When we left our heroes they were leaving the dubious safety of the village’s largest house, on a reckless mission to close the hell hole. The villagers watched them fade into the darkness beyond the dim glow from the shuttered windows, and the demons circled cautiously in the darkness, grunting and hissing but temporarily cowed enough to restrain themselves from attacking. The party carried lanterns, and a small marsh light sauntered ahead of them under Thyvalt’s control, the pool of light soon lost from view in the deep blackness of this demon-infested night.

As they moved away from the village, the group drew together, their lanterns seeming to dim in the inky darkness, strange sounds disturbing the usual bucolic peace of farms and forests. No frogs croaked; no foxes bayed; no fireflies drew up from the pools and streams of the rice paddies to their left as they walked. Where once Thyvalt had known to expect an ageing, wizened toad to croak resonant grunts at his passing there was only silence. The nightingale in the hedges beyond Linus’s bean fields was obstinately silent, and the owls beyond the carp pool dared not stir. They had entered a liminal space, somewhere between two worlds, and soon they were lost in it, all sight of the village obscured in the mist and the impenetrable shadows. The only sound in this cloistered emptiness was the grunt and hiss of the demons circling beyond the light of their brave lanterns; the only movement the gentle swishing and sighing of the trees, and occasional shapes stirring in the mist – shapes that were darker than night, except where flaming red eyes pierced the gloom. The only reminder of the gentle farming community they had left behind them were the post-markers by the road, which loomed slowly on their left side as they walked, even the comforting fenceposts rendered eery and unnatural in the glow of the witch light and mist.

Cog soon noticed a lull in the hissing and groaning of the lurking demons, and guessed an ambush was coming. He directed the little cluster of mortals off the trail, gesturing for silence and care, and brought them straight on top of a nest of imps lurking near the road. Battle was joined before anyone had a chance to draw breath, and soon over. Lithvard threw a lantern amongst the imps, blinding them in a flare of burning oil and splintered glass, while Cog 11 disappeared into the shadows and Thyvalt drew a useless curse screaming from the netherworld. The imps spread out to attack or spit, and six lumbering dretches dragged themselves out of the shadows to their death. These dretches did not come by choice, but were driven by a giant red flame demon, whipping them with a spiked chain. Ayn called forth the Spirits of the Righteous, and four pillars of fire greeted her entreaties, consuming a dretch and terrifying the others, while Cog 11 appeared from the shadows to gut four of the imps in a sliding, diving whirlwind of wicked knives and mist. Where Ayn’s pillars of fire guttered out they left a huge gap in the mist, and into this gap charged a red-skinned, dog-haired demon, that barked and whumfed its way to its own doom. Lithvard hurled a fire spear at the big demon and Thyvalt yelled imprecations of pain and terror in a desperate voice, hoping to scare away the beasts before they could be surrounded; but to no avail, for these creatures were devoid of fear or mercy. It was then that Syrion hurled himself into the line, singing battle songs in a brave and clear voice, sword singing, drawing all the drenches to him to tear uselessly at his armour. Ayn and Lithvard joined back to back, hurling contrasting bolts of magical energy – one brilliant white and apocalyptic, the other burning with wrathful fire – until all five dretches were thoroughly consumed, their corpses steaming and wreathes of foul-smelling demon-wrack drifting through the mist. Syrion and Thyvalt entered close combat with the giant red demon, but seeing all its minions scattered it turned to flee, taking the dog demon with it. Seeing it injured and terrified the party decided discretion might be the better part of valour, and quickly halted pursuit. They stood on the edge of the road, panting and gasping in the lantern light, Syrion cursing a myriad cuts and small burns and Cog 11 leaning against a fence post, staring into the mist with wide dark eyes.

They moved on. The hell-hole beckoned, a green glow in the mist ahead.

Closer to the hell hole the mist was burnt away, revealing the creek bed limned in green light from the hell hole, over which loomed a scraggly willow tree. The willow tree and nearby bushes were cast into stark relief against the distant fog by the green light of the hole, which scintillated and purred in the shadows of the far creek bank, ominous and impure. As they approached a demon slunk out of the hole and into the mist, reality shimmering disturbingly as it hauled itself through the dimensions and into reality.

Syrion grunted and charged forward, his sword leaving a trail of sparks on the stones of the creek bed as he rushed in to guard the hole. Everyone else followed, trying to hold their fear at bay as they realised that the creek bed was now swarming with demons, materialising out of that hideous gap in space and time as the characters attacked. The two demons they had fought before came crashing through the brush of the far side of the creek to join the battle, as a hell hound and a green-skinned, spiky human-like thing popped out of the whole, stinking of sulphur and rot and snarling with anger. The green thing, the red winged monster and its dog-haired friend all attacked Syrion, determined this time to snuff him out; the hellhound struck at Thyvalt. Syrion, laying about him with his sword, yelled to Thyvalt and Ayn to begin the ritual, but they refused to leave him, and joined battle. Ayn called on her gods, who were apparently more terrified of demons than she, for they abandoned her and her flame pillars fizzled uselessly in the demonic mist. The great red thing took a vicious swipe at Lithvard, a blow so ferocious it would surely have killed the little druid, but Syrion stepped in at the last moment and took the brunt of it on one armoured shoulder, grunting as something important gave way inside his enormous chest. Somewhere a demon cast a spell, and Thyvalt began attacking Lithvard, useless in his confusion but a confusing threat nonetheless. While Lithvard struggled with Thyvalt to try and bring him back from darkness, the dog-haired demon turned on Syrion, halberd striking at shield and armour. Ayn continued to aid him, striking with her sword at any demon that came close enough, while Cog tried to ambush the big red thing and Syrion desperately fended off a cascade of monstrous blows. The demons were grinding them down, but somehow they fought them off. Syrion smashed the halberd-wielding dog-haired demon and Cog disembowelled the green-skinned thing, appearing out of the mist at its feet and gutting it from hip to hip. Thyvalt recovered from his confusion and he and Lithvard dispatched the others – just as a new beast, made entirely of mist and shadows, appeared from the deeps. Gasping with exhaustion, everyone turned on it and cut it to ribbons before it could even fully draw itself from the hole, and for a moment the creek bed was suffused with calm, a calm broken only by the gentle hissing, popping, groaning sound of dying demons dissolving and rotting and returning to their foul brood nests.

Time being suddenly on their side, Thyvalt and Ayn began the ritual. Thyvalt plunged his sword into the ground, and Ayn began chanting, clutching the sword and swaying from side to side, looking for all the world like a singing shade in her uniform of flowing black robes, dimly illuminated in the sickly green light of the hell-hole and swathed in mist. Lithvard noticed something about the tree and began to investigate it. While this was happening more demons started dragging themselves from the hole, and Syrion, Thyvalt and Cog set about the unpleasant business of slaughtering them as they came.

A grim and desperate battle followed, as new demons emerged from the hole only to be cut down by the three defenders, who began to suffer increasing damage from the claws and teeth of the fiends. Clouds gathered and mist began to swirl around the fixed point where the sword was embedded in the ground. The sword itself had begun to glow red hot, and Ayn was trembling and shaking in fear. Glowing glyphs appeared and hung in the air, shimmering in the mist, forming a tenuous pattern in the air around the sword. The ground began to rumble and the hell-hole grew gradually brighter, becoming so bright that the branches of the willow tree cast shadows on the overhanging clouds. As Syrion, Cog and Thyvalt fought on, Lithvard talked to the tree and Ayn chanted, and the glyphs began to pulse in unison. Ayn’s voice grew in strength, and she hurled an imprecation at the sky:

Thou shalt not envy the light, thou shalt not spread thy demonic blight.
Thou shalt not defile what is right
Thou shalt perish in the night

More demons began clambering from the hole, but now the mist and the overhanging clouds were beginning to be sucked into the hell-hole, stray tendrils at first and then larger, thicker strands of mist as the hell-hole began to swirl and groan. Syrion slew the last extant demon, and the demons crawling out of the whole began to waver, fighting now against some powerful force from below that gripped them and began to stretch them. They screamed and struggled, but to no avail – Ayn’s wrath had them now, and the sword was flaring up with purpose. The tree began to move under Lithvard’s guidance, its roots reaching out to curl around the whole and choke it off, entangling the emerging demons and drawing them back in, choking and breaking as it did so. Its branches grabbed arms and spines, tearing them off and beginning to seal up the hole. Demons screamed and the hole began to narrow, glowing brighter and roaring like the wind through doorway in winter. The tree roots tightened their grip, and horrible crunching sounds and screams resounded through the creek as the demons met their horrible end. Moments later, with an anti-climactic sigh and a blink, the whole was gone. Our heroes stood in an empty, darkened creek bed, blinking at the darkness and tripping over the roots of an old, hoary willow tree. The battle was over. They had prevailed!

