Yesterday, about 5 hours before my weekly one-shot group got together, we all realized no one had volunteered to GM that day. Throwing out ideas quickly, I said "I could run pirate-themed wushu."
My day was a little busy, so I didn't have much time to prepare. I didn't think it'd be a problem, because I'd written a little 7th Sea / Wushu hybrid adventure several months back. Or so I thought. I hunted and couldn't find it in my notebook, on my computer, or on my blog. Luckily, it was wushu, so I didn't worry. I figured I'd just put the PCs on a ship, have pirates attack, and improvise from there.
I spent the rest of my limited prep time grabbing some props. I grabbed a few painted minis from roughly the right era (there's not nearly as many pirate minis out there as you might expect), and a few of the little Pirates of the Spanish Main ships. Wushu isn't the sort of game where minis are needed, but I wanted them on-hand in case it was ever unclear where things were.
I also brought a gaudy piece of costume jewelry from one of my wife's old halloween costumes. The pirates would attack to get this family heirloom of one of the PCs. I figured the large amber-colored glass "gem" in the middle of it could be a lens for reading the hidden code on a treasure map or something. PCs have tons of narrative power in Wushu, so I didn't really want to plan out too much.
During character creation, it was bandied about that the PCs might be Pirates, so while they hashed that out, I started thinking that I'd need to jazz up the game a bit. I decided the villains would be creepy supernatural pirates, so that even if the PCs chose to be pirates I'd still be able to have an evil villain. I mentioned that I'd nearly run 7th Sea, and that I'd be okay with PCs having magic, as long as it was flavorful magic.
The PCs ended up not being pirates afterall*, but by then I was already excited about the potential of my supernatural baddies. I didn't want to just go with skeleton/zombie pirates - that's too mundane. So I decided to fixate on the term "crow's nest". I decided the villains were evil crows that pluck out men's eyes. It was sort of a riff on vampirism - if your eyes were plucked out, you became an evil pirate who could turn into a murder of crows. Your pirate form would be blind, because it had no eyes, but being able to turn into big flock of birds had some fun possibilities.
Shortly into the session, I had the Crow's vessel appear on the horizon and start chasing them. I said it was a chase scene, and treated it like Mooks. PCs could take actions to sail off or fight, and either would reduce the Threat Rating. I expected more of a chase, but it turned into a fight, which was fine by me. When a player eliminated the last of the Threat Rating, she narrated that the Crow ship was on fire and burning and turned away, but two more ships were now on the horizon.
There was a groan across the table. No one veto'd, but it was clear that 3 out of 4 players had had enough ship-to-ship combat for the moment, and weren't looking forward to fighting two more boats. Since no one reacted in-character, I took the reigns and identified the two new ships as English pirate-hunters who'd been chasing the Crow-pirates. To apply a bit of foreshadowing or tension or whatever, I had the pirate-hunters say the Crow-pirates had hit several ports, every place the PCs ship had stopped to resupply in the past two months of voyaging. Players instantly made the connection that the Pirates had been chasing them for a long time, and I think that everyone had figured out (at least out-of-character) it had something to do with the gaudy jewelry prop.
Around this time, one of the PCs narrated the "land ho!" They moored at an unexplored island for a day or so to make repairs to the ship.
One of the PCs had a fancy (almost steam-punk) spyglass he'd been using, and had "Student of the Sciences" as one of his traits, so I told him he could see an ancient temple in the jungle. I was picturing some stone ziggurat or aztec-y temple, but my actual description was foolishly vague. Next thing I know, the PCs had described it's a Greek Temple, meaning that the Classical Ancients were actually a world-wide power. Thanks to wushu's Principle of Narrative Truth, that's what it was. I could work with that, it was an idea with merit.
The PCs narrated they started hacking at the underbrush, cutting a path to the Greek Temple. So I improvised wildly. The underbrush was populated by Dryads, who were being harmed by the chopping. So one cries out in Greek "Father, avenge us against those who butcher us!" That's when Pan (or at least a Satyr) shows up. It ended up being a pretty cool fight, but kinda weird. The PCs were against a Satyr, Dryads, animated trees, and the tropical flying squirrels that Pan's pipes had whipped up into a frenzy. At an opportune moment I had the Satyr point at the gaudy family heirloom (with it's huge amber gemstone) one PC was wearing, and shout out "They have the Eye of Demeter!"
As that fight was winding down, one of the PCs narrates that the Crows are flying in again. Unfortunately, on the Satyr's last action, he and one of the other PCs killed each other. I'm now down one PC, with an hour left in the one shot, and no convenient place for a new PC to come from. So, I have the crows land and pluck the eyes from the PCs corpse. He arises as a blind Crow-pirate, but not yet turned evil. There's some negotiation, and the Crows decide not to attack the PCs this time. They explain to the newly "crowed" PC that they're trying to get the Eye of Demeter, because only it can open the temple, where the Golden Fleece is contained. Only the Fleece can return their humanity.
The PCs head up to the temple, and rather than being locked in some way, they describe it as pretty airy and open, but there's a statue of a goddess with one amber eye and one empty eyesocket. Rather than insert the family heirloom into the statue, though, one of the PCs steals the other eye!
Desecrating a statue in a temple on a heavily-supernatural island seems pretty crazy to me, and needed to have consequences. I'd said Eye of Demeter on a improvisational lark, but sadly Demeter is a Goddesses I don't know jack about. Rather than worry about that, I just decide it's an older pre-myceanean form of Demeter lost to the mists of history. So the goddess that shows up is a naked-breasted snake-wielding bull-dancing Minoan goddess. That seemed to be historical enough for people to grok it, but unusually cool enough no one would quibble over cultural accuracy.
We were running short on time, so the battle was perhaps not as epic as I would have liked. Devon was playing the youngest of the PCs. Her character was a teenage urchin boy, who'd never seen a topless woman before. So instead of helping fight the Goddess, Devon's character tried to placate her. The urchin stole the family heirloom from the other PCs and gave it to the Goddess. She said "It's been centuries since the villagers gave me a virgin sacrifice," and that was pretty much that. Fade to black.
I'd gone in expecting a pirate story, perhaps with some minor supernatural elements, and instead ended up with high-fantasy alternate history in which pirates were only a very minor background theme. We didn't really use the minis (ships or people) at all, either. So nothing at all like I'd planned, yet it was a lot of fun.
*: Well, most of the PCs weren't pirates, anyway. Erik's PC, semi-retired, drubbed-out-of-the-navy "Uncle Evilbeard" was pretty piratical. I should add that "Uncle Evilbeard" is probably the coolest character name I've heard in a long time. It captured the heart of his character perfectly, and defined the tone of the game more than any other detail in the initial set-up. Well done, Erik!