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?

I found Jock Serong’s novel Preservation through the pages of the sadly defunct magazine Great Ocean Quarterly, of which he is the editor. Great Ocean Quarterly is an Australian magazine about the sea that was published between 2013 and 2015, covering miscellanea about life around and in the sea, art and culture connected to the sea, and with a distinctly southern hemisphere feeling and aesthetic. It’s a beautiful magazine and a really worthwhile addition to my library, one of those quality publications that, like a good role-playing book, really needs to be held and physically savoured to properly enjoy. I don’t think it’s possible to buy this magazine for love or money, so I count myself very lucky to have stumbled on it when I did (through instagram I think) and to have been able to pick up most of its issues.

It’s probably difficult for non-Australians to understand, given our reputation as uncultured sports jocks, but there is a very distinct aesthetic and sensibility to Australian culture, a sense of style that comes from living in a huge, harsh land near the edge of the world, under a high blue sky and blessed with some of the best weather in the world, where the seasons don’t match the flow of time that our western cultural heritage says they should, and none of the origin stories of the western part of our culture match where we live. It’s a land of washed-out colours, ochres and yellows rather than greens and blues, storms and bright sun rather than rain and snow. If you have left Australia and lived in the north you can definitely feel the huge distance between our Australian sensibility and that of the northern hemisphere, and if you have lived in the old countries – places like Japan and Europe with long histories – you can also feel the huge gaps in our cultural memory, and maybe get some sense of the effect of those gaps on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Serong’s novel Preservation dives straight into one of the bloodiest and most shameful of those gaps, the lost history of the settlement of Australia and the many dark holes left in that history by rapacious westerners burying the bodies of their misdeeds – and the stories that should have been told about what really happened when westerners came here. The novel tells the story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, a ship that was wrecked near Tasmania in the Furneaux islands in 1796. At this time there were no maps of most of Australia, and nobody knew that Tasmania and the mainland were not connected, believing instead there was some kind of bay between what was then called Van Diemen’s Land and the eastern coast. Three of the shipwreck survivors set off by longboat along with 17 Bengali sailors (called Lascars) to cross this “bay” and find help at Port Jackson. However, they were wrecked again at Ninety Mile Beach on the mainland and so set out on foot from there to try and reach the settlement in what is now Sydney. This required 400 km of walking on land no westerner or Bengali had ever set foot on, and only three people survived the journey – one Bengali sailor and two white men, one of whom kept a diary. This novel tells the story of all the gaps in that diary, including how the other members of the expedition died and what really happened when this motley group encountered Indigenous people on the journey.

The story is reconstructed by Joshua Grayling, the governor’s assistant, who shuttles between interviewing the diary keeper, William Clark, the Bengali sailor, Srinivas, and a third survivor, Mr. Figge. It is clear that they all hate each other and that bad things happened on the journey, and Grayling and the governor are both very suspicious of everyone’s story, but they need to find out what happened so they can send a ship for survivors, and as their suspicions grow so that they can decide who to punish. Grayling’s attempts to learn the truth of the journey happen against a backdrop of increasing political tensions within the Sydney colony, his own wife’s growing sickness and her strange fascination with the bush, and growing tensions between white settlers and the Indigenous people around Sydney. Outside the cleared area of the settlement itself the Aboriginal people are beginning to fight back, with famous warriors like Pemulwuy leading attacks against the settlers and striking fear into the hearts of the colonizers; meanwhile, convicts would escape and run away to join the tribespeople, or live wild in the bush. Knowing what we now do, we are aware that stories about William Clark’s encounters with the Aborigines on his way north will affect the way the colony treats them, that lies about their behaviour are too easily believed and misdeeds by white settlers too easily ignored. It also becomes clear that Figge is a uniquely evil man, and that Clark is a dishonest and selfish man with a lot to lose.

