Posts Tagged ‘Savage Worlds’

Review: Seven Worlds Campaign

Posted: 5 August 2017 in Reviews
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“The Seven Worlds. This is the story of how we lost them, and of the heroes who tried to avert their fall.” – Seven Worlds.

My concern as I closed the setting book last week was whether the default campaign would be a bit of a railroad; let’s see, shall we?

In a Nutshell: The default campaign for the Seven Worlds setting for Savage Worlds, in seven modules, each roughly 40 pages long, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I have review copies – thanks again Luis!).

Here I have to dance the usual dance when reviewing an adventure; I need to avoid spoilers, but still give you enough information to decide whether or not this is for you.

From one perspective, the campaign is a travelogue for the Seven Worlds, so some capsule descriptions may help:

  • Earth (Sol): Smacked around a bit by an asteroid impact a few generations ago, but still good. Home of the Psion Brotherhood.
  • Apollo (Epsilon Indi): Corrupt, plutocratic iceworld.
  • Bay Jing (Omicron 2 Eridani): Garden world, agriculture and mining, authoritarian government.
  • Concordia (Epsilon Eridani): Rich, garden world, pseudo-nobility. Main Circle base.
  • Logan’s End (Eta Cassiopeiae): High-gravity, jungle world, hellishly hot. The new frontier.
  • Nouvelle Vie (Gamma Leporis): Earthlike, too bright, jointly settled by Concordia and Bay Jing, ongoing cold war. Lots of asteroid mining and storms.
  • Zarmina (Gliese 581): Heavy gravity, extreme temperatures, barely-breathable air, run by big pharma.


CONTENT

Each module, including the first, begins with a ‘story so far’ section summarising the reveals to date, so you do not want your players anywhere near these modules. On the plus side, the GM knows exactly what the backstory is from the beginning, meaning he or she can align any off-piste activity or side quests to the main storyline on the fly.

Module 1 – Rumours of War (44 pages): This takes the heroes from Nouvelle Vie, site of the Mysterious Encounter introductory scenario in the setting book, to Concordia, then to Earth, via intrigue, disappearance and assassination, not necessarily in that order. In this adventure the PCs will meet senior figures in several governments, the Circle, and the Psion Brotherhood, as well as the N’ahili Ambassador. They also find themselves in a virtual world MMORPG at one point. These are like Chekhov’s Gun, they’re not just there to introduce you to the setting, they all turn up again later in the story at key points.

Module 2 – Divided We Fall (37 pages): Arriving back at Concordia, the heroes learn that Concordia and Bay Jing are now at war, and that they have been selected for a covert mission. ‘Nuff said. This scenario features spy stuff and combat, both ground and space. By the end of it, the heroes should have a good idea of what’s going on; to avoid spoilers, the module writeups are going to be really vague from now on.

Module 3 – Into the Fire (38 pages): The story arc is now starting to make serious changes to the setting and the maps. This is one reason why the campaign has the setting designed around it, not vice versa, and why I think you will most likely discard the setting at the end of the story. The heroes’ patron now sends them to Apollo to follow up leads, leading to a mixture of investigation, infiltration and combat. Player handouts start to include news stories from other worlds, showing them they are not the only ones with problems.

Module 4 – Broken Circle (43 pages): While adventures so far have focussed on habitable worlds, this one takes the PCs to several of the smaller waystations and refuelling depots between them, then to Logan’s End. Again, it involves investigation and combat, as well as a rescue mission; if all are successfully completed the heroes will solve two important mysteries from earlier in the campaign.

Module 5 – Chrysalis (46 pages): Conspiracies, chases, secret bases, a mass battle, and a very unusual setting for them all, at least in astronomical terms.

Module 6 – Exodus (46 pages): If they’re doing things right, by now the heroes have a veritable army helping them, but can they keep it focussed on the mission despite boredom, internal politics, and the perceived risks of failure? There’s a ‘Managing the Fleet’ side quest for playing this out in abstracted detail. Expect Shadowrun-style hacking as well.