Exhausted, they lowered their weapons. Syrion, covered in bruises and scratches, shoulder broken, battered beyond mortal endurance, sank down onto his shield and then, with a shudder, fell sideways, to lie on the dusty ground moaning and gasping. Ayn fell to her knees, shaking in terror at things only she had seen. Lithvard leaned against the tree, panting and muttering his thanks, while Thyvalt looked around in exhausted wonder. Cog 11 emerged from the mist, flicking demon ichor from his face and panting, though unhurt.

They had closed a hell-hole.

Somewhere far away, the hooded servant of a giant dragon approaches it, bows and speaks. “My lord, shall we execute the plan? All arrangements are in place.” The dragon moves its huge eye slowly, alien iris narrowing so that only the narrowest slit of black cut through the gold of the iris. “No,” it hissed, the very ground trembling at the restrained power of its mighty voice. “It is too late. The scent is gone.”

The characters knew nothing of these icons. They rested on the creek bed until some of them had  regained a little strength, and then carried Syrion back to the village. They emerged into the village square with the first light of dawn, Syrion still unconscious on a makeshift litter, groaning in pain and exhaustion.

They had closed a hell-hole. They had prevailed against all the forces of hell. What next for them? They could feel it moving now – some fate had them in its grip. Where would it take them, and what would become of them? Only time, and many adventures, would tell…

[I’m splitting the session report for Eroding Empire session 2 into two parts, because one was a large battle deserving of its own post]

At the end of the first session of the Eroding Empire, our heroes had just killed a brace of demons, but had suddenly realized that in the heat of battle they forgot to guard Thyvalt’s father. They dashed to his home, fearing the worst, but found him unharmed in his bed, trying to drag himself a little more upright. Once they had assured themselves of his safety, he declared “More will come!” and then whispered in aggrieved tones,

“They didn’t keep their word!”

Everyone stopped their fussing to look at him. Seeing he had an audience, he sagged back into his mattresses and said in a low voice, “Let me tell you a tale of treachery and hard choices, son.”

Many years ago, before Thyvalt was born, the village and its area experienced a terrible drought. For several seasons there was almost no rain, and in the second year the bad weather brought plagues of insects and rats. At first they thought the village could weather it; then they thought they could buy food from other towns like Tameron, but those towns began to sell food at too high a price. In the third year some of them left looking for work to support them until the drought broke, but they returned broken with tales of hardship and failure. After this they began to think that the town was doomed, and Thyvalt’s parents were considering leaving the village to find somewhere new to live when a strange woman came to the town, promising to restore the balance to the weather and replenish their fields. Her price was steep but they were desperate, so they agreed to pay it.

The woman invoked a ritual of fertility that was shocking and horrific, and so disturbing that though Thyvalt’s father remembers it as if it had just happened yesterday, he refused to speak of it to his son. Suffice to say it was a thing of horror. But it worked, and the villagers woke a day later to find the town’s fields and farms restored, a gentle and refreshing rain drifting over fertile land eager to be tilled. The woman left that same morning, and the villager’s counted their blessings … until they realized that she had opened a hellhole in the willowgrove down by the old creek. It was then that the monsters started to come …

Again, Thyvalt’s father groaned and whispered accusingly, “They didn’t keep their word!” But they had no time now to ask him more – out in the shadows they heard more demons howling. Another wave had come! Our heroes rushed to the door and looked out into the mist-shrouded night, to see more beasts gathering on the edge of the square. Realizing they couldn’t hope to make a stand all night against these creatures with an elderly man to protect, Syrion charged boldly across the open square to a large house on the far side, where the villagers had gathered together in false hope of safety in numbers. He banged on the door and raged until one of the bolder villagers slid a window open a tiny distance and, poking his nose out behind a knife, whispered a query. Syrion demanded that they let the old man in, and threatened to tear the building down around them if they did not comply. This doughty villager immediately agreed to Syrion’s request, and quickly slid the window shut. Gesturing madly to his fellows, Syrion moved into the middle of the open square to take a defensive position.

The others rolled Thyvalt’s father in a sheet and began shuffling across the square towards the house. As they reached Syrion a new horde of demons burst from the shadows to attack: 5 imps, a minotaur-like red-skinned demon, and a grey-skinned, winged thing that looked as if it had stepped straight from a picture book by that new-fangled Axis artist Dante. The imps spat some kind of gore that hit Cog 11 and made him retch, but before they could press the advantage Syrion was at the throat of the grey winged devil, slashing and hacking. Cog 11, hoping to make some distance towards the red-skinned bull demon, tried to slide under the old man in his sheet, which Thyvalt and Ayn were still carrying, but somehow tangled in the sheet and pulled the old man free. Thyvalt and Ayn, relieved of their burden, were now free to join the fight … was this a blunder of Cog 11’s, or some cunning plan to sacrifice the old man so as to guarantee the support of his allies …? Thyvalt, Ayn and Lithvard now began throwing spells at the demons, and Cog 11 slid into the mist to prepare an ambush. All of this frenzied activity happened under the continued barrage of toxic vomit from the little imp creatures, but their aim was poor in the darkness and mist and confusion, and they were forced to scatter under Thyvalt and Lithvard’s magical attacks. Ayn left Thyvalt’s supine father to fend for himself and made battle with the red bull-demon, which Cog-11 had ambushed to some effect, slicing it from hoof to groin.

After a few more moments of desperate struggle the tide turned. The final imp was scorched to death by a fire spear, icy hands appeared from the darkness to tear the red demon apart, and Syrion was able to kick the grey winged thing to the ground and decapitate it. The PCs’ battle cries, grunts and gasps fell still, and they stood in the mist panting and shaking, as the demon bodies suppurated and fumed into nothingness around them. But this time they had no time for congratulations or reflection – demons continued to gather, and they had an old man to protect. They gathered him up and carried him gently across the rest of the square, their ferocious victory having briefly quelled the demons’ appetite for blood. After only a minimum of banging and threats, the courageous villager opened the door to the house and ushered them in. They rushed in, depositing Thyvalt’s father by the fire, and stood to find the village’s full but tiny complement staring at them, as if they were the demons. Cog 11, looking around at them all, whispered to Syrion in a perhaps-too-audible voice, “Beat the elderly until they tell you what you need to know. I check defenses,” and disappeared to inspect the house. Thyvalt and Lithvard set about making Thyvalt’s father comfortable, while Ayn took guard at the door.

Cog 11 returned shortly to announce that the house was indefensible and vulnerable to fire. He may also have suggested forcing the villagers outside as a distraction so that the group could escape, though no one seemed to pay him any heed. Instead, they decided they would have to find and destroy the source of the demons – the hellhole. Thyvalt’s father told them the next instalment of his sad but predictable story of a contract gone bad.

After the woman left, the monsters came. Just a single little slimy thing at first, we killed it and thought it a strange beast. But then there were more, and soon we realized they were demons. What had we done? We paid this woman all our savings in good faith, and she gave us what we wanted at a price she knew we would pay with our lives!? At first the demons just terrorized our livestock, which we had saved at such cost … but soon they took the first of us, and our lives became a hell of furtive farming, occasional deaths, and night terrors.

Until the Crusader’s Knights came. They clattered into the village one evening just as we were returning, weary and wary, to our homes to begin the long, hard watch of the night. They rode huge black horses with fiery red eyes, their hooves striking sparks on our only cobbled road, the riders inscrutable in glyph-adorned armour of shining black. They rode into our square and cantered about it in a rough circle, whooping and hollering, and we were all sure that our time had come. We cowered in our houses, terrified at the form our death would come in. Would they torture us? Feed us to their fell horses? Or worse? But then their captain, a towering giant of a man, dismounted from his gigantic demon horse and strode up to my door. He banged on the door, declaring himself to be a captain of the Crusader’s Knights Eternal, and ordering me to open the door. Of course I did not, so he smashed it in with a word, and strode into my kitchen where I cowered against the bench.

