Hugo Tuya’s guards are traveling from Miselea to Estala, and on the second day of their journey were ambushed by raiders. They defeated the foot soldiers sent against them, but were unable to stop the leader from fleeing on his horse, and could not catch the archers who had harried them from the bushes beside the road. After the battle they caught their breath, Calim healed their minor injuries, and they discussed what to do. The roster for this session:

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

Regald’s Necklace

They faced some indecision now about whether to follow the raiders and risk further battle, or to let them go and proceed on their journey. Raiders this far from the Valley of Gon were unusual, but if they did come this far it was likely they had traveled in some force with a purpose, usually looting small towns and taking hostages for ransom. Given that the guards’ plan that evening was to spend the night in Ell’s Hamlet they guessed the raiders might have been targeting it, and if they had already raided it might have hostages who could be freed. They decided first then to investigate the raiders’ actions so far. They woke the sole surviving footsoldier and after some threats and promises managed to gain his cooperation.

The raider, injured and sullen, told them grudgingly that they had come from the Valley of Gon to Ell’s Hamlet to find a man called Regald. They did not know anything about this man, just that they had been given instructions: find him and bring him back, they can take anything he has but they must bring all his documents and any necklaces he owns straight to their leader in the Valley. However, when they arrived at Ell’s Hamlet they sent in a scout to investigate, and discovered that this man Regald had died about a year ago, and his daughter had disappeared at about the same time. After this initial scouting mission they had been returning to their camp to inform their captain so that he could decide what to do, but seeing Hugo Tuya’s caravan had decided to deviate briefly from their mission for what they thought would be easy money.

Calim’s ears pricked up at this story. This timeline of events sounded like it matched exactly the probable death of the elven traveler and the human woman with him, killed by deepfolk not so far from here about a year ago. In the remains of that camp they had found a necklace of a strange design, and had planned to use the necklace to track down the woman. Could it be that these raiders were looking for the same necklace and its owner, this Regald? Perhaps his daughter had left Ell’s Hamlet with the necklace after the death of Regald, to meet with this elf for some reason, and had been killed by deepfolk before she could hand the necklace over to the elf? Why then would raiders from the Valley of Gon want to find this Regald, and what did the necklace mean?

They decided to find out.

The Raider camp

In exchange for mercy the surviving raider footsoldier explained to them how to find the camp, and they set off. The footsoldier told them that their raiding team was led by a thug called Rimgalt, delegated to lead the team here by their leader in the Valley of Gon, a petty warlord named Argalt. Rimgalt was slightly crazy, probably because of the magic axe he carried, and would be hard to kill, they were warned. He was camped by a small pond under a waterfall, but the rest of his crew were stationed a little distance away, guarding a crossroads trail that led to the pool. They would have to pass this gauntlet first to get to Rimgalt at the pool.

They approached cautiously, Yoog scouting ahead and Bao Tap sending his familiar, a weasel, to scout the area. From this they soon found a squad of four more footsoldiers camped out in a small stand of bushes near the road, unaware of their approach. Yoog and Quangbae moved quietly up behind them while the rest of the group marched along the road, ready to spring a trap on the footsoldiers’ own trap.

Their plan worked perfectly, and they caught the footsoldiers in a nice little vice, but they were themselves ambushed by a squad of archers who had been hiding behind a tree further down the road, and who they had not seen. They had to split up to attack the archers, and the battle was still in full swing when four more footsoldiers advanced from the southern road to the crossroads, drawn by the sounds of battle. Although the odds were stacked against them they prevailed through surprise, magic and sheer force of will, finally vanquishing all 12 men and their thuggish lieutenant. Injured but alive, they prepared to advance on Rimgalt himself, and learn the answer to their questions about the necklace.


Image note

The picture at the top of the post is taken from Clement Mona.

The Ariaki delegation and the bridge to Ariaki from Miselea

Hugo Tuya’s guards, having vanquished the Redcap of the great forest and absorbed the evil secrets of its magic, moved quickly to the nearby town of Miselea. They needed to rest and recuperate, and had four weakened guards from the southern kingdom of Ariaki to return to their home nation after a year of hideous enslavement to the spider-fey. Miselea stood at the border between Hadun and Ariaki, on the northern side of the river that skirted the great forest, and it had a small Ariaki delegation continuously present to which they hoped to hand over their weakened and traumatized charges.

The Spider-slaves’ promise

On the journey to Miselea they spoke with the men and women they had rescued from the spiders’ nest, and though there was little they could do to ease their trauma after a year as brood-hosts and cleaning servitors for the giant spiders, they were able to learn a little more of the circumstances of their capture. The four had been bodyguards for an Astrologer, Salam of the Silver Eyes, from Alpon in northern Ariaki, not so far from its border with Hadun. He had been researching ancient beasts in a large and largely forgotten library in its crumbling Academy when he had stumbled on stories of an ancient spider lord in the forest. Perhaps under-estimating the side and evil of the spiders they would meet, and knowing nothing of the existence of Redcaps, he had hired six guards and set off into the forest to learn its secrets. They had been ambushed almost as soon as they arrived in the nest area, and had been so overwhelmed by the spiders that the entire squad had been webbed and dragged back to the lair before they could do any harm to the spiders. At the lair they had been surely destined for food – and one of them had been consumed, horribly, in front of them – before the Redcap appeared and saved them, using its magic to force four to be servitors and taking Salam and a single member of their team away for its own use. Conscious during the year of their captivity but unable to resist the Redcap’s magic, only the exhaustion, cold and the constant poisoning by the spiders had helped to obliterate their memories of what had happened to them.

They vowed to the guards that they would do all they could to help them destroy the spiders. Though they were terrified of them they also knew their ways, and had a deep and urgent desire to destroy them all. They would vouch for the information the guards passed on to the elves, and after their return to Alpon would be ready to assist the guards in a strike on the spider god – and whatever Redcap monarch lived with it – in the depths of the forest. The guards simply had to visit Alpon and call upon them, and they would come.

Rest and Research in Miselea

Miselea was a town of about 3000 people on the southern border of Hadun, on the northern bank of the river that separates Hadun and Ariaki. This small river has its source at the southern hills of the Valley of Gon and flows east to Miselea before turning north and flowing along the edge of Ariaki’s great forest – it was this river that Hugo Tuya’s caravan had followed from Inorat at the beginning of their travels. Here at Miselea the river was youthful and bold, not especially deep but fast flowing and active, splashing over rocks and sparkling in the Autumn sun under gentle weeping willows as the group entered the town from its eastern, relatively unguarded gate. Miselea’s Bailey is on the western edge of the town, looking west from stern palisades over the farmlands of the last Hadun farms before the land begins to rise to the foothills on the eastern edge of the Valley of Gon, where lawless folk live. Most of the town of Miselea sprawls across the lowlands north of the river, outside the Bailey, but there is a small rise on the northern bank where a smaller palisade separates the Ariaki delegation from the rest of the town. Between the delegation and the Bailey is a stretch of shops, restaurants and hotels, where the group stopped to rest for the evening before they attended to their errands in the town.

The following morning they went about their business. They sold some of the material they had stolen from the bandits, Itzel visited an elven legate in the town to sell the spidersilk they had taken from the spiders, and they returned the weary Ariaki survivors to their delegation. At the Ariaki delegation Kyansei asked the Ariaki elder if he knew anything of a strange blight afflicting her land, and he promised to have the Academy at Alpon look into it. They then visited the local Rimewarden for healing, and while they were there Calim described to the Rimewarden the strange standing stones they had found outside of Ibara, and the Deepfolk bones and iron buried beneath it. The Rimewarden pulled out an old travel book, and pointed Calim to the discovery of other such standing stones along the eastern edge of the Spine mountains. For years scholars had pondered the reason for the existence of these standing stones, and wondered who made them, but seeing this finding of Calim’s he considered renewing research into the stones. He would send a letter to the Abbey in Rokun, and perhaps by the following Sun season they would mount an expedition to dig under other stone circles to see what they could find.

Thus it was that in Miselea the group set in train several strands of investigation that might see them wish to return here in future:

  • The Astrologers in Alpon would investigate the possible meaning of blight affecting Kyansei’s lands
  • The four soldiers they had rescued from the spiders would aid them in agitating for, and join, a quest against the spider god: they could be found in Alpon when the characters were ready
  • The Abbey in Rokun would be requested to begin an expedition next year to investigate the standing stone ruins on the eastern edge of the Spine – perhaps the characters could join it.

