Standing at the limit of an endless ocean

Stranded like a runaway lost at sea

City on a rainy day down in the harbor

Watching as the gray clouds shadow the bay

Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you

This is not the way that I remember it here

Anyone will tell you it’s a prisoner island

Hidden in the summer for a million years

The Wrathbreakers have discovered that someone sinister is operating in Estona, directing criminals to do dark deeds by mysterious notes. They have found the first link in some kind of chain, the fixer Creosote, who hired some mercenaries to harvest body parts from Selkie and then shipped them on to a warehouse in the docks. He was hired to do this by note, which he destroyed, and had little else to tell them. Now they must move on to the warehouse of the man who received the goods, one Gerald of Hamm. The roster for today’s session:

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

Standing in the smouldering ruins of Creosote’s bar, they decided to head straight to Gerald of Hamm’s warehouse before he received a warning from one of Creosote’s flunkies.

Warehouse failure

At the warehouse everything went wrong. As they approached they saw a group of men loading some goods, and deciding to be careful they sent Bao Tap sneaking down a side alley to investigate the back of the warehouse. He failed to sneak, and was sprung by a wizard smoking a cigar. Fortunately this man was unconcerned with his business, and after introducing himself this man made off to the front of the warehouse to oversee his goods. He was an Astrologer from the western isles called Jonah, who was shipping coal out there for new technologies he was developing. During this brief chat Bao Tap was able to establish that maybe fey magic is absorbed by coal, though he learnt no details before the man walked away. With Jonah gone Bao Tap was able to sneak inside, through a kitchen and into a completely dark back store room.

Meanwhile the rest of the Wrathbreakers entered through the main door of the warehouse. Kyansei and Quangbae lounged against the entryway looking threatening while Calim and Itzel sought out Gerald of Hamm. They found him soon enough, a balding man wearing simple workman’s clothes, carrying a clipboard and yelling at his labourers. He agreed to talk to them and took them upstairs to an office that had been built onto a gantry overlooking the main warehouse. Here they tried to talk him into telling them about his delivery arrangements, using threats and insinuations.

Unfortunately as they were doing this trouble hit them on multiple fronts. In the dark back store room Bao Tap realized that some men were coming to the door, so he hid in the dark behind what he hoped was a solid object; however, with no light to see by he did not know where he was hiding. Moments later the men entered the room carrying lamps, and in the sudden glow Bao Tap realized he had hidden in direct view of a consignment of mirrors, which stood in direct sight of the entering men and were set up in just the right way to ensure he was visible in all of them. After a moment of mutual shock Bao Tap pushed them out of the way and dashed for the kitchen exit, accompanied by their clamour.

While Bao Tap was preening at the back of the warehouse, at the front a gang of men were approaching, armed to the teeth and obviously intent on some kind of violence against the Wrathbreakers – maybe sent by Creosote, maybe by someone who had begun to realize what they were up to. Kyansei and Quangbae moved to meet them just as Bao Tap hit the side entrance. Up above them Gerald heard the clatter and yelling and made a break for the entrance to his office. Before he could reach the stairs Itzel hit him with a levitate spell and lifted him into the air, dangling him over the warehouse below, an obviously fatal drop. As he hung there and the sounds of battle began to drift up from below Calim began negotiating with him.

They heard the same story from Gerald: he was given instructions by note, which he promptly destroyed. In this case he had immediately shipped the goods to a dropbox in the Old Town. He gave them the location but was unable to give them any more information because as Itzel was searching his room for shipping records and other details she triggered a trap, and the shock and damage broke her concentration. Gerald of Hamm fell to his death in the warehouse below, and as they heard the clashes begin outside Itzel and Calim decided they had better go help.

The battle ended quickly once they were all there in force, leaving their assailants either dead or limping away in terror. Worried that more trouble would soon come they only had time for a quick search, and found nothing. The back room where Bao Tap had been hiding was obviously some kind of smuggling room with a hidden stash beneath the floor, but they could find nothing of use there. They gave up and headed off to find the drop box.