And it was there, in that kitchen, that the deal was made. I don’t know if he chose me through chance or some evil purpose – perhaps someone needs some innate seed of evil that he can nurture, or perhaps I was just the closest door to his evil horse. No matter. He told me he would close the hellhole and destroy all the demons roaming our fields, but in exchange I would have to give up my first born son to the Crusader. Is this how that fell Icon recruits his servants? I confess I did not ask many questions – it was an offer I felt I could not refuse. I should have asked him to find and kill the woman, but I didn’t. Instead I just gave him you, my Thyvalt, though you were not yet born. He laughed, a booming, chilling sound with no humour in it, spat on his great palm and clasped my hand, promised me a long life and a good one, and strode out the door without looking back. And by morning the hellhole was closed and there were rotting piles of demon flesh scattered around our demesne. We never again saw the demons, and once we had summoned up the courage to go down to the willowgrove we saw it free of the hole that had been summoned there. We were saved. The following year you, my son, Thyvalt, were born, and lost to me the moment I saw you were a boy.

But I don’t regret having a child, even should you turn to evil. What I do regret is that I never bargained that blackhearted bastard into promising to close the hellhole permanently. He cheated me, and if you do enter the Crusader’s service I hope you can find him and extract payment!

So, our heroes have to do the job of 20 of the Crusader’s priests, by dawn. Fortunately, they were prepared. Thyvalt possessed a strange sword that he had received many years ago from his master but which he had always felt had some malevolent power contained in it. He also had a long history of fighting demons away in his sleep. Ayn was in close accord with the gods of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death – surely ready allies when a hellhole needs to be closed – and she was well versed in the mysteries of conjuring and abjuration, for her cult were steeped in ancient learning. If they could embed the sword in the hole, and fend off the demons while Ayn invoked the proper prayer, they might be able to close it. No one liked the thought of what would happen if they failed, out there on their own in the dark, but what choice did they have? They had to close it, so close it they would.

Between them, Ayn and Thyvalt put a magic circle around the building that would last until dawn. The group armed themselves, looked back on the terrified villagers, and stepped out into the darkness…

A harbinger of what ...?

A harbinger of what …?

The eroding empire campaign begins in the rain-washed aftermath of the Black Company’s raid on the Doomsday Cult, which was the event that drew our PCs’ disparate lines of fate together. Having fled the Black Company raid, our PCs rested briefly in a clearing some distance from the Doomsday Cult stockade, eying each other suspiciously. The characters were:

  • Thybalt, Tiefling warlock
  • Lithvar, Wood elf druid, the pivot around which all our fates had been drawn together
  • Syrion Dessair, a human paladin who, were he forced to admit to a god that he serves, would probably say “Myself”
  • Ayn (pictured), a human cleric of the Doomsday cult, swathed in black robes and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally
  • Cog 11, a gnome rogue who had decided, on an impulse, to desert his position as scout for the Black Company, and join this strange bunch of wanderers

Though the group mostly shared a common link with Lithvar, Ayn did not, and had only briefly known Syrion (whose motives were, typically for him, very base) and Tyhalt, not the most trustworthy of acquaintances. Thrown in with this strange band, she was even less inclined to trust the scarred and diminutive gnome with the ice-blue, frozen eyes who had led the Black Company to destroy the only good life she had ever known.

No matter! Cog 11 pointed out to everyone that when the Black Company is tasked with destroying a cult, it at least tries to do the job properly, and would be scouring the land for survivors at first light – they needed to get out of this area as quickly as possible and find the relative safety of a town. Lithvar, knowing the area slightly, recommended Tamaran, and after a little pushing and argument they agreed to set out immediately for Tamaran.

Our GM prepared a description of the journey, which I present here:

You set out from the campsite towards Tameron. Everywhere you look you see evidence of last night’s storm, with fallen branches scattered about and dank ground muddy underfoot. Rainwater continues to drip off the leaves above you.

It doesn’t take you long, though, before you can see the sunlight through the trees in front of you. It feels good as you step out of the forest and into the sunlight. You’re greeted with the view of a grassy green valley lying before you, with Tameron lying just a short walk below. A small huddle of buildings lies peacefully in the center of the valley. It is mid-morning and the sun has already begun to dry the muddy roads. You enjoy a cool breeze as you make your way down to Tameron, sticking the edges of the road where the mud has already hardened.

As you approach the town you are reminded of just how good life can be in the Dragon Empire these days. Farmers are hard at work, their ploughshares swinging at the ground semi-rythmically as they prepare their fields for the planting. A boy of about ten herds a flock of geese past you, at first staring at Ayn as he approaches, but then nodding politely as he passes.

Further in town more people are out and about. Some people are picking up roofing shingles that must have come loose in last night’s storm. One man loops a shingle onto the roof of a nearby house, where another man takes it and starts hammering it into place.

A small group of kids skip by, with a chubby boy lagging behind them slightly. They stop and taunt him, and hold out something as if to say “You want this? Ok, come and get it!” and then start running away again. As the red-faced boy sighs resignedly and waddles off after them again, his rotund body turns your thoughts again to how good the people of the Dragon Empire have it these days. Although they are far from wealthy, barely one step above poverty, it’s been many a generation since famine or even plague visited, and war is kept to minor skirmishes on the borders of the Empire, barely effecting the lives of the common folk. Considering the long history of the 13 Ages of the Dragon Empire, a tubby kid in a town like Tameron is a rare – and joyous – thing indeed.

The kind of description that encourages suspicions of impending destruction … Nonetheless, our heroes needed somewhere to hide, so they marched steadfastly into the town, looking for breakfast and if possible somewhere to hide. Soon after they arrived, as they stood in the main square waiting for the nearest tavern to open, they heard a disturbance and saw a boy riding pell-mell into the town, yelling something about destruction and chaos. Cog 11, suspecting the worst, slid into the shadows behind a verandah. Sure enough, the boy had rushed to town to report the destruction of the Doomsday Cult, which the townsfolk had been quite fond of. People gathered and voices were raised in favour of taking a group to the Stockade to look for survivors. Syrion spoke out against this, pointing out that the Black Company and its camp followers would be hungry for loot and unsure of who was a cultist – best to wait. With this counsel dispensed, the party retired to the tavern to enjoy breakfast.

While they were eating breakfast, a local rube entered the tavern and began reading a tale of sexual transgression involving a young knight and two ladies-in-waiting. Syrion turned bright red; though he did not tell the other characters, someone has somehow managed to document all of Syrian’s romantic exploits in painful detail, and is now distributing scrolls throughout the land depicting his scarlet adventures. Try as he might, Syrion is unable to find the source of these pornographic missives, and though he once again tried to identify the source with this latest reader, he learnt nothing. Of course the listeners did not know the stories concerned this particular visiting Paladin, and simply laughed uproariously at the ribald humour of the thing. A strange fate indeed, to be renowned across the land for this kind of night-time swordsmanship, but unknown to everyone.

During breakfast, a local farmer recognized Thybalt, who is unmistakable as the tiefling lad who used to live in a village not one day’s ride from Tameron, and told him that his father was near death three months ago. With little else to do, the characters decided to accompany Thybalt back to his village, to see if his father was still alive and if he needed any help. However before they set off they decided to return with Ayn, the Tameron sheriff and a group of villagers to the ruined stockade, judging it now safe from Black Company soldiers. They arrived to find a scene of complete destruction, the stockade and buildings collapsed in smouldering ruins and the open areas of the encampment scattered with dead cultists, all hacked and mutilated by camp followers seeking rings, gold teeth and hidden treasures. Ayn drifted around the stockade in bewilderment and shock, looking at the ruins of what her life could have been and stopping to shed tears over every member of her little cult. The irony of a Doomsday cultist distressed at the end of the world as she knew it was not lost on her new comrades, but they waited patiently for her to attend to her grief.

When her grief was done it turned to anger, and Ayn began invoking a ritual pledge of vengeance, calling upon the names of her apocalyptic gods to bless her in a quest for revenge. The sheriff, seeing this, attempted to force a deal out of her: that she would not turn vigilante if he would prevent the townsfolk from disturbing and robbing the bodies of her dead fellows. She agreed readily, though as the group left the ruined stockade she told them she would obey no promise to any mortal power, and only pledges to her dark gods counted for her loyalty.

A point that was well noted by her new comrades, no doubt.