Module 7 – Endgame (53 pages): More infiltration, sabotage, a massive space battle, enemies both foreign and domestic, and a dungeon crawl in space, not necessarily in that order. The campaign ends, most likely in bittersweet triumph. There are things to do in the aftermath, but for me the story would be dramatically complete with the final showdown. There are loose ends which might work as the lead-in to another big campaign, though, and I hope Mr Torres will expand one of them into another story arc someday.

Each module also includes maps, stats for the opposition, and a handful of side quests to weave into the campaign. Even without these, you should get a couple of sessions out of each of the main adventures; I’d say 30-60 sessions overall, so 1-2 years for a group playing every couple of weeks.

Now, as for the storyline as a whole: The heroes are going to be captured at least once, maybe twice; I don’t know about your players, but mine would rather die, so that would take careful preparation and perhaps an honest discussion. The story makes more use of the social conflict rules than I remember seeing anywhere else; there are several points where crowds or influential NPCs need to be brought around to the PCs’ viewpoint. At times, the story turns on the technology and new psi powers in the corebook, showing how tightly integrated the story and the setting are. The PCs should work out the motivation and nature of the domestic enemy, but unless they are especially insightful, I don’t think they will figure out the foreign one; that’s credible and appropriate in terms of the story, but might frustrate some groups.

There’s quite a bit of duplication between modules, and between the modules and the corebook; statblocks for the opposition, mostly. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad – I guess that depends on whether you prefer only buying stuff once, or convenience at the table.

FORMAT

Each module has colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version). The core setting book says there will be an option to get all seven modules in one large book. The page size means I can read these files on a tablet without squinting. I’m a happy camper.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There are more epic stories to tell in this setting, and I’d like to see them. The heroes aren’t going to work out what’s really going on with the N’ahili, although the GM knows, and there’s a story there. There are at least two things that key historical NPCs should not have known, but did; there’s a story there, too.

Also, I think it would make a pretty good TV series.

CONCLUSIONS

The setting is sufficiently flexible to allow for most types of SF campaign, so long as you only need half-a-dozen habitable worlds; but it was built around this campaign, and explaining by way of analogy to avoid spoilers, once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, killing the odd couple of orcs and stealing their purses isn’t satisfying. So I’d recommend doing any sandbox play before you start the main story arc; that would also familiarise players with the milieu.

The campaign is more linear than I normally go with, and the story piles time pressure on the PCs as it develops. For it to work as intended, I think you’d need a small group of players willing to follow the trail, and I’m not sure any of my groups tick both of those boxes; but if you can find 4-5 hard SF fans who love The Expanse and Babylon 5, and are OK with a linear main storyline, they will love Seven Worlds.

How well does Seven Worlds do what it sets out to do?

  • Space Opera with a Hard-SF flavour: Definitely. It’s got the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval. That’s as good as it gets.
  • Paper-and-pencil-and-technology: Ye-e-es. It achieves this goal through the VRML starmap and the Google Earth world maps. That’s not likely to change the way I play, ‘cos I’m a dinosaur.
  • Not a setting with a story, but a story with a setting: Yes, it succeeds at this; the setting is built to support one specific story.


Overall Rating
: 4 out of 5. I was again tempted to go with a 5, but the ratings are about how well things work for me personally; and I think I’d struggle to keep my players on piste.

“The goal is for the players to stop thinking about the door, wall or table as an inanimate obstacle to be overcome and instead see it as an enemy to be outsmarted.” – Seven Worlds

In a Nutshell: Hard SF space opera setting for Savage Worlds, 217 page PDF, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I received a review copy – thanks Luis!).

The Seven Worlds setting was built around a specific campaign in seven parts, which deserves its own review; but I’ll begin with the setting book, because I am more of a rules guy than a story guy at heart, and the thing that really attracted my attention was that this setting has the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval, meaning that website has validated the underpinning science as accurate. These awards are highly esteemed in the hard SF community, and not easily gained.

CONTENTS

Introduction (2 pages): This explains the setting’s unique selling points (hard SF, built around a specific storyline); who the PCs are (by default, paramilitary troubleshooters); and a capsule overview of the setting, which I think is suitable for handing out to the players.

