Dec 042013
 

Balance is a tricky thing in RPGs. Some would even argue that it is not relevant and that player agency and good games mastering should be all that is required. I disagree with such sentiments, and think when it comes to character generation, the process should allow for everyone to begin on a level playing field. This is sorely tested when magic is introduced into pretty much any system. Even the simplest of systems can sometimes struggle, but I think Savage Worlds is one of the few that does it well.

One of the classics has a differing approach, with magic being pretty under-powered for starting characters, but growing to epic proportions later, allowing them to outclass their sword wielding brethren as they raise through the levels. In Orbis there are various schools of magic – some high, some low – and they all have differing power levels. For the first time ever I have generated a character with some magic ability, but haven’t concentrated on it. For the people who haven’t been keeping up, my character is a duelist who has access to the power of Geomancy which he mainly uses to give himself advantage in combat.

Geomancy is the power to change the world around you by casting runes. These changes can be small and subtle, such as cleaning the clothes you’re wearing or honing the edge of a blade, or large and obvious, like removing the pull of Uma’s gravity from large objects. In terms most gamers should understand, it is the closest magic system to the traditional way of magic or sorcery from D&D, with a limit on how many “spells” you can learn, and how many you can cast a day, with more powerful runes only available when you have enough points/ranks in the skill. Like D&D magic then, it looks like you start small and could become massively powerful. The amount of time you would need to devote to the art is a huge restriction though.

I have played magic users that within a few months of play could call down fire from the heavens. In Orbis however, there is no way that an adventuring character could ever have the time or resources to spend on learning and mastering such powerful runes. In this way it has an inbuilt balance that is kept under control by the players. Could I learn the truly powerful runes that could shake the very foundations of Uma? Of course I could, but it would be the very definition of a boring role playing experience, and would still take far too long.

There are of course other options to you though. Heart’s Fire is an elemental power that has almost limitless destructive potential. You’d be a bloody fool to unleash it all though, as every use of the Fire carries with it a risk of mutation. This risk rises with continued use and increases in line with how powerful a Fire you wish to wield. Again, self limiting by the player’s choices, and most adventurers only pull out the big guns when their lives depend on it, knowing full well that even if they survive they might never be the same again.

Earth Power is strange one. It is almost limitless from a very early stage, with users able to do almost anything they could imagine! Sounds great so far, but it only affects living things. And the living thing needs to be in contact with Uma. As does the person casting it. So, limited again, but so far I have seen characters with this power possess the will of their enemies or uproot great trees. To keep it under control somewhat, the character has a limited number of “points” that they use to activate their powers. The more powerful the magic, the more points it costs. Come the following dawn though, all points return without even needing the traditional hour or what-have-you of meditation that is usually required for such things.

For me, the one that looks the most broken though, is Daemonology. Basically the ability to reach through the fabric of reality and bring forth creatures whose will you bent to your own with powers almost without limit. Unlike the other magics, the Daemonologist is massively powerful right from the off. The only real limit is that each creature they bring through drains points from their Willpower attribute. Although this can go up, most people who create a Daemonologist have it as high as it’s going to go pretty early on, and soon hit the point where even attempting to bring anything else through is just another way to commit suicide.

In our current game we have one such character who has begun play with a Daemon bound weapon. Because of this weapon, Brand is now the best fighter in the game, easily surpassing professional warriors who have dedicated a boat load of points and abilities in learning how to effectively swing a sword. When I first realised this, I was stunned as I thought that this threw the balance out completely. Not only was he the most effective fighter, but he could still use Daemonology to even better effect! The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that the balance was just a bit backwards.

Other magic users get better – with limits – as time progresses and advancement points are acquired, but the Daemonologist hits their upper point pretty damned quickly and need to look to other areas to improve themselves. Unlike other magic users, they are also unable to use their powers responsively. If I was faced with a superior enemy, I could cast a rune to knock them from their feet and then impale them as they laid helpless. A Daemonologist would require hours – if not days – to bring a creature through to help them in a fight. Add to this the cultural problems with Daemons that exist throughout Uma, and you could end with a character with immense power that isn’t allowed into entire countries.

The lower magics that exist act more like special skills than world altering powers, so don’t need the time spent discussing them. The High magics mentioned above though, are amazing. Each has been created in a way that makes sense within the physics of the world, even of they can sometimes warp said physics. They exist in the cultures of Uma differently, and how you feel about any of them could vary depending on which city you were born in. And, importantly, none of them break the game. You could try, but you would fail, and end up having a fairly rubbish time while you did so. They add so much to the game world, and fight perfectly well into the system without needing a huge amount of extra rules just for them, that you’d be foolish to create a character without at least taking a look at what’s available to you.

In other news, it looks like Kickstarter has sorted out the money going to the lads who created this amazing game, and the digital copies should be going out by the end of the week. If you backed this campaign, I’d love to know what you think about the game when it arrives, so please let me by dropping me a comment below.

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.