With these actions set in motion, the guards returned to their hotel, and prepared to set off the following day for Estala, on the next stage of their journey.

Raiders

They set off the following day, 16th of the Storm, heading northwest towards Estala. This journey would take them three days, with the first night spent camping in the wilderness, the second in a small town called Ell’s Hamlet, and the third in Estala if the roads and weather treated them well. The road now took them east of the headlands of the Valley of Gon, so they needed to begin showing care.

The borders of Ariaki and Hadun had been settled for some 200 years now, with little dispute over them. The Great Forest of was acknowledged as Ariaki possession, though it only nominally belonged to that nation since it was largely wild and the elves held dominion in its eastern edges. The small river that ran between the great forest and the hills to the west, marked on its eastern edge by the town of Miselea, was a commonly-accepted defining line between the two kingdoms; but at its source this river sprung from the foothills that marked out the southern edge of the Valley of Gon, Hadun and Ariaki’s Big Problem. The Valley was a fertile sweep of land bordered on its southern side by a great river, and on the north by a line of sharp peaks. At its north-eastern end it rose to highlands nestled in an arc of lesser mountains, and once its highlands had been dotted with villages, its lowlands peaceful farmland. However, Ariaki and Hadun’s ancient border disputes had never been able to settle this land as they had the great forest and the lowlands around it. To Hadun the border of Ariaki lay at the southern side of the Valley, where the river ran; to Ariaki the border was on the northern side, where the peaks rose up sharp from the fertile ground. Over time wars had been fought here, and much blood spilled, until eventually both nations fought to a stalemate and the land became, essentially, independent. Now it lay between the two nations, claimed by both but controlled by neither and instead occupied by a motley collection of farming towns and ruins ruled over by warlords, champions and thieves. At its north-eastern end these warlords would sometimes send raiders into Hadun, seeking prisoners to ransom or harvest spoils; at its southern edge pirates still worked their evil trade, and occasionally raiders splashed across the fords of the river to take wood from Ariaki forests, or attack peaceful villages for iron and coin.

So it was that on the second day of their journey, in the morning, after a restful night’s sleep in the open, Hugo Tuya’s caravan entered a pass between two shallow hills and they were attacked by raiders. Four men and a leader on horseback confronted them on the road, but before they could properly negotiate they were fired at by archers hidden in nearby woods. They attacked the soldiers and slaughtered them but could not find the archers. Finally the leader, fearing for his life, fled down the road on his horse, and the archers withdrew unharmed. Hugo Tuya’s guards realized that these raiders must be the advance guard of a larger party, and that this party might have or be preparing to take prisoners from Ell’s Hamlet. They picked up their weapons, took a breath, and prepared to follow the horse to whatever bloody end it led them …

Hugo Tuya’s guards have killed a nest of spiders and freed some human prisoners, but in doing so learnt that there is another nest deeper in the forest. They decided to raid that nest and take whatever treasures might be buried in its webs, as well as more spidersilk to sell to the elves. The roster for today’s mission:

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

They helped the humans they had rescued back to the edge of the forest, took a brief break, and returned to the site of the battle to find the next nest.

Strange doings in the nest

They found trails leading into the forest and followed them, tracking old remnants of web and traces of spider’s passing deep into the gloom. They followed this trail for several hours, until they finally reached an area of trees heavily shrouded in old webs, and realized they had reached their goal. In rare gaps between the heavy foliage they could see trails of pink and scarlet across the sky, and the gathering shadows told them they were close to sunset. A bad time to be raiding a spider’s nest, but better to do it now than to retreat in the dark. They moved forward to infiltrate the nest.

As they approached, though, they saw a strange sight: a humanoid figure, shrouded in tattered webs, moving slowly and jerkily around the trees, occasionally stopping and bending over or reaching up to perform some task that looked like it might be cleaning. Confused, two of them moved around the edge of the nest to get a closer view. They approached the humanoid, grabbed it and turned it to face them – revealing a haunted, enslaved human. This person was emaciated and filthy, their clothes tattered and in ruins, their body wrapped in old and filthy webbing. Their face and the parts of their arms which the guards could see were covered in small scars and bites, and as they held the person large spiders emerged from inside the webs, ran across their skin and disappeared back inside the nest, as if they were comfortable on the person’s body. The person moved with a listless, exhausted, zombie like affect, but when the PCs looked in their eyes they could see that they were desperate and terrified. Tears welled up as the person saw them, but they could not move or speak.

As they were trying to speak to the trapped human the spiders emerged, and the battle began.

The redcap

The battle began smoothly enough. Smaller, dog-sized spiders emerged from the webs and attacked the guards who had tried to rescue the enslaved human, but the rest of the team held back and used missile weapons against the spiders. However, things turned vicious quickly when one of the larger spiders emerged, accompanied by a shadowy humanoid figure lurking behind a group of smaller spiders. This thing unleashed a magical blast of venom on the missile-using PCs, doing serious damage on them and forcing them to separate, and as the numbers increased they were forced into melee. Fortunately in this battle Kyansei was not webbed, and was able to battle valiantly against the chitinous horde. As she fought the spiders Calim and Bao Tap attempted to attack the shadowy human. They ran over to confront it and found themselves facing a small, dun-coloured humanoid wearing armour of spidersilk and a hat that had been drenched in blood, now long-dried. It carried a dagger made of a giant spider’s fang, and as they attempted to attack it it cast a spell on them that confused them. Spiders attacked them to defend the creature, and somehow Bao Tap was bitten badly and poisoned, falling unconscious and losing the use of his arm[1]. The spiders were about to overwhelm Calim when Quangbae and Kyansei charged in to his rescue, killing the remaining spiders and then dispatching the red-capped creature before it could use its magic to enslave Calim.

With the death of the larger spider and the red-capped fey thing the battle ended, and peace fell over the shadowed glade. They began to explore for treasure and victims to rescue.

The redcap’s secrets

With the death of the fey creature the human was released from their strange slavery, and collapsed sobbing to their knees. The guards approached to speak to them, and saw hordes of spiders running out from under the webbing – the human had been carrying hundreds of them against their skin inside the webs. Calim administered some basic aid and eventually, when they had sobbed out their relief, the human told them that they (he) had been here as a slave for a year. He and four others had come to the glade guarding an Astrologer, but had been ambushed by the spiders and enslaved by the redcap. One had been killed, the Astrologer had been taken away as a prisoner, and the four surviving guards had been turned into living hosts for the spiders. They moved around the nest cleaning old webs, removing parasites, cleaning up dead bodies, and also serving as hosts for new spiders: the giant spider laid her eggs in the webs wrapped around them and they would serve as food for the newborns until they were too large to be carried. They ate little, but occasionally the redcap would remember them and cast them some offcut from an animal (or a human victim, if it served) for them to eat. As a result they were emaciated near death, exhausted, and permanently and deeply scarred. The guard told them there were three more survivors around the nest, and that the redcap lived in a cave “by the drowning pool”.

They rescued the remaining three servitors, bringing them to the centre of the nest where they gave them some basic medical care, water and food. Then they moved through the nest and down a narrow pathway to the “drowning pool”. They found a reeking pond of stagnant water, full of rotting bodies and surrounded by detritus and bones. On the far side was a small fire with a spit over it, in front of a dark cave mouth decorated with human bones. By now it was growing dark, so they lit torches and entered the cave.

Inside they found the desiccated remains of a human Astrologer, stuck to a wall by strong bonds of webbing. The cave was a mess of filthy rags, discarded bones and rubbish, and various basic belongings. Searching through the belongings they found some basic treasures, a book of faerie lore, and the wizard’s notebook. The first part of this notebook was research and spell notes, indicating that the wizard had come here believing that there were clues to the existence of an ancient god of spiders deep in the forest, which might hold the knowledge of ancient secrets, new magic or items. However, the last 13 pages of the book held crazed writing, just scratchings and mad rantings written on each page under headings listing days: day 1, day 2, day 3. Some of the writing was in a crazed, aggressive, unruly hand, and some of it in the hand of the Astrologer himself. It appeared he had been captured and the redcap had poisoned him and drunk his blood, using some magic to force the Astrologer to write messages in the notebook.

The characters read the notebook, and were deeply disturbed. The redcap had slowly taken the mind of the Astrologer, drowned him in the drowning pool, and kept his body as a keepsake. This creature must be some kind of fey, which lived alongside the spiders. If there was a spider god deep in the forest, was there also a redcap king or elder, capable of enslaving armies to its whims?

