Nov 302013
 

Drazar and I sat for a while in conversation that evening. After being offered up as a sacrifice to a Daemon, I knew he wasn’t going to be in the best of moods. At the time I still didn’t know why, but since I hadn’t had the chance to discuss it with Fjorlief, I just set about damping down the fire somewhat. Out there, taking the hard roads through a hard country, I didn’t want to be worried about two of my fellow travelers being at each others throats. Not when it looked like we would have no shortage of strangers more than happy to take on that job.

He seemed happy to listen to me, but managed to once again steer clear of the question of his mask. I wasn’t going to push him too hard though; he seemed happy to talk to me about other things, and pushing him away would have just made matters worse. Caderyn had no such qualms, and was quick to assume the worst, “She was probably off due to your spirit being aflame and being eaten away. You must have done something to cause offense”? He had obviously either overheard our conversation or had been privy to the Vytch’s opinions already.

While we were in the caves of the dead, I had noted that something wasn’t quite write with our Yerwian friend. From what I understood of such matters, he was a wielder of the Earth Powers and something in those dark caves had affected how he was able to sense the flow of the earth power. To this day, I couldn’t explain it any better than that, but it had obviously affected him if I had noticed it while he was hidden behind his mask. The Vytch also used the Earth Powers for her own magics, but didn’t seem to have been as put out by our subterranean journey as Drazar. Maybe she was surprised by how much it had affected him, and that was what she thought was “wrong” about him.

Either way, the Dummonni’s interruption called an end to our conversation and before long Skuza was making his presence known. Thankfully the herbal concoction that Valerius had provided had kept him out of our hair through the worst of the day, but he was up and about again now. For some reason he seemed determined to spend time with us as a man of the people he so clearly wasn’t. He at least seemed on Drazar’s side about the debate, agreeing with me that just getting along would be the best option.

The fact that he seemed equally frightened by the idea of a foreigner, a magic user and a woman probably tells you a lot about the kind of man he was, and after the day we’d had I decided to have some fun with the poor fellow. I knew he was trying his best, but it just wasn’t the right time. As he was stalking the campsite, hand on the pommel of his ferros, trying his damnedest to look every inch the wandering hero, I turned back to Drazar with a smile, “When he next has his back to us, throw a stick into the tree line. Lets see how brave and heroic he really is”.

He looked over to me and I could swear that he was smiling beneath his mask, eyes deep blue even the red light of the fire. There’s only so long that you can have some Numare try and convert you I guess, and that time was long since passed in Drazar’s case. He waited for the right moment and swiftly threw a short branch into the trees at the edge of our camp. Skuza wheeled around hurriedly, hand gripped tightly around his honour blade, eyes wide with fear. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing, but then Drazar threw again. Skuza spun like a top seeking out the Dummonii partisans that he was sure were waiting just beyond the range of his vision, readying their knives to skin us all at a  moments notice.

They never appeared of course, but Valerius and Brand shortly made their way back, curtailing our fun. I don’t doubt that the physician had as little time for Skuza as the rest of us, but as a fellow Numare, he seemed honour bound to show him respect, and would probably have looked down on us for toying with him. That being said, I was happy to see his stern expression tonight as with it came a Toma. Not the mythological fiend that the Daemon had impersonated to trick us, but an honest to goodness toma. We ate well that evening, with a fresh stew made with vegetables from Brand thrown in the pot too. Brand being Brand, he was quick to work his way through the offal that the rest of us had left behind, tutting away at us for being wasteful.

We weren’t letting it all go to waste though; Valerius had claimed one of its horns, either for a drinking vessel or a prize, and I had asked for the skin. Brand set about treating it for me, and I still have the gloves that were made from that beast to this day.

*     *     *

Once we were all fed, it was time to get some sleep. We maintained the same watch pattern, regardless of Drazar and Fjorlief’s objections to spending so much time together alone. They would just have to put up with it, and if they managed to survive the night together, than there might yet be hope for them. As I pulled my blanket around myself I listened to the noises of the forest at night. After our near call with the vraag the other night, I didn’t fancy being caught out again. All I could hear though were the noises of some Scaren, and the unmistakable cawing of the Corbie that seemed to be following us from the caves.

I hoped no one was foolish enough to try and bring down one of the winged rodents for sport or food. Their defensive mechanism has to be seen to be believed, and really does no benefit to the individual scaren that has to employ it. Luckily I was awoken some time later without finding anyone covered in bits of flesh and foul smelling ichor.

I had a couple of hours before full dawn, so I made sure there was water for a hot drink and anyone who needed to shave, then set about my morning ritual of re-imprinting some selected runes in my memory, in case I might need them during the day. As I was finishing up, I spotted Brand getting himself ready for his particular morning ritual, and smiled as I realised that I had forgotten to remind our employer of the wake up call he was about to receive. As the bellowing and wailing began, I thought how lucky we were to be camped so close to the mountains still, as the echoes joined in his own high pitched shouts, adding to the cacophonous assault.

“Bless Pelo! Is this to happen every morning”! Skuza threw open the window of his caravan and shouted out to us.

“Indeed my Lord”, I replied, with a smile on my face and a warming beverage in my hand, “the daemons do not rest, so our holy man does not either. It is truly a good sign for the day though, just listen to the earth shouting back to him in agreement. Uma herself has blessed this day for us”! I wasn’t entirely sure he believed me, but I was just trying to get through the morning without incident, and was happy for him to take his cup and join us for breakfast. Maybe in future I should learn more about this Pelo, god or man that he was, and use it to placate our nervous patron.

The hunter’s gatherings still remained so we ate well indeed, and Skuza decided to forgo his morning bath, roughing it with his men, as we discussed our route for the day. As a non native to either of the lands we were skirting the borders off, I had little to offer in the discussion, but it seemed that once again we were to brave the Dummonii side as it looked like the quickest way to reach our destination. The other option was a place called Kad-Bah, but only the Pelosians seemed keen on journeying there, and not even all of them.

They made pointed looks towards the New Raphelian and the other foreigners, but Catranasia seemed to have something else on her mind that made her want to steer clear of the outpost. It had a ferry that we could use to cross the river easier, but there would likely have been a day long delay both waiting for the ferry and jumping through the Pelosian bureaucratic hoops. It was all much of a muchness to me, but I was happy to cede to Caderyn’s plan when he informed us all of a fording point only really known to scouts on the Dummonii side. The place was called Maiden’s Play, but I had reason to doubt we would have as much fun as the name implied. With everyone in agreement though, we quickly set off, at our usual walking pace, with the fighters taking point.

*     *     *

It was plainly clear that we were in the disputed lands, and that the war – although winding down for the year – was still fresh, and had left fresh scars on the countryside. Ahead of us were six impaled Pelosian men. All looked like legionnaires to me, with tattoos on their shoulders, bar one that was probably a priest of Pelo. They had been stripped of anything else though, and left to die, naked with a sharp pole thrust up through their arses and out of their mouths. I’d heard stories of such atrocities – and the things that Pelosians did to their own enemies – while I was back home, but it was another thing entirely to see the poor sods hanging limp like that. The partisans were supposedly skilled at such things, and could leave you hanging like that until you died from hunger, rather than pierce any vital organs on the way through.

I doubt if such a thing is possible now, but at the time the stories seemed very real. They had been indeed been there for days, and dead for about that long. The skin was already tightening in the heat, and black carrion flies were everywhere. Soon the bodies would be little more than nests for maggots and eventually just a stain on the wood. Valerius was as grim faced as I had ever seen him, but Skuza was almost apoplectic. Once he had cleared his gut of his breakfast at the sight and smell of the impaled Pelosians, he insisted we cut them down and bury them.

Looking about, it was fairly clear that what ever had happened here had taken place days ago, but I doubt Skuza knew that at all; he just wanted to do the right thing, the bloody fool. The fact that a holy man was hung up there made him doubly sure, even as he once again lost control of the contents of his stomach. “My lord”, interrupted Valerius, “look about you. The tree line is close, and we have no idea if the scalpers are still around. This could likely be a trap, designed to get well meaning folk such as ourselves to stop, so that we can be run through just like these poor souls”.