Nov 162013
 

After the fight, with a dead deserter at my feet, I remembered feeling on top of the world. Two of us had been hired on to fight, and one of us had walked away with nothing but a torn sleeve, the other a wound that required the care of Valerius. True, the New-Raphelian surprised us all, but since we knew what he was made of now, there’s was no way I was going to be leaving him on the rear cart while the rest of us fought. I was very pleased with myself though, as if I had already faced down the worst that the road had to offer us, and from there on out, it’d be smooth sailing.

I will tell you the full tale of the journey in good time, but for now lets not jump too far ahead. First, we had to decide the route we would take, and it seemed that I wasn’t the only brash young man with something to prove, as it took little time at all to decide on the quicker, more dangerous, Dummoni controlled route to get us to market nice and quick. Caderyn knew the way, and had taken it before. He assured us we would not be waylaid by his countrymen, but that we should not expect any aid from them either. Still, if we wanted to get Skuza’s goods to the market in time to set our prices, speed was of the essence and so the decision was made. Thankfully it wasn’t my job to let our massively nervous employer know that we would be journeying into the heart of the enemy, that was down to Valerius.

As a Numare, he was the only one who could talk to the boss as an equal, and Vitus seemed even happier than I was that the job was out of his hands. Valerius wasn’t exactly rushing headlong into the task though, and decided to wait until we made camp that night. On the way I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me, and began asking the Dummoni exactly what we could expect from our journey. It was a short conversation, but when someone starts talking about the caves of the dead, it tends to make people slightly more introspective. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait until we found a campsite for the night, and set about settling ourselves down.

We were lucky to find a large flat area that we could get all of the wagons onto, and keep the beasts far enough out of the way that getting trampled into the dirt as we slept was unlikely. The only things we shared our campsite with were nine standing stones. “Ah, the nine climbers”, said Caderyn, walking to each in turn. As he walked, he spoke a little blessing in Dummoni in front of each; he was quiet so I didn’t catch exactly what was said, but in front of each he stopped, kissed the tips of his fingers and then placed them against each stone. I know that this might sound strange, but as he went, he told us about the stones. “One’s a Daemon”, he began, and I immediately looked towards our Pelosian travel companions for their response.

The boss and his man were out of earshot, Valerius seemed to take it all in stride – that coupled with the warbow still about his person made me even more curious about his past life – but Vitus and the young Pelosian woman who seemed to be some kind of beast minder both looked concerned, even if only for a moment. “No one knows which one for certain”, Caderyn continued in broken Pelo-Margo, “Although there’s plenty of people with ideas, but none are better than guessing. The daemon turned himself to stone to avoid some pursuers you see, but changes his position each night in case they get too close. You can see that over the years the climbers have gotten a little bit further up the mountain.” He stopped again in front of the final stone, taking his time with this blessing, maybe knowing something we didn’t about which stone was more than it appeared, “Maybe once they get to the top, he’ll feel safe and turn back into his Daemon form.”

I fear no daemon more than I do a man. True, some have powers that can shake the foundation of the mortal realm, but I’ve heard stories of men and women able to do the same, so I say take each person as they are, and you won’t go too far wrong. The Pelosians, by their cultural upbringing have different views, and I took some small pleasure watching their faces throughout this. Thank the Gods that Skuza wasn’t able to hear all this though; he was a damned nervous fellow at the best of times, and I can’t imagine it would have aided his nerves to know how close he was to bedding down in a Daemon’s shadow.

Before that though, he needed to get himself and his carriage clean. I couldn’t give two half hearted tugs about how clean he was, but I felt a touch of responsibility about the carriage, having had a hand in the blood spurt that flew through his window. Being the nice chap I am I offered to help his man out in bringing buckets of water up from the river to clean and cook with, and when we got back, a few had wandered off to bring some fresh meat back for supper. This meant my kindly demeanour was once again taken advantage of as I helped drag a huge and heavy bath from out of Skuza’s carriage. Ornate and preposterous are the two words that come to mind when I think back on it, with finely detailed daemon feet to raise it from the ground, it would probably fetch more than I hoped to make from this trip if sold to someone with taste to match Skuza’s.

This seemed to calm him down as he hid behind a screen to protect his modesty and soaked his tiny balls while the rest of us cooked and ate the game that had been killed for us. Valerius had put his unpleasant task off for long enough though, and once Skuza was dried down and powdered, he joined us around the fire. Well, near the fire anyway, and they began talking in Pelosian. I knew the other Pelosians would be able to tell what was being said, and the rest could maybe guess at a word or two as they could just about get by in the broken tongue of  Pelo-Margo, but I somewhat gave away my own fluency as the conversation progressed. “Maybe we should go back”, Skuza began; the sentence that was fast becoming his catchphrase, but on this occasion I can’t remember exactly what his piffling reason was.

“No my lord, we must continue, and make good time doing so if we are to be first to market”, countered Valerius, laying the ground work well, “and that means going south of the river”. The splutter of relaxing tea that sprayed from the boss’s mouth almost drenched Valerius, but he continued with barely a pause. “We will make better time by avoiding the bureaucracy we would encounter by staying on the Pelosian roads and going through the settlements. We are both Numare and as such must be counted and tallied. By going through Dummoni lands, we avoid all that, and have a shorter route too”.