The dropbox

It was evening on the 8th of Ice, a bad season for staking out postal boxes. Their target was a small compound of eight stone rooms with locked doors, an open gate and no apparent guards. They stood across the road in the freezing cold watching the snow fall, and after a while decided to go and investigate. They did not know which room they were looking for but based on the limited information they had been able to get from Gerald before Itzel killed him they guessed which door it was. They were about to open it when Itzel sensed a magical alarm, and they backed off. There was every possibility it was also trapped, and now both Itzel and Kyansei were very wary of trapped things. In fact Kyansei was across the courtyard, “keeping watch” on the deserted and frozen street. No one was coming, of course.

They retreated to the shadow of a doorway across the street to consider their options. They were tired, lightly injured, and they did not know what they were looking for. The latest delivery by Creosote had been some days ago, likely had already been picked up, and they knew – since all the men Creosote had hired had been killed by Selkie-enchanted lampreys and Gerald of Hamm had been killed by Itzel – that no more deliveries were likely soon. They guessed that the alarm on the door was intended to tell the owner when the door was opened, which they guessed was how he knew his goods had been delivered. But if he was not expecting more goods they did not think he would blithely open the door, and they guessed that their target was likely a powerful astrologer. Gerald had indicated that the person who sent him the notes did not always nominate the same dropbox, so triggering the alarm would probably just alert their target to the fact that his or her note-based arrangements had been discovered. They could see no easy way to solve this problem.

In the end, not seeing a way to solve the problem by direct violence, they gave up and headed back to their stronghold. They grabbed a local urchin and paid her a small amount of coin to keep an eye on the drop box, and headed off to sleep.

The lost apprentice

Two days later, after recovering their strength and taking some time to discuss what to do, the Wrathbreakers decided to head back to Estona to continue their investigations. They took rooms at their regular haunt, a tavern called the Boar, and prepared for the next stage of their investigations.

Here they were approached by Alephia, one of the apprentices to the astrologer Siladan who they had met when they visited him. When they visited Siladan he had mentioned that one of his apprentices had recently left him, probably because she could not handle the pressure of study, but Alephia told them she thought something more sinister had happened. This apprentice, called Sara, had been very committed to becoming a wizard, and in Alephia’s view was not the kind of girl to give it up. She thought that Siladan had misjudged Sara because she was the kind of “nice girl”, all shiny manners and big breasts, which made people think she was weak and simple, when in fact she was a strong woman with a deep desire to learn the secrets of Sun. Alephia thinks something happened to her.

In fact, Alephia was able to pinpoint her suspicions: Sara’s new boyfriend. This man she had only seen once but he was much older than Sara, quite oily, and he seemed sleazy and “not quite right.” Sara had spoken about him a lot, calling him her “starfall”, but Alephia thought she was being manipulated. She thinks maybe Sara’s “starfall” has done something to Sara, and in exchange for a magic weapon she would like the Wrathbreakers to investigate. Surely they have contacts and abilities?

Of course the Wrathbreakers did not say no. They took her initial payment – 6 magic arrows – and agreed to investigate. In fact they set out immediately to scour the docks, pretending to be agents for Sara’s family looking for information about her. It was a pleasant break from investigating lost notes held by tight-lipped criminals, and they suspected it would be an easy investigation that would yield a nice magic gift from Alephia.

Strange notes from arcane fey-harvesters, lost girls, flying gangsters – Estona was proving more troublesome and more complicated than they had expected, and they had not even begun investigating the many mysteries they had encountered on their journey here. They had much to do, and many secrets to uncover …

The Wrathbreakers have returned from investigating what they thought was a band of wreckers, and are ready to investigate its patron. In the course of their investigation they discovered that Estona’s lost ships were not destroyed by wreckers, but by a small group of Selkie who were exacting revenge on the hunters who had killed their fellows and skinned them. Now, the Wrathbreakers have a prisoner and want to know more about whatever dirty little scheme had been enacted in the breakers west of Estona. Present for this adventure:

