Hearts of Stone 13: The Death of Matteus Fulmens

Anvil Road, 19 May 216

The 18th of May 216 found our heroes deciding on their next move, as they have a choice of three quests before them.

  • First, they could investigate the disappearances and dismemberments in and around Dwardel. No-one seemed especially interested in that.
  • Second, they could investigate the Archmage’s secret facility under the town hall. A couple of people wanted to look into this, but the consensus was that it isn’t going anywhere and they can always come back to it later.
  • Third, they could investigate rumours of orcish spies encroaching on the Artalin estate. This has the advantage that their patron, Countess Casila, has specifically asked them to do it, and it won the vote by a tidy margin.

So, having collected rumours from travellers and barflies, and decided where they thought the orc spies were, they gathered up their numerous followers, horses, and a cart, and set off early on the 19th along the dwarven trading route towards Anvil. The day passed uneventfully, but during the second watch of the night, Vor (one of Valore’s followers) noticed a large batlike creature with a long tail circling the party’s camp before heading off to the north-east. At roughly the same time, Villen (Balthazar’s squire) noticed movement in the bushes to the south. They party woke up, tooled up, and after a brief debate set off in pursuit of the latter, elves to the fore to take advantage of their superior night vision, Boris temporarily assuming the form of an owl.

This led them to a small ruined building in the woods just off the road, wherein flickering light from a fire could be seen, and low voices in discussion could be heard. Aditi and Ssh’ta stealthily approached the nearest door with the intention of eavesdropping, but this plan was rendering obsolete by Soreth breaking down the door and discharging her breath weapon into whoever and whatever was inside.

This proved to be Decanus Matteus Fulmens of the Duke of Glitterhaegen’s Marines and the remains of his patrol, who have been following the party for several weeks pending instructions from their commander. Three marines were instantly incinerated by Soreth’s fiery breath, and seconds later two were smashed into a bloody pulp by Hayes’ ferocious charge and shield bash. Aditi slipped in behind them and tried to stab Matteus himself, while Valore dropped a brick on him from her vantage point 20 feet in the air above.

With all his men obviously dead, and a conviction that this was not going to end well for him, Matteus set off a Blast spell in the middle of the room. Only Balthazar was seriously wounded, although several others were blown through the doors. Matteus took advantage of this to flee the building, only to be caught in a Fear spell from Boris, who had flanked him moving up through the woods in owl form, which impelled him to even faster flight. Sadly for him, Hayes charged from the building and tackled him, while Boris summoned a female construct and Ssh’ta also joined in the melee. Low on mana and badly injured, Matteus still put up a good fight, but alone against a party of seventeen he stood no chance once pinned, and after battering him unconscious, Hayes slit his throat.

As far as the party knows, there are no surviving witnesses.

GM NOTES

The party now consists of 9 player characters (including a new player, whose first session this was), five NPC followers, three horses, one dire wolf and a chamaeleon. That’s the biggest party I’ve run since 1983, when I ran a party of 12 through FGU’s Alien Base adventure using Classic Traveller rules. The session was a bit hampered by us all being rusty after three weeks’ off, and numerous technical issues.

By my count, two of the Marines survived by virtue of not being in the camp during the attack. I shall have to consider what they might have seen and what their next move might be.

I spent most of my prep time over the holidays on the Archmage’s secret facility, which seemed to be their next target when we broke up, with very little thought given to the other two options. I shan’t make that mistake again.

Quick Ship Combat

For Savage Worlds…

Ship combat is a major feature of many SF RPGs, and when I convert those to Savage Worlds, it’s one feature that doesn’t convert well. It’s also not a major part of my games, because my groups don’t enjoy it any more than they enjoy interstellar trade.

Historically I’ve addressed this by either not having space combat in my games, or by writing clunky, complex rules interfaces. But now there is a better way; the Savage Worlds Quick Combat rules.

All you need to know about the two opposing ships to use them is this: Is one side outclassed, or even massively outclassed? Follow the link and read the rules, you’ll see.

The only tweak I’d make is that the PC’s ship takes a Wound every time one of the PCs does, meaning that the ship ablates away faster than the characters, as is proper for a pulp story.