The story is a kind of survival horror, with the group unraveling as they head north, various schemes and objectives playing out, and everyone becoming increasingly desperate as their food supplies run low and their clothes, shoes and strength begin to fail. At times the going is quite grim, and there were one or two points where I put the book aside for a few days so I could take a break from the viciousness. I think it’s safe to say that the ending won’t satisfy everyone, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer notes, there are a lot of stories left unfinished, which will leave one pondering what might have been long after the book is put down. There is also a constant sense of dread and looming disaster, even in the bright sun of the colony, so that you never can be sure when, how or if the horrors of the journey are going to be unleashed within the colony itself. If you can’t handle this kind of horror and slow unraveling then this story is definitely not for you, and the violence is neither cathartic nor enjoyable when it happens. Even at its worst though it is well tempered by Serong’s writing, which is rich with descriptions of the Australian bush, terse when it needs to be and expansive when it suits, with a good pace. The story is told from several characters’ point of view but manages to present them – through speech style, perspective and tone – as different voices, something many writers fail at, and an achievement that makes it much easier to immerse oneself in the book. There are jarring moments when I switch to a new chapter, expecting to continue the story of a particular character, and suddenly realize from the change of tone and perspective that I’m someone else – this is good, a sign of a good writer really bringing his characters to life.

Through these characters we learn the true story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, their interactions with the natives as they traveled north, and what happened in Sydney when they arrived. We also see a vision of how the land was before it was “settled”, and get to imagine how the first Australians dealt with these strange and confusing interlopers before they knew anything about them. There can be no truth about any of this, of course – we don’t know enough about the history of either the early colonists or the Aborigines whose land rights they extinguished to be able to say – but it offers a welcome opportunity to try and imagine that land in that time, and how white settlers presented themselves when they were there. At times it is a grim and nasty read, and it will leave you unsettled, but it is an excellent book and well worth whatever effort you need to make to overcome its harder moments. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we can reimagine the gaps in Australia’s past, and people who dream of what might have been.

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

Hugo Tuya’s guards have finished investigating the destruction of an observatory to the north east of Estala, and are ready to make their way over the high pass to Cauldron lake in pursuit of the deepfolk team that did this terrible deed. The cast 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 rested another day at the observatory, to recover a little more from their injuries and prepare for the journey over the high pass. It was during that rest period that, standing on the outer wall of the observatory looking over the mossy stone of the mountain pass below, Bao Tap realized a huge storm was coming. They gathered in the tower to discuss it, and decided to set out anyway: they had little time to rest, and Bao Tap’s storm magic in conjunction with Kyansei and Itzel’s wild knowledge would surely be enough to see them through the worst of it …

They were right. The following morning they set off early, picking their way along a narrow path that would merge into the high pass over the mountain range, and by midday the storm was upon them. They kept moving for as long as they could, but in the early afternoon the raging winds and hail became too intense. Rather than stop, Bao Tap cast a spell to protect them from the worst of the weather and they trudged on over the slick and icy ground. Just an arm’s length from their small group on either side the winds howled and a swirling wall of hail and snow blocked their view of the mountains and the gulfs of air beyond their path. They picked their way carefully along the narrow path to the high pass, and then began trudging wearily up the jumbled stone-scattered, ice-slicked ground of the path itself. The storm was still furious when they stopped for the evening, but Bao Tap was able to cast a storm shelter to protect them for the night. They set up a small camp and did their best to sleep on the frozen ground, and in the morning when they woke the storm was gone, its rage spent harmless against the uncaring stone of the mountains, their sleep barely disturbed by its raging winds. Under a clear sky, they set off along the pass towards the west.

That evening the pass descended into the valley on the far side of the mountain range, and opened out to a vista of steam-shrouded forests. Below them lay Cauldron Lake in a bowl in the mountains, surrounded by trees and thick with mist and steam. Beyond the lake and the forests, mostly obscured in the last clouds of the storm’s passing, the mountains rose again – somewhere in amongst them must be the middlemarch, the passage they would take with Hugo Tuya to the western half of Hadun. For now though, their goal was to explore those mist-covered forests. They found a small travelers’ hut at the top of the pass, and settled in to rest.