“But Valerius, we will be killed and eaten by the savages once they know who we are!”, he exclaimed, continuing to waffle on about correctly notarized paperwork and heathens with barely a break to suck in some air.

“My lord, we will ensure the best prices by taking this quicker route, and when you return home, with your fortune restored, your eligibility when looking for a Serra Skuza will be greatly increased when you have stories of bravery and derring-do to regale them with”. With hindsight, I could certainly have picked a more opportune moment to take a mouthful of warm tea, but how was I to know the gem that was about to spill from the nobleman’s lips.

“You are correct of course my friend, and I have always thought of myself as being something of an adventurer.” Well, with that I was lucky to stop myself from spraying The new Raphelian – Brand, as I had taken to calling him – with my own beverage, but instead managed to turn it into little more than a loud exclamation of laughter, quickly hidden by a coughing fit as I struggled to keep myself from laughing further. The Gods bless the little man though, as he was quick to suggest that Valerius come to my aid. I was just as quick to protest, and claim the matter was far from serious, and I think the doctor understood what had happened as he was happy to leave me be.

I drowned the rest of the conversation out to save myself from paroxysms of laughter, but I gathered that by the end, Valerius had done his job well, and tomorrow we would brave the caves of the dead. We still had a night in the wilds to survive though, so watches were posted, and I crawled under my blanket to try and get some sleep.

It didn’t seem like I was out for long before the night air was torn apart by a feminine scream. I was quick to find my find my feet, and was drawing my steels as I spotted Drazar come flying backwards from Skuza’s carriage, propelled by the vraag that had pounced on him. Whoever was supposed to be on watch had obviously let their concentration slip to allow the beast access to the boss’s inner sanctum, but since one of those people was Drazar, it looked like he was already getting his comeuppance. As I got to my feet, steels in hand, it looked touch and go for the masked man; he had obviously cast some form of magic to try and dislodge the creature, but it had done little than cut its flesh somewhat and anger it even more. As I watched it snapped its jaws towards Drazar, drawing blood before I could do anything to stop it.

There was no way it was getting a second chance though, and with my head down and Basaedo held at my waist pointing forward I charged towards it as fast as I was able, and thrust the sword directly into the thing’s side. I felt the point break flesh, and thought I had inflicted a killing wound. But the vraag had faster instincts than I had expected and was rolling with blow almost as soon as it had landed. My sword may not have killed the creature, but it bit deep and forced it away from Drazar. I had heard horror stories about the ‘summer’ vraag though; male beasts, either old enough to have been forced out by a younger pup, or a young pup that had failed to secure its place at the head of the pack, both of which would be desperate and hungry enough to attack without its pack as support. Expecting the worst, I dropped back into a defensive posture, waiting for its next move.

I didn’t have long to wait though, as coming up on my left was Caderyn, axe in hand and swinging it hard down towards the body of the beast. Once more though it moved quicker than expected and the blow took it in a hind leg, the crack echoing around the rocks, sounding louder than the whelp of pain. The vaarg was still moving but going slowly now, whimpering rather than growling. That wasn’t to say it couldn’t still pose a threat, and putting it out of its misery could be considered a mercy so I stepped forward aiming to finish it off, the final strike finally putting it down.

Drazar was badly cut, but used his own magics to clean and seal the wound before I could even offer a medicinal rune to help him out. In the distance we could all here the baying of other vraags. It mustn’t have been a lone creature, but it seemed like the rest of its pack wanted nothing to do with attacking us, and were withdrawing. I wasn’t convinced they wouldn’t return though, so stoked up the fire before getting myself comfortable once more. Brand seemed happy taking what he could get from the vraag’s corpse, but everyone else looked ready to get straight back to sleep. Skuza would need some help though, and once more he was adamant that we turn around and retreat home, coming back with trained hunters to clear the way. A stupid idea of course, and luckily Valerius was once more on hand to calm him down and give him something to help him sleep. The herbal tea he offered was potent stuff indeed, as Skuza was still protesting, claiming the danger of the road was too much, and that come the morning we would turn around as he fell into a deep sleep.

*     *     *

My own watch, several hours later, went fine. No wild animals, no daemons shifting stones, just time spent relearning the runes I thought I might need for the next day. Caderyn had asked me to wake him early as he had preparations to make himself, and Brand was on the morning watch with me, as he had something he needed to take care of come the dawn. I’d heard about this, knew what was coming, and decided to hold off on rousing the Dummoni, allowing him a wake up call the everyone had better quickly get used to. You see, the folk of New Raphelia have their own way of keeping dark forces at bay.

Every morning, they greet the dawn with a screaming bellow, dancing naked – or damned near it –  shaking whatever they have to hand in an effort to scare away anything unpleasant that could have dared to creep up on them during the darkest hours. I couldn’t comment on how the daemons react to this hellish noise – none of the stones seemed to be at all put out by it – but it scares the living shit out anyone not prepared for it. By now, you could probably imagine just how the boss reacted, throwing open his window – barred from the inside after the vraag attack – and expecting hell on earth to have surrounded our campsite. Valerius seemed almost as put out as everyone else after the noise, so it fell to me to calm him down on this occasion. Luckily my Pelosian is pretty strong, even if I was unable to read and write it at the time. “Fear not the daemons my Lord”, says I, ” the New Raphelian is doing his damnedest to keep them at bay from the rest of us. It is a religious observance, carried out each morning to keep us all safe through the day from Daemonic influences.”

