Ysaria III: A Tale of Pirate Dwarves, Black Wizardry and Hangover Cures

As I mentioned last year when I first larped, someone had floated the idea that in order to get me to try larping, they would draft Juhana Pettersson to kidnap me in a van and drive me to Ysaria III.

The thing about that is that it’s what we call a credible threat. This is the man who wrote an article titled “The Joy of Kidnapping” for State of Play. I have played with him, and he’s good at projecting an aura of quiet menace. Opposing the stick of Juhana, there was the carrot that all people named Jukka received a discount on the game fee.

Sensing that there was no way out of this, I resigned to my fate, received my character (a total of 18 pages of documentation), and found myself last Friday sitting in a completely different van with a rottweiler on my lap, headed to the west coast of Finland, in a state of mounting terror.

To get into the proper mood, I recommend that you play “Legenda taikamiekasta” by Heavy Metal Perse in the background while reading.

Those of you who cannot understand the Finnish lyrics will have to settle for Rhapsody’s “Emerald Sword”.

Setting the Stage

Ysaria (translates roughly as Ninetisia) was a parody game. Specifically, it was a parody of the clichés and themes of 90’s fantasy larps. Heavy Dragonlance influences, elves, dwarves, the whole Tolkien/D&D kit and kaboodle, high drama and always at least one player wearing sneakers. Obviously I never larped back then, but a lot of that stuff is universal. Of course, modern popular culture was also referenced. Indeed, one event I witnessed during the game was a duel challenge issued with the words: “My name is Caelthalas! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Me, I played the pirate dwarf Captain Brungrus the Bottomless, formerly of the good ship Venture. I had close to two feet of beard crepe glued to my face and a remarkably large hat. Brungrus was a greedy drunkard even by the standards of pirate dwarves, a breed not known for either sobriety or charity. He was a bullshitter, a cheat and a liar, and a bluffer. Not much of a fighter, though we all enough carried axes, swords and pistols for a regiment. His ship had sunk under mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk at the time and the only survivor), leading to him becoming stranded on a deserted island with a mermaid princess named Nerida. From there, they were rescued by fellow pirate dwarf Captain Dargon Blackbeard and his submersible Fireball IV.

The game was set during diplomatic negotiations in the tavern of the Drunken Dragon on the island of Jesaria between the free peoples of the world on how to deal with the impending apocalypse of the seas rising and drinking the lands of Ysaria, Generia and Ulinor. Global warming, you know. So there were people from the courts of those lands, the local druids and dryads (With whom we had some history, on account of Captain Dargor smoking in bed the last time we’d been at Jesaria and accidentally burning down the Forest of Whispers. The party line was of course that we didn’t do it and it was an accident anyway.), the goblins (who were actually really smart and philosophical and brewed a moonshine with roughly the same effects as LSD), a couple of adventuring parties, the Black Wizards, and two crews of elven pirates, whose princess was Dargon’s onetime lover. The rest of them turned out to be cultists, and not our kind of cultists either. (Some of Fireball’s crew had a theologically colourful history. In the words of Able Seaman Dammot Sea Serpent: “It was a really good sex cult!”) There was also some kind of good-aligned cult in there, I think, but I didn’t really catch what they were about. The pirates mostly there to carouse, engage in casual larceny, and find the hidden treasure of the Druid King. We did have a certain vested interest in stopping the seas from rising as well, since coastal cities and the resulting shipping industry have a certain relevance to the pirate way of life.

One member of our valiant crew was played by a Dane who spoke no Finnish, so I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream and play a dwarf with a fake Scottish accent.

The following is my subjective perception of what occurred and is coloured by misunderstanding, lack of all available facts, and my poor memory. The chronology of events likely doesn’t jive and material has been omitted in order to keep this at a manageable length. It should not be taken as ultimate truth.

Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

At the start of the game, we had just disembarked and concealed Fireball IV, and immediately came upon a dying mermaid on the shore. She spouted off a mystical prophecy that we committed to memory on the off chance that it might lead to money (prophet, profit, all the same) and promptly croaked. She had no treasure, but mermaid tears are apparently a potent hangover cure so we got at least that out of it.

We made our way to the tavern after that and made a lot of noise about booze. We did come prepared, though. I had two hipflasks myself, one under my hat and the other hanging around my neck. While the game itself was nonalcoholic, the characters included the crews of three pirate ships and a small tribe of goblins and were therefore functional alcoholics, so a variety of props were deployed. I used kvass, which was a stupid idea since the stuff is carbonated and carbonated drinks and hipflasks do not mix. Neither of them was destroyed, but I did have to force one of them back into shape.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Once drinks were received, we got down to business. One of the big moments of the larp for me came early on when Captain Dargon and the pirate elf princess Adien’thalee fought a duel in the tavern’s common room. There was shouting, dramatics, wrestling, badass boasting, swordplay, guns, and tableware. (There were latex tankards that could be used for drinking or brawling!) It was the kind of show that doesn’t get put on without rehearsing the choreography, but damn it looked great. There was drama and tension, even though at the back of my mind there was the understanding that nobody is going to get killed forty-five minutes into an eight-hour larp.

The combat rules, incidentally, ran on a system of common sense, gentleman’s agreement and sportsmanship. You get hit, you react appropriately. The recipient of the hit decides how badly they are hurt. It was also generally agreed that being shot with a gun would first take out your hat. Combat was for creating problems, not solving them, more or less. I frequently had my weapons out, either to threaten or to defend, but never actually fought.

I received a plot coupon early on in the game. The Postal Gnome brought me a letter from the insurance company, saying that I must fill in their forms before they can consider paying my insurance for the good ship Venture. Obviously, the truth wouldn’t fly, so some creativity was needed. In addition, there was a clause for an extra 8% if I could prove I had a family to support. We quickly agreed with Princess Nerida that it was best if we married quickly. We didn’t have any priests around, but hey, a sea captain can perform a marriage ceremony, right?

All this took some time, though, since we also had a treasure to hunt. We ran from waypoint to another, faced down an undead mermaid, and later a horny goblin who had to be… satisfied.

Another rules aside: sex in the game was simulated by waggling your hands next to your head, not unlike in the choreography of Caramelldansen, and singing a song of your choosing. The song and its style would reflect the style of the act (rough, passionate, “I’m just doing my job”) and the singer’s skill would reflect if it was any good. Of all the sex mechanics I have seen in various role-playing games, both tabletop and live action, I must say that this is my favourite. I am also in favour of any games mechanic that makes the players sing.

Anyway, we finally discovered the location of the treasure, managed to breach the magical wards by some minor blood sacrifice, and laid our hands on a magical rock, some centaur blood, and a magical crown that allowed its wearer to control the waves. The usefulness in combating rising sea levels is obvious. Of course, Dargon wanted it, Princess Nerida wanted it, some evil pirate elf person wanted it, and Princess Adien’thalee wanted it. A Mexican standoff resulted, only broken once the druids and dryads showed up and we decided to retreat. It was apparently the grave of the Druid King that we just robbed.

Them druids… there was already bad blood between us and them, because of the Forest of Whispers thing and because the mast of one of the elven ships used to be a dryad. One of them, Aeron Oakenbough, was a warrior, and wielded the Sword of the Druid King, or something. “Legenda taikamiekasta” (“The Legend of the Magic Sword”) was basically his theme song. Apparently we’d burned down his dryad along with the forest, and he was kinda pissed. He had been forbidden from killing us (“Lad, if you want to threaten someone, don’t tell them you’re not allowed to do anything to them.”), but I think that got waived when we looted the tomb.

What followed was this sort of running argument/retreat between us and the druids and dryads with lots of threatening and arguing that was frankly getting bogged down. In a tabletop game, it would’ve been open combat in thirty seconds flat, here it was just a load of sabre-rattling. Nerida, me and some druidy type who wanted to see the ocean snuck off and left them to it. There was lunch.

Lunch was hard. I got interrupted three times while I was eating, twice by a demon and once finally when Aeron attacked Nerida outside the tavern and yoinked the crown. Later, we also had to give up the rock.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Another stated goal we had was to nick a barrel of the famous mead of the Drunken Dragon. The druids were carrying around a barrel, so naturally we assumed that was it. So, as night was already falling and the game nearing its end, Nerida, me and First Mate Glint Goldfist snuck upon the two druids guarding it. Glint knocked them out cold (“KNOCK-OUT! KNOCK-OUT!”), and I grabbed the barrel and hoofed it to where we’d left the submarine. Some dryads had laid a curse on it to prevent it from leaving, but he Captain said he had a solution for that.

Then, five minutes later, some head druid person shows up and tells them it’s not booze, it’s his cursed wife, and he’d like it if we returned it.

So we did. There’s not much you can say to that. (Except “Is every godsdamned thing on this island cursed!? Cursed ships! Cursed weaponsmasters! Cursed rocks! Cursed booze! I hate this place!”)

Every damn thing we stole had to be returned. I’m pretty sure that the only crime our crew managed to successfully commit was Nerida’s and my insurance fraud, because despite the squiggles and winged unicorns the insurance company accepted the explanation, and we got not only the extra 8% but also a honeymoon trip to the city of Ironia.

In the end, negotiations had broken down and Captain made the call that we were leaving. At this point he was also accepting everyone else on board who could pay with something and felt like staying in Jesaria was a poor idea. I think we ended up with most of the state treasury of either Generia or Ysaria, at least one Black Wizard, possibly a kender, the goblin leader, and various other individuals of questionable reputation and a loose attitude about personal property. Captain Dargon unleashed a one-trick bottled genie to dispel the curse on Fireball IV, and off we went, firing our torpedoes at the damn island on our way out of sheer spite.

In real life, at this point we were standing in the woods on the beach, behind a shed, making submarine engine sounds. Ironically, there was a demon-summoning circle there that had been propped by the GMs, but the Black Wizards were using something they’d made themselves at a more central location. The Black Wizards using a demon-summoning circle was also on of the reasons why getting the hell out of Dodge was a Good Idea.

As it turned out, we made it just in time, because at this point hideous screaming started at the tavern, followed by equally hideous cackling laughter. Demons. Bad mojo.

Then the game ended.

What I Took Home from All This

Of course, getting off the island when the world was about to end was not too useful in the long run. Our final fate was never set in stone, but there were some remarks in the final debrief about the seas turning to fire once the Demon Prince showed up. Poor Captain Brungrus never made it to Ironia. I actually miss playing him, and a couple of days after the larp went through a similar process as after a convention. I am given to understand that this is called the Post-Larp Depression.

Since most of my gaming nowadays is Pathfinder Society, I found myself frequently falling into the goal-oriented D&D mindset, which was good for getting an extra 8% and the title of Prince-Captain, but less so for drama. The instruction at the beginning of the game was “play to lose”. Impulsive people making poor decisions make for better drama than rational professionals approaching problem-solving in a structured and logical fashion, and if you’re only playing the character for this one afternoon, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if he dies ignominiously in the third act. I was also running my mouth far less than I probably should have, Captain Brungrus being written as a loudmouth. That was not the hat of a quiet person, either. Something I need to work on. One of the reasons I play games other than Pathfinder is to get a different play experience and it’s no good if I bring the playstyle with me to other games. Well, you live and learn.

