A commenter at a Genesys community group online has made the following comment about my criticisms of the role Brawn plays in the Genesys combat rules:

One rule that stands out to me relates to party composition in combat and I haven’t seen it mentioned here. If an ally is engaged with the target of a ranged attack (magical or mundane) the attack must upgrade the difficulty once and any despair causes the attack to instead strike the ally. This, combined with setback from the cover rules causes allied melee fighters to either risk causing their ranged allies to miss, hit them instead, or, as is most often the case, choose to shoot something else.

This is true, but I think it doesn’t fully encapsulate how much of a difference brawn makes even to situations where we choose party composition. So let’s consider two scenarios involving combatants maximized for combat and melee.

Introducing the combatants

First let’s introduce our melee combatant, Gruumsh the Bastard, pulled out of retirement from the pathfinder epidemiology project[1] to do his duty as an experimental subject in our battlegrounds. Gruumsh has a brawn of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in melee, 1 rank in ranged, no stealth (who needs that?!), a greatsword, a bow and chainmail armour. He thus has a melee defense of 1, 14 wounds, soak 6, does 8 damage when he hits you, and 7 damage if he decides to shoot you. For the purpose of this experiment (to retain fairness) Gruumsh has been dragged from Pathfinder to the Realms of Terrinoth in a human form.

Ranged (haha) against Gruumsh the Bastard is Elegant Eddie. Elegant Eddie has an agility of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in ranged, 1 rank in melee, 2 ranks in stealth, a sword, a longbow and chainmail armour. He thus has a defense of 1 when in melee, 12 wounds, soak 4, does 8 damage when he shoots you and 5 damage when he stabs you. Eddie is also a human, though a miserable example of his kind as far as Gruumsh is concerned.

Now let’s try two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Firing into melee

We suppose first that Gruumsh has an ally like Eddie, who is nameless. He is attacking Eddie’s ally, who is like Gruumsh, in melee. We don’t care how this melee turns out in detail, but what we want to investigate is the consequence of Gruumsh being engaged while his nameless ally fires into melee. The specific rules of this state that we upgrade the difficulty of the shot by 1, so let’s put Gruumsh’s ally at short range and have him thus use a single red dice for difficulty. If he rolls a despair then he will hit Gruumsh. There is a 1/12 chance of a despair on the ally’s dice pool, so about an 8% chance he’ll hit Gruumsh. The maximum damage he can do in this situation with a truly ridiculous roll is 15 damage, of which Gruumsh can absorb 6, taking 9. A more realistic roll would see the attack do 11 damage, of which Gruumsh takes 5. So realistically this can happen 3 times before Gruumsh goes down. There is a scenario in which Gruumsh’s ally rolls despairs and triumphs, and thus does a critical on Gruumsh, but the chance of this is very low – my calculations put it at about 1% – and any GM who ruled in the extraordinary case of rolling 2 triumphs and 1 despair that the triumphs and the despair don’t cancel would likely not survive the session.

It’s worth noting in this case that the final probability of missing the enemy is similar with or without the upgrade, so if Gruumsh doesn’t engage this enemy and leaves it to his ally to shoot, the party is not significantly improving the chances of the ally doing damage on the enemy – and what is going to happen if Gruumsh doesn’t engage? Which brings us to scenario 2: Gruumsh and Eddie at range.

Scenario 2: A ranged stand off

Let’s suppose that Elegant Eddie and Gruumsh the bastard face off at medium range. Here the difficulty for Elegant Eddie to hit Gruumsh is two purple dice. Let’s suppose they shoot each other, so Gruumsh is not using his best skill. In this case if Elegant Eddie gets one success against Gruumsh he does 9 points of damage, which is 3 net; if Gruumsh gets one success on Elegant Eddie he does 8 points of damage, which is 4 net. For Elegant Eddie to do more damage than Gruumsh in this ranged stand off he needs 2 more successes than Gruumsh! Now each ability die is equivalent on average to 0.625 successes, and each skill die 0.83 successes, so this deficit is the equivalent of Elegant Eddie having two less ability dice and one less skill die – so basically the equivalent of Gruumsh’s agility and skill, but for the slightly elevated chance of a critical[2]. Also note that if they’re dealing approximately the same damage to each other after soak, Gruumsh will kill Elegant Eddie first, because Gruumsh has more wounds. So unless Elegant Eddie gets lucky with criticals there is a chance that he will lose this battle even though he is fighting it with his best ability and Gruumsh the bastard is not.

Now let’s suppose that instead of shooting Gruumsh decides to charge Elegant Eddie. He needs to close from meidum range to engaged, which will take him two manoeuvres: one from medium to short, one from short to engaged. This means that he can spend two strain and gets one attack against Elegant Eddie. Note that even though Elegant Eddie has better agility he doesn’t have better initiative chances, so it’s possible that he’ll never get a chance to shoot Gruumsh, but just in case, let’s assume he does. The maximum damage he can do is 16, of which Gruumsh will take 10, so Gruumsh is guaranteed to reach melee this round. There is a small chance that Elegant Eddie will get a critical, in which case there are a couple of criticals he can roll up (11-20, 41-45, 71-75, 81-85, and 96 – 105 if we are going to be generous to Eddie) that could stop Gruumsh from closing range. My estimation of probabilities puts the chance of this chain of events happening at less than 3%. So there is a 97% chance that Gruumsh is going to close range and get an attack in one round.

The maximum damage Gruumsh can do is the same as Elegant Eddie: 16. But Elegant Eddie has 4 soak and 12 wounds, so Gruumsh can knock him out in one round. The chance of this is low obviously, but note that the minimum damage Gruumsh can do on a successful hit is 9, which translates to 5 for Elegant Eddie, so there is almost zero chance that Elegant Eddie is going to survive two hits – and next round he’s going to need to use his free manoeuvre (assuming he gets one) to get his sword out. Once his sword is out there is actually a chance he’ll do zero damage against Gruumsh even on a successful hit!

A note on cover

Let us suppose that Gruumsh the Bastard wins the initiative and sees that Elegant Eddie has a ranged weapon. Suppose that there is some cover at short range that gives him two defense. He could use his free manoeuvre to get there, dive into cover, then next turn use another free manoeuvre to close to engaged, thus saving two strain. Is this worth it? Each point of defense has a 1/3 chance of reducing Elegant Eddie’s dice pool result by one success, so the two dice in total could reduce the dice pool by two successes at most, some of the time. But Gruumsh the Bastard has two extra points of soak than Elegant Eddie, so this cover is less effective than his brawn advantage in protecting him. The rule book says that two cover dice is equivalent to a trench or blockhouse. Gruumsh’s brawn advantage is better than putting him in a pillbox! If Gruumsh opts to run to cover he would be offering his opponent a chance at a shot at reduced difficulty, with almost no benefit, even if that cover were a blockhouse! Unless Gruumsh is already down to his last two strain, the simple fact is that there is no benefit to him in pausing – he should just rush to melee. Note that if the cover were at medium range and the battle started at long range, he would probably be better off waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot, rather than running to cover, because the benefit to him of gaining the two cover dice does not out weigh the benefit to Elegant Eddie of the range improvement, given his brawn. He is better off just pausing his run, standing at long range, waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot him, and then closing to cover. And if Elegant Eddie uses his free manoeuvre to maintain the range so that they have to turn this into a shooting match, Gruumsh’s brawn will neutralize Eddie’s extra skill anyway!

Conclusion

Truly Gruumsh is a bastard. His brawn acts as a dampener on ranged attacks, so that PCs who have chosen to maximize this skill are effectively no better at it than Gruumsh himself (and Gruumsh obviously disdains such petty strategies). Although it is true that firing into a combat in which Gruumsh is engaged slightly increases the risk of harm to him, this risk is small and not worth foregoing Gruumsh’s rush into combat. Worse still, if Gruumsh and a ranged fighter enter an encounter at medium range there is almost no chance that the ranged fighter will survive, even though the engagement has started in a way that should heavily favour the ranged combatant. There is no reason for Gruumsh to seek cover if he wins the initiative, since his brawn effectively acts as if he were hiding in a bunkhouse anyway. None of this is an issue if brawn does not affect soak, and note that things become even more catastrophically difficult for Gruumsh if agility determines combat skill – then Gruumsh would be better off with 3 brawn and 3 agility, and all his calculations would change. Just as in my original experiments in Pathfinder, being able to kill someone quickly outweighs fancy considerations of style, and the doubling up of brawn to both defense and offense means that brawn-focused characters are more dangerous than better-armed opponents even in ranged combat!

Some arguments in the online community where this debate unfolded suggested that Genesys was developed for ranged combat, because it was developed for Star Wars, where blasters are the core weapon. First, this isn’t true – the Star Wars system was developed from Warhammer 3rd Edition, which was developed for a world of Grim Fantasy. Secondly, it’s also wrong. This analysis shows that the system clearly disadvantages ranged fighters heavily.

One small limitation of my analysis here is that I have not considered the cost of completely missing (or the benefits of being completely missed) in scenario 2. This might slightly readjust the balance of risks, but is complicated to calculate for Genesys dice pools. But overall I don’t think that nuance significantly changes the basic finding, which is that brawn serves to neutralize ranged attacks through soak to such a degree that it completely distorts the balance of combat. Brawn should not be applied to soak, or if it is, melee attacks should all be agility based.


fn1: Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare the generally positive response of the Pathfinder community to my rules suggestions there back in 2015, with the negativity and criticism of the Genesys community.

fn2: I am using this approximation because calculating precise probabilities for dice pools in Genesys is tough and I can’t be bothered writing the R code to do it.

Character creation decisions

In the Genesys system brawn determines your wound threshold, the damage your melee weapon does, how much you can carry, whether you can use a cumbersome weapon, your resilience skill, and how much damage you take. Its role in determining wound threshold and soak means it is double-counted in survival: if my brawn is 1 higher than your brawn I start with 1 more wound than you and take 1 less every time someone hits me. Its use in determining weapon damage means it is also double-counted in combat: being used as the base attribute for the skill, it determines how many successes you get (and thus the damage); and this is added on again because brawn also determines the damage of the weapon.

