Yeah, it’s a lot like that…
When last seen, the Pawns of Destiny were bugging out of their last port of call on the first available ship to avoid inconvenient accusations of murdering a prince, a high priestess of Etu, and sundry other folk of little import.
Somewhere north of Kenaton on the wide Sword River, the lookout calls “Sail ho!” and shortly thereafter “‘Tis the Blood Bride!” The captain pales, and orders the ship put about to head for the nearest riverbank. Alas, the river is several miles wide at this point and they are swiftly overhauled by an Amazon hawk ship. Between them, Ash and U’wahz identify that the Blood Bride is captained by Anaya the Swift, a renegade Amazon-turned-pirate wanted in Syranthia and numerous other places and known for massacring the crews of captured ships. The merchant captain’s preferred option of begging and pleading for mercy is unlikely to succeed, the crew don’t look like trained fighting men, and their vessel is too slow to escape; so the PCs tool up and stand by to repel boarders. Ash further knows that Anaya is not looting at random, she is looking for something specific – an ancient Keronian stone coffer. When he describes it, U’wahz (who is well-versed in legends and lore) identifies it as a heavily-trapped chest, used by Keronian sorcerors to keep their treasures.
Based on this intelligence, the players prepare a Cunning Plan. U’wahz will claim to have found clues to the location of a Keronian treasure map, thus establishing themselves as people too useful to be murdered and thrown overboard. Max and Zosimus are privately of the opinion that they can take any number of pirate Extras, and based on events to date they could well be right. The Monk is strangely distant, explaining that fate will decide who lives and who dies, and conceals himself by hiding behind the main mast. Dorjee (player not present) hides in the cargo hold, that is to say, under the tarpaulin on the rowing deck which keeps the worst of the spray and rain off the cargo.
The hawk ship pulls alongside and prepares to board. U’wahz calls out to them: “Is that the Blood Bride? Captain Anaya the Swift? I’ve been looking for her, could I have a word please?” This intrigues the captain, who comes to the rail and responds, “I am Anaya the Swift; what business have ye with me?”
U’wahz explains that he recently found a library full of ancient Keronian tomes (true, it was hidden in the Great Library of Syranthia) which has since been destroyed (true, Dorjee set fire to it), and that he gathered clues to the location of a great treasure, which he alone now knows! He believes that the clues are inside the very chest which Anaya seeks!
At this point a tattooed giant leans over the rail and calls: “U’wahz? Is that you? It’s me, Kord!” U’wahz admits that it is him, at which Kord explains how U’wahz saved his life by healing an infected wound while he was on shore leave in Syranthia, years ago.
“Alright,” says Anaya, “Parlay it is. I shall come over with my mate Kord and some rowers. No tricks now! And one thing is not negotiable: I must have the chest!”
Meanwhile on the quarterdeck, such as it is, the captain and crew are drawn up, intending to sell their lives dearly, look at each other in total confusion at this turn of events.
“But it’s my chest,” mutters the merchant captain. Ash suggests to him that he might be better off not arguing about whose chest it is.
Zosimus calls softly down to the lower deck. “Dorjee? Have you got a stone chest down there?”
“Yes,” comes the reply. “I’m hiding behind it.”
At this point the party realises that the chest is actually aboard their ship. Oops. So much for persuading Anaya they can lead her to it.
An extended negotiation ensues between Anaya the Swift and the party, leading to the following agreement.
First, that the PCs, the merchant captain and his crew will join the pirates. This is in everyone’s best interests; the merchant captain and crew don’t get killed, which they consider the most important benefit, and will now have access to luxury goods at a much lower price (namely free, because they have been looted from the pirates’ victims). It’s in Anaya’s interest to have a ship no-one knows is hers; it can sell her looted goods at a better rate than she will get from a fence, and can acquire supplies without inconvenient questions being asked. Plus, as Ash points out, she is now a proper Pirate Queen because she has more than one ship.
Second, U’wahz and his friends will assist Anaya in locating and acquiring the lost treasure, in exchange for the usual shares.
The pirates are disappointed because they can’t slaughter everyone, and arguments break out over whether this is a correct interpretation of the Pirates’ Code, which as everyone knows is not so much rules, more guidelines. The Monk points out that in principle this deal is no different from volunteers joining the Blood Bride‘s crew in port. Anaya silences dissent by pointing out that she is the captain, and she therefore decides how the code is applied. She reminds them of the most important rule: Obey the captain, or fight her fairly for the job. There is a total lack of interest in the second option.
