace the students: a pub in town, The Half-Empty Tankard, is frequented almost exclusively by students and faculty.
- The Half-Empty Tankard, a tavern well attended by the students and faculty, is a ramshackle three-story timber-framed building. Its crooked outside appearance belies its cozy interior -- though, unknown to most, a hidden "fourth floor" can be accessed at certain times of the night and only by certain methods. Struthi can often be found at night, lying near the hearth with a bowl of ale. The proprietor of the inn is an incomer to the region as well: Meja Håkansdøttir, a grotesquely fat female dwarf, formerly a mercenary from Sverige, whose crippled feet require that she move about in an ornately carved wooden chair borne by enchanted articulated metal legs. A student from Novgorod once referred to her as "Baba Yaga," and the nickname has stuck. Meja plays up the part extremely well, occasionally giving troublesome students seemingly impossible puzzles to perform, and them marking them with a strange ink sigil if they fail. No one knows what the the fate of those marked students will be.
- Most of the farmland in the area surrounding the school is of average quality, allowing the farmers to produce comfortable yields of grain and vegetables. Lately, some more down-to-earth students have been experimenting with magical methods of increasing food production; several kingdoms and many farmers are quite interested in their research. Despite the students' promise of increased crops and increased income, there are some who view their tampering with the crops as unnatural and something that will come to no good. Some of the land owned by Jean-Francois Moule supports the most wonderful grapes, and he makes a tidy sum selling his harvests to high-class winemakers. Recently a man with a right ear and cheek of silver was seen negotiating with Master Moule, presumably for a portion of his next harvest. The Academy's headmaster (a known wine connoisseur) had a special wine cellar built to magically age wine; a special mantle woven with counter-runes is required to protect those entering the cellar. Nobody knows that the bountiful harvests occur because Monsieur Moule has made a pact with dark forces. In exchange for payment in blood, a demon uses its powers on his behalf. So far he has been careful to cover his tracks, but over the years, not all of the workers who come to harvest the crop have returned home again afterwards...
Round 4: Campus Culture
- The Oenotrian elf Mila Nandati is feared by most (students and faculty alike), for she is the academy's authority on curses. She recently urged the faculty to pay serious attention to a few of the items in the trophy case. Rumor has it that Dottoressa Nandati was forced to flee Oenotria to avoid the vengeful friends and relatives of one or several people she had cursed. She has had a guest for the last month, but no-one has seen the person, just a shadowy form in a large, body-concealing cape. The school's gardener found a most unusual footprint in one of the flowerbeds outside the room where Dottoressa Nandati's guest is quartered. The shadowy visitor is actually Mila's mother Luana, who is herself cursed with a horrible deformity. The cape allows Luana to change form freely; the deformity, however, is always present no matter the form.
- Classes are structured in a way in which the professor lectures some, but most of the class is practicing what you know and experimenting on different techniques. Hand gestures, pronunciation, and proper breathing are all rigorously rehearsed before a student is allowed to put any power behind them; a successful demonstration of skills learned is required for a passing grade. One of the professors has openly scoffed at such "unnecessary precautions"; he urges his students to "go for broke" and try anything they think they can pull off. Most of the other professors don't like him very much, though he is popular with the students. Beginning students (12 years old or so) are always trying to wheedle various cantrips or advanced techniques out of upperclassmen, since the introductory classes generally try to build that foundation of safety through more emphasis on theory than practice. Though some of the older students are happy to oblige for favors or other bribes, a small group refuse all requests because they know what happened to a young woman called Ester Robideaux; something that the professors have gone to great lengths to hush up. Only they know the cause of the black burn mark on the floor of the library's special section.