I think this makes brawn overpowered, and it certainly means that no combat-focused character need care about any other attribute. This is particularly true if one uses the rules as written for determining combat difficulties, since the difficulty of hitting someone is not affected by any attribute of theirs. So to be a good fighter you just need a good brawn. Every other character type needs at least two good attributes (e.g. wizards, who usually rely on a different attribute for spell casting vs. strain), but a fighter type can survive with just brawn.

This level of overpowered attribute is also seen in D&D 5th Edition, where dexterity determines how hard you are to hit, your attack bonus, and your damage. Strength becomes irrelevant to a fighter in D&D, and perversely if you really want to a lot of damage you’re better off being a rogue. The role of a fighter in D&D 5 is to give the rogue a chance to flank their opponent (also a terrible rule), not to deal out damage. This is perverse and frustrating, and one of the first changes anyone who plays D&D should make is to revert to strength for weapon damage (at least!)

D&D and Genesys aren’t alone in having over-powered attributes, which is a problem going back to the 1980s and Cyberpunk, which has a suite of attributes of which only two matter. These kinds of rules can be very frustrating because whenever a combat comes up they leave all the other players just watching as a single player does everything for the whole group. Whether it’s realistic or not that a certain attribute entirely determines who is best at something, it’s no fun in a game, and to my mind (and that of most players I’ve ever gamed with) good character design should require that the PC needs two good attributes and can afford to get away with one bad one. It’s not like this in Genesys at the moment.

Brawn and agility in actual combat

Brawn vs Agility

The focus on Brawn in Genesys is also not really realistic, and in particular the soak thing is quite weird. I’ve been kickboxing for years and I know what it’s like to be punched and kicked in the head (and the ribs and the leg and …), and in general one’s ability to resist damage is primarily a quirk of fate. Obviously size determines how much damage you can take (your wound threshold) but most people aren’t especially good at resisting damage. It’s true you see a good boxer taking body shots and wearing them but this isn’t just about brawn – it’s also experience, and most of all timing to turn the body away and tense the muscles at the right time. The classic modern example of this is the much-maligned calf kick, which is becoming very popular in mixed martial arts precisely because no human body seems to be able to ignore it. Whether you absorb that damage or suffer it depends entirely on whether you can shift your leg in time – which is also the entire point of the leg check, which exists to protect your leg (brawn) by absorbing the blow on a bone (using agility to put the bone in the way of the soft part).

The model of the quirky damage-resister in modern fighting is Rodtang (pictured above left), who can actually wear punches, shake his head and keep fighting. He was what the pundits would call an iron chin, but this is highly unusual. Almost all fighters avoid being knocked out by not getting hit, or by rolling with the punches. Obviously much bigger men are harder to knock out for smaller men, but generally, within broad ranges of size, most people can’t resist damage just by being hard. People who think they have this ability are, usually, people who’ve never been really seriously punched.

So, I think Genesys needs to be reformed to reduce the role of Brawn. I think this requires:

  • Make agility the primary attribute for melee attacks
  • Eliminate soak, and either increase armour soak ratings to compensate, or slightly reduce weapon damage
  • Use my reformed combat rules to ensure agility can affect how hard you are to hit, but give brawn some role
  • Introduce some special talents to enable fighters to choose to focus on brawn as a combat component if they want

With this reform, brawn still affects wound threshold and weapon damage, but does not double-count in either. It also means that a good fighter needs to have two strong attributes (at least), and that other types of fighters (who are fast, or use talents) can also hold their own on the battlefield.

Iron chin talent tree

Here I propose a few talents for players who want to develop a PC who fights entirely with brawn. They assume my revised combat rules, which a) assume that skills affect how hard you are to hit and b) ensure that you take a point of strain whenever your armour and soak fully absorbs damage.

  • Hardened fighter (Tier 1): For every rank of hardened fighter, increase your soak by 1
  • Shrug it off (Tier 2): (Requires hardened fighter) Whenever you suffer a rank 1 critical, make a resilience check against your current wounded state. If you succeed, the critical does not affect you
  • Taste for blood (Tier 3): (Requires shrug it off) Once you have been hit once in combat, you no longer suffer strain if your armour absorbs all the damage from future hits
  • Physical bravery (Tier 4): (Requires taste for blood) When you reach your wound threshold, make a resilience check against your current wounded state. If you succeed, you do not go unconscious: keep fighting until someone hits you again (when you need to make this check again)
  • Stalwart (Tier 5): (Requires physical bravery) As shrug it off, but you make the resilience check for any critical injury, against the critical rating, upgraded once if you are already critically injured.

These are just example talents, I’m not sure how unbalancing they might be in combat (and Shrug it off might be underpowered). In my campaign orcs already have the physical bravery talent, and it’s a lot of fun.

Choosing your melee and soak attributes

Another idea that could be considered, though I haven’t put much thought into it, is to allow PCs to choose the attribute they use for soak at the beginning of the campaign. Perhaps the list could be brawn, agility, willpower or presence. Thus you could have a wizard who is hard to hurt because of their sheer force of will, or a bard who refuses to show their pain to an audience.

It’s also possible that weapons could be reformed so different weapons use different attributes, or the brawl, light and heavy melee skills are reformed to use agility, cunning and brawn respectively (in general I think cunning is not a very useful attribute in Genesys). This makes a clear distinction between fast fighters, smart fighters, and tough fighters, something I think most players want to see in a nuanced rule system but which I have shown before often falls apart in practice.

In any case, the key thing here, whatever method one uses, is to reduce the oversized influence of brawn on combat effectiveness, and force fighter characters to be less one dimensional, as well as give other PCs more options and effectiveness in combat. I am not sure if I am going to introduce this reform to my system – at the moment we have only one heavy fighter anyway, and we’ve just gone through a round of rules changes so another set at this point might be pushing the limits of my players’ patience – but I hope the Genesys creators will consider this issue in future iterations of the game.

Addendum: Overpowered stats and role diversity

Some people on the Genesys facebook group have made the point that combat is about more than striking and running, and other characters with other attributes can contribute by doing other things. This is true, but it’s not enough for two reasons. First of all, every critique of every system always gets this response that “role-playing is about creativity, you can find ways to do things that don’t involve violence,” but this is not really fair. First of all, over 30 years of gaming I have never played in any group that didn’t have a heavy focus on violence, and secondly if creativity is so important, why do we have rules at all? We have rules because they’re an important support for our creativity, and the nature of rules changes the way our creativity works. This “oh just be creative in combat” response is always frustrating!

Secondly, however, this response misses an important point about overpowered stats. If one stat is overpowered, then PCs whose primary role depends on that stat will have more choices to be creative in character development than others. Rather than being one-dimensional tanks, brawn-based fighters have more choices to flesh out their PCs. This is because they can excel at their main role with just one attribute, while other PCs need two. Compare, for example, a wizard character that uses presence to cast spells. They will need brawn to stay alive in combat and willpower for their strain threshold. Even if they decide to be fragile, in order to be good at their role they need two attributes. This means that they have less attributes to throw around in secondary character development. It is likely, therefore, that such a PC will choose social skills based on presence – so most such wizards will be leaders or seducers, rather than say kids who ran with gangs (cunning) or acrobats (agility). In contrast, a PC that is primarily a fighter needs only one attribute to be good at what they primarily do, so they have more attributes to throw around. So a fighter-type character can choose to be a leader (presence), a stoic grave-robber whose seen things you wouldn’t believe (willpower), someone who grew up on the streets before they joined the army (cunning) and so on. This PC, rather than being more one-dimensional than those others, will be more flexible! He or she will be able to fight like a monster and be the party’s go-to character for negotiation and perception (for example), while other PCs cannot fit the same diversity of roles because they have sunk all their attributes onto their main role.

A really good example of this problem is the D&D 5E rogue, who is great in combat but also a good archer and has a wide array of super useful crime-style skills. Much of a D&D 5E adventure involves the other PCs waiting for the rogue: they send the rogue ahead to scout the enemy, they set the combat up to ensure the rogue can flank, after the combat they wait for the rogue to check the chest for traps, then the rogue unlocks the chest, and so on. Far from being one-dimensional, the rogue is a more diverse character than any of the others.

So, for a system to fairly encourage role-sharing and ensure that all PCs can contribute to combat, paradoxically, it needs to ensure that the primary fighter characters depend on the same number of attributes to be good at their role as every other PC. Otherwise, rather than only enjoying the combat and being a one-dimensional brawler, they will be the only PC that can enjoy combat and contribute to everything else. And that makes other players bored and frustrated, which is not the point of these games!

The Orun Cliffs

The Wrathbreakers (for so they are now called) have rested for two months in Estona. They have passed the month of Settling attending to mundane matters in the town – shopping for weapons, making connections in the Church of Salt and the Academy, cleaning out and refurbishing their stronghold, and resting after their month of conflict and terror in the mountains. At the end of the month of Settling they visited Siladan the Elder, whose fate seems intertwined with their own, and asked him many questions about his past and about those sadly dead adventurers who they discovered on the journey to Estona.

During this period of relaxation and recovery they also met a Myrmidon named Kay, leader of a division of marines, who invited them to his office in the tower called the Redoubt, a small fortress overlooking the Docks and the bay. Here he acquainted himself with them, and mentioned to them that he had a few agents amongst the underworld of Estona who might occasionally make contact with the PCs, and offer them work on Kay’s behalf that he preferred not to have associated with the marines. They agreed to this suggestion, thinking it would be good to have things to do while they investigated the loose ends of whatever spiders’ web of lies and trouble had been cast over them when they stumbled on the deepfolk in the Middlemarch.

And so it was that, early in the month of Ice, one of those agents made contact with them, and they were invited to a meeting at a dockside dive bar called Charlotte Sometimes.