From the stockade they traveled to Thybalt’s home village, arriving in the late evening to find a tiny hamlet of just a single cluster of large farming houses. They were greeted with suspicion and coldness – Thybalt was never welcome here – but Thybalt was led into his father’s house, to see the slowly crumbling ruins of his once strong and vibrant father. The old man lay on a pile of blankets and mattresses in one corner of the room, no longer able to climb the stairs, and only moved feebly when the PCs entered. A few villagers came with them bearing food, and sat around to eat as Thybalt’s father told him the true story of at least a part of his origins…

Before Thybalt was born the village was in danger from evil, and Thybalt’s father made a deal with the Crusader to protect the village. To fulfill his pact he simply had to give the contents of a small sandalwood box to Thybalt. He gestured to the box, a non-descript thing on top of a cupboard that had probably sat there all through Thybalt’s childhood, undisturbed in its mundanity. Thybalt took down the box, opening it to reveal a scroll. Like a classic knave, he unrolled the scroll and read it. Two words leapt out in swirls of golden light and swam into his eyes; with all the wisdom of corrupt youth, Thybalt immediately blurted out the words.

As soon as he uttered the words, growling them out in some ancient and sinister tongue, three things happened in three different far away places:

  1. Somewhere deep and dark, a figure reads a book at an altar. Behind the figure is a grey wall. As the figure reads the wall folds slowly away, and the grey mass is revealed not to be a wall at all, but the scaly lids of some vast and terrifying eye. The lids open further, and a huge golden lizard eye swims into view. “It has awakened …”
  2. Somewhere else, outside in a grim and windswept plain. Three rocks stand in a line in a rocky, scrubby part of this barren expanse. After a moment the middle rock vibrates, begins to hum, and then explodes. Where the rock stood a vortex opens, its swirling colours a gate into …
  3. Thybalt hears a voice inside his head. “Who has called me?” it asks in a rattling, hollow tone. Thybalt, again showing the good sense that only youth can give, tells the voice his name. “Thybalt the untitled one. Why have you awakened me?” “It is an ancient pact,” replied Thybalt, opting again for truth over wisdom. “I see… There is much I must teach you.”

Though not cognizant of the distant eye and its import, or the vortex on the plains, the others did hear Thybalt say those words, and watched him sink into a trance. When he awoke he was … changed.. in fact, awoken into his Warlock powers.

Satisfied that nothing too unusual had happened – beyond one of their group binding himself to an ancient evil in exchange for a few weak curse powers – the group settled to sleep the night away, falling into slumber near Thybalt’s father’s slowly dying fire, and Thybalt’s slowly dying father. They did not sleep long though, before they were all woken by a high-pitched and terrified scream.

They tumbled outside to find a woman standing near the house, pointing into the open area that all the houses were built around. The night had brought with it a low mist that hung thick and still over the ground, and here in the middle of this small square lay a dead horse, gutted and still steaming, half protruding from the mist. A monstrous red semi-humanoid lizard-thing squatted in front of it, noisily indulging itself on the poor horse’s innards. When the characters moved towards it it fled into the mist and shadows on the edge of the village, but not to escape – oh no, now it was joined by some fellows, that prowled on the edge of the square.

Instinctively the party came together, forming a tight, outward-facing circle. Only Cog 11 chose not to join his comrades in the defensive circle: he preferred to trust concealment in the darkness and the mist than to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his new comrades. Besides, he figured, he would be a more effective combatant if the enemy did not know where he was. He just hoped that these un-Godly beasts used their eyes to see, and not some other sense.
Fear gripped the party as they peered out into the darkness, catching fleeting glimpses of shadow-like movement. Something, or somethings were out there, waiting for the opportunity to strike out of the darkness. They knew little of infernal or otherworldly creatures, and their fear of the unknown was almost paralysing. A trembling hand held the only lantern aloft above the center of the circle, sending trembling shadows rippling in all directions, only to rest on the thick, roiling knee-height mist. 
Two of the party members, however, were able keep their composure a little more easily than the others. Thybalt had seen these creatures before. They were the same creatures from the hauntings: the ethereal visitors who came to Thybalt in his night to loom menacingly over his bed. Only this time, these monsters seemed somehow… different … their simple physical presence, lifted from dreams and made flesh, emboldened Thybalt – what he could not confront in dreams he realized he could easily kill in the flesh. And there was no trembling in Syrion’s hands as he boldly held his sword forward, ready to pounce. For better or for worse, this boy knows no fear, and was looking forward to the opportunity to demonstrate to the Empire what a fearsome defender of the weak he is.

Moments later two great flame-limned dogs leapt into the square and attacked our heroes. They were followed by a strange, sluggish semi-humanoid creature seemingly made of tar, that sludged its way in from the shadows towards the party. From another direction that red-skinned humanoid lizard came loping out of the shadows on all fours, carrying a spear. Battle was joined!

The fight was short but brutal. After a few passes, Thybalt tried out his new powers, wrapping one of the flame-dogs in shadow-magic that extinguished the dog’s hellfire and tore the dog apart. Cog 11 drifted out of the shadows past the second flame-dog, which sank moments later into the mist, its flames banked and its innards sliding out of several deep cuts to steam in the mist. Ayn called upon her Gods of the End to bless her, and hurled a brilliant shaft of light through the the red lizardman, striking him dead as if he had been hit by a white-hot comet. Finally, Cog 11 hurled a chakram into the head of the tar-man, slicing the top of its head off. Bereft of strength, it slowly oozed out into a puddle in the thinning mist.

Catching their breath as they stood back to back, peering out into the darkness for the next attack, it slowly began to dawn on them that they were still alive. Some of them may have been in life-threatening situations before, and perhaps some of them had even experienced a violent attacker had trying to rip their lives from them before, but for all of them, this was the first time they had stood up to such a threat and defeated it. A combination of adrenaline and fear saw their bodies trembling in the light of the lantern, sending ripples out on the surface of the mist below them. They were alive, which was both a relief and somewhat exhilarating. Drawing breath, they looked around at each other, and for a moment they all drew strength from each others’ position in that circle of belonging. They had done it, and they had done it together.
Congratulating themselves on their first successful battle, the group began to clean up. But then, as if the whole group suddenly realised something simultaneously, they exchanged nervous glances with each other before they wordlessly turning their heads in unison toward the wooden shack where Thybalt’s father lay. They had left it unguarded… 


Background to our new 13th Age Campaign, written by the GM …

Empires are born, empires grow, and empires fade away. This is an undeniable fact. You can ask any library-dwelling scholar mage and they will tell you that history dictates this so.

An empire begins with the dream of a better world, and is forged with the sweat and the blood of the countless. Under the guidance of wise leaders, chaos is given order, the people become organized, and peace, and prosperity follow. Yet, power and wealth inevitably leads to hubris, to the belief that now is the time when the forces of history can be brought to heel, that this is the eternal empire. This hubris makes us blind to unavoidable urges such greed, lust for power, insecurity, pride, jealousy as they strengthen across the empire. They begin as a small stream, but they soon grow to a mighty river, sweeping across the land eroding the empire away. When the erosion is complete, all that remains are vague memories of a once all-powerful empire and some crumbled ruins hidden deep a distant jungle.

The land in our story has seen an empire crumble twelve times, but twelve times it has also seen a new empire rise again from the ashes, each time heralding a new Age.

The empire in the 13th Age is known as the Dragon Empire. It is a place of order, and a time of prosperity. A benevolent Emperor sits on the throne in Axis, overseeing the government that works to maintain the order across the Dragon Empire. A kind and just Emperor, he has born the burden of the Dragon Empire for many years and has had to make many sacrifices for her.

However, maintaining peace and prosperity across the Dragon Empire is not a burden that the Emperor carries alone. The Archmage and his Order Magus work tirelessly to tame the forces of nature and harness the power of magic to make the Dragon Empire a safer and more pleasant place to live in. The High Priestess and her Church have devoted their lives to the spiritual protection and spiritual development of the citizens of the Dragon Empire. And the Great Gold Wyrm’s selfless sacrifice and the efforts of the Ordo Aurum keep the forces of Chaos at bay.

Will these four pillars be able to resist the forces of history and make the Dragon Empire the eternal empire? Or are the forces of history already at work, eroding the empire from within and from without? That is our story to tell.

Cog 11 is the gnome rogue I am playing in my new 13th Age campaign, the Eroding Empire.