They must destroy the god and its fey adviser. But not now. Now, standing in the ruins of the redcap’s lair and surrounded by the horrific ending of the last mission against the spiders, they understood there more urgent task. They rushed outside and grabbed the redcap’s body, dragging it to the pool and submerging it in the pool moments before the last rays of the setting sun faded from the sky. Just in time, they had finished it off. They scoured the nest, took what they could, gathered everything that had belonged to the redcap and dumped it in the webs, then set the whole thing ablaze and fled from the forest.

There were dark beasts in there that needed to be scoured from the earth, but not now. Now they needed to find fresh air under the open sky, bathe in the light of the sunshard and feel the wind on their faces, and retreat from the horrors of blood and poison. There would be a time for killing ancient gods, and they would return to end the blood-slaving beasts of the deep wood, but now they needed to gulp the air and feel the wind on their face, and rejoice in their freedom under the open sky.

Behind them, dark and ancient gods brooded.


fn1: This should be a permanent destruction of the arm but we’re still learning the poison rules and a few confusions with orders of healing spells meant this might not have happened if Calim had known the risks of leaving Bao Tap unhealed, so we decided to make it a temporary problem – once the crit is healed Bao Tap gets his arm back. It’s been deadened by poison.

Day 1

HUMAN SLAVE
KNOWLEDGE IN THE BLOOD
MINE MINE
THIRTEEN NIGHTS, TEN AND THREE THE HORRORS BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD IS LIES

It has me prisoner. My guards enslaved. It speaks in my mind. It cannot write but it knows what writing is, it has seen our kind before. It tells me my fate. I am resigned.

Day 2

SIMPLE SMILES ELUDE PSYCHOTIC EYES
LOSE ALL MIND CONTROL, RATIONALE DECLINES EMPTY EYES ENSLAVE THE CREATIONS
OF PLACID FACES AND LIFELESS PAGEANTS

TWELVE TWELVE THE BLOOD IN TWELVE

It makes me tell it things, some compulsion over me. I can write these notes only when it dances its bloodthirsty glee. If it sees me, it will hurt me.

Day 3

KILLER, INTRUDER, A HOMICIDAL MAN
IF YOU SEE ME COMING, RUN FAST AS YOU CAN
I HACK UP MY VICTIMS LIKE PIECES OF MEAT BLOODTHIRSTY DEMON, SINISTER FIEND BLUDGEONOUS SLAUGHTER’S MY EVIL DEED
A MERCILESS BUTCHER WHO LIVES UNDERGROUND I’M OUT TO DESTROY AND I WILL CUT YOU DOWN

ELEVEN ON THE HIGH SUN OF ELEVEN

Writing hurts, the voices in my head, like venom in my hand. It keeps me here in the dark while it laughs, I cannot move except to write and speak to it. This morning it took Alassa, and it gorges on his viscera while it stares at me. I cannot kill it.

Day 4

TEN TEN THE FINGERS ON BOTH HANDS TEN TEN TEN THEY ARE MINE IN TEN

I learn more about it. Drown the body in the pool or it will come back. If you are reading this and you have killed it, sink the body in the pool or it will come back. You have until the

sunset of the day it dies. It cannot read, it cannot read this. Show it no mercy, it dreams in my blood now it is so horrible, the deeds it has done. Drown its body in the pool.

Day 5

LET’S DRINK TO THE DEAD LYING UNDER THE WATER AND THE CRUST OF BLOOD ON THE DRIVEN SNOW

NINE WHILE NINE AND I’M WAITING FOR THE RAIN…..

It is old, and it has been weak for so long. I think it is as old as the great spider in the woods. Is it her servant? I found only her lieutenants, she is far away in the dark of the great wood, but I think she commands more like this and worse. Her marshalls, in a horrifying chitinous army.

Day 6

OH, BUT YOU ARE IN MY BLOOD, YOU ARE MY HOLY WINE YOU’RE SO BITTER, BITTER AND SO SWEET
OH, I COULD DRINK A CASE OF YOU, DARLING
STILL I’D BE ON MY FEET

I WOULD STILL BE ON MY FEET

It drank my blood yesterday. It danced around and spat on me and I swear it was drunk on the blood. It has learnt some words of my tongue since it drank. I have to keep my secrets from seeping into my own blood. I think it will drink more. I cannot escape …

Day 7

AND THE CHILDREN OF THE HYDRA BORN OF BEETLE, BLOOD AND DUNG DANCE LIKE DERVISHES IN SULPHUR ON THE ASHES OF MY TONGUE

AM I FALLING, AM I WALKING?
IS THE UNIVERSE RUN DRY?
GIVE ME BLOOD, GIVE ME BLOOD OR I WILL DIE

I tried to escape last night. It seems to sleep at night. I used a spell to slide out of the web ropes. It caught me by the pool, it moves so fast. It wasn’t sleeping. It knew. It knows my secrets. I am trapped in its web. Nothing can save me.

Day 8

DON’T SAY IT’S EASY
TO FOLLOW A PROCESS THERE’S NOTHING HARDER THAN KEEPING A PROMISE

BLOOD RUNS THOUGH YOUR VEINS THAT’S WHERE OUR SIMILARITY ENDS

I wonder if my death is a ritual, bound in time. It drank my blood again yesterday, and today it held the quill pen itself. It is learning. I do not want to live on in its foetid blood.

Day 9

YOUR TASTE IS BLOOD AND ECSTASY BUT I MUST DRINK YOU ALL ALONE YOU’RE FRECKLED LIKE A SPECKLED EGG A DOVE… BUT THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN

O stay with me sweet memory
O stay with me
It drank again. I am tired. I am so tired. I cannot think. I KNOW. I cannot rest, I have lost track of time. Alassa’s empty eyes stare at me. It ate Alassa.

Day 10

I’m all alone
Matter and shadow
In the darkflow
Treading deep waters Searching for the shore Waiting for the dawn to come

Day 11

IT IS MINE

Day 12

I dreamed of you at night time
AND I WATCHED YOU IN YOUR SLEEP
I MET YOU IN HIGH PLACES
I TOUCHED YOUR HEAD AND TOUCHED YOUR FEET
SO WHEN YOU DISAPPEAR IN THE POOL
You know, I will never say goodbye
Though I try to forget it
YOU WILL MAKE ME CALL YOUR NAME AND I’LL SHOUT IT TO THE BLUE SUMMER SKY

I am losing myself. The poison in me burns. It knows my name, AND WHISPERS IT FROM THE SHADOWS. I don’t know who is writing which words now WHY DO I CARE THE BLOOD IS ALL it is inside my blood I AM THE WAY THE TRUTH AND THE END

Day 13

I’ve waited hours for this
I’ve made myself so sick
I wish I’d stayed asleep today
I never thought this day would end
I never thought tonight could ever be

This close to me

On the edge of the great forest

Hugo Tuya’s guards have almost been caught robbing a grieving widow, and now have to make amends. They need to spend several days in the wilderness pretending to track down iron they already own, to receive only a fraction of the money they had hoped to earn by selling their stolen goods in Estona. The roster for today’s adventure:

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

The guards woke up early and set out to track the sole surviving bandit from the original group that ambushed them, and to begin their thankless task of making amends for their callous thieving.

The Truth About Deepfolk Iron

They followed the bandit for a day, tracking him back to the site of the original ambush and beyond, and confirmed that he had not attempted to dig up any cache or secret hidden wealth. He simply ran away from Ibara as fast as he could, heading east to the coast road and the chance to escape from certain death in the village he had been preying on. The guards let him go once they had confirmed he was not hiding anything, and decided to go back and investigate the strange place where they had originally discovered the widow’s iron. Calim was convinced there was something more to learn from the site, and they guessed that now they knew its location they could travel there quickly and search it during the daytime.

Unfortunately they lost the path, cutting overland to the northeast of Ibara, and there was not much light left when they arrived at the burial site. They worked quickly, splitting the group into two. One group searched the area around the burial site, looking for any sign of skulls or other remnants that were not buried with the iron itself, while another group – led by Calim – dug back into the site and explored the bones in more detail. The first group found nothing, but Calim’s group were able to determine that the bones in the burial site were deepfolk bones, and they were old – much older than 100 years old. They had found something ancient, but could not tell if it was a burial site or the location of some ancient battle, since buried by time and forgetfulness.

They also found a magic amulet, but Itzel concluded it was deepfolk magic and dangerous to wear. They kept it in case it might be useful later, and made camp for the night.