“Ah, yes. I see now”, Skuza lied, “should we all join in? A concerted effort if you will, to  drive away the foul creatures?”

“Best not my Lord. He’s a priest of his people, and knows the correct mannerism to be fully effective. Interrupting him, joining in even, no matter the intent could derail all his hard work. Best leave him to it, and just be thankful we have him on this journey.”

“Of course, of course.”, he nodded vigorously, before turning to Vitus, and whispering loud enough for the whole camp to hear continued, “We really must make an effort to convert him before the end of the trip.”, before ducking back into his little nest. Vitus barely had it in him to nod in agreement, but breakfast and a warming drink were already on the go, and I was happy to get back to shaving. Caderyn’s preparations differed somewhat from my own though. As we were eating, he was painting his body. The front side white, the rear black, and his face to mimic a crow. It was how the tribe who guarded the caves of the dead presented themselves, and he was obviously looking to fit in.

We were soon on our way again though, with the freshly painted Caderyn taking the lead, with me out front, but sticking close to the wagons as he moved quickly out of sight ahead of us. We’d moved Brand to the front cart, and Skuza’s home on wheels was between that and the rear cart, hoping to keep him out of trouble. After an hour or so on the road, I realised we were getting close to the two faced Corbie tribe. The birds they so idealised were in evidence, if not currently present. The entire valley floor was inches deep in shit and feathers drifted around our legs on the wind. A couple of corners later, and there was the tribe; on the cliff tops overlooking us, perfectly arranged to drop rocks from above, crushing us before we could even move. Luckily that didn’t seem to be their intention, as Caderyn had arrived ahead of us and told them what to expect.

We were expecting a challenge of some kind before we were allowed access to the caves, but since the manner of the test changed depending on who was taking it, we had no idea what to expect. The Corbie didn’t seem to want to hold up our journey for long though, and offered a simple test. We would send forth a champion who was to take a feather from a man of their own. He was a big chap though, tough looking, with just as much muscle on him as fat, and when he slid down the steep incline to step into the challenge circle, he was so light on his feet it looked as if he was gliding down on the feathers that adorned him.

Looking around at our fellows, the only one who looked his match for pure size and strength – not to mention body colour – was Caderyn. He was far from keen, but knew we had few other choices open to us, so stepped into the circle. The contest was far from evenly matched, with the Corbie’s size and dexterity more than a match for our man. He tried though, using trickery and feints to hopefully put the bigger man off his stride, but he had an answer for everything. Before long Caderyn was on the ground, and the wrestler was stamping hard onto his crotch. Our collective groan was easily drowned out by the cheers of the Corbie, but their man seemed unwilling to inflict further punishment on ours. After a brief exchange with the one who seemed to be in charge – and also high as a kite, if I’m any judge – a feather was taken from his headdress and handed to the still prostrate Caderyn. “You could have just asked for it”, the wrestler informed him as he was helped to his feet.

We had already answered their question, “Challenge, hearth, or passage?”, with passage, and with the fun of the show well and truly over, most of the Corbie seemed less interested in us, and drifted away from view as we were shown towards the entrance to the caves.

*     *     *

Caderyn had told us some of what to expect, that we would be entering a place where the barriers between this world and the next were worn thin. This could give easier access to our world for any manner of beings, be they Daemon blooded or those who were once living and breathing humans. On the road already I had added two the tally of possibly restless dead that could be on my trail, so I was stepping carefully to say the least. Once more Caderyn and I were at the front, and Vitus had passed me a small flaming torch to help light the way. Natural light was in short supply, with occasional glowing fungus, self illuminating crystals and even occasional light wells from above.

Sat in the centre of one such light well was what looked to be a half dead and rotting tree stump, surrounded by Corbie. At first they seemed to be standing and sitting in silent contemplation of the stump, but every once in a while, one would step forward and silently push his arm into a hole in the stump. With more to concern us, I never bothered to ask Caderyn the significance of the act, but once their arm had been in for a few moments, it was withdrawn and the next tribesman would take his turn. With a shake of my head I turned away as we approached a fork in the road. There were many markings around the fork, some at least I recognised as being Dummoni, but I had no clue how to read the language so left the decision making up to our guide.

There were several such choices along the way, and unfortunately, we didn’t always pick the best option. On one such occasion, it was only after we had already moved the front cart passed the fork that the error was spotted by Valerius. Once more his familiarity with all things Dummoni had paid off, as he was able to decipher the runic markings on the walls, and insisted that we pull back and take the other route. Easier said than done, with few of us able to handle the hormorn with much skill, but we did eventually manage it.

I had other things to occupy me though. Occasionally as we had stalked the caves, grasping limbs had reached out from holes in the cavern walls, and a generous man might just about think of them as hands with long fingers. “They ask for an offering”, Caderyn informed us, “but just how much it matters to give one has never been confirmed”. I watched them for the longest time, wondering just what they could be seeking, but imagining nothing pleasant.