If there are more than one or two ships per side, you should really be using the Mass Battle rules anyway.

Have I missed anything, or is it really that simple?

Review: The Gaean Reach

I’ve been busy with the Hearts of Stone campaign for the last few months, but that hasn’t stopped me buying more RPG stuff I don’t need. That habit will likely continue, and I shall review these items as time and motivation permit.

In a Nutshell: This is an RPG of interstellar vengeance in the Gaean Reach, the setting for Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels, and the Gumshoe rules system. 110-page PDF, written by Robin D Laws, published by Pelgrane Press, $8.75 from RPGNow at time of writing.

CONTENTS

Welcome to the Reach (2 pages): In which we are introduced to the concepts of roleplaying.

Building Your Vengeance-Seekers (7 pages): Character creation, in essence. This is slightly simpler than usual for Gumshoe, in that each player picks cards for his character’s Knowledge, Persona and Life, each of which gives the character certain abilities. Each player then explains how the villainous Quandos Vorn wronged his character sufficiently to motivate the PC dedicating his whole life to revenge, much in the manner of Kirth Gersen in The Star King, and what obstacles have prevented his vengeance to date. The characters then agree to join forces to rid the universe of Vorn.

The Rules of Reprisal (34 pages): The Gumshoe rules – I’ve reviewed these before here and here. I don’t like them, but the salient points are that they preclude the PCs missing anything important (though they may still misunderstand it), abilities cover things that would be skills or attributes in other games, and ability usage is not so much about the PC’s competence, more about how much time he gets in the spotlight doing cool stuff.

As in Pelgrane’s other Vancian setting, The Dying Earth, each character is given taglines – specific lines of dialogue they should weave into the session’s narrative as it proceeds, for example “Have you misplaced your etiquette guide?” In Gaean Reach, your character gains experience points (“tokens”) for using taglines in apt and amusing ways, and can trade those tokens for character improvements at the end of the session.

There are a couple of unusual rules worth mentioning. First, unspent tokens are lost at the start of the next session. Second, modern weaponry such as projacs and needle guns doesn’t deal damage; it is instantly fatal if it hits – but you can spend tokens on a Fortunate Avoidance, describing what miraculous stroke of luck prevents your character’s demise.

A Mordant Future (16 pages): The setting, painted with a broad brush; an overview of the Reach, capsule descriptions of ten of its worlds and their bizarre cultures, interstellar travel, and the ubiquitous Baron Bodissey, whose works are frequently cited in footnotes in the source novels. Explanations are offered for why technologies which seem obvious to us (such as computers) are not available in the Reach (spoiler: The Institute did it).

GM Tips and Tricks (14 pages): Opponents, alternate point-based character generation, how to plan a campaign, alternatives to the group of avengers such as government agents, traders, or planetary scouts.

The Cerulean Duke (19 pages): The obligatory introductory scenario, in which the characters further their quest for vengeance on Quandos Vorn by thwarting a scheme of conquest and plunder by one of his lieutenants.

Appendix (12 pages): Glossary, character sheet, GM’s party sheet and NPC sheets, cards for use in character generation, many taglines.

FORMAT

Black on white Vancian-flavoured text in a mixture of single and double columns, black line art and a red and black cover. Simple, efficient, easy on the eye and the printer, gets the job done. Thumbs up for this bit.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would have preferred this as a system-neutral setting book, but arguably the companion Gaean Reach Gazetteer fulfills that need. I may purchase that at some point, as my love for the Reach is undiminished.

CONCLUSIONS

I still don’t like Gumshoe. I don’t need dozens of pages of rules to tell me that the PCs always find the crucial clue. That’s a good concept, but the implementation is unnecessarily verbose.

However, Robin Laws’ works often have enough good advice for the GM that I’m prepared to put up with Gumshoe being in the book. Gaean Reach doesn’t really cut it in this regard; I feel the main thing I’m left with after reading is the central idea of a group of PCs bent on vengeance, and you can get that from the cover blurb, or the Demon Princes novels come to that.

