It feels like I’m getting close to having my GM’ing licence revoked.
Oh, we’re having fun, and we’re playing RAW, but these players… I’m telling you, they continue to do so much with so little.
Let’s just say that I didn’t expect a group of Level 5 (and one Level 4) adventurers to push so far, and do so much.
We’re enjoying ourselves, but I remain impressed, and somewhat aghast at what they are “getting away with” (i.e. playing smart).
Did I make the occasional rules error? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did. Was it still awesome? Hell yes!
Due to holidays, it’s been a couple of weeks since we last played.
On Friday evening, we were back!
As the session begins, we’re on Turn 4, with a single check in hand, still on the bone shores of the Dry Lands.
Osric’s player suggests an additional consequence / Twist from last session’s Conflict that they won with compromise: he checks with the rest of us whether his character’s core personality* could be ripped out, meaning that his character’s more “aggressive” personality would be the only one in the driving seat.
(* As part of our Lines & Veils / Safety discussions, the player checked whether we were comfortable if his character had Dissociative Identity Disorder, and we are all onboard with the idea, especially given the way it’s being played).
We liked the idea, and, having lost his Haathor-Vash Trait from last session, the player chose to take the “Survivor” Trait to represent this change.
Before writing Goals, we have a brief discussion about where the players want to take this, and the players decide that they want to head the the ruined temple in abandoned settlement of Hrel (which they have unsuccessfully tried to reach twice before).
So, they write their Goals about going there, and decide on their first steps.
Our party remains:
- Bricks the Boots (Halfling Guide)
Belief: As a Hendri and a Guide, I will not hesitate to forge the path needed, nor make the lost found.
Creed: Right to Roam: all have a right to walk paths and they must remain open. Paths write our stories and history into the land. To lose them is to lose a part of ourself. To destroy them is to cast away our history. They must be walked to preserve them and they must remain open.
Goal: Get to the ruin of the Hrel temple, and map it.
- Oddbjorn Bjornson (Bjorning Skald)
Belief: I will get my inheritance from the treasures lurking in the old places of the world.
Creed: Our names will be sung, so our deeds must match in glory and fame.
Goal: Find something worthy of song and story in Hrel.
- Osric Godtouched (Græling Shaman)
Belief: I will be more than the beast within me.
Creed: Only the Jotunn can give true power, mortal power is a pale, fleeting imitation.
Goal: Discover what was worshipped in Hrel in ancient times.
- Tösk (Changeling Thief - played by @DaveHiggins, of this parish)
Belief: Ancient Secrets are more important than coin.
Creed: All living beings have an equal right to thrive.
Goal: I will discover what the Hrelians… Hrelites… Hrelists… worship.
As we will see, this “first step” is going to be problematic, and lead to the players jokingly forming the opinion that this ruined Hrel temple is properly cursed, and possibly a place impossible to get to (“You can’t there from here!”).
Turn 4. They have light, a single check in hand, and Osric is injured…
They decide that they’ll camp, but, given the “only-one-check” and that this is the shores of the lands of the dead… maybe they should set up a camp first?
So, up they opt for Survivalist, seeking a camp concealed from the dead that “live” here. Seems reasonable enough, but the difficulty looks steep - Ob 6!
That’s Small Group (+0 Ob), Concealment (+1 Ob), and camping on the shores of the Dry Lands / Blasted Wasteland (+4 Ob) and Evil GM factor: it’s the land of the dead (+1 Ob).
Well, even with a half decent pool, that’s not looking good, so Bricks leans in to the likely failure, and uses their Rover Trait against themselves, to try for 6 successes on 5 dice. They have Fate, so it’s not a completely lost cause.
It Goes Poorly.
A joking “Day of the Dead” comment from Bricks’ player sparks a fun idea to me, and I lean into that concept as the Twist: Aptrgangr (LMM p246) start pulling themselves out of the bones of the shore, and stumble towards the group (Instinct: Always seek the living).
Oddbjorn thinks to sway them with words or song, but that has no effect. Whilst he keeps trying, the number of Aptrgangr keeps increasing. First 4, then 6 then 9…
Realising that they need to Do Something serious, our adventurers draw weapons and decide to force these shambling corpses back and away from them (Drive Off).
So, our group learns that trying to drive off the zombie-esque denizens is… very difficult. The players, in hindsight are “Yep. Zombies. We’ve seen the films. Driving them off is really tough. That makes sense.”
However, in the moment, the Drive Off conflict is Adventurers: 9 Disposition (I think), Aptrgangr: 15 Disposition.
