Hearts of Stone Interlude 1: The Caravan

Things are relatively quiet for the ten days it takes to get from Old Town to Concord. Dave is approached just outside Old Town by another drow on a spider, who talks with her for a while then leaves, taking Chitter Chitter Fang Fang with her. Dave skips happily up to the caravan and joins the rest of the party.

Meanwhile, Hayes has a letter written in draconic. Soreth offers to translate it – for a price. A stranger none of the party can remember in a hat and cloak offers to translate it, explaining that he is a scholar of sorts.

After a brief stopover at Twisp, a small herd of a couple of dozen sheep starts to follow the caravan. Safety in numbers, no doubt. The halfling shepherds display an interest in X7-09, but then he is fairly unusual.

Dave spends the trip helping out and doing odd jobs, and makes a point of befriending the guards. In the evenings she sits with Hayes, discussing a book with him. X7-09 begins keeping a journal of his travels, and can be seen flipping backwards and forwards through it, reviewing previous days’ entries.

Ssh’ta gives his heavy cloak to Dave, and acts as a night watchman for the caravan throughout the journey. The caravan master is pleased with this as elves have night vision.


No session last weekend, so I gave the group 10 days of downtime while they travel to Concord. They have now bypassed two scenarios, one of which could still be used later, and I have a choice of two others ready to go. Let’s see what they do next.

Hearts of Stone 5: The Tomb of Iskelet

Having disposed of the drow and their spiders in one way or another, the group conducts a thorough search of the complex.

Ssh’ta begins playing his flute softly, and wanders into one of the “spider stables” where he finds a cluster of four webbed bodies. These turn out to be local peasants – charcoal burners and the like – lacking both treasure and interest, so he leaves them be. The Fox discovers one holdout spider, which webs him, but Dave kills it outright with a well-placed arrow. X7-09 ransacks the drow bunkroom, finding socks (which Dave appropriates), a few silver pieces, some soap – the sort of thing you might take with you on a short camping trip. Kowalski loots what they have taken to calling the “officer’s quarters”, finding one blank notebook (which he will later give to Dave, who will later still give it back) and another book written in elvish script, which he does not read (and which Dave will acquire later). X7-09 enters the evil shrine, where he finds a dwarf-made axe whose blade is buried in the stone altar. He pries it loose and wanders up to join Hayes, who is still in conversation with the king skeleton, Iskelet. Hayes berates him for bringing the axe, and orders him to put it back; he attempts to do so, but snaps the haft – as no-one sees this, he puts it carefully down on the altar and walks off. Except for Kowalski, the party regroups in the entrance chamber and readies themselves to leave. Kowalski can be seen approaching the king skeleton and engaging it in conversation, but he is too far away and speaking too low for anyone to catch what is said.


The Tomb of Iskelet fully revealed. Built with 0One dungeon tiles and tokenised Fiery Dragon counters.

Outside, it is raining again. Dave collects up some bedclothes as improvised protection for Casila, whose court finery is not holding up well under the night’s events. Hayes donates some clothing and leather armour he liberated from dead drow earlier. And they set off back to the inn, mindful that it is nearly midnight and they have a caravan to catch in the morning.

They are walking back through the woods when they discover they have a stranger in their midst, a well-dressed man wearing a fox mask and two rapiers. He begins to glow, and those nearest to him – Dave, Ssh’ta and Chitter Chitter Fang Fang the drow riding spider – find themselves reliving their worst memories. Chitter webs this stranger while Ssh’ta shoots an arrow at him; he falls, apparently unconscious and paralysed, and Dave takes advantage of this to set fire to him. However, freshly-exuded and sticky spiderweb does not burn well. Chitter is not the most introspective of creatures, and picks up the body to eat later. In the absence of further orders, she takes up residence in a nearby tree. Dave stands watching.