Overall: 2 out of 5. A few great concepts, executed in a manner not to my taste. Your Mileage May Vary.

Hygge and Hiraeth

What lessons, then, from 2016?

Lesson 1: Hygge

Hygge is Danish from Norwegian and is used to mean a feeling of cosy intimacy and contentment.

What I want from roleplaying these days is hygge; fun with friends around a table, and anything that doesn’t support that is a distraction to be discarded, displacement activity which occurs because I’m not playing the game I want to play. Ideally the table is a physical one, but a virtual online table is a reasonable substitute, though not quite as good.

I keep returning to this point, not as if driving in a circle, but as if descending a spiral staircase, with a deeper understanding of it each time.

Lesson 2: Hiraeth

Hiraeth is a Welsh word, referring to a sense of grief and longing for a lost home to which you can never return, possibly because it never really existed.

I confess to a wistful longing for some games and settings which I don’t expect to revisit. For example, rarely has a purchase brought me such joy as did the PDFs of RuneQuest and Original Dungeons & Dragons which reappeared this year, but I can’t see myself running either of them again.

Lesson 3: Enough with the Negative Waves

I am always pessimistic about being able to find a new group when a campaign ends, but this is not justified as something always turns up, witness the Savage 13th Age campaign currently in flight.

Lesson 4: Bring Your “A” Game

The WFRP3 group I play in were looking for their next game over the summer, and pounced on Edge of the Empire with surprising enthusiasm. That scuppers my plan to ease them into a Savage Worlds space opera from Beasts & Barbarians; had I grasped the depth of their shared love for Star Wars, I would have started by offering that. So know your audience, and bring your intended campaign to the table from the outset, even if it isn’t ready to run and you have to wing it for the first few sessions.

“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

Hearts of Stone Interlude 2: Cultists and Griffins and Bears, Oh My

Meanwhile, near Dwardel…

CULTISTS…

On his first night in the area, X7-09 is approached after dark, during his sleep cycle, by two bald men in red, hooded robes.

“You see!” hisses one. “It’s him, the one from the dream!”

“Shall I paint him red, then kill him?” whispers the other.

“Nay!” says the first. “Wake him! He will help us destroy the Archmage! Then shall the way be clear to our final victory!”

X7-09 wakes, and enquires how the destruction of the Archmage may be accomplished.

“The Archmage has a secret facility under the Town Hall! Help us destroy it and surely the Archmage shall be discomfited!” says one robed figure.

“The dream was clear about that!” agrees the other. “Well, relatively clear. I think. Although I’m not sure why gherkins are involved.”

“You doubt the veracity of the Sacred Gherkins?”

“Never! I simply fail to understand their purpose.”

“Perhaps it is not for the likes of us to understand.”

AND GRIFFINS…

After arriving at Dwardel, Balthazar stows his helmet and shield with the cart and, flying low with Lord Fluffington III, heads to the forest where he throws some meat into the middle of the road. Balthazar then sneaks up a tree to watch, leaving Fluffy in the middle of the road with a letter and a collar tied to his leg.

At length, Decanus Matteus Fulmens and his men approach cautiously through the gathering dusk. They approach the griffin with care and produce equipment; the griffin suffers them to muzzle and leash it, clearly they are familiar to it. Matteus recovers the letter and reads it aloud to his men.

“It’s addressed to the Duke of Glitterhaegen,” he begins. “Blah blah blah… You have my deepest apologies, a mistake occurred as my master Alron Stormwatcher told me to leave the city in the company of his companions using the mount waiting near your estate. However, I instead found the remains of my horse being devoured by a griffin with this collar. Assuming this was now my ride I set off in haste; it was only upon arriving in Dwardel that my master contacted me, making me aware of the error, and Fluffington must have gotten loose. I apologize and request your forgiveness. Yours Faithfully, Sir Balthazar Rook of Baron Stormwatcher’s personal guard.”

“What do you think, Decanus?” asks one of the marines. The Decanus frowns.