It’s all over by the third volley, in a mutual simultaneous takedown. Both groups are reduced to 0 Disposition, and we have to decide on what that means.
I opt (and the players accept) that half the group is captured, and half the group is left behind. I let the players decide who is / is not captured, which is great, as it allows the players agency in where this might go, and means that they can think of their strengths / what is fun.
Osric, Oddbjorn and Radulf (Oddbjorn’s level-benefit apprentice) are captured.
Tösk and Bricks are left behind.
A split party. In Torchbearer. “Wonderful”.
I explain to the players what that means for the Grind, and we get going.
We cut back between the two groups, but I’ll try to keep the narrative legible, for the forum.
I would note that, as they did not have the opportunity to camp, they’re starting to earn Condition upon Condition, as the Grind hits. By the end of this session, they’ll have 3 Conditions each (with only Osric “escaping lightly” with 2 Conditions).
Camp often, and don’t split up, kids: it hurts.
Osric, Oddbjorn and Radulf are escorted by the Aptrgangr to a guard house (although they all see it differently - the structure seems the same, but the details just don’t line up), where they are locked in a windowless room, with a single door, with a barred grill in it, showing the guard room beyond.
Their stuff is in a side room off of this central guard room, and there they are left.
Radulf is, quite rightly, freaking out.
I mean, in terms of “life experience”, his mentor Oddbjorn has… err… delivered, but it wasn’t quite the swashbuckling high jinks his apprentice had expected. I mean, we’ve got an invisible sea, travel between realms, murder of a wizard (sorry, Elite Sorcerer), bargaining with strange entities from beyond Time and Space, and now we are not only on the shores of the land of the dead, but captured by the dead.
There they are, split from their companions, locked in a prison in the Dry Lands, awaiting… who knows what fate. Hope is in short supply in this dark place.
Oddbjorn decides to comfort him, by singing of home, of the tales of old, of the glories of the Bjornings, and of the group’s own stories and achievements.
“So,” I ask the player, “what are you trying to achieve here? Just comfort and a rekindling of hope, or something more?”
Oddbjorn’s player doesn’t hesitate, as he tells me that he wants his song to attract the attention of someone… he’s hoping that might be Halja, but, well, that’s no easy task.
OK, fair enough. I mean, his muscial ability is grey-shaded, and this is just perfect, right? A living voice, singing of hope in the lands of the dead.
I explain to the player that the Ob they set themselves will be the Might of the entity that answers that call.
The player considers, and looks at what Oddbjorn has got to hand. No musical instrument, but he can get help from his apprentice and Osric (especially when the song turns away from the glories of the Bjorning, as Osric is Græling, and there is… history between these people).
Oddbjorn taps in his Nature, and uses his Music-Wise in an all-out attempt to hit an Ob of 8 (which is the highest he reckons he can reach)… and he succeeds!
I reveal to the players that Halja’s Might is 8… so the Queen of the Dead herself is coming to see what this singing is all about.
This roll, quite rightly, earns Oddbjorn MVP at the end of the session.
Back with our other two.
Bricks and Tösk call out to each other, lightly buried, as they are, under the bones on the beach of the Dry Lands.
We get another Very Torchbearer moment as it transpires that it is the other characters that have all of the light sources, so they are lost in darkness.
Still, they are not far from the boat, and Bricks is able to use their Pathfinder skill to get them back, where one of the first things they do is drink the last of their wine stores to alleviate Hungry & Thirsty, granting them some breathing space.
They re-equip themselves, ensuring that they have their spare lantern, some food / drink for when they find the others, and then they set off to track where the others have got to.
We settle on a neat Hunter check to find tracks / traces and, following a helpful success, they get within sight of the guard house, which is guarded by a couple of large powerful warriors-type guards.
In the distance, they also see the 15ft-tall figure of Halja, glowing with an inner light, as she approaches the guard house.
They have mere minutes before the Queen of the Dead reaches them all.
Tösk opts to sneak himself and Bricks into the guard house, to get to their companions ahead of the Queen of the Dead. A Scout vs. Scout against the guards gets them in through one of arrow slit windows (Tösk is Oddly-Angled, and Bricks does not enjoy the process).
Inside, they find their companions and hand their wineskins of drink through the bars on the door for their companions to relieve Hungry & Thirsty.
Tösk then decides that he wants to get the prison cell door unlocked before Halja arrives, and sets to work, getting help from Bricks, bringing his various Thiefy bits to bear, from his Thieves’ Tools, to his (level 2) Improvisational ability… and fails.
I let the player decides whether he wants me to Twist or succeed, but with a Condition. @DaveHiggins is more keen on succeeding than getting a Twist, so Tösk gets the door unlocked, only to discover that, behind him, stands Halja, making him Afraid and making Bricks Angry.
