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Partial Victory

We had three objectives at the road block, and we achieved two of them. The road is destroyed– trade to Psarios will be slowed until the bridge is rebuilt, and Erathis’ agents will need to find another choke point to hinder our efforts.

Also, the Vicar of Psarios is dead, leaving a power vacuum into which the more gentle Deacon White might ascend. That’s for the best– from Firiel’s debriefing, the deacon is foolish, but well meaning, and most likely had no knowledge of the happenings in Ilyria.

Firiel was instrumental to the plan, and she was perhaps the most wounded by its execution. I have no idea how she managed to douse the flame. I saw pieces of the bridge continue to burn after falling into the river and sinking below the surface. I am grateful that she did, however. I gave her the night off from her duties, but I know she spent the evening mending. Her hands are never idle, that one. I need to look for opportunities for her to learn craft skills and gain materials needed for working them. She will surprise us all, I think, with her creativity and industriousness.

The only part of our plan that did not succeed was the unexpected inclusion of a cleric wearing a red dragon symbol on his armor. Tris tells me this means he’s a worshipper of Tiamat, though I cannot understand how such a person and the Erathins might be working together. Still, it makes sense if one accepts the possibility that Erathis’ church is not conforming to their teachings.

The cleric of Tiamat and a few others escaped the destruction at the road block, which means we failed to keep confirmation of our presence out of the official record. Tris has taken the loss rather harder than the rest of us. I am not sure, since he hasn’t spoken up, but I think he may be at odds with his god over this particular turn of events. In any case, he has a kind of focus I haven’t seen before.

Ordune wants to go into the swamps, and soon. I agree with him on that– it’s time to move against the patrol there, as quickly as we can, before more reinforcements come for them.

The fight at the road block was hard for me. It was a good plan, but it hurt to know we were going to hinder innocent lives in so doing. The theft of the ore was unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’m still not entirely sure what Emilien’s staging of the poor dwarf merchant was, but… I will go with it, if I must. It was unseemly, but I have to remember that this is the part of being an army that I have shielded myself from. My rank and my captains did an excellent job of protecting me from the more ribald of our soldiers, for which I am grateful. It is too hard to think of those kinds of pleasures and desires when my boots are caked with mud and my arrows are still embedded in our enemies’ bodies.

In that bedroom, with Emilien so quickly turning a simple heist into a boudoir of shame, I realized that I have become two people. Lieutenant Gwenn Jade of the Harriers, the tough but fair woman who leads her tiny army against overwhelming odds. And Lady Gwenneffylasse Jader, the clever, but sheltered heiress of House Jader. Lady Jader reads romances and dreams of good looking princes and fancy dress parties with other girls her age. Her naivete is charming, if perhaps a little bit feigned. Lieutenant Gwenn reads maps and thinks up plans for soaking the countryside in the blood of holy men with dark and terrible hearts. She has no time to daydream about a warm bed and a soldier’s arms around her.

To win this, I will need to be both. Captain and Lady, both hard and soft. I don’t know if I can do it. It’s easier to keep them separate, to keep the Lady in my past, to let her dreams go. It is easier to be the Lieutenant, in this time, in this place, with these people. But there will come a time and a place when the Lady will be needed, and to return to her, I must keep some part of her purity.

Though they don’t know it, the Lady is the one I turn to when one of my crew is hurt. She’s the one with bandages at the ready, and there is mercy in her heart. She’s the one who carefully maneuvers to avoid harming bystanders and conscripts of the church. Our house motto is Mercy Tempers Justice Tempers Mercy. If Lady Jader is mercy, Lieutenant Gwenn brings justice.

Starting with Tris’ target. Do not worry, friend. I may not entirely understand your bond to your god, but it does not matter. If this is a path you must pursue, we will pursue it, together. We must be able to meet the needs of every soldier in my command, no matter how small or large. If one of us is broken, we are all broken. If one is strong, we are all strengthened.

This is a journal entry from Lt. Gwenn Jade, my D&D character in my Tuesday night game. For your convenience, all of these campaign journal entries are tagged with #movingforward.