The next day they returned to Ibara, and handed over their stolen iron – all 10 ingots – to Hugo Tuya, as he expected. They made a good show of pretending they had dug it up on this trip, and of looking forward to their reward. Pompous as ever, he invited them to join them in trading it with the bailiff, and they set off to the Bailiff’s residence. Here they were led into an office, and a strange ritual took place: Hugo Tuya took out a piece of cured leather and laid it on a desk, and he and the bailiff then carefully drew each ingot out of its sack singly, sprinkled salt on it and placed it reverentially on the leather. When his guards asked him what he was doing, Tuya explained to them that Deepfolk iron was cursed, and any attempt to take possession of it was fraught. The best thing to do was to melt it down immediately, thus dissolving the curse, but even then it was best if storing it in a house to salt it, lest the curse cause the house to burn down before the ingots could be melted. Had they taken the iron with them, Tuya told them, thus taking possession of it themselves, they would have inherited the curse, and all its unseemly consequences: snapped wagon axles, spoiled food, arguments between friends, impotency, and other wreckage[1].

Quangbae made a nervous joke about how it was a good thing they had been honest about the iron then, wasn’t it? And they returned to their hotel.

The road to Miselea

The next day they set off for Miselea, the next town on their journey. Miselea is two days’ journey from Ibara, on the border of Hadun and Ariaki, a good town for trade in a slightly dangerous place, not so far removed from the Valley of Gon. From Miselea they planned to turn northwest and head to Estala, skirting the edge of the Valley of Gon.

The road to Miselea cut close to the great forest, running alongside a small stream never more than 500m from the looming mystery of the elves’ southern homeland. They followed it happily until mid-afternoon, when someone in the party suddenly heard a baby crying. They stopped and began to search for the sound, soon finding it: there was an abandoned camp between the road and the forest. They approached cautiously but found it empty, except for a baby that had obviously not been fed or cleaned for about a day. The camp’s other five occupants were nowhere to be seen, but there were obvious signs of a struggle, and spider webs strung around the perimeter of the camp.

Spiders had taken this camp. Big spiders. The guards decided to follow and rescue whoever they could, while it was still light. They headed into the forest.

The spiders

They walked on into the forest, and the spiders found them soon enough. They were moving in the trees above them, crawling through a network of webs on the trees and waiting for the chance to attack. The guards started shooting, and the battle began.

The first wave of spiders stayed in the shadows of the lower branches of the trees, throwing webs and missing, but then a second wave emerged from the undergrowth after the party separated, ambushing the archers who had moved back to cover their friends. These spiders had bodies the size of large dogs, and horrible hairy legs stretching meters away from the bodies. Fangs like daggers chittered and dripped venom, and they fired webs to try and entangle the guards. The tree-lurking spiders dropped to the ground to attack their melee squad, and they began hacking at the hairy, disgusting, chitinous thugs.

Soon a much larger spider, with a body the size of a small horse, emerged from the shadows of the trees. It spat acid in Kyansei’s face and then entangled her in webs, and began dragging her into the woods. Calim and Quangbae rushed into help her, and somehow wrested control of the battle from the spiders. They drove back the small ones and freed Kyansei with fire on the web, and then the battle turned. Soon all nine spiders, including the giant leader, were dead in the glade, oozing ichor into the web-strewn carpet of dead leaves beneath their feet.

They found the captured humans a short distance away from the ambush site. There were five humans hanging cocooned in a huge complex of thick webs. One was dead, partly eaten, and so completely invested that even its bones had liquified; when they cut open the cocoon holding this body it fell out as a sack of vile-smelling fluids, with no shape, barely recognizable as the human it had once been. The other four they cut out, heavily poisoned and barely alive. They put them under guard in the corner of the spiders’ lair and searched through the webs for treasures. The webs were surprisingly clean, the spiders’ feeding being so complete that nothing was cast aside, and they were able to gather large amounts of high-quality spider silk to sell in town. They cut some venom from the smaller spiders to turn into anti-venom, and Quangbae fashioned himself a halberd from the fangs of the giant spider.

As they searched the webs they realized that these spiders were newly arrived in the area. They must have been pushed out of their original lair by some other, more powerful force of spiders, deeper in the forest – giant spiders of this kind did not usually venture so close to the edge of the forest. Were they to venture further in and fight off the beasts they found there they might be able to gather some truly rare and splendid spidersilk, from one of the older spiders that live in the great forest, and maybe some truly potent venom. They looked at each other and back at the injured, nearly-dead human trappers, and considered their fate.

Life was short, and the death they had witnessed was terrible, but spidersilk was valuable, and the chance to gather it rare. What should they do ..?

 

 


fn1: Including upgrading the difficulty of every single skill check they made, including selling it: and if they roll a despair on the attempt to sell it, well, they decide to keep it, and the curse goes on …

The view northwest from Ibara’s Bailey

Hugo Tuya’s guards are in Ibara on the evening of the 7th of the Storm. They have just stolen a grieving widow’s treasure, and have received an invitation to meet the “elven delegation”. The roster for this session:

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

Yoog is still recovering from the poison she took when the guards found the map to the grieving widow’s treasure (which they have stolen), and Quangbae has opted to stay in their hotel to look after her.

The elven delegation

After their meeting with Mrs Verbere (at which they stole her treasure) the guards received an invitation to visit the elven delegation, a pair of elves who had visited Ibara from the nearby great forest for the annual meeting to renew the trade ties between the forest elves and the town. These elves had heard of the group and knew of Itzel, and presumably wanted to meet her. Itzel, fresh from robbing a grieving widow, felt it would be wrong to decline an invitation from two senior members of her community, and she and the rest of the group walked down the street from their hotel to the Wittan House, where the elves were staying.

This house was unlike many other houses in Ibara, being a three-story wooden structure built entirely above ground. It abutted the western palisade of the Bailey, and from its western and northern rooms guests could look out over the landscape around Ibara. The guards were led to a large, comfortable public room on the third floor of the building, where they found the two elves standing near an open balcony looking out at the sunset. The two elves were:

  • Eveltzel, male, tall (for an elf), with silver hair, blue eyes, very pale skin and wearing simple robes
  • Halildaliel, female, shorter than Eveltzel but still tall (for an elf), muscly with copper hair, green eyes and faintly golden skin, wearing a spidersilk jerkin and carrying a slender steel sword

After some small talk the elves explained why they had called Itzel. Before their departure for Ibara a dreamspeaker in their home had learnt of the death a year ago of an elf somewhere north of Ibara. They wanted the group to travel north to find the body of the elf and return the body and belongings to them so that they could be properly honoured and laid to rest in the forest. In return for the work they would give the guards a few steel arrows, a spidersilk underslunky, and a potion of healing. The mission would likely require two days and one night.

Of course the PCs agreed. Their only concern was how to convince Tuya to give them another two days to pursue their side mission. They gave no thought as to how to explain to their own consciences the hypocrisy of taking this job when they had used the problem of double contracting as an excuse to rob a grieving widow of her worldly wealth.

They returned untroubled to their hotel.

The reanimate

The next morning they found themselves beset by good luck. At breakfast Hugo Tuya informed them that the Bailiff was paying them a bounty for breaking the bandit group east of Ibara, but it would take two days for the Wittan to release the money. In the meantime he gave them two days to relax and do as they wished (“On my coin of course!”) They thanked him profusely and set off for the forests north of Ibara.

It took them a day to find the location of the body, and just before they did they were attacked by a bear that nearly killed Kyansei. They took this bear’s cub as their own, to raise as a future animal companion, and almost immediately after the battle discovered a small camp in the woods, at the entrance to which lay a skeleton impaled on a stake. Perhaps the bear had been searching this camp? The body looked as if it might be the elf they were searching for, though it was hard to tell from the mouldering rags left stuck to the bleached bones. In the camp they found a small tent with two bedrolls inside, and various detritus scattered around the camp itself. While searching for more evidence Itzel disturbed a corpse, which emerged from the shadows of the trees to attack her. She fled back to the camp and the whole group gathered around her to fight it. This shambling, stinking ruin of a body was a reanimate, the weakest form of undead, shambling forward through the camp trying to kill them with nothing more than its twisted, filthy hands. They destroyed it quickly and, searching its body, confirmed it was a human woman wearing a rotting nightgown. Had this been the other member of the camp? They found an amulet around the reanimate’s neck, which they kept. They guessed that the elf had come here to meet this woman, they had been ambushed by deepfolk, the elf had been impaled on the stake and left to die and the human woman had been reanimated and left as a trap for anyone who came to the camp. Typical deepfolk trouble.