The next step, they decided, would be to take the chest ashore before opening it, so that when it inevitably blew up, they had some chance of survival. Zosimus also mentioned to the others that it would make it easier to run away if they had to.
They run both craft aground for the night (as is common in Bronze Age cultures), and Anaya produces a pirate called Nimblefingers who she proudly announces is the best lockpick in the crew. He advances on the chest once it is unloaded, studying it and flexing his fingers. Ash gives him completely misleading advice and the Monk begins to chant a distinctly off-putting prayer, both with the express intention of making him fail. As he also rolls a 1 on his skill die, he is struck by a poisoned blade part-way through opening the lock and expires swiftly and messily.
On the basis that Ash was giving advice, Anaya promotes him to senior ship’s lockpick. He accepts gladly, supremely confident in his own abilities, but says he needs time to study it, as it is obviously unusually tricky. While he is doing this, Max and Zosimus walk the perimeter looking for the best escape route should it be necessary, and the pirates decide they may as well pitch their tents and cook supper.
Ash asks Anaya what she hopes is inside, since anything he could learn may improve his chances. She explains that there is a stone tablet inside, which interpreted correctly will lead them to the lost temple of Son Rah, wherein squats an idol whose eyes are rubies the size of a man’s fist. On learning of this, Zosimus suggests that he stands by while Ash deliberately triggers the trap again and again, and chops off the poisoned blades as they emerge – it must run out of them eventually. But Ash’s pride will not stand for cheating; he must open it himself, and he must do so fairly, with all the pirates watching.
At length, Ash consults with U’wahz, who explains his theory that the lock – a curious mechanism of interlocking plates – represents planetary and stellar movements, and to open it requires knowledge of the movements of the spheres. The plates must be moved not only in the right directions but in the right tempo as well.
“Ah!” exclaims Ash. “It’s musical, then. Movements of the spheres, harmonies in celestial music!” U’wahz tries to clarify, they don’t need a musician, they need an astrologer.
“Nonsense!” says Ash. “This looks to me like the Ballad of Dirty Nell – I’m sure you Sages have different words, perhaps with fewer obscenities, but this is the version I know…” and he sets to work on the lock, singing Dirty Nell to himself.
Ash succeeds handily, and the lid opens to reveal a stone tablet marked with some sort of map. He takes pains to contrive a device which allows him to lift out the tablet without putting his hands into the chest, and is rewarded when poisoned blades artfully slash where his wrist arteries would have been had he reached in himself. He then holds the slab in rags, muttering about contact poison, while he checks it for poisoned needles and such. Eventually, he proclaims it clean.
Anaya, Kord and U’wahz stroll off into the night, as Anaya is somewhat sensitive about who knows how to interpret the map. She looks up into the night sky, down at the torch-lit tablet, and shuffles around, clearly aligning it with a direction.
“Bah!” she exclaims. “Useless! This is nothing like the coast I know!”
U’wahz theorises that the map shows the coastline as it was in Keronian times, when everyone knows the lay of the land was different. Anaya is so close to the treasure now she can taste it, so is ready to clutch at any straw.
To cut a long story short, U’wahz and a few others run into Kenaton, he uses his position as a Sage of the Great Library to gain access to the city’s library, and they compare the tablet to the oldest maps they can find. By this means they are able to discover the location of the island where the temple of Son Rah lies, and they set forth on a three-week journey to it.
During this voyage the PCs all, in their various ways, work out that the crew is on the point of mutiny. Kord’s faction holds that a woman’s place is not on the quarterdeck of a pirate ship, and he would be a better captain; Anaya’s faction holds that a woman’s place is wherever the hell she wants, especially if she can use a sword like that, and she is the better captain. Kord manages to get a private word with U’wahz and says he will need help to take control of the ship, after which the position of first mate and navigator will be open, and U’wahz would be his preferred candidate for it. Max and Zosimus watch Anaya at her martial exercises, and Kord keeping discipline among the crew, and decide that either of them can probably take Kord if he doesn’t get into grappling range, but neither of them fancies taking Anaya on in a fair fight. Obviously, therefore, they will side with Kord, use him to take Anaya down, and then take over themselves.
Zosimus predicts that the island will be covered in jungle and infested by winged bat-human hybrids, and will later be proved correct on both points. (Zosimus’ player has read enough Conan stories to see this stuff coming.)