Tales from the Arco

This is another gaming-related post, but this time from behind the GM’s screen. Posts about this campaign are tagged as #arco. Posts about this campaign will be from the POV of a collaborative GMing experience, rather than the plot and story of the sessions. That is in part because I believe tracking the story for the players is not the GM’s responsibility. It is too easy for the GM to add details or emphasis that the players overlooked or missed.

So, I’m kicking off a new RPG campaign (yes, another one!) and I’m going with something different this time.

I started with an idea of the kind of campaign I want to run. Campaigns work best with good synergy among the players– common sense of humor, an agreed-upon idea of story investment, etc. I narrowed my criteria:

  • Has to be invested in roleplaying and collaborative storytelling. Ideally, I would invite players I’ve played with before, so I’ve already “vetted” their role-play chops. I’ve met a lot of gamers in the past couple of years, some of whom are terrific gameplayers. But not all of them are great roleplayers. I needed people who would be my colleagues in saying “yes, and” rather than people who waited for me to tell them what happened. I didn’t want power-gamers– anyone who looks at the system as something to beat can do so from home, thanks.
  • Has to be reliable. Anyone who didn’t have their own transportation (car, motorcycle, etc) was out, unless he lived within 1 mile of my house. I willingly shuttled a player to and from games for a year, but I don’t have time or patience to deal with other people’s transportation issues.
  • Has to have positive energy. We all know people who are very negative, complain a lot, etc. I didn’t want that energy in the game. I didn’t want the game to be overly dark– I don’t mind dark themes or damaged characters, but I didn’t want a “burn the world” campaign.

I picked about 4 players I wanted in the campaign and sent them invitations. Three replied positively, and one didn’t reply at all. We scheduled a time that worked for everyone. A day before our first, world-creation meeting, one of the players scheduled a work thing. I tried to work around that. On the day-of, only one player showed up– the other had a legitimate emergency come up.

“Has to be reliable” was becoming my biggest challenge.

We rescheduled for a month later– my own plans precluded the next “regularly scheduled” session.

On the day-of, the player who had scheduled work a month before backed out with medical issues. Two strikes, out of two sessions. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the rest of us still gathered at my house with a stack of index cards and some pens. We played Microscope, a game in which you create a setting and a timeline. It’s an excellent game, with a lot of rich world-creation possibilities. At the beginning, I made sure both players understood that this would eventually become the world in which we would play our campaign.

I did make a serious error, as a player and an improvisational GM. At one point, we had a scene in which I played an obstinate (to the point of cruelty) leader of a house, who allowed a child to be severely harmed in order to not betray someone she was protecting. It was the improv equivalent of “No,” and it shouldn’t have happened. I corrected by giving the interrogating character a clue as to what leverage he needed to get her to talk, but it was clumsy, at best, and didn’t allow him space to change the way she should react.

Anyway. What came out of our session was a city that walks, laboriously, across a difficult wasteland of a world that is populated by barbarians and dinosaurs. The city is its own microcosm of climates and culture, with heavily stratified social castes, an immortal labor class, nobles at the top, and a tremendous amount of soci0-political strife throughout its history.

It is a world with technomancy, a kind of “weird science” that gave my little steampunk heart a thrill.

It’s a world with magic. A very specific type of magic, in which “abyssal entities” make contact through devices (magical artifacts) and reach the living world to influence it. These entities demand a cost, always a cost, to perform the magic they provide. These artifacts, once tightly controlled by the noble class, are now scattered across the world and throughout the “Arco,” as the city is called.

The magic was, not surprisingly, important to the history, and at several points, artifacts had history-changing effects.

Afterwards, I told the players that I would type up the setting document and would think about which system we’ll use to play. One player remarked he would like to play a nobleman. The other said he wanted to play one of the few and rare mechanical men known as golems.

So I set to work, creating a setting document that will more or less work. I decided on Fate Core for our system. I’d like to run Dungeon World, but I also feel that the setting is vague enough still that it lends itself well to a more freeform system like Fate, at least for now.

Everything has gone well. I added a good deal of geography to the Arco, creating sixteen districts and the noble families that rule them. I have a mini-ecology going (my long-ago college science courses in geography and my love of maps help me, here). I’m cruising along, and then I come to the technomancy and magic rules.