The amulet

They gave the woman the rites of salt, gathered up the body and belongings of the elf, and returned to Ibara with them. They kept the amulet for themselves, thinking that they might be able to use it to find the identity of this woman at towns they traveled to. It depicted a huge wave swallowing the sun, and had been carved quite carefully out of what the guards guessed was obsidian or some other volcanic rock, though of course none of them were experts on such matters. At Ibara they handed the remains over to the elves and returned to their hotel for a much-needed rest

Mrs Verbere’s revenge

Unfortunately as soon as they arrived they were called to a meeting by Hugo Tuya, who was waiting for them with Mrs Verbere, the grieving widow they had robbed. Hugo Tuya bought them drinks and settled down for a meeting, speaking in his expansive good employer tone. He commended them on their loyalty in refusing to take a second contract but assured them he was happy for them to do so in this case. While they were away on their private work Mrs Verbere had come to Tuya and explained the second contract issue, and he had agreed with her that she should have the service of his guards for such an important personal mission. They had gone together to the bailiff and interrogated the remaining surviving bandit, from whom they had learnt that the bandits had never opened Verbere’s box, though they had killed him and taken his gear. Thus, the treasure spoken of in the letters Verbere had received must still be there. Hugo Tuya had negotiated with the bailiff and they had come to a fine agreement over the iron spoken of in the letter, and come up with a plan. Instead of giving the surviving bandit the salt death, the bailiff would brand him and release him. The PCs would then follow him and see if he went to some secret cache to find the iron. If he did, they were to kill him and return the iron. If not, they were to let him go and head to the location of the iron, where they would dig it up and return it to the town. Tuya would then sell it to the bailiff, giving 50% of the proceeds to Mrs Verbere and 20% to his guards. A fine payment for an easy job, did they not agree!?

They did not agree, and though morally outraged at this theft of their rightful possessions, could not actually tell Tuya that they already had the iron. Instead they tried negotiating with him to change the terms of sale of the iron, and were finally able to convince him that they deserved 30%, not him. Finally Tuya agreed, commended them on their good morals, and recommended they set off after the bandit first thing in the morning.

Could Hugo Tuya’s guards find a way to defraud the grieving widow of her rightful belongings a second time, or would they have to finally give her that which belonged to her, and which they had already stolen from her once?

 

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!


fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

We are now eight months into the coronavirus pandemic with little sign that most countries will be able to get it under control without a vaccine, which means that many countries are now attempting to return to normal while managing the virus. For most countries I predict this is going to be disastrous, and even countries that have not yet fully reopened – like France and the UK – are seeing resurgence in cases with the potential for a return of a major epidemic. But some of these countries are planning to reopen schools and universities in the Autumn, despite the risks, on the assumption that personal protective measures can contain those risks. I have expressed before my discomfort with personal protective measures, which will never be as effective at containing an infectious disease as good policy and robust treatment access, but this seems to be the dangerous path most countries have chosen to take. Given this, many universities are now trying to figure out how to return to in-person classes in Autumn, and many professors seem to want to do this. However, after a full semester of teaching entirely online I am unsure why there is so much pressure to return to in-person teaching and supervision. If we are going to move to a new normal I think we should consider the possibility that for some (many?) classes online is better than in-person, and here I would like to outline some of the benefits of online teaching and supervision.

Brief background

I teach classes in basic statistics, basic statistical programming, and some advanced statistics courses, to graduate students who are primarily mature age students working in health and studying part time. Here in Japan the first semester starts in April and in February I pushed for us to go entirely online, because I was working with Chinese colleagues on the coronavirus response in China and I knew how bad it was going to get. Our university already had a partially online component of teaching, to enable working people to take classes – basically students can choose to take an online or physical class for all of our required and many of our elective classes, and those who take the online component get to view recordings of the lectures, along with pre-recorded slides, and a slide set translated into Japanese. We have an online forum for asking questions and students can also join the physical class if they are taking the online component but able to get free time (this doesn’t happen much). Given our university already had this experience with online teaching it was very easy to switch entirely online and the faculty agreed, so we had about 6 weeks to prepare. This was a very good decision: many of our students are clinicians and some work directly in covid-19 treatment and care, so having them gather physically in a room is extremely high risk.

I originally planned to just switch the physical classes to the online component, upload last year’s recordings and use the lectures as a Q&A, but students don’t always have time for this, so I started teaching the classes in zoom (using slide sharing and so on), and I have found many aspects of lecturing in zoom to be superior to physical lecturing. I also reconfigured the statistical programming class to be done in zoom using breakout rooms. The statistical programming class was traditionally taught entirely physically, with me and two teaching assistants (TAs) running around the class answering questions and then reproducing errors on the teacher’s computer to explain specific problems that are relevant to everyone’s education. I could not physically do this anyway this year because I dislocated my kneecap in mid-February and had surgery in mid-April, but even if I had been able to, I found ways to make this work better in zoom. My students this year are learning more and better than last year, using zoom.

Benefits of online teaching

In my experience of first semester there are many aspects of holding classes online that are superior to holding them physically. In no particular order, here they are.

Reduced commuting: Some of my students join the lecture from their workplace, or from locations that vary weekly depending on their schedule. They don’t have to commute, so physically it’s much easier for them. Commuting in Japan is obviously high-risk for coronavirus, but it also reduces pressure on students if they don’t have to bounce from work to school to home. I think surveys in Japan have shown an overwhelming desire for normal workers to continue working from home and commuting is a part of the reason for this.

Better quality lecture materials: Nobody has to squint from the back of the room, or worry about audibility, or any of that stuff. They can see the slides clearly when I share them and can hear my voice clearly, plus can control the audio when they need to. The lecture recordings are also better quality, because instead of recording me standing there against a white screen in a dark room with dubious audio the students can clearly see the high quality of the slides and hear my voice directly in the microphone. This is especially useful for the programming class because it was very hard for students to read the Stata code on the lecture screen but in the zoom lectures it’s very clear

Disability friendly: We have one student who has mobility issues and would find getting into class very exhausting and time consuming, but none of this is a problem for them with zoom. Students also don’t have to suffer a one-size-fits-all computer arrangement for the programming class, and can use whatever ergonomic keyboard or weird screen setup they want. They can also learn in their native operating system and now I can teach in both – I have a mac and one of my TAs has a PC, so we can share screens to show differences (plus we can share students’ screens so we can learn how to work in their setup).

Full computer access: In the past I taught on a shared work laptop in a lecture theatre, or on the bodgy old PC in the computer room, with no access to my own full suite of materials. But now I have my entire setup available, so I can dig back through old files to show code I wrote years ago, or data examples that respond directly to a question rather than being prepared ahead. Obviously I could do this if I brought my laptop to the class but it’s so much more convenient to do this in my own office with all my stuff already set up (and it also means I can access external hard drives connected to my office desktop, etc). Students, too, can share the data they’re working with for their projects if they need to.

Shy and quiet students win: Asian students are generally shy and retiring and don’t like to ask questions but it is much easier for them if their face is not shown or they can do it in a chat window. Questions asked in chat can also be shelved and returned to later (since they’re written down where they can’t be forgotten) or answered by TAs in chat or by other students – in the programming class if someone asks a question we aren’t sure about one of the TAs can google the solution (or dig around in help files) and post the answer in chat while I continue managing the class. I think this makes Q&A better, and also encourages more class involvement by shy or quiet students. In my main stats class this isn’t a huge problem (since it’s just straight lectures) but even there being able to hide your face and/or voice helps shy, insecure, uncertain or scared students, all of whom can be found in a stats class. Also note that in a more interactive class a lecturer could strictly control students’ speaking time using the mute button, and I think in some systems can monitor how much students have spoken so that they can see directly if they’re allowing one student to dominate the class.

Convenience: Students can eat while they watch the lecture, can drink things other than water, can use their own bathroom when they want to, and can even sleep if they need to, knowing they won’t be caught out, won’t be embarrassing themselves in front of peers or lecturers, and won’t miss the class, since it’s recorded. Students are in general more comfortable in their own home or study or in the environment they chose for study, than in a lecture theatre with students they don’t know.