“Also, we don’t want to offend Krath”. We turned and looked at Caderyn at this, wondering just who the fuck this Krath was, but fully expecting it to be some kind of god of bloody awful deaths and horror. The boss seemed to be the only one who wanted to do anything for the poor bastards – I for one was happy to keep going until we made it across the river, stopping for any length of time made us tempting targets for anyone with a grudge, Dummonii or otherwise. Skuza didn’t want to give up on this though, it seemed like it meant more to him than his own safety, but luckily for us, his constitution got the better of him. He was breathing too quickly, but struggling to suck in any air, and with his hand on his chest he fell unceremoniously backwards in a dead faint.

Valerius and Vitus lifted him back into his caravan, and we all moved off, glad to leave the grim spectacle behind us. Were these more ghosts that would follow me? I hadn’t killed them, or left them to die with a ten foot pole stuffed right up their fundament, but just leaving them like that could still have pissed them off somewhat. They never did haunt me, but I do wonder if Skuza still remembers them?

As we marched further onward there were more signs of the recent hostilities; a few half destroyed buildings in the Pelosian villa style, and corpses of hormorn lying by the side of the road. Someone with better eyesight than me also spotted day old tracks of some zolts, moving tightly together, probably someone’s guard beasts or part of a hunting pack, but it kept us all concentrating on our surroundings, that’s for sure. When I saw more ruined buildings up ahead, I got a strange nervous tickle down the back of my neck. The others looked ready to carry on down the road, but there was at least two buildings on each side of the road, and half ruined or not, they made great hiding places for anyone wanting to ambush us.

“I know it looks like a couple of days since anyone was round these parts”, says I, “but I’d be happier taking a look at those buildings on foot for now, just in case there’s anyone left around waiting to give us a surprise”. Most of them looked at me like I was a paranoid fool, but Drazar was quick to offer his assistance. With his mastery of the Earth Power, I was glad to have him on side, and it seemed that taking the time to talk to him the evening before had worked out in my favour. I thought for a while it would just be the two of us, but Caderyn eventually offered to join us too, something that I would be very thankful for later.

As we made our way forward, Caderyn’s training as a scout was obvious, as he quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, constantly moving from cover to cover. Even Drazar seemed to know what he was doing, but hung back a little his deep blue eyes concentrating through the mask as he slowly stalked towards the buildings. As we neared them I was struggling to keep the Dummonii in sight, so skilled was he at keeping hidden, but Drazar pointed me towards a certain building. I could see nothing unusual about it; no figures in the windows, or shadows moving within, but he seemed sure, and I knew well enough to heed his advise.

Moving closer, I began to hear the sounds of talking. The language was clearly Dummonii, and there was at least four or five people engaging in conversation. I moved as close as I dared before I spotted a bowman on the roof of another building, and realised just how much danger we were all in. From where I was hidden I could just about make out a few obvious partisans, one built like a brick shit-house with a Hutz-axe in hand, a couple of women – including one sat on a tether – and a handful of other rough looking types. I could also just about make out Caderyn, and signaled him to be wary as best I could.

Thinking such a thought, I turned to see Drazar walking down the street towards the building. He was trying his best to stay in cover, but there was no way that anyone stationed on a roof would fail to see him. It was either take a risk or watch or him stuck with Dummonii arrows. Luckily for him, I acted as usual without even really thinking, and gave out a low whistle. The Gods alone know if it sounded like a bird native to anywhere even in these lands, but it got his attention without alerting the Dummonii, and he scampered back to where I was secreted. “Partisans, Drazar”, I whispered, “You need to get back to the wagons and bring Brand and Valerius. Make sure he has his bow strung, there’s at least an archer or two”. And with a nod he was off, keeping his head low heading back towards the carts.

It helped that Caderyn was making a distraction of his own, but at the time I was more concerned with my own skin. He had walked right up to the Partisans, weapons not drawn, hands held high, looking ready to parley. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then he was talking, loudly at first, claiming to be one of them, or at least in the same line of work. It calmed them down somewhat, and after that he dropped his voice so that I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. The way he had managed to get close to them with alarming them had me worried that he was about to betray us, and I kept my sword in my hand, the fingers of my other hand tracing out a Rune of sharpening on the air above the blade.

No matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t make out what was being said, but behind them I noticed something that shouldn’t be. A still living Pelosian, stripped almost naked was standing unsteadily on a buggy. His neck had a rope coiled around it that was hanging from the tree above, and every little breeze seemed like it would be enough to knock him off balance and end his life. I looked around for a way to get to him when I finely heard something from the Partisan: “Killing many Pelosians!” It was the big sod, the one carrying the Hutz-axe that looked almost the right size for him. I spied Caderyn quickly, and he seemed to be making placatory hand signals to the men, but I still wasn’t sure exactly whose side he was on.

The wait for reinforcements took an age, so long in fact that Caderyn was walking away from the Partisans, almost straight towards me. I know he was formidable in a fight, but I also knew he was injured, and hoped that if he was about to attack I could take advantage of that and at least finish him off quickly. He still had no weapons drawn though, and was whispering as he came upon my hiding spot, “They mean to let us pass, come back with me, but keep your weapon sheathed”.

Sod that, thinks I, “They haven’t seen me, if I stand up now, how do I know I won’t get perished”?

“Come on you bloody idiot”, was his only reply, but he didn’t seem to want to draw their attention to me, so kept on walking before any of the partisans would get suspicious of his dallying in the rubble. I watched him walk away, back towards the caravans, and held my position, happy to be able to at least hear them talk, now that Caderyn was no longer there, practically whispering. What I heard was something very similar to the conversation going on between my friends I would later find out. Some wanted to kill us as we approached, others were happy to let us past if we didn’t start any trouble, and a few just plain didn’t trust that we were just going to go on our way without trying to kill them all.

I heard all this, and saw the dark fleeting shape of Brand in the tree line. I didn’t know why he wasn’t attacking, but was happy to at least know that him and his magic sword were close by. It would certainly scare the crap out of a bunch of pissant partisans, and could give us the edge we’d need against a group with better numbers and position, should it come to that. It wasn’t to come to that though, and before long, I saw the caravan heading towards me, rolling along at its usual slow pace, with Caderyn at its front. “Come on out Kantrel”, he shouted, “we have safe passage, just put your bloody sword away”! The bugger was looking right at me, and there was little I could do from where I was. I wasn’t going to meekly step forward though, so instead I stood up swiftly with a smile on my face and my steel in hand. With a flourish I swept the length of the blade across my front, and slid it swiftly into its scabbard while turning to face the partisans with a smile and a bow.

Turning my back on them was a hell of a risk, knowing now that they had at least two men with warbows in the buildings above me, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me worry about them, “Don’t worry none, they don’t plan on killing us, just letting us go past if we keep ourselves out of trouble” I said. As I rejoined my companions, I shared a smile with Vitus, who seemed pleased that we had at least got a little something over them, but they weren’t going to let us have the last laugh. One of them had walked towards the hanging man as I had walked away, and as we neared them, ready to go past, he kicked the buggy out from under his feet. The rope went tight, and his legs started to kick. The drop wasn’t far enough to break his neck, and it would be a slow death for this man, whoever he was. “Next we meet, your going to die first, pig-sticker man”, sneered the big fellow, looking at me with a powerful hatred. I kept my hand on the hilt of my sword, knowing that only Caderyn and I were still armed and met his gaze: “I’ll be waiting, when the midnight killer smiles”, I replied in Raphelian and carried on walking, leaving him looking confused.

*     *     *

The rest of the day passed uneventfully; more walking, more signs of war. We were never a very chatty group on the march, but we were practically silent that afternoon. Only Caderyn seemed his usual self, but I can’t imagine him losing any sleep over a dead Pelosian, regardless of whether it was a combatant or just an innocent farmer. This close to the front line, I don’t suppose anyone could be thought of as an innocent bystander.

Come the evening we settled down for another night, and Skuza brought forth a bottle of white wine, and several goblets. It was a small bottle, and shared between us all, we we were lucky to get more than a mouthful each. I wasn’t in the mood to be drinking, so took a small sip for the sake of decorum, than passed what little was left on to Vitus. More than anyone, he seemed to have taken the Pelosian’s unwarranted death to heart. I noticed that Valerius also didn’t seem to be in the mood for drink, but didn’t draw any attention to it. As we sipped, Skuza again went into his man of the people act.