Technomancy isn’t that hard– it’s weird science, but all of it is explainable  The PCs can use lore or craft to use technomancy, items can serve as stunts or circumstantial aspects, and someone can have stunts like “gadgeteer” to give them extra focus on that.

But the magic…. Oh, the magic is not easy. Are the artifacts just items? Are they aspects? Are there relevant skills for identifying and using them?

This is where the Fate Core kickstarter makes me happy. They released previews of many of the books that are coming out with the system, and one of those previews is the “Magic System Toolkit,” a set of rules to help you figure out how magic works in your setting. I started by thinking I would just run all magic as “item stunts” where they find an artifact, the artifact has one or two specific stunts, and you have to take a “stress” (like wounds) to activate that stunt for the scene.

I started with that, posted to the Yahoo! group, and got this terrific reply from Leonard Balsera, a designer at Evil Hat:

For my money, these artifacts are the means by which PCs interact with NPCs. The objects are way less interesting than the fact that you’ve got these badass entities who eat a part of you in exchange for fragments of their power.

Brilliant. I had already been thinking about using a particular set of Earth-culture archtypes as some kind of background for some part of the magic, but this all locked it into place. Without spoiling things for my players, there are now over 70 abyssal entities I can draw from, each one with its own set of aspects, stunts, and skills– all of which can be “borrowed” by the PCs and NPCs. For a cost.

Costs range from “a stress, either physical or mental” to “a fate point” to “a consequence,” etc. In the long game, it might be possible to make some of these permanent.

I ran this by one of my power-gamer friends (the kind of player I don’t want in this campaign– sorry, buddy), and he immediately started picking things apart based on the cost-benefit analysis. That’s right up there with the friend who, over a week ago when I was still just barely thinking about the magic in the setting, and had described items as “they could look like anything– one artifact was a lantern” said “well, why wouldn’t people just run around bleeding all over everything, trying to find one of these artifacts?”

sigh. This is why “No power gamers” is in my criteria. Also note that whole “misinterpretation between GM and player” thing? In  this case, he’s not a player, but if he were, I would feel that he had completely misinterpreted what I’d said, and I’d be rushing to correct him. Instead of letting him make that mistake in-game and make an ass of himself while NPCs look on in horror at the madman who thinks he sees artifacts everywhere (Aspect: I don’t know an artifact when I see it.)

Anyway. We will create characters on Saturday, and I will probably have us role-play a short scene based on each PCs’ backstory. Since there are only 2 players at this point, I will insert an NPC or organization into their backstories so there’s already something for me to work with.

I’m getting to the point where I’m ready for bottom-up development. When the GM sits down and writes out maps and organizations and lists of NPCs, she’s doing top-down campaign development. The PCs can go anywhere or do anything and the GM always has something there without having to improvise on the spot.

Bottom-up development starts small– just whatever the PCs can see right now, this week. It expands outwards as you develop things, but it requires a mix of pre-planning and improvisation whenever the PCs do something unexpected (which is, ideally, every session).

For this campaign, because it’s so collaborative, I want to blend these approaches. I want broad strokes for some organizations and artifacts, but I don’t want to create the fine detail for anything that isn’t immediately in front of the PCs this week. Ideally, I should stay one session ahead of the PCs, and each session will end with a general “debrief” of what direction they’d like to go in next. As the campaign develops, I’ll flesh out the “big picture” forces, to fuel larger conspiracies and plots that the PCs can encounter and interact with.

This is what happened when we played Steampunk Oz

So, I ran a Steampunk Oz Fate playtest last weekend. Now, please understand that my grasp on Fate is imperfect, at best, and my players didn’t understand the system well at all…. and one of the players is traditionally a power-gamer, so it’s already challenging to play with him sometimes.

“Our game design goal is family-style play….”

Oh, dear.

It veered sharply away from “family friendly” into “dark and twisted” rather rapidly. I had 2 players, so we had a bombadier flying monkey and a munchkin-devouring intelligent lion. The lion had “hunted by munchkins” as his trouble, and the monkey had “hunted by Glinda” for his.