“We’re not being paid to think,” he says at length. “Caius, you know how to ride this thing, yes?” Caius nods. “Very well, take it back to the Duke; deliver the letter and collar to him as well. Explain to him what’s happened and ask for further orders; one of us will be here in a week’s time to guide you to wherever we are by then. We will continue to follow this group until ordered otherwise – I don’t know what His Grace wants us to do, and once we lose their trail we’ll never pick them up again.”

“Sir,” Caius acknowledges with a salute. He mounts the griffin and takes off.

“Galen,” says the Decanus, “Find us a camp site, close enough to scout this out in the morning and far enough away that whoever left the griffin doesn’t find us. No fire tonight, marines, but we’ll make up for it at the next village, I promise.”

Balthazar waits until he is certain they’ve gone, then slides carefully from the tree and makes his way back to town.

AND BEARS

Further away, Hayes and Soreth have made camp. Hayes is now sporting a bearskin cloak with the head still attached, which he is wearing as a hat. He is thoughtfully chewing a raw turnip; Soreth has lit a fire with her breath weapon – one perhaps a little larger than intended – and is now biting pieces off a small, cute, furry, and still struggling forest creature.

A bear approaches, the gold chain of an envoy swinging about its neck. It rears up on its hind legs at a respectful distance and speaks.

“Good day traveller, are you the one known as Hayes? I have been sent as a messenger by the High Druid herself, to ask what may be given in exchange for the life of the Elf that wronged you. He is of interest to the High Druid and carries a power she would rather stay in this world. Is there any information the Druid can give you about herself or the Elf that would sway your thinking?”

Hayes grins and takes another bite of his turnip, considering his next move.

OH MY

In the Library, Valore is reading the Book of the Creed, looking for references to things like hidden relics and whatnot, and also sends a letter to the main church of the Creed asking for a new priest for Dwardel. Boris and Pascal (X7-09’s chamaeleon, who is clearly more than he seems) are looking at the magic books left by previous generations of Artalins. Silmaria is learning Martyn Artalin’s improbably large collection of bawdy drinking songs, while Boris looks at the pictures and drools.

Everyone notices that Martyn spends most of his time in the Library. In conversation with him they learn that Marblehall is said to be haunted; during the plague which ended the 12th Age, part of the family walled themselves up to avoid infection – and starved to death, refusing to trust the wandering cleric who came to heal them because he was of lowly birth. Their ghosts still haunt the east wing.

Martyn remembers Casila before she was kidnapped as “a lovely young girl, very studious, perhaps a bit odd – likely because she spent more time with Amberlith than was seemly for one of her station, and picked up wild ideas”.

The Library itself has a wide range of books, but focuses on dwarven culture, Imperial history, geology, and salacious bardic songs – that last focus is due to Martyn.

By virtue of being in and around the Library a lot, and noticing what books go in and out of the Library when, the above party members notice that Casila is a voracious reader whose favourite topics are ancient history, arcane magical matters, and architecture.

In the estate grounds: The Fox aquires a warhorse and barding, then spends his time riding around the local area and inspecting the Artalins’ residence. He learns that the locals believe that there are orcs spying on them, no doubt finding out the lay of the land for the inevitable invasion by the Orc Lord, who is somewhere in the northern wilderness. Dour men in travel-stained cloaks sitting in shadowy corners of taverns swear this is so. Casila asks the group to conduct a sweep of the area and investigate this; bringing a couple of orcs in for interrogation would be ideal…

Hearts of Stone 12: Winter Ale

Dwardel and Marblehall, 24-26 April 216.

The party is now in one of the safest areas in the Dragon Empire; House Artalin is not famous for its warriors or wizards, but it is immensely wealthy and powerful, and if anyone messes with it, the Archmage and the Emperor come down on them like a ton of bricks.

Scouting around the town, the adventurers learn the following:

  • The local dwarven brewery is haunted.
  • There has been a rash of disappearances in and around the town. Some of the missing are found, dismembered as if by some large beast; some are not.
  • There is some sort of secret facility below the town hall. Some say the Archmage sealed it up during a visit 50-60 years ago to contain subterranean monsters; some say he also created the monsters. X7-09 maintains his sources confirm the latter and that they also say the monsters are responsible for the disappearances.

