Kicking Bear's Dream

Kicking Bear’s Dream

This Compromise and Conceit one-shot begins in a remote part of the northern Red Empire. The background of the one-shot is described here, and the characters are:

  • Wachiwi, a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya, a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe, a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish, an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

Our adventure begins in the late spring, on the shaded side of a hill. The sky was a perfect, pale and cloudless blue, and a gentle cooling breeze blew in from the north. To the far southwest the characters could see a massive herd of buffalo, so far away that they looked like nothing more than the shadow of a huge cloud drifting over the plains. This picture of perfect natural peace was marred by only one small detail: the PCs stood up to their knees in a pile of dead Frenchmen. Nearby, one of these Frenchies was still alive, moaning weakly as his life ebbed away. On the crest of the hill a line of huge crows and buzzards had gathered, watching patiently as the PCs picked through the mess of dead bodies.

While the sight of a mound of dead Frenchies would not usually be cause for consternation amongst good citizens of the Red Empire, in this case they were a source of disappointment. Our heroes had been employed by a village north of this battle scene to find and kill these very Frenchies, and recover from them the village’s stolen totem. Yet for all their haste and careful tracking, the PCs had arrived too late, and had found their quarry killed by some other gang. The totem they had been tasked with finding was nowhere to be seen, and all that they could do was stand in silent consternation, looking at the heaped bodies.

Still, where there are dead there should also be killers, and anything on this wide and sunny earth that is powerful enough to kill a squad of hardened French mercenaries is also big enough to track. With Wickaninnish advising her on the details of the battle, Wachiwi set about finding the tracks of the victors. Wachiwi was a master at her craft, and nothing larger than a mouse could escape this battlefield but that she would find it. Soon enough she had located a faint trail, though on the scrubby and stony ground it was too faint to identify too much detail. The group set off in pursuit of those who had stolen their prize.

The Good Woman

They traveled as fast as they could while tracking, but after several hours’ travel they were interrupted by the sound of screams coming from the lee of a small hill. Our heroes guessed they were a woman’s screams, and immediately set out to investigate. They rode to the base of the hill, and rested their horses near a group of rocks. Weayaya disappeared behind the rocks, and a moment later an enormous crow hopped out from behind them, looking quizzically at its comrades in arms. Weayaya took off quickly and flew over the hill, ascending on the warm air to join a small group of crows that were circling in the sky a short distance away. His instinct was right: they had identified a scene of death, and were waiting for the living to depart so they could descend to feast. From this vantage point in the sky, the whole tableau was clear.

A group of six men in military uniform had made a quick camp in a dry creekbed on the far side of the rise. This creekbed was narrow and choked with bushes, but at one point behind the hill it widened to encompass not just the path of the long-dry stream, but a little beach lined with sagebrush and two small trees. From one of these trees hung a dead man, obviously harshly treated before his end. On the next tree hung a living woman, naked from the waist up and partly flayed. Three of the military men stood around her, while the other three sat around a nearby campfire. Between the fire and the trees lay a dead baby, and on the baby stood a vulture. As crow-Weayaya watched, the men did something to the woman, and she screamed again.

Weayaya returned to the group. It was clear what needed to be done, and no