My comment on the setting is that there needs to be more “punk” in the steampunk. There has to be a way to fall through the cracks, push the boundaries, and challenge the status quo, or it lacks the “punk” part. With that in mind, I gave Sly Island the aspect of “Glinda never visits,” so we had 2 arbitrary factions, a lot of winged monkeys (also an aspect), and a lot of pink and blue paint.

During character creation, since we only had 2 players, I added an NPC who tied into their stories, and then set him aside for later. Honestly, I recommend this for any GM– take the character sheets as they rotate around the table and add an npc or organization to the crossovers.

Anyway, they arrived at Sky Island and picked a pink merchant to shop at. Found parts from the NPC (a metal man), and were immediately concerned. The lion snuck in after hours to steal the parts, while the winged monkey followed the merchant to an unlicensed tavern, where pink and blue factions drink, gamble, and complain about women together.

The PCs reunited in the fountain square and headed off to an inn for the night. In the morning, the innkeeper thanked them, and informed them they wouldn’t be staying on– all the rooms were booked for the night. This was because a huge munchkin meeting of the guilds was happening today.

Sky Island suddenly got the aspect “flooded with munchkins.” I did mention the lion had a thing for munchkin meat, right?

The PCs proceeded to spread rumors that the munchkins had been stealing Quadling babies (we decided most of the Sky Island residents are quadlings), and the Quadlings got all up in arms, deciding that they must DO something. I know– we’ll hold a parade!

The lion just kind of glared at them like “this is the best you can do?” with his big teeth showing.

So, while the quadlings planned their parade, the flying monkey made pink paint bombs to drop on the munchkin delegates, just to rile them up. He recruited the Lots of Winged Monkeys aspect to serve as bombers (which led to comments about prostitute monkeys…. please don’t ask me how that happened).

The PCs snuck onto the munchkin airship and found their friend, who was being reprogrammed by munchkin engineers. The monkey stealthily dropped a programming card (we decided copper-plated punch cards are how metal men are programmed), and they took off.

The munchkins set up their own counter-protest-parade, and the two groups, increasingly riled up, met in the fountain square for an enormous musical clash and dance-off.

Yeah. Dance off. Because they’re freaking munchkins, okay?

Yes, the lion still wanted to eat them. Possibly moreso.

The metal man was lowered out of the airship using the crane one of the players had added to it earlier. But wait– will his new programming kick in?

The PCs appealed to his aspects (Forgiving Nature and “File Not Found”), switching him to their side. The dance-off became increasingly more frenetic, with the quadlings winning out as munchkins dropped of exhaustion. The PCs and their robot friend were reunited. A few munchkins were eaten as a matter of course.

And I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing the phrase “munchkin meat” again.

My conclusion is that, as a GM, you have to steer the story towards the silly in order to keep the lighthearted “Oz” feel. Otherwise, adults can get pretty dark with this familiar childhood favorite. And they definitely need something to work within– just having “Glinda never visits” is a great aspect to remove the threat of the ever-seeing Glinda the “Good.” Neither player wanted to be on Glinda’s side– the government of Oz is definitely viewed as authoritarian and oppressive, at least by the adults I played with.

Rob and Me

I wish I could write about the information we’ve gathered, and what we learned at the Ioun temple, but so much of that needs to be kept under wraps for now. Suffice to say: A plan has been formed. We will need to be very delicate with our timing in the next few days, but I believe we can carry off this caper with minimal bloodshed. I’m thinking about my brother tonight, instead.

Rob was murdered in the wee hours of the morning, and by dawn, he had died.

I woke a few hours after the midnight bell to the sound of someone entering the antechamber of my bedroom. Fariga, my weapons master, my teacher, my friend… brought me the rapier she had worn for over a decade, and told me to get my clothes on and run. I didn’t know what she meant– I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time. All the politics had been academic exercises up until then. I knew in my head that one house or another house had backed this faction or that one a hundred years ago… but not what that might mean today.

I didn’t have time for any more lessons, though. When I lit the candle, I saw his blood on Fariga’s tunic.

I knew in my heart that she hadn’t been the one to do it. Mercenary she might have been once, but she had long since accepted the gifts of my family, the sword my father bestowed her when she swore her oaths. I knew better, but when the stories came out of the capitol, I wanted to believe the Regent’s lies. I wanted to make some sense out of the senseless.