The Wreckers of the Orun Cliffs

The bar was a narrow single-counter slot between two warehouses at the edge of the docks, run by a man called Argalat. When they entered he gestured them upstairs, to a small second floor lounge with a single table big enough for one group of six. They settled around a small table that was soon groaning under a load of freshly grilled seafood and ales, and in between serving laconic patrons downstairs, Argalat explained the situation and the job.

Argalat himself was a sleazy-looking older man with a narrow, pinched frame and a cold manner. He was no doubt deep into various illegal activities, but carried himself as a man not compromised to within an inch of his life and up to his neck in treachery. He revealed that in exchange for this job he would owe the Wrathbreakers a favour, though it was hard for them to imagine what they might need from him – watered beer, perhaps, for a party? They were relieved to hear that they would also receive coin and a few potions.

Argalat told them that recently two ships had gone missing along the coast to the west of Estona, perhaps a day’s sailing west, along the Orun cliffs. A navy ship returning a few days ago had seen a light near the wreck of the second ship, and the marines now suspected there were wreckers operating on that stretch of the coast. Their guess was that a crew had a base somewhere in the Orun Cliffs, and were using a fake lighthouse to cause ships to wreck, then stealing their cargos and reselling them in Estona. The wrathbreakers’ job was to travel to the latest wreck, kill most of the wreckers, capture at least one, and bring him or her back to Estona to reveal their contacts. It was made very clear to the Wrathbreakers that once they had captured a suitable informant no other wreckers were to survive, and if they were to die by drowning it would be considered a bonus. The Myrmidon Kay wanted the Wrathbreakers to do it because he assumed someone would escape or somehow get a message out, and he wanted their contacts in Estona to believe it was a raid by rival gangsters, not a bust by the marines – that way their network in Estona would not go to ground, and when the Wrathbreakers returned with their information they would be able to move on the whole network.

They would sail the following night, heading along the coast until they were about a day’s walk from the shipwreck. That area of the coast featured a long, straight beach that they could easily walk along, so they would be taken past the wreck during the night by a shrimper’s ship and dropped at a safe cove a long distance from the wreck at dawn. They could then walk back along the beach until they reached the wreck and begin their investigations. There was a possibility that the wreckers were only accessing the beach by sea, the Orun Cliffs being imposing and often impossible to navigate, so in order to ensure the Wrathbreakers could bring their prisoners out, the marines would land at the wreck after three days. If the Wrathbreakers were not there to meet them, the marines would search for them and kill everyone they found.

An easy job! They agreed and set off to prepare.

The beach

The journey to the beach was uneventful, and at dawn they set off along its black sands. A biting, freezing wind howled along the beach, and the waves crashed with an even, rhythmic roar to their right as they marched back towards the wreck. They threaded a line along the wet sand near the waves, where walking was easier and the wind a little less biting, and where they had slightly less fear of falling rocks. The Orun Cliffs towered above them on their left hand side, here rising more than a kilometre into distant haze. At their base here the Cliffs were not as sheer as around Estona, forming a kind of rubble-strewn series of ledges leading down to the beach. Here, in between the black tumbled rocks of the cliff itself, the ledges formed grassy slopes scattered with occasional stunted trees and scrabbly patches of ferns in the lee of the larger rocks.

Everything else was an endless series of parallel lines: the black horizon of the beach, perpendicular to the distant hazy edge of the cliffs; a white line of surf trailing towards them from that far set square of black stone and powder, and cutting between them all the faint grey line of the ocean’s horizon, light hazy grey above and dark threatening green-grey below. Nothing grew, nothing moved. They walked, cocooned in the roar of the surf and braced against the frozen wind at their backs.

Towards midday they came across a bleached whale carcass, a huge line of perfect white bones stretching along the beach in front of them. As they approached a throng of rats and scavenger-lizards scattered from their slow feasting on the bones and fled across the black sand, disappearing into the scrub and scree at the edge of the beach. A seal lay lazily in the white foam of the breakers, watching them with innocent curiosity as they walked into the arch of the whale’s rib cage and stood staring at its monstrous form. The whale must have been an old giant of its kind, far bigger than a longship, and now here it was reduced to bleached white ruin, its empty eye sockets staring endlessly at the uncaring grey sky as a multitude of insects crawled over the bristling plates of baleen in its enormous jaw. Kyansei tossed a stone in the seal’s direction, and they walked on.

The wreck

Towards afternoon they reached the wreck. It lay in the waves at the beach’s edge, marooned and half broken by the constantly pounding surf but not yet fragmented. Perhaps 300 metres further on was a small promontory of Orun stone, jutting into the sea like the prow of a great black stone ship, but the wreck was surely too far away to have hit it. They guessed perhaps a light could have been set on that promontory, and decided to investigate it immediately after the ship. After some confusion and fussing Quangbae, Calim and Bao Tap waded out to the wreck to search it.

They found three bodies in the lee of the central cabin, rolling in the gently undulating water of the ship’s wave-shadow. As they approached them a seal popped its head out of the water and swam away, the only other living thing at the wreck. While Calim dragged the bodies out, Kyansei waded over and dived in to search the underwater parts of the wreck.

The bodies were long dead. Two were wearing leather armour, one carried a knife at its waist, and one was dressed in typical sailors’ rags. They had been gnawed on by fish and slowly rotted despite the freezing temperature of the water, and in their condition Calim could tell little about how they died. He did, however, find a small gold locket on one of the sailors, which Itzel identified to be enchanted. Upon deeper inspection, though, she noticed that strange greasy, unpleasant sensation of deep magic – it was an evil artifact of some kind. They covered it in salt and gave it to Calim for safe-keeping.

Under the wreck, in the frozen sea, Kyansei dug around in the captain’s cabins until she found a small chest, which she dragged out. On land as she slowly unfroze they smashed it open, revealing a pouch of coins and a bolt of a strange kind of chamois leather material, a super supple leather on one side lined with fine, short grey-brown fur on the other. Underneath the fur, embossed on the leather itself, was a complex geometric pattern of fine silver-blue lines, which had been applied in such a way that they must be some kind of tattoo. Were they looking at the skin of some person or monster? And if so, what? And who would remove it?

They realized then that there was an obvious problem with this wreck. It had not been looted, the single signature job of wreckers. Whatever reason it had been run aground here, it had not been for money. The “wreckers” they sought were either psychopathic killers who wrecked ships for pleasure, or had some other purpose behind their actions. At this point Kyansei voiced the question they had all been asking: what was this ship? What had it been carrying? And they realized that they had forgotten to ask this essential question before they set out from Estona. They were alone on this frozen black beach, in possession of a mystery, pursuing the wrong cause, and at least one of the bodies was steeped in deep magic.

What tangled web had they caught themselves in? (Again)

The Caves

From the ship they set out to the promontory. Bao Tap had conjured a spume-owl, a kind of owl that lives in the waves and almost never sets foot on land. He now sent it ahead to spy on the promontory and cliffs. So it was that by the time they had walked the short distance to the rocky outcrop they already knew that there was a cave in the face of that rock, with an open area of stone in front of it and a second entrance from its roof. They also knew that two men were watching them from the cover of the Orun Cliffs, though those men did not know they had been seen. The Wrathbreakers decided to try the caves first, and come back to the men in the cliffs when they knew who or what was inside the caves. It would be very bad to be trying to scale cliffs in pursuit of two men and have a whole brigade of archers emerge from inside the caves.

They checked the flat stone area outside the cave mouth for signs of a fire or light of some kind, but found none. So, with nothing left to investigate, they entered the cave. Kyansei entered first. She saw a line of shells scattered across the entryway, their mother-of-pearl sides all facing up to reflect the weak light from the cave entrance and the hole in the ceiling, but only realized it was a trap after she stepped over them and triggered it. From the eastern wall of the cave a huge blast of water erupted, striking her and driving her back out of the cave. Fortunately it did not do much damage, and Calim was there to heal her.

Guessing that the line of shells was the trap, and seeing it was now washed away, they entered the cave. Calim had noticed that the water that hit Kyansei was fresh, and wanted to investigate the source, so they headed east into a narrow tunnel that soon opened into a large cave. Here there was no light, so Itzel used her magic to cast a pale silvery glow around the cavern. This cavern was filled with a pool of water, in the middle of which stood a small rocky island. It was perhaps 2 metres from the entrance to that rock, and submerged in the water just a bit further into the pool was a human body.

Kyansei and Calim jumped into the frozen water to retrieve the body, and it immediately began to swirl and bubble. Four seals emerged as if from nowhere and began swimming in rapid circles around the rock. Sensing the worst, Kyansei hauled herself onto the rock, but behind her the current suddenly strengthened and dragged Calim under. He fought against the pull of the water and dragged himself out just long enough for Kyansei to drag him onto the rock. Everyone fled from the cave, and a moment later another blast of water hit them, knocking them down as they fled into the entrance cave but fortunately doing no damage.

When they ventured back into the cave the seals were gone, and there was no sign of any way they could have entered or left. Kyansei swore they had just appeared in the water as if by magic.

They all cursed. These were no wreckers. They had stumbled into a nest of fey, and now they were going to have to fight their way to whatever sick and twisted secret lay at its heart. Vivid memories of the redcap and its horrid games returned to them. What was it with Fey, water and twisted games?

There was only one way to find out. They girded themselves, and prepared for the worst …

Where will they look to find these lost secrets?

Chapter 1 of the Archipelago campaign has come to a close, with the PCs liberating themselves from Hugo Tuya’s employment under unfortunate (for him) circumstances and arriving in the city of Estona, where they have established a stronghold. As chapter 2 of this campaign begins they need to choose a name for their new, independent adventuring group, and decide what they want to do next. During their journey across the southern part of Hadun they encountered several mysteries and some potential for future adventure, some of which hints at dark shadows stirring under the mountains. Now they must decide which of those strands of information they will pursue, or if they wish to embark on some other adventure of their own choosing. Estona is a maritime center on the western coast of the Archipelago’s largest island, and offers many opportunities for exploration and adventure if the PCs so choose. Here I will describe some of the mysteries and adventure opportunities they encountered on their journey, and some choices for their group to pursue in chapter 2.