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

The Wrathbreakers took their prisoner to the myrmidon Kay, chief of the Estona marines, and had a short and fruitful discussion with him. They confirmed that the survivor’s band had been tasked with hunting selkie and extracting their body parts, to be delivered intact to Estona. They sought some organs, a strange gland from behind the Selkie’s thumb, and as much of their skin as they could flay, though they were given instructions to flay this within an hour of death, and in cold salt water. Such specific instructions and body parts intimated at an evil purpose, one involving magic, and Kay the myrmidon was concerned about what nest of sinister wizards were operating in his town. Though the gang had not committed any illegal act, Kay made clear to their prisoner that there would be consequences for the traffic he had been engaged in, and unless he coughed up the name of the fixer who had organized this gang, he would be in big trouble. The prisoner agreed and promised to make himself scarce until the entire storm had blown past, and told them that the gang of Selkie hunters had been put together by a man called Creosote, a fixer near the docks. In fact this prisoner was happy to tell them the man’s name on the promise that he would be hurt, because nobody had warned them of the viciousness of the Selkie they hunted, and after the first few successes – when the Selkie were not expecting to be attacked – things had turned very dark for the prisoner and his crew, and he wanted some revenge for being tricked into such a dangerous job without warning.

Perhaps that had been part of the plan, even? That after the first few deliveries of parts the Selkie would organize, and silence all the witnesses to the trade? A very convenient plot if so.

Kay was not happy with the idea that there was a fixer in town willing to trade in materials for dark magic, and decided that now might be an ideal time to put this oily man out of business. Again wanting to maintain some distance between himself and the investigation, he recommended the Wrathbreakers take a direct approach: visit Creosote’s hideout and demand he hand over the name of the person who paid him to fix the job. If he would not, they were free to take whatever measures were required to convince him to confess, and Kay rather relished the idea that he might refuse to talk immediately.

So it was that the Wrathbreakers found themselves at Creosote’s offices that same day, ready for violence. The office was a converted gambling den upstairs above a restaurant a block away from the docks, with stairs leading up to a common room where Creosote’s thugs lounged around. The Wrathbreakers walked in and pretended to be rival Selkie hunters prepared to sell parts to Creosote. This deception convinced his thugs, one of whom disappeared into the back to get Creosote himself.

Unfortunately the message did not put Creosote at ease; rather than coming to speak to the Wrathbreakers he sent his lieutenants to kill them. They burst through the noren separating the common room from the backrooms, and the battle began.

It was short and brutal, and they won. Half of Creosote’s men died, and most of the rest fled as the tide of battle turned against them. Finally Creosote and his last two lackeys surrendered, and he offered up all the information they wanted. Unfortunately, however, this was very little: the task had been given to him in a letter, by someone he had never met. He had gone about the task confident of being paid for it, because this was how these tasks always worked: delivered to him by letter, discharged according to instructions, and rewarded as promised. In this case the note had given him specific instructions about where to find and how to hunt the Selkie, what body parts to take and how, and where to deliver them. He had done as asked, and the parts had been delivered as requested, and he had received his coin.

Of course he had destroyed the letter, as he always did.

So the Wrathbreakers had no clues about who was procuring these parts, except that the instructions were delivered by note (as they always were by this particular employer) and the goods had to be delivered to a warehouse owned by a man called Gerald of Hamm.

They left Creosote alive, surveying the wreckage of his business, and left to find Gerald. Who was sending these notes, and what could they do to find this person? They would just have to keep shaking people up until someone told them something useful … or their mysterious correspondent took a direct, personal interest in them …

Kiss me goodbye

Pushing out before I sleep

Can’t you see I try

Swimming the same deep water as you is hard

“The shallow drowned lose less than we”

You breathe

The strangest twist upon your lips

“And we shall be together… ”

The Wrathbreakers have stumbled upon a strange cave complex while they were searching for wreckers, and now they feel they have stumbled on something that is much stranger than mere criminal damage. It appears that there are some kind of magical seals in the cave, perhaps somehow linked to the sea, and the ship they came here to investigate was not lured onto rocks by wreckers at all.

Having escaped from a trap set by the seals in a cave just off the entrance to the complex, the Wrathbreakers regrouped at the entrance and decided to risk exploring the rest. They left Quangbae on guard, and began their search. There were three tunnels leading from the cave, and having investigated the first, they decided to search the next.

The next tunnel turned almost immediately and opened into a small cave, still dimly lit by the light from the entrance. It was empty, with a dry sandy floor and small cracks in the ceiling letting in wan daylight. The entire wall of the cave was covered with a network of faintly glowing pale blue lines, laid on the wall in a pattern disturbingly reminiscent of the tattoo they had seen on the patch of skin they had recovered from the wrecked boat. It was not the same pattern, but obviously from a similar hand or culture. Whoever’s skin had been flayed and cured and hidden on that boat, they or their relatives lived in this cave.