Overview (98 pages): With nearly half the book in this section, I’m not going into a huge amount of detail. You have a timeline running from the present day about 200 years into the future; enigmatic but benevolent aliens; an accurate depiction of actual stars within about 30 lightyears of Sol; descriptions of the titular Seven Worlds, which are habitable, and a half-dozen or so less important waystations between them. The one-page world map/summary for each habitable planet would make a fine handout.

Key technologies for star travel include jump drives, fusion power plants, and the Coulborne Shield, which protects travellers from energy and radiation (working much like the Langston Field of The Mote in God’s Eye); there is no artificial gravity, but relay drones shuttling between jump points provide FTL communications, at least along major routes. I like the FTL travel and comms in this setting much more than the approach used in the The Last Parsec, which I guess is the setting’s main competitor.

There are writeups for the two main interstellar organisations, the Circle and the Psion Brotherhood, and what little is known of the alien N’ahili. There are descriptions of life in the 23rd century, with nanotech, AR/VR, genemods, space travel and combat (there’s a lot of detail in those bits). This section also has four iconic PCs, fully statted, and with extensively detailed backstories.

Characters (7 pages): Unusually short for a character generation chapter, because it stays very close to the core Savage Worlds rules – I approve of that, incidentally. Only humans allowed, although the different homeworlds give some variety by swapping out the usual free Edge for another benefit; the only arcane background is psionics, and that involves taking a vow representing a code of conduct much like the psions in Babylon 5. There are three new skills (Hacking, Knowledge: Ship Ops, Knowledge: Science), and five pages of new and modified Hindrances and Edges. The default assumption is that all PCs are members of a specific organisation, the Circle, which provides gear, missions and so on; think of them as the space patrol and you won’t be far off the mark.

Gear (11 pages): Near future hard SF here; no personal energy weapons or shields, although flechettes and gyrojets abound. Spacesuits, programmable matter, nanotech healing, and more mundane gear. Honourable mention for the smart dust grenade, which scatters nanosensors throughout its burst template and allows the user to see through cover and around corners. The signature gear item, however, is the assistant, a kind of high-tech familiar which almost every PC has – basically a disembodied NPC sidekick played by the GM.

Psions (5 pages): Again short, again because it leverages what Savage Worlds already has. A limited palette of available powers; mental Toughness, used to resist psionic attack; the Psionics skill is harder to advance than usual. There are 9 new powers, and 21 powers which are modified from the core rules either with new trappings or with different power point costs.

Setting Rules (22 pages): These cover languages (not an issue due to widespread translation software); game effects of microgravity, space and planetary environments, and assistants; and a modification to the Test of Wills rules I might adapt elsewhere, namely intimidating groups of NPCs. I liked the tags for planetary environments, which include things like “Cold and Hostile” or “Too Dark”.

The majority of the section, though, is taken up with rules for interstellar travel and space combat. Travel is in jumps, and each ship has a number of jumps it can make without refuelling, as well as a pseudospeed defining how many weeks each jump takes. This looks like it would work very well in play.

Space combat uses a modified version of the SW chase rules, reflecting the problems with realistic space combat; namely, you can’t hide, you can’t run or dodge very well either, and if you don’t manage the heat buildup properly the ship is incapacitated. There is also a heavy reliance on missiles, to the point where a sheet is needed to keep track of incoming ordnance. This all looks very different and more realistic than the usual dogfight paradigm; I’d have to try it to understand how the modifications interact, but I can already see the ship’s engineers have something useful to do – stop the ship melting. A useful sidebar shows you how to dial combat lethality up or down to match how much trouble the PCs are having.

GM Section (20 pages): Much of this is taken up with the introductory adventure, “A Mysterious Encounter”, which segues into the default campaign. This supposes the PCs work for the Circle, and includes introductions to common technology, personal and ship combat, and a final puzzle which I expect will be resolved later in the campaign. As well as that, we find rules options (interstellar trade, ship customization, space encounters) and game mastering tips (the implications of Seven Worlds technology, how to run the default campaign, alternative campaign types – including which ones will and will not work well in the setting).