Siladan’s adventuring group

During their adventures the PCs happened upon the history of an adventuring group that hailed from the lands they traveled through. This group appeared to have separated after a catastrophic adventure went wrong, with the survivors settling in their home towns. The three survivors whose names and history the PCs encountered were:

  • Verbere the Flame, a human explorer who returned to the town of Ibara after catastrohpe befell the adventuring group, but who was killed by bandits outside Ibara and whose body and belongings the PCs discovered. They found a letter to him from his old colleague Siladan the Elder, and based on the contents of this letter dug up a buried stash of iron, which they subsequently were forced to hand over to Verbere’s widow
  • Regald, a human warrior living in Ell’s Hamlet, whose daughter they found reanimated outside of Ibara. This girl had been murdered while meeting an elf who appeared to be her lover, and on her body they found a necklace of black stone. Following this necklace, they found Regald, and when they searched his house they found a letter to him from Siladan which suggested he had received some elven documents from their adventuring days, and his daughter had taken these to her elven lover, where she had been ambushed by deepfolk and the documents had been stolen by those deepfolk.
  • Siladan the Elder, a human Astrologer who settled in Estona after the break up of the adventuring group. He appears to have spent some time a few years ago cleaning out old documents and paraphernalia, and sent some of the items he wanted to remove to his former companions. A letter about buried iron was sent to Verbere, while some elven documents and a letter explaining them were sent to Regald. These letters, in their own ways, got Verbere and Regald’s daughter killed. Verbere’s death was likely a coincidence, but Regald’s daughter was killed by deepfolk returning elven documents to the elves. These documents had been previously held by deepfolk, from whom Siladan and his adventurers had stolen them, and it seems likely that the deepfolk somehow discovered they were in the possession of Regald’s daughter and killed her to get them back.

It seems clear that this adventuring group had fought deepfolk many times, had stolen some elven documents from those deepfolk, and the group then dissolved after a catastrophic battle. It also seems likely that the deepfolk desperately wanted those elven documents back, and when the documents were moved from Regald’s house by his daughter the deepfolk somehow became aware of them, and killed her to get them back. What was in the documents? Is it a coincidence that the documents were stolen by an adventuring party active in the same part of Hadun where the deepfolk have become newly active after years of peace? This opens three possible tasks connected to this group:

  1. Meet Siladan and learn the history of his group
  2. Find out more about the elven documents, what they contained and where they were found
  3. Find out how the deepfolk tracked the documents

Which leads us to …

Argalt’s Raiders

The PCs were not the only people looking for Regald. When they were approaching Ell’s Hamlet they were ambushed by a squad of raiders from the Valley of Gon, who they learnt had been sent to Ell’s Hamlet to find Regald. They tracked the raiders to their camp and attacked it, in a vicious battle with the squad leader Rimgalt, who fought with a deepfolk axe.

They learnt that these raiders had been sent from a stronghold in the Valley of Gon by a man named Argalt, a raider chieftain, who had wanted them to find Regald and bring him and any documents in his possession back to the stronghold. They assumed that this must mean that Argalt had learnt of the elven documents some time after Regald’s daughter moved them, and came to Ell’s Hamlet looking for them. The PCs did not travel to the Valley of Gon to interrogate Argalt, so they do not know how he knew about the documents or why his raiders were late to get them, but they have their suspicions. But they could do these things:

  1. Travel to the Valley of Gon to investigate Argalt
  2. Try to learn how he knew about Regalt’s documents and why he wanted them

The fact that Rimgald fought with a deepfolk axe makes them suspect some connection to the deepfolk, and although it is close to blasphemy to think humans would work with deepfolk, Calim suspects it – why else did the deepfolk raiders they met on their journey hold captives to ransom for coin? Which brings us to …

The Skydeath Clan’s Vile Purpose

After Ell’s Hamlet the PCs traveled on to Estala, where they were supposed to receive the first instalment of payment for their escort work from their employer, Hugo Tuya. Unfortunately Estala had been attacked by a contingent of deepfolk from a local clan called the Skydeath clan. These vile beasts had successfully stormed the town at night, killed some guards and taken captives, and had dragged them out of town to a lair nearby where they held them as hostages. The PCs went to help with the hostage negotiations, and learnt that the Skydeath clan were demanding coin for the return of the hostages. This is a very strange demand, because deepfolk cannot trade with humans – any human providing succour or support to deepfolk in any way is a blasphemous concept, it is never done, and there is no record of any such interaction or allegiance between deepfolk and humans, so they simply have no use for coin. Usually deepfolk hostage negotiators demand grain, rice and glass. Why would they demand coin?

The PCs raided the deepfolk camp and slew most of them, freeing the hostages and earning the payment they should have been given for free. They then became involved in the aftermath, tracking down the deepfolk gang and confirming their movements. As part of this they visited a nearby observatory, which the deepfolk had raided, and found:

  • The deepfolk had removed all the observatory’s telescopes
  • The deepfolk had killed everyone working at the observatory and reanimated them
  • The deepfolk had destroyed all sources of knowledge held at the observatory, zealously making sure that nothing that had been researched or learnt there could ever be known by any other humans
  • Someone had managed to erase a poem on a blackboard during the battle, perhaps in desperation to prevent them seeing it. The PCs had been able to reconstruct the poem, though they could not understand what it meant

After the observatory the PCs themselves headed into the mountains on their journey, into a pass called the Middlemarch which they had been promised was safe but which obviously was not. Here they ran into a large force of deepfolk, also from the Skydeath clan, who killed their employer and drove them out of the pass. When they left the pass they realized they had a map from Regald’s documents, which seemed to indicate the location of the deepfolk camp in the Middlemarch. They had been told by reliable sources that the deepfolk in this area had been very quiet for decades, and that the recent attack was highly unusual. Had Siladan’s adventuring group woken something in the mountains? So, the PCs could ask many questions here:

  1. Why did the Skydeath clan attack the town of Estala?
  2. Who are the Skydeath clan? Are they new in the area?
  3. Why did the Skydeath clan want coin?
  4. Why did they destroy the observatory?
  5. What was on the map the PCs found in Regald’s house, what did Regald and Siladan know about the deepfolk in the Middlemarch, and did they wake something up in the mountains at the time that they found, or drew, the map the PCs hold?

To answer these questions might also help the PCs to clear the Middlemarch and drive back the deepfolk raiders, which would clear the way for them to return to the southern part of Hadun, and in particular to Miselea, where they have unfinished business. Which brings us to …

Killing the spider god

On their journey to Miselea, early in chapter 1, the PCs stumbled on a nest of spiders and a loathsome fey called a Redcap. They killed the Spiders and learnt horrible things about the Redcap written in blood poetry by one of its victims. They also freed some humans who had been enslaved by the Redcap, and learnt that they had been accompanying an astrologer who had entered the great forest in search of a god of spiders.

From this the PCs guessed that there are great and powerful gods of animals living in the deep forests of the world, and that the god of the spiders lives in the forest east of Miselea. They guess it is also accompanied by some Redcap king or queen. They also think that, were they to kill it, they could become incredibly powerful. The freed slaves of the spider nest they attacked promised to help them kill the spider god, and any Redcap that is with it. So one possibility for the PCs is to return to Miselea, enter the kingdom of Ariaki to find the freed slaves of the spiders, and launch a campaign into the wilderness to find and kill the spider god.

What could possibly go wrong with such a venture? And while they are in Ariaki, there is something else they could do …

Researching the Northern Blight

Kyansei, the group’s warrior, is a Wildling from the northern lands. She is traveling in Hadun looking for clues as to the blight that has begun afflicting her homeland, convinced that it has some connection to the deepfolk or some cause in dark magic that the Wildlings do not understand. In Miselea she encountered a delegation from Ariaki, who promised to help her in her inquiries. They have sent messengers to an Academy in the town of Alpon in northern Ariaki, and if the group enters Ariaki on other purposes Kyansei would no doubt want to visit Alpon to find out what they have learnt. Perhaps in Alpon, too, the PCs could learn something of the nature of the fey, to help them kill the spider god … or maybe they would need to visit the elves of the Great Forest to learn such things.

In any case, knowledge is power, and the PCs need more knowledge, particularly about the dark and evil things that lurk in the shadows and stones of this land. Which brings us to …

Aveld the Foul’s Secrets

A side adventure that the PCs could also consider involves uncovering the origins and history of a scholar called Aveld the Foul. The adventuring group whose deaths the PC have traced across the southern lands seemed to have some connection to this man: Siladan the Elder mentioned him in a letter to Verbere the Flame, and insinuated to Regald that the had other scholarship by Aveld the Foul that he was working to translate or understand in some way. If the PCs obtain this documentation from Siladan they could track down any leads to find out who Aveld the Foul was, what he knows about the deepfolk in the region, and whether he has any dark secrets that need to be buried.

Burial is perhaps a theme in the first chapter of this campaign. Which brings us to …

The Standing Stones of the Spine

The PCs discovered some iron buried underground outside Ibara, amongst a scattered mess of very old deepfolk bones. In Miselea Calim mentioned these bones to the local Rimewarden, including explaining his suspicion that the site where they were buried looked like a ritual burial ground or magic site of some kind. This Rimewarden told him that the same patterns of standing stones have been found in other sites along the eastern edge of the Spine Mountains, but that no one had thought of digging beneath them before. He suggested that were Calim to return to Miselea, he could organize an archaeological dig at some of those other sites, and they could begin to answer questions about the purpose of the standing stones, and the nature of the burial that led to these bones being scattered in holes in the ground.

But does anyone care about how and why deepfolk are buried? So long as they are dead, eh?