They could all see where this was going, but they needed to be sure. They ventured into the final tunnel and followed it down a steep, precarious and slickly wet descent to a much larger cave. At the entrance to the cave was a large pool of dark, still water, and beyond the dim glow of Itzel’s werelight the cave disappeared into darkness. A narrow ledge of rock led around the edge of the pool. Treading carefully to avoid stepping in the water, they threaded their way along the ledge.

They were halfway around the pool and separated by some distance when the water began to rise around their feet. Before they could scramble back a new squad of seals appeared in the water and the powerful surge of the water hit them, dragging one of them into the water and forcing the rest of them to take positions on the ledge or the steps. This time, however, as they fought the seals in the water, three humanoid figures emerged from the shadows, screaming in rage.

They were tall, bigger than humans, two wearing sharkskin armour and carrying coral spears. The third was a tall, austere-looking woman in a ragged robe that appeared to be made of seaweed, also carrying a coral spear. Their skin was covered in a fine layer of grey-brown fur, just like the fur on the skin they had found in the ship. When that woman screamed, they knew they were in trouble. Feeling the full force of the strange creature’s power, Itzel stepped forward and yelled “Parley!” in every language she knew, while holding aloft the skin they had found on the shore.

The seals in the water withdrew, and the woman responded in an archaic and almost incomprehensible elven dialect. Her demands were clear: if they returned the skin and promised to bring to her the people who had done this to her fellow selkie, she would let them live. They agreed, and leaving the skin behind, they retreated up the stairs.

Ivrem and Selm

Outside, they gathered around a small fire to rest and eat and dry themselves. They had to wait three days here for Kay’s marines to arrive and take them away, which gave them plenty of time to make plans. It was at this point, recovering their poise around the campfire, that they remembered the two men they had seen hiding in the cliffs behind the cave. They had a good idea of who those men might be, but regardless of who they were they must have seen what happened on the beach. The Wrathbreakers decided to go and get them.

It did not take them long. The two men were hungry and desperate, and had little they could do. After Bao Tap sent them a message with his spume owl they descended the cliff face and, after a brief, tense negotiation, entered the wrathbreakers’ camp. Over a small meal they attempted to talk their way out of the trouble that must be coming, but they failed, and their story was spilled for all the world to know.

They were the surviving members of a team of men who had been assembled in Estona and sent out to hunt Selkie. Selkie are fey, and someone somewhere was willing to pay good money for their skin and “Other parts”. The hunting had been good at first but the Selkie soon learnt what was going on and became harder to trap. Then, on their last journey back down the coast, their ship had been run aground in perfect weather and attacked by Selkie. In the foaming shallows the crew had turned crazy and started hacking at each other while seals dragged them underwater and drowned them, but somehow Ivrem and Selm had been able to get away, and had fled to the cliffs. Here they had been for a week, unable to come down to the beach because the Selkie were waiting for them, but unable to find a way up the cliffs. They had survived on rainwater and raw lizards and eggs, getting ever more desperate.

They tried to bargain, but to no avail. The Wrathbreakers dragged one of them down to the cave – Ivrem or Selm, they couldn’t remember and didn’t care which – and offered him to the matriarch. They told her they would take the other back to Estona and use him to find the man who had organized the mission, and they would bring that man – and anyone connected to him – here. The Selkie matriarch agreed to their terms, and as they left the limpid pool filled with lampreys, which tore the prisoner to pieces as he drowned in a murky soup of gelid brine.

Three days later the marines made landfall, and they dragged their surviving prisoner – Ivrem or Selm, they still didn’t care – down to the boat, to be taken back to Estona to cash in all of his friends. They did not feel many qualms about staking their survival on the hideous deaths of this man and his employer, and they had a strong feeling that Estona would be a better town once everyone involved had been thrown to the lampreys …


Picture note: This is a picture by Natalia Drepina on Deviantart.

I recently posted some of my criticisms of the Genesys combat system to a forum for Genesys-related material, and received a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of making any changes to the rules. In amongst the resistance there were a large number of people telling me “you shouldn’t be doing that much combat anyway” and “if you like combat so much, just play D&D”. There was a strong theme of “people who play Genesys don’t like combat-heavy gaming” with the general assumption that combat-heavy gaming is somehow bad.