Now they face the Queen of the Dead, in her realm.
As the following scene and Conflict plays out, their environment keeps seeming to distort and change, without them being able to perceive the changes happening.
The Queen of the Dead starts off at 15ft tall, and the guard house ceiling must “therefore” have always been that tall. Later, she sits back on her throne, which has “always” been there. As matters proceed, the Queen becomes taller, the guard room is actually her throne room, and whilst the prison cell and doorway stay the same, it is somehow, by the end, the size of a mousehole, compared to Halja’s size and the Palace of the Dead’s main chamber, with the adventurers each no bigger than her thumb.
Our adventurers have A Plan: they have returned souls of the dead to the Queen’s realm, and want to negotiate to act as Halja’s agents to do so.
Each of them also wants a boon for her in exchange.
It feels like a Negotiation Conflict, right?
But once we’ve rolled Disposition, I’m reading up on Negotiation, and spot Negotiation Precedence (LMM page 107):
You may safely negotiate with someone whose Precedence is equal to or less than yours.
Halja is Precedence 7, and Oddbjorn is Precedence 1. None of the others have any Precedence.
But… but… it feels like the correct approach.
We wrack our brains, when I remember that Hildr, the Swan-Maiden from Bridge of the Damned, promised each of them that they could each call on her once, and she would come to them.
Swan-Maidens… Choosers of the Slain… that feels right! Hildr serves Halja in some form, and it feels like she, as one of the Choosers of the Slain, could beg the Queen of the Dead to listen to these paltry adventurers… her voice (restored to her by the adventurers) would be enough to give them standing in the Negotiation.
Oddbjorn calls for Hildr to do this, using his one chance to do so, and I rule that they have effective “Precedence” in line with Hildr’s in this “court”: Precedence 5 (or Precedence 6 for Oddbjorn, given that his Skaldic Reputation).
I let them know that Hildr’s voice grants them “Power” (1pt negotiation armour that runs out on a 1-3 every time it is used, LMM p108).
I also let them know that any of the others can ask Hildr to Help for the Conflict, at any time, but that will be their 1-shot use of calling Hildr to them. The others do not take this option.
We now get to our negotiation.
- Bricks wants a weapon / tool to help send the dead souls back to Halja.
- Osric wants a blessing from Halja.
- Oddbjorn wants his apprentice Radulf to be granted enough time to become a great Skald.
- Tösk wants one chance to speak with his dead parents.
I mean, just look at those, right? Incredible, lovely stuff.
Here we go.
Halja, Queen of the Dead: Disposition 9.
Our adventurers: Disposition 7.
Round 1, we script… identically (MAD - Manoeuvre, Attack, Defend).
It’s… brutal and awesome in equal measures.
The Attacks are independent, and hideous. The players are almost immediately completely wiped, barely still standing, due to the Hildr’s “armour” holding. They get Halja down to 2 Disposition.
The Defends for both sides… work. They are back up to full disposition, but Halja is at 7/9.
In the real world, it’s late, passed our usual wrap-up time, but the players are keen to see this Conflict through.
In the following round, Bricks manages to Disarm the Queen of the Dead of her Piercing Gaze (Halja is forced to look away).
Tight, strong scripting means that Halja’s Disposition is back down at something like 4/9 by the end of the round, and the players are holding on desperately to their Disposition at 7/7.
In this last round, Osric, who holds that the Jotunn (such as Halja) represent the only true power deceives her, claiming that she is the mightiest power (whereas he believes she is not the mightiest).
Halja tries to Manoeuvre into a Defend, but the players script Feint-Feint. They have not Traits left to call on. There is no Fate or Persona left to do anything.
Still, Osric manages to strip Halja down to 2/9, and then Bricks brings it home, dropping Halja to 0/9.
The dialogue throughout is excellent and sharp:
Oddbjorn: We will send you those with such stories and tales…
Osric: I will be a Hero-Slayer
(OOC by Oddbjorn: That’s Hero, Slayer, right? not a slayer of heroes?)
(our “Survivor” Osric is a lot of awesome and fun)
Bricks: We may be small, but I made you blink.
Bricks: You are also the death that comes gently, as a friend.
… and I’m missing a number of them. These are going to stick with me for a long while.
We wrap up, and look at Rewards. It’s somewhat light, of course, as no progress was made towards any of their Goals, and no Instincts triggered. However, there are a couple of rewards for Creeds.
Well, we work out what all of their promises and agreements look like… and see whether they can reach that bloody temple in the ruins of Hrel!