“We have similar creatures at home”, came the voice of Brand, “they have a fondness for eyes”. Just about as bad as I thought then, and there was no way I was giving up one of my own with no guarantee of getting an easier passage in exchange. Brand reached into one of his many pouches and brought forth a fleshy orb, that he dropped into the waiting fingers of a nearby limb. It quickly withdrew, and the noises issuing from within reminded me of a child licking the last remnants of sweet cream from a mixing spoon. I would like to think the savage had just kept an eye from the Vaarg we had slain, as the other possibilities were not exactly pleasant to dwell on. 

With the carts almost all lined up again, I found myself alone for a moment, keeping an eye out down the passage we had elected to turn away from, just in case there was any danger to be found. Curiosity is my only excuse for what happened next, and I’m still unsure as to what other motive there could be for my actions. I must have known that it was something that should not be done as I looked about me, making sure that everyone else was otherwise engaged before I drew my razor from its leather pouch. I opened the blade up and gently drew it down my thumb, taking care to keep the wound as small as I could manage. As the blood pooled on my skin, I wiped the flat of the blade across it, smearing the dark liquid across its surface.

Reaching forward I wiped the same flat of the blade across an extended digit. It withdrew with unnatural haste, and I once again heard the greedy slobbering from within. Within a second or two, it shot out again, quicker than I had expected, and it even seemed to be reaching out further towards me, hungrily. I didn’t know if I had appeased it, or given the hidden creature a taste for something very precious to me; only time would tell. I slipped the straight razor away again and with a final look towards the rest cast a small rune to seal the wound clean hopefully avoiding questions about it.

I quickly rejoined the rest of the party, and retook my position at the front and we soon approached another fork. This one presented us with a an interesting problem, as from one side we could clearly hear the sounds of a woman crying out. My first instinct was to rush to her aid, but thankfully calmer heads prevailed. Many were expecting a trap, and based on what else we saw in those damnable caves, I was very glad we turned away from her sobs and continued on our way.

Nov 012013
 

I have spent the last couple of years genuinely annoyed that I haven’t had the funds to back all of the Kickstarter projects that I wanted to, But today I popped my project backing cherry. If you want to back this campaign, click through here right now, but if you’ve never heard of the game Orbis Terrarum, stick around and I’ll tell you why I’ve pledged some hard earned money so that real hard copies of the game will see the light of day.

**Full disclaimer** I am friends with the guys who have created this game, and they’ve been working on it for at least as long as I have known them off and on. This does not mean that I’m only supporting the game because we’re friends; I have played two full length campaigns within their world as they play tested the game at our weekly gaming society meetings, and I enjoyed every second of it.

As mentioned in a previous couple of posts, I am even playing the game every Tuesday night as of last week, and I’m loving the final revisions that they’ve made. I will be continuing to detail the adventures of character as the weeks progress, but for now lets get to why I love the game so much.

The style of the game, and how it comes to life through the setting was the first thing that grabbed me. As much as I like to play games of high heroic fantasy, with orcs and dragons and what have you, I much prefer a grittier edge to my fantasy worlds. For people who have followed the blog you’ll know that when it comes to fantasy literature my two current favourite writers are Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie. Both write about fantasy worlds that have a very human feel to them, with magic being both rare and misunderstood, and the biggest threats often much more human than supernatural. Wars across borders and political maneuvering take more of a central role than world ending beasts and necromantic legions.

The guys who created the game are also fans of this style, but have a much bigger influence on their style, and that’s the work of Fritz Leiber. It runs along similar lines and anyone familiar with his work is highly encouraged to look into this game so that you can enjoy seeing the influence he clearly had.

It’s not just setting though, it’s the system as well that keeps me going back for more. As much as I like a nice simple system, what I really adore is one that has internal consistency. I know it’s a strange thing and might not be what everyone looks for, but there is something marvelous about a game that has the same rules for character generation for player characters as it does for NPCs, so that everyone is on a level playing field, at least to begin with. Add to that the magic, combat and general skill tests all work along the same lines means that there is nothing extra to learn just because you want to use some Geomancy or wield the Heart’s Fire.

I could go on at length here about the various little things within all of the above that I love, but the guys have done a great job of explaining exactly what the game is about on their project page, so if you haven’t been there yet, head over now to read all about it in their own words and then back the hell out of it! At time of writing it has been running for just over 24 hours and is already over half way there. And since the game is already complete, with layout and artwork, anyone who backs it at least the digital level will get their pdf copy as soon as it funds.

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 242013
 

As some of the more astute amongst you may have realised, I haven’t been as active lately as I would like to be, with regard to engaging with people on their own blogs, pimping this one, or writing more than one article a week. There are several reasons for that, some good and some bad, and one that I hope to be able to share with you soon, however doing so prematurely would be a bit silly. This also means that I haven’t had much time to carry on with my own RPG project, Rise of the Automata. I am not giving up on any of these projects, but somethings just need to take priority at the moment.