Recorded classes: My older students in particular find the recording of the programming classes very helpful. They have told me they review the same sections over and over while they try to figure out what to do for certain problems and tasks. Also for mathematics they can simply rewind and play again, which is a huge benefit for the slower or less confident students. I think the security of knowing they can’t miss anything makes it easier for students to take in the class, especially since it’s in their second language

Overseas and traveling students can participate: Three of our students were unable to enter Japan because the borders slammed shut the week before they were scheduled to arrive, and one more just slipped through. Given that most of our students are basically self-quarantining to avoid infection, two of our students are eager to return to their home country early so they can take these protective measures in a better environment. Online classes enables these students to continue studying even though they’re overseas. It enables us to maintain a diverse class even though we have pandemic border closures, and potentially in future to extend our classes to students who cannot get a scholarship and cannot afford to study in Japan. This is good!

Given these benefits, I’m not sure why people are eager to return to in-person teaching.

Online supervision and anti-harassment countermeasures

For me, supervising students usually involves working through statistical problems, often on a computer in my office. Last year I investigated ways to set up a shared, easily-accessible screen in my office so that we didn’t have to hunker around a laptop and more than two people could see a person’s work at a time, but the administrative details made me give up. This year of course that’s not a problem – it’s easy for me to supervise groups of students and share screens between them if I want. Nonetheless I still find in-person supervision preferable to online – visual and body-language cues are helpful for understanding whether someone understands what you’re saying, and somehow I feel something missing in online supervision that I don’t feel in online teaching. Also, in-person supervision can mean having a student down the hall who drops in and pesters you with the next stage of a problem on the regular, and this can be a very convenient way to get through difficult parts of a project quickly, but you can’t do this so well online. (You could, of course, just set your zoom on at 9am with your students logged in and working quietly and just use it when you need to, like a shared office – but we haven’t got there yet). So I still somehow prefer in-person supervision. However, there is one way in which I think online supervision is going to radically change the way professor/student and professor/staff relationships work, and that is its use in preventing harassment.

There are many forms of harassment in universities but one of the commonest is power harassment (pawahara in Japanese), in which a senior figure uses their power and authority to ruin the lives of students and junior staff. This is done through straightforward bullying – yelling, threats, insults and the like – as well as through things like taking authorship, demanding excessive work, refusing to share connections, giving unfair assessments, and so on. Things like sharing connections are the sorts of subtle power relations that can never be fought effectively, but the bullying aspects of power harassment take on a very different tone when all meetings need to be conducted online. I was myself bullied by a boss for years, and when I made a formal complaint against him a big problem I had was that much of his behavior – the threats to sack me, the unreasonable demands, the unfair statements about my work and personality, the threats towards my students – was verbal and not recorded, so in the formal complaint this became a case of my word against his. I won that complaint but it was a long slog and the outcome was not as good as I had hoped because the entire part of my complaint about his manners and inter-personal behavior could not be confirmed. This isn’t a problem when your relationships are done through zoom, and it will completely change the balance of power, for the following reasons.

The bully cannot get the same pleasure online: Bullies do what they do for personal pleasure and to bolster their own fragile personalities, so they need a reaction. Sure they do a lot of stuff that has no visible response – threatening emails, yelling over the phone, bitching about you to others – but none of this means anything to them if they can’t also hurt you visibly and viscerally enjoy the pleasure of watching you collapse. This pleasure is obviously going to be reduced if it’s done through a camera but worse still, on zoom you can turn off your own camera and mute yourself and they simply cannot get any pleasure from their words at all. They can try and force you to turn your camera and mic on but you are the one who controls your computer’s settings, and they cannot enjoy bullying as much. If it doesn’t make them feel better they’ll still do it – bullies are bullies after all – but they will have less personal incentive to do it and maybe, just maybe, as a result they won’t do it as much. Also, obviously, the bully cannot do the physical things bullies love – throwing small office objects, throwing paper at you, pushing you or touching you.

Bullies hate to be recorded: This is the real killer for a bully. Bullies always know how power works and are very aware of the risks of power being used against them. This is why the threats and insults are much more commonly and forcefully delivered in person, away from witnesses and not in writing. If you can record your meetings with your boss then he or she is going to have to be super careful about what he or she says, and even if the bully can stop you from recording the zoom session itself they cannot stop you putting your phone next to the speaker and hitting record. The threats to sack me always happened in unplanned ad hoc meetings where I did not have time to surreptitiously bring in my phone and hit record, and in any case it is hard to surreptitiously record people when they can see what you’re doing. But online they cannot guarantee they aren’t being recorded, and this means they will have to be careful. Furthermore, one of the responses a university might consider to bullying is to have a witness present at meetings, but the university cannot do this for ad hoc meetings, hallway interactions and the like. But zoom eliminates those meetings – all meetings need to be scheduled and can be recorded. So you can simply request during mediation to have all meetings recorded, and you already have your bully on a leash. It’s worth noting too that universities are going to be much, much more careful about dismissing bullying claims if they are aware that the recordings of the situation they determined was “not bullying” could end up going viral on twitter. I am aware for example of one famous economist who has a terrible reputation, but no one has ever recorded his rants. Good luck to him supervising online!

Witnesses: One of the great things about zoom is that you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the computer. Even if the video is on and mute is off, a quiet witness can sit on the other side of the computer listening to the behavior of your bully, and stand as a witness in a complaint. Bullies often gaslight their victims, making sure they say derogatory things in private and then either denying them or saying that they didn’t mean it that way or that you misinterpreted their tone. They can’t get away with that if someone you trust is listening in and can tell what they really meant, and give you feedback later. This is a protection for strict or unreasonable senior staff who are not bullies, because that witness will potentially tell their subordinate that the behavior is unpleasant or unreasonable but not bullying. But for bullies this is a disaster. They can’t break your confidence in your own judgment if there are witnesses to dispute their gaslighting, and they can’t even know the witnesses are there. Also it’s much easier for a victim to strike back verbally if they have a person there offering emotional support, even silently – especially if the conversation is muted and the camera off so that the victim can consult with the witness about what to say. And of course you can have that witness occasionally drift by in the background, so that the bully suddenly discovers that the last 30 minutes of bad behavior may have been heard by an outsider.

Bullies love chaos and unstructured interactions: One thing my boss was fond of doing was barging into my office and yelling at me, or calling me into an impromptu meeting and demanding answers to things I hadn’t prepared for, or catching me after group meetings with unreasonable and unrealistic requests plus insults. Bullies love to have everyone on edge, never sure when they’re going to make demands or suddenly turn foul. Of course they can be erratic and chaotic in zoom meetings but they cannot just barge into your work and yell at you over zoom – they need to schedule appointments by email, and that means telling you what it’s about so you can prepare, or at least leaving a paper trail of failed information. Also when meetings are organized like this you can try to rustle in co-supervisors, colleagues and collaborators to diffuse the aggression – and of course you can schedule a witness to hover behind your computer.

Given these reasons I think online supervision actually takes a lot of power away from senior staff and puts it in the hands of their victims. With tele-working and home-based teaching and research becoming the new normal, I think there is a strong chance that even after the pandemic people will be able to manipulate the new normal to allow for greater amounts of online meetings and supervision, with the ability to get greater control over the environment in which bullying happens. If you are being bullied by your supervisor now, I recommend finding ways to turn the zoom meetings and lack of physical meetings into a tool to collect evidence on your mistreatment, and to gather support from partners and friends to help weather it. A couple of recorded zoom sessions with a powerful bully could transform a workplace harassment case, and especially the implied threat of viral attention will really serve to focus the minds of campus administrators on what to do about bullying senior staff. It is my hope that online supervision and telework in the new normal will revolutionize the way academics work and in particular will enable students and junior staff to better manage the misbehavior of unruly and unpleasant senior faculty.

Online conferences and virtual meetings

One thing I really hate about academia is the conference world. I think it’s a scam that was developed by a previous era of academics to enable international travel for free, and for a while it was great – people could go to exotic locations and take a break on the government’s money. But now that administrators have become aware of the scam and the grant money is getting more competitive conferences are a drag. Even very senior staff now are not allowed to fly business, are required to turn up the day of or the day before a conference and are not allowed to take time off before they fly home, and often have to present certificates of attendance or reports. I find conference attendance exhausting and distracting, and I don’t think it enhances my academic life at all. Shlepping halfway across the world to present a 5 minute presentation at a conference where 90% of the material isn’t relevant to my work, then going straight from the final day to the airport to shlepp all the way back, arriving the day after I left and having to go back to work the next day – it’s just an exhausting and tedious waste of time. The fact that it is relevant to our careers – that junior staff have to take time out from all the other stuff they’re doing to faff on the other side of the world without any pleasurable side benefits in order to pad their CV – is incredibly infuriating. And on so many occasions it is completely unproductive – if you’re not the keynote speaker at an international conference you’re likely to be presenting a 5 minute speech in a windowless room to 5 or 10 other people (3 of whom are from your work anyway) who won’t have any questions and may not even care about your work (5 of them are the other presenters!) It’s very rare that there is any significant interaction or anything productive arises from it. What a waste of time!