Ssh’ta, stung by who knows what vile reverie, runs off into the forest. Hayes feels no loyalty to anyone in the party, and stomps off towards the caravanserai, using a smouldering turnip to light the way. X7-09 follows, and after a short hesitation, so does Soreth. Dave doesn’t fancy the idea of a night alone in the woods, so cajoles Chitter down out of her tree, and they pick up the trail as well, Chitter carrying the webbed and unconscious stranger. Back at the inn, they settle in for the night, Dave and Chitter in the stables (the latter scaring the horses more than somewhat), the stranger webbed to the ceiling, and everyone else in their rooms.

Comes the dawn, and everyone is awoken by the bustle of a merchant caravan getting ready to depart. Late arrivals have brought packages; Ssh’ta leaps down from the roof (where he has spent the night after tracking the party back here) and takes possession of an adorable wolf cub, sent to him as a present by a so-far secret admirer. Hayes takes possession of a letter from the Archmage addressed to “the Fox”; this proves to be written in Draconic, and Soreth offers to translate later. The looted weapons are sold to an arms merchant in the caravan.

Meanwhile, the webbed stranger in the stables calls: “I am Alron Stormwatcher, nobleman of the Dragon Empire and agent of the Archmage! I demand that you get me down from here!” The stable boy flees, and returns shortly with three caravan guards. These decide that fighting a giant spider hand-to-hand for possession of a nobleman is not in their job description, but brighten when they realise they can get bows and shoot the blighter from safety. Dave orders the spider to lower Alron to the ground, where he is quickly cut free. A debate ensues over whether Dave and Chitter can join the convoy – on the one hand, Dave is a drow, and nobody really trusts drow, their spiders even less so. On the other, Dave does have a valid ticket.

Hayes resolves the problem by playing dice with the guards, staking Dave’s right to follow the caravan at a distance against their meagre coinage. He wins, and Dave and Chitter are granted permission to follow at a distance, while Hayes pockets the two silver the guards had between them. Hayes demands as payment the book in elvish from Dave, who currently has it; she declines to hand it over.

Alron, AKA the Fox, soon learns that there was a letter for him from the Archmage, but not where it is currently. And in this state, the caravan sets off; it’s two days across open country to Twisp, and then eight days to Concord, the first four through wooded hills. If there’s any trouble en route, that’s where it’ll be.

GM Notes

Here we see the Fox’s One Unique Thing revealed, together with… well, they haven’t figured that bit out yet. His unique is that everybody forgets him at midnight. The uniques for Hayes, X7-09, Ssh’ta and Dave have been displayed for some time, but no-one has figured them out yet. Kowalski and Soreth have uniques that haven’t come into play yet.

This was a regular two hour session; we’re now up to 11 hours of play and 29 hours of prep time, so a bit less than 3 hours prep per hour of play. Still a bit high, but as the campaign progresses I expect the ratio to improve, as I will be adding fewer new items and characters.

Finally, due to the group’s unusual level of focus on keeping secrets from each other, I’ve re-introduced languages, which I don’t normally bother with these days. The Multiple Languages setting rule is in force – so a PC with Smarts d8 speaks 5 languages, and if he had the Linguist Edge he would speak 8. Dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible with a Smarts-2 roll, and understanding your own language as it was spoken in an earlier Age requires a Smarts roll with a penalty equal to the number of Ages which have elapsed since then. We’re using a modified version of the language list from D&D 5th Edition; Celestial, Common, Draconic, Dwarvish, Elvish, Giant, Goblin, Infernal, Orcish, Primordial, Spidertalk, Sylvan, Undercommon. Undercommon is a dialect of elvish. I see no need for Halfling or Abyssal as separate languages, and there are not going to be any gnomes in any of my campaigns ever again, so we don’t need Gnomish.

I think this group’s style of play would be well-suited to a Savaged version of Night’s Black Agents, so I’m thinking of doing that with them next, rather than my default space opera.

Hearts of Stone: Fun with Icons

13th Age’s idea of icons is highly portable, looks great in theory, but needs thought before one can use it effectively.