After the day we had had, I wasn’t in the mood to play with him for fun, so instead thought I would do him a favour. He had after all spared us some of his no doubt very expensive wine. As he waffled on about Portage ales and this being the closest thing he had to offer, I took the time to thank him, not only for that, but for being willing to lead from the front when facing the Partisans. I slight bending of the truth, but it lifted his confidence somewhat to know that the men thought highly of him, and in the days to come, we would sorely need him to stay focused on the path ahead, believing he was a capable man to lead us.

With the wine all drunk, we called it a night, set the watches, and prepared ourselves to be woken at dawn in the usual fashion.

*     *     *

The next day we began our journey through the foothills towards the vale of mists, and were lucky enough to have an uneventful morning. Noon rolled around soon enough, and we were again confronted with the signs of the war. At least eight dead Dummonii, each executed in the style of the legion. After dispatching the deserter, I knew the signs well enough, but we moved on with barely a word. It was true that both sides were capable of atrocities in this conflict, but since we had recently seen what the Partisans were willing to do first hand, we were’t in a rush to defend them, or honour their fallen.

We moved on through the mists and ahead of us we heard some kind of commotion. The fog was too thick to see that far ahead of us, but the sounds of a struggle still reached us. Drazar used his gifts to pinpoint its location, and a few of us headed off in that direction. At first I thought we were facing more vraag based on the noises we were hearing, but as we closed in, something bigger was seen striding through the mist. Its long pointed beak was sharp enough to rival my steel, and it moved quickly, like a fencer sizing up an opponent.

The Dagger bill was huge, and if it wasn’t in our way, I would have been happy to have gone around it, rather than tangle with it. We didn’t have that luxury though, so we went at it with a gusto. The mist was too think to be entirely accurate about what happened during the melee, but I do remember Drazar falling at one point. The point of my Baseado found its target, but the thing was wearing armour! Around its neck hung a small steel plate acting as a breastplate.

The cling of metal on metal had me startled, and I glanced around, not sure what to expect. On the ground behind the bleeding Dagger Bill was a body in a pool of blood. Seeing this, I looked again at the creature, taking in its livery and decoration. It was clearly a pet of some kind, maybe even a riding beast, but these things were often trained to defend their owners too. In a few more seconds, the bird was down, with Fjorlief claiming the final blow, and its neck. As we all calmed down, getting out breathe back, we stepped forward around the fallen body, wondering what had become of it.

Nov 242013
 

I have often wondered if the name of the Caves of the Dead was incorrect, or if we were just lucky. The walls between this world and another, were definitely thinner in those dark and winding caverns, but either that world wasn’t the next, or we were just pretty lucky.

As we made made our way deeper and farther underground, the temperature plummeted. In no time at all, the air was filled with our frozen breath, and the steady dripping of ice cold water. I had sold some of my winter clothes in tiny little village on the way to the Margomarissi, and used the money to purchase food and a thin mail vest, expecting to need that more than some stout under garments. I was regretting that decision at the time, and had to make do with wrapping my cloak tight around myself and pulling on my thin gloves, for all the warmth this afforded me.

Fjorlief looked to have the best protection from the cold, wrapped up like a swaddled infant, but if we got into a fight, she would be ill prepared to let alone draw her new two handed sword, let alone swing it to attack. Those of us on foot did the best we could, helped out by walking rather than sitting stationary as the cold seeped into our bones. One of the Pelosian drivers, Catranasia, seemed to be suffering the most, even with advice from the Hutzlunr on how to keep the cold at bay.

She had obviously come to the conclusion that Skuza would be too damned scared to take any route other than on approved Pelosian roads, and would arrive at market in time to spend her share of the profits on buying some warm and woolly clothing. Hopefully this would be a rare mistake, and one that she wouldn’t come to regret. Something seemed off about Drazar now I think back on it, but since he was always hidden behind that damnable mask, I have no idea why such a thought would come to me.

Maybe it was just the way he sat as the dripping intensified, huddled even more closely to himself, as if he could force the water to ignore gravity’s call by sheer force of will. For the rest of us, the heavier water falling was something to be pleased about. “We’re about half way there, by my reckoning”, piped up Caderyn, “or at least we will be once we’re under the river proper”. Everyone nodded, happy in the knowledge that we would only have to endure the biting cold and wet surroundings for a few more hours at most.

The darkness of the caves cannot be over-emphasised at this time, but when it lessened, we weren’t happy with what the light revealed. With few light sources available to us, and the walls slick black with moisture, we were lucky not have had any accidents as we moved through the tunnels. Ahead though, there seemed to be light. Moving closer we found ourselves in a pool of white, above us a natural fissure in the rocks wide enough to let light down even this far. I blinked my eyes rapidly to get accustomed to the glare, and around me the walls of of the cave stared back unblinking.

Embedded into the walls were countless skulls, their empty sockets staring at us all. Some were certainly – or at least at one time were – human, but others were either men from an earlier time, when savagery had warped their physique, or they were something different entirely. Something from another place, that may have tried to look human, but had failed in some small way. Too long in tooth, bigger in eye, flatter of the skull…

Enough to fool some people, maybe allowing them to get close enough to feed, perhaps? I know now why I was feeling such things, why my mind was drifting further into fantasy, rather than concentrating on the very real dangers around us, but it took a Hormorn bellowing and dragging its horn against the stones to break me out of my fancy, and think about why I was acting so strangely.

Covering the walls, the bones, the skulls – everywhere, around us and above – grew a black moss. Shadow moss. An hallucinogenic growth taken by Dummonii priests as part of their rituals, and anyone else for that matter, who just wanted something of an escape. The water dripping from the ceiling, that had been falling onto our faces for at least an hour solidly had run through the moss, picking up fibers as it did. What ever alchemical agent it was within the shadow moss that caused its users to see what could not be seen had obviously been working on me, if not all of us.

In that moment of clarity, I knew I had to warn everyone, lest we all succumb to delusions, trapping ourselves forever in not only the caves, but also our fevered imaginations. Most of the party was quick to heed my warning, wiping their water away from their mouths, and pulling their hoods further over their face to prevent more from dripping onto their lips. There was little we could do for the hormorn, and we could only trust to their constitution and the skill of their handlers.

“It lets you see the dead”, I heard Caderyn say, as we made ready to move once more into the darkness. He was staring at the moss covered walls as he spoke, seemingly lost in thought, maybe remembering his last trip to this hellish place. I was about to ask why that could be considered a good thing, when he reached forward and tore some of the moss from the wall and held it in his hand. I could see what was going to happen, but seemed unable to stop him, to even want to try. In all honesty, if he hadn’t done what I knew he was about to do, I dare say I would have. With barely a moments pause, he opened his mouth and pushed the small handful of moss between his lips.

I half smiled at this. His reasoning was clear; if he could see the dead, he could warn us all of dangers we might not be able to comprehend. I’d have done it for the thrill myself, and to have saved anyone else from having to do something they may not have wanted to. I wasn’t sure if he was doing because he wanted to, or because he saw it as his duty to as the only Dummonii amongst us. At least, so far as we knew. I wasn’t going to let his visions take us too far off our course though, or allow him to hurt himself as he had done something quite noble, intentionally or not. I would stay by him until we were out of the caves, watching his back for corporeal threats, as he guarded us from other worldly ones.

*     *     *

We walked some way, Caderyn at our front, with me as his shadow. Valerius stayed close by too, for which I was thankful. The markings we were seeing on the walls near splits in out path meant nothing to me. Caderyn seemed led by something else, and I was following him, Valerius had to act as our guide.

I had seen a few of the others strip some moss from the walls, but they weren’t ingesting it, so I said nothing. If they wanted to partake on their own time, that was their call to make. Hell, they could sell the stuff to Pelosian mercenaries for all I cared. It was when I saw the glint of amber that I started to worry about taking things not meant to be touched. Everything we had picked up so far on the road had been taken and counted by Valerius, with the understanding that even if you carried it now, it was the property of Skuza.

This was his endeavour, and I had no problem with this ruling. Fjorlief would have to pay the value of her new sword from her share of the profits, and I was happy to give up a few coins for the Hutzlunr ’s battered brigandine. Caderyn claimed no desire to keep hold of the battered and rusty helmet he was wearing, but that surprised no one. A hunk of uncut amber the size of my fist though, that was tempting to take. Something told me that to do so would to be to risk the ire of whatever else lived inside these caves though, so I stepped quickly forward, keeping the Dummonii at my side.