Cog 11 (“Cog”) is a cold-hearted, selfish and anti-social wretch. Orphaned (or abandoned) on the edge of the Wild Wood when he was very small, Cog grew up as a wildling, a member of a small group of children who roam wild in the woods. No one knows why, but the Wild Wood seems to attract such hapless children, and they are somehow able to survive on its fringes. They wander the forest in small bands, eating what they can find and sleeping where they will. They often sneak into outlying towns and villages, stealing anything that is not nailed down and generally getting into trouble. Usually multi-racial and multi-national, these bands evolve their own language from the mix of whatever is in their group. They are rumoured to sometimes steal civilized children to join their gang, but this is unlikely. Some are rumoured to be cannibalistic, but this is also likely a lie. Certainly they live hard, desperate lives and very few become old enough to leave their group behind for better days: most fall prey to the vicious beasts of the forest, or are abducted by the vicious beasts of the human world.

Cog 11 was treated well when he was a child by a wood elf resident of a temple complex on the outskirts of the Wild Wood, and subsequently met this wood elf, Lithvar, again, joining his adventuring group. This early memory of being well-treated made Cog 11 (foolishly) over-inclined to trust priests. When he was still a child, but one of the oldest members of his wildling band, he was offered shelter and succour by a priest from a mysterious organization called the Watch. Trusting this priest too much, he left the wildling band to become a Disciple of the Watch. He spent the rest of his childhood in the Watch.

The Watch is a vile and sick cult that believes the world is empty of gods, and runs as a machine of clockwork, its mechanisms hidden from the eyes of mortals. The Disciples of the Watch believe that free will prevents humans from understanding the full glory of the machine, and aims to destroy free will in all mortals, cast down false idols, and restore the machine of the universe to perfection. They believe that humans can be programmed, and that only a very small and elite number of humans should have any free will – these people would then guide the machine and “operate” all other humans. They have a monastery in an obscure place near the Wild Wood, and abduct sentient creatures of all race to conduct “reprogramming” experiments. Disciples of the Watch do not have names, only functions and numbers: this is the basis of Cog’s name.  For 5 years Cog 11 was a devoted Disciple of the Watch, but he slowly uncovered their darker secrets, lost faith, and fled. Usually people who attempt to leave the Watch are treated as defective parts, captured and subject to hideous reprogramming before being discarded, but Cog 11 was able to escape from the Watch – he is probably the only person ever to do this.

Lost and alone, Cog 11 joined a mercenary company called the Black Company, which is famous for its cruelty and deceptions. He worked as a scout and spy, learning to fight and all the tools of spycraft. He was with the Black Company for several years before abandoning it on a whim to join Lithvar’s group.

Cog 11 lost all his faith in humanity while he was a Disciple of the Watch. Although he has shaken off the Watch’s teachings about the evil of magic and the non-existence of other Gods, he cannot relinquish the idea that mortals are mere machines without souls, capable of being reprogrammed and to be viewed only in terms of their usefulness. He takes joy only in his work as a scout, and in killing living things. Although he could perhaps be mistaken for handsome, this complete absence of empathy coupled with his rough manner and lack of social graces makes him almost completely unlovable and without charm. He has no sense of humour and his language skills are one-dimensional and functional, the consequence of growing up as a wildling. The only kindness he has ever experienced was a few precious weeks with Lithvar when he was a child; he has never experienced the bond between family members except when he watched people grieve over relatives he had killed; he has never experienced a woman who was not forced or paid; and his only experience of comradeship has been in battle with paid killers. He is thoroughly isolated from the normal emotional life of ordinary mortals.

Cog 11 wears worn and cheap black leather armour, is festooned with wicked-looking knives, and carries a small shortbow. He has few possessions, and no distinguishing features. He is lean, thin and wiry, with no facial hair, very pale blue eyes completely lacking in humanity, and blond hair. But for his height and the clear signs of sociopathy, he is non-descript.

Some 13th age details are below.

One unique thing

Cog 11 is the only person ever to escape from the Watch alive, and he knows all their secrets

Icon relationships

The archmage (Negative, 1): The archmage is implacably opposed to the Watch, and anyone who was ever a member of the organization is a potential enemy of this icon. However, the Watch is a tiny and largely irrelevant organization, so a negative relationship with the archmage is unlikely to be strong

The High Druid (Conflicted, 1): Although the Wild Wood seems to somehow support wildling bands, the denizens of the wood also prey on them, and the High Druid does not seem to approve of them. Those who grew up in wildling bands see the High Druid as a kind of intolerant, capricious and violent father: loving, but not to be trusted and perhaps not fully aware of its own mind on the matter of their continued existence.

The Dwarf King (Negative, 1): The Dwarf King has a tenuous relationship with the Watch, though no one really understands why or how close they are. Escaping from the Watch with its secrets would not have endeared Cog 11 to the Dwarf King, though again the inconsequential nature of the Watch precludes any negative relationship with its patrons from being very strong.


Burglar (5): years of sneaking around breaking into settlements in the Wild Woods has made Cog 11 excellent at breaking and entering buildings, and the Watch further honed these skills to its own purposes

Wildling (5): years of staying alive in the wilderness has taught Cog 11 how to survive in the wild, how to sneak and climb and a little bit about how to identify and avoid animals.

Black Company (3): Cog 11 never got involved in old-fashioned ground combat, but his time in the Black Company taught him how the military works, and his role as a scout and spy meant he often was involved in formulating attack plans – he thus has a good military sense

The Watch (2): Cog 11 was taught about machinery by the Watch, so he understands how even quite complex mechanisms work, is able to make basic clockwork machinery, and so on. This time also gave him a corrupted understanding of theology and humanity, though, so it might serve as a penalty on his attempts to understand how human interaction works …

A smear of grey across the sky
A warning in the distance
An indecipherable alarm

And there you stood, your mouths agape
Your minds adrift and far from harm

Smoke on the horizon …

Black Company mantra

The boy and the wildling

Lithvar was just finishing shelving the day’s manuscripts when he heard the noise; when he was shelving Lithvar  had a tendency to be distracted by every creaking and cracking sound in the temple compound, and especially by any sound or smell from the kitchen. So when he heard the rustling and banging in the kitchen, he immediately thought of someone was preparing something for tomorrow, something he could cadge a little of. Even though he spent all day sitting down in the library, Lithvar was at that age of boyhood where he was constantly hungry, and he had long since become a familiar fixture in the kitchen. Strict rules of asceticism were supposed to apply in this temple, but Lithvar was no trainee – just a library assistant – and all the serving staff liked him. Seeing his chance, he hastily stuffed the last manuscript into its slot – some pointless document about the coming End of Times – and dashed swiftly and quietly down to the kitchen. He was given a lot of leeway, but disturbing the monks in their interminable evening prayers was not part of it, so he had to move silently. No trouble for a light-footed wood boy on the cusp of adolescence …

… he reached the kitchen to find it abandoned and silent. It was dark, but he could hear a scrabbling noise from inside. He slipped through the doorway and found himself staring at a bizarre scene of theft and rapture. To one side of the kitchen the smaller scrap bin had been overturned, and something was digging around inside, scratching hungrily for food. At first he thought it an animal, but after a moment it seemed to sense him and stuck its head over the bin’s edge: it was a wild-eyed elf-child of some kind, its hair ragged and matted, its face covered in filth. In its mouth was the messy remnants of a fish head, and in one hand it held stale bread. They didn’t have a chance to lock eyes though before Lithvar noticed the other thing on the kitchen bench. The bench was a great stone thing, that ran along half the length of the middle of the room. It had been cleaned down after dinner but Lithvar had left a single illuminated manuscript here after dinner, when he had sneaked down to steal some apple pie and eaten it while reading the book. Moonlight streamed down from a window high on the south wall of the room, and the book lay in a pool of silver radiance like some holy text that the gods wanted to be found. And indeed someone had found it: squatting on the bench staring down at the book was a tiny creature, a gnome child no more than maybe half a metre tall. In one hand it held a leg of rotten chicken; a chunk of the festering meat hung half-chewed out of the side of the little beast’s mouth. But it wasn’t eating, or looking around, or anything: it was staring in wonderment at the gleaming letter “D” that took up the top half of the page, and with one grubby finger it was tracing the outline of the silver dragon that traced the outline of the “D”, a dragon that shone like a real living thing in this mystical moonlight. The little beast was so wrapt in the lettering of the book that it didn’t notice Lithvar at all – it was captured in the joy of letters, just as Lithvar had been two years ago when he was first brought here.

