The Reign of the Fisher King
The Reign of the Fisher King
The Reign of the Fisher King is a modern-day Unknown Armies (UA) campaign inspired by the works of Tim Powers (specifically his intertwined novels Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather).
Fisher Kings are exceptional individuals imbued with great magical abilities, and to whom the health and prosperity of the surrounding land is tightly bound. They are walking powerhouses of magic, shining like beacons to the hungry usurpers who covet the King’s throne. Kings struggle constantly to guard their positions and keep their rivals in check.
The Fisher King’s secret Court consists of his Arcana, his most powerful and trusted companions, and his jacks, his messengers, spies, gophers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Player characters begin the campaign as jacks in service to their King.
Fisher Kings have a natural affinity with the Tarot and its archetypes. Whether it is the King that is able to channel the powerful (and dangerous) patterns inherent in the Tarot, or whether it is the Tarot acting as a yantra that unlocks the Kings magic is neither clear nor relevant. The two are inextricably linked, and it is through his personal Tarot deck that a King can wield supernatural influence. The surest way to cripple a King is to burn his Tarot deck.
The organization of the King and his Court is based on the standard Tarot deck. The King and the members of his Arcana each embody one of the 22 Major Arcana Tarot cards. Each of the King’s jacks is aligned with one of the 56 Minor Arcana. Few kings actually possess a full Court of 78; the typical King’s Court consists of only a half dozen Arcana, and perhaps twice as many jacks. Do not, however, underestimate a King’s power because his Court lacks numbers. Above all, jacks are urged to remember that all information about a King and his Court is secret, especially with respect to other Kings.
The Minor Arcana suits have various worldly and in-game connections:
- swords: Speed stat, air, authority, suffering
- cups: Mind stat, water, emotions, love, divination
- wands: Soul stat, fire, will, creativity
- pentacles: Body stat, earth, body, wealth
PCs are generated using the standard UA rules. Each PC also draws (and keeps) a random Tarot card, called a significator, from the Minor Arcana of his King’s personal Tarot deck. The significator is meant to be both a role-playing handle and an item of game mechanics, as described below. Although there is no direct danger in disclosing one’s significator, it is considered bad form to reveal it freely (especially outside the Court), since such knowledge might allow an enemy to identify the character’s (and thus his Court’s) weaknesses. Since each King’s Tarot deck is unique, a jack’s significator clearly identifies him as a member of that King’s court. No two jacks in the same Court may be aligned with the same Minor Arcanum.
When a PC draws his significator, he receives a minor advantage and a minor disadvantage, both of which correspond to the card drawn. (This is meant to reflect traits of the PC which have “attracted” that particular significator when it was drawn, rather than implying that drawing the card has somehow changed the PC.) The advantage and disadvantage are determined in a free-form fashion by both player and GM, but likely starting with a short list of each from which the player can choose.
For example, suppose a PC draws the Nine of Wands, which is associated with the UA Soul stat, the classic element of fire, and human creativity. The GM might provide the following advantages and disadvantage from which the player could choose:
- Gain 10% Soul skill points, which the player can distribute freely among any of his speed skills.
- Gain a free 10% “Courage” speed skill. If you fail a roll on the madness meter, roll against this skill. If you succeed, you can flip-flop your roll.
- Gain a minor (one-charge) fire-based magick ritual
- Gain a failed notch on the helplessness meter, perhaps reflecting the time you almost drowned (water being the opposite of your significator’s element).
- Subtract 10% from any single Speed skill you already have.
- Modify any non-Soul skill roll by -10% shift if done in the presence of two or more people to represent the player’s lack of self-confidence in front of people.
There is an empathic link between each character’s significator and the King. The King automatically knows when a member of his court has been injured, mentally stricken, or killed, and he can even initiate rudimentary mental contact with the jack through his significator. Similarly, a jack’s significator is a conduit to his King and should never be allowed into enemy hands. Should a jack ever draw a card from another King’s deck (even unwittingly), he loses alignment with his original significator, and the first King will immediately be aware of this act.
As a character gains more power and skill he may be offered a card from the Major Arcana and invited to join the ranks of the King’s close advisors. The King will select this Arcanum card for the PC, based on the skills, tendencies, and personality exhibited by the character. When an jack ascends into the Arcana, he relinquishes his alignment with his Minor Arcanum (though not the effects it grants unto him), and becomes aligned with the new Major Arcanum, which in turn will grant more powerful advantages and disadvantages. Of course, a jack is under no obligation to join the Arcana, though it is highly unlikely that such an offer will be extended twice.
The Land and the King
If one believes the legends, the Fisher King and the Land are one. His tears make rivers swell, his sighs stir the boughs of the trees, his anger manifests as storms, and his spilled blood shakes the earth or causes flower to burst into bloom. Conversely, pollution, erosion, and destruction of the land will sicken its King. But legends often exaggerate the truth, and it could be that Kings are simply exceptionally magical individuals about whom stories are told.