“That is not for us”.

It took me a moment to realise that he had spoken at all, and I wasn’t sure to whom he was directing the admonishment. I quickly looked about, spotting Catranasia eyeing the amber. I don’t know if she had jumped down to grab it and been stopped, or if Caderyn just knew her mind and was quick enough to stop her from making a grave error. She complied, but others were also keen on taking souvenirs. As I said, there was plenty of shadow moss going to be walking out of the caves with us, but some were looking to grab other fungus too. “Put it back, the spirits ain’t pleased”, once again it was Caderyn who spoke, but I was never sure if he even saw what the others were doing, or was following instructions from the voices in his head.

As we approached another junction, I was sure that he was seeing things the rest of us weren’t. he paused as we neared the left hand turn, but never made a move towards it. Valerius seemed happy to be continuing on our way too, but there was something there that had captured Caderyn’s attention. “Don’t interfere, don’t follow”, he said to the darkness down the tunnel, “We’ve already dealt with you. Go along your way.”

I should have asked who was there that wanted to dog our steps, but it seemed a personal moment, and with a shake of his head, Caderyn turned away and continued down our chosen path. No matter how intently I stared down the side tunnel, I saw nothing but blackness.

*     *     *

That wasn’t the last strangeness that awaited us down paths not taken, but rather that than anything blocking our way. Another alcove, this time with something of flesh within. Almost human from a distance, but up close, it was an “empty one”. No soul left, maybe never had one. When Caderyn spoke, it was getting harder to keep up with his thoughts. It was as if he was asking questions of someone not there, and getting interrupted by them too. He seemed to know what this thing was though, and kept his distance.

The figure was short and squat, barely covered in ragged clothing, but with a clay bowl in its hands. It turned towards us as we approached, and Caderyn assumed a defensive posture, clearly worried that this little thing might be dangerous. It seemed small and inconsequential to me, but I wasn’t about to die because my pride had made me stupid. I didn’t move too far back though, and used the length of my sword to steer the bizarre little homunculus past me, towards the carts.

It didn’t seem to care, or even notice that it had come close to being impaled on several feet of steel, and just carried on until a hormorn put its mouth into the bowl and took the entire wad of moss. With that taken care off, it just carried on back the way we had come as if it hadn’t a care in the world.

I looked towards the Dummonii, hoping he would have something to say that made sense. “We are being hunted. The Toma comes, and this was a warning. It meant no harm, and was sent by a benevolent spirit”. All I could do was nod, but over his shoulder, I saw that this spirit, friendly or not, might have more to say. Another Empty One was heading towards us, slowly, feet almost dragging as it held its bowl of moss towards us. Caderyn turned to follow my gaze, and I saw a smile play across his lips, “They bring more shadow moss, this is a good sign”.

My sword was already in hand, and I wasn’t yet ready to sheath it, as further ahead, I was sure there was another. Caderyn took the moss from the closest one’s bowl, putting into his mouth and began to chew. There was definitely another ahead of us, moving out from an alcove to head in our direction. As it closed on us I directed it past, trusting the others to do the same. looking over my shoulder, it seemed the biggest threat to it was the hormorn.

At least a couple were almost as high as our guide, and none of them seemed to care about trampling one of the creatures underfoot. More were approaching though, and further ahead, more still. I soon lost count, as the darkness made it impossible to keep track, but it seemed like only seconds until the entire cave ahead of us was packed wall to wall with Empty Ones. Were they as friendly as Caderyn thought?

He looked to be changing his mind, but the shadow moss made it a slow process. As they gathered about him, he seemed confused at first. He was obviously certain that they were supposed to be on our side, and was struggling to cope with the idea that they may not, especially as so many were closing in on us like a tide. Eventually, his resolve stiffened and he brought his shield to bear. Although he still seemed determined to avoid killing them, he was less than gentle, pushing them hard away, knocking several from their feet as he diverted them past us.

I was even less forgiving, and had my sword pointing directly at them. The flat wasn’t doing enough to keep them from my way, so I was pushing out with the tip, stabbing into flesh in the hope that they’d realise the danger they were in and keep clear of my sword. It was not to be however. When they had lost their souls, they had obviously also lost a reason to preserve their lives – if one could claim they had such a thing – and they continued to move inexorably against us.

By this time dozens had moved past us, but even more lay ahead. I had stopped caring about what could befall my companions, concentrating on staying on my feet, with enough space about me keep thrusting the basaedo where it needed to be. It wasn’t until I felt warm breathe against my neck that I realised this wasn’t going to be enough. At the front, he wad stalled against the mass of creatures, but those behind had carried on moving. The hormorn had cared not about what they stood on, and were now close to using us as a walkway too.

Panic finally settled upon me, and I found my eyes alighting on anything that might offer a way past, but finding nothing. Caderyn looked almost as worried, with no solution presenting itself. Thank the Gods for women though, especially those with Vytch blood running through their veins. “You’re all idiots! Do what I’m doing!” I looked behind, and was thankful that both Fjorlief and myself were taller than almost everyone else. I could see the Empty Ones streaming past her, not impeding her in any way, but it took a few seconds to see why.

She was taking the shadow moss from each creature as it walked towards her, pocketing it as fast as she could, and then they were just walking on by. Behind her I could already see that dozens were disappearing into the darkness just as eerily as they had appeared ahead of us. There were still dozens ahead, but with the Hutzlunr’s plan seeming to work, we set about it. I was happy to drop the black mold onto the ground as the Empty Ones streamed past us, but others were filling their pockets. I may be mistaken, but I’m almost sure I saw Caderyn stick a handful or two more into his mouth as we thinned out the crowd.

Behind us, the others were following the Vytch’s lead, and within a few minutes the throng ahead of us had started to thin, and minutes later the Empty Ones were nothing but a few retreating shadows. I was happy to take a moment to breath, and at any other time would have been quick to lash out at Caderyn for insisting we were in no danger. A momentary glance was enough to make me wind in my tongue though. His eyes were almost totally glazed over, and I doubt he could have heard what I said, let alone take in its meaning. I remembered my promise to protect him, and went to his side, patting his shoulder and turning him once more in the direction we so fervently hoped would lead us from these dismal caves.

*    *     *

Drazar didn’t seem to come out of this encounter as well as the rest of us though. In the confusion something had happened to him, but I never found out what. Fjorlief was quick to offer her aid though, or at least, so I thought. As I was still more concerned with making sure that whatever was going through Caderyn’s head didn’t spill over to dangerous levels, I missed most of what happened. I would like to think that she was trying to help him, in her own way, and what happened afterwards was just unfortunate. She placed her hands on him, or maybe on his mask, to see what was wrong.

Him apparently. With a look of disgust on her face, she quickly pulled her hands back, “You’re wrong”. Two words, and in relation to no other conversation. She wasn’t disagreeing with a point he’d made, or an idea he’d floated. He was just wrong, in some way that she could sense and was repulsed by. It would of course be nice to live in a world where everyone just got along, but at the time, I would have been happy if they could have at least pretended to for the rest of the journey.

And we were still a way to go until we were even out of the caves. True, the path had inclined back up by now, and the dripping water had slowed considerably, but with possibly hours to go it seemed like scant good fortune at all. Ahead though, there was light. My first thought was daylight, but we were still too deep underground for that. As we moved closer, the light coalesced into a human form. Well, nearly human, and also more than.

She was a head and a half taller than either Fjorlief or myself, and built like a Hutzlunr warrior of legend. Armed with a long spear, and wearing the bare minimum of armour, she was nevertheless impressive. From each temple grew a long curved horn which added to her height and marked her as the Toma that Caderyn thought was hunting us. He seemed unimpressed and stepped forward to meet her, myself still acting as his shadow, unwilling to give up the chance of fighting a Goddess.

“You have brought filth and contamination to this place”, she intoned, “You shall no go further with such abominations in your company”.

“We bring nothing”, replied our half cut guide, struggling up the steep incline to meet her, “many times have people passed through these caves without the likes of you stopping them! The Corbie tribe have allowed us passage, so let us pass!”