Online conferences, on the other hand, are great! You only have to attend the presentations that are interesting, you can do it as part of your day job, and because nobody needs to blow half their grant money on a plane ticket many more people will attend. My Chinese colleague recently attended one where she presented her work to 300 people, rather than the 10 people she would expect at a physical conference – and she did it from her bedroom! This means that way more people see your work, there is much more interaction as a result, time limits can be strictly adhered to, people without grant money or from poorer universities can attend, students can attend … it’s a huge win. I hope that in the new normal conferences will become a thing of the past, and will be recognized as the wasteful scam that they were. Let’s make all our conferences online and save physical work travel for actually meaningful trips to do real work!

Conclusion: Online teaching is great

I have been raised to think of online learning as a scam, a way for unscrupulous universities to fleece low-quality students for second rate degrees. But in the modern world of high connectivity and good quality shared work apps, I think we can move past this and begin to see a way to improve our teaching using the online tools available to us. We can make our classes more inclusive, more interactive and more engaging, and we can find new ways to teach hard topics, using the online tools available to us. We can also change the nature of workplace meetings and hopefully even begin to make real progress on eliminating bullying. And we can finally do away with the ludicrous scam of physical conferences, which will enable us to use our grant money more effectively and get our work out to a wider range of people than we have in the past. Let’s embrace this new normal and use it to make our teaching genuinely inclusive and higher quality!

Hugo Tuya’s guards have defeated a bandit gang and stolen their treasure, and now they make their way to the town of Ibara to rest. After the battle they chose to rest near the site of their victory, because Yoog was still recovering from poison and they had wasted half their day’s travel fighting. They set up camp on a small hillock near the road, where they could keep sight of their wagon, and slept well. The Archipelago has no moon, but the night is often illuminated by sepctral fingers of silvery-grey light that flicker high overhead in the night sky. Called the sunshard, these are generally believed to be the sun’s promise that it will return in the morning, and are generally seen as a good omen for the coming day. On this night they appeared in their fullest glory, waxing so bright at times that they glowed a pale green. The guards enjoyed this show and the strange, otherworldly form that the world around them took on under the ghost lights before they slept, hopeful for good things to come with the dawn. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, human explorer with an interest in crafting and metalwork
  • Yoog, changeling scoundrel on the run from a job gone wrong

The following day they resumed their journey, and two days later arrived in Ibara without incident.

Ibara

Ibara is a small town of perhaps 1500 people built at the fork of a river. A stream from the great forest to the south and the highlands to the north join here before taking a more sedate course eastwards to the sea, along the road the PCs had taken from Inorat. Ibara stood at this confluence, with most of the town sprawled over the northern banks of the rivers and a small portion on the southern side. The town’s Bailey rose from the north bank of the river, built on a natural rise that ran perhaps 300m along the river bank. The Motte stood on the south side of the river in the fork, connected to the Bailey by a strong wood and stone bridge. The area west of the Motte was partially protected by an oxbow lake and a wide marsh linking the two streams, so that attacking from the west would require wading through sodden fields and reeds. In this marsh the people of Ibara harvested their famous frogs, while in the farms on the eastern side of the town they grew corn and barley. The town itself was surrounded by a low and largely decorative palisade, and the Bailey barely maintained its basic defensive structure, because Ibara had not been seriously attacked by deepfolk or any other major force for perhaps a century.

The PCs entered the town towards late afternoon under a light rain, and took accomodation in a hotel called the Precipice that stood on the rise next to the Bailey, commanding an impressive view of the river below and the looming Motte. They took dinner with Tuya, his “niece” and assistants, and here deployed on him the lie that they had determined to use to escape his watch for the two days they needed to go and find Verbere’s iron stash. They told him that Yoog’s poison remained bad, and that they needed to travel outside of town to find certain herbs and other materials necessary for an elven cure that would work against the poison and finally rid Yoog of it. They guessed it would take two days – one to go to the area where the herbs could be found and one to return. Hugo Tuya’s “niece” perked up at the possibility of two days resting in town, and as they had expected Hugo Tuya agreed to the plan in order to placate her. They would set off early the next morning while Tuya enjoyed a day’s rest in the hotel.

The iron

The next morning, bright and early, the PCs left Ibara heading north east to find the location of the iron cache. They traveled all day to the approximate area noted on the map that came with Verbere’s letter, reaching it towards afternoon as the second of the season’s storms began to roll in from the sea. Against the increasingly heavy rain and the driving winds they searched calmly and patiently for clues, losing energy and patience as day darkened to night and their clothes and equipment became soaking wet.

Finally, after some hours of searching, as the sun sank below the horizon and the storm crouched angrily over the forests, they found a small path leading off the main trail and into a dense patch of trees. Something about it resembled the notes on their map so they struck inward, pushing through dripping branches and slipping and sliding on the mossy ground until they broke into a small clearing on a slight rise. Here the trees drew back from the high ground, seeming strangely twisted and stunted, and they found a circle of four rough-hewn stones standing at the four compass points, just as the map had promised. In the centre of the circle a large stone lay on the ground, partly submerged and slippery with moss. All the stones were ancient, cracked and worn, but clearly placed there by someone. Tuya’s guards gathered at the edge of the circle, staring at the ominous standing stones in the dim circle of light thrown from their lanterns, and looked uneasily at each other. Lightning flashed overhead and the trees creaked and rumbled in the heavy wind, but the centre of the stone circle felt still, as if somehow the wind had blown around it. Somewhere beyond the comfortable orange circle of light from their weak lanterns a shadow moved, and Itzel jumped at the though that something stalked them.

Still, there was iron to be had. They moved to the location the map noted and began to dig. Using the bone pick and rough scrap shovel they had bought in Ibara the going was initially difficult, but after perhaps an hour they opened a hole into some kind of underground chamber, and suddenly a large section of ground collapsed, dragging Calim knee deep into the ground and revealing a low-ceilinged room beneath the rise. The room stretched back underground into darkness, and in the faint light of the lanterns held above him Calim could see bones gleaming white on the ground. He looked up into the shadowed faces of his colleagues standing around the rim, suddenly framed in stark brilliance by a flash of lightning, shrugged, grabbed a lantern, and began to crawl inside.

Once in the room the earth above stilled the sounds of the storm and he found himself in a cold, dark, damp cave. The floor was littered with white bones, obviously humanoid, perhaps mostly arm and leg bones, that had been scattered seemingly with no order and purpose across the whole space. Strange, whispering sounds emerged from the darkness beyond his weak lantern light but when he moved towards them and shone the light inward all he could see was the dark wall of earth at the back of the cave. He moved in a little more, doing his best to resist the urge to flee, and saw it: an oiled leather sack leaning against the standing stone. He slithered forward through the wet earth, trying not to touch the bones, until he could reach out and grab it. Behind him the light of his colleagues’ lanterns disappeared in the gloom, and all he had was his own weak orange light to press back against the whispered warnings and strange sounds coming from the darkness. Telling himself it was just some strange sound effect from the storm, perhaps channeled down from the stone above, he dragged the sack forward. It clinked satisfactorily and carved a track through the dirt with its weight. Grunting with pleasure, Callim began to drag himself backward until he saw his friends’ light again. He scuttled backward rapidly then, dragging the sack with him, and was relieved to emerge back into the orange glow and feel the cold rain on his face. They helped him out of the hole and gathered around the sack. Inside, as they expected, they found 10 perfect ingots of high quality iron, stamped with a horrid emblem of a leering skull. It must be a deepfolk emblem.

In any case, they did not care: they had iron! They hurriedly filled in the hole they had made, packing it so it would not collapse again as it had done when they had first dug it open, and scuttled back to the road, casting anxious glances over their shoulders at the strange, silent circle of stones. Who had built it? What was buried there and why? Why had Aveld the Foul been there, and why had he left the iron? Questions to be asked in the sunlight no doubt.

The greed and the lies

They spent an uncomfortable night huddled on the road in the waning storm, and woke early the next day to clear skies and reassuring sunlight. They set off early after a cold breakfast, and returned to Ibara by mid-afternoon with their treasure carefully hidden on Itzel’s faun[1]. They bathed, rested, and carefully secreted the iron where they hoped Hugo Tuya would not see it by accident, but in the late afternoon their careful activities were interrupted by a messenger from the hotel staff: a woman waited to talk to them downstairs.