Nosing in through the reefs, the Blood Bride runs ashore on the single large beach, and the captain sends reconnaissance parties left and right along the beach. The PCs go left, and discover the wreckage of a Caldeian slave ship and a number of crude huts where the presumed survivors eked out a pitiful existence for an unknown period. One of the shacks has an amulet of bones, hair and mud dangling over the entrance, which the Monk appropriates for later study, divining that it is some sort of protective religious artefact. There are no signs of survivors, although Max (who is a pretty good tracker by now) detects what he thinks are the tracks of giant bats.
“Told you so,” says Zosimus.
Returning to the beach, the party finds that two pirates from different factions among the crew got into a fight and one was killed. The murderer makes no attempt to deny the charge, and although he attempts to justify his behaviour, faces summary execution under the Pirates’ Code. After this, the party reports on finding the wreck, but doesn’t mention the supposed giant bats, concerned that they will be thought mad.
Convinced that the temple lies somewhere in the jungle, the party sets out again, seeking the road to it they believe exists. After thrashing around for a while, they find a selection of cobblestones whose arrangement seems too regular to be accidental, and decide they have found it. By the time they get back to camp it’s almost dark. They decide to sleep on the ship in case of giant bats, but don’t warn the others. Anaya has seen them in action and knows that none of them have a clue how to operate a ship, so takes no action to make them sleep ashore with the rest of the pirates. Nobody gets much sleep that night, with each pirate faction fearing a sneak attack by the other, and the PCs concerned about giant bats.
Come the morning, inevitably a pirate is missing; only some scraps of clothing are to be found. Equally inevitably, each pirate faction blames the other, and it is late morning by the time Anaya manages to reimpose discipline and set off into the jungle, leaving a skeleton crew of relatively neutral pirates aboard ship. By mid-afternoon, following the overgrown trail has led the party and the pirates to the ruins of an ancient city, with the tall, slender towers characteristic of Keronian architecture and partially collapsed walls and gates. The pirates immediately scatter into the ruins in search of loot, but the PCs are more cautious and look carefully for traps, monsters, and the temple itself. There is much debate on how best to do this; Max is by far the best huntsman and tracker in the party, but is not good at finding things in urban environments. Ash is much better in cities, but much less use in the jungle.
U’wahz proposes to resolve this by mounting a tree on a wheeled platform, having Max climb it, and then rolling him into the city. In this way, he will still be in the jungle (admittedly a very small part of it), and can apply his wilderness skills. This is discussed at length but ultimately discarded as impractical, and the group settle for having Max climb a tree to look, and Ash climb one of the nearer towers, while U’wahz applies his knowledge of Keronian city layout to determine where the temple ought to be. Between them, this gives a good idea of the temple’s approximate location, and they set off for the city centre. Ash notes that someone, or something, has demolished the towers’ staircases, which Zosimus takes as supporting evidence for his giant bat theory – bats would want to nest up high, he argues, pointing out suitably large openings in the towers, but would not want people such as themselves climbing up and stabbing them. U’wahz points out that the Tricarnians, Keronia’s descendants, are rumoured to have giant riding bats, and suggests that the city is inhabited by their feral descendants.
The group finds a roughly temple-shaped building covered in green vines, and move to investigate. This proves to be a warehouse guarded by poisonous plants, but the only casualty is a nasty rash on U’wahz’s arm. Before moving on, they take pains to fabricate clues suggesting that this is the temple, in the hopes of poisoning at least some pirates, reducing the odds for the inevitable battle later.
Further on, U’wahz stumbles upon a large bas-relief depicting humanoid bats being offered human sacrifices. A fair amount of time is lost as he sketches the artworks. Yet later, they discover a broad and relatively undamaged thoroughfare leading out of the city to the east. Since they landed, Max and Zosimus have been mentally marking potential escape routes, and add this to their list.
At length, and as expected, the party finds the temple as dusk falls, thanks to the rays of the setting sun glinting off an idol’s ruby eyes in a small chamber atop a tall ziggurat. Kord and Anaya both arrive with a handful of pirates as the PCs are checking out the portcullis protecting the chamber. While Ash and U’wahz consider increasingly elaborate and cautious ways of raising the portcullis without triggering the obligatory traps, the Monk finds a gap in the stones where the ruined walls have collapsed, and wriggles through. Ash passes him a crowbar and he uses this to work the mechanism which opens the portcullis from the inside. Watching each other cautiously, everyone enters, and U’wahz moves a large rock under the portcullis in case it falls, trapping them. The idol is that of a demon, sitting cross-legged with a large bowl on its lap. It’s the work of moments for a couple of pirates to swarm up the idol and crowbar its eyes out, but then they notice the bloodless corpse of the missing pirate in the bowl. U’wahz examines it and announces that it has been sacrificed as per the ritual depicted on the bas-relief they found earlier.