Also, it was far easier to play a drunken character last year when I was actually drunk. This time, I took notes from a Simon Pegg interview about filming The World’s End (appropriate!), but I’m not entirely sure how I carried it. Then, if professional actors think it’s hard…

Okay, it was still a very different playing experience. Like I said, I never engaged in combat. There was also the obvious lack of dice thing, and the rules operating on common sense and sportsmanship, and working. There’s no off-game. There’s also the aspect that time advances on a 1:1 pace with reality and there’s no cutting away into the next scene (some other larps use narrative meta-techniques for this). A lot of time was spent simply hanging out at the tavern, in-character, and especially in the running argument with the druids about the crown, some bogging down could be observed when nobody was willing to escalate things into open violence.

One thing I clearly did right was in stealing the barrel, because one of the kitchen crew mentioned to me after the game that he’d broken down laughing when he saw me sneaking off with it towards the beach, trying to look inconspicuous in a most conspicuous fashion. That hat was not designed for sneaky.

My only real regret is that we never had a proper tavern brawl with the elven pirates.

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Adventures in Forum Gaming

I wrapped up my first play-by-post Pathfinder RPG scenario last week. I ran it on our Finnish Pathfinder Society forum, as a sort of an experiment on whether it can be done and to figure out how it works. The module I used was The Frostfur Captives, by Jim Groves. It’s a pretty good module, but that’s not the main point of this text. You may consider it a companion piece to this post from 2008.

First things first: yes, we finished it. Forum games are fragile things and die easily. They don’t require a great deal of time or commitment as such, but they make their demands on a daily basis. The Frostfur Captives took us 93 days, with six players and a GM. There were some quieter spells at some points, especially when I lost steam in mid-March, and during my trip to Berlin in April. No players dropped out, though. Overall, I deem the experiment a success.

Of course, the play-by-post format imposes certain limitations on the practical side of the game. All rolls were handled by me. Some I rolled by hand, some on a dicebot on our IRC channel, depending on where I was at the time of posting and whether the roll was such that the players could know about it—e.g. Perception rolls to detect an ambush would be rolled in secret while the initiative rolls when the ambush gets sprung are public.

Similarly, not all information was public for all players. We utilized the private messaging system of the forum extensively, especially when characters executed their secret faction missions. After complaints by one player, the decision was also made to shift information on the health of a fallen player character to private messages. They were also used to communicate ahead of time what the characters would do on their combat turns.

Another important thing is that there’s no battlemap. While there are various ways I could execute it, they’re all rather work-intensive and anyway, as one of my players pointed out, the lack of a battlemap reduces gamist thinking. I give descriptions of the environment and list distances and directions. It is up to the players to interpret them accurately. Of course, I have a notepad with an accurate battlemap that I use to keep track of where everybody is.

We host character sheets on the Mekanismi wiki, with the rest of our local Pathfinder Society stuff. Usually the character sheets are public. One of the players likes to have his sheet behind a password, but I had access to that one as well. It’s pretty much mandatory to have the sheets somewhere online for a game like this, so I can update the game on my mobile phone from a café, if need be.

We had two separate forum threads for the game. Primarily, there was the in-character thread where the gaming action occurred, and secondarily the out-of-character thread, where people asked questions, commented, had arguments about differing playstyles, and complained about the leisurely pace.

PFS scenarios are organized into several acts and the action usually flows logically from one act to another. In some of the more sandboxy scenarios, the middle acts can sometimes overlap or be played in a different order from the one presented, but The Frostfur Captives is about taking a bunch of goblin prisoners from Point A to Point B, through intermediate points, wherein lay encounters and challenges. I opened each act with a longer, very descriptive post, sometimes utilizing art and always including a YouTube link to an appropriate piece of music. For this scenario, I drew from the soundtracks of the games Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II, since they do an excellent job of evoking the kind of cold, wild desolation that I envision Irrisen to be.

I think the act structure and the fact that there’s a clear endpoint to the game in sight is a contributing factor to the game’s success. Everyone is working towards a goal and, for the most part, will have an idea of what they should accomplish next. The action keeps going and it’s pretty much never dependent on a single player to make a move. If someone falls silent when their character is called upon to act, I can allow them a day or two to react and then just coldly skip them. This has been an issue with many forum games that I’ve seen. To my shame and regret, I’ve pretty much killed one last year by falling silent, and I was a mere player.

The scenario chronicle sheets were printed out, filled by me, and then scanned and mailed to the players as .jpg files after the game.

The forum game differed from tabletop sessions by its tone. The written medium forces people to consider how they express themselves more carefully than they would in a face-to-face situation. OOC banter is also entirely absent. The result is that the game moves closer to an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Of course, each participant has their own idea of what the style of the game is and the characters can be a very strange bunch. For instance, the party in my game included two sorcerers. One of them was Black Annis, a very dark sorcerer character from the far north, whose player was essentially running her as a Vampire: The Masquerade character, and the other was Gnublebum Rikikii, a whimsical gnome with an affinity for goblins. It’s a challenge for the participants to reconcile such disparate characters and the story of the adventure itself into a cohesive whole. Unlike a regular tabletop gaming session, a forum game is not ephemeral but is preserved for posterity, even if some of the events that transpired are visible only to me and the player in question, in our forum mailboxes.

I’ve now seen how a journey module works online, and I think it worked pretty well. My next project is Mists of Mwangi, which is closer to a traditional dungeon crawl. I am interested in seeing how it works on a forum.

Incidentally, the game is now accepting players. It will be played in Finnish, I estimate the timeframe to be around three months, and will be played at Tier 1-2. The signup thread is here.

Hearts in Azlant

For quite a while now, I’ve felt like my Serpent’s Skull campaign is in danger of stalling. For ten sessions, the campaign explored the same damned ruins, which didn’t provide a sense of accomplishing anything, and I struggled with keeping things rolling. In general, the third and fourth books of the campaign, The City of Seven Spears and Vaults of Madness leave a lot to be desired. However, at the end of – by the way, here there be SPOILERSVaults of Madness, there is something remarkable, which I felt was worth salvaging and if properly executed, could renew flagging interest in the campaign.

The module culminates in the arrival of Ruthazek, the Silverback King of Usaro and Chosen Son of Angazhan in the ruined city of Saventh-Yhi, with his court of all kinds of ape monsters. He wishes to test the PCs and invites them to dine with him. The menu is written by someone who obviously appreciates Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

This is actually a repeated phenomenon in Pathfinder modules. At least Feast of Ravenmoor and Forest of Spirits feature similar scenes. While I would describe them as “postcolonially suspicious” (except for Feast of Ravenmoor, where they’re just hicks), I’ve managed to silence my inner critic because they make for awesome gaming.

Anyway, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to do something that will make the players sit up and pay attention. I decided to cook. Here’s the menu as it is described in the module:

The feast begins with fresh monkey brains and a bloody soup of eyeballs and wild onions. This is followed by raw hippo slab steaks with blood sweat sauce, along with a side of pan-seared botfly larvae glazed in honey. The final course is a rare treat of ice-chilled vegepygmy pulp seasoned with cinnamon and roasted coffee beans. Prodigious amounts of sour plantain wine are served throughout the feast.

Since vegepygmies are out of season and I think there might be some legal issues with the hippo slab steaks, I decided to chuck the menu. Instead, I went with something affordable, legal, and most importantly, unusual and weird.

Pig hearts.

For the actual content of the session, the module detailed a storytelling contest. I took this idea, and at a friend’s suggestion, applied Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” (read it, it’s a classic). The story told by Ruthazek the Gorilla King was a mangled version of Macbeth. I didn’t have as much time to prepare for this as I needed (most of my Saturday, for instance, was spent proofreading State of Play, an upcoming collection of larp articles), and the end result was a bit sloppy. I think I still managed to convey the Gorilla King’s worldview through it, though. Overall, the session was pretty much the heaviest in in-character discussion and roleplaying that I’ve ever had with the group. I deem my experiment a success.

Also, their faces when I brought the bowl to the table and pulled back the tin foil, while saying “I wish you heartily welcome to my table” as the Gorilla King. I played the character as one part Brian Blessed, one part Thulsa Doom and one part Hannibal Lecter. In addition to heart, I chewed quite a bit of scenery. Great session. I ended it with the Gorilla King handing the party the final macguffin (skipping the last dungeon crawl of the module).

Due to popular demand, I will now tell my secret recipe for cooking hearts.

Actually, there’s no secret and it’s pretty damn easy. I’m not what you’d call a remarkable cook. However, I googled “stuffed heart recipe”, found a bunch, read them, and then used them and the contents of my larder as a starting point for my recipe. The cooking times were the big one I wondered about. The heart is the densest muscle in the body and you need to take your time with it. I’d previously used heart in haggis, but never cooked a whole one.

Hearts in Azlant

3 pig hearts
2 onions
1 l beef stock (Or something like that. I just went with bouillon cubes.)
200 g of bacon
half a garlic bulb
handful of jalapeno
2 tbsp sun-dried tomato in garlic oil (Just something I happened to have lying around and decided to throw in on a lark.)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp basil
1 tsp chili powder
½ tsp nutmeg
needle and thread

Wash the hearts thoroughly in cold water, taking care to remove any blood clots. Also, if they’re whole, cut them open. You may also wish to trim away the major blood vessels from within the heart, but leave the tubes up top untouched. They’re pretty much inedible, but they make the hearts look like, well, hearts instead of just any old piece of flesh. You might wish to warm up the oven now. I went with 175°C.

Chop up the onions, bacon and jalapeno. Crush the garlic. Lightly fry it all in a pan. Add the spices, set aside to cool. This is a good moment to boil up the bouillon cubes or warm the beef stock or whatever.

Once the bacon-onion-whatever is cool enough to handle, stuff the hearts with it. I found it easiest to first stuff any snug chambers that were still more or less whole, then sew up the heart halfway through and stuff the “main” chamber. Then, sew the rest of it up. Put them in a bowl, pour in the broth. You can pretty well drown the hearts in it. The cooking time has to be fairly long because of their density, and they dry up easily. It’s a good idea to check on them every hour or so and see that they’re not mummifying. Anyway, slam them in the oven and go do something constructive for about three hours. After the time has elapsed, they should be cooked through and through to a succulent consistency. Remove hearts from the oven, put them on a plate, pour on the red wine sauce. Have a camera ready to capture the shocked expressions of your players. Unfortunately, I did not, but I shall cherish the memory of their faces for a long time.

It was delicious. I also contemplated putting a tin of button mushrooms in the stuffing, but then forgot about it. If I ever make this stuff again, I’ll try that.

Pretty Ordinary Red Wine Sauce

3 dl beef stock (Or something like that. I just went with a bouillon cube.)
1 dl red wine (I used Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon, which is affordable, Chilean, and worked marvellously.)
half an onion (Or one small one, which is what I did. Don’t need the other half lounging about in my fridge.)
2 tbsp sugar
a pinch of rosemary or thyme
if needed, 1.5 tbsp cornflour to use as a thickening agent (I needed it.)
1 tbsp soy sauce

Make the broth. Add the wine, the chopped onion and the rosemary (or thyme – I went with rosemary). Let simmer for about 20 minutes. Sieve away the onion pieces and other crap. Also clean them from the pot before pouring the sauce back in it. If it’s not thick enough, use the cornflour. (Which must first be dissolved in cold water – pouring it in the hot sauce will only get you a lot of white chunks. This has been empirically tested because I couldn’t be arsed to read what it says on the package.) Add the soy.

Pour over hearts.

Also, red wine stains on character sheets just mean you’re playing a better class of game.

Rise of the Runelords – An Autopsy of a Campaign

It took us 29 sessions and a ruleset change over the period of 19 months and 20 days. It cost the characters 13 months and six days and two party members, but finally, last night, we played the final session of our Rise of the Runelords campaign. Karzoug the Claimer, the Runelord of Greed, was defeated, and despite things looking grim, the only casualty on the heroes’ side was the druid’s wolf animal companion.

