Home » More Than an Urban Adventure – Campaign in Ravnica, pt. 1

More Than an Urban Adventure – Campaign in Ravnica, pt. 1

I wanted to run RPG campaign in Ravnica almost from the moment I unpacked my first MTG booster. But these things held me back, until now…
I wanted to run RPG campaign in Ravnica almost from the moment I unpacked my first MTG booster. But these things held me back, until now… | Photo by Keszthelyi Timi on Unsplash

I really did love the original Ravnica set for Magic: the Gathering. I wasn’t really connected to any fandom beyond my friends back then but it seems like the setting was a huge fans’ favorite all over the world. When I think about it, the urban fantasy theme is rarely explored in fantasy. Which might add to the setting’s success. At the same time, Ravnica’s notion of rivaling factions emphasizes the urban (i.e., civilized) aspect of the world. It helps to picture the plane as an actual, inhabited place. Yet, I had a problem with this evocative setting. I wanted to run an RPG campaign in Ravnica almost from the moment I unpacked my first MTG booster. But how to include all that brilliant flavor in the game while retaining the urban nature of the game? This post (and its continuation, as it grew while I wrote it) will cover mostly the various issues that I found keeping me from running the Ravnica campaign. I’ll leave them without an answer… for now. But they eventually sparked my imagination so maybe they will spark yours too?

The Shallow Waters and Quicksands of Campaign Design in Ravnica

First of all: the original setting as depicted in the Ravnica block for Magic: the Gathering is a bit tricky. I mean it’s VERY inspiring and attractive. The artwork, game mechanics, and lore all appeal to the imagination very vividly. But when I tried to explore them for an RPG story idea, I repeatedly hit the shallow. What is a great background for a game about wizards magically dueling isn’t necessarily as good for role-playing.

The Guilds Are (NOT) All That Matters

First of all, you need a certain level of detail to come up with a plausible story. And to let the players impersonate their characters. You can’t role-play someone whose life has nothing more to it than being a member of a guild. There are a lot of quiet assumptions we make about all the RPG campaign settings that are absent in the Ravnica as it is presented in MTG. You can probably imagine a daily life of a fantasy commoner, noble, or soldier – or their counterparts in a Sci-Fi world. The little things like what do they eat, where do they get that from, who their relatives are, and how do they work – all those are what matter in visualizing the game-world. Without a reliable idea of such things, you find it hard to put any scene, character or action in any context.

For example, assume I wanted to build an adventure around an intrigue inside a guild like Orzhov or maybe Simic. I’ve got these enticing images of guild’s important figures in ornamented robes, grand guildhalls etc. But what do all the characters do after their workday? If my players wanted to spy on them – where should they go? What’s valuable to a given guild member on a personal level? In an image, they look good with all of their guild’s attributes. Yet, if I was to role-play them, what would motivate them, and what would set them apart from all the other Simic or Orzhov NPCs? What makes a given researcher or priest plot against another? These are all the questions that require more than a superficial context.

Trapped Within an Image

Corresponding to the above is an issue with strong-appealing images. For a setting such rich in inspirational themes as Ravnica, there’s a risk of getting stuck within a too narrow concept. Since we have little knowledge about the basic, most mundane level of Ravnica’s life, designing an adventure around a specific seed image or scene may lead to a trap. When I don’t know how the scene’s elements connect to the bigger scale – like an Izzet experiment breaking out of control – I tend to figure it all out on my own. And that may be a very complicated and time-consuming process. Sometimes it’s just what building an adventure is – making up story elements and connections between them. But sometimes – and I’ve found it more than a few times when trying my hand at a Ravnica campaign- it turns into a massive, daunting challenge of world-building. One that is too demanding to keep at it.

Ravnica’s Civilization, Law and Society – a Background or an Obstacle for a Good Campaign?

Another part that has to do with the Ravnica setting is its ubiquitous civilization. I know that it’s not literally everywhere (Rubblebelt, Undercity, etc.) But nevertheless, even those remote parts are surrounded by civilization. And they are shaped by it and in the relationship to it. Rubblebelt is mostly ruins of destroyed/abandoned buildings. It’s not a primeval or natural environment. Undercity is even less uncivilized. It’s a maze of artificially built tunnels, abandoned city layers, and so on. But it’s not these parts that complicate things.

Drive for Conflict – Order and Chaos

Usually, in RPGs, you have this conflict of civilization vs chaos. Or wilderness. In other words, some destructive, uncontrollable force(s) encroach upon the “points of light”. Which means the places where the characters live. Sometimes, things turn around a bit. That untamed wilderness is a place rich in resources – artifacts, gold, lost knowledge, renown, and experience. But PCs still have to conquer it. They face challenges and overcome them. Because the “chaos” doesn’t want to share them willingly. In Ravnica, even that chaos – Gruul Clans, Cult of Rakdos, or Izzet experiments – is a part of a civilization. Moreover, all these forces are bound by a pact, an expression of law. So it requires more thought to get a working adventure idea – and for a whole campaign, that’s even more tricky.

Life Must Go On

Beyond that “Guildpact contradiction” even, there’s still a lot of structured, organized life. Or at least the mundane, daily life has to be ordered in a way to even form a city. A state of constant anarchy isn’t what makes a plane-wide city sustain for millennia. Of course, the breakings of such order are great adventure material for Ravnica – not a campaign, however. And yet, the order has to exist first so it could be endangered and defended. And that poses a big question of how the various actions – both by PCs and guilds or independent NPCs – play out in such a system? Sure, Izzet and Simic may do their experiments, but something has to control them, or they eventually destroy everything. Cult of Rakdos may worship their demonic lord, but if they manage to free him, what would become of the city? And Dimir – for whom they conduct their operation, who benefits from their espionage?

So some of the guilds’ goals seemingly get in the way of the Ravnica’s life, making it difficult for me to design adventures. Because on the other hand, the guilds are somehow ubiquitous. They are what make up the setting. And if they, in fact, are ubiquitous, how do the people even live in such a place? I mean with demonic cults, necromancy, and untamed beasts or elementals running wild all around? It either seems little “urban” or some of these ask for tweaking.

See you in a while!

This list grew and grew when I was writing this post. In fact, I’ve pondered the campaign in Ravnica. And I know I haven’t answered most of the doubts I listed. I’ll finish the list first and answer all doubts with one clean cut later. So, keep your eye on the blog!

Meanwhile, I’m designing my dream campaign and making notes for the future series. I think it’ll be a bit different from my usual session reports-based ones. But that’s also yet to be settled.

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