Bestiary (22 pages): Over 60 animals and NPCs; 27 vehicles and spacecraft. Each of the animals and NPCs has a location specified, showing where it can be found; quite a few are constructs found only in virtual reality. (By the way, the widespread use of virtual reality in the setting allows the GM to make full use of the multi-genre nature of Savage Worlds – the PCs can have ‘real’ adventures in the Seven Worlds and ‘virtual’ ones in a fantasy world, the Old West, etc. I don’t think I could carry that off myself, mind.)

The Voyager (2 pages): This is the PCs’ default ship, owned by their patrons the Circle foundation. It’s spherical and the decks go all over the place, including one around the equator and a gym that is reeled out on a cable for spin gravity. It cannot have been easy to design, but there is no confusing it with the usual aeroplane or ship layouts for starships.

Appendix (11 pages): Seven Worlds prides itself on sticking to known scientific fact as far as it can, but in the end, it is a game; this appendix lists the areas where the author knows he has bent or broken the laws of science for the sake of a better story, as well as his reference sources and a 2D starmap.

After that, there are character and ship record sheets, a couple of ads for the campaign and website, and two more 2D maps of the setting, one showing all the stops between the Seven Worlds, and one more stylised and less cluttered, somewhat like a subway map – that’s the most useful one for planning interstellar travel.

FORMAT

Colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages, and I especially liked the cover), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version) – except in the introductory adventure, where the background is green, or the iconic PCs, where it is pale brown; I found that helpful to locate them when flicking through the book. There are also sidebars throughout the book explaining the science behind the game; I loved those.

A nice touch is that the blue line in the header between pages 2 and 206 has a purpose – to the scale of the small solar system diagram on page 2, it shows the distance to Proxima Centauri, our closest stellar neighbour.

As well as the usual character sheets, maps and pregens, the game’s website also hosts a dynamic 3D starmap usable with VRML viewers, and world maps you can load into Google Earth; the intention is that the GM and players use these at the table on their tablets or smartphones. Check out the demo video here. They are a nice touch, and point the way for future RPGs, but personally I’d be happy running things without access to any tech beyond pencil and paper, maybe because I’m an aging dinosaur whose play style developed in the 1970s, when that was the only choice.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

A minor nitpick only: There’s a tiny bit of Smallville syndrome, in that the three most significant ‘historical’ NPCs lived in the same small American town and went to school together. I thought that might be explained in the campaign (see next review), but the mystery just gets deeper.

CONCLUSIONS

This isn’t the usual Firefly-meets-Star Wars space opera, it’s more like The Expanse; and the hard SF tech isn’t just for show, it makes a real difference to the campaign plotline and how the game plays. This means it’s not a setting you can just pick up and run in a few minutes, it needs a little thought first. My first thought is that the kitchen appliances should include the Talkie Toaster and spontaneously burst into upbeat, family-friendly song every few minutes.

There are echoes of 2300AD, Classic Traveller, Diaspora, Attack Vector: Tactical and other games, so I suspect Mr Torres had a youth misspent in much the same way as my own. It’s no surprise that I love the setting, as it’s so close in spirit to my old favourites.

It’s good to see a game world whose technology feels futuristic; I haven’t had that feeling since I discovered 2300AD, and the 1980s were a long time ago. I’m also impressed by the way the corebook conveys a hard SF setting without making sweeping changes and adding complexity to the core Savage Worlds rules like, say, Nova Praxis.

My instinct is that the Seven Worlds would work better with smaller parties, as with large ones the assistants would increase GM workload too much – I might take a leaf out of Infinity’s book and have each player run the assistant of the player to his right.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I could see the Pawns of Destiny group in this setting once there is a gap in the schedule; it’s complex, realistic and elegant, just the sort of thing they go for. I might let Arion loose in it after the summer holidays as well, to see what he makes of it and try out the setting rules.

Next up: The Seven Worlds campaign, which is after all what the corebook exists to support.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

The annual gamesfest with my old university friends rolled round again recently. It has reduced in both size and duration of late; it’s now three of us over two days rather than 5-8 over four days, partly due to our kids growing up and leaving home, partly because it’s getting harder to schedule, and also (frankly) because we’re getting older; but we ain’t givin’ up yet. Over two days we played for about 16 hours while consuming large quantities of beer and whiskey, for that too is part of the ritual.