After settling in, X7-09, Valore, Boris and Silmaria escort Casila to a joyful reunion with her cousin Octavian, the House Artalin Factor in Dwardel and de facto ruler of the town, although he is careful to defer to the mayor in public. Octavian is delighted to see his lost-lost cousin again, and entertains the group at length while his lackeys send word to Marblehall for an escort. A few hours later, this arrives and takes them with due pomp to the family seat, where Casila is again welcomed joyfully and an impromptu feast develops.

In a bloodless coup, Casila takes over the County; she is the rightful heir, and her Uncle Martyn never wanted to be Count anyway. Mindful that she is a woman in a time of little gender equality, and hasn’t been seen for a decade, Casila determines that she needs to score some political points, rally support, and demonstrate her capability in short order. To this end she enlists the party as her retainers, gives them little badges to prove it, and unleashes them back into Dwardel, reminding them that it belongs to her now so collateral damage needs to be kept under control, and asking them to invite her old friend Amberlith, landlady of the Giant’s Flagon, the only inn in town, to visit her in Marblehall. As her retainers, they are entitled to free board and lodging at Marblehall, and will be otherwise rewarded too; in return, there are a few little jobs she’d like done, once they have finished the business they say awaits them in Dwardel.

Having passed on the message to Amberlith, Valore and X7-09 decide that the first order of business is the haunted brewery. It transpires that one of the temples in town follows Valore’s religion, the Creed of Pytus, and that the local priest has tried exorcism without success. After a daytime tour of the brewery to familiarise themselves with the layout, our heroes settle in to wait for the ghosts to arrive. This they do in due course, causing Zadok and Silmaria to flee in terror and a shaken Boris to declare “I’m never touching another drop.”

Volare and X7-09, however, are made of sterner stuff and ask the ghosts to explain themselves.

“We were told there would be Winter Ale,” they moan. X7-09 locates this and pours out generous tankards of the stuff, while Valore prays to Pytus for guidance and gains an intervention allowing the immaterial ghosts to drink their fill. Their unfinished business resolved, the ghosts fade away.

GM NOTES

The timing here ended up more or less as planned, in that they have returned Casila to her home, found powerful patrons, and have settled in, at least for a short while, to a specific location. They now have the run of Marblehall, including its extensive library, but look likely to base themselves in Dwardel. Valore is researching the Creed of Pytus, Boris and Pascal (X7-09’s chamaeleon, who is clearly more than he seems) are looking at the magic books left by previous generations of Artalins, and Boris and Silmaria are reading Martyn Artalin’s improbably large collection of bawdy drinking songs. Other things are happening off-stage in secret, revolving around clandestine use of icon rolls and concealed plans; the first visible outcome will be the disappearance of Lord Fluffington III, the Duke of Glitterhaegen’s prize griffin, but more of these matters next time.

Thanks to the ghosts in a brewery thing, Boris has now acquired a minor phobia of alchohol, to everyone’s great amusement.

I was pleased both that the group referred to this slightly extended episode as “the season finale” without prompting, and that they managed to resolve an encounter without violence. Valore knew, and explained, that ghosts are immune to normal weapons and only affected by magic; and the party spellcasters, unusually, have no damage-inflicting spells, so they had to think their way out.

Christmas has crept up on me this year, so no lessons learned or general reflections for you this time; maybe I will have time for that over the holidays.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading and commenting, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all. I’ll see you on the other side.

Hearts of Stone 11: Pub Lunch

The testament of Rosie Frost, barmaid at the Travellers’ Rest, regarding the events of 23 April 216.

I don’t want no trouble, sorr, and anyways Oi was behind the bar and didn’t see much of what ‘appened. But Oi did serve ’em all afterwards, so Oi did get a good look at ’em. What was they loike? Well, there was a forgeborn, you don’t see many o’ them around ‘ere, an’ there was a knight on a griffin, an’ two elves, an’ a lady – ‘ighborn she was, you could tell just by lookin’ at ‘er, even if she was dressed funny – an’ a bard, pretty thing she was an’ no mistake, an’ a angel with a flamin’ sword – no, I mean it was on fire, flames runnin’ down the blade. Oh, an’ they ‘ad a tame wolf with ’em as well.