“The Corbie have no right to say who walks these caves, that is my right! And I will have tribute. Their shadows will suffice, if any of you hope to see daylight once more!” Caderyn seemed shocked by these words, and was moving forward to meet her, weapons drawn.

“These are my men! Leave them be”, came a shout from behind with a thick Hutzlunr accent. Toma smiled, and left the shout hanging in the air, offering up the silence to be filled. I was almost close enough to slash at the huntress as she spoke first.

“Tribute then. Who shall you offer up to appease me?”

Thinking this a feint to give us opportunity to strike, the next words I heard threw me out of kilter, “Him”. I stopped suddenly, and looked behind, wondering just who the Vytch was was so willing to sacrifice.

I should have known, and you dear reader are almost certainly ahead of me, your lives not being in mortal peril as mine was. With one arm extended, the finger pointing solidly at Drazar, I found I couldn’t move or speak. If she accepted the offering, would we leave the man to have his soul taken by the Goddess?

Time slowed for me, but I imagine Drazar’s mind was racing. I had already seen him wield the earth power, and expected that the Vytch would be just as powerful. Would he strike at her before Toma came for him? Allowing himself vengeance at the cost of his life? Toma spoke first though, “He is unclean, and not worthy of my bite”.

“How about a bite on his shadow then,” countered Fjorlief, indicating Valerius. Surely this was a jest to distract Toma, and we must act quickly. Caderyn jumped at the chance too, and it seemed that a thought that had been fomenting for some time was finally allowed access to his tongue.

“We cannot trust her, she will take more than a bite! She is a Succubus, how do we kill her”, and with that he was charging in to the fight. I was quick to follow, but in less than a second realised that I was too late. She threw her spear like a javelin, and it burst into flame as it flew through the air towards Valerius. Brand was not to be outdone though, as his own weapon was soon engulfed in fire as he drew it ready for combat. I knew him to be a fighter without equal based on only a short time in his company, and with a magic weapon in hand, even the Goddess must not have seemed too challenging. But I swear on the Gods, as the fight started, and his sword lit the cave, a look of terror seemed to come to his face.

Other things were more important though, as I was close enough to Toma to strike out. Before I knew what was happening though, she had vanished, replaced by a fast moving tendril of smoke that began to quickly wend its way towards Valerius. She was certainly keen to get what was offered to her, and there was little I could do to stop her. In this form, she was impervious to my attack, no matter how well placed my blow, it slipped through the smoke as if it wasn’t even there. Cursing her I threw my torch to the ground and pulled out my dagger, readying myself for her counter attack.

It never came though, at least not at me. With flaming sword, Brand slashed at the smoke, and it quickly took on a solid form once more. Whatever hunger she felt, it had obviously gotten the better of her, as she was now surrounded. Caderyn had charged after her, smoke or solid, and was swinging his axe with a look of hatred on his face. Valerius had somehow managed to string his warbow ready to loose an arrow, and with flaming sword Brand was tearing her flesh open.

She was certainly more powerful than she looked, but being either a Goddess or a Daemon, that wasn’t much of a surprise. The wounds inflicted seemed to be closing up almost as quick as they were opened, but never fully sealing. I imagine that if she wasn’t so outnumbered, she would have made short work of us indeed. With the melee tightly packed, I was willing to hold off in case one of our men should fall, and careful enough to avoid getting too close the Dummonii, as he slashed about himself with wild abandon.

Thankfully, I wasn’t needed in the fray, and before long, the creature that called herself Toma was down and vanished, and the group was victorious. I dreaded the conversations that would follow the offering of tribute, but they would have to wait. We still needed to get ourselves free from these caves, and hopefully we had faced the worst they had to offer. I went to check on the Dummonii, to make sure he wasn’t too badly hurt from the fight, but apart from still looking bleary around the eyes, he seemed in fine form. Mostly.

Maybe it was the moss that made him do it, but as I watched, he looked down at the bloody axe in his hand thoughtfully, before lifting it up and running his tongue along the blood soaked edge. Once more I found myself ready to explode at him for being such an idiot, but he had just gone toe to toe with a Daemon, and come out on top, all the while being off his head on shadow moss. Whatever his reason for drinking the blood of his enemy, it was his own.

I followed him once more to the head of the group, as the Pelosians behind us began a pitched discussion on the implications of imbibing Daemon blood. Since I had fed some creature my own blood only a few hours earlier, I saw it as fair game, and just hoped we would see daylight soon enough.

*     *     *

We were to get my wish, but exhaustion had robbed me of the ability to keep track of time. It was early evening when we emerged, and I would like to think we had managed the trip in a day, as I don’t remember sleeping at all while we were down there. One of the Corbie tribe was waiting for us, and in my addled state I was sure it was the tribal leader who was there when we set off. I have no idea if such a thing was even possible, but I just needed to get away from the caves, and out of my damp cloak before the chill could get into me. “Well that was fucking fun”, says I, as the Corbie waffled on, “but it’s going to be dark soon, it’s bloody cold, and we’re all wearing wet clothing. How about we move on sharpish and find somewhere to get a fire going where we can sleep”.

Valerius was too busy engaging with the Corbie, and I was too strung out to be diplomatic, “Or we could just stand around here in our wet clothes having a chat I suppose?” Not the brightest thing to say, and Valerius’ patience must have been wearing almost as thin as mine, as he put me in my place.

“After what we’ve just been through, this is the done thing. I know we’re all wearing cold wet clothes, but I’ll ask for directions to campsite when we’re done talking.” There was little I could say to hurry him along, so I trudged forward and waited for us all to move. Eventually we did, and once we exited the shadow of the mountains, the chill in the air vanished. If we hadn’t been wearing such wet clothes, it would have been quite pleasant. As it was I was very happy to see a patch of open ground ahead of us, with two tall totem poles topped with corbie facing away from each other up ahead.

Well, Valerius had done his job alright, and led us to a campsite. I decided not to mention that we could have found it ourselves by simply following the path, as I think he would have quickly lost what little patience he still had with me. Instead I got a fire going and hung my cloak to dry while the hunters went after our evening meal. I was honing the point of my Basaedo as Skuza prayed to his God for delivering him – somehow forgetting to thank the men and women who dragged his pox ridden arse through the caves – when I heard Drazar and Fjorlief exchanging some loud words.

I didn’t need to make out the details, as I could be pretty sure what they involved, so I just waited for it to all die down. Once they had gotten it off their collective chests, Drazar walked back towards the fire. Although his mask prevented me from seeing his expression, his body was practically humming with anger. “What happened in those caves wasn’t right for anyone. We still have a way to go though, so how about you two learn to live with each other until we get someplace safe”, says I, and hoped that’d be the last of it before we could all get some sleep.

Oct 302013
 

This is the first of my weekly series of in game diaries of the character Kantrel di Gregori. These adventures are set in a game world created by a couple of friends of mine, and you can find out more information about the game and its upcoming Kickstarter campaign by heading over and checking out their Facebook page.

These stories of the beginning of my life as a duelist take place when I was but a young man, before I had bothered to better myself mentally and acquired the ability to write, so they are based on little but memories and shared stories. I will however do my best to present them as accurately as possible, with the bare minimum of hyperbole in there, just to sell myself as the hero of these tales.

By now you will know about my family background, and how mush I railed against it. You also know that I was making my way to the Margomarissi  to gain experience and coin so that when I returned, it would either be as a wealthy professional, or in a wooden box. Life does seem to get in the way though, and due to a series of errors of foresight, and not inconsiderable bad luck, I arrived as the campaign season was beginning to wind down. It had been a deathly hot summer that year and it took its toll on the combatants, meaning hostilities ceased earlier than usual, leaving me at a loose end.

I decided to supplement my income for the winter months by taking on work as body guard for anyone who had the coin and wished to slum it in the low towns with all the rest of us scum. I thought this would be dull work as there were few villains willing to take the risk against someone of my not inconsiderable height, but it turned out to be more fun that I ever imagined. She was named Toanna, or at least that’s what she told me. I think she saw in me a lot more than I ever intended, and might very well have worked out something about my breeding long before I had a chance to tell her the truth. I quickly stopped hiding such things from her th0ugh as our friendship grew into something so much more.