It was quite a ride, and we had great fun. Of course, some sessions – and some of the adventures – were better than others. Still, no session truly sucked and some of them were the best sessions I’ve run. I’ll be reviewing the modules themselves in a few later posts, but now, I will just bask in the afterglow. It is not often that I get to actually finish a campaign – most of them just sort of taper off after a while and get forgotten. Actually, I can think of only a handful of campaigns I’ve been in that had a proper ending. I think the adventure path format is great for this – you have a beginning and an ending, which provides a framework for the campaign and a definite goal and endpoint to strive for. It’s somehow very motivating.

Incidentally, this post will contain craploads of SPOILERS for the campaign. If you are playing or intend to play it, find something better to read – and heck, you may not even get all that much out of it unless you’re at least passingly familiar with the campaign already. There are links to my archives and other interesting blogs on the right, for instance – such as Blue_Hill’s Never Play Poker with the GM. I feel I must thank Blue_Hill here, because he created Pathfinder conversions for the major NPCs in Sins of the Saviors, which were a great boon to me. So, thank you. Here’s my Karzoug conversion (complete with comments to track the math).

I posted here about starting the campaign back in late March 2009 and it kicked off back in April of 2009. Then I sorta forgot about it, and the next session wasn’t played until the next September. From then on, though, the campaign rumbled on steadily, with one to five games per month, except in December and during the summer months when we spread out from Tampere to our hometowns. I kept a campaign website (mostly in Finnish) at the Mekanismi wiki, where it will now be archived. It’s currently not entirely finished and I still haven’t written all the session reports (some of which veer into the territory of bad Salvatore pastiche), but in the end, I hope to see all the character pages updated to reflect the PCs at the end of the campaign, with details their exploits after the end of the campaign and a general aftermath of the campaign, and the events in Varisia after the fall of Karzoug, the deaths of so many powerful individuals and the emergence of Fort Rannick as a strong and aggressive frontier stronghold. I’m sorta conceiving all my Pathfinder campaigns as occurring in the same timeline, though for the most part, they’ve occurred far enough from one another that it’s barely relevant.

The Heroes

Our group was five strong, with one player only joining in at the start of the third session.

Michiell “Dawn” Grellson

The group’s sarcastic priest of Sarenrae, and by far the wisest of the lot. The de facto leader of the group, who most often took the initiative to steer the party in the right direction. Wielded the bastard sword Madrigal, taken from the slain villain Nualia at the end of the first module and since then modified, re-enchanted, renamed and improved, but still tremendously nasty-looking. Dawn is big on turning the weapons of evil against itself, but the most effective weapon he really wielded was the party of four other heroes whom he kept pointed at the right direction and patched up. Dawn was actually a late addition to the group, brought by Sheriff Belor Hemlock from Magnimar as part of the town guard reinforcements, but joined the party to hunt down Nualia after she killed Niero Brandt, the party’s rogue, an old friend of Dawn’s, and the player’s previous character. He used to have a bushy beard, but shaved it after it grew back patchy, when the pick of the stone giant Teraktinus tore open his face.

Sir Gelrick of Magnimar

That’s actually Baron Gelrick of Rannick, at the end. Sir Gelrick, a paladin of Abadar, was another late addition to the group, sent by his church to track down and arrest the criminal Rufus, whom he’d hunted up and down the coast from Riddleport to Magnimar. As the only noble born member of the group, he was elevated by Lord Mayor Haldmeer Grobaras to the rank of baron after the heroes cleared out Fort Rannick of the ogres who had taken control. Gelrick in battle is a fearsome thing to behold, especially in the later stages of the campaign, when he wielded a flame tongue blade enchanted in the waters of the Runeforge. The first party member to gain the title of Dragonslayer, with the killing of the great white Arkrhyst on the shore of Lake Stormunder.

Skrym

The other major warrior of the group, a Shoanti barbarian of the Axe Clan, torn between his home in Sandpoint and his allegiance to the clan in the Calphiak Mountains. Skrym is not the sharpest of swords, but he wisely understood this himself and usually kept his mouth shut to avoid making bad situations worse. When things eventually got bad, though, Skrym could be relied on to kill things messily and quickly. He was also the only member of the party to be brought back from death’s door to continue the fight, after one of the Graul ogrekin slammed an ogre hook through his head. The second Dragonslayer of the group, who took the head of the blue dragon Ghlorofaex in Xin-Shalast.

Jearis Tarlangaval

An elven rogue from the Mordant Spire, whose dominating personality trait is greed. When Dairhe argued that the party should return to slay the dragon Longtooth because it was an inherently evil creature and a bane of elves, Jearis supported him not because of any goodness but because the dragon would have a hoard. Jearis also kept meticulous track of every last copper piece earned during the party’s adventures and invested in several bags of holding to carry it all, and was also responsible for appraising it, selling it and then dividing up the loot. Coupled with the elf’s transmutation specialization and desire to become the new ruler of Xin-Shalast, one wonders if the goal was to become the Runelord in the Runelord’s place…

Dairhe Faulilj

An elven druid, wanderer and occasional Pathfinder. Dairhe has a wolf. The wolf bites things, though after surviving ogres, giants, dragons, devils, ghouls, murder cults, an advanced elite dread vampire decapus sorcerer and all sorts of other nasty things, it was finally killed by Karzoug’s magic in the Eye of Avarice. Dairhe himself provided healing for the wolf and fire from the sky. The elf was otherwise mostly remarkable for being ridiculously capable in the wilderness, to the point that he probably could have tracked a flying creature and found food and water for an army in a desert. Vaguely amusingly or annoyingly, Dairhe was played by Gastogh of The Small Dragon’s Den, whose last blog update says “My gaming will now go on another indefinite hiatus”, in a post dated in August 2009, when he’d just played a session of the campaign twelve days earlier and was due to play another in three days.

Some Highlights

The campaign had some awesome moments. Here are some worthy of mention that aren’t in the adventure books themselves.

  • When the party was still trying to find its bearings and learn to work as a team, or act decisively, they were searching the villain Tsuto Kaijitsu in the tunnels under the Sandpoint Glassworks. Dairhe opens a door and finds Tsuto there, reeking of booze and asleep. However, he opens his eyes and goes “What in the hells..?” – so Dairhe closes the door on him, and the party has a quick palaver on what to do in the corridor. Then they shout calls for Tsuto to surrender through the door. This goes on for some minutes, with no answer. Finally, Dairhe opens the door again to peek inside… and is rewarded with an arrow in the face from the villain who’d had time to prepare and get ready. The druid went down, and Skrym tried to capture Tsuto. Dairhe’s wolf, however, had different thoughts and they could not restrain the animal before it tore out Tsuto’s throat.
  • In another example of the party’s early indecisiveness, they made several trips to the Thistletop dungeons, wearing down the defenders a bit at a time but also allowing them to rest, recuperate and prepare for the inevitable counterattack. This, in the end, led to the death of Niero Brandt, and finally the party discovering that Nualia had fled with the last yeth hound. This led to a merry chase and tracking her all over the Sandpoint hinterlands as the day grew longer, meeting with several goblin tribes and culminating in an exploration of the Brinestump Marsh, where they ran into and killed the cannibal goblin Vorka before finally encountering Nualia as the rainy evening turned into night and slaying their first major villain. Her sword ended up in the hands of Dawn, Niero’s replacement.
  • The following session was also mostly improvised from the material in the adventures. The player of Rufus, a violent and foul-mouthed dwarf, wanted to play a different character, so we introduced Sir Gelrick, a paladin who was trying to find Rufus and arrived in Sandpoint the morning after the party had celebrated (loudly and boisterously) the defeat of Nualia and the goblins. Rufus was not to be found, and the party together followed a trail of clues that involved a fight with some Scarnetti scions and finally ended on the Chopper’s Isle, where they found his ritually murdered and gruesomely mutilated body, with a trail of footprints leading into the surf. Rufus’s murderer turned out to be the serial killer Skinsaw Man, who would murder again and again before the party caught him.
  • After the heroes had returned from the Runeforge, before they embarked on the journey to the distant Xin-Shalast, they spent some time getting their affairs in order. Dawn, during this downtime, went to the private cemetery of Niero Brandt’s family one night, with a shovel. Then he dug up Niero’s body, at this point eleven months dead, and cast raise dead. After that, he dragged Niero, his erstwhile adventuring companion, to the worst watering hole in all of Magnimar, where the two got drunk and talked crap at each other until the wee hours. As they were the same player’s characters, this in practice meant him dissing himself, Gollum-style. Then, Dawn dragged Niero to a waiting ship in the harbour and threw him on board, to get him far away from his enemies in town. The ship? The Jenevieve. Its destination? Sargava. Niero Brandt will be returning in January, in the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path. To me, this was one of the crowning moments of the campaign, since it came totally out of the blue, entirely on the player’s own initiative.

Over the next week, I hope to jot down some notes about each of the adventure modules and make observations about running them.

One Module, Every Game: Dark Heresy

The second session of the One Module, Every Game project was played yesterday, perhaps slightly spilling over into today. Time flies when you’re having fun, and nobody told me it was getting that late.

This time, the game was, as I declared a few weeks ago, Fantasy Flight Games’ licence RPG Dark Heresy. Unlike originally intended, this was actually a game I had previously run, but there was some public demand for it and it’s not difficult to persuade me when it comes to Warhammer 40,000. Knowing the how the game works did give me more time to prepare the adventure itself, for which I generated a cast of premade player characters with short backgrounds and motivations, as well as secret agendas for each. Someone gave me a very good idea over the weekend, which I think I managed to put into practice reasonably well.

I prepared five characters but ended up with only three players because of a number of last-minute cancellations. I think four players would have been ideal, accounting for everybody being unfamiliar with the ruleset, and five would’ve worked perfectly if all players had known the rules. The setup I worked out relied a lot on the players escalating things between themselves and with three, I think it dragged out a bit too long. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s see what we were getting into.

Heresy, Dark

Dark Heresy is the first of three roleplaying games set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting from Games Workshop’s miniatures wargame of the same name. I can recommend almost everything related to Warhammer 40,000 except for Warhammer 40,000 itself. The second game of the trilogy, Rogue Trader, was released late last year and the third, Deathwatch, will be coming out this summer. Whereas Rogue Trader deals with, free merchants and Deathwatch will put you in the size 80 shoes (continental European system) of the Space Marines, Dark Heresy deals with that most unexpected of organisations, the Imperial Inquisition.

For the best description of the setting, check out the TVTropes article. I love that setting. There’s an insane sense of scale – the Imperium of Man spans across the galaxy and a million inhabited worlds. In its armies, it fields everything from lowly footsoldiers with their lasguns to armored personnel carriers for tanks and Gothic, mile-high walking robots. The spaceships are Gothic space cathedrals five miles long and thousands of years old. Everything is BIG. Everything is OLD. Imagine living in there.

In Dark Heresy, the PCs are agents of the Inquisition. They aren’t Inquisitors in their own right, or even the retinue of one, but an independent cell of lower-ranking operatives who may then ascend through the ranks as the game progresses. There’s a recent sourcebook, Ascension, that apparently covers Throne Agents, Interrogators and the Inquisitors themselves as player characters, but I haven’t yet picked it up. It is said to be most excellent, however.