There are too many icons for the average game. The magical number seven (plus or minus two) suggests there should be five of them in play; with what looks like it will be six regular players, I have nine active – The Lord of the Rings manages with three: Archmage (Saruman at first, later Gandalf); Elf Queen (Galadriel); Lich King (Sauron). Actually, LotR is a good example of a party of PCs (the Fellowship) ending one Age and starting another by their actions.

But I digress. The players’ choice of icon relationships is them telling me how much they want those key NPCs to matter in the campaign; their One Unique Things and backstories are them telling me how their PCs matter. Let’s call their chosen icons A to I, to avoid ruining the suspense for any players reading.

H has links to four players; A, E and G to three each; B to two; and C, D, F and I one each. A and G have the most relationship dice across the party, closely followed by H and then E, with the rest trailing quite a bit behind.


Take a look at The Angry GM’s post on story arcs here, because it explains what I’m up to better than I can. Too Long: Didn’t Read version: A campaign needs several main story arcs and a number of non-arc episodic stories, so that the GM can vary the pacing and avoid player boredom; paradoxically, the main arcs need relatively few episodes. In my case I already have a main arc in mind, which I think will take roughly 10 episodes to resolve, depending on how well the PCs fare in figuring out what it is; when it ends, that will change the game world significantly, so it will end the campaign as well. I have a secondary arc which will end fairly early on in the campaign, but positions the PCs in readiness for the start of the main arc; that will need roughly 15 episodes, and will finish in a climactic set piece which switches the arcs.

For comparison, a Savage Worlds plot point campaign has maybe 8-10 point points (adventures on the main arc) and maybe 30-40 episodic stories.

I expect the campaign to last about 50 episodes, each of which will take around two sessions to complete because the weekly game slot is two hours long instead of the 3-4 hours I’m used to. That’s 100 sessions, or roughly two years of gaming – gadfly that I am, I will be ready to move on by then, I’m sure.

So, 50 episodes to sort out, and maybe 20-25 on the precursor and primary arcs. That leaves roughly 25-30 to identify, at at least one more main arc; and for those I’m going to use the icon relationships, because they tell me who the PCs want to be important. In all there are 19 relationships, so if I use one episode for each, that will give me about the right number. It also means that the more links there are to an icon, the more often he or she will influence events. Each of these episodes should tie in to a PC’s backstory, and either foreshadow or provide clues to the main arcs.

To recap, icons A, E, G and H are both the ones linked to the most PCs, and those with the strongest links. Fortunately A and G are enemies, and both dislike H. A and E are allies. So it seems there should be a secondary arc about the rivalry between A and G, with E weighing in on A’s side and H generally causing trouble and sowing confusion.

Initially the campaign will switch between the precursor arc, the secondary arc, and unrelated episodes. At about the time the PCs reach Veteran rank, there is a big set piece plot twist which switches the precursor arc for the primary arc. Towards the end of Heroic, the PCs finish the secondary arc, and Legendary rank is dominated by their efforts to complete the primary arc.


The GM will tell you when to roll your icon dice, typically at the end of every third session. Rolls of 1-4 have no effect, a roll of 5 gives you a benefit with a complication, and a 6 gives you a benefit with no down side. (Remember to tell the GM which icon relationship each 5 or 6 relates to.)

You can invoke any 5 or 6 result at any time before the next roll. When you do so, you must tell the GM how the result helps you and how it’s connected to the relevant icon; you may also describe how a 5 complicates your life as well, or leave that to the GM (in which case he will tie it to one of your Hindrances).

Limitations: Icons will never appear in person to help you, although their subordinates might.

Examples: These are listed with the benefit first, and a possible complication following the BUT.