I do however always make sure I have the time to role play at my local gaming society once a week – I am currently the President, so not turning up would be weird – and today I would like to talk about what I’m currently playing. The game is called Orbis Terrarum – or Orbis for short – and it has been a labour of love for two friends of mine far at least as long as I have known them. This will be the third time I have been lucky enough to play in one of their campaigns, and this time is especially fortuitous as the game is damned near completed, and they will be hopefully launching a Kickstarter project soon to create a hard copy of the game. The link above is to their Facebook page, and if any of the following seems interesting to you, make sure you like the page as they will be announcing all updates on their. And trust me, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for this game, as it is spectacular. Anyway, on with the review.

There are a few things about character generation in Orbis that stand out, and make you realise just how well thought out the game this. Rather than cherry pick the cool bits though, I’m going to go through the whole process for you. I do have a copy of the character generation rules, but since they are a beta copy, I am not at liberty to share them just yet.

To start with, the Orbis Master (OM) asks you to think about a few things that might define the character you want to play. This known as the metier, and is a three word description of the character summing up their most obvious personality trait, their country of birth, and the word that best describes their profession. I went for an Impetuous Raphelian Duelist. The country of your birth – or at least where you grew up – is very important in this gritty realistic fantasy game, as you will only be playing as humans. Their are beings from another plane, but they are not playable characters, and the writers have eschewed the Tolkienistic elves and dwarves that are common in other fantasy settings.

To set things off after this, with nothing more than a basic concept in mind, you roll a D20 to randomly determine the state of your life as a young person. I was pretty damned lucky in that I ended up coming from a wealthy family. Not only did this mean a bit of extra starting cash to buy gear with, but it was also a perfect fit for the back story I had in mind. Even if I had rolled something different though, I would have just made some last minute changes and moved on. A second D20 roll gives you something unusual about yourself. I have seen some pretty bad ones in my past experience of playing this game, but once again luck was on my side, and all I ended up with was being a bloody big fella. It means I’ll have a hard time sneaking around, but the word “Large” is now a permanent extra part of my metier that also gives me a few extra points of wound capacity. There is one more roll like this to make, but that comes right at the end, and for now we’re looking at what it means to be from certain places on the world of Uma.

Where you are from determines your starting options for skills, some cultural advantages, but first, the amount of dice you will roll to generate your primary attributes, of which they are seven. The player rolls a number of D20 for each attribute based on their culture, from 3-6 D20, taking the three results they prefer and adding them together, discarding the rest. This gives a pretty good balance with the stronger, hardier cultures more likely to survive their environments, and the more learned cultures more likely to thrive in a social and intellectual melting pot. These numbers are used to work out certain derived attributes, but this just comes down to maths, and although well worked out, is nothing that unusual for experienced gamers.

At this point, due to the random nature of the dice rolls, it is possible that you have a set of attributes that make your original character concept unworkable. If this is because all of your physical/mental attributes are astonishingly low, you do get a slight advantage in the form of two free talents, but if you’ve just been let down just a little, there are ways to change things later. As a quick example, due to the nature of the games’ setting, males are expected to be more physically able, and so you can instantly raise a physical attribute by five points. Females are much less likely too be pushed into such areas, so instead they can raise a mental attribute by the same amount.

Before people start making claims of sexism against the game, it is set in a cross between a medieval and Renaissance world, and it makes sense that cultural expectations would shape the lives of those who grew up surrounded by them. Plus, there is nothing negative about either bonus, as although combat does break out in this game, it is lethal enough that thinking your way around it, or applying magic to the problem is often favourable.

Once this bit’s done, we get onto skills and talents. Each character gets ten points to spend on cultural skills and talents, and then an additional ten to spend elsewhere. Each culture has a choice of ten skills, but not all of them will be relevant to each character. As an example, I was playing a duelist not a drunken sailor, so I could skip at least three of these cultural skills in favour of things that better suited me. There are also four cultural advantages, and you can buy as many of them as you want. I took two, the first giving me an advantage when dealing with other adventurers, and the second allowing me to raise my Agility attribute by a further ten points to suit my (hopefully high) skill with a sword. Each culture has one attribute that they can raise in this way, and this is a great little touch. As mentioned earlier, you could end up wanting to play a Raphelian swordsman and then roll appallingly for your Agility. Because Raphelians prize dexterity and showmanship though, it is more than likely that you have spent time in your formative years increasing your ability in such things, so get a nice boost.

The other ten points can be spent on any skills or on a few other things if you have the skills you need. Each attribute can be raised an additional ten points by spending one Talent point per attribute. This means once again that you can boost something that you were unlucky with in the early stages. You can also boost your wound capacity if you feel like your character is likely to be in life threatening situations with any kind of regularity. If it wasn’t for that fact that I also took a smattering of magic ability I would have picked up a fair few extra hit points, but there’s only so many points to go around.

Each point you put into a skill using talents gives you a rank. Each rank not only increases the score by five points – the base of each skill is equal to the attribute that makes the most sense – but the more ranks you have in each skill, the less you will need to make skill checks, and the more likely you are to critically succeed in a challenge. On top of this, you also get fifty advancement points – basically experience points – that are added to the skills of your choosing on a one-for-one basis. All this means that you have a whole bunch of control over the character that you want to play, while still having that element of chance that keeps things interesting.