Dark Heresy has a class-based system. The character classes are the usual WH40K fare – Assassin, Arbitrator (from the Adeptus Arbites, the Imperium’s equivalent of the Interpol), guardsman, tech-priest, cleric, psyker, and so forth. They gain experience and use it to purchase skill, talent and ability advances, and when they have burned enough experience points, advance to the next pay grade and unlock a new set of advancements. The character generation and advancement system is highly customisable and reminds me of Dungeons & Dragons, in that there’s a wealth of different abilities to pick and choose from, as well as interesting special stuff in the accessory books like Inquisitor’s Handbook.

The system seems to owe a bit of a debt to the miniatures game. The characters have the some of the same basic stats as the figures in the minis game – Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, and so forth. Agility replaces Initiative, however, and the stat line extends to Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Fellowship. These fall somewhere between zero and hundred, with the starting characters’ stats averaging around 30. That’s the target number you try to roll under. It may seem low, but the system offers up a bunch of ways to raise your odds and stacking bonuses – aiming, burst fire, and so forth. There’s also the level of difficulty, which gives an adjustment of +30 to -30, but which I found a bit unintuitive, probably because I’m used to D&D. In D&D, you need to set the Difficulty Class of every roll and then the roll must exceed it. However, in Dark Heresy, there’s already a built-in Difficulty Class in the ability score, and slapping on adjustments to this didn’t come naturally. I expect I could get the hang of it were I to play it more, though. Then there are these Degrees of Success. You get one additional Degree of Success for every ten points your roll is under the target number, which occasionally matters, such as when you’re firing bursts, when each additional degree of success scores another hit.

It’s also a bit slower than you’d expect, even with newbies at the table. I’m not exactly a fan of opposed combat, since it adds to the amount of dice rolled. Now, it’s attack roll, parry or dodge roll, damage roll. Now that I consult the rules, I notice we also added a superfluous fourth roll to that, to determine the hit location – according to the rules, the hit location is found by reversing the numbers of the D100 roll to hit, so that a hit roll of 19 becomes the hit location 91 (left leg). There was also an element of option paralysis when the players started crunching numbers to figure out whether the optimum course of action was to take a single shot, shoot with both guns, shoot a burst, or aim and shoot, or whatever. I tried to counter this by hurrying them, to limited effect. I probably need to implement a house rule for declaring an action within ten seconds when it’s your turn or your character is gripped by indecision and freezes like a deer in the headlights.

They can even survive that, thanks to the Fate Points. Each session, your PC has an allocation of Fate Points, usually somewhere from one to three, determined at character generation. You can use them to add a degree of success to your roll, heal 1d5 Wounds, reroll a test, small stuff like that. You can also burn a Fate Point permanently to save yourself from dying, dropping to zero Wounds and unconsciousness. There are situations where the explanation may be convoluted. This does prevent the PCs from kicking the bucket immediately in the campaign.

The After-Action Report

The core idea of how I was going to tackle Frozen Fingers of Midnight in Dark Heresy was spawned last Saturday over a hearty meal with fellow gamers from Alter Ego and TYR. I believe it was Ruutiukko who reiterated his view of Dark Heresy’s similarity in tone with the sci-fi comedy RPG Paranoia, as he did in the comments to a news post I made a few weeks ago. (Come to think of it, he is also a source of one of the main building blocks of the Living Greyhawk module Bright Sun, Black Lion that wrapped up Living Greyhawk in Finland. I need to drink with him more often.) I picked up on the idea and thought: but what if I really run Dark Heresy like Paranoia? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this most classic of games, in Paranoia the player characters are Troubleshooters working in the Alpha Complex, a giant, sealed city that is entirely controlled by the Computer. The Computer is your friend. As a Troubleshooter, your job is to hunt down Commie mutant traitors.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fun if your character was not both a mutant and a member of a secret society. A proper Paranoia party has conflicting agendas and it’s an accepted and expected fact that sooner or later the party members will start killing each other off. It’s okay, every PC has six clones.

So, in Paranoia, every player knows that’s how the game works and expects it to work out that way. So, I thought, what if I take this paradigm from Paranoia and transplant it in Dark Heresy? When every player has a slip of paper with a secret agenda and no idea whatsoever of what the other characters even might have, it generates… paranoia.

I had five pregenerated characters, anticipating a rush of players, but unfortunately I got three cancellations in quick success and the game day ended up a bit small. In the adjacent room, another GM ran Summerland for two players.

While it would probably have been even slower, I seriously think that four or five players would have been much better. More conflicting agendas at the table would’ve resulted in more tense roleplaying, a quicker escalation and less work for me.

The characters that did end up in the game were Wessell, a Metallican gunslinger assassin, who was actually a mole from another Inquisitor’s cadre of acolytes, planted into one of Inquisitor Jakobus Baur’s cells to gather evidence that Baur is a dangerous radical and employs mutants and heretics; Private Anton Wierzbowski, a guardsman from the Regulus Planetary Defence Force with horrible scars and secret mutations he was trying to keep hidden long enough to escape the clutches of the Inquisition; and Lugo, a mind-scrubbed Arbiter with a secret mission from Inquisitor Baur himself to root out a traitor in the party. I also had a Albus Dimitros, a tech-priest who was a secret member of the heretical sect of the Logicians, and Father Mordecai, a Redemptionist Cleric who would’ve been the only person in the group who would’ve had no hidden agenda whatsoever. It’s just that Redemptionists are heavily into the whole “burn the heretic” spiel, and Father Mordecai had a flamethrower. The flamethrower had a bayonet on it. That bayonet was a chainsaw.

Oh, and he also started with 63 Insanity Points, minor pyromania and enough self-righteousness to justify torturing babies to death, if need be.

A part of my vision for the game was that the PCs would be at each others’ throats before the halfway point and I could just kick back and watch the fireworks. Wessell and Lugo played off each other admirably in this respect, Wierzbowski was a wild card with a justification for killing the entire party, Dimitros could’ve worked the intrigue angle and Mordecai would be putting out the fires with gasoline.

In the beginning, the three acolytes had been invited by Throne Agent Adril Hestram to his office in Hive Sibellus, the largest of the hive cities of Scintilla, the capital of the entire Calixis Sector. Hestram informed them that a couple of hours previously, he had received a missive from other Inquisition agents that a Deathwatch Space Marine, Skelg the Ripper, had been afflicted by a strange disease during a mission to clear out a space hulk in near orbit. Skelg had been hastily dropped off to an Inquisition safe house on a lower level of the hive. No corruption had been detected on him, but they were unwilling to take the risk of bringing him into the main Inquisition facilities in the hive. The acolytes were to go to the safe house, interview Skelg about the events during the mission, and proceed from there. Understandably, they were queasy about things that take Space Marines out of action.

So, they head off to the safe house, take a cab, spend a few hours travelling across the hive. It’s a poor working-class neighbourhood. They locate the safe house easily and ring the doorbell. Nobody answers. They ring it again. Still no answer. At this point, Wessell takes out her Hecuter automatic and shoots the door panel. This does not help.

Having now made a scene (and with the guardsman and the Arbiter visibly in uniform), they start fiddling with the workings of the door, when it’s slid half open from the inside. There’s a guy there, pointing a gun at them, demanding what the hell they are doing. Wessell flips her badge at them, they flip her theirs. It says they’re working for Inquisitor Caruso. (Why, yes, I was improvising these.) They shout at each other for a moment, the guy inside refusing to let them in. Then Lugo spots that the badge is a fake, tips off the others, and Wessell opens fire. A short firefight ensues and ends with the fake acolyte missing an arm and his friend inside the apartment with some serious burns. They find Skelg the Ripper in the adjacent room, a huge man, three meters tall, with a beard down to his waist and shoulders like the doors of a loading dock. He thanks them for taking care of the scoundrels and tells that the original caretakers of the safe house are stuffed in the closet. Skelg would, of course, have slain the enemies of the Imperium himself, but was too weak rise from the bed.

They get the rest of the story from Skelg – his Deathwatch kill-team was clearing out a space hulk called Galactic North that has a reputation for being cursed, popping up here and there across the Calixis Sector seemingly without rhyme, reason, or a crew to man it, doing spontaneous jumps in and out of the Warp. Something happened in the Engineerium of the vessel and Skelg was the only survivor of his squad. He does not remember what happened, but the other squads found him sprawled at an intersection on their way back from other parts of the ship. After that, he woke up in the Medicae Bay of their Battle Barge and was hastily dropped off here when the squad was called off for some swift work elsewhere.

They also interrogate the criminals, who are still alive. Wessell’s interrogation technique is to shoot one of them in the head and then ask questions from the other, which leads to a bit of an argument between her and Lugo. They eventually pump out from the criminal that he was paid by a guy named Bengeirr to come here and take out the guards and wait for reinforcements. They also drag out this Bengeirr’s location – a cargo hangar in an even lower level of the hive. After a quick discussion of whose job it is to execute the second criminal, Lugo shoots him in the face with a shotgun.

Since the safe house has been compromised, they take over another nearby apartment and move Skelg there, then call Adril Hestram and update him on the situation. Hestram sends in a clean-up crew to take care of the bodies and the safe house and the acolytes are to follow up on this Bengeirr lead. Skelg drinks all of Lugo’s booze.

They hand over the situation to the black-clad Stormtroopers that show up and head to the lower hive. After a few hours, they arrive at a cargo hangar. The lights are flickering, the ground is damp, and the people are sickly and weak. There’s a bar nearby, which the flickering neon light proclaims “The Rosy Fi gers”. There’s the hangar, and in front of the hangar, there’s a guard. They can spot the bulge of his shoulder-holstered weapon.

The still-uniformed Lugo and Wierzbowski hang back while Wessell goes to bluff the guard, requesting that she be allowed to see Bengeirr. The guard waffles a bit, but Wessell has such a winning smile and bigger guns than the guard that he contacts his boss via an intercom. Bengeirr brushes them off, leading to Wessell shoving the guard aside and telling Bengeirr that the Inquisition’s agents are after him for what happened at the safe house. At the mention of the Big I, the guard takes off.

Bengeirr agrees to talk with them, but when the doors are opened, the gangers inside open fire. A prolonged firefight ensues. Among other things, Wierzbowski fumbles with a grenade and is perforated with shrapnel, which he acknowledges with but a stoic grunt. One of the thugs has his arm blown off with such force that the bone shards wound a second thug. Bengeirr is firing from an elevated position, but finally Wessell scores a telling hit with her Hecuter autopistol, flinging the enemy leader back many meters. Bengeirr strikes the wall and slumps down, leaving a bloody mess.

Dark Heresy has the best critical hit tables ever. There’s also one critical hit in the energy weapons table where the target bursts into flame, runs screaming 1d10 meters in a random direction, lighting anybody he comes into contact also on fire, and then his head explodes. But I digress.

A short investigation of the hangar and a short-range cargo vessel within turn up some minor murder cult paraphernalia, some illegal firearms and an altar and a decaying headless body in the cargo hold. They also manage to access the computer systems, which reveal that the cargo vessel has been scheduled to make a run today to a spot of empty space a day’s trip flight away. None of the acolytes knows how to pilot a spaceship, though (ironically, Father Mordecai was born and grew up aboard a Battlefleet Calixis battleship, and could’ve pulled it off).

They contact Hestram again and give another situation update – to which the esteemed Throne Agent replies: “I’ll send you a pilot.” The coordinates correspond closely to the last documented sighting of the Galactic North, and Hestram wants them up there now to check out the hulk before it disappears.

So, the pilot, named Hoban, arrives. He makes the cargo ship dance to his tune, spaces the altar in the cargo hold, and takes them to the coordinates. The trip takes some 12 hours. Well, sure enough, the hulk is there, big and dead. They dock.