The players’ Shadows of Keron characters are currently in Caldeia, plotting regime change, and I need to do some serious prep work before that storyline can proceed; so this year, the crew of the Collateral Damage came out to play, and I started them on the Heart of the Fury campaign for Bulldogs!

Now, that was only published in 2016, and my self-imposed rule is no spoilers in the first five years; so, let’s just say that they worked their way through three episodes: The Teraci Extraction, The Pickup Job, and The Informant, enough to embroil them in the overall story arc and give them both a powerful friend and some clue what’s going on. I only expected them to complete the first of those scenarios, but I had forgotten how quickly a small group of experienced players chews through plot under Savage Worlds.

There are numerous possible routes through the campaign, but since we only play a couple of times per year, I’ll stick to the ‘express route’ – just the plot point scenarios, and in the order listed in the book. That will last us something like three years at our current pace, longer if we take time out to progress the Caldeian storyline or to deal with the dragon turtle currently menacing our adopted city of Shadipuur in the OD&D campaign.

Shouldn’t have let that whacko cult summon it in the first place, I suppose. But I digress.

The mapless approach has allowed me to change setting twice on these players, adding and removing worlds (indeed, entire interstellar empires) without that causing any problems. In fact, I don’t think they have actually noticed. This reinforces my beliefs:

  • Settings are for the GM.
  • The less you tell the players about the setting, the better.
  • While the characters spend hours haggling with cargo brokers and plotting courses, the players don’t have to and shouldn’t.

However, the characters’ base of operations needs some level of detail so that it feels like home; this group’s base is the Collateral Damage itself, so I printed and laminated the Moon Toad Type A Free Trader deck plans for them – it’s the one location we know will appear in every session. On the miniatures front, I have used OkumArts Retro-Space card figures for the last few games, as they are cheap and portable, with some Litko figure bases doing double duty as bennies.

Meanwhile, between a massive increase in workload, my son’s graduation, and an impending grandchild (this will be number four), gaming has to take a back seat for a while, so blog posts are going to be spotty for the next few months. Keep playing, and I’ll see you on the other side.

The Pawns spent some time in surveillance of the Mountaineers’ village before deciding that while sneaking through it to the Monastery was more stylish and less dangerous if it worked, failure would cause potentially fatal problems; so they roped themselves together and climbed up a rockface to the Monastery, despite Ash’s protestations about the damage to his new riding boots. Meandering around inside, they found Karmella, disposed of the guardians, and ran for it; onrushing guards forced them to divert into the chamber of the Black Flame, where a complex three-way combat ensued; Mountaineers vs Black Monks vs the party.

Our heroes inflicted severe casualties on the Black Monks, thanks to U’wahz using his Sage superpower to add a fact to the setting, namely that the Monks’ “Black Flame Rays” could be reflected by mirrors. By that point Korras was down, and an unspoken truce developed between the Mountaineers and the party, who both ran for it as the Black Flame exploded behind them.

Zosimus and the bulk of the party kept on running, on the basis that the Mountaineers would soon realise that imposters now knew the location of their hidden base and would then want to silence them; but the Monk and Max went back into the Monastery looking for loot to carry off, and Dorjee took on board the task of healing Korras; so perforce they rejoined their companions later, and all made good their escape.

The party went a little bit off-piste towards the end; they avoided Ulesir Shah’s unexpectedly heroic march to the Monastery and took Princess Karmella back to Tokarim Shah and Jirro, before heading south with the Amazons to Shan’Ammar. They also told Jirro where to find the Mountaineers’ secret hideout, so no doubt hijinks will ensue off-stage – this because Ash likes causing trouble for the hell of it and Zosimus hates Valk with a passion.

We closed the session with them boarding the Blood Bride and sailing off into the sunset.