After all that’s done we get onto the final touches such as height and weight, as well as money to spend on equipment. Since my family background was wealthy, I had double starting money, so actually managed to buy both a decent weapon and a bit of armour too, rather than having to choose. On one occasion in the past I ended up getting mugged right at the start of the game, and was left with nothing but some blood stained clothes. Orbis is a harsh game indeed. How did I end up getting mugged you ask? Well that’s down to one last D20 roll that follows on from my past as mentioned above. This is to determine something that has happened in the very recent past, and with my luck so far, I felt certain that a mugging would be the least of my problems. But once again, I was favoured by fortune, and my recent past involved a romantic entanglement of some kind. I never expected that, and will have to work it into my back story somehow.

So there we have it in a rather large nutshell. I did skip over a few details that aren’t worth dwelling on as anyone who has created a character for an RPG will know what the score is. There is one last thing to note though, and for me I’m 50/50 on whether or not I like it. You see, each nation has their own currency – as one would expect – and this means that buying things can get a bit complicated, as not every item is available in every country, and the prices vary too. This means that the equipment list has prices and availability of each item, but not in game effects. This isn’t a big deal for things like a razor or a scabbard which don’t need that much extra information, but when you’re looking at knives, daggers, and dirks, it’d be nice to know what kind of damage each would do compared to cost and weight. I like that the cultures are so well defined, and that the relationships are so well thought out, but it does add some extra time and page turns to what is an otherwise very fluid and intuitive character generation method.

So far then, it’s all fantastic, and I have a character I’m very happy with. I will carry on this review sporadically as and when different situations present themselves. What I’ll be spending more time doing though is writing an in game diary. I have done this before and had a great time doing it. It will motivate me to get more writing done too, which is never a bad thing. My question though is where to put it. I never wanted this blog to be an in game fiction kind of thing, so I thought about reviving my old page to keep things separate. But would people be happier to just come here to read about the continuing exploits of Kantrel di Gregori? Sound off below with any thoughts and if you have any interest in reading my game write ups here.

Sep 022013
 

I know, “the Slaughter sword”. It just sounds like something you’d want to use in any game ever doesn’t it? The thing is, you’ve probably encountered it by a different name, as this is just what it was known as to certain English speakers. More commonly it was called a Zweihänder, although it did have many other names. For simplicity’s sake though, we’ll just be calling it a two handed sword. This is actually a very important distinction though, as to be a true two handed sword, it must be designed in such a way as that it must be hefted with both hands. Although there are plenty of swords that can be used with both hands, they can also be swung with just the one, and more often than not would be thought of as “hand-and-a-half”  swords.

two-handed-great-sword-88wgs-full-1I have written in the past about ways to get more use out of a longer sword whilst fighting in confined quarters, but swords of this length would not be useful for such conditions. Before we move on to how one would go about getting the most use out of this kind of sword, lets address what a lot of people are concerned about when it comes to picking up and using it, the weight. I could go on a bit of a metallurgical rant here, but I think that’s better left to the professionals who have devoted more time to the study of such things. In simple terms, what everyone needs to understand is something that most gamers know, but has yet to make its way into the popular consciousness: whilst the Katana is indeed an elegant weapon, it was far from the unique marvel of sword craft that a lot of people seem to think.

In the early medieval period, vikings (Yup, no capitol letter there, a lot of current historical theory is pointing towards viking being a verb rather than a noun. As in, “lets all sharpen our axes and go viking”!) were using a very similar method of steel folding and smelting to create lighter weight but still large swords to take raiding. So even swords made that would be long enough to be considered two handed would not have been overly heavy during the medieval period that most fantasy RPGs seem to be set in. In historical terms. the Zweihänder was actually used more commonly during the renaissance period anyway, when metallurgical techniques had been greatly improved. But since history is often fluid and only used when it is fit for purpose during RPGs, lets not get ourselves too bogged down in that kind of detail.

Taking ceremonial blades out of the equation – which were considerably heavier, but not designed or intended to be swung into the face of a charging barbarian – the most one would be expected to weigh is roughly 7 pounds. I know that that might seem heavy compared to other blades, but it was designed to be used effectively with two hands, offering greater leverage for the swing. And as we all know, in physics, leverage is very important indeed. Swinging the weapon is no problem when held correctly, and the weight it has will make it formidable indeed on the battlefield. Why didn’t we see such a weapon getting greater use then?

Apart from the afore mentioned fact that it wasn’t around so much during the medieval period of great battles, it was mainly because of the cost of such a weapon, and the fact that it never made sense to equip units with it. Most of the other weapons I’ve talked about on this blog have mainly been used to great effect by massed troops. The warbow was wonderful when hundreds of archers loosed volleys into the enemy ranks, the gladius was easy to produce in numbers and very effective when used by close knit ranks of well disciplined troops and so on and so forth. The Zweihänder though was inconvenient to say the least to with fight when you are stood in close formation with your allies.