At this point, the tensions finally surface. Lugo and Wierzbowski are heading to explore the hulk, while Wessell is of the opinion that Hestram is a traitor and trying to get them killed. She stays behind and closes the air lock while Lugo and Wierzbowski go in. Then she pulls a gun on Hoban, manacles him, and stuffs him into a closet while the other acolytes are trying to get her to open the door and talk about it, and calls her boss via a satellite link for . The reply is a curt: “Figure it out for yourself.” Unfortunately, she’d forgotten her com-link with the rest of the party was open when she opened the connection to Inquisitor Rykehuss. When she figures out her mistake, she quickly closes the comm with the party, while Wierzbowski explains to Lugo who Inquisitor Rykehuss is – something of a bogeyman, an ardent witch hunter and a tireless persecutor of heretics both real and imagined.

Finally, she opens the doors, with a gun ready and trained on the other two acolytes, requesting they drop their weapons and the whole bunch return planetside, now.

Yeah, right. A short-range, zero-G firefight ensues. Wessell is liberally toasted by las fire from Wierzbowski, but she manages to score a good hit on Lugo, breaking his ribs, and manages to nearly sever Wierzbowski’s leg with a well-placed shot (a Fate Point is the only thing that saved him). Lugo surrenders. All were bleeding badly and down to critical damages, with Fatigue points to the maximum.

So, Wessell, having the upper hand, tries to interrogate Lugo. She does this in her patented style – she shoots the unconscious Wierzbowski through the head and says: “Speak.” Lugo spills the beans about his secret assignment, Wessell tells that she was working for Rykehuss, and suspects Adril Hestram is the traitor who leaked the location of the safe house to the cultists.

Hoban is released from his comfy closet, Wierzbowski’s body is spaced, and they fly back to Scintilla to be debriefed and processed.

After a few days of gruelling interrogation, they are all released. A few days after that, Wessell is run over by a bus, which then reverses over her, parks, and explodes. Wierzbowski, having burned three Fate Points in quick succession, develops a mutation that allows him to survive hard vacuum. Go figure. Lugo is rewarded and sent on his next assignment, and Jakobus Baur explains the whole plot to him – it was all one big Batman gambit developed to ferret out a traitor in the ranks. Inquisitors Sipowicz and Caruso are both complete fabrications, Deathwatch Captain Skelg the Ripper is hale and whole and soon returning to rejoin his original chapter of Space Wolves, and the murder cult he had manipulated was in the process of being completely wiped out by squads of Arbiters. The hulk was some old trash heap that was being manoeuvred to re-enter the atmosphere, where friction should burn it up. The legend of the Galactic North was quite real, however.

What Went Wrong, What Went Right

First of all, the main sticking point in the adventure was the lack of players. Quicker escalation of the situation would’ve made for a much shorter and more enjoyable game. As it was, we played for nearly six hours, well into the night.

Another thing that stuck out was the Fate Point mechanic. It works in a campaign, but in a one-shot, there is no incentive for the players not to burn through their entire allocation of Fate Points. It got rather ridiculous when Wierzbowski burned through them all to survive a pair of critical hits and being spaced. It was nearly impossible for a PC to die in the game, which I hadn’t taken into account when I crafted the scenario. I think that were I to revisit it, I’d say that PC-on-PC violence cannot be survived with Fate Points or just cut their number to one per character.

Another issue I’ve noticed with the game, both now and in my previous campaign a couple of years back, is that the players too easily fall into the mentality that they’re the cops and the inquisitorial rosette is their badge, when the truth is closer to them being the KGB if the KGB was subject to the Vatican. In the 12th century. People don’t fear them, they’re utterly terrified, and flashing the rosette everywhere they go makes them targets for everyone who doesn’t want the Inquisition anywhere near their operations. This is one of those things that need to be explained to the players in great detail, and then explained again, and then kill off a PC or two to make the point before they learn.

I don’t understand how GMs get this so much more readily.

I improvised a lot of the plot during the game, which may be visible in the humongous plot holes and inconsistencies in the story as presented to the player characters. The last reveal by Baur sorta makes it work in hindsight, though – nothing was real, and it was just a gambit in a shadow war between Inquisitors of different factions.

We also experienced some of the same issues as with the Glorantha game I last blogged about. Two of the players were familiar with the setting, but it has a lot of depth and you can’t make safe assumptions about it, which led to Wessell’s player making a few bad calls that finally resulted in her being squashed beneath a bus, because loose ends are untidy.

I do think the scenario is viable for future use, though, and might fiddle with it for the con season, polish up the plot and the characters.

Next month: Eclipse Phase. We’ll see how that one goes…

Newbies, Glorantha, and Magic

It was Alter Ego’s weekly club night on Tuesday. They’re the Helsinki University RPG club, one of the two RPG clubs I hang out with (it’s not that one club isn’t enough for my geekiness, it’s that I basically live in two cities). One of the guys present had a HeroQuest one-shot set in Glorantha he wanted to run us. What followed was rather educational for me as a player.

I don’t know Glorantha. One of the great first games of the Finnish scene is the third edition of RuneQuest which everybody who didn’t start with Red Box D&D seems to have started out with, and which I’ve played a grand total of one time, where my character fell into an icy river and drowned. I’ve read some of the setting material, so I know about Chaos and the broo and the trolls and the ducks and so forth, but I can’t say that I really know the setting. The module he was using was set in the Grazelands, which rung no bells.

Apparently, the module was “Saddled with the Nightmare”, available online and originally written for Hero Wars. Not a bad module, I think, though I haven’t actually read it. There may yet be a second session of it and and though it’s exceedingly unlikely that I will be in town to play in it, it would be bad form to peek ahead. At the end of the session, we were just about to leave the village to see a man about a horse.

What Happened

We had six players, a couple of whom knew the setting and one was a veteran with the system as well. I never comprehended the rules, either, but they seemed fairly simple and open. This brought some problems of its own

The adventure comes with six pre-made characters with their relationship networks and their own secret plots. Basically, we had two heavy warrior types, two light warrior types, an insane berserker warrior type, and the female spirit talker. The characters were randomised between us, and I ended up with… the spirit talker.

This was, without doubt, the worst character I could’ve been saddled with, as I came to learn during the session.

Being a Glorantha newbie, I had no understanding of how this spirit magic stuff really works. I had no real comprehension of my capabilities or limits, what I could and could not do with my magic. The rest of the party was comprised of warrior types. How you use a spear is pretty intuitive regardless of setting or system, while a “Raise the Earth Charm” is… less so.

Additionally, since the Grazers are a tribal society with an apparently rigid system of taboos, I was a bit unclear on the role of my character in the social context, what she was and was not allowed to do as a young spirit talker and a woman. This also cramped my style. We were supplied with a short primer on the Grazers, but didn’t really have the time to read it all, and now that I look at it carefully, it wouldn’t really have been a lot of help.

Note that I am not blaming anybody. I am observing things even I didn’t really figure out until after three hours of staring at a character sheet and trying to figure out how to play Jan-Karen. This figuring out ate up time from actually playing her, and most of the time I was just going “umm”, sorta in a locked-down state and too timid to taking initiative (easy enough, since another character was designated as a group leader). Toward the end I sorta got over it and began to use the magic creatively, such as utilising the Raise the Earth Charm to have the earth spirits to tie a demon horse’s hooves to the ground.

I also had a horrible luck with the dice, which isn’t really an issue with the game, but did lower the morale, so to speak.

I think a part of the reason I locked down as I did was that I’d never played with any of the other players in the group, which, together with a strange ruleset and a strange setting created an unfamiliar social dynamic. That’s my own psychological hang-up, though, and probably not one to generalise on. My whole mentality about the game may have been wrong, for that matter.

What I Took Away from It

Bad sessions happen. It is inevitable. The thing to do is to figure out why they were bad and try to learn from it to avoid having bad sessions in the future.

As I’ve suggested above, I believe the crux of the matter lies in that I did not know the setting or the ruleset well enough to understand how I could act within their framework. The issue was compounded by having a spellcaster character, which is both mechanically complex and strongly influenced by the setting. This, I believe, is something that can be generalised upon. Since I am, myself, running a series of one-shots with a bunch of games I have no experience with to players who have even less, it’s something to consider. Also, I’m planning to write up some general advice for Ropecon GMs on how to prepare for a con game.

Spellcasters and their ilk tend to be the most mechanically complex character types in any given game, and if the group in a one-shot can survive without one, thought should be given for dropping the character type from the game or automatically assigning it to the player most experienced with the game.

Working out appropriate cheat sheets for powers is also handy. In my case, the character sheet just said “Raise the Earth Charm”, or “Healing Charm +3W”. I said “Durrr…” Simplicity is good, oversimplification is not. Explanations of what this stuff actually does are needed.

This also applies on the setting side of things, and settings like Glorantha seem more vulnerable to it than others. Glorantha is very detailed, very nuanced, and not just a D&D-style patchwork setting. In Golarion, when the characters go to Osirion, I can say “think Ancient Egypt”, and the players can immediately visualise the architecture, the bustle of the cities, how people dress, what kind of weapons they wield, and make relatively safe assumptions about the political system, law, and codes of behaviour. Real-world analogues are a useful shorthand, but Glorantha, to my admittedly untrained eye, eschews the more direct analogues and takes its inspirations far enough from the originals to make this less useful. I think the Grazers are a sort of a Mongol/Plains Indian mix, which is already harder for me to figure out. While such a detailed and rich setting is a joy to play in for someone who really groks it, it does make it less accessible to an outsider.

Those “what you know” sheets were a good idea, but could’ve been more concise and focused. There was superfluous data and important stuff such as details of the tribal hierarchy was glossed over, which is critical information when the player characters occupy different positions within it. This, of course, would require some tailoring and thus more work.

Anyway, the game was a valuable lesson. I will apply what I’ve learned when preparing for and running Dark Heresy in a couple of weeks.

One Module, Every Game: King Arthur Pendragon, 5th Edition

Well, unlike some other projects I’ve engaged in the past, this one got off the ground and the first game was played yesterday. I finally settled on The Frozen Fingers of Midnight for the module, which, on hindsight, was a good decision.

The structure of the module is fairly simple, it has room for improvisation and the structure is solid. It also doesn’t ruin the adventure if the players have played through it previously, especially if the adaptation throws a few curveballs their way. D&D adventures aren’t solved the same way as Call of Cthulhu adventures, and so on.

It was fun translating the module. I opted for an epic Grail Quest route with the module, turning the taverns and manors and boathouses of the original into castles. Skelg the Ripper, the cursed Ulfen warrior from the original, was a king of old laid low by a curse cast by an evil baron after the king and the baroness had a tryst. Skelg, in the Pendragon version, was unable to rise from his bed, yet unable to die. The woman, Lady Natalya, was trapped inside an icy mountain floating in a lake behind the baron’s castle.

How’s the Game, Then?

First of all, some observations about the game. Pendragon is very, very good, and very, very different, surprisingly so, from pretty much everything else I’ve played. The key to this difference is the Traits and Passions. You know how in fiction and occasionally mythology, certain characters behave just like they were player characters in D&D? You know, audacious and smart types, who have wildly varied and odd skillsets, limited survival instincts and a knack for creating and then executing completely unexpected and oddball plots that, against all logic, tend to work.