Cauldron Lake

The next morning they set about exploring the Cauldron lake area. They started heading south towards the entrance to Estala, then circled clockwise around the lake. They sought signs of passing deepfolk raiders, injured trappers, and any remaining camps of deepfolk they might need to destroy. They found no deepfolk, but a ruined trapper’s camp on the eastern edge of the lake held four reaminates, which attacked the PCs as soon as they entered the camp – sure evidence of passing deepfolk. Near the exit from the valley towards Estala they found signs of multiple deepfolk camps, and as they passed west around the southern edge of the lake they found more evidence that the deepfolk had passed this way.

On the western side of the valley the forest gave way to a slope of scree and rubble, which led up to the middlemarch. Their guess was that in this area some piece of the mountains must have fallen in the distant past, creating a field of destruction strewn with huge rocks and broken ground. Many streams ran through this area, some of them erupting as boiling water from the broken ground, and the rocks were slick with constant fresh water. In a chasm here they found a dead deepfolk raider and a small handcart he might have been dragging; pulling it up, they recovered a small telescope from the observatory, confirming that the deepfolk who destroyed the observatory must have passed back through the middlemarch. They moved on, checking the northern slopes of the lake and finding no evidence of the passage of deepfolk there.

This search took them two days to complete, and when they were done they had some sense of what had happened. A force of deepfolk raiders had come out of the middlemarch, traveled through the Cauldron Lake area and exited the valley to Estala. At the edge of the valley they made camp, and at some point between leaving the valley and reaching Estala they had likely split, with a small force heading to the the observatory. That force, after sacking the observatory, traveled over the high pass and returned to the mouth of the valley facing Estala, where they camped and met up with the remnants of the force that attacked Estala. Together that force then retreated through Cauldron valley to the middlemarch, losing a member and a telescope at the entrance to the middlemarch before disappearing into the mountains.

With this knowledge the PCs prepared to return to Estala, where they would rejoin Hugo Tuya and begin their own plans to enter the middlemarch. Now they were sure something waited for them there, and the pass was nowhere near as safe as Hugo Tuya had led them to believe. What would they do? Could they convince Tuya to give up his journey, and if not, could they survive the pass? They turned their backs on the mountains and headed back towards Estala, their hearts heavy with all the slaughter they had witnessed, and the foreboding of the bloody work that almost certainly lay ahead of them.

Hugo Tuya’s guards are hunting the remnants of a deepfolk raiding party outside of Estala in the southern spine mountains. After being ambushed in the mountains northeast of Estala, they are close to an observatory that is said to be inhabited by an Astrologer and his small and cultish group of followers. The cast for these two sessions:

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

The guards had defeated their ambushers relatively comfortably, and with few injuries decided to push on after only a short break. They climbed through more switchbacks and edged their way along more mountain trails until they reached a flat stretch of bare stone at the edge of a chasm. On their right this bare plateau vaulted up into stony cliffs, and on their left plunged into an abyss. Ahead of them stood a few small stone buildings, clustered around a bridge over the chasm, and on the far side of the chasm they could see the observatory itself, a squat octagonal tower. The area was deserted, silent and still. In the still air the mountainside, buildings and the tower itself were wreathed in a foul-smelling mixture of smoke and fog, and from where the stood at the edge of the cluster of buildings they could see smoke from fires inside the observatory tower, drifting lazily out of its shattered gates and falling in wisps from its ramparts. It seemed that a fire had been set here perhaps a few days ago, and its last smouldering dregs combined with the mists of the mountains to form a thin haze that obscured their view across the canyon.

They moved toward the cluster of houses on the near side of the stone bridge, and soon realized that these houses too had been looted and burned, though the fires had not taken properly to the buildings’ stone walls and the small cluster of fires had long since exhausted themselves in the cold mountain air, leaving only tendrils of smoke drifting through the narrow ways between the houses. The road through the centre of the cluster passed through an arch of off-white structures that looked disturbingly like the teeth of some huge beast, rising from the ground to arch menacingly over the road. Itzel moved forward to investigate one, and as she approached a swarm of reanimates emerged from the buildings. The previous occupants of this small community had been mercilessly slaughtered, and their undead bodies left as a trap for any who came here.