I never knew exactly who she was, but since I kept certain details about myself from her, I couldn’t think any less of my little Doe for her secrets. All I knew was that she was Dummoni, and from a family with money. Maybe they had gotten suspicious about our relationship, and only saw me as I meant them to – a hard up sell sword with barely a tin Parvus to my name – and moved her away before she could say goodbye. Maybe she had just grown bored of me and left? At the time though, I was young and cock-sure, and set about finding her. It took a few weeks, as these things will when you haven’t the money to bribe the right people, but eventually I found out that she had made her way to Tuthom-Pothrie.

It was a dangerous place to be with the war just wrapping up for the Autumn and before the yearly peace talks had even begun. I knew I had to find her though, regardless of the danger. My youthful vigour once again coming to the fore, along with the unshakable belief that I was indestructible, as all young men must feel at one time or an other. My luck had turned though as I easily found out about a caravan team leaving Solius-On-the-Mountain two days from then. It was too early for most of the traders to make such a risky venture, but my employer was without options.

Eduardo Skuza was a man with not an ounce of luck left to him. Once an important trader and Pelosian of note, he had lost almost everything in a very short period of time. With caravans lost to bandits, landslides or just plain vanishing, he was desperate and had just one way to return to his former glory. He would take what little he had managed to secrete away from his creditors, bundle it all into a couple of covered wagons, hire anyone foolish enough to join him in this craziness – with a promise of a share in the profit he would make – and get to Tuthom-Pothrie before any of the other traders. This would allow him to sell his wares at the price of his asking, and hopefully allow him to return to his former glory.

I was quick to accept after talking to his caravan master – a tough Pelosian known as Vitus Leale – as I understood that at least half a dozen men would be on the trip to protect his master. The following morning, as I woke with the dawn, eager to be on our way, I was to be disappointed. With the exception Vitus and myself, there was but one other trained warrior. He looked the part to be sure, with more weapons hanging off him that lice off a doxie’s bush, but just the three of us wouldn’t look enough to deter any sizable group of thugs and cut-throats. Still, if we stuck together and fought well, Caderyn – a Dummoni if the warbow slung over his shoulder was any indication – Vitus and myself might just get through it.

The others were a strange mix of of various races, including a man from New Raphelia, and hardly any of them even had a shared a common tongue with which to talk to each other. But we make do with what we have, and barring a two hour wait whilst our illustrious employer got himself bathed and powdered ready for the road, we were off in fairly good time. Sadly, the rain had started coming down hard as we were stood with  little to do but consider our genitals, and that meant I could barely see more than a dozen yards of clear space in front of the lead wagon as we made our way down the narrow cliff side path, and could hear little but the drops falling on my head and ears.

And those bandits I had been so worried about, well they obviously had seen that the weather gave them the advantage and decided to take a shot at getting our cargo away from us.

Oct 282013
 

As I prepare to start a brand new campaign, one of the things on my mind is how one goes about introducing their character to the rest of the group. I’m not concerned with where and how this meeting happens, as it is up to the GM to decide the specifics. For the record though, I really don’t mind the old faithful meeting in a tavern start to a game, there’s a reason that cliche has survived for so long.

What makes a character introduction important is that rather odd thing called a first impression. There are exceptions to this, but in most games, the time that you describe your character to the other players will be the first time you meet them. You will want to include the obvious physical description, but should you add more? It’s obvious that anyone meeting you will be able to roughly guess at your height and, unless you’re wearing heavy clothing, your build. They’ll know the colour and style of your clothing, and if you are carrying an obvious weapon, they should be able to guess at where your expertise lies should things get a little bit hairy.

Some other questions to ask yourself before starting this process is how well known your character is, and to whom. Are they a famed gladiator who has won their freedom? A safe cracker with a reputation only known to others in the trade, or  underworld gang leader who has managed to achieve a certain notoriety apart from with others who are in “the game”. Lets say for now that you’re playing a fantasy game though.

Your race will almost certainly be obvious, but your class or profession may not be, but would you want to hide it? True, being a thief is best not advertised to the general populace, but to fellow adventurers, it could be useful to let them know just how you’ll be earning your keep, and that there may be times when they have to watch your back more that if you were a straight up fighter. A magic user of any stripe should be noticeable in traditional games, but not always, and some times it’s a trick worth keeping up your sleeve.

What about your personality? Do you have a reputation around town for being a braggart or someone who is quick with their fists. Are you a Lothario or Don Juan, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind you? Are you fixer in town who is always happy to help if the price is right or a favour can be bartered?  Do you have enemies that are more powerful than you, and have they made it known that they’re willing to pay for your head before you get out of town?

So, now you have a good idea about what you’re going to divulge, but how do you do it? Even a game that takes place regularly around a table, with real dice being rolled and character sheets that are pencil on paper, there may be an element of online interaction that takes place. I have played games that have taken advantage of Obsidian Portal, but even without such a resource there are forums and G+ groups that can be used by players to share extra information or keep a track of In Character diaries and the like.

If you have such a resource, then it should be used. You can write up prose descriptions of your character’s physical description going into the kind of detail that would be problematic to do sat around the table. You can also find an appropriate image to use, or maybe even get an artistic friend to whip something up to share with everyone. The only pitfall to watch out for when introducing your character this way is keeping everything accurate when you then have to repeat stuff when you summarise to the players around the table. Don’t ever think that everyone will have read and digested your online introduction, so be prepared to fill everyone in around the table at the start of the first session.

Other than that, just have fun, and be prepared to have your character totally change by the end of the campaign.

Sep 162013
 

That line is totally stolen from Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks… but I really liked it as it reminds me of a very simple trick from Unhallowed Metropolis that I have used in the past and that can work in several games. It’s basically a great opportunity for GMs, and something for players to be weary of. In its simplest usage, it works great for any game that has a form of animate dead, be they walkers, shambling corpses, zombies or animates.

550px-Grinning-ZombieA victim goes down in the middle of a combat from what should have been a fatal wound, but is forgotten about in the clean-up. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve declared someone out of the combat due to a severe wound that rendered them immobile but not dead, and then forgotten about them myself. The players do it almost as much. This leaves you with a fairly regular stock of soon to be zombies that will look very familiar to the characters, and will probably stop them from being so blasé about what they leave behind.

This works just as well for BBEGs too, and we don’t have to stretch out memories too far for a great example. Professor Moriarty and Holmes were both seen going down a waterfall together after a fight, but no bodies were ever found. This has given countless writers and film & TV producers all the excuse they needed to write their own stories about the World’s Greatest Detective (sorry Batman).

It would be easy to do this for your own bad guys, but I would advise caution and restraint. If you make the vanishing of the antagonist a little bit too obvious, the players will not rest until they figure out what’s happened. I’ve been a player just as much as I have a GM and I know what we’re like when we have a thread to pull on; the whole damned sweater will unravel before we’re through. As a GM, this kind of thing can be frustrating, especially if it doesn’t lead anywhere and will just involve double the effort on your part for little pay off for the players.

Handle it well though, with a natural seeming disappearance of the body, and hopefully you should be able to have some fun. When it comes to it, my favourite tactic is to have the BBEG seem like he was little more than a capable lieutenant. When he’s dealt with there should be a trail of evidence leading elsewhere, to a bigger badder threat that needs to be dealt with. These days – after a hugely successful caped crusader film (I still love you Batman) – it’s best described as pulling a Ra’s Al Ghul, so you should still be weary of your players spotting this one coming.

Players should also be free to play around this one, again trying hard to not push their luck or be accused of power gaming. If you;re unlucky enough to have a character die, then see if you can arrange it so that none of the other players get a chance to examine the body. Either it gets left behind in a hurry, or vanished from sight in a ruck, and the rest of the group have to flee before something equally bad happens to them. If you have a very generous GM, who has a flair for the dramatic, then you might just be able to turn up, battered and bruised with interesting scars, in a later scene.

If you manage to convince your GM to let this one go, you’d better make the story of your survival pretty darned interesting!

Aug 052013
 

I haven’t done a weapon post in a while, because I like to bring something to the table that might not be common knowledge. As much as I could wax lyrical about basic sword fighting techniques or go on at length about my favourite kind of axe, it’s all stuff that most gamers will be familiar with. What doesn’t get that much attention though is the humble sling. I can see why, as most fantasy role playing games are set in a time period pretty similar to that of the dark ages through to the high medieval period, and at that time, slings were nowhere near as common as they once were.