The characters in the Arthur legends are never like that. They have a concept of honour and a code of conduct so deeply ingrained in their behaviour that they will happily work against their own interests and even die or kill friends in duels if that’s what they perceive honour to demand. They mope about, go insane every once in a while and waste away with love. Greg Stafford, the writer of King Arthur Pendragon, comments on Sir Tristram that the way the guy charges into battle every time he sees another knight without so much as a how-do-you-do, the only possibility is that he’s seriously nearsighted and can’t identify the other knights, and every time Greg portrayed Sir Tristram as an NPC, he kept squinting and peering at the players.

The way Pendragon handles this is with the Traits. The Traits are a bunch of sliding scales between different virtues and vices. You’ve got Chaste/Lustful and Energetic/Lazy, and so forth. All of the values between a pair add up to 20, and most are around 10/10 or 13/7 or something along those lines. When they’re 16/4 or even more unbalanced, though, it’s really a significant character trait. The thing here is that in certain situations you must roll a Trait check, and the success or failure of that check limits what you can do in the situation. This often rules out the smart way to deal with the situation. For values of 16 or above, you always roll when it would apply to a situation, for lesser values you have more control.

It’s an interesting mechanic, and though some players are hostile to even the suggestion that someone would take away any control over their character, I think it works. Fortunately, I had no players like that, either.

This isn’t going to be a full review of the game, since I haven’t even read the whole rulebook, but I’ll point out some other things I noted:

First, the one bad thing. The rules are rather unclear and the book could really do with a single page where the basic dice mechanics are explained in a simple way – what to roll, what number you’re aiming for, what’s a critical, what’s a fumble, when do they matter, how bonuses work. The data is there, but it’s now hidden in two or three different places in the rules chapters.

That, there, is my only real complaint. Apart from that, it’s all good.

The game sets out to do one single thing, specialises in it, and then does it very well. Pendragon is meant to run a campaign through the years of King Arthur’s reign, from 485 to 566, from the wars of King Uther Pendragon against the Saxons to the Battle of Camlann and its aftermath, a total of 81 years. The entire time period is covered by the huge brick of a book that is The Great Pendragon Campaign. There also appears to be a campaign supplement named Saxons! for what I believe is the fourth edition of the game that runs a seventy-year campaign from the arrival of the Saxons to the isles in 449 to the Battle of Badon Hill where King Arthur kicked their asses for good in 518. I expect that with sufficient megalomania, the two might be strung together for whopping 117 years of campaign.

There seems to be a recommendation that one year is covered in each game session, so with weekly games (hah!) that campaign would go well into its third year, and even with just one or the other, you’re looking at nearly two years of playing. If I were to start such a game over here with my university group, we’d all have our PhDs before we were done. The thing with The Great Pendragon Campaign, I suppose, is that more than, say, a Paizo adventure path, it desperately needs to be finished. Everybody knows the story already, and they want to be part of the big fight at the end. They want to go down swinging at Camlann.

Sirlarkins over at the RPG Corner has been posting Actual Play reports from his solo Pendragon game that I’ve been reading with great interest. Playing with your significant other as the only player seems to be a good way to finish the campaign at some point in the future.

When you play in a Pendragon campaign, your character will die. In the best-case scenario, I’d expect that at the very least two PCs of every player will give up the ghost. I think four is the likely average. Not only is the combat system positively murderous, but there’s also the sheer length of the campaign, spanning generations of knights. This poses certain challenges for the levelling system and experience mechanics. In most RPGs with this much mechanics, you can expect your PC to get steadily better. Here, they get steadily better and then they die. The next PC, however, gets an inheritance of titles and all that rot and a measure of his predecessor’s Glory. Also, because the Enchantment of Britain kicks technological advancement into overdrive, their starting gear will be a few centuries more advanced than dad’s starting gear.

Of course, this raises the issue of actually making those replacement characters, for which there is the Winter Phase. Because nobody is dumb enough to go a-questing in the winter – it’s pretty cold to ride in armour – the characters are assumed to spend the winter or at least part thereof at their manor or castle or the King’s court or wherever. During Winter Phase, you roll for how much you get in taxes from your peasants, how much of it goes onward to your lord, and if you’re married, whether there are any new children. For existing children, you roll if they survive.

Family and heredity is important in Pendragon. This is also seen in the character generation system, which has a lifepath system for the Salisbury knights, whom the game assumes PCs to be. Except it’s not their lifepath, but their grandfather’s and father’s. From the year 440 when King Constantin is murdered by his own guards to 484 when your PC’s father will (at the latest) die at the Battle of Eburacum, you track their exploits in the various battles and events of history and their accumulated Glory, some of which will then pass on to you. Personally, I think this is an awesome system. I love lifepath systems in general, and this is one of the best I’ve seen.

Finally, as an English major and a literature geek, I must comment on the depth of research that has gone into this thing. Greg Stafford knows his stuff, and it comes through in the writing. The world of King Arthur Pendragon is a fusion of different sources, from the old Welsh myths to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to Boorman’s Excalibur. It brings them all together into a cohesive whole and does it well. There’s also a scenario based on Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”, which I appreciated.

In Actual Play

In translating the module from Pathfinder Society to Pendragon, the first decision I made was to have the action happen in the year 556, during the period when the Knights of the Round Table were questing for the Grail. I did this because I feel that period is most iconic of the stories of the Round Table, and because it gave me a good excuse to have the PCs out in the sticks, looking for adventure and talking to strange men living in the woods. Then I turned the decidedly D&D-y milieu and plot into something more fairytaley, something more suitable for King Arthur’s knights.

Though I dearly love the lifepath character generation, in order to save time I just wrote up the four pre-made PCs from the rulebook. The party thus comprised of the well-rounded average knight, the Roman Christian Sir Berel; the burly pagan huntmaster Sir Pelogres the Lively; the strong and scarred warrior Sir Maurel; and the learned courtier Sir Morganor the Just. The characters were distributed randomly. Sir Berel and Sir Maurel were played by two guys from my regular Rise of the Runelords group, while Sir Pelogres’ and Sir Morganor’s players came through the RPG club. In the adjacent room, another GM was running his homebrewed fantasy game.

They were out looking for the Grail, and were referred by a strange hermit in the forest to go to the Forest of Arden, wherein slept in his hidden castle a great king of yore.

So, off they went and found the Grey Dog Castle. It was a squat little castle, with stout fortifications – very defensible. All around it grew an impenetrable thicket of wild roses. (It was here that I actually made an error regarding my notes – I meant the rose bushes to grow around Castle Bengeirr, as that encounter in the original featured the Rosy Fingers Tavern. This was a very interesting error when you look at the story as a whole and I wonder if my subconscious wasn’t playing tricks here.)

After some debate and an attempt by the reckless Sir Maurel and Sir Berel to cut their way through (“DEUS VULT!” *slash, hack*), aborted by Sir Morganor, scandalised about the possibility of ruining a king’s garden, the knights decided to circle around the castle and look for a way through the thicket. (Here, Sir Maurel rolled for Reckless, which he had at 16, succeeded, and started hacking. Sir Morganor failed his Arbitrary roll and had no choice but to intervene. I’m not sure we played the Traits as they’re supposed to be played, but the players caught on quickly and it resulted in good gaming, which I suppose is what matters.) This they did not find, but the keen eyes of Sir Pelogres discerned a place where the thicket was less thick and they could cut their way through with more ease. They tied their horses to a tree and started hacking. As they passed into the thicket, though, they noticed the bushes were growing back behind them. Foul witchcraft!

Eventually, our brave gardeners broke through the roses and briars and faced the high gate of the castle. Sir Morganor blew his trumpet to announce himself and knocked on the gatekeeper’s door, which opened. Out of it stepped a huge, two-headed man, tall enough to look a mounted knight level in the eye. With his two mouths he announced himself to be the guard of Grey Dog Castle, and that none may enter. Though Sir Morganor introduced himself and his party most courteously, the dialogue soon reached an impasse and more direct methods were required. Sir Morganor, awed by the monster, cowered, while the rest of the knights charged in. The creature fended them off with its club for a moment and its thick hide turned aside Sir Pelogres’ spear as well as Sir Berel’s sword, only Sir Maurel drawing blood. Then, it smacked its club into Sir Pelogres’ face with such force that its weapon broke, and Sir Berel and Sir Maurel used the opportunity to strike their blades deeply into the creature’s flesh (I divided up its weapon skill against multiple opponents as 11 against Sir Maurel and 1 point each for Sirs Berel and Pelogres. It critted against Sir Pelogres and fumbled against Sir Maurel, which I interpreted to mean that it bashes Sir Pelogres’ face in and its weapon, not being a sword, breaks. The other two knights both rolled criticals.)

The giant was down, and begged for mercy, which it received, and lay there bleeding. Sir Berel, wise in the ways of healing, patched up the bleeding Sir Pelogres, whose nose had been bent and broken by the force of the strike.

The knights, having thus bested their foe, entered the castle and met with an ancient man introducing himself as Tyrios, King Skelg’s faithful squire, who had lived here in Grey Dog Castle with his master for all the years of his curse. He took them up into the highest tower to meet the King, a large, broad-chested man who was decrepit in his old age and whose flowing white beard covered the bed. He was not asleep, but after the courtesies had been exchanged, he told that he had made the mistake of loving another man’s wife and had been cursed for his crime. He could not die, but was too weak and infirm to rise from his own bed. He had lain thus for long centuries.

Sir Morganor considered such a long punishment as unjust, as no man has the authority to condemn a man thusly – that power resides with God, and God alone. Vengeance is His, and no one else’s. The knights received directions to the castle of Baron Bengeirr. Bengeirr was not wholly a man of this world, and thus could be expected to still be alive – which he indeed was, as they discovered after having ridden for two more days under the canopy of Arden Forest. Castle Bengeirr was less a defensive fortification than it was a display of the wealth and authority of its owner; all tall spires and turrets. The knights also spied a lake behind the castle, and in the lake, a mountain of ice.

They approached the castle and announced themselves, were greeted, and then let in. They met with Baron Bengeirr, who welcomed them to partake of his hospitality. Upon hearing of their quest, he said he could not help them as he had sworn an oath and it was King Skelg’s fate to suffer. However, compelling arguments from Sir Morganor turned the Baron’s head, and he agreed to joust them, and if he could be unhorsed, he would agree to lift the curse. The best rider among the knights would face him.

Sir Morganor immediately announced this to be him, which Sir Maurel took exception to (Sir Maurel’s Lance skill was 15, Sir Morganor’s 14), justifiably proud of his skill at arms. Sir Morganor would not back down, and thus, it was decided they would compete amongst themselves for the honour of tilting against Baron Bengeirr. Sir Maurel and Sir Morganor tilted against one another four times, each time Sir Maurel landing a solid blow on Sir Morganor, whose lance he avoided altogether or managed to shrug off his shield. In the end, Sir Morganor, though still not unhorsed after four tilts, conceded Sir Maurel to be the superior warrior.

The next day, Sir Maurel faced Baron Bengeirr, and almost anticlimactically, unhorsed the vaunted knight on the first tilt, emerging unscathed himself. Baron Bengeirr was true to his word, however, and told them to get his wife, Lady Natalya, from the mountain of ice in the lake.

This they did, and rowed a small boat inside the mountain to a cave where Lady Natalya sat on the floor, still as beautiful as when King Skelg had first loved her. Indeed, such was her beauty that it profoundly stirred the loins and the hearts of the brave Salisbury knights as well. (I here used a mechanic – which I’m not entirely sure was a good idea – lifted from The Great Pendragon Campaign’s first encounters with Queens Igraine or Guinevere, where the knights first roll Lustful if they will gain a Lust (target) Passion and if they fail that, a Chaste roll for whether they will gain an Amor (target) Passion. Sir Berel managed to get Amor (Lady Natalya), while both Sir Maurel and Sir Pelogres got Lust (Lady Natalya). Sir Morganor the Just was too dedicated to the Grail quest to notice such worldly things.)

