This is heavily inspired by the way the fae work in Kingdoms of Amalur, with a big dollop of Unknown Armies. It’s written for Fate because that was the easiest way to capture the idea, but it could use any system with some tinkering.
The Matter of Earth
There is a narrative that underpins all the tales of humanity. Extremely cyclical, this Ur-saga has repeated itself throughout thousands of years of civilization and all the world’s cultures. And it is always shifting subtly, new chapters being added and old ones fading away as reenactors adjust its tapestry. The trappings of each tale change with each era, but the heart of the saga retains is meaning. And there is power in recreating the tales anew with each cycle.
It begins and ends with the Swordbearer. The dying True King leaves the symbol of his rule under her protection and she will give it to him again when he wears a different face. She, and a few others that survive the end of the cycle and retain roles in its beginning, will meet other individuals an a fashion that marks them as part of the saga as well. Then they will wittingly or unwittingly play the roles that have been played over and over again, matching archetypes to people who will then move on throughout the saga.
For example, the Questing King first enters the saga when he meets the True King on a joint attempt on a beast. Once the saga has become sufficiently advanced, the True King will set out upon this quest, and whomever he meets with the same goal henceforth is marked as the Questing King, who will begin to have his own adventures. Once, they were Western sheriffs hunting the same lawbreaker. Once, they were captains of industry pursuing a new technology. The trappings change, but the characters remain the same.
There are whole groups of people that work to catalog the saga and make note of its current state and changing tales. This is an inexact science, as whole plotlines can vary in relation to one another. Sometimes, the World’s Strongest Man joins the Ship of Heroes before he has even begun his Labors, and others he is an old man waiting for a final call to adventure. It is also a difficult task to maintain an updated codex of the saga, because other scholars hide their own research and attempt to destroy the work of their rivals. Because if you know the secrets of the saga, you can find a place to insert yourself.
If you understand the saga, you know that there is great power in walking the road of a character. Reality conspires to make the saga come true, time after time. If you know what character you are portraying, and know what events are coming up for that character in the tales, you can bend your own goals to match the predestined results of the story. Many scholars try very hard to find the heroes that slay the dragon, win a kingdom, and live happily ever after, and look to become that hero so their own dragons and their own conception of a kingdom will be delivered to them on a silver platter.
But the saga is always moving. Reality conspires, but it is subtle. The actors do not lose their free will (though they find themselves unconsciously driven to play their parts), and sometimes do things unexpected in the story. Characters meet that have never met before, spinning off a new tale that may add a whole new supporting cast to the saga. Actors overcome the push to repeat, and do something differently than it is usually done, weakening the strength of that tale and possibly forging a whole new plotline. Heroes die unexpectedly… sometimes because a greedy scholar wants to replace them before the next act.
In order to join the saga, you must be a reasonable fit for the theme of a character and find yourself filling its role in a scene with someone that’s already part of the saga. This must either be the first time the character appears in this cycle, or the previous actor must have died or otherwise become incapable of continuing in the role. For player characters, this will often be accidental: an interaction with a stranger seems rife with portent and impossibility, and suddenly coincidences abound to draw the character into a larger world.
When you are an actor, you write the “name” of your character as an Aspect. Scholars of the saga tend to couch these characters in general terms so as to not impose preconceptions, but with some digging you might find out who the most famous example of your character is. That is, you could write the Aspect as “The Man from the Lake” or “Lancelot.” The Aspect can be used normally for anything relevant to the character: The Man from the Lake can be invoked to become the best at whatever being a knight means this cycle, and compelled to lose control of your emotions at a disastrous time. Sometimes your character will not have a clear analog in known sources, so you’ll have to experiment to find out what role you’re meant to play. Additionally, you can always invoke the Aspect when you’re trying to escape danger in a situation where your character isn’t meant to be harmed; you’re being saved for your big exit.
Any time a character with such an Aspect is around, it’s possible a game scene may match the next Scene in his or her personal story. This becomes extremely likely whenever that character crosses paths with anyone else with such an Aspect that isn’t a regular part of his or her story. As noted, the actual trappings of the scene usually vary based on what’s appropriate for the character; what’s important is the emotional heart of the scene and its impact on later behavior. If you believe the scene where your character is grievously wounded by a one-off monster is coming up, that monster could be just about anything.
When a scene is relevant to one or more such stories, it has a scene Aspect that explains the gist of what happens. For example, “The Man from the Lake rescues the White Queen from the Summer King” or “The World’s Strongest Man defeats the Lion.” The scene also comes with a collection of Fate points that can be spent to invoke or compel that Aspect. This pool of points is roughly equal to the number of times that this scene has repeated itself successfully: for key scenes of the saga, the budget is basically unlimited and a concentrated effort must be taken to keep it come coming to pass. For more “optional” scenes that happen more often than not but can be changed without hurting a much larger narrative, the budget might be only a few Fate points. If the scene doesn’t turn out “correctly,” it has one fewer Fate point the next time it comes around; within a few cycles, it might be expunged entirely from the canon. Similarly, when an actor does something significant and in keeping with that character’s themes, particularly something that involves another actor, that scene may try to repeat itself on subsequent cycles, starting at one Fate point.
Ways to Use this System
There are several different uses for this in a game. One of them is, of course, “railroad the hell out of your players because your campaign is based on the Arthurian Mythos and every scene has a million Fate points to come out right,” but I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Instead, some examples are:
- The PCs accidentally become actors in the saga. Initially, they may enjoy sometimes getting a big pool of Fate points to make sure things turn out in their favor. But, sooner or later, they’ll be compelled to do something “in character” that isn’t in their best interests. The campaign becomes about questions of free will, particularly once they realize that their characters are not ones that live happily ever after.
- The saga is viciously guarded by a sketchy cabal of historians, and actors almost always come from a global society of clued-in families, manipulating it to retain their own power. The PCs are on the outside, and come up against someone on the inside and get blindsided by antagonists that can sometimes marshal functionally unlimited Fate points to have a scene turn out in their favor. The PCs may have to learn a lot more about the saga in order to turn the narrative against their enemies if they’re to have any chance of winning.
- The game is a chronicle of ages, starting with a line of the saga that doesn’t have many predefined scenes. The players play out the same sequence of the saga again and again, each time with a new generation of actors. The different scenes wax and wane as the players decide whether to go with the flow or fight against them from cycle to cycle. The goal is to see how the same basic sequence of events plays out when only the core thematic elements of the characters remain the same but the setting and time period changes over and over.