There are very good reasons for this in pure historical terms, but few of them translate well to a role playing game. For instance the time it would take to become proficient with a sling was far too long. Most people who knew how to use them to full effectiveness trained since they were children. Although medieval bowmen also practiced from a young age, it wasn’t as necessary to be competent with the weapon. In game terms this shouldn’t be a big deal though, as time spent to master skills is a little bit more abstract.

In terms of using a weapon for warfare, the bow is superior as it is easier to arrange for massed ranks to volley fire. The sling, by its very nature is tricky when it comes to getting more than a handful of people to loose their shot in unison. But since standing in massed ranks firing arrow after arrow is hardly what most people would expect out of a role playing experience, this again shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Finally – before we get to the good stuff – warbows and crossbows were excellent to shoot from behind cover. They were especially good when it came to firing through loopholes in walls. Doing this with a sling is pretty much an impossibility.

Sling-1-There are a fair few excellent reasons to use the sling more in RPGs though. Firstly the range and damage of a sling – firing optimal ammunition – is at least as good as a bow and arrow. Average range is roughly 150 metres by someone without a lifetime of practice, but the world record by a skilled user is considerably longer. The velocity of a lead shot is also greater than an arrow in flight. This means that accuracy is improved as it can be fired at a slightly more direct angle rather than a large arc.

Arrows do have a slight edge when it comes to penetration though, as they have a smaller point of impact and are much more likely to pierce flesh and armour. Don’t think that I’m selling the sling short though, although a shot is unlikely to punch through armour, the can still do a massive a mount of blunt trauma damage. Based on anecdotal evidence a lead shot can punch an inch deep dent into a corrugated iron. Just imagine what that would do any flesh beneath the metal armour. You don’t need to imagine too much though, as we know from historical documents that ancient Roman army surgeons had a special set of forceps used to extract shot that was embedded into combatant’s flesh.

So, we have a ranged weapon that matches if not exceeds the longbow in terms of range and damage, and it is also a damned sight easier to make it, as is the ammunition it uses. An effective sling is made from natural fibers such as hair and flax, which is pretty easy to come across almost everywhere. Although it is time consuming to weave a sling, once you know how to it, practice will reduce the time taken to make more. And compared to the time required to make a compound bow or to treat the wood necessary for a warbow, it was really very little time at all.

As for ammunition, well basically you can just pick up something that would suffice from the ground. Any small stone will do the job, but if you can find them, stones that have been smoothed by river water are far superior as the smoothness makes them more aerodynamic. The ideal shape is not unlike an Rugby ball, as this allows the shot to sit snugly in the sling pouch, and aids in the aerodynamics by putting on spin on the shot. What you really want though is a lead shot. Because it is a denser material it will better velocity and be much more likely to cause an injury. The fact that each shot can be cast to a desired shape is also very important.

If you’re just picking stones up from the ground then each shot will need to be made differently to take into account the changes in weight and size of the stone. As mentioned above the density of the lead means that you can will do more damage when you hit, but it will also have a better range and accuracy and too. And if you want to have some fun, it is possible to cast your own personal message onto a lead shot. Historical examples include the Legion number of the soldiers loosing the shot, and some slightly sillier ideas like, “catch!”, and “beware your teeth”.

In conclusion, for a single user wanting something quick and easy to use and obtain ammunition for, the sling is pretty perfect. Maybe not ideal within the enclosed spaces of a low ceiling-ed dungeon corridor, but out in the wild, there’s a reason that they were used for centuries to hunt with.

Jun 172013
 

I live in a large town in the north of England that used to be known for its woolen industry. These days we seem to be little more than a net importer of students, but that’s not a bad thing, as it keeps us fairly well stocked on new recruits for our gaming society. One other thing my home town does pretty well is places to grab a drink. True, a lot of the pubs I drank in as a teenager, and even in my early twenties, have long since closed their doors, but there is still a huge array of choice for the discerning drinker. This is how it should be in any large settlement, but in most fantasy settings, pubs are either bawdy taverns or gentile gathering places. I’m going to show you some other options.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

One of my favourite watering holes. Click for pub website.

The Adventurer’s Rest. This is what i think of as a typical tavern in fantasy settings, and even in some cyberpunk and sci-fi worlds too. It tends to be run by someone who used to make their living in much the same way that the player characters do now. There’ll be a board with adventuring opportunities, and plenty of shady corners for people to smoke pipes in. All much of a muchness, so lets move on.

The Student Bar. Most large cities have some form of higher education institute. Just think about Ankh-Morpork of Discworld fame. Although the Unseen University is by far and away the most famous – and in other fantasy cities, a Mage’s college is not too difficult to include – each guild could reasonably have a training college. So imagine a city of thieves in a fantasy world. There would almost certainly be either competing guilds, or one large one in charge of most municipal affairs. Having a college devoted to teaching anyone who can afford it the finer arts of sneak thievery and cut-pursing would be a great way to make more money. And the moment any kind of institute of education opens up, local publicans are quick to cater to young people with spare cash and a far from restrictive schedule.

Adding such a watering hole to a campaign world is pretty easy then, but why would the characters go there – unless students themselves, in which case; job done – for a pint. Hiring a student to a do a job is far cheaper than bringing in professional help, although risky to say the least. It is also not unheard of of faculty to share a drink with the students, and could be a way of getting an informal audience with someone whom has no desire to converse with adventurers.

The old man’s pub. I’m half way through my thirties, and have been a fan of this kind of pub for a very long time. I like being able to chat with friends rather than shout over other noises, and the choice of ales that are available are usually top notch and more varied than the more popular watering holes. In a game world, this will be about as far removed from the bawdy taverns and nightclubs as it’s possible to get. I know it doesn’t sound very interesting in role playing terms, and using this may get differing mileage for different GMs, but it can be quite good fun.

Seething resentment can be well hidden in such venues, with cliques that have existed for decades still sharing the same 12 foot of bar with their bitter enemies. New people coming into the pub are treated with suspicion, and if you’ve ever seen an American Werewolf in London, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean. There are usually bar games to play though, and I imagine that a lot of retired adventurers are much more likely to be found in such a pub. Not everyone likes having it rubbed in their faces that they’re too old to do what they were great at only a decade or so ago.

The Sports bar. They exist in any world that enjoys organised sports, even if the GM has totally made them up himself. Decorated in local team colours, with prints on the walls of famous players, and maybe even a trophy cabinet. The atmosphere will certainly seem jolly from the outside, but team affiliation is key in some of these venues. Walking in wearing the wrong colours can be enough to ensure you don’t walk back out, in the rougher class of drinking houses. They do have their uses though, as mobs can quickly be formed from their patrons, and famous folk from around the city like to call in to show their devotion to a team.

In some worlds, it’s far from a stretch to imagine that organised crime cartels would have something to do with such establishments too. Book making and contest rigging are sure fire ways to make money, and if a sport is very popular indeed, it can do a gangster’s credibility good to be seen with such respected public figures. Hell, maybe the characters are just fans of the sports team, and fancy a drink in friendly pub, what happens after that is up to the GM.

So there you go, just a few examples of how to change your drinking holes into something a bit different. I hope some of it was useful, and feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section below.

May 062013
 

I read a lot of books. In this I’m sure I have a hell of a lot in common with almost everyone who plays RPGs. One of the authors I used to read a lot by is Stephen King. I mention him as a fan of his work, but mainly of his short stories rather than novels. In these smaller works of prose he writes with a sense of urgency, and doesn’t use a sentence when a word will suffice, and very quickly gets to the of the horror.

In his novels, he has the time to fully explore ideas and concepts, and for an awful lot of his written work, this is done masterfully. I am not picking out any particular novel though, because when I say most of his work, I mean most of any individual novel. The thing that has effectively stopped me reading novels by Mister King is that he doesn’t seem to know when to end the story. Two examples that I have read in recent years are Bag of Bones and It. Bag of bones may not be quite so well known, and it’s easy to see why. The story is OK, and moves along well, but we don’t get any startling new ground broken. And then, he ends the story well. Maybe not a happy ending, but it satisfied me greatly as a form of closure. For some reason there then followed two more chapters.