GM NOTES

This time I agreed with the group that we would use tokens to track progress on the climb, and the mapless dungeon approach of trait rolls and card draws recommended in the core setting book. I was expecting them to push back hard on that, but in fact they didn’t, noting that it was easier for me (as I don’t have to draw maps) and faster for them (no mapping, no time spent investigating boring empty rooms, their time focussed on the battlemats for exciting locations) so I think I can adopt this wholesale now – it is after all the way it’s meant to be played.

The group also readily accepted the idea of staying on board a ship they do not captain, which allows me to move them wherever suits the plot of the next adventure, and all of us to discard inconvenient plot elements every time they leave port, such as bothersome NPCs, over-powerful relics (“I didn’t think you wanted that any more, so I fenced it…”) and pursuing law enforcement. Max is on a mission to collect relics stolen from his clan, and Dorjee is in search of rare Lotus components for the Alchemists of Gis, both Hindrances chosen to give me scenario hooks, and between those and them being aboard a pirate ship I can send them anywhere next.

However, my turn as GM is done for a while, and after a break over the summer I expect we will turn to the Warhammer World again.

 

The penultimate session for Shadows Over Ekul, and after a lot of fascinating in-character discussion and debate over whether Ash should be replaced by a Valk character, the players decided to follow Jirro, cavalry officer and suspected kidnapper of Princess Karmella, to the old Tenebar Fort where he holed up, in support of Tokarim Shah.

Most of the session was spent on a commando raid on the fort. This captured, they learned from Jirro that he had, in fact, obeyed orders in good faith and to the letter (“Go to the fort and repair it, don’t come back until I send for you,”) and was not the kidnapper they were looking for. At this point a ransom note from the real kidnapper surfaced, offering to exchange Karmella for ‘Ulesir Shah’, actually Max in disguise.

In company with Philosopher Jimpah, King Ekul’s personal monk, they headed south to the hostage exchange point. By this stage they had decided that nobody was who they seemed to be, and began the exchange (correctly) convinced that the supposed ‘Karmella’ brought by the kidnappers was no such person. The leader of the kidnappers turned out to be one of the Black Monks they have developed such an interest in.

The highlight of the session for me was the fight with the kidnappers. Ash had concealed himself underwater near the lakeside exchange point, and due to an extremely positive response by the dice to his question “Are any of Etu’s sacred crocodiles following me?”, was flanked by two such reptiles. The fight began with Dorjee hurling a fear potion onto the kidnappers’ boat, whereupon the bulk of them leapt into the water where they were engaged by the crocodiles. Final score: Crocodiles 7, heroes 3, kidnappers 0.

Interrogating the Karmella imposter and the lone surviving kidnapper (a minion who knew next to nothing but was very helpful in the hopes of not being fed to the crocodiles) led them to a concealed stairway hidden behind a waterfall, at the top of which is a trail leading to a bandit village and (three dramatic chords) the Monastery of Shadows, which not unreasonably they expect to be full of Black Monks – followers of the Path of Obscurement, who have given them the only serious opposition they have faced so far in this adventure.

They slaughtered the sentinels guarding the path in less than one combat round, as Max now has Sweep and the Monk’s character build is focussed on maximising the number of attacks per round he can deliver – in the right circumstances he now gets five, which is very scary.

The session ended with the party dressed as rebels, riding captured yaks, and disappearing cinematically into a snowstorm as the camera pulled back from them.

GM NOTES

I continue to be impressed by Umberto Pignatelli’s ability to predict, or guide, what the PCs will do; after the initial debate they followed his most-likely outline almost to the letter.

They’re doing better than the last group; by the time the Shadows of Keron party had got this far, they had killed literally every NPC who knew anything about what was going on, including the slave girl posing as Karmella.

I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and it seems to have won over all but one of the players to Savage Worlds; but the next session will conclude this adventure, and then we’ll revert to WFRP3 and Star Wars EotE for a while. It will be a refreshing change to be a player again for a while.

Moving forward, I’ve calculated that at this rate I have enough scenarios for this group to last us until 2038, so I can afford to start offering them a choice of several via rumours, which I hope will improve satisfaction levels further.