I have been GMing and playing RPGs for just over 30 years, and over that time I have repeatedly run into this idea that combat-heavy gaming is wrong, in various manifestations. You see adverts from gaming groups looking for members that say “we don’t focus on combat”, you meet GMs who tell you “yeah my campaigns tend to avoid combat”, and the ever-disdainful “yeah it’s not like D&D, it’s not all about combat.” Here is an example from the forum where I posted my suggested rules changes:

This entire post seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Gensys is. If you want combat play 5e. If you want and narrative game that’s interactive between players and GM, then you’re on the right page.

This really pisses me off for a lot of reasons, and reflecting on it over the past week has triggered me to write this rant. To me, this “We don’t run games that are combat heavy” routine is like the idea that “you’re not like other girls“. Men pull this sometimes, and what they mean is they don’t respect basic aspects of modern femininity, which at the same time they really want their girl to have. It’s a shitty, self-deluding and mean-spirited approach, and most sensible girls list it as one of their basic red flags for exiting from a date. In the case of RPG talk, this “my games aren’t combat heavy” routine is bullshit for several reasons:

  • Every game group I’ve ever joined that has advertised itself this way has been just as combat-heavy as the ones that don’t
  • Combat is fun, and most people enjoy it, so when you set yourself apart from it like this you’re saying you’re a killjoy with a weird approach to gaming and probably a boring GM
  • It’s almost always based on separating yourself from D&D, just as “you’re not like other girls” is meant to separate the girl you’re talking to from a lumpen mass of boring, shallow selfie-taking girls who actually only exist as a stereotype in the speaker’s mind

In fact D&D isn’t any more combat-focused than any other system, and when people compare themselves with it they’re setting up a false equivalency which shows they either know nothing about the world of RPGs, or are an arsehole with too much brand loyalty to some other system. I want to attack each of these issues in turn.

Most groups have the same levels of combat

I’ve GMd and played in many groups in many systems over many years in several countries, in multiple cities, in two languages, and in my experience most gaming groups have about the same amount of combat. There is almost no such thing as a gaming group that doesn’t do much fighting. Regardless of the system and the setting, most campaigns involve a fair amount of good quality savagery. There will be sessions of investigation and negotiation, and sessions of shopping and planning, but these will inevitably lead up to combat or flow from combat, and players are always happy when the shit hits the fan and the dice come out.

I think there is a secondary reason for this besides that combat is fun, which is that the players often are working on limited information and don’t know the full story of the situations they’re dealing with, or what they need to do, and often they misunderstand or have forgotten key bits of information (which they invariably didn’t write down). But they can sail through these complexities because they know ultimately they can beat someone up and force the information out of them (or steal it) and if their primary pathway through the story gets lost the GM will save them by having their adversaries play their hand – usually with a weapon in it. Combat is very helpful for resolving story impasses, and GMs and players alike use it for that purpose.

It should also be noted that even though combat makes up a large chunk of time in a typical session, it isn’t actually that much of the story. Consider session 22 of my Genesys campaign, for example: The PCs visited a bar to get a job, sailed overnight on a ship where they did some planning and investigatory magic, walked for a day along a beach, checking carefully for signs of lurking dangers or evidence of wrecking, investigated a shipwreck by examining several bodies and finding and opening a chest, scouted a cliff face to find two men of dubious purpose, scouted a cave entrance looking for signs of fake signal lights, triggered a trap, and had a fight with some selkies. In actual game time the fight probably took as long as two or three of the other activities in the session, but it was only a tiny part of the total story. Combat takes up an out-sized part of the action and people’s perception of the balance of things in a game because rules are clunky and fights take a long time to resolve, not because they’re necessarily a large part of the activities of a typical adventure.

So frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they’re not really into combat in their games, because every time someone says that the empirical evidence shows the lie. Don’t get judgy with me about how you’re not that into it, and don’t pretend your level of combat in your games is special. It’s not, trust me. You’re not special.