Though Lady Natalya requested that she be taken to her beloved Skelg, the knights first attempted to take her to Baron Bengeirr, her lawful husband. Bengeirr, however, refused to meet with them. Sir Morganor, out of respect for the law and tradition of the land, attempted to manipulate the situation, and first dragged out of the castle servants the knowledge of which way Baron Bengeirr’s bedroom windows faced, and then requested that before they travel to Grey Dog Castle, she sing to them, on the shore of the lake.

The ploy did work, after a fashion, and Baron Bengeirr was seen in the window before turning away from his singing wife. As they rode away, from a far hilltop the knights could see the castle’s flags and pennants being lowered as a sign that the lord of the castle was dead. (I have no idea if they did the half-mast thing in medieval England. Probably not, but it does work as a cultural shorthand and I was pulling stuff out of my ass for most of the session. Normally, I prefer to prepare, prepare and then prepare some more, and me running a game with only two pages of notes is almost unheard of.)

Now, the Lusts kicked in. The best trackers of the group were Sirs Pelogres and Maurel, whose new goal in life was to get under Lady Natalya’s dress. They attempted to accomplish this by Flirtation rolls, which they failed miserably, and then by leading the whole party around in circles in the forest to buy more time and opportunities with her. This led to more failed Flirtation rolls as the knights were smooth as sandpaper and Lady Natalya was completely oblivious to their advances. Once Sir Morganor and Sir Berel figured out what the two men were up to, there was a confrontation, and words were had, the knights nearly coming to blows over the Lady’s honour. In the end, Sir Maurel and Sir Pelogres acquiesced and they made for Grey Dog Castle with haste.

At the castle, they took Lady Natalya up to the highest tower where King Skelg lay, and she rushed forth to embrace her love. Immediately, a measure of vitality returned to King Skelg. Though still old and decrepit, he now found the strength to rise up from bed and stand on his own two feet, and requested that he be helped downstairs, to the chapel. He also told the knights that when he had still had his kingdom, many centuries ago, the Grail had been to the north, in the castle of the Fisher King. (Never mind that the Grail hasn’t been in existence for all that many centuries, let alone in England. Then, this is myth and timelines only need to sorta match.)

At the chapel, the King kneeled in front of the altar to pray, while the knights and Lady Natalya stayed behind. A golden light from the heavens lit the King’s kneeling form, and over his head the knights beheld the translucent, dreamlike form of the Holy Grail, the object of their quest. Then, King Skelg collapsed, dead, but with a smile on his lips. The knights were infused with a new sense of purpose for their mission, having been blessed with such a vision of the cup of Christ.

However, there still remained the issue of Lady Natalya, but at this point, lest we be subjected to knights killing their brothers in the house of the Lord, we fade to black.

Thoughts After the Action

An early decision I made in my preparations was to just pare down the rules to their essentials. No Winter Phase, no mass large-scale combat. Pendragon isn’t a light system by any means and trying to understand all of it myself for just one session, let alone foisting the full weight of it upon the players, would have been inadvisable. Thus, we used the bare minimum – skills, combat, traits and passions. We probably also interpreted some of them wrong and forgot others, but that’s the way it goes when you’re learning a new system. You make mistakes, then you read the book some more, learn how things really go, and play right from then on.

The Baron Bengeirr encounter was a bit anticlimactic, and I probably should have made him tougher. I used the stats for Average Knight from the rulebook. With an unfamiliar system, it’s difficult to gauge what the PCs are capable of defeating. The initial encounter with the giant (Small Giant stats) showed the lethality of the combat system, though.

The adventure was a bit of a railroad, partly because of its heritage and partly because of how I rewrote it, but I think Pendragon is more forgiving of such sins than other games. The default mode of play is to go through a set series of historical events without being able to significantly affect their outcome, and most of the really interesting content comes from the players characters’ interaction with one another and reactions to the conundrums posed by their Traits and Passions.

Content-wise, I think I may have made the module a bit too fantastical. However, the players seemed to like it, and I feel I managed to keep the style appropriate for the legends of Arthur, “Lady of Shalott” and perhaps Grimm’s fairy tales.

I didn’t actually notice until after the game that my slight error with the notes and the placement of the roses had pretty firmly made this a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, except with switched sexes. Man, I’m so postmodern I subvert fairy tales without even noticing.

It was a good session and a good game. Next month, though, I’ll try for something lighter, or possibly more familiar. Possibly Dark Heresy. I’ve actually run a handful of sessions of Dark Heresy, but I’m hardly a master of the system yet. I’m also a big fan of the setting, and I feel it’d work as a good lead-in for Rogue Trader. Of course, I’m also open for reader suggestions.

The RPG Course – A Session of Praedor

This is, yet again, a post on the roleplaying studies course I took at the University. By the way, I received my grade a couple of days ago. On the scale of 1-5, it ranked a full five. I am currently very satisfied with myself, which probably has to change since my ego is currently so bloated I have to buy it a separate ticket on the bus.

Aaaaanyway. As I’ve mentioned, the requirements of the course decreed that I had to study two games from a preset list, and play or run one of these. I’d never played any of them, but Praedor was the one closest to my usual style. Access wasn’t an issue with any of the games, since most of them were included with the course materials download and the rest I just happened to own. Even Tähti. I’ll probably cover the rest of the games in a future post.

What’s This “Praedor” Thing, Then?

Praedor, for the foreign devils reading this, is a Finnish fantasy roleplaying game. It’s based on the comics of the same name by Petri Hiltunen, which ran back in the old days in Magus, an RPG magazine, since deceased. The style of the game is rather gritty, kind of a medieval Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play in tone. Movie suggestions would include Flesh + Blood, The 13th Warrior and Kingdom of Heaven (director’s cut – the theatrical is useful only as a coaster). It is inspired also by the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic. Ville Vuorela, the designer of the game, later went on to write a game based on the novel. Both Praedor and Stalker are pretty good reasons to learn Finnish, in addition to knowing the language of the ruling class after our inevitable world conquest.

Were one inclined to be pretentious (and as an English major, I certainly am), one could describe Praedor as deconstructing the fantasy adventurer, the Unforgiven to D&D’s Fistful of Dollars. This adventuring thing, it’s glamorous. It’s not, generally, for people who have a choice. The life of the average praedor (the in-setting name for adventurers) is nasty, brutish, and short. There’s one short story, where Ferron (the protagonist for most of the stories) is taking a young would-be praedor to the cursed ruins of Borvaria to seek treasure. Despite Ferron’s warnings, the kid strays into one of the buildings. We see him plucking a large jewel from the grip of a skeleton, one of a pair that has seemingly fallen in battle with another over the treasure, both slaying the other. There’s a shadow with burning eyes rising behind him, and we cut to Ferron on the outside, when he hears the blood-curdling scream of his protégé.

Ferron’s reaction: “Shit. I wonder how much his horse is worth.”

The Praedor stories are full of this stuff. Life is cheap, death is meaningless, and while you can find treasure to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, you’re far more likely to be crippled for life or die an ignominous death in the jaws of some nameless creature somewhere in the cursed, haunted wizard-ruins of Borvaria. Violence has ugly consequences and is best avoided, but leading the life of a praedor means that this is not an option nearly as often as you’d like. There’s another story, where young Ferron meets a legendary retired praedor, now a blind and crippled man, disfigured by horrible burns. Did he receive them while exploring Borvaria or the wizard city of Warth? Why, no, he received them when the party was out carousing in a tavern, someone tipped a candle and he was too drunk to get out from under his whore in time. It doesn’t really get much more pathetic.

That said, praedors really are tough customers, a notch above the common man. They’ve got a dangerous attitude and the steel in their balls and sheaths to back it up. When you prick them, they bleed, but they’ll do their damnedest to prick you back.

The system is pretty light, and has a certain elegance. It uses dice pools of six-siders, roll under, with degrees of success. I could learn it well enough to run by studying it for a few hours and ignoring subsystems I deemed unimportant for a one-off game, such as alchemy.

The Session

I generated the characters myself since I ended up with five players. With one book and five players, none of whom had any experience with the system, characters generation could’ve taken hours. So, no. I asked what kind of characters they’d like to play and ended up with a bunch of fighter and ranger types and one roguish sort. The system is classless, but the rulebook does present four broad character archetypes, which could be translated as warrior, ranger, rogue and sage, the last one being the guy who knows stuff and mixes healing potions. The game is pretty low-magic and the true wizards aren’t really PC material. They’re immortal recluses, subtle and quick to anger.

For the adventure, I adapted an old Living Greyhawk module, Stuart Kerrigan’s COR5-18 Kusnir. I debated between that and Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Death Frost Doom. While the latter is by far the better module, I felt it wasn’t really right for what I was doing, since it relies a lot on playing off assumptions the players have about how a D&D dungeon crawl runs, and I was gamemastering for five newbies. So, Kusnir it was. The module also had the advantage that I’d both played and run it before and knew how it worked in play.

Kusnir is a pretty straightforward module. The PCs are hired to rescue an old man from a village ruled by a madman with a powerful magic item. I just felt the atmosphere of the module was right for Praedor. I rewrote parts of it to fit the setting and the system better. I lifted the NPC stats sheet from one of the free online adventures for the game to use with the barbarians and berserkers the party would encounter in the village. Kusnir isn’t the best of modules, but it does its thing well.

The game started with the party, who already knew one another, heading to the warehouse/brothel of a local criminal underworld figure, to ask about a job offer his cronies had posted to the tavern. It was in a seedy part of town, and on the way there, they encountered things such as a father trying to sell his daughter to slavery, and a beggar who was selling his own cut-off hand as a good-luck charm. One of the praedors (with the Superstitious drawback) even bought it.

The prince of thieves here turned out to be a morbidly obese lecher, transported around on a palanquin carried by some very unhappy slaves. He wanted someone to go down south, a week’s journey, to the town of Kusnir, where a mad cult leader had taken over with the help of a strange magical item. They were to rescue an elder of the town, should any still be alive, and bring him back to be pumped for information on the madman and his rule.

The party accepted the terms offered after a bit of haggling and hit the road. They travelled for a week without incident, and noted that the severed hand purchased as a good-luck charm was beginning to smell. They’d encountered no trouble, so the character who’d bought it deemed it to have served its purpose well, and buried it at the side of the road.

Nearing the village, now only hours away, they encountered a camp of soldiers. After some scouting and finally being spotted and captured by them, the PCs learned that they were former soldiers of Kusnir, who now sought to reclaim their village from the madman leading it. However, their leader was a raging egomaniac and the party was unable to recruit any great help from him, though he did hand over a prisoner who’d bitten off his own tongue in case he’d be more useful to them.

He really wasn’t. The party ran into an ambush by some savages, presumably Kusnir’s berserkers. They managed to spot the hiding warriors before the ambush was sprung, and a vicious melee ensued. The berserkers were all dispatched, and the tongueless prisoner was likewise slain. However, the lethality of the system reared its head on the players’ side as well – one of the characters lost his left hand to a barbarian’s axe. Ironically, this was the guy who’d bought the beggar’s hand. Other than that, it was just scratches for the PCs. They bandaged their wounds, and the one-handed man insisted on going ahead with the mission.