Pennywise_shower

Click image for creepy creepy stuff…

It” is a slightly better known story, mainly due to the stellar performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the movie adaptation. The novel is amazing, and I know of a friend who simply couldn’t finish reading it alone at night. It is a huge read, coming in at a tome like 1300 plus pages, but once again I can tell you that a big bunch of stuff at the back end is almost totally pointless. We get a great resolution to the story, or at least as good a resolution we could expect when dealing with eternal evil. What follows is just uncomfortable and unnecessary padding.

And it’s this kind of thing I want to talk about today. In a previous game I’ve run I ended up having to write a couple of endings just because I wasn’t too sure what my players would do. They had the chance to take the money and run, and the consequences of that action would mean the horror would come to find them. I ended up being in a position to bribe them into taking on the final job, and they got a huge cataclysmic ending at an abandoned country manor haunted by a ghostly child with enormous powers. And that’s pretty much where I ended it.

I then gave them a very brief description of the return trip back to base of operations and what life was going to be like afterwards, but that was all, and it took me less than ten minutes. What I didn’t do was have random encounters on the way back to the City. I didn’t have them role play the meeting once more with the troops that defend the walls of said city from undead incursion. All of this certainly happened, but it would add nothing to the sense of accomplishment that my players were feeling.

Even the stuff I did talk about was largely derived from what they said they wanted, and I think this is the way I’ll be taking it next time my campaign ends. Instead of running through quickly what happened to them, I’ll open it up, and let the players take the time to think about what their characters would do once the dust has settled. Part of my worries that the characters will suddenly become the super awesome bunch of people they have always thought they were but never quite managed to become, but that’s selling my particular group of gamers short. I think that they would relish giving their characters an end that they felt they deserved, and since the tone of the game has been fairly consistent, I know I can trust them to maintain that, even when it doesn’t really matter that much.

What about the rest of you; how have you handled the ending to a long campaign? If anyone was left alive of course…

Apr 292013
 

I suck at poker. I understand the game, and have a high level of familiarity with the rules, but I am usually the first or second player out of a group to lose all their money. This is down to my atrocious poker face, and it’s becoming something of a hindrance during my current game.

When I GMing, I like to run games with a hint of mystery about them. Luckily, a lot of my players feel the same way, so I get to indulge this habit fairly regularly. What’s becoming a problem though is the same as it is when I pay poker; I tend to get quite excited about what’s going on. When you have two aces in your hand and a third sat on the table, getting excited means no one will take your bet, and you stand to lose a few chips. When it happens during a role playing game, you can give away valuable plot point information and reduce the investigation element of the game to naught. I don’t think I’ve been that bad so far, but I know I have been pushing my luck.

I’m sure all GMs have had that moment when they grind their teeth a little, silently screaming things such as, “You were given this clue last week!”, or, “Share the information, it’ll all make sense then”! But players don’t often do what we want or expect, and that’s a great thing. After one particularly worrying moment in my Cyberpunk game, the players wandered into a meeting with a very important person after receiving a tip-off from someone that I thought they would trust that the VIP was almost certainly going to kill them. He told them to stay the hell away from the meeting, and to not even go back to their homes. He even left them a substantial amount of money so that they could go on the run without having to worry about where their next meal was coming from, or keeping a roof over their heads until they got settled.

So of course, they went up to the meeting, and were promptly held at gun point by the VIP’s personal goons.

Should I have been surprised by this? Of course not. No GM should ever be surprised by the actions taken by players in their games . But I did get a bit exasperated, as it was far from a subtle clue that something was amiss. It was a comment from one of my long term players and best mate ever that really made me rethink my response though, and also made me want to get some thoughts down on the blog, “dude, you’re forgetting that we don’t know the script”.

Now of course this is true, but I have found myself giving the game away on several occasions recently, not just because the group went against the grain, but often when they did something that I really wanted them to do. Awarding experience for coming up with a great plan, or putting together a bunch of disparate clues to come up with an answer that makes sense is a great idea. Doing it the moment they come up with said plan is a very explicit way of saying that they’re on the right track. Even worse though is just straight out complimenting the player in question for figuring something out. If they know they’re on the right track, they have little reason to explore other ideas even if it would make sense for the characters to do so.

Luckily I have once again been blessed with players who role play to the hilt and really don’t let themselves get swayed by my inability to keep things under wrap, but in a different group, this could be a real problem. So from here on out, I promise to try harder to keep a straight face. To only give the player characters clues that they would get from in character actions rather than through rewarding them for doing what the GM wants. This should be no problem, as instead of handing out XP as and when they do something impressive, I’ll just be keeping a tally during games, and handing it out in the post game wrap up. Hopefully this will mean that they won’t know exactly what it is that they’re being rewarded for, and will incentivize them try out new and cool ideas.

I would hope that this problem doesn’t affect too many other GMs, but if it has been a problem for you in the past, either as a player or a GM, I’d love to hear from you, especially your solutions.

Apr 152013
 

If you have been following my other projects of late, you might think it a bit odd that I’m writing a blog post about not using published adventures less than a fortnight after I uploaded my very own adventure onto DriveThruStuff. Bear with me though, as it will all make sense.

A while back I wrote a little article about a way of cutting down on prep time for running games without sacrificing quality. I think this is very important to a lot of GMs who sometimes don’t get the chance to put the love care and attention into their stories as they would ideally like. We all have lives away from the table, and even when I was young and just starting out in this wonderful little hobby, and had little in the way of responsibility, there were still occasions when a game needed to be run, and there was little prepared in the way of plot-lines and rounded out antagonists. When this happens, it can be sorely tempting indeed to pick up an adventure that someone else has written and put in all the leg work on. It might seem like you’re saving yourself a lot of hassle and time, but sadly, this is very rarely the case.

It’s easy to think that because it’s all laid out there in front of you that you won’t have to do so much to run said game, but I have never found that to be the case. The last time I ran a  pre-written adventure was to try out the system for Only War, a Fantasy Flight Games RPG set in the popular Warhammer 40k universe, all about the Imperial Guard. I went in very prepared for this, and had read the entire Dark Heresy rulebook before hand, as the adventure only had quick start rules, and I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down. Metaphorically speaking…

Even that wasn’t enough though, as I was constantly worried that I was forgetting things that the adventure had included that could be important later on. I am in fact fairly sure I missed out one entire NPC, and got two others mixed up, but I hope that my players never realised. And this is my biggest problem with written adventures; since I never came up with the idea, I feel bad about changing any detail, as it could change the ending, or at least the conclusion. If I’m running an adventure I have created myself, I know the exact thought process behind every decision made when writing it, and where any thread could lead, because I was the one doing said writing.

If I’m working with someone else’s intellectual creation, I don’t know why they made the decisions they did, and sometimes these questions can only be answered by actually playing the game. At which point – if it goes wrong – it’s a bit late to back-track and reevaluate as your players will already have seen the fumble.

Now, there are exceptions to this, as there to everything – except the second law of thermodynamics – and these are adventures written with multiple paths within them. The best example I have seen of this recently was in an adventure I was lucky enough to be able to review as part of Modiphius‘ campaign to back their Achtung! Cthulhu! Kickstarter campaign. From the get go, this laid out a few paths that could be taken, dependent on the wishes of the players, and the abilities of the characters.

This is a much better way of writing an adventure, but can still take more time to prep than if you are running your own adventures, because you still have a written conclusion that really should be the final aim. Going into an adventure expecting it to end in a certain way means being prepared for all the eventualities that a group a of players will throw at you, and when doing so within the confines of another person’s ideas, it can be tricky to do so without it coming across as the most rail road-y of rail roads.

Is there still a time to run published adventures? Well, of course there are! The adventure I keep subtly linking you to was written for a gaming tournament. It was supposed to be played over two session split by a lunch break, and in such a way as to be as close to the same as possible for two different groups, so that they could be judged fairly against each other. This is an extreme example, but I’m sure that a lot of GMs out there write adventures ahead of time if they’re going to be running a game at a convention. This is the kind of time we really like having the leg work done for us.

The important thing to remember though, is that just because some has started the job for you, that doesn’t mean you get to put in any less effort. If you want the payers to have a good time, then you need to know the adventure just as well as if you had written yourself…