At this point, a trapdoor behind the idol opens and batlike albino humanoids begin to crawl out; the first one manages to grab the nearest pirate and bite his throat out, but then a savage melee erupts. Zosimus notices that he is standing behind Anaya with a javelin in his atlatl, decides it’s the best chance he’s going to get, and hurls it at her with all his might. It skitters off her armour and disappears into the darkness at the rear of the temple. As the pirates see the indescribably horrible bat-things in the flickering light of their torches, they panic; the majority flee into the night (where they will later be picked off by more bat-things as they try to get back to the ship), one of them decides to play dead, and the bravest makes a grab for the rubies. Kord, as a wild card, rolls on the Fear Table and expires from a heart attack on the spot.
Anaya steps forward and engages the ruby-grabber in a swordfight, while her most loyal minion engages Zosimus to cover her back. Zosimus cuts him down pitilessly. Ash, meanwhile, is standing behind the trapdoor, braining bat-things as they emerge; he loses the element of surprise when one falls back down the hole rather than off to one side.
Meanwhile, Max and U’wahz note large numbers of additional giant bats approaching from the jungle and drop the portcullis to protect those still inside the chamber, forgetting that there is a rock set to prop it open.
Anaya kills her opponent and pauses to grab the rubies. The Monk, Zosimus and Max engage the seemingly limitless numbers of giant bats emerging from the trapdoor, supported by Ash. Within seconds, only the PCs and Anaya are left alive; they cannot escape through the trapdoor, or the portcullis, due to the numbers of bats.
It is at this point that U’wahz remembers a useful snippet of information from his study of Keronian history. “There’s a way out,” he calls. “I remember reading this, the book said ‘Fondle the bollock to escape’.”
With no further ado, he crawls under the idol’s bowl and strokes its genitals, causing a panel to slide aside and reveal a chute leading down into darkness. He throws a torch down it, and it skitters away for some distance before being lost to sight. One after another, the group disengages and dives into the chute, sliding haphazardly down a twisting, turning tunnel which eventually spits them out into a river some distance from the temple.
Spitting out brackish green water and checking she still has the rubies, Anaya says: “We can argue about who’s captain once we’re well away from this cursed island, agreed?”
This seems the most practical course, and the survivors flee back to the beach, where they find the skeleton crew has already started pushing the ship off the beach, as they don’t like the look of all those giant bats circling the centre of the island, especially since they seem to be carrying struggling and screaming figures. Our heroes splash through the surf as night falls, clamber aboard in some haste, and make off into the darkness.
Last weekend I managed to run two games, Hearts of Stone on Saturday and Pawns of Destiny on Sunday; so you get two writeups this week, and this is the second.
Like most of Umberto Pignatelli’s adventures, this one is relatively linear, but I was again struck by how naturally the PCs follow his plotlines without seeming to notice they are on rails. I wonder how he does that?
The group avoided the initial battle with the Blood Bride‘s crew by some pretty inspired roleplaying and a number of ridiculously lucky die rolls; it worked so well and flowed so naturally that I let them get away with that. They deserved more bennies than I gave them; this is a recurring theme, I must watch out for it in future.
Ash really came to the fore in this session, which was good because he has taken a back seat in many of the sessions so far.
I didn’t expect the cornered-rat situation at the end to kill the party – I’ve played with this crew for nearly 40 years now, and they are steeped in guile – but I was surprised by how they got away. U’wahz the Sage had been reserving his ability to declare one new thing in the setting true, and used it to ensure their escape by declaring that every Keronian demon idol has a secret escape passage nearby, which can be revealed by fondling the idol’s genitals.
Kord dying of a heart attack seemed too hilarious to overturn with a GM benny, and with their preferred candidate for captain dead, the group agreed they are quite content to serve under Anaya the Swift. And besides, none of them can steer the ship. So, through no plan of mine, I now find them in what I consider the perfect setup for ongoing picaresque adventures; the PCs as the crew of a ship, with an NPC captain calling the shots. However, we closed with a request from the group for something with more story arc rather than a continuing series of one-off adventures. They shall go to the ball, Cinderella; it’s just a question of which of the larger scenarios to throw at them next…