Conclusion

So these are the choices available to the party, if they choose not to embark on some other jaunt of their own:

  • Find Siladan, talk with him, and learn the history and truth of the adventuring group and the elven documents that got Regald’s daughter killed
  • Investigate Argalt’s stronghold in the Valley of Gon and find out why Argalt was after Regald and his documents, and how he knew of them
  • Kill a spider god, with help from soldiers in Ariaki
  • Travel to Alpon in Ariaki to learn more about the blight afflicting the north, and perhaps also to learn how to kill a spider god and discover more about the fey (or perhaps this would require a journey to an elven settlement)
  • Learn more about the history and secrets of Aveld the Foul
  • Travel to Miselea and then perhaps Rokun, to do some archaeology in the Spine Mountains

As chapter 2 begins, the PCs face choices, and a long, hard path to uncover the secrets of fey, gods, deepfolk and humans. What will they find, and who will they have to kill on the way?

The PCs have raided a tea merchant’s compound and driven out some strange fey creature that was nesting there. A businessman in Estona has offered them the (relatively) unrestricted use of the compound for themselves for one year, and so now they prepare to move in. This post gives a brief description of the compound and its buildings.

The compound belonged to the sister of their benefactor, but she managed it poorly and became entangled in legal trouble with a firm in distant Rokun, which prevented her from selling the place or significantly changing it to some other purpose (such as a stonemason’s yard). It had become unprofitable due to competition from tea merchants in town, and after she died the PCs’ benefactor, Arvil, inherited it. Arvil himself is a successful businessman who is entering retirement, and has little interest at this late stage of his career in rehabilitating a fading investment or taking risks on it, especially given its legal troubles. He is more than happy to let the PCs manage it for a time.

The property is about a half day’s ride east of Estona, on an overgrown track that leaves a fork of a fork from the main eastern road. It has been allowed to become overgrown and is situated in quite thick, boggy forest. The fey that was nesting in the compound had woven some kind of glamour over the forest to make it difficult for people to follow the overgrown path and find the property, which even from the river is difficult to spot in its overgrown state, but the PCs managed to penetrate that glamour and now know how to find the place easily. The primary features of the property are listed here.

1. Lighthouse and pier

The lighthouse is crumbling wood, with unstable stairs inside leading up to a small tower that once held a light. From here there is a good archery position over the whole area but it is difficult to climb to without breaking the stairs or falling until it is repaired.

The pier is also crumbling, and there are no boats on it.

2. Warehouse and office

The warehouse has solid rammed earth and rock foundations, with wide double doors that open into the slightly recessed, cool first floor of the building. There is nothing here except a few trashed crates. Wooden stairs in one corner go up to the second floor, which is a solid wood extension to the first floor. This room contains some smashed up furniture and a long window looking out over the river, with a smaller window looking out over the courtyard. It is another excellent archery post but there is only one way in or out. The windows are jammed shut.

3. Storehouse

This is a white-washed stone building with large doors on two sides. It used to hold food and supplies for the compound (not tea – this was stored in the warehouse near the pier). It is now empty, and the doors smashed.

4. Stables

The stables have 6 stalls, and a little space at one end for stairs leading up to a storage loft.

5. Servants’ quarters

On the western end of the stables is a door that leads under a covered porch to a small servants’ quarters with four beds in it, where the stablehands used to sleep. This room is drafty and empty.

6. Tea workshop

This long, single-story building has solid walls of stone carefully placed together, and good quality tile roofs that are largely intact. Inside the walls are lined with ceramic and the floor is cool slate. Large stone and wood benches stretch down the middle, and a series of large storage cabinets run down the southern wall. The northern wall has faucets for hot water from the hot spring, and also a pump and well system for water from underground. The beastmen used this water and treated the room relatively well, though it is still not clean. A door in the north runs to the onsen, and to the east a door opens to the tea roasting space.

7. Roastery

Tea used to be roasted here and although the roasting oven itself is smashed and useless, the space is perfectly designed for e.g. a forge.

8. Hot spring

The hot spring is in an interior room in this wooden structure. There is a narrow changing area on the outside, with racks for clothes and some old wooden buckets and brushes nearby. A ceramic tube carries water from the spring to the spigots in room 6, and another tube carries it to the kitchen in building 9. There is also a sluice on the eastern wall but it no longer works. The onsen itself is a large rock structure that the wooden frame has been built to obscure, with water rising from an exit point perhaps 3m above ground and falling into a pair of connected pools, one higher than the other. The water from the top is very hot but cools rapidly as it falls to the pools – supernaturally rapidly – until it is just scalding hot in the smaller, higher pool and then perfect temperature in the lower pool. The sluices and ceramic tubes connect to the top where the water emerges, so they deliver essentially boiling water to the rooms each side of this one. Steam rises through vents in the ceiling, and smaller gaps in the rocks allow small floods of water to fall around the main rocky structure onto slate floors. Beneath the slate are several layers of wood, through which the water seems to seep relatively comfortably, and the ground outside the building is not especially wet. Water from the lower pool runs away into a crack at the base of the pool where it disappears presumably underground. The only hint as to the magical nature of the pool is the strange speed at which the water cools.

9. Longhouse central office

This is the building where the tea merchant would conduct business with visiting traders, and also where the tea merchant himself lived. The first floor has a recessed floor and walls of solid brick and earth, like a typical Archipelago longhouse. In the centre of the area is a large firepit, surrounded on three sides by chairs and with a table between the firepit and the western entrance. To the east is the main entry area, a small porch-like structure with double sliding doors leading east and a separate entrance that opens to a covered walkway extending across to the hostelry. The western side of the main room has steps leading up to a small kitchen and stairs that go up to the second floor. The second floor has three rooms: on the eastern end a bedroom, in the middle a study and office, and on the western end a small sitting room area. The servant who worked here has a small sleeping room abutting the hostelry. The beastman sheltered in here, and it is trashed and stinking with refuse and rotten meat. The fey leader lurked in the rooms above on the second floor, which probably require a good cleansing religious ritual before they are comfortable for humans to use.

10. Hostelry

This is a simpler wooden building with stone reinforcement on the side facing the river. Its first floor is a wide, open living and dining area, with a kitchen on one side and beyond that a small set of servants’ quarters for a total of four servants. Stairs in the main living area lead up to a set of sleeping areas, with space for six separate rooms with two people in each. There is a small bathroom on the ground floor, which looks over the river. A bath in this bathroom uses water drawn from the onsen, but this whole building is musty and abandoned.

11. Gardens

The gardens here are now in disarray but used to hold a sizable herb garden, and could do again if cultivated. There is a small glasshouse, with some panes currently damaged, and a shed with tools for gardening.

All of these areas are damaged and run-down, and some parts (such as the Longhouse itself) have been badly soiled by the beastmen who lived there until the PCs drove them out. The Onsen is fully functional, and anyone spending the night in the fully restored compound recovers 2 wounds per night instead of one. Anyone who spends a week fully resting here with appropriate care upgrades resilience checks to recover from critical wounds, and all healing spells and medicine checks performed to recover from critical wounds are upgraded. Attempts to brew healing potions in the tea workshop are also upgraded once due to the benefits of using magical healing water to prepare them, but the difficulty of brewing poisons is upgraded once for the same reason.

The compound can serve as a tier 3 stronghold, with one free tier 1 feature (the onsen) that does not count toward the limit of tier 1 features. It easily has accommodation for all the PCs, and the servants rooms can be adapted to easily accommodate Selina and Laiea. Some extra work will be required to enable the addition of a barracks – for example installing a dormitory above the stables, or reforming the hostelry to allow the guards and the PCs to have rooms in the one building. Nonetheless, the compound offers a versatile base of operations for a group of adventurers interested in settling down and using all the opportunities Estona has to offer as they chase up the many mysteries left over from their exploration of southern Hadun.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have fled the Middlemarch, pursued by deepfolk, and arrived at Iruva on the western edge of the spine mountains. They have failed in their job as guards, losing Hugo Tuya to a deepfolk raid in the middle of their journey through the pass, then abandoning his wagon and losing the wagoneer as they fled the mountains. They have managed to save Hugo Tuya’s “niece” Selina and her maid Leia, but when they reached Iruva they collapsed into sleep disappointed in themselves and their failed mission. Now they must think about where to go and what to do next.

A purpose: Mystery and Revenge

They woke by midday and gathered in the dining room of their hostelry to discuss their failures and their next steps. They had no special reason to travel onward, but they could not return over the Middlemarch until the way was cleared, probably only as part of a large raiding party. Iruva’s bailiff had immediately sent word to the next town, Antika, of the gathering storm in the mountains but he would not receive aid sufficient to do anything better than defend his town. They were all aware that no raiding party would be unleashed on the Middlemarch until winter was over, and unless they wanted to spend several months in the small and boring town, they needed to consider heading down the river to Estona.

Over breakfast they discovered that this was everyone’s preference. They needed to find better armour and weapons, they wanted to meet Siladan the Elder and inquire as to the various members of his old adventuring group whose bodies they had found on their journey, and they wanted to investigate mysteries they had encountered on the road. Estona was Hadun’s second largest city and no doubt had large libraries and many wise folk who could answer their questions – not to mention Siladan, and better weapons dealers. So they would set off soon.

As this discussion unfolded they discovered Selina hanging in the shadows, waiting to talk to them. She interrupted and begged them to take her with them. Her true purpose in traveling with Tuya had not been love or money, but escape: her family had promised her to an older man in another town and she could not bear the thought, so had used her charms to negotiate her way onto Tuya’s caravan to Estona. She had an uncle in Estona with whom she had stayed for a year when she was younger, and since he doted on her she hoped he would look after her. However, she would need work in Estona, and now she offered the group a deal: if they would escort her to the city she would negotiate with her uncle to allow them to use a piece of land he held on the eastern edge of the city. It was a derelict tea merchant’s, which he had not been able to develop and could not sell for legal reasons. Then, if they promised her the chance to stay in the building and work for them, she would help them to enter into Estona society: she would be their representative in the town when they were adventuring, and her maidservant would work in the kitchen and bedrooms of the house. She would use her connections in the town and her charm to put them in contact with the right people, and negotiate for them when they needed things smoothed over with local businesses and petty officials. All they had to do was take her down the river and support her now that she was penniless and without a guardian. They agreed, and next day they set out for Estona.