Not expecting visitors, they dressed quickly for a meeting – carefully managing to remember not to wear armour or carry weapons – and descended to find a harrowed, tired-looking middle-aged woman waiting for them in the hotel restaurant, a brace of ales sitting on the table with her. She bade them sit and introduced herself: she was Verbere’s widow. She had heard they returned from breaking a bandit group and wondered if they had heard of him? He had set out some days ago “to make some money” and had not been seen since.

They said they knew nothing of such a man, but she told them about his treasure box and they admitted they had it. They handed it over to her, and she opened it to read the letters. Once she learnt of the iron she explained to them that she and her husband had fallen on hard times and really needed this iron to escape from debt, which was why he had left to find it. The bandits must have killed him and stolen the iron – had they found it in the bandits’ possession? They told her no, they knew nothing of it[2].

Then, she concluded, it must still be buried at the site noted on the map. She asked them if they would be willing to go and get it for her, and split the proceeds of selling it? They requested time to confer and then decided as a group that no, this iron was theirs, not hers, and they would not share any of it with her. They returned to the table and told her that though they would like to help her they could not: they were contracted to Hugo Tuya and could not, sadly, accept a double contract. So it was that sadly they must decline her generous offer. Perhaps someone else could help her? Calim and Bao Tap gave her a little money to tide her over while during her difficult time, and they again apologized sadly for not being able to help her. She gave them a resigned expression of disappointment, and left them to their ales.

They had lied to a poor bereaved woman, while upstairs her dead husband’s armour lay in their closet along with the treasure he had died searching for. Had that been wise? And had it been worth it?

They concluded yes on both counts, and did not think on it further. The iron was theirs and the past, like Verbere, was dead and gone.

 


fn1: Itzel is an elf, and has a small deer-like creature as a beast of burden

fn2: A small Genesys rules footnote here. When the PCs buried the hole in the ground they did a check to make sure they properly covered it, and they rolled two advantages. I asked Kyansei’s player how to use the advantages, and she said they enabled her to shore up the hole so that it would not collapse if dug into again. She did <em>not</em> say that she covered it up so that it was not clear it had been recently disturbed. So should Verbere’s widow lead an expedition to the cache in the next few days, she will no doubt discover that it has been very recently dug up and the iron taken. She may even see the drag marks in the underground chamber from Calim’s amateur efforts at moving the iron. It won’t be hard for her to figure out what that means, and who knows? Maybe she can rile the town up in defense of her recently bereaved husband’s legacy. Would she do that? I guess we’ll find out in session 4 …

I am made of stone
Walk the narrow line where nothing cuts you
Deeper than your own blade
I am the storm, my voice is the river
Take from me I fade into you
Fade the warriors, fade the black world into this fairytale
Fade, take to the sky

– Eilika Tribe meditational (Before the Battle, Psalm 4)

Hugo Tuya’s Guards have been attacked by bandits on the road to Ibara, but drove them off in a short and vicious battle. They now collect themselves, check their charges, and prepare to follow the surviving bandits to their camp. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Itzel, elven astrologer
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Quangbae, human explorer with an interest in crafting and metalwork
  • Yoog, changeling scoundrel on the run from a job gone wrong

The guards think there is money in this, and perhaps some stolen treasures, so they quickly organized themselves. Calim tried his medicine skills on some of their wounds (thankfully light) and failed, and then they set off after the fleeing bandits, following their fresh tracks back along the road to a narrow trail they had not noticed on their journey. They cut into the woods and followed the trail up a gentle slope until they reached the bandits’ camp, nestled amongst maple and alder trees perhaps half an hour’s walk from the road.

The bandit camp

The camp was a ragged collection of wagons and tents arranged around a central fire and table. They had obviously been based here a while and were not planning to move on – it was not even clear how they had managed to move the wagons (no doubt stolen) into the small clearing in the first place. Hugo Tuya’s Guards approached carefully, but it was obvious that the camp was largely unoccupied. The two guards they had chased were hiding behind wagons near the entrance to the clearing, bows in hand, waiting for the inevitable.

They attacked. Their plan was simple: they fired their bows into the camp and then Kyansei charged forward into battle. Unfortunately they had underestimated the numbers and guile of the bandits. There were six more hidden in the forest, who opened fire as the battle started. Their leader was also lurking in the trees, firing his bow. Within moments Yoog and Quanbae were brought down by arrow fire, and the situation began to turn against the guards. Fortunately they had Kyansei, who tore into one group of archers and killed them very quickly, while Calim and Bao Tap tussled with the leader. Behind them Itzel cast shrouds of fire on the warriors, hoping to burn their enemies. It worked, and after a few more seconds of brutal hack and slash the battle was over. All but one of the bandits lay dead, and the camp was theirs. They took the final bandit captive and searched the wreckage.

The treasure box

They found little to justify their valiant attack: a few coins, a suit of leather armour and a healing potion. At the back of the tent they found a dead semi-naked man but with characteristic sense did not bother to investigate the cause of his death. On the table in the centre of the camp they also found a small, well-crafted box that appeared to be of dwarven make, and unopened. Yoog, just recovered from the battle, attempted to pick the lock on this box and opened it easily, but also was struck by a small needle trap. The poison began working immediately, and Yoog sickened horribly[1].

Inside the treasure box was a map and a letter. They read the letter:

 

Siladan the Elder

Sundered Cliffs

Third watch road, the red house

 

23rd of the Harvesting, 1011

Verbere of the Flame

Ibara

My dear Verbere

I confess to some trepidation in writing this letter, for I know how deeply you felt Ashen’s loss and you blame me for it. I hope you will read it with a milder heart than 20 years hence, and will accept this token of remembrance and restitution for my mistakes.

I hear you are living comfortably and quietly in Ibara, with a good wife and family, and plying your trade still though in quieter and humbler manner than during our fiery youth. I do not pretend to believe that you care about my current situation, given the manner of our parting, but I tell you briefly that you may sense whether to trust my information. I have taken a position as archaeologist in an Academy in Estona, where I teach a little and also do a little research. After our parting I gave up on harsh living on the road, overcame my anger at the academy, and finished my studies as an astrologer. Here then, you see I know something of what I speak.

I have learnt in my studies that near Ibara there is a small cache of deepfolk iron, pure in form, cast in ingots, that was left forgotten there some centuries ago. I stumbled on word of it in the footnotes of a scholar known only as Aveld the Foul. Why he left it there I do not know but Aveld the Foul was a famous coward and endowed with a sixth sense for danger, so it is unlikely he would have found it if there were any risk. Perhaps a raiding party stashed it and fled, then died before the knowledge could be passed on, and perhaps Aveld the Foul left it there because he had no strength to carry the load. In any case, whatever the reason, I know the land around Ibara is safe and little-traveled by deepfolk, and no rumours have come to me of walkers, so I give you this information freely and ask nothing of you in return – not even a response to this message – except to hold some kindness in your heart for me as you grow older, and remember me for the better things we did together, and not for that tragic last night in the hills. I hope this small token of my regret for those events will help you in your future, though I hold no hope that it will soften your hear to me.

I owe you at least this. The map is copied from the notes of Aveld the Foul, and I expect it will take no more than a day or two from Ibara to find the cache. From Aveld’s notes it is not so heavy that you will need a horse, but worth considerable amounts regardless. My best wishes to you and yours, and know that I remain ever,

Your comrade in arms

Siladan the Elder

 

So, there was a treasure buried outside Ibara, the very town they were heading to. All they needed was perhaps a day of spare time and they could liberate it. It appeared that this “Verbere”, whoever he was, had gone to find the treasure and been ambushed by these bandits – at first the guards assumed it was his body in the ditch, but their captive informed them that the body had been the bandit who first tried to open the box. Now all the bandits were dead no one knew about it – except perhaps Verbere’s wife and children, but what did they matter? The guards packed up what they had found, tied a rope around the sole survivor’s neck, and trooped back to the wagons. They were just a few days away from riches, and the glorious fame that awaited bandit hunters in Ibara!


fn1: I don’t know anything about poison rules in Genesys yet, so I just made it up. Basically you do a hard resilience check every hour and if you fail you take a crit. The first two crits Yoog took were pretty nasty, and I’m using this house rule that if the number of levels of your crits is greater than your wound threshold you die, so pretty much within 4-6 hours Yoog was going to be in big trouble