Anvil Road, 8th June 216

Trusting their colleagues in Team Dragon to take care of the giant living dungeon, Team Angel (Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox and Valore plus henchmen) take stock of their other options: Follow up on the cloud giant observing them earlier, pursue the bounty offered them by Gutstabber (which will mean a trip to Glitterhaegen), go back to the dwarven tower on Anvil Road and find out what’s underneath, or follow up on the flying building they noticed several months ago.

By a majority of three in favour of the dwarven tower to two not-that-bothered, they head north, arriving at the actual tower a couple of days later. They first scout the tower’s environs, then the tower itself, finding only unburied orc bodies somewhat the worse for nibbling by the local wildlife since the party killed them just over two weeks ago. Valore rightly deduces that nobody has been to check up on them or bury them, and the group removes the lift shaft lid. Ssh’ta is designated lookout and climbs to the roof with Caliban in case the party are disturbed by rude strangers while exploring.

Valore drops a torch down the shaft; it can be seen burning on the floor of a corridor some 30 feet below. Valore and Dave descend and find themselves in a corridor leading to a four-way intersection. Someone has made a half-hearted attempt to bury four goblin spearmen in the loose rock of the corridor sides between some pit props; they appear to have been bludgeoned to death. Valore draws her sword (which then appears to burst into flames, thus providing a light source) and with the others following at a safe distance, she and Dave head up to the intersection and explore a short way down each arm. To the east they find a small chamber containing cots, chicken coops, and a hole in the wall labelled ‘Slide’ in dwarven, as well as a curving corridor sloping down. To the south is another curving corridor sloping down. To the west is a third curving, sloping corridor and a chamber, containing three statues of goblin spearmen and four large chickens pecking at something concealed under an overturned mine cart.

The chickens, soon to be dubbed ‘angry medusa chickens’ by Valore, prove to be cockatrices and assault the recon element. Valore finds herself being petrified, but thinking quickly, sheathes her sword, plunging the place into darkness, and flies up to the ceiling. Silmaria, who has galloping scotophobia, freaks out, but now only Boris and Dave can see, and Dave quickly skewers two of the cockatrices with arrows. Boris steps into the chamber and engages a third while Dave shoots the last of the four, which is running off into the darkness in some confusion. Once stabbed, cockatrice number three turns on Boris and starts pecking and petrifying him; he flees back towards Silmaria and the others while Dave and The Fox attack the surviving cockatrice, sending it to oblivion; but Dave is incapacitated by its dying death gaze.

The party rallies and heals its wounds; fortunately, Dave’s apparently fatal petrification responds well to Boris’ ministrations. Lifting the overturned mine cart, they discover a single goblin spearman who thanks them for saving his life and gives Valore ‘treasure’ as a reward, namely a single copper piece. Under gentle questioning he reveals that he and his companions were sent by the Goblin Chief to retrieve the Forever Stone, a valuable item buried here after dwarves and evil wizards fought over it. Silmaria, meanwhile, has found a mineshaft in the corner of the Cockatrice Room and explains that in line with dwarven practice, it has been named after an ancient dwarven king.

Adding Hug-Hug (for such is the goblin’s name) to the party, they explore several looping, sloping corridors with the result that they wind up more or less back where they were. Shrugging, they return to the room of chicken coops. Boris assumes the shape of a bat and flies down the slide, finding at the bottom a large pit full of powdered lime and lizard bones, with glimpses of a large chamber above. Boris decides he wants nothing to with this and returns.

Trying another sloping, curvy corridor, the group descends into another chamber with two exits and a perch containing what turn out to be cockatrice eggs. Ladra, who is the group’s best climber, retrieves them, but refuses to smash them as the others suggest, pointing out that they are worth money to a certain sort of person. They use one of the exits and descend again, finding themselves in the large chamber Boris found earlier. Now that they have a better view of it, the party can clearly see a dozen or so dwarven skeletons hard at work, apparently mining.

While the rest pause to assess the new situation, Valore (who has firm views on this topic) screams “CLEANSE THE UNDEAD!” and launches herself at them.