  • I have a magic item for the duration of this session, BUT I woke up with it next to me, and I have no idea how I got it. Or whose blood that is on the sheets.
  • The guard leaves the cell door unlocked that night, BUT I had to bribe him with my most valuable possession.
  • I unexpectedly bump into an old flame/war buddy/friend, who can give me useful information/a little cash/a place to hide, BUT they have this problem they need me to take care of. (This is like using the Connections Edge without having to roll Streetwise.)
  • Those enemies know my rep, and retreat rather than fight us; BUT they’ll be back later, with reinforcements. (Including your Enemy if you have one, or local law enforcement if you’re Wanted.)
  • Those bandits know you hate the icon, and they hate him too, so they’ll let you go; BUT they still want all your valuables to leave you alone.

Another example of rolling a 5, from the Dying Earth RPG by Pelgrane Press:


(No challenge to copyright intended.)


Once I’ve finished this campaign, which I estimate will be towards Christmas 2018, I expect I’ll switch back to a space opera of some kind. If icon relationships work well in Hearts of Stone, I’ll reuse them in that game too; but I think in SF they would work better as ties to organisations rather than – or maybe as well as – powerful individuals. Also, I’m thinking of encouraging stronger ties to fewer icons by granting specific benefits… For example, “If you take three positive dice with the Imperial Scout Service, they will give you constructive possession of a scoutship.”

Hearts of Stone, Episode 4: Dragonbreath

New readers begin here…

The party has pursued the drow who kidnapped their companion, Casila, to an old tomb complex. As they hack their way through the inhabitants, the drow leader teleports away with Casila, unfortunately landing just outside the entrance where she is shot by Ssh’ta and shield-bashed prone by Hayes Agar. Dave pulls Casila free of the dogpile, but the drow grabs Casila’s ankle…

Now read on…

The drow patrol leader teleports away with Casila, and Hayes collapses into the mud, cursing. Kowalski hacks at the spider in front of him as more spiders the size of horses erupt from the southern passage into the entrance chamber; his target is shaken. Hayes leaps up and slides under the abdomens of two giant spiders blocking his way deeper into the complex, rolls to his feet, and charges into the guardroom, using the bench where the drow were sitting to launch himself into the air. Dave the dark elf drops another spider with a well-place arrow. X7-09 swipes at a spider, misses, and the two chitter at each other, presumably exchanging insults. The Fox runs back across the hall of skeletons and stabs the remaining spider in that area, inflicting prodigious amounts of damage on it.

A hitherto-unseen spider barrels out of the south passage from the entrance hall and barges past everyone there, moving at top speed towards the injured drow. Ssh’ta repeats Hayes’ manoeuvre coming from the other direction, ending up outside the complex, and shoots at the drow leader’s spider; his arrow is deflecting by thick chitin and does nothing. The drow swings herself onto its back as arrows from Ssh’ta and Dave fly around her, and the pair scuttle off into the forest out of sight. Casila runs back towards Dave, as she has no idea what else is out there in the dark, and she knows both the elves can see in the dark.

(Can you say “recurring villain”? I knew you could, and it looks like this drow, now called Karanlek, will be one. The dice love her.)

X7-09 misses his spider again, and it returns the favour with its web attack, which I have finally remembered they have – this is probably because Ssh’ta is barging past it at the time. Soreth tries to bite the throat out of one of the two spiders in melee with her, but fails – possibly because they don’t really have throats. Ssh’ta shoots a spider but fails to hurt it. A spider lands an impressive bite on Soreth, but its poisonous fangs (yes, I’ve remembered they have those too) fail to penetrate her armour and scaly skin.

X7-09 misses his spider yet again and chitters at it. It sits, then shakes its head, to the bemusement of the rest of the party – at least, those who can see what is going on. Inspired by this, Dave shouts “Sit!” in drow at the spiders, and some of them do so. Soreth misses her spider again as well, or more accurately fails to penetrate the thick chitin with her claws. Kowalski taunts his opponent (by gesture) so well that it rocks back on its legs, bemused. The two spiders facing Soreth miss her, one with a web and one with a bite, and Ssh’ta takes advantage of this to race up behind one and punch it, killing it.