Combat is fun

This is why every rule system has a section on fighting, and why popular gaming podcasts are called things like “I hit it with my axe” and not “I talk calmly with it to resolve the conflict.” There are several reasons for this, and they’re all perfectly good reasons:

  • It’s the time your PC faces the most risk and it’s also the time when things are least like the world you’re actually in
  • Most of the settings we play in are designed for conflict, because we want worlds where there are big evil and dangerous threats, and we especially like magic and demons and monsters, which inevitably bring violence
  • We spend most of our lives compromising with shitty people who have more power than us and negotiating and talking our way out of trouble, often with little success, and being able to smash your way out of problems – especially if the person you’re smashing is a bully or evil – is real escapism, and we don’t play these games to replicate the shitty interactions we have with shitty people in our shitty real world

If players didn’t enjoy fighting, and if people who wanted low-combat games were common, game designers would give combat the same amount of attention they currently give to social encounters or stronghold building: almost none. The reason it is a large part of gaming is that people enjoy it, which might also be the reason D&D 5e is so popular … except that D&D 5e isn’t an especially combat-heavy system.

D&D is not combat heavy

This idea that D&D is a combat-focused game is very old and very shitty. It wasn’t true 30 years ago and it’s not true now. First let’s consider some canonical examples of this idea, which I hear all the time. Consider for example this 9 year old post on stack overflow asking how to reduce combat in a D&D game, where respondents say things like this:

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you’re avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said “violent conflicts”. No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I’m not also saying it’s completely undoable with D&D, just mainly… a waste of its design and practical goals.

I don’t know how to put this finely, so I’ll just say it: this is utter bullshit. D&D was never designed entirely towards violent conflicts, and this idea that it was is based on an unpleasant retrofitting of the nature of these games. Very early D&D lacked a skill system, so compared to games like Traveller and Warhammer that were around at the same time it looks like it was intended to be entirely combat focused, but it was never seen this way at the time. It was understood that the players and GM would resolve all non-combat stuff between themselves using negotiation and discussion and role-playing, and the rules were there to make fighting coherent – not that the game was only about fighting. You can see this in many of the classic early modules, which set out huge amounts of non-combat role playing in the social context of the game, without any particular mechanism for resolving those parts of the adventure. Later versions of the game introduced skills because of the popularity of skill systems and the recognition that without structured rules for non-combat encounters it became too much of a GM’s kimagure about how these matters would be resolved.

It should also be noted that compared to some other fantasy RPGs like Tunnels and Trolls, D&D led the way in finding ways to introduce non-combat themes. D&D invented the thief, a character class originally intended to be weak in combat but very useful outside of it, and also is responsible for the development (or at least popularization) of the much-maligned bard class, which is the Platonic ideal of non-combat role-playing. And what do we find in the 20 years since its inception? The bard is the routinely most-hated character class. Why would that be I wonder?

This idea about D&D being combat heavy is also empirically verifiably not true. Let us compare systems I have on hand! The D&D 5e rulebook has 200 pages of rules, excluding spells, of which 10 are devoted to combat, 2 are devoted to social interaction, 6 to skills, and 5 to weapons and armour. Among the spells 6/11 Bard cantrips are non-combat, 10/18 2nd level Druid spells are non-combat, and 7/15 7th level wizard spells are non-combat. (This is treating healing and restoration as combat-focused). So perhaps 10% of the rules and 50% of the spells are for combat. Compare with Genesys, our supposedly narrative/non-combat game, where in 136 pages of basic rules 7 are devoted to social encounters, 23 to combat and 3 to weapons and armour. Almost all of the spell section is devoted to combat spells, and no real guidance offered for non-combat spells, which are entirely up to the GM and players to figure out. Warhammer 2 has 140 pages of rules, of which 16 are devoted to combat, 6 to weapons and armour, and two of the PCs’ basic attributes are combat-only! (Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill). In the spells, 5/8 of the lesser magic spells are non-combatant. The game Limnal, a modern fantasy based around things like Rivers of London and the Dresden Files, has 88 pages of rules among which 8 pages are for combat. So even definitively combat-light games like Limnal that are set in the modern mundane world where you can’t just shoot people still reserve nearly 10% of their rules for combat. D&D is far from special in this regard!

Not only do people enjoy combat, D&D isn’t especially combat heavy and it never was. I bet this pernicious lie was started by the Vampire the Masquerade poseurs, who needed an excuse for the fact that their much-loved and very popular game had shit combat rules and really boring magic. But games like Vampire, which explicitly tried to frame themselves as more social, had another problem that D&D and other “combat-heavy” games had less of: They were a target-rich environment for bullies and abusers.

