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NCSML’s Mysterious Caravan offers a new way to explore Czech and Slovak history: a tabletop role playing game

Mysterious Caravan RPG

Begins Sunday. Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. -- online at ncsml.org

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Czech castle. Initial artwork by Cory Taylor for Mysterious Caravan. — courtesy of the artist

When Sarah Henderson first started at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library as its associate director of Lifelong Learning, one of her first initiatives was to form a Youth Advisory Council. She believes strongly in the museum’s goal to reach out to patrons of all ages, and, she says, “It’s hard to plan programming for teenagers without their input.”

Five students from the Cedar Rapids area, all now out of high school and past the target demographic, but still participating (“I’m hanging on [to them] until the world’s back to normal,” Henderson said), began meeting on a regular basis to discuss their love of museums and history and to generate engagement ideas.

And they all played Dungeons and Dragons.

“It’s been two years in the making,” Henderson said of Mysterious Caravan, a new tabletop role playing campaign inspired by that initial Youth Advisory Council cohort.

The module starts playtests this weekend, with an 11-week online campaign that kicks off Sunday, Sept. 13. It’s a deeply researched role playing game using historical Czech Republic and Slovakian settings, exploring the terrain and landmarks in that region, and drawing elements from Czech and Slovak folklore to build out the game flavor.

The campaign is being run by Robb Tigan, a former NCSML education associate trainee, who began work on it while employed there and has now been hired as a contract writer and Dungeon Master to complete the adventure, with a goal toward publishing within the next year. Initial research for Mysterious Caravan was conducted by Kaitlin Fischer, another young adult hired a couple of years ago for a summer role, who had an interest in folklore and fantasy.

Tigan, an avid gamer with a writing background, was navigating new waters with this project, which he built using the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ruleset and the Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publishers since 1997) Open Game License as a base.

“My work was entirely focused on setting and storytelling,” Tigan said in an email. “In my research, I didn’t find anything that called out to be its unique mechanic. This is the first thing like this I’ve ever worked on so when in doubt I went the most simple route. I did come up with about 50-ish new monsters inspired by Czech and Slovak mythology using other 5E monsters as templates.”

Tigan brought artist Cory Taylor in on the project when the NCSML decided there should be imagery to accompany an eventual published version of the campaign. The two friends met as teenagers playing the miniature game Heroclix, and currently play together in an ongoing Starfinder game. This project is a new experience for Taylor, as well.

“Robb has introduced me to RPGs within the last 10 years,” Taylor said in an email. “I look at video game art and Magic the Gathering art and whatever other references Robb gives me,” he said of building the world of Mysterious Caravan. “This is definitely not my type of style but I’m trying to come up with different than the typical flashy fantasy art.”

Although the game targets teens (it was first intended, pre-COVID, as part of the in-person Twilight for Teens series), Henderson says the Youth Advisory Council members “were all for it being for all ages.” Henderson is eager for this new way for people to explore not just Czech and Slovak mythology but history and geography — something usually only familiar to those who seek it out specifically.

While many people are aware of the basics of local and even some Western European landmarks, when it comes to places like the Moravian Mountains and similar — “That kind of vocabulary doesn’t really enter the zeitgeist of the average American,” she said.

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There are four slots available in this initial playtest, which will explore levels one through five of Tigan’s campaign. But if interest exceeds capacity, they are open to expanding it or even adding another ongoing group. The currently-planned sessions will run Sundays through Nov. 22, using both Zoom and the easy-to-learn virtual tabletop website Roll20. It’s recommended for ages 13 and up.

And although it likely won’t formally reconvene until it can do so in person, teens interested in learning more about the advisory council are welcome to reach out to Henderson directly at Shenderson@ncsml.org.

“I would never turn down a nerdy high school kid interested in museums,” she said. “That was me!”


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