X7-09 makes soothing noises at his spider – then brains it with a surprise axe attack. Soreth loses patience with her lack of progress, and it is at this point the party learns she has a breath weapon, as she breathes fire at the spider she has been trying to hit for ages. The spider dodges aside, leaving the burst of fire barreling out of the entrance room – fortunately, there are no walls to block its path and reflect it back at Soreth. The danger zone contains X7-09, who has just produced his pet chamaeleon, Pascal, and offered it some choice morsels of spider; Dave the dark elf, who is playing happily with her new spider friend; and Kowalski. All of them dodge aside, as does Casila – who is actually outside the danger zone, but doesn’t know that and doesn’t want to find out where it is the hard way.

Kowalski moves over to Casila and says “So ye’re what all the fuss is aboot, are ye?” (He has developed a Scots accent, as dwarves often do since The Lord of the Rings movies.)

Back inside, the Fox and Hayes note that the skeletons’ shields are emblazoned with the sigil of the Lich King, and that they keep looking at the backs of their shields. The Fox sidles up next to one and finds writing on the backs of the shields, which he doesn’t understand. Hayes is charging through the hall of skeletons at full tilt, glancing into the exits as he passes them. Along the north wall he spies a bunkroom, a storeroom and a room with a fountain in it; on the south, what looks like a private room at an inn, a blood-spattered room containing a pit full of bones, bodies, and giant spiders; and a red-lit room containing some sort of dark idol. The Fox notes that the skeletons are all human, equipped in the fashion of some five centuries previously.

“Why is this tomb so well-lit?” muses Hayes. “More importantly, why has it got a drow outpost inside it – one the skeletons tolerate?”

Hayes slows to a halt at the end of the hall, where he can see a crowned skeletal figure on a throne, in ancient chainmail with a longsword across its lap. It inclines its head at Hayes, who is smiling and approaching in a non-threatening manner, and beckons him closer. Hayes warns the others not to approach, and the Fox mentally adds this warning to the screams and explosion noises coming from near the entrance, and charges dramatically back towards the guardroom, where Soreth and the spiders (good name for a rock band, that) are still flailing ineffectually at each other. Kowalski walks in from the entrance hall and calls: “D’ye want some help wi’ that, Red?”

“No!” calls the dragonborn. “I’ve got this!” Soreth misses again, and the Fox charges onto the scene yelling “For the Archmage!” and killing the larger spider, missing it once with a rapier but connecting fatally with the second stab.

Outside, Dave asks his new pet spider if it would like to be called “Chitter Chitter Fang Fang”, and takes its movements as an affirmative. He feeds it some choice pieces of dead spider, that being what there is to hand.

“Hey,” says the Fox, to no-one in particular, “There’s a statue back there that looks just like Kowalski.”

Meanwhile, deep inside the tomb, Hayes and the skeleton king, whose name turns out to be Iskelet, are deep in conversation…


One of the interesting facets of playing in Roll20 is that I can track time spent. So far we have spent a little over nine hours in actual play, and I have spent 25 hours in prep time beyond that; so a bit less than 3 hours of prep time per hour of play. I expect this ratio will reduce as time goes on and we improve our understanding. However, in that nine hours the group has managed four encounters, so they are moving at roughly half the expected pace. The D&D 4th Edition yardstick of 30 minutes to settle in, one hour per encounter, and 30 minutes to wind down and pack away still looks valid – I have suspected for some time that this is more about the players than the game system. Since I award experience per session, the group is advancing at roughly twice the normal rate – I know this will not cause issues, since I have two other groups where the players get a steady 5 experience and one advance per session. However, it means I may have to adjust the campaign pacing. I will keep an eye on that as things move forwards.

Something that is slowing us down is the group’s penchant for secrets. I’m spending roughly as much time responding to secret whispered chats with individual players as I do running the main game, and they consistently split the party to further their secret agendas; I also need to be more circumspect than I am used to in session writeups, which as they are shared with everyone should only contain news known to everyone. If and when I run another campaign with this group, I will have to give them some unifying mission and team structure – a ship’s crew perhaps, or a Tsolyani clan. I hope I can shape them into better teamwork than they currently display, but their icon relationships are a bit diverse and that may be a challenge. What I can do is start taking some of the whispered chats offline and handle them by email between sessions; Kowalski and Dave are outside talking to Casila, and Hayes is conversing with Iskelet, all of them basically ignoring the melee happening a few yards away from them.