They scoped out Kusnir from the cover of the forest and waited for nightfall. The plan was to head to a small, dead orchard adjacent to the palisade and go over the wall from there. However, when they got to the orchard in the night and snooped around, they actually found a trapdoor covering an underground tunnel that led under the walls.

The party opted for the tunnel. It took them to the lower levels of a temple of some description, where they found torture implements, manacles, and someone’s dismembered corpse. They headed to the upper level, surprised a priest of some description, beat him up, tied him down, and pumped him for information. After sufficient applied violence, the priest told them that there indeed was a surviving elder in a wooden stockade next to the temple.

One of the characters grabbed the priest’s robe with its face-concealing hood, and left the temple to check out the stockade. He called out the elder’s name, but the prisoners quickly figured out this wasn’t the usual priest and pulled the Spartacus stunt. In order to get the elder, they had to set free the entire stockade, which they then did, but not surprisingly, attracted the notice of the local warriors, who came in hot pursuit. The party picked out the elder from among the prisoners and hoofed it, after barring the temple doors. They ran back to the underground tunnel, up to the orchard, and across the exposed ground between Kusnir and the forest. Fortunately, it was night, and visibility was low. The party’s ranger lagged behind since he stayed back to close all doors, and had to hide in the grass when the berserkers came up from the orchard with their torches. They passed him by and ran after the rest of the party, who were slowed down by wounds and the weak elder. They caught the party in the forest after some cat-and-mouse, and there was another fight, which the ranger-type joined soon after. The berserkers fought hard, but in the end, all the PCs survived and the barbarians were slain.

However, the superstitious guy sustained a serious injury. Yeah, he lost his other hand. I’d be superstitious, too…

After this, they got out of the woods, camped, healed their wounds, and travelled back north to claim their reward. We’d already been playing for four hours at this point, so I decided not to have them doublecrossed.

Analysis

Praedor is a good game. It does its thing well, doesn’t get bogged down even in combat, and is easy to learn. I learned it after just a few hours of perusing and the players picked it up very quickly. We spent almost no time flipping through the rulebook, since even the combat charts stuck to memory and were pretty intuitive to begin with. After reading the rules again, I couldn’t even find any rule we’d misinterpreted.

There wasn’t much of what is traditionally considered “roleplaying” in the session. It was light fun, no great immersion. That said, some players did get in character on occasion, especially when provoked by me playing as an NPC. To put this in the terms of Gary Alan Fine’s frames, very little of the dialogue around the game occurred in the diegetic frame. I didn’t really even try to push the game into the diegetic frame and just went with the flow.

I converted the module to Praedor on the fly, adjusting numbers and types of enemies and required skill checks as needed. I think I managed to estimate the lethality of adversaries fairly well, since while no PC croaked, they were certainly challenged.

So. Good game. Fun session. The system is light and seems ideal as a gateway game and for one-shots at conventions. I have some convention game ideas that Praedor might work with very well, with some bending and adaptation.

Castle Caldwell and Yog-Sothoth

Today, I played a session of old-school D&D. The Red Box, to be precise, or Labyrinth Lord, its retroclone. We had both the Red Box books and the Labyrinth Lord hardcover at the game table and used them more or less interchangeably. The adventure was the famous B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond, the iconic Christmas calendar dungeon (you open a door and something completely random pops out). The module holds a special place in the Finnish gaming culture, because it was one of the few modules that got translated into Finnish and some elements of it are completely ridiculous. A few years ago, some people associated with the Roolipelaaja magazine got together and played several sessions of Castle Caldwell and Beyond in different rulesets and game styles. They posted game reports on the forum, which is unfortunately gone now.

The game was advertised as a one-shot, but seems to have already spawned a loose campaign-like structure. It’s connected by the Mekanismi wiki to a fairly large player pool. The name of the campaign is “In the Shadow of Hatheg-Kla”. As may be determined from the name, there’s a strong Lovecraftian influence to the game world, Celaeno. However, in a surprise move, it’s not so much the Cthulhu Mythos as it is the Dream Cycle. Other inspirations are R.E. Howard’s Almuric, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, Leigh Brackett’s Skaith Trilogy, and Supplement V: Carcosa. It’s sword and planet and sorcery type stuff, weird fantasy that gives a context where even the reason-defying inhabitants of Castle Caldwell make sense.

I hadn’t actually played Red Box D&D before. It was an interesting experience. The game has a lot fewer rules than the D&D I’m used to, and is a great deal faster, especially in combat. That said, it’s also a bit inelegant, with the downward-counting Armour Class and to-hit chart, and the lack of a unifying core mechanic. Then, it is also a system that doesn’t really get in the way, and even the Armour Class thing just needs getting used to.

I played Alidan, a brave 1st-level elf, fresh from the Elflands, taken by wanderlust, searching for adventure. The other members of the group were Jado the Robin, a thick-skulled halfling and former slave, and Esteban, a noble fighter from a place he called “Spain” that nobody else had ever heard of. He kept going on about bad opium in a den in Macao. The DM was Navdi, who writes the blog Blowing smoke. He and another one of the players have also been playtesting Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Insect Shrine of the Goblin King, which probably has something to do with the idea of running Labyrinth Lord.

A Cordoba Spaniard in the Yellow King’s Court

A common concept in the sword and planet genre is that of the adventurer transported from our world to another planet or world – John Carter and Gullivar Jones to Mars, Randolph Carter to the Dreamlands, and so forth. Thus, Esteban and his henchman, Burt, were a nobleman and a sailor from 17th-century Earth. This kept coming up during the session. Clifton Caldwell was an Englishman, and one of the traders in the castle talked about Edinburgh.

This trick allowed the DM to do something interesting in the narration. Usually, at least in my experience, it’s a good idea to avoid cultural references reaching outside the game world, because they are damaging to the atmosphere. In narrating the events of a game set in the Forgotten Realms, you don’t say that the architecture looks like Ancient Egypt or that the bar is like the Mos Eisley Cantina. In my opinion, the narration and description of the game should be delivered to the cultural context of the PCs. I even criticised one of the papers (Hendricks) on the RPG course on this very topic. However, since it was established that one of the PCs was a Spaniard, with an Englishman as his henchman, Navdi could describe the architecture as “roughly Turkish or Ottoman” to Esteban, and all the players would understand it.

Making Making No Sense Make Sense

The other nifty trick in the game was that since the world is derived from Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and the sword and planet genre, where weird things happen, the sky has a strange tint and the Mona Lisa was painted by Erol Otus, it doesn’t have to make sense, as such. The weirdness brought by some oddities of the ruleset or idiotic module design is not unusual and doesn’t even need to be remarked upon. “This is the blackest kind of magic!” was actually Alidan’s explanation for a lot of things in the castle, and I feel it worked a lot better in the pulp setting than it would have in, say, Greyhawk, or in 3E.

That said, Navdi did cut out the dire shrew, because there’s weird and then there’s just plain dumb.

Another, bigger change that he wrought dealt with the three traders in Rooms 3, 4 and 5. In the original module, they’re three traders with no names who have identical stock for sale and are just resting. Now, they turned out to be identical triplets, who had no memory of coming to the place and who were overtaken by frothing rage when they laid eyes on one another. The first we recruited as a henchman, the second we tied up after he attacked the first one, and when we met the third one, our henchman charged him, while the other guy shook off his bonds and came to join in the fray. Then we had three identical traders, all named Charles, wrestling on the floor, and they started melding into one another, turning into some sort of monster straight out of a David Cronenberg film that attacked us. Overcome with revulsion, Alidan, Esteban, Jado and Burt hacked it to pieces and burned the foul goop that it melted into.

Also, the cleric in the last tower room worshiped Yog-Sothoth, which I clued into when Navdi described her holy symbol as looking like a key. The shrine itself was originally dedicated to Nodens.

He’s Dead, Jim

Another aspect of the Red Box, compared to newer versions of D&D, is that it’s a lot more lethal. Esteban, at full hit points, failed a save vs. poison and died immediately, to be replaced by the thief Jevgeni, a henchman he’d hired from the village in the shadow of Hatheg-Kla. Jado was chewed up by a fire beetle, and replaced by Dimitri, a cleric of Nodens who had heard of the evil plaguing Castle Caldwell and showed up just as we were done burying Esteban.

Alidan mostly survived because of luck. His AC was low, but monsters, when their attacks were randomised, rarely chose to strike at him and when they did, still missed. He took a total of three points of damage during the whole scenario, while fighting at the front line with his scimitar. And one of those points was when Jevgeni accidentally shot him.

Since I spend most of my time in a different town from the rest of the gang, it’s not likely I’ll get to play Alidan again, but it was great fun.

LoF: Howl of the Carrion King, Second Session

We’ve got a fairly tight schedule with this campaign. The first game was last Sunday, the second one we played yesterday and the third one is coming up next Tuesday.

It’s good to gain some momentum for a campaign.

This post, in case you could not tell from the title, contains some SPOILERS for Paizo’s excellent Legacy of Fire adventure path and especially its first module, Howl of the Carrion King. If you’re going to play this in the future, go read something else. Honestly, this isn’t even all that entertaining a read. Try Order of the Stick, or something.

Yesterday’s session was mostly comprised of various scenes of carefully planned and meticulously executed violence. The party, after clearing out the monastery for their base camp, set out on a reconnaissance mission to scout out Kelmarane and its environs. After learning  the guards’ patrol patterns (there weren’t any) and identifying points of interest on the edges of the settlement, they went in stealthy and took out some dangerous beasts guarding the perimeter, such as a peryton and a huge black mamba. In addition, they gained an ally in the harpy Undrella and rescued an adventurer, Felliped, who had been captured by the gnolls but fled from them, and took him to the monastery to recover.

The next day, they went back, ambushed a party of gnolls who were supposed to feed the peryton and then went and killed a dire boar they had as a guard beast and set an ambush for the party who was supposed to feed that animal.

In short, the party has been cutting through Kelmarane’s defenders like a flaming chainsaw through butter. Pathfinder characters seem to be mildly tougher than 3.5 characters, and my tendency to roll incredibly low doesn’t much help. In the dire boar fight, it failed to land a single blow on the characters, and the ranger Amra seems quite unable to hit a gnoll without killing it. He’s got gnolls as a favoured enemy, the trait Gnoll Killer (same bonuses, and it stacks), and is going  for the All Gnolls Must Die achievement feat.

The party’s efficient  use of stealth and ambush tactics is paying off. If they’d just charged in, kicking down doors, they would’ve eventually seen an alarm raised and the whole tribe arrayed against them, with whatever supplementary troops they can field. Now, they’ve taken out ten gnolls, a peryton, a giant warthog, a huge viper and a jackalwere that may or may not have been affiliated with the tribe, and the only one in Kelmarane who knows something is up is a harpy they allied with.

That’s not to say they didn’t occasionally screw up. In the second ambush, they placed Bouzak, a half-orc cleric with a Stealth modifier of -4 as their point man, and got spotted and swarmed by six well-armed gnolls. For one round, things looked pretty dire. Then they remembered they were big damn heroes and killed all six. Bouzak got his ass kicked a bit, though.

I must evidently beef up the adversaries in the rest of the module by thorough PFRPG conversions, added hit points, increased patrol sizes and character levels. I should have anticipated this, really, when I gave the party the highest offered stat point buy and double starting  hit points.

Incidentally, apart from small power level differences (in the baseline – the characters in my campaign are noticeably more powerful than that), 3.5 really is more  or less fully compatible with PFRPG. I don’t remember half the rules revisions in the beta and I can run the game just fine. When I’m not sure about something, I can ask the players.