Combat-free gaming and bullying GMs

I played a year-long World of Darkness game, followed up by a very short stint in the standard Vampire world, and I have never experienced so much bullying and abuse by a GM in my life. The setting is designed to make your GM a bully, and the lack of structured rules and the insane power differentials that make combat impossible also mean that almost everything becomes a case of begging your GM for a break. This old Reddit thread in response to someone asking whether to take up VTM is a good example of its kind, with comments like this:

VtM, in my opinion, tends to be bogged down by the lore, politics, and hierarchy of the system. Instead of doing cool vampire things, you mostly skulk around talking to other vampires who are all more powerful than you and will most likely execute you if you try to do anything interesting. Most of the time even having a character sheet was pointless because it seemed like using your powers in any way would get you on the Most Wanted list.

This was my experience exactly: having a character sheet was pointless because any conflict you entered (whether combat or social) was against people so powerful that your skills didn’t matter, or against mundane people who you could always beat. It was completely narrative, effectively, and the problem with narrative styles like this is that you end up entirely at the mercy of the GM, with no clear cues as to how to deal with his goals and desires, and no frame of reference to determine whether he is being unreasonable. In VTM, if a GM puts you into conflict with some god-awful ancient elder vampire, you won’t necessarily know what you’re up against and you won’t be able to resolve this situation unless you know what the GM wants to get out of the encounter; but you also won’t have any framework within which to argue your GM is being unreasonable, since the whole stupid game is designed this way. In contrast if your D&D GM throws your first level group against a lich you know there and then that you can just walk away because the GM is an arsehole and a bully.

VTM is basically high school cliques turned into an RPG, and it’s just as much fun: none. It’s also ripe ground for bullies precisely because systems without clear rules or guidelines for conflict, and without the option for you to hack and stab your way out of trouble, put too much power and privilege in the hands of the GM. It’s no surprise to me then that in amongst the last two years’ metoo reckoning within the gaming industry, a lot of the people being exposed turn out to have worked on VTM. It’s a game designed by bullies for bullies.

When you put a lot of power in the hands of one person, you need a strong and robust institutional structure to control that power. In the case of role-playing the institutional structure is the rules, and well designed rules not only provide the players with a good structure for how to handle any situation, but also provide a clear set of boundaries for the GM, so that everyone can tell when he or she is stepping out of line. This is another reason they’re combat heavy: because combat is naturally a time when everything is structured, and when everything is structured then everything is fair, and players want the game to be fair. There are a couple of clear red flags pointing to a bullying GM, and the clearest one is that he or she simply doesn’t bother to follow rules. If (as in my World of Darkness campaign), your GM doesn’t really care about character sheets and character development, ignores rules, arbitrarily forces you to change your PC, puts you into situations where using your powers or engaging in combat will inevitably be lethal, or repeatedly forces you to back down from your own plans by revealing highly powerful enemies, then you need to run. And chances are, if your GM prides themselves on not doing combat, they’re also doing one or all of those things.

Why any of this matters

I think a lot of people enter role-playing out of a genuine and deep interest in the idea, because role-playing is awesome, and I think a lot of them leave very quickly because of their experience of hard-core gaming nerds, who can be really unpleasant. If you want to grow the hobby it’s really important to recognize why people come to the game, what they really want from it, and what behavior and principles will destroy their fun and our hobby. It’s a cliche in this hobby that there’s no right way to do it, and that you should just have fun, but it’s also a truism that you never see people who enjoy combat-heavy games sneering at people who don’t, and you never hear people who enjoy D&D griping about how other games don’t have enough fighting. This sneering all goes one way, and I think there’s a reason for that: a small minority of people in our hobby want to set themselves up as special and rarified masters of the game, and in order to do that they need to disparage one of its most central, universal elements in favour of much vaguer, much less structured parts of the experience which people enjoy less and which make the game much more dependent on successfully negotiating real-world social interactions which are often, sadly, toxic. Don’t fall for it! And don’t become part of some weird system of cliques in which people who play a certain way are better than people who don’t. We’re not in high school anymore, and we don’t have to pretend to be cool. So kill as many orcs as you want, and steal their treasure from their still-warm bodies with joy in your heart and no guilt in your soul!

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 …