The players have come up with some pretty good stuff for their icon relationship dice, and at least two have already used a die; I have briefed them that icon dice recharge every third session, so that this at least keeps pace with the rules as written. Most of the ideas so far are for recurring benefits that can be used in multiple sessions, so they are more like extra Uniques than icon dice as 13th Age would wish to use them; I’ll also watch how that plays out.

The skeletons reading the backs of their shields is something I used to do in dungeons long ago; skeletons in my games tend to be really, really dim, and need written instructions for anything complex – in effect, they are programmed, and the programme is written on their shield backs. The purpose of telegraphing this is to encourage finesse; if, like this group, the players realise what is going on, they will understand that so long as they don’t trigger one of the conditions for combat, the skellies will leave them alone – and if they want to trigger one of those conditions, they can do so at a time of their choosing, having had time to prepare for it. What are the conditions? Ah, well, that would be telling…

Hearts of Stone: Behind the Curtain

For those interested in how exactly I’m doing this… I didn’t put a lot of work into it, to be honest.

13th Age – Savaged

Character creation uses plain vanilla Savage Worlds Deluxe. Gameplay uses SWD Rules As Written.

Available races are dragonborn, dwarf, elf, forgeborn, half-elf, half-orc, halfling, human. Dragonborn are SWD saurians with AB: Magic and either bolt or burst as one of their powers. Forgeborn can choose either to use the SWD android as their template, or to build a human PC but swap their free edge for the construct monstrous ability. The various flavours of elf (high, wood, dark) are trappings with no mechanical effect.

Available arcane backgrounds are magic and miracles.

Characters then pick One Unique Things and Icon Relationships using the 13th Age rules as written. Actually, some of them took more relationship dice with naughty icons than they should’ve done, but I’m rolling with that because I want to see what happens.


Each player sent me an image they wanted to use for their PC. I used TokenTool to turn it into a token and uploaded it to Roll20, and created a character sheet for each player using the Savage Worlds Tabbed character sheet. Each player has control of their own sheet, and I also have joint control over all of them.

I then tokenised some Fiery Dragon counters and uploaded them together with some battlemats from Cry Havoc Fan and Crooked Staff Productions, and some 0One dungeon tiles. Those seem adequate so far.

I’m still familiarising myself with Roll20, but so far it is working really well. Observations to date:

  • Set up some dice macros. These are more useful tabbed across the bottom of the screen than attached to tokens. I have one for each type of trait die with a wild die, because clicking a button is easier than typing /r {1d8!,1d6!}kh1 (which is how you do a d8 plus wild die in Roll20). I haven’t bothered with them for ordinary die rolls, because how hard is it to type /r 1d6!, really?
  • Set up a whisper macro – I use /w @{selected|token_name} ?{Message:}. This avoids sending whispers to the wrong player, which happened occasionally before I did this.
  • Set up a token for the GM as well as each player. This makes it easier to add GM-controlled figures to the turn order; clone it if you have several groups of enemies.
  • Set up a token for the point of aim used for thrown and area effect attacks; I’m using crosshairs.
  • SW statblocks are simple enough that you don’t need character sheets for each mook, nor do you need attributes set up in each token; I may do that later. You do need a cheatsheet though; parry, toughness, attack and damage at a minimum. Charisma, special abilities and hindrances are nice to have.
  • So far, my needs are fully met by the free version. One player has expressed a desire for the special effects which come with the more expensive subscription, and I would quite like the dynamic lighting which comes with the cheaper one. Maybe later.

In some ways, Roll20 is more convenient for the GM than the traditional approach of sitting around a table; there’s less time spent looking things up, the figures/mats/tokens don’t get knocked out of place, dealing action cards is easier, stuff like that. I do miss sitting around a table, though.