Lithvar knew of these things: they were wildlings, children abandoned on the edge of the Wildwood by slavers, bandits or reckless families and left to fend for themselves. Most died, but the smarter ones formed together into wild gangs, moving from town to town and living by their wits, mostly by theft and sometimes a little prostitution. They were lost to the wilderness, mostly they didn’t speak or they shared a language their own band had created, forged together out of all the tongues of the members. They didn’t usually make it to adulthood, but those few who did would end up at New Port or Santa Cora, living as thieves, or would be inducted into a bandit gang and used as savage scouts till they died. But these two were too young for that, still wandering the wilds stealing food. Lithvar found himself not at all scared of them, just moved by a desire to help them. He stepped forward into the edge of the moon’s glow and whispered a greeting to the tiny thing. As he moved the other wildling dissolved into shadow and was gone with that supernal grace and speed that only wild wood elves can master. The gnome-child, however, was not so fast – it leapt back from the book but, still part entranced, didn’t leave the bench; instead it crept slowly away from this giant boy striding into the light, but it kept one eye on that book.

“Would you like me to read it to you?” Lithvar asked gently, but this scared the thing even more; it slipped further back into the shadows, and out of the spell of the book.

“Oh, okay … how about some food…?” Lithvar stepped slowly away from the table and turned to the pantry, unlocking it and opening it as quietly as he could. When he turned back bearing bread and cheese the gnome-child was gone, lost in the shadows. He sighed, not unsurprised, and placed the food on the table between the book and the shadows, just on the edge of the moonlight. A few moments later he saw two wide, pale blue eyes staring from the edge of the bench. Slowly the child moved back onto the bench, looking for the food but staring at the book.

“Would you like to know what it says?” He asked gently. The gnome child obviously couldn’t understand him much, but it understood his tone; it seemed to relax a little as it reached for the food.

They shared a few moments more before some noise in the upper levels of the cloisters disturbed the gnome. Lithvar heard someone coming, and moments later the gnome was gone, properly this time, carrying a chunk of bread with it into the wild night. Lithvar hastily cleared the food away, sighing in disappointment as he did so. His moment of connection was over, and it was back to the books for him …

… but over the next nights the gnome-child returned, and for a few weeks he had a strange and savage friend. He taught the gnome-child a few of the rudimentary letters in the book, and helped it to eat and rest. But eventually they were caught; he was caned and the gnome-child fled, moving on with its band to the next village, probably to forget him and his kindnesses forever …

The prisoner and the knave

In the years after he met the gnome child Lithvar grew into an awkward, shy teenager. He still loved books, he still spent his days in the library, and he still had no patience for prayers and asceticism, though he had begun to learn a little of the secrets of the temple where he lived. He had also become more comfortable with the grounds of the temple, and especially liked to take the air in the Southern garden, which had a pretty fountain and pool that he liked to relax by in the cool of the early morning. He felt very lucky here in this temple. Though he knew nothing of the religion that had found and sheltered him – and indeed, knew nothing about why he was here or where his family were – he trusted the priests implicitly. They were sometimes strict and often distant, but he been treated well here and although he knew little of the outside world, he knew enough to guess that life would have been much harder in the outside world for a seemingly orphaned boy of his age.

So it was that one morning he descended the marble stairs from the library into the cool of the garden, to sprawl on the bench beside the pool and have his faith in his elders shattered.

When he emerged into the garden he found it already occupied, by a sobbing boy no older than himself. The boy was staring at himself in the pond, his reflection disturbed only by occasional teardrops. His sobs were almost silent, but it was enough for Lithvar to know that this boy was upset about something. He coughed gently, always shy of speech even now, and the crouched boy spun around. For a moment Lithvar was reminded of that strange evening years ago in the moonlight, but that child could not have grown so much, this must be some other interloper. This boy was obviously injured in some way: his head was bandaged, blood and something else seeping through the bandages that were clearly freshly applied. His tear-stained face appeared to be bruised, and he wore ragged clothes that, in the places where they were ripped away revealed fresh scars and bruises. Was this what Lithvar had looked like when he was taken in by his nameless temple?

The boy backed away from him in obvious fear. “It’s okay,” he said, slightly helplessly, holding out one arm cautiously. “I’m not here to hurt you, I just want to sit on this bench.” He sat down carefully. The boy stared at him for a moment longer, then with an outraged howl he tore the bandages off and thrust his entire head into the pool, shaking it under the water. Lithvar, shocked, rushed forward to pull the boy from the pool. “Don’t!” he gasped. “You should keep the …” his voice trailed off as the boy turned to face him, dripping water from … two horribly disfigured stumps growing out of his skull. They looked for all the world like the stumps of horns, as Lithvar was used to seeing on the strange beast head hanging preserved over the fireplace in the library. Blood and clear liquid oozed from the base of the stumps where the damage had been done. It looked incredibly painful! The boy was sobbing again, and collapsed with a howl at Lithvar’s feet.

“What has happened to you!” Lithvar asked in horror. And then, remembering to always be reassuring with strange interlopers … “Don’t worry, our priests will make it better.”

The boy’s head snapped up from its huddle, and he stared furiously at Lithvar through stunning eyes, one violet and one black. “Your priests did this!” he snarled.

“What?” Lithvar took a step back, shocked at the accusation. “No! They are kind!”

“Kind?” The boy spat. “They want to drive my demons out. They had me locked in a room, they cut me and beat me.”

“No! They must be trying to heal you!”

The boy rocked forward a little, head tilting to one side, eyes widening. “You don’t … believe they would do this?” He asked softly.

“No! They are kind. They have always been kind …” His voice trailed off. He remembered the night they found him with the gnome child, and the boy’s cries and screams after they dragged him away. Where was that child now? They would never tell him what they did …

The boy rose up onto his knees, grabbed Lithvar’s hand before he could recoil. Was it Lithvar’s imagination, or was the boy’s skin slightly dry and … scaly?

“Please, help me!” The boy gasped urgently. “You know this place. You can help me leave!”

“Nothing is stopping you! Just go to the gates! Here, I’ll show you!” Lithvar drew the boy up, but then paused. “But wait, if you’re leaving, I should get some food for the road. You can’t go off without food!”

The boy looked around urgently. “There’s no time! We should go. You can’t …”

His protests trailed off, eyes wide, looking over Lithvar’s shoulder. Lithvar turned slowly. The temple Elder was standing there, flanked by two men in steel armour. They carried some kind of chains, strung with wicked-looking barbs and ending in a nasty blunt hook-thing. They both looked levelly at Lithvar with cold, expressionless faces. One twitched his left hand, making the chain rattle. The boy stepped away from Lithvar and started moving towards the stairs he had come down, but stopped as another one of the guards emerged from the shadows of the stairwell.

“Lithvar,” the elder said, not unkindly. “Please, what are you doing here?”

“Um …” Lithvar stumbled. “This boy … I found … he wants to leave. Um, I was just going to get him food and show him the gates.”

“No Lithvar, you weren’t,” the elder said gently. “He can’t leave. Tyhalt is sick, and he needs to stay here until he is better.”

“NOT SICK!” The boy wailed. “Don’t hurt me more! Lithvar, help me!” He stumbled forward and fell to his knees behind Lithvar, wrapping his arms around Lithvar’s waist. “Don’t let them hurt me again!”

The men stepped forward smoothly and swiftly. One grabbed Lithvar by the shoulders and arms, and before he could even think to move the other had the boy Tyhalt in a strong grip. Lithvar heard the chain rattling but noticed a swift glance from the elder, and the chain stopped. He couldn’t look around but he heard the sound of Tyhalt kicking the guard’s armour, followed by a thumping sound and cries. The elder nodded at Lithvar’s guard, and he began to be dragged in towards the stairs.

“We will talk later, Lithvar,” the elder told him. “Tyhalt needs to be returned to treatment.”

As he was dragged into the hallway Lithvar heard the boy crying and howling, then go suddenly silent as the chains rattled. Before the guard kicked a door closed he thought he heard muffled voices, the elder speaking loudly maybe, and then cries. But then the door shut and he was dragged into the cool darkness and merciful silence of the inner cloisters.