Now before they arrived we only had two visitors, it bein’ slow for a Saturday fer some reason; Dicias the elf and a merchant called Charrid, they’s both regulars. They was takin’ a wagon-load of weird stuff to that apothecary in Dwardel, what’s ‘is name? Lucius, that’s it. Moi dad – ‘e’s the landlord y’see – ‘e was afraid it might blow up, so ‘e made ’em park it a long way from the door, an’ what do you know? No sooner did these strangers turn up than it did blow up! Charrid said later as the forgeborn ‘ad started fossickin’ around in the back o’ the cart, an’ it was ‘im what blew it up.

Oi tell ‘ee, Oi never saw a calmer ‘orse than Charrid’s that day. ‘E just kept on drinkin’ from the trough, ‘e didn’t mind when the cart blew up an’ not even when the griffin came an’ stood right next to ‘im. What? Oh yes.

So anyway, the forgeborn walks into the pub, smokin’ a bit from the explosion, an’ I sees the knight lift ‘is purse an’ some sort o’ book, then ‘e throws the book in the fireplace an’ it burns up. No, Oi din’t try to get it out, what use is a book to me? Oi can’t read. Let it give us a bit o’ warm Oi sez, useless things them books. The forgeborn comes up to the bar an’ asks for a point o’ oil, an’ Oi sez “Olive all right?”, an’ ‘e sez yes, so Oi pours ‘im a tankard full o’ olive oil an’ then ‘e sez ‘is purse is missin’, an’ ‘e stomps back outside an’ chops Charrid’s ‘and off with an axe. Vicious, that forgeborn is Oi tell ‘ee, vicious. Charrid sez that knight gave ‘im a purse to pay for ‘is losses, which ‘e thought was fair enough, but then this forgeborn comes up and yells at ‘im about stealin’ ‘is purse an’ chops ‘is ‘and off.

The angel an’ one o’ the elves was up on the roof, to drink in peace they sez, which normally moi dad wunt allow, but Oi seen what ‘appened to Charrid an’ Oi decided to keep me views to meself. Anyway, they started hollerin’ ’bout ‘obgoblins, then there was a big fight outside – they said later some ‘obgoblins ‘ad attacked the pub, an’ there was certainly bodies outside when we dared come out again – three with their throats cut an’ one stuck on a branch on that tree there, if you looks you can still see the blood. Oi don’t mind cleanin’ the pub Oi sez, but Oi’m not doin’ the trees an’ all.

Then they comes back inside, cool as you please, an’ orders lunch like nothin’ ‘ad ‘appened. They buys Charrid’s ‘orse off ‘im – for a fair price, mind you, not that ‘e would’ve turned anything down at that point – an’ fixes ‘is arm as best they can. Then the ‘ighborn lady, she asks Dicias an’ me all sorts o’ questions about Dwardel an’ Marble’all, so Oi reckon that’s where they was goin’.

A job for Charrid you say? Bless you, sorr, ‘e surely needs one, what with losin’ ‘is ‘and an’ ‘is liveli’ood in the same day. Why you can ask ‘im yourself, ‘e’s just over there…

GM’S NOTES

I always document the group’s adventures in one way or another, and recently I’ve taken a liking to statements from surviving witnesses, as it excuses any variation between my memory and those of the players.

Sooner or later, this lot are going to attract attention from somebody big and nasty enough to pay them back in their own coin. Meanwhile, they are getting quite fluent in Savage Worlds, and I’ll move out of the combat rules into some social interaction; now that Casila is nearly home they should start meeting her family and friends, hopefully without killing them all in the process. That will take us to the Christmas break – two weeks of not gaming – and in that period I can plot out the next 10-20 sessions for them, while they have a chance to study the handouts I’m preparing for the area near Marblehall. I want to keep them close to Casila’s family for a while, perhaps having to live with the consequences of their actions will calm them down a bit, currently they are moving faster than the news of their atrocities.