They were surrounded, but the battle was brief and decisive. Soon they stood in the muck and stinking gore of 12 dead reanimates, tired but only lightly injured. The fate of this place was clear to them now, though they had had little doubt when they first saw the smoke. Deepfolk had raided it and killed its occupants, then reanimated them. They expected to see worse in the tower across the chasm. They searched the houses and found them already looted, all coin and valuables stolen, mirrors stripped from walls, glass shattered and removed. They moved carefully across the bridge, and entered the octagon of the observatory itself.

The Immolata

They passed through the shattered gate and into the observatory compound itself, where they immediately found the source of the smoke. A circle of six of the same strange tooth-like stone statues stood in the centre of the courtyard just inside the gate, and a huge bonfire smouldered under those teeth. The deepfolk appeared to have formed a pile of wood and furniture, covered it with huge quantities of books, and set the whole thing alight. From the teeth they had hung four of the tower’s residents, tortured horribly and chained facing the fire, and at the last they appeared to have thrown the body of the tower’s chief Astrologer onto the pyre, leaving it to burn. The fire was now just a smouldering pile of ash, stifled by rain, snow and cold, and the dead astrologer lay at its foot, having fallen from the flames as the pyre subsided.

The group split up. Some of them went to the outhouses of the tower to look for possible reanimates, while others stood around the pyre and wondered at the cruelty of the deepfolk. Calim moved forward to check the body, to see if this many had been dead when he hit the fire …

… and as he checked the corpse it twitched to life, rose up and grabbed him by the face with a burnt and scorching hand. Its eyes snapped open to reveal shadowy pits, and it raked him with claws of fire-hardened bone. At the same time the reanimates emerged from the outhouses to attack the party, and the trap was sprung.

This undead on the fire was not like reanimates they had fought in the past. It was blindingly fast, its touch burnt and sparked when it hit them, and it fought with feral intelligence. By the time they defeated it and its horde of undead accomplices it had seriously injured several of them, and when at last Kyansei was able to sever its head and hurl it back onto the smouldering ash heap they were all spent with the fury of the battle. Now they had learnt some more about deepfolk – that their necromantic powers extended beyond simple shambling zombies to dark rituals that could create much more powerful and dangerous creatures. Now, standing under a darkening sky against a tableau of torture and cruel arcane ritual, they realized that there was no depth of evil and savagery that the deepfolk were incapable of reaching. From now they agreed, they must always expect worse than they could imagine from these vile beasts.

The Observatory’s Secrets

Itzel and Kyansei searched the hot ash pile, hoping to recover any scraps or fragments of books that might be useful to her, but found only one, in a language Itzel was unfamiliar with. Though they found little, it became very clear from the structure of the fire that the intent of this ritual had been to burn the books – and Itzel suspected that the creation of the Immolata had been only a happy side effect of the book burning, that the deepfolk had taken advantage of rather than planning. The guards knew little of deepfolk culture, so they could not answer the question of whether deepfolk always destroyed human books when they raided, or if there had been some specific desire to destroy hidden or forbidden knowledge in this particular bonfire – they could only speculate as to the motives of such inchoate evil, but they were assured that the burning of the books was purposeful.

Having exhausted all avenues of exploration around the strange fire they began methodically searching the tower itself, hoping to learn something of what had happened here, but the place was thoroughly looted and yielded up few of its secrets. The chief Astrologer’s bedroom had been looted and its sole surviving clue, a chest, exploded with a trap as soon as Quangbae touched it, destroying all its contents. The library was empty, thoroughly divested of all its learning. The only clue they could find was in a strange laboratory-like room on one side of the building. In this room they found fine wires hanging from the ceiling, which appeared once to have ended in ornate coloured balls of blue, yellow, white or red, all hanging at different heights from the ceiling and at seemingly random positions in the room. These balls had been stripped from the wires, many of which had also been torn down, and now these balls, and more balls from a large supply held in baskets on shelves, had been cast all over the floor. There was nothing else in this room except a blackboard, which had been torn from the wall and cast on the ground, where it broke. Acting on a hunch, Calim put the pieces of the blackboard back together, and saw that someone had hurriedly erased some writing from the blackboard. The chalk duster they had used was nearby, covered in blood, and he guessed they had erased the board as the raid began, but been interrupted before they could flee. What message was so important that it must be erased even when a deepfolk raid was afoot? Calim carefully traced the shadow of the erased words, and discovered this strange message:

Seven deadly sins

Seven ways to win

Seven holy paths to hell

And your trip begins

Seven downward slopes

Seven bloodied hopes

Seven are your burning fires

Seven your desires…

It made little sense, but he copied it regardless. Had this message been erased to prevent the deepfolk reading it, or had it been scrubbed because it was forbidden knowledge that must not be left written down where future rescuers of the site might find it? They could not tell, and all they could do was record the words themselves.