To be continued…

GM’S NOTES

I am letting go of a lot of my ingrained habits and prejudices with this campaign, possibly because the sessions are so close together. Normally, I guard the character sheets jealously and update them all myself; for my other campaigns, where sessions average some three months apart and party size is 2-6, this is not a problem; but for a party of nine meeting weekly it just doesn’t work, and I have delegated that responsibility to players for the first time since the 1970s.

Likewise, I am gradually reverting to sandbox play, letting the party wander where it likes at its own pace. Yes, there is a story arc – the Eyes of the Stone Thief – but what does it matter if we don’t follow it, so long as we’re all having fun? In this instance, they decided to go back to a dungeon they knew of but had previously ignored, so I hauled out the Mines of Madness from D&D Next, as it was known in 2013, and off we went.

There was a bittersweet note though: As we waited for the full set of players to log in to the VTT, one waxed lyrical about the Mongoose Traveller campaign they intend to play with my son (who will be the GM) during the summer vacation. I’m delighted they’re playing Traveller, but oh man, I wish I could join in, rather than just handing on the baton… the training wheels are well and truly off now, and away he goes down his own road, which is right and proper; but surely it was only last weekend the two of us and his sisters were playing D&D with Lego minifigures?

Where did the time go?

Marblehall, 6th June 216

Comes the dawn, and while the bulk of the party are sorting out the mess on the estate, Kowalski, Pascal and Soreth investigate the hill where the giant figure was standing last night, using its astrolabe and taking notes. Examining the footprints leads Kowalski and Pascal to the conclusions that the giant was 30 feet tall, and took a running jump into the air. Squinting along the path he would have taken by doing this, Pascal’s detect arcana shows him a magical cloud some miles away. Pascal is keen to get up there and talk to the studious and erudite cloud giants, but in the absence of a way to do that, they decide to return to the dungeon, which has surfaced again and is now sunning itself in the sinkhole where Marblehall used to be, snoring.

It’s the work of moments to retrace their steps to the stairs down to the second level, and as they have previously befriended the monster guarding the stairs by playing on its loneliness and curiosity, it lets them pass easily after an exchange of pleasantries, and they descend to the second level. Now, the Stone Thief can reconfigure its levels, and the configuration I’m currently using provides a second level which is full of traps. The party encountered a chute, a collapsing corridor, something that re-creates the trash compactor scene from Star Wars with a submarine fire-breathing regenerating hydra, giant circular saw blades, and swarms of spiders – and that’s just in the first two encounter areas. Judicious use of breath weapons, fear spells and icon invocation have kept them alive so far, but they have a long way to go yet. As they are currently trapped, I decided not to submerge the dungeon – a Total Party Kill with no way to avoid it is poor form and no fun for any of us – and so they are currently drawing breath, dripping with sewage, and awaiting the onslaught of the spider swarms.

GM NOTES

This was the session in which Pascal’s true nature emerged: Pascal is a sentient chamaeleon archaeologist, essentially a mecha pilot for the roughly human-sized X7-09. The precedent we have established is that it is OK for the player to switch from the main PC to one of his allies or hirelings, but the ones he isn’t playing are all Extras, and only the active PC benefits from bennies or the Wild Die. Pascal spent the session crawling up walls and poking his nose where it wasn’t wanted, while X7-09 carried the torch and supplies, lumbering along behind him.

The session was quite slow-moving as they spent half an hour working out what had happened to the cloud giant, the same amount of time in discussion with the stairway guardian, and the rest of it lurching from trap to trap. Had I been more familiar with the group before we started playing, I would have given them a D&D megadungeon; they are quite happy killing monsters, evading traps and looting treasure, with little sign of interest so far in the story arc they said they wanted. Luckily, in the version of Eyes of the Stone Thief I’ve chosen (for there are several possible campaigns in there), the story arc is the dungeon, more or less. Still, we’re all having fun, so we’re doing it right; as I’ve said before, the setting is for the GM, what the players see is a sequence of encounters.

Never having used them before, I was surprised how generous the Savage Worlds drowning rules are – it looks to me as if all characters can swim to some extent, and Swimming skill is what you use under extreme stress, much like Riding – everyone can sit on a horse and travel, but steeplechasing under fire requires skill rolls.