Estona and the black cliffs

Later that day they were called to the walls of Iruva to witness the sad spectacle of the reanimated corpses of Hugo Tuya and his wagoneer shambling towards the town. They explained the situation to the bailiff and his men and, in a last sad chapter of their relationship with Hugo Tuya, sent Kyansei out to kill both the approaching zombies. When it was done they burnt the bodies and left town.

The journey to Estona was uneventful. They walked along the river bank from Iruva to Antika and after 3 days caught a boat from that small town down the river west to Estona. This journey took another 3 days, and they arrived in Estona on the 13th of the month of Travel. From the morning of the second day of this journey the land on the northern bank of the river began to rise, and it rose continuously over the remainder of the journey, revealing a huge cliff face of black stone that crept up and up until, as they approached Estona, the north bank became a wall of black stone 2-3 kms high, its uppermost reaches shrouded in clouds. The river widened rapidly as they traveled down it, becoming a sluggish 100m wide channel as they neared Estona. On that northern bank, at the foot of the vast cliff, stretched long beaches of black sand, interspersed with huge chunks of rock that had fallen from above. Ships navigated on the southern side of the river, passing close to each other to avoid the rocky shoals at that edge of the cliff, and they saw local workers labouring over fallen rocks, breaking them up and dragging them out of the channel to be shaped back at the city and shipped off to all corners of the Archipelago. This was their first time seeing the stupendous majesty of the black cliffs of Estona, and they stared at them in awe as they slipped by in their little riverboat.

Estona was a lively city, nearly 200,000 people living in comfortable stone and wood homes stretched along the black sand banks of the river and on higher hills inland. The land on the urban side of the river was flat and fertile, rising gently to a headland with a lighthouse looking out over the western sea. Riverboat docks jutted out from the raised banks some distance from the sea, where the river turned brown and sluggish with the estuarine tides. Here a throng of labourers and merchants unloaded and loaded the small ships and a busy throng of carts led along the sea wall to the maritime docks further around the harbour. They left their ship here and found a comfortable tavern on the saltroad, the main road that stretched from the town’s eastern extent to the ports at its western end. They took good rooms and dumped their gear, explored the town a little, and rested while Selina ventured out into the busy streets to find her uncle.

The next day they met her uncle, a man called Arvil, who explained to them that he had inherited a once-profitable tea merchant’s compound from his older sister before she died. This tea business had stopped being profitable some twenty years ago, when a larger merchant opened up on the coastal side of the river, and his sister had somehow managed to mismanage the business into ruin. When he inherited the business he discovered it was caught in a complex web of legal arrangements and a business in Rokun had a legal claim on it such that it could not be sold, though he could use it freely. With no experience or interest in tea he had allowed the land to become unoccupied and unused and now, some 20 years later, with three successful businesses already running and his retirement looming, Arvil no longer had an interest in the place. He and his husband were focused on settling into their retirement and handing over their successful businesses to their two adopted children, and they had no interest in starting new adventures. As far as he was concerned the group could occupy and use the land freely, though the legal claim meant there were limits to how much they could change the land, and he would not be able to sell it. He offered them a year of rent-free occupancy without interference provided they would employ his daughter as their local agent, and were willing to clear it of its current squatters.

They were surprised to hear this, but long since used to the idea that nothing they encountered would ever be simple. Apparently some small number of rural types had moved in some years ago and were now making use of the place. Its lack of neighbours and rural surrounds meant they did not really bother anyone, and so he had been unconcerned. But if the group wanted it they would need to clear it. He gave them a brief description of the land, and left them to it. The next day they headed to the property to clear it out.

The Hag

They approached the compound from the land side, but it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, repeatedly losing themselves in the loose forest and bogs of the area until finally, slightly worn out, they came into sight of a low wall that they guessed was the edge of the compound. They paused to rest and sent in various animals to investigate the area. These confirmed they were in the right place, and there were bad smelling non-human things living there. They slipped inside the nearest gate and moved into the compound itself.

Inside the gate they found a scrubby patch of land that may have been an abandoned herb garden, with a broken glasshouse and wooden shed on the side closest to them. Opposite that stood a long, single-story stone building connected to a wooden stucture from which steam rose into the grey sky, and which was in turn connected to a large longhouse-type central building. They had been told that the compound was centred around an onsen that provided hot clean water to both the main building and the tea preparation area, and they guessed that was it. They could see signs of people or things living in the main longhouse building, but they had no time to get a closer look because as they entered the compound a group of creatures came rushing through the grass of the herb garden to attack them.

When the creatures came closer they saw that they were large humanoid types, wearing nothing but loin cloths that revealed thickly-muscled bodies covered in fine dark brown fur. They ran upright but slightly stooped, and their heads were strangely animalistic, as if a human face had been merged with a boar and a lion. More came charging out of the longhouse, accompanied by a larger leader type, and the battle started.

It would have gone relatively smoothly except for the horrible, scaled humanoid thing that emerged from the longhouse after a few seconds of battle and started casting spells on them. It used a piercing scream attack to reduce Itzel to near unconsciousness, healed some of the beastmen that fought for it, and cast a fog spell that allowed it to disappear and move amongst them, using its screech again to try and knock the PCs unconscious. They managed to kill the majority of the beastmen but at the last, just as the scaly-skinned monstrosity melted into smoke and disappeared, the leader of the beastmen hit Quangbae with such a vicious tearing attack that it destroyed the former blacksmith’s left arm. They killed the beastman leader then, and drove off the rest, and the creature that had been leading them dissolved into mist and slunk away to the river, but their victory had exacted a steep price: Quangbae’s arm was permanently destroyed.

During the desperate battle to save his life they discovered that the onsen at the centre of the compound was actually a healing onsen, and by bathing him in its waters they were able to ease his pain. Perhaps the strange beast had been drawing on the magic of the onsen to support its own powers and control the beastmen as its soldiers. Was it a fey? They did not know, but now they did not care. Quangbae was safe despite his wounds, they had a new base of operations with a magic healing onsen, and now they were in a position to begin exploring the mysteries they had uncovered in their journey here. A new chapter was about to begin …

I want more of this

Chapter 1 of my Genesys campaign is drawing to a close with our “heroes” slinking out of the mountains with their bloodied tails between their legs, and I am considering some refinements to the rules for the second chapter. In particular, I want to refine some of the rules for combat based on my experience of changing combat rules for Warhammer 3. Here I explain why and what the rule changes will be.

What is wrong with Genesys combat now?

There are several problems with the way combat checks are resolved in Genesys now, which arise from the decision to give the attack check a fixed difficulty (two) and have modifications in difficulty depend primarily on the target’s armour and other boosts. This means that currently the pool of challenge dice will typically be something like two blue dice and 3-4 setback dice, regardless of how good the combatant is. If I stick Calim (a cleric with no combat skill) and Kyansei (a barbarian with good brawn and fighting skill) in the same armour, they’re equally easy to hit, and the only difference between them is that Kyansei has a talent that she can use to burn strain to reduce damage. What does this mean in combat?

  • Very little chaos: The only way we can add red dice is by using story points to upgrade pools, which my players don’t do much because they’re terrified of giving me any (blame this on Coriolis). This means that there are few despair effects, and therefore very few mishaps, in what should be the craziest and way out part of the game, and also stops people from being able to prevent criticals
  • Way too many dice: All those black dice are annoying to calculate and throw around. I have to ask the player their character’s defense, then figure out if Itzel has cast a blur spell, and then consider any left over setback dice from past enemies’ good rolls
  • Too many limits on defense: Basically if you’re wearing Lamellar armour (defense 2), carrying a shield (defense 1) and have Itzel’s blur spell you have hit the 4 dice limit on defense. This means that often cover, situational advantages and past good luck make little difference to someone’s defense. Basically when Kyansei is in the front line with a blur on her, nothing anyone else does will help her, and she has no benefit from cover when people are shooting her. All those threats, advantages and tactics go to waste.
  • Limited combat styles: Genesys has lots of dice and is designed for the advantages, threats, triumphs and despairs to produce special results but the part of the game that is richest in possibility for ways to use them is lacking in any distinctive rules about how they might apply, and lacks any special paths for fighter type characters to go down to benefit from them.
  • Lack of consistency: In every other part of the game we do opposed skill checks by setting the skill of the defender as purple and red dice, but in combat we don’t. Why this inconsistency? It irks me.
  • Too much power in armour: Since armour is the main way you don’t get hit and the main way you avoid damage, good armour becomes way too valuable in this game. Nobody yet has magical armour but my assumption is that it will have better defense, so then basically one suit of magic armour and a shield and you don’t need to worry about tactics or anything. Annoying! I might as well be playing Cyberpunk, where armour is completely borked.

So, given these flaws, I have decided to introduce a set of house rules that reduce the influence of armour and open up the possibility of multiple different schools of combat. I’m hoping that these house rules will make combat a little more tactical and reduce the importance of armour for defense, while increasing its impact on damage and thus further swinging combat in favour of the skilled people with the big weapons.

Combining talents and skills to set attack difficulty

In these house rules, the basic difficulty of an attack is set at two, just as before, but now armour offers no defense benefits, instead having slightly increased soak. Now, if a PC wants to upgrade the difficulty of the attack – that is, if someone wants to defend themselves – they have to sink 5xp on one of three possible talents, which then enable the PC to use a skill to set the difficulty of the attack provided they meet the conditions of the talent. The talents are listed here.