The boundaries of each Kingdom are only vaguely defined and can be interrupted by oceans, mountains, or – most likely – the opposing influence of another Fisher King. Like kings on chessboard, Fisher Kings are naturally repellent to one another. At great distances, rival Kings are merely itches to each other. As their proximity to one another increases, each abrades against the other, resulting in headaches, weariness, nausea, and a diminution of magical powers. Kings take the inverse-square law very seriously.
Nature abhors a vacuum, of course, and new Kings rise to power in the occasional gaps between existing Kings. When a new King emerges, the surrounding Kings might plot his murder in order reduce the magical friction, while others outside his direct zone of influence may support him specifically because he distracts and inhibits his neighbors. Thus, power struggles among Kings are common and their machinations legendary.
A reigning King enjoys good mental and physical health, aside from a never-healing wound of some sort that marks him as the Fisher King, and is greatly protected against most physical assaults. Kings are vulnerable to more extreme attacks, such as poisoning, explosions, or magical strikes. Members of the Court would do well to remember that, despite their strengths, Kings are still human. At their beginning Kings receive no instructions and will make their share of mistakes; in the end, though they live a hundred years in peak health, they, too, will grow old and die; in between, they will suffer the range of human failings, from car trouble to divorce to addiction.
In game terms, the King is an Avatar of the True King archetype. (See UA p. 192.)
The Struggle for the Throne
Anyone powerful enough to slay a reigning King may take his place, although, given the inherent powers of a King and his Arcana, it seems unlikely that someone without magically-heightened abilities could succeed in such an attempt. A reigning Kings may choose to abdicate his throne at any time to a worthy successor — perhaps his own child or a close friend.
Aside from assassination and abdication, there is a third method through which a King can lose his throne. Every 21 years of a King’s reign — that is, once each generation — the Throne of the Fisher King undergoes a process known as Contention, a magical contest in which the King’s enemies vie for the King’s power without having to resort to assassination. A contender may be an active usurper or simply an unknowing pawn thrust into the contest without fully realizing what’s at stake.
There are no hard and fast rules for Contention. It may involve a magical contest (either physical or mental) or it may involve a struggle to possess the King’s crown — not a literal crown, but some item which embodies his Kingship. If the King survives Contention and retains his crown, he is rewarded with greater magical powers. The fate of a failed contender is best not meditated upon.
All bets are off if a King dies without naming a successor or if his crown is destroyed altogether. Perhaps multiple contenders will race for the dead King’s crown; perhaps the surrounding Kings will simply push into the gap; or perhaps a new King will spontaneously appear.
When a person dies, their ghost — an embodiment of their personality, memory, and quirks — becomes a free-floating entity that is part magic, part psychic, and part electromagnetic. People with magically-heightened senses will be able to see ghosts, talk to them — even eat them.
Ghosts are drawn toward manifestations of orderliness and structure, away from the entropy and chaos of their afterlife existence. Ghosts often home in on people or places with which they had some connection in life: their murderer, loved ones, tasks left unfinished, or simply a favorite hangout. Ghosts are rarely intelligent, however, and can be easily confused, repelled, or captured. Simple palindromes or Escher illusions can captivate ghosts for hours, since they often mistake repetitive patterns for the order and design of life.
People can eat ghosts to gain their powers and knowledge, or simply to “catch a buzz.” Ghosts can be eaten simply by inhaling their wispy essence –- a difficult proposition given the magical prowess needed to detect and capture them. Ghost-eaters choose their meals wisely, since they also ingest the ghost’s ego, bad habits, and psychic trauma. When it all goes wrong, the ghost possesses the eater’s body for a time, and when it all goes really wrong, the ghost devours the eater’s psyche altogether.
Magick can be refer either to rituals (see UA chapter 9) or artifacts (some are described in UA chapter 20).
Some example artifacts
- The fabled Lombardy Zeroth deck of Tarot cards is so extremely dangerous that no more than 20 of its cards have been shuffled together into a single deck since it was created.
- The first few U.S. coins minted in 1793 were mis-struck, and they clearly violate the laws of probability when flipped repeatedly – an effect that expands outward to surrounding events.
- Powerful and subtle magicians have fabricated seemingly mundane items that attract serial killers.
- Nikolai Tesla spoke frequently with ghosts using a device he created out of coiled copper wires, chalk, and whiskey.
Some example rituals
- Using a standard Polaroid camera, one can take successive photos of each ejected snapshot, until, eventually, one photo will reveal something sought by the photographer.
- In a bizarre reversal of cause and effect the collective stare of millions of people backward in time to the assassination of JFK has caused something sinister to manifest atop that famous grassy knoll — something which still lurks in the world today.
- According to some legends the 16th-Century English philosopher and occultist John Dee supercharged his own magical abilities by inhaling his own ghost.
(See UA p. 24 for more examples.) Using magic can cause unnatural phenomena to manifest in the vicinity of the effect. (See UA chapter 21.) Caveat mage, of course.