Obsidian Portal

This looks very pretty and is a good way to store handouts, maps, adventure logs and so on; it grows into a setting book for your campaign. Again, so far I’m happy with the free edition; the paid subscription allows you to have more campaigns (you get two with the free version) and more maps per campaign (ten instead of one if I recall correctly). I could see myself wanting more than two campaigns eventually, which would trigger me to subscribe.


This is a voice chat tool intended to operate side by side with video games. Roll20 has a built-in voice and video chat client, but all the players are used to using Discord and we wanted to minimise the learning curve. You can have multiple chat channels; we have two for each game, one in-game voice channel and one for sharing out-of-game messages and files. You can also whisper to individual players.

Next Time…

If I were to do this again, I’d drop Discord and possibly Obsidian Portal as well, because we could do everything we need to do with Roll20. Still, it’s not like it costs me anything to use them, and Obsidian Portal looks very cool.

Hearts of Stone Episode 3: Tomb Raiders

The story so far… Meeting in an inn the night before travelling to Concord, the party drives off an attack by drow, only to find it was a decoy allowing their travelling companion Casila to be kidnapped. Learning that the drow based themselves in a nearby tomb, the party follows, overrunning the drow pickets and pushing on in search of the missing girl…

Now, read on…

It has been raining softly but steadily for some time, although it stopped briefly during the fight. Ssh’ta begins playing his flute softly, as he does when not otherwise engaged.

It starts raining again, and the Fox releases his borrowed horse, Susan, to return to the caravanserai and his rightful owner. “Dave” the dark elf tries to dance off with Susan, but Susan is having none of it and canters off into the dark.

The party quickly enters the tomb, and X7-09 hears quiet voices from up ahead. The party is debating whether stealth or outright assault is the better approach when several factors make the decision for them. First, the Fox surges forward, loudly crying “For the Archmage!”; second, Ssh’ta plays his flute with renewed vigour, reflecting the combat he expects is about to start; and third, Hayes moves across the entrance chamber and into the next room. This proves to be a guardroom where four drow are playing dice, with a dog-sized spider dozing near the table. Hayes shield-bashes the nearest drow into oblivion, throws her corpse aside and sits down in her place. “Good evening,” he says.

While the drow are still stunned by this, X7-09 follows its master inside and lays about it with an axe, killing the dozing spider. Ssh’ta walks up and punches another drow, shaking her. The Fox is now getting into the swing of things, and with a yell of “For the Dragon Empire and the Archmage!” he runs, flips and rolls acrobatically across the pile of crates and barrels along the right-hand side of the room, where he taunts a third drow before running her through with his rapier.

X7-09 chitters at the Fox. Kowalski resolves to learn spidertalk so that he understands what X7-09 is saying. Meanwhile, “Dave” the dark elf is dancing and beatboxing in the entrance chamber, a little dejectedly as no-one is dancing with her. Ssh’ta moves over to one side, and Soreth the dragonborn charges in after him, grabbing the drow he punched earlier and slamming her into the table before trying to bite her throat out. “Dave” raps “Move bitch, get out of the way,” and Soreth glares at him. Hayes suddenly has a turnip in his hand and tries using it to gouge out the eye of the drow sitting opposite him, who is so far untouched. Sadly, turnips are not the weapon of choice for this strategy, and no serious damage is done.

It is at approximately this point that the party learns the importance of checking the side passages before you advance, since both the other passages out of the entrance chamber now fill up with a flood of spiders, ranging in size from “dog” to “warhorse”.

“Hey 7,” says Kowalski, “How do you say ‘the better-tasting one is in there’ in spider?”

“CHITTER cit cit HIIIISSSSSSS,” replies X7-09.

“Hmm,” says Kowalski, “Isn’t that how you say ‘Please eat me, I’m the tastiest?'”