- Although the Academy is primarily an institution to teach aspiring wizards the theory and practice of magic, not all of the students are enrolled because of their ability, or potential, to shape magical essences - some are there to learn to control other abilities, or even as the subject of study themselves. One student, known only by the name Alhazred, is kept mostly away from other students and is at the Acadamy to learn to harness and control his powers. Not all the faculty are mages, either. One example is Jan Oleśnicki, an orcish priest of Marzanna, who lectures on magical fauna (such as his participation in the battle against Zirnitra), the relations between religious orders and arcane magicians, and the history and culture of Eastern Europa. A few of the faculty aren't happy about this turn of events. One of the staff members in particular, Hans Leibowitz, holds a grudge against any "non traditional" students, going so far as to trump up charges of wrongdoings in order to get such students expelled. A silent war is brewing between Hans and Jan, as Jan attempts to aid those accused by Hans. This has begun to taint the orcish priest's lectures on the relations between religious orders and arcane magicians, and both teachers are having a polarizing effect on their students. Some of the more senior members of the staff are increasingly worried that, should Hans drive away any students who have powerful and/or rich connections, the Academy might suffer as a result. They have been negotiating with Hans to soften his stance a little, but one or two of his students have been so deeply affected by his previous lectures on the subject that they plan on taking violent action of their own when the time is right.
- The academy generally arranges students by year and talent level, assigning older or more talented individuals to roomier and more luxurious quarters. Younger and less talented students are generally packed into very spartan bunk houses and privacy is at a premium. Fortunately for students, several organizations and secret societies offer further boarding options. Faculty members are assigned as "house masters" to official student housing (but not the off-campus buildings used by organizations or societies). Cushier housing is, obviously, viewed as a more plum appointment, but some of the off-campus houses have enough "interesting" features that, although the accomodation is more cramped, some staff still go to great lengths to secure lodgings there. Some of the more powerful organizations use posh living quarters and amenities as a recruitment tool. The organization that uses The Unnamable Manse as their quarters is incredibly secretive, to the point that no one is really sure of its membership. The Unseen Brotherhood is almost the exact opposite: all members are expected to tattoo a third eye on their forehead. Recruitment into the Unseen Brotherhood isn't done due to amenities or the like - the Brotherhood has more magical knowledge than most large nations. They've even unlocked the secret of arcane healing.
- Discipline at the Academy is largely left to faculty members' discretion. One temporary punishment commonly used by the more cruel instructors is the arcanovoric imp (known as a "monkey" in student slang), a small magical creature attached to the miscreant (latching on to flesh by phasing through clothes) which feeds on its host's aura and, while sometimes (blessedly) invisible, appears at the most inopportune times to mock and berate its carrier and everyone around him. Some of the more ingenious students have discovered that ingesting various compounds alters their aura sufficiently to "intoxicate" the imp, with amusing and sometimes unpredictable results. Some of the senior students aren't above playing pranks on freshmen by getting them to eat and drink all manner of bizarre substances which have no actual effect on the imp - one year, several students turned bright blue for several days as a result! The "imperium" where the creatures live is guarded almost as well as the school's most valuable display cases. A few of the instructors have been pushing for the outright banishment of the practice for years. They are lead by the matronly Illiana Forel and have the backing of much of the student body (not that it's been much help). Hans Leibowitz believes the students have it too easy, as the "monkey" has no lasting side effects, sans a few embarrassing bits of personal info the imps enjoy sharing in the crowded cafeteria. Hans sincerely believes in discipline due to the considerable power magic allows students to use and in his many arguments with the matronly Illiana, he invariably points to the black burn mark in the library, which never fails to send a shudder through the faculty.
Round 5: Personalities
- The school also contains a rather popular and eccentric bursar. Lloyd Brotherton is a massive mountain of a man with a great thirty for wine and women. He's an ex-war mage who settled down at the academy after taking a particularly bad wound that gave him a permanent limp. Everyone loves his old war stories (even if they are a bit embellished) and he has a keen mind for obtaining the rarest of spell components and wine vintages. Occasionally Brotherton gets a look in his eye when asked about his wound; he doesn't talk much about it, but what he has said is that the warrior who gave him the would is still out there, alive, and named Revyna. Rumor has it that Brotherton's aptitude for obtaining rare items comes not only from his own ingenuity, but also from a network of less than licit contacts among smugglers, bounty-hunters, and adventurers. One of his most regular "visitors" is a grizzled dwarven mercenary called Stonehide. An ex-Theutonic knight, instantly recognisable by his bright red hair and trident beard, he spent a number of years fighting on both sides of the Milano-Genoan war in Oenotria, and uses his contacts there to obtain rare and exotic items on behalf of Brotherton. Brotherton can often be found at the Half-Empty Tankard talking with Meja Håkansdøttir (Baba Yaga) and, on more than one occasion, students bearing Meja's strange ink sigil have left the school with the ex-Theutonic knight Stonehide, for parts unknown. Lately students have begun to whisper that Brotherton is actually the head of some secret student organization and that the students who leave with Stonehide are off on important missions.