They searched the remainder of the tower and found nothing. All its telescopes had been carefully removed and taken by the deepfolk, who had also taken all mirrors and any glass they could easily carry, all the coin, and anything else of value. The place had been stripped bare, its knowledge destroyed, its secrets buried in ash and blood and its treasures carried away by unholy and savage raiders. There was nothing for them to do here except ponder on the barbarity of the deepfolk mind, and the enigma of this place’s lost purpose. As night fell on the peak and a storm rolled in, they withdrew into the inner sanctum of the tower to contemplate these mysteries, and to prepare to leave.

Hugo Tuya’s guards have set off into the mountains as the month of Storm enters its last, tumultuous week. They are chasing the possible remnants of a deepfolk raiding party that they destroyed in the caves just outside of Estala, on the request of that town’s doughty Myrmidon. The roster for today’s session:

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

They decided to travel to the Observatory first, on the eastern face of the mountains, then take the high passes from the Observatory across the peaks to Cauldron Lake. The journey to the Observatory takes two days of carefully picking narrow paths through culverts and gullies, along switchbacks and sparsely-forested mountain faces, then into thickly forested sheltered canyons that are perfect ambush spots for raiding deepfolk. They traveled slowly and carefully along these usually-peaceful pathways, mindful of heavy rainclouds above and wary of the dripping stillness of the mountain pines. At the end of the day Itzel and Kyansei sought camp, but with little success: they passed a harsh night sleeping on rough stones in a windy rock outcrop, eating cold food with no fire for fear of being seen by any deepfolk scouts that might be about.

In the morning they were glad of their chilly fastness, though, when they descended the rockface to find the footprints of a large animal in the mud at its base. The creature must have been looking for them at night but failed to find the path, and after coursing the ground at their base in confusion wandered off. They were glad to have hidden, because each of its prints was easily larger than a bear’s, something like a huge cat with what looked like scales on the underside of its paws, and many wicked claws. Though they had been cold and damp, they had escaped a vicious fight they could ill afford to risk.

They ate another cold meal, decamped and continued climbing into the mountains. Around midday their path turned into a wider, heavily forested canyon, ideal for an ambush – and of course it was here that they were ambushed. A fusillade of arrows struck them from both sides of the road, striking Itzel down instantly, and as they set themselves for battle another huge Orc warrior came screaming out of the trees, barreled straight down into the path and slammed into Kyansei. Remembering their last encounter with these monsters, Kyansei, Quangbae joined Kyansei in battle immediately while Bao Tap tried to find the archers, and Calim frantically healed Itzel.

Fortunately this time they found the archers quickly, and Bao Tap was able to charge into the trees with his summoned monster to fight them. On the other side of the road Itzel, brought back to consciousness by Calm, used her magic to pick off archers, and Calim alternated between healing Kyansei and shooting archers. The archers were Grig, the small pale-skinned and large-eyed creatures they had slaughtered in the cave. They were good at hiding and shooting, but frail and easily downed. This time the numbers were in their favour, and they soon killed all the Grig and brought the Orc champion down, Bao Tap returning from killing the Grig to join the brutal butchery. Just like the last Orc, this thing had supernatural endurance, and long after even a wildling Berserker would have collapsed it kept fighting, hopelessly weak but refusing to give in. Finally Quangbae tore its arm off and it collapsed in a heap, snarling weakly as it died.

They had prevailed, but it was obvious now that the raiding party they had destroyed near Estala had been part of a manoeuvre, and there was more happening in the mountains. They turned their faces to the higher slopes of the mountains and pressed on. The observatory was up there somewhere in the high cold air, and they began to have a very bad feeling about what they would find on those stony heights …