By now, Kowalski and Dave are surround by giant spiders, who are slashing and biting at them with abandon, shaking Dave. Meanwhile, in the guard room next door, the Fox finishes off his opponent. The surviving drow, having seen these murderhobos kill three of her friends and their pet spider in as many seconds, decides she doesn’t like these odds and flees deeper into the tomb, calling something in drow. The Fox pursues at best speed, yelling “For the Archmage!”

Dave recovers and stabs a spider with her shortsword, shaking it; Hayes produces another turnip from somewhere and hurls it at the shaken spider hard enough to kill it. Dave turns to the next horse-sized spider and calls in drow: “Sit!” Surprisingly, the spider obeys.

“I’m glad you’re making friends,” calls the hard-pressed Kowalski, “But could I get a little help here?”

Dave readies her bow and obligingly kills the spider chewing on Kowalski’s armour. Hayes, meanwhile, wanders off to the left rear corner of the guardroom, where there is a bed and a footlocker, which he loots methodically, ignoring the fighting around him. Soreth picks her drow up gently by the throat, and says she’ll kill her unless she calls off the spiders. She croaks something in drow, and the spiders stand down.

Kowalski says, “This is MY spider, do not kick, bash, poison, cause harm to, blast with magic or kill it.” He then jumps acrobatically onto its back as if he’d done that before, and sits atop his spider, monarch of all he surveys.

The Fox finds himself in a corridor flanked by statues, and overtakes the fleeing drow, skewering her as she is about to dive sideways into a chamber of some sort on his right. Several things now happen at once; first, another drow and a spider charge out of a chamber on the left. Second, the Fox notices that the corridor opens out into a larger one, which recedes farther than he can see into the distance, and is flanked all the way by armed skeletons, standing upright and ready for combat in a way that they usually don’t. Third, he hears a soft thunderclap from the room to his right. Finally, something disturbing attracts his attention – no-one else can see what it is, but they do hear his cry: “I work for Kowalski! Don’t kill me!”

Outside the entrance, a drow suddenly appears in the downpour, holding a struggling Casila, and whistles, presumably to call her riding spider. Acting with his usual fluid grace, Ssh’ta shoots her with his bow, staggering and wounding her. Soreth slams her captive into the table and really does bite her throat out this time. Hayes, now manic, charges through the confusion and hits the teleporting drow from an angle, spinning her around; she falls into the mud, Casila falls on top of her, then Hayes falls on top of both of them, not caring much for either. With his free hand, Hayes pulls another turnip from somewhere and readies it. X7-09 follows him faithfully.

Kowalski tries to intimidate his spider, and predictably fails, as it is roughly four times his weight. Ssh’ta shoots it, causing it to rear and throw Kowalski into a nearby brazier. Ssh’ta shoots the spider beside the Fox and he charges the remaining drow, killing her too. The skeletons appear unbothered by this.

Outside, Dave seizes Casila’s arm and drags her out of the dogpile – but then the drow reaches out a hand and grabs her by the ankle…


This was a pretty slow-moving session, dogged by connection problems, and although it lasted almost three hours instead of the usual two, we only resolved a couple of minor fights and then started arguing about the teleportation rules, specifically whether the caster can choose whether to take specific people with her out of a dogpile, or whether she has to take all of them. It’s clear that she has to be touching anyone she wants to take with her (hence the touch attack on Casila at the end), but if she can choose only to take Casila, she will arrive at her destination Exhausted but still conscious, whereas if she has to take everyone in the dogpile, she will be Incapacitated. As I read the rules, the caster can choose which people to take, so absent a convincing counter-argument from the players or you, dear readers, that’s what she’ll do next weekend.

I keep forgetting about the giant spiders’ poison and web attacks. I now have a sticky note on the terminal to remind me, as they really ought to be using those.

Boris and the Bard haven’t joined in the first three sessions, so I shall quietly archive those two; a 30% player dropout rate is not unusual in my online campaigns. Maybe they will join in later, or in some future game.

Pawns of Destiny, Episode 6: Eyes of the Night


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…