- One of the newest students to the school is Nathan Sinclair, a Saurian from Albion, raised by humans from an egg. Nathan has show a strange ability: when he becomes afraid, no magic will work near him. As a result, he has had to be "banned" from certain areas of the Academy, lest he unwittingly disrupt a delicate or dangerous magical experiment being carried out. Nathan plans to travel with one of the summer groups on a trip to gather magical supplies from the Great Rift south of Frankland, so that he can meet other Saurians for the first time. He has authorized the leading professor to tranquilize him in case his "mood" starts to disrupt the bound elemental driving the airship.... Several of the instructors have been incredibly curious about Sinclair; they keep trying to find out exactly how he manages to nullify all the magic around him. While some may suspect, only a select few know the truth behind Nathan's presence at the academy and the King of Albion's obsession with the cyclopean portals.
- One of the Academy's faculty members is a ghost, constrained to haunt the classroom and office used during life: Prof. Otis Tottlesby is a rather absentminded, bookish ghost, and the first teacher to receive permanent tenure. One of the favorite past-times of older students is temporarily banishing the old ghost during lectures; it takes a great deal of skill and it only works for a few moments, but the students still get a chuckle when it happens. Little do the older students know the power that Tottlesby holds over the dead; as a master of necromancy, the ghostly professor tends to send zombies or poltergeists to punish those who think it amusing to banish him. He also has a personal zombie "butler," affectionately known as Bert, whose main job is to fetch books and turn their pages so his master can study the text. Professor Tottlesby occasionally puts his entire class into a distracted trance -- not through boring lecture, but through feeding on their thoughts and attention. It's usually accidental, and has never caused long-term effects, but the faculty forbid him from holding smaller classes or independent study, all the same.
- Rupert North is the Academy's long-suffering gardener and general handyman. Originally from Albion, he has worked here for longer than he cares to remember. A slight man, whose stoic demeanour is often mistaken for bad humour, he is more than used to dealing with breakages, spillages, experiments gone wrong, the excesses of various summoned creatures, and other "mishaps" which are more common here due to the nature of the subjects under study. He goes about his work patiently and thoroughly, yet still manages to find time to indulge a couple of rather unusual hobbies of his own. One of his "side projects" was the development of "mimic topiary"; when a certain alchemical compound is poured over its roots, after a short delay it reshapes itself in the form of the nearest object or creature. Rupert has also developed a method to speak with the plants, which not many people realize, making him very knowledgeable about private conversations, thought to go unheard. Rupert has cultivated a vast network of ivy, all of which leads to a window in the headmaster's private study. he has heard a few choice tidbits via this route over the years, including tales of affairs between members of the staff, a covert investigation into an outbreak of devil-worship amongst the students, the fact that one of the items in the academy's collection of esoterica is actually an artifact of immense power, and the 'real' story behind the black burn mark on the floor of the library's special section.... A few students have learned of his secret and are now begging him to teach them as well. There are even a few who are requesting he be made a part-time teacher, so that some students can learn the "druidic arts."
- Dr. Ezekiel, the foremost alchemist at the school, has been working on grafting plant and animal life into viable, sustainable species. In fact, there are rumors that one of the students is one of his successful secret projects. He has had to fight hard to be able to continue his work after one of his "unsuccessful" projects caused considerable trouble at the school -- yet, while his projects are not all successful, Ezekiel has made some real breakthroughs, in restoratives and antitoxins. Still, even among magicians used to marvels, there are those who view mingling animals and plants into one being as unsettling and deeply wrong, and some have even leveled accusations against Dr. Ezekiel of trafficking with demons. Dr. Ezekiel's laboratory assistants are magically forbidden from speaking of what goes on in the lab.