  • Dodge: The PC uses their acrobatics skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are aware of the attack, are able to move freely and are wearing light armour. Later levels of the dodge talent enable the PC to take strain to reduce the damage of missile attacks, to escape from combat, or to reduce the damage from spell attacks.
  • Parry: The PC uses their melee skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are carrying a weapon with the defensive quality or a shield, and are aware of the attack. Later levels of the talent enable them to disarm their enemy, take strain to reduce the damage from missile attacks (provided they have a shield) or do counter attacks.
  • Block: The PC uses their resilience skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are wearing heavy medium or heavy armour. Later levels of this talent allow them to knock an attacker over, to reduce damage from melee or missile attacks by taking strain, to grapple someone’s weapon hand, or to reduce the damage from spell attacks.

So for example, a PC with agility 3 and two ranks of acrobatics skill who takes the dodge talent will be able to change the difficulty of the attack from two purple to one purple and two red, provided they can move, know they’re being attacked and are wearing light armour. This is approximately the same difficulty to hit as if they had a defense of three in the old rules, so it means that this highly skilled acrobat is as hard to hit as if they were wearing lamellar armour and carrying a shield – but has much less soak. In contrast, someone wearing chainmail armour who has three brawn and resilience of two will offer the same difficulty to hit as this acrobat, though they will have much greater soak. These talents also offer three pathways in combat: either light and mobile, aggressively hitting people, or tanky.

The primary benefits of this system are:

  • It rewards people who sink a lot of xp into combat-related talents with interesting things to do
  • It offers people the chance to avoid critical hits by using skill
  • It increases the range of options to gain defense from magic, cover and tactics (setback dice can still be added to the difficulty like this)
  • It means I don’t have to ask people their defense and wait an hour as they add up 1 and 2, but instead everyone knows exactly how hard they are to hit
  • It frees up story points from the defensive part of combat

This also means that your classic cleric lumbering around combat without many talents or much training but wearing heavy armour will be easy to hit and hard to hurt. That’s good! To make up for the problem of extra soak on armour I also introduce some favoured weapon talents that increase damage and also give the opportunity to gain automatic advantages. I have also introduced a set of knife fighter talents that give people using this weapon the chance to use cunning instead of brawn to attack, and some tricks for getting inside weapon range and staying there.

Other benefits of armour

Of course this system raises the possibility that armour becomes boring and there is no reason to choose any one kind of armour over another. I have added some spice to the armour by giving different kinds of armour different sorts of resistance against elemental (spell) attacks. In the magic rules I am using every element has its own special properties: lightning, for example, is stun 2 and pierce 1; dark, the form used by deepfolk, is disorient 1 and vicious 2. But now some armour types offer immunity to some elemental types. Table 1 shows these benefits: Lamellar, for example, is immune to the special effects of force, dark, ice and acid.

TypeTypeSoakEncResistancePriceRarity
RobesLight+11Lightning, acid, ice200
Cloth/paddedLight+22Lightning, ice401
LeatherLight+22Lightning, dark802
Lamellar / studdedLight+23Force, dark, ice, acid1503
ScaleMedium+34Force, fire, ice, dark2002
ChainmailMedium+33Fire, earth4006
Half plateHeavy+44Fire, ice15008
Full plateHeavy+55Fire, ice, force20008
Table 1: Revised armour soak ratings and elemental resistances

This means that PCs will need to make some hard choices about whether they want to be resistance to deepfolk magic as well as physical attacks. Note also that removing defense from armour means that magic armour now has many benefits: when (if) the PCs get their first suit of magic armour, even the lowest level of magic armour will be hugely valuable because it will be their first chance to gain a point of constant defense.

Is this system too complicated?

This is a kind of a silly question in Genesys, since the entire system is ridiculously complicated, but in answer I don’t think it is, because every single round my players need to be told how many purple and black dice to add, and it changes every turn because of the consequences of past rolls. And I have to ask them constantly what their defense is, or refer to a table, so what changes really? This system will, however, more clearly delineate between dedicated fighters and non-fighters, and between minions and rivals. At the moment we have a stormcaller (Bao Tap) and a wandering blacksmith (Quangbae) who have no special talents but by dint of their brawn and skills are just as good in combat as Kyansei. In this revised system they might be as good at hitting people as Kyansei but, since she sinks her xp into combat talents, they’re highly unlikely to be as good at defending themselves. This means that if all three of them are constantly running into combat, it’s going to be Quangbae and Bao Tap coming out with the crits, not Kyansei.

It also helps to distinguish between minions, rivals and nemeses. Genesys even has a Rival talent that is intended to increase the difficulty of hitting rivals, who are otherwise too easy to hit. With this system we can make it simple: minions have no special combat talents, but rivals can draw from the same tree as PCs to become very hard to hit. So instead of a dragon with brawn 8 and 3 ranks of resilience skill being as hard to hit as a wizard, we can give them the block talent and only truly stupendous fighters will be able to hurt them.

Finally, the system shifts the balance a little more to missile weapons, since none of the talents applies to them, so seasoned warriors will always be easier to hit with crossbows. That should also force some difficult decisions, since it will mean that weak archer minions are genuinely dangerous.

I will introduce this system from chapter 2 and see how it goes. Hopefully it will shift the balance of combat towards the skilled fighters and the minion archers, force more use of cover and tactics, and increase the levels of chaos and skullduggery in battle. Let’s go, warriors, let’s go!

Hugo Tuya’s guards have lost Hugo Tuya and failed to discharge their sole responsibility on their journey through the Middlemarch. Morning has come after the deepfolk ambush, and they need to make decisions about what to do next. It is the 5th of the month of Travel and they have two days’ food left when the sun rises. The roster for this mission:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

With the morning light they were able to check their camp and their situation, and they decided it was dire. They packed up their belongings as quickly as they could and set off along the Middlemarch, hoping to find their way over the cracked and broken land of this part of the pass as quickly as possible. They struggled all day, lifting and dragging the cart through rougher patches of path, losing the path several times, and finally reaching a smoother, grassy patch of the pass by evening. Here they found a camp in the shadows of a broken mound of stones, setting their cart near the entrance to a niche in the stones and building their campfire inside.

They had used another day’s food supplies, and with Hugo Tuya gone they had no way of knowing how long it would take to leave the Middlemarch, so they decided it would be a good idea to scour the pass for food. Over they day their journey had brought them lower on the pass, and as the late afternoon sun began to set they had noticed they were passing into areas with occasional trees and grassy patches. They guessed they might be able to find goats or small mountain rodents to supplement their supplies, and decided to send Itzel out hunting. In the interests of safety, Quangbae accompanied her. They kept Kyansei at the campsite in case it was attacked while Itzel and Quangbae were hunting.

Itzel and Quangbae had not been searching long when they stumbled onto the outriders of another wave of deepfolk. Four goblin raiders, wearing leather armour and carrying spears, surprised them on the path only a short distance from the camp. As Quangbae engaged them Itzel cast an ice bolt into the group, freezing them where they stood, and they both fled back down the slope through silent groves of stunted trees to the camp. They warned the others of the incoming raiders and everyone took their positions, but by now the last light of day was beginning to fade and they knew they were in trouble.

It came soon enough, but not from where they had expected. Four small gourds fell from the sky and exploded in their camp, burning them all in a wave of heat and flame and setting the wagon alight. The non-combatants – Hugo Tuya’s grieving “niece”, the wagoneer and the maidservant – had to leap from the wagon to cover, but the wagoneer’s luck was up: he burnt to death in front of them, screaming horribly as he did. They had no time to tend to him though, because the surviving raiders charged down towards their camp at the same time as the bat riders swooped back overhead, and arrows began to pour into the camp.

Now things were desperate. they used arrows and magic to bring the bat riders down from the sky so Bao Tap and Quangbae could kill them in the camp, while Kyansei defended against raiders, Bao Tap’s conjured rockhopper could attack one gang of Grig scouts and Itzel and Calim backed the group up with healing magic and bolts. Itzel was also able to extinguish the fire on their wagon before it destroyed the last of their food, or their precious Manticore egg. Another team of Grig scouts moved in, using arrows to cover their goblin captain, who charged into the rocky periphery of their camp just as Kyansei finished off the raiders. Bolstered by Calim’s magic, she charged over to attack the captain, and after a few more bloody moments all their attackers lay dead. They picked their way over bodies to check the perimeter of the camp, ignoring the last desperate whimpers of their dying wagon driver and arguing over what to do next. Somewhere in the distance they could hear the wail of pipes, a discordant keening that did not promise any respite. As everyone paused to gather their courage and catch their breath, Bao Tap called an owl from the darkness and bound it to him, sending it off to find the source of the pipes. Through luck or desperation his spell was so over-powered that he was able to become one with the owl, and could see through its eyes as if he were a part of it.

And so it was that through the owl’s eyes he saw what was coming for them, not very far back along the path in the higher parts of the pass: a much larger gang of deepfolk perhaps more than 20, led by an Orc champion of the type that had been so hard to kill when they fought the raiding gang at Estala, and accompanied by another Grig spellcaster. There were more batriders, goblin raiders, and more archers. While they had been able to best a gang of this size once, in Estala, on that occasion they had the benefit of surprise, and they were not exhausted and injured. None of them doubted that another confrontation with a gang of this size, in their current exhausted state, in the dark, could have only one outcome. They needed to flee.

They had little time, but they did what they could. Obviously they would have to abandon the wagon and the body of the wagoneer, because they could not hope to escape if they were dragging the wagon through the difficult paths of the Middlemarch. While the two girls untethered the horses and saddled the striders they rushed through the wagon, saving what they could load on the back of the horses: the manticore egg, their coin, a collection of steel weapons for recrafting, some armour and other treasures they had picked up on the way. Itzel threw all the books they had collected into a bag, and it was as she was doing this that she stumbled on something that they had picked up in Regald’s house but forgotten: a map of the Middlemarch, with an “x” mark somewhere a day or two’s journey back from where they were now. Looking at it now she realized they had probably been carrying a warning about the location of their deepfolk enemies all along, but had not realized it. Would Tuya still be alive if they had remembered the map?