This actually makes it a great for player characters in RPGs as they would not often worry about maintaining formation when they fought a pack of angry gnolls. It is a weapon for an individual, and the fact that having one made was an expensive and time consuming would make them rare weapons with a whole bunch of mythology all of their own. They are also more versatile then you’d think. The rather excellent cinematic game 7th Sea has a whole lot to say on the fighting styles one could use for a weapon this long, and I advise anyone with an interest to pick up the relevant nation book for more details.

For those without the resources to pick up said books, the three basic stances allow for the wide swing – and historically there is evidence to suggest that such a swing could take out up to three combatants in one go – with the legs apart to keep balance; the bracing stance, holding the weapon almost as a pike to fend off mounted troops or small units of halberdiers. And finally, holding it with the hilt over your shoulder and the point aimed at chest height, using both hands and the leverage to move to weapon at speed to combat against units wielding smaller edged weapons. A lot of Zweihänders even had gripping rings at the cross guard to make it easier to hold it in this fashion and maintain a high degree of maneuverability.

If you are lucky enough to hang out with a few other people also skilled – and rich – enough to wield such a ferocious weapon, you can do some real damage. Just make sure you’re spread out a little first. With three to five people holding a loose formation, swinging the Zweihänder, you can hold off large units of pike men, the swords cutting through the shafts before bringing down those holding the long pole arms. Small units such as these were favoured in battle for useful and versatile they could be, and once more are a great idea for your very own role playing games.

Aug 122013
 

So, anyone want to take a guess as to which movie me and the missus curled up in bed with last night? That’s right, I was on a bit of a nostalgia kick, and Big Trouble in Little China was one of the first movies I ever owned. Roughly working it out, I think in fact I was about 9 years old. One could argue that I was a bit young to be watching this flick, but it I think I turned out OK. Having seen it more times than I could easily recall, there’s always been one line that has stayed with me, and this is the title of the article. Although I’ve spent most of my research time at the moment looking into Japanese things – both for a future post here, and an article over at Stuffer Shack – I decided after watching the film one more time to see just how many hells there are in Chinese mythology.

As with all things involving mythology, there is no correct answer to this question, and a lot of answers that are out there openly contradict each other. If you have enough interest in this subject yourself, there’s plenty of writing out there, and I invite to start with our old friend Wikipedia. Since this is not an academic paper on the subject though, instead being a place that I hope some of you come to for inspiration, I will be dealing in broad brush strokes with a few ideas that come across like they could be useful in a role playing game. If you’ve ever played Feng Shui, you’ll know just what I mean.

The Hell of the Upside down Sinner. In the movie this was an underwater scene with rotting corpses chained upside down beneath the surface. A truly terrifying place to come to after any adventure that required swimming through a tunnel to escape from.

The Hell of being cut to pieces. Since the body cannot die in Hell, this one is all kinds of unpleasant. For the still living an abattoir comes to mind, the floor slick with blood that has yet to make its way to the channels cut into the floor. Discarded digits getting crushed underfoot, and rusty blades hanging from blackened chains.

The Hell of the Razor Cliff. A sheer rock face, seemingly without end. The sinners have no choice but to climb though, and every place they could put there fingers or toes conceals a razor edged blade. It could  be the cliff, it could be a mountain; it could simple be every wall of a an open topped cell that contains your enemies.

The Hell of boiling in Oil. Chambers full of  metal cauldrons, filled to the brim with boiling oil. Sinners in cages that rise and fall in random patterns, submerging them in the oil as they scream in pain. The smell of cracked and burning flesh in here wold be beyond description, only the wailing of the victims outdoing it for shear awfulness. Would you try and help anyone, or just get the hell away before you were dragged into a cage of your own.

The Hell of being fed into relentless machines. The grinder has a beginning, and each soul is fed into it kicking and screaming, but no one has yet found the end. An eternity being spent moving slowly through grinding gears and hammering pistons, the body wrecked beyond mortal endurance but still feeling everything. What mind could conceive of such a contraption, and what is their final goal?

The Hell of the Frozen Sinners. An entire world of ice, where the hatred the sinners feel for themselves has extinguished all the fires of hell, leaving a desolate frozen wasteland. Each Sinner suffers frostbite, with blackened limbs giving way to oozing puss. The closest thing to respite is to throw themselves into the icy lake where there bodies will flash freeze and shatter at the merest touch. Could there be any escape from this place, or have the sinners made it themselves?

The Hell of being torn about by animals. For every sinner in this hell, there lives 50 animals, hungry and angry, red in tooth and claw. The larger beasts run uncontrollably, hooves crushing those unfortunate to have fallen, while horns and antlers rip and rend anyone still on their feet. Snakes and scorpions bite and sting at any exposed flesh, with carrion birds hovering above, looking to peck at anyone to feeble to fight back. 

As I said above, this is just a few examples, of the tens of thousands of hells that exist in Chinese in Buddhist mythology, so please feel free to add your own. There is one very particular place I haven’t mentioned though. All those listed above, act more as a Purgatory for sinners, with the length of time spent in a particular hell the result of the nature and severity of the sin. For the most unforgivable sins there is Avīci. This is a place of continual suffering, and much closer to what westerners might think of as hell eternal. And after all that misery, the least I can do is implore to you to go and check out the inspiration for today’s post, Big trouble in Little China.

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.