Later that day he spoke with the elder, but he learnt nothing of the boy, nor did he see him again. That day something changed in the happy silence of Lithvar’s life. Soon he was gone, taking a bundle of books and food and setting off into the world to find a new way…

The nightmare and the warden

Syrion was really still a boy when his father cast him out. Still a boy, but old enough to be caught atop his father’s third consort, and that was too flagrant an error for even his own long-suffering father to tolerate. Whether it was the shame of being cuckolded by his own son – and with his new favourite, no less! – or the realization that this child would only bring his royal house down, it cannot be said. Certainly as Syrion left the town incognito the next morning, bearing what little he could steal or beg from family retainers, head bowed in shame, the rumours he heard of that consort’s ill-omened end were not pretty. Still, he had got what he wanted, and what fault of his that her high-pitched warblings were fit to wake the dead (and his father’s guards)? Besides, the argument had been waiting to be had, and now he was free he could really show his father how great he was. He would make his own noble future, and return a powerful man to rival his own father. Then they would see who was an embarrassment to who!

… Syrion was still really only a boy a few months later when, down on his luck and too childish to manage his money, he found himself drinking his last gold piece away in a seedy tavern in some pointless town on the edge of the Wild Wood. It was hardly his fault – again, a woman had brought trouble down upon him because she couldn’t keep her ecstasy to herself. This time it was the daughter of the merchant whose caravan he had been guarding, and now here he was, unceremoniously dumped from his work and lucky not to have copped a stupendous beating – a good thing for him that the merchant’s retainers lacked any military prowess, and had been scared to touch him. Still, he had already handed over his deposit to a loan shark in Newport, and had been depending on the payment on delivery for food, clothes and lodging. So here he was, in a nowhere town with nowhere to go and no money. So it was that he found himself nursing bad ale and a bad heart, wondering if he would have to go slinking back to his father in shame, because there was surely no work to be had hereabouts, when a little group of men sidled up to him and offered him a paltry sum of money to beat up a local troublemaker.

Now that he could do! And what an easy troublemaker to find – some kind of demon that could be found in a barn nearby, a real demon with horns and a tail! They would only pay him a couple of silvers to do the job, but everyone knew that demons had treasure and besides! Think of the fame! And they bought him another drink! Which he downed ceremoniously, before staggering out to find this demon and collect his money…

… At the barn he staggered through the door, yelling bravely, and drew his sword with a yell. Standing there in the half-light was a full demon! It had red skin and fiery eyes, stood maybe 3m tall at the shoulder, and had huge horns and a long, whip-like tail. Was it scaled or furry? He couldn’t quite tell because of his blurred vision – some evil demon magic no doubt. This demon was standing over a supine figure, someone who was twitching and yelling in fear but transfixed before the demon, perhaps even semi-conscious with terror. A desperate tableau! Even though this demon, on closer inspection, appeared to be vague and barely material, in fact almost see-through – a seeming, perhaps? – it was still clearly a life-and-death moment for this poor traveller sleeping in the wrong barn! Syrion charged forward and with a couple of flourishes of his mighty sword arm was able to destroy the beast. It fled to its own plane, disappearing in a puff of sulphur, and leaving behind a little nick of horn. Syrion took the horn as proof of his job done, and sagged down beside the terrified traveller, who seemed to have returned to sleep. Now Syrion too was very tired. He needed to sleep off his drunken state. He would collect his reward in the morning …

… and so it was that he slept beside the warlock boy, Tyhalt, and while he slept there for the first time in a long time Tyhalt’s nightmares did not come – no demons manifested in his sleep, no infernal sendings or seemings troubled him. In the morning he and Syrion set out together, and it was only later in the day that Syrion realized Tyhalt was the demon he was supposed to have given a beating. By then Tyhalt had already proposed a money-making scheme to him: Tyhalt would appear in villages to terrorize them, and then Syrion would arrive fortuitously, collecting money to drive Tyhalt out. A lucrative venture! And one Syrion could hardly turn down. Thus it was that they became friends in crime, and wanderers on the fringe of the Wild Wood, as Syrion established his reputation as a paladin and demon-slayer…

 The doomed and the saved

Smoke on the horizon
Can the flames be far behind?
You run for cover, but it’s too late
You are engulfed, you are
The smoke on the horizon

– Black Company mantra

The cult found Ayn bound and dying in the sacrificial pit of one of their sacred ruins. She had been dumped there by her tribe – some kind of honour killing – doused in acid and left to die, or to be eaten while she died by one of the many ruthless scavengers of the wastes. Of course they only learnt later that her fate had been of such mundane savagery – at first, finding her in that venerated and holy hollow, they assumed she was a message from their crazed doomsday gods, so they saved her as best they could. From that day forth she was their slavish devotee, but scarred beyond recognition and shamed by the accusations of her tribe, she insisted on always being swathed head to toe in layers of impenetrable black cloth. Her face was so disfigured that she could never show it: instead she had a blank black mask, lacking even eyes (for who needs eyes when one’s mysterious gods of the End will give one all the sight one needs?) She became their living shadow, perfect adherent of their teachings, servant of their unholy and morbid gods.

Life passed that way for a few years. Ayn came of age, though no one could tell what changes might be happening inside those shrouds, and the cult too grew a little, found a wealthy patron, set up a little stockade in the edge of the wild woods. Things were going well, perhaps so well that their dreams of the 13th Age’s catastrophic end in fire and acid began to fade. Doomsday became a faint echo of their gods’ purpose, they went through the prayers and the motions but they did not, perhaps, care as much as once they did, living this comfortable life here in their little holy stockade. Except for Ayn. This cult had healed her, and its gods gave her sight – if her faith in their dread purpose ever waned or faded, so did her sight, and so every day she was perfect in her devotions to them, and in truth all she ever really dreamt of was the end of the earth – and especially of her old tribe, washed away in a tide of acid hate. When the Tiefling and the Paladin came, originally planning some scam but then deciding to stay for a few days so that the paladin could try and find what was beneath the strange girl’s robes, Ayn did not notice his attentions. She had thoughts only for the signs of the End Times, for that time when the world would be judged in fire and acid, and she would ascend to the heavens to become whole again. If she noticed the Paladin watching her impatiently, she ignored him. But she probably did not notice.

And noone noticed, either, the shadowy figure on the hillside watching them. The cultists were too comfortable in their easy life; Syrion the Paladin was too focused on Ayn and the mystery beneath her robes; Ayn was too rapt in her religious observances, praying to the dark ones so that she could keep the sight that failed to see the gnome scout hidden in the hills. So it was that he came, he watched, and he slipped away easily to his mercenary band, and he gave them detailed information on how to attack the stockade.

They came the next day: the Black Company, famed for its bravery and cunning, ill-famed for its brutality. The Priestess had paid someone to pay someone to hire someone to find someone to buy a squad to go and slaughter a doomsday cult. The Black Company were the squad, and Cog 11 was their gnome scout. He had come a long way since a library assistant taught him a few words in a glowing book; now he was a murderous adult with no heart, drifting purposeless through life with no greater goal than to fill his empty soul with a lake of blood. The Black Company was his company, but not his place, he had no place. So he watched as they fell on the stockade, but he noted that once again they had failed to follow the plan he had sketched out. They would win, of course – they always did – but it would take longer and be more difficult than needed. Angry at their stupidity, Cog 11 slipped into the stockade through the postern gate he had so carefully opened for them the day before, and prowled the streets looking for men to kill. He cut down a few, the savage pleasure of it muted by his disappointment at being ignored again. They always ignored him.

Then he found them. Syrion, Tyhalt and Ayn, trapped in a barn, fighting. He crept in above them, thinking to set some ambush, but he came to a slow halt as he crawled along the rafters to a good spot for the drop. These people did not seem lost. The big human, Syrion, was fighting with gleeful abandon, but he was brave, not a skulking backstabber like Cog 11. The tiefling and the paladin were obviously allied to each other – not by bonds of military discipline, but by some fierce joy they found in fighting alongside each other. And the black-robed girl, though she could barely muster a prayer, was deep in ecstatic service to her sick gods, flinging weak and pathetic spells about in the vain hope that she could serve some higher purpose than her own shriveled skin.

Cog 11 was amazed. His amazement soon turned to a surprising resolution: he would help them. These people had hope. He had nothing. Perhaps there was an alternative to drowning his sorrows in blood – perhaps he could find a place with people. Not the false companionship of the Company, hard men paid to like each other, but something real. He had never really even sought it out – perhaps there was a way?