Rob was my brother, but he was also father and mother to me. He was my world. I worshipped him, and in the past few years, he had challenged me to work harder, to study what was happening to our world, to understand the people who look up to House Jader. To understand my role in it, as the unwed daughter of a noble house, a possible link in a chain that could form a political union that might make two houses stronger together than apart.

On my sixteenth birthday, my parents had been dead for a decade, killed in an unfortunate fire while they were visiting one of the family’s outer holdings. Rob gave me a beautiful necklace that year for my birthday, with amethyst clustered around a large moonstone. He told me it was a promise– that he would protect me and guide me, always, and that that moonstone would someday be set into my wedding ring– but only when I so chose.

Six months later, I sold it to buy my armor, a bow, and a saddle.

Three days ago, I would have sold it for a horse. This morning, I would have sold it for a wagon of iron.

Apparently, I am something of a mercenary. Rob would not be proud of me for that, but Fariga would understand.

Note: This is a fictional work, a journal entry for an RPG character. More of these entries can be found in this blog’s #movingforward tag.

One. Big. Secret.

Another fictional gaming write-up from my character, Gwenn.

We have a little gold in our pockets and horses under our arses, but I fear we may be in more trouble than we can possibly guess.

The vault was unexpected. Dangerous, yes. But not lethal, at least not to us. The creatures that we faced in there were…. Strange. I believe they were the kinds of monsters that nurses scare children with—ghosts and ghouls and boggins. But they were real. They clawed us, and we bled. We fought back, and they died. Again?

The lock on the door was difficult, and a timely lesson on not keeping things from my team. We could have saved several minutes if I’d simply mentioned to Firiel that the door was seeking a member of the House—and that it appeared to have become somewhat myopic in the past 6 centuries.

Whatever intelligence was locked into that device, it has long-since lost who it once was. I pity it, really—I know our world’s magic is difficult and requires sacrifice. But I will never believe in the old ways, where that sacrifice was not always willing. Would I willingly infuse my life into an artifact? Perhaps once, I would have. When Rob was still alive. If he’d married and had children. If I could have known he would carry our name forward into history.

But now? That’s not an option anymore.  When they killed Rob, they killed any future I might have dreamed of. My dreams have changed. To blood, and fire, and the crushing ache in my chest for the joys that might have been mine.

There are nights when I lie awake, wondering how our retainers fare, now that our house is fallen. Some found employment, I’m sure. But what of those who did not have homes and families? House Jader was always good about taking care of our elders and infirm. I shiver awake when I think of old Sir Pyolin, once a brave knight of my father’s, begging for bread and warm soup to sop it in so he can eat it with his toothless gums. Does he even live? Is it better if he did not?

But I ramble. My thoughts are scattered, because I don’t wish to confront the more immediate realities of my responsibilities. We have 525 gold pieces among us, 6 horses, a small assortment of items and gear, and a stack of historical papers of some value, either as blackmail, or simply historical documents.

And one enormous secret.

Should I have kept that secret from my allies? Would they be safer not knowing? What is the god of secrets going to do to those who have stumbled onto the secret of his very origins? I cannot think he will simply ignore it, once he knows. And… he will know.

We’ve already agreed that sharing information, at least about Ilyria, is the best course of action. I’ll get to the temple of Ioun as soon as we’re in Psarios again, and sell these documents to Sir Carrigan. And then, I’ll talk to him about the bards, beloved keepers of lore and speaker of tales. We must get the bards on our side, to spread the word about Ilyria. I’ll ask Sir Carrigan his opinion of whether to spread the knowledge about Vecna Medarr’s mortal identity. I do not believe we will ever be able to cover this up, however.

As for House Volant’s old debts, I’m keeping those papers for now.

Our next step is to take out the patrol in the cove. I chose them first so we can make sure we’re up to the task, and hopefully to learn more from them about the two units on the road. I’d like to take them  second—the miserable patrol in the marsh is going to have a hard enough time maneuvering. They won’t be able to get out by sea the way the ones at the cove might, and if we disrupt the road travel, they’ll be stuck where they are a little longer.

I spoke the name of my home today. Kindel. I am not ready for you. I am not worthy. Not yet.

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