Did she care? She stuffed it in with the other books, they loaded the horses and fled their camp. They hoped that the deepfolk pursuing them would approach the camp with caution, and take a little time searching it, so that they could gain a head start, but they were uncertain about the batriders. They needed to make time, so they rushed headlong down the path, hoping to go as far as they could while the deepfolk were distracted and the last light of the fading day still stained the sky. They did not dare use any light of their own until they were sure they were far enough from the deepfolk to be out of sight, and even then they did not want to be found by the batriders. Fortunately the sky was clear and soon after the last glow of day faded the sunshard emerged, casting pale silver and green light across their path and giving them just enough light to find the path. Itzel, able to see perfectly in this limited light, guided them expertly down the path, and somehow they stayed ahead of their foes, making good time down the pass. So it was that in the last hours of the night, just before the sky began to lighten with the first hint of the coming day, they staggered out of the Middlemarch and into the quiet farmland of the slopes around the town of Iruva. They had survived the deepfolk, and made it across the Middlemarch.

They passed the outlying farms in the dark under the sunshard, and reached the gates of Iruva at first light, exhausted and shattered. Stumbling through the gates, they made their way to the town’s only hostelry and called for the bailiff. They warned him of what might be coming, sent their stormrider with a message back to Estala, and collapsed into their beds. They had failed in their only mission, to protect Hugo Tuya and his caravan, but they were alive, and now the world knew what they knew: Dark forces stirred in the mountains. Something was coming from the bowels of the earth, and they were not ready …

Walking up the Middlemarch after the storm

Hugo Tuya’s guards have entered the Middlemarch, and are now committed to dragging their wagon and charges across the pass to the far side, even though they know this pass is likely guarded by deepfolk. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They set off from their camp in the scree-scattered entry to the pass into a higher zone of smooth ground, the path winding easily through a kind of scrubby moorland interspsersed with streams, geysers, and broken ground. Around midday they realized they were being followed by a deepfolk scouting party, and in the early afternoon they set an ambush. They parked the wagon in the lee of a jumbled pile of rocks, and Kyansei and Calim pretended to be repairing it while the others hid in the rocks. The deepfolk seemed to fall for the trap and, rounding the curve of the rockpile, rushed to attack the wagon. There were four goblins and their captain, the captain standing back and firing crossbows, but soon after the guards sprung their trap a squad of Grig archers appeared from ahead – the deepfolk had also been attempting to set a trap around these rocks. The battle was short and easy, with the scouting party reduced to nothing in a very short time. Sadly, though, one of the Grig managed to escape. They did not risk leaving the wagon to find him, but proceeded on their journey.

It was the 1st of a new month, the month of Travel, when they broke camp to head deeper into the Middlemarch. After their struggles with the relatively smooth tree-scattered slopes at the head of the pass the land now rose sharply into a long, torturous slope of jagged ground criss-crossed by streams of steaming water, scattered with boulders and uncertain, crumbling patches of rough ground. The path was winding and unclear, sometimes fading into the scrappy ground and forcing them to wait at the wagon as Itzel or Kyansei scampered ahead over humped, rocky ground to find a clear path. By the end of the day they had reached a small but stubborn escarpment, which refused to offer them a pathway to the higher reaches of the pass. Here they stopped, but as they prepared to build a camp they were surprised by a sudden, violent storm. They had no time to make a camp but had to huddle as best they could in the shelter of the wagon. Bao Tap used his magic as best he could to ward it off but his magic was weak against the storm’s rage, and in the morning they woke exhausted, half frozen and hungry to find the wagon had been damaged by the storm. It took Quangbae all day to repair the wagon, and while he worked on it Itzel and Kyansei searched for – and found – a better campsite. They moved there before the cold night fell, and spent a second, more comfortable night huddled against the escarpment.

The following morning they resumed their search, and finding a way over the escarpment proceeded through the pass, reaching its highest point by the end of the day. They set another camp, and on the 4th of Travel broke camp to begin the careful descent towards the far side of the Middlemarch. Here as the pass began to slope downward the travel became extremely difficult. The ground was not only broken and cracked, but treacherous with ice from the recent storm, and covered in debris. Boulders, smashed trees, and rubble-strewn ground, cracks in the road, and sudden points where the road seemed to be lost, made the going difficult. By the end of the day they had made little progress, and everyone was exhausted from wrestling with the wagon. Night and the cold came quickly, and they had no time to find a camp. They found a small, pathetic stand of struggling trees and bedded down as best they could in their shadows.

Of course they set a watch, but it was to no avail. During Itzel’s watch, as she was huddling against their tiny fire trying to catch the last faint glimmer of its warmth, a squad of gobliin batriders fell out of the sky directly into their camp and began attacking them. Itzel screamed for everyone to wake up and attempted to escape the stabbing and slashing swords of the batriders, as a team of goblin raiders burst into the campsite to attack Bao Tap, and a band of small Grigg fighters slashed and hacked their way in too, accompanied by a goblin captain. Everyone struggled out of their bedrolls to join the fray, but their circumstances were dire: rolling on the ground, being stabbed at with spears and swords, grabbing for weapons and hasty spells as the darkness turned its teeth on them. The Grigg scrappers grabbed Hugo Tuya and dragged him screaming off into the dark, and other Grigg in the shadows fired arrows at Calim and Kyansei. Bao Tap, struggling to his feet among a horde of raiders, managed somehow to cast his most powerful spell, and moments later a huge, shaggy, iron-skulled old mountain goat charged into the clearing, trampling goblin raiders under its feet and roaring in rage. With this distraction they were able to regroup and slowly begin killing their attackers, but somewhere out in the dark they heard a man screaming and gurgling, and then more arrows fell on them.

Still, with the help of Bao Tap’s nature’s champion, they were able to slowly hack their way outward from the campfire, and eventually the last of their attackers fell or fled. The enormous shaggy goat chased after them, bellowing with all the inchoate rage of the mountains in winter, and silence fell on the camp. Calim cast his healing magic on those he could, they gasped and panted in the aftermath, and then they realized they had lost Hugo Tuya.

They found him soon enough, just outside the ring of trees, his throat cut from ear to ear and the snow around him brown with his own blood. He was dead, killed by the Grigg that captured him when they realized the battle had turned against them and their help was needed. Perhaps if one of the guards had charged out of the campsite sooner they might have been able to save him, but in the press of bodies and heat of battle no one had noticed. Their patron was dead. They had failed.

Here they stood, in the still cold dark of the coldest period of the night, exhausted, bloodied and cold, their mission failed, a dead merchant their only prize. They were at least two days from the base of the Middlemarch if their journey went smoothly, with only two days’ food remaining to them, surrounded by deepfolk who knew the land and the dark, running out of ammunition and energy. They had to make a decision: did they flee the pass as fast as they could, or did they follow these beasts and exact a bloody revenge for what they had done? The time had come for Hugo Tuya’s guards to define themselves, as failures or heroes…

Hugo Tuya’s guards have returned from exploring the mountains, and there is no more reason for them to remain in Estala: the time has come to escort Hugo Tuya’s trade caravan through the Middlemarch to western Hadun, even though they know that a deepfolk raiding party has entered the pass ahead of them. The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They spent only another day in Estala, gathering supplies and weapons for the journey, and then set off for the pass. Amestra, the Myrmidon who had sent them on the mission to Cauldron Lake, was eager for them to continue their journey into the pass, even though they knew deepfolk hid there: she wanted to know if another raid was planned on the town, and what numbers hid there. To this end she gave the guards a stormrider, a strange flying animal something like a jackal on wings, made of a strange mixture of bird and bat and lizard parts. This beast could fly fast and high, was tough against the mountain weather, the same colour as the rocky passes it flew over, and trained to return to Estala. Should they learn of the deepfolk situation in the pass – or even if they needed help – they were to tie a message to it and release it to return to Estala, where she would have a small squad of guards ready. This was not enough to ease the guards’ misgivings, but at least gave them some hope of rescue if all went wrong. They were ready to leave!

They took the wagon and their striders back the way they had come just two days ago, along the road to Cauldron lake, and passed the southern edge of the lake until the trees all around them began to change shape, the ground became rockier and more hostile, and they reached the scree-scattered slopes of the mountains near the Middlemarch. Now the forest thinned and the trees became smaller, stunted from trying to grow in the hard ground and bent and twisted from the harsh weather of the mountains. It was here at the edge of these trees, as they began to move into the open rocky ground at the entrance to the Middlemarch, that they were attacked by a manticore.

The beast dropped straight down on their party, not even bothering to strafe them with its spines first, but they saw it coming and were prepared when it hit the ground. Itzel cast her blur spell, Quangbae and Kyansei attacked it, and although it was able to knock Kyansei down with a vicious clawing attack it was no match for the party of five: after a brief and terrifying struggle it lay dying on the road. They wasted no time, but harvested the spines from its tail even before its breath had stilled, and leaving the butchered corpse to cool among a throng of gathering ravens, continued their journey.

They made quick progress on the first slopes of the Middlemarch, finding the path quickly and even managing to locate the Manticore’s nest, where they found an egg. They used the nest as a camp for the night, choosing to steal the egg to either hatch or sell when they arrived at a larger city, but disaster stroke as they were bringing the wagon up the road to the camp: one of the wheels cracked, and the wagon broke. They had to leave it near the camp while they rested, and in the morning would have to devote considerable time to repairing it.

Morning came and, well rested after a night spent in the safety of the Manticore’s nest, Quangbae set to work repairing the wagon. With some magical help from Itzel he repaired it very quickly, and they were able to look forward to a whole day of travel. Ahead of them the Middlemarch rose to more forbidding heights, the road barely visible among the scree and clinging mist of the pass. They packed their things back into the wagon, cast salt to the road in hopes Quangbae’s repairs would hold, and set off on day 2 of their journey across the mountains. What did the pass hold, and would they make it to the other side?