With this brief irrational moment of hope eclipsing his usual cynical emptiness, Cog 11 dropped to the floor of the barn and shouldered into the door – which of course didn’t move under his tiny weight. “I have a way out,” he told the surprised paladin. But as they all looked down at him, he heard the creaking boom of a Company trebuchet. Moments later the roof of the barn crashed inward in a torrent of broken wood and flames, and the barn collapsed on them…

… By the time Lithvald stumbled on the stockade the main force of the Black Company had pulled back, leaving a ruined and blackened shell. Ash was falling from the sky with a gentle rain, and the whole area stank of smoke and death. He pushed his way through the wrecked gates into the courtyard, and picked past piles of dead and dying, looking for someone he could help. The ash drifted, settled and formed a thin skein of filthy mud in the rain, and the fires dimmed as the rain intensified. Everywhere horses and men twitched out their last breath. It seemed hopeless.

Lithvald was just considering leaving and returning to his forest when he heard a moan from a low pile of smouldering wood. He dived in and began heaving the wood aside, and after a few moments found the tiefling, who he helped out from under the timbers. As the rain washed away the grime coating the tiefling’s horn and slanted features they stared at each other in amazement. They remembered! Was this the boy Lithvald had tried to help years before? As he hauled the half-demon out from the wood they collapsed into each other, laughing with joy. Such a coincidence!

They helped the mysterious priest girl out, and then Syrion, who was battered from the battle and the ruins. Finally they spied a small crossbow focused on the group from amidst the ruins – Cog 11 returned to his old suspicions. But when he saw his teacher from all those years ago, he too crawled out of the shadows, amazed and awed by the power of fate.

This could not be just luck. This had to be fate. This was a group whom fate had conspired to draw together, to some obscure purpose. They could not separate now. They each had their own goals – of vengeance, lost loved ones to find, fame to make. But they had been drawn into the tangled web of each others’ lives by more than just luck. As Cog 11 urged them to leave the stockade before the Company’s camp followers came to murder and loot the injured, they spoke in amazement of their good luck and their future.

There was something in this. Where would it take them?

Note: this is how our new 13th Age party met. The Black Company Mantra is a slightly edited excerpt from the Assemblage 23 song, Smoke.


Bring out the bardic depth charges!

Over the past few months I have been involved in a roughly fortnightly series of adventures to play-test a new RPG, 13th Age. Since play-testing is over and the product is now at a kind of first draft stage, I thought I’d give my thoughts on the system. My thoughts, however, will be heavily tainted by the experience of the group I am gaming with, which consists of an excellent and energetic bunch of players and a brilliant GM, whose achievements I have noted before.

13th Age was co-developed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, I think, two quite famous figures from both inside and outside of D&D. It was billed to me as old school gaming with indie flair, or something along those lines, and is based extremely loosely on the fundamentals of D&D3.5. The blurb on the website says:

Our goal with 13th Age is to recapture the free-wheeling style of old-school gaming by creating a game with more soul and fewer technical details. …13th Age makes the play group’s campaign the center of attention, with a toolkit of rules that you can pick and choose from based on the kind of game you want to play. The mechanics draw from classic games as well as newer, story-based games.

I’m not really convinced that there is a “free-wheeling style of old-school gaming” but to the extent that “free-wheeling” in gaming can be encouraged by the rule system, I think that 13th Age does a very good job, and I think that its simple and flexible rules do encourage a rough and ready approach to gaming that is more adventurous than one would find in Pathfinder or D&D. On the surface it feels like classic d20 D&D, but in actual play it behaves quite differently, for a variety of reasons. It has some mechanisms in place to enable PCs to step outside their niche using skills, but the skill system itself is very light; it has redesigned all characters along the lines of 4th edition powers, but has included more old-school spell rules as well; and it has incorporated some elements into character creation that make it very easy to generate story arcs and plot-based gaming, but in such a way that they can also be jacked for immediate effect outside of plot arcs. This makes the basic rules very flexible. I’ll summarize some of the key changes here.

Character classes are very “4th Edition”: PCs have powers that operate daily, per battle, or at will. They have recoveries (i.e. healing surges) and feats that can be used to enhance specific powers. Interestingly, AC is determined by class + armour type – specific choice of armour is not relevant, only its weight and the character class. Thus some classes are constrained to operate best in specific armour types. Saves are very 4th Edition: roll over 11 or over 16 to save, with no modifiers. Looking at my character sheet, it’s a 4th Edition PC sitting there looking at me.

Background defines skills: At creation, each PC gets 8 points (or is it 10?) to spend on backgrounds of the PCs choice, which can have a maximum rating of +5. There are no skills in this game, and every time a PC attempts an action that requires a skill check they roll d20, add their level and an appropriate stat bonus. Then, if they can convince the GM that one of their backgrounds is relevant, they can add the rating of their background to the roll. So when we need to track someone, our insane Dwarven axeman uses his Tribal Dwarf background to add 3 to the roll; when we need to investigate insane arcane phenomena, my PC (Raucous Rella the Tiefling Bard) calls on the fact that she is the Reincarnation of a Famous Wizard (+5). For lying, cheating and fast-talking we have Raucous Rella’s Wandering Troupe (+5); for stealth we have the halfling’s … halfling-i-ness. And so on. If you can convince the GM that it applies, you get the bonus. This means that instead of having a wide range of specifically applicable skills, the character sheet contains a couple of lines for backgrounds, and that’s that.

Icons and Relationships: Perhaps in something of a nod to Japanese gaming (whether they know it or not), the creators have included a section in the rules for the relationship between the PCs and a set of 12 (I think) powerful figures that vie for supremacy in the world of the 13th Age. These “Icons” are not necessarily gods, but they have great status and power and their machinations in the world play an important role in shaping the destiny of nations. The PCs can have positive, negative or conflicted relationships with icons, and can use these relationships as resources in-game. These relationships may thus play the role simply of contacts or social tools, or they can be hooks and levers to get PCs into complex campaign stories. Over time relationships can change, of course. So far we have only used a relationship once – the rules for this seem to be quite vague and hard to operationalize, but the Icons’ presence in the world has been crucial to our understanding of power plays going on in the background of a couple of adventures, so make for excellent plot hooks. Perhaps in a way they function as a more accessible and temporally influential form of alighnment.

Characters are Heroic: PCs are intended to start as heroic adventurers, and they gain power rapidly as they increase levels. They also (aside from my bard) start off with a fair amount of power, and are intended to be able as a group to take on fairly challenging opponents. Combat intensifies rapidly, and PCs have lots of ways of doing significant amounts of damage in combat. Our rogue and barbarian, particularly, do ferocious amounts of damage. There are also some cute mechanics involving additional effects on dice rolls – if, for example, Raucous Rella rolls an even number and hits she can give off a battlecry that gives one nearby PC a chance to save against one ongoing effect. These kinds of things make for rich combat decisions and avoid reducing every battle to a chain of hit rolls.

These characteristics in total lead to a fast-paced, flexible and free-flowing gaming experience, where all mechanics are aimed at encouraging PCs to jack their characters to handle the situation, and GMs are encouraged to play to the moment. The system, by being designed for flexibility and speed, encourages esoteric choices, stunts and improvisation. In some areas the system is too vague (particularly with the icons and relationships, which sit there on my character sheet seeming mostly pointless) and when it strays too close to D&D it can be frustrating – using d20s to resolve actions really annoys me because of its unrealistic effects, for example, and my bard being able to cast Charm Person only once a day is a classic piece of Vancianism. But it has just enough extra elements to relieve the game of some of D&D’s more stultifying effects, and not to feel like just another flavour of D&D.

If you’re looking for something that feels close enough to D&D to pick up quickly, but has more flavour and incorporates some of the better ideas from outside the world of D&D, and if you like a game that encourages innovation and fast-paced action through its rules, then this is the game for you. If you’re really wedded to a game without daily powers or skills, or if you need a game that doesn’t contain any elements of story and plot development (even if only coded in as options) then I would avoid it. If you need detailed simulationist rules to float your boat, this is also not the game for you, but otherwise I think it can appeal to most players. I think it might be a system best suited to experienced GMs, because its flexibility raises the risk of GMs walking into big mistakes that can damage adventures or campaigns, but if you’ve enough experience to handle those risks (or haul your arse out of the fire after you make the big mistakes) then I strongly recommend giving this system a go to see how well it supports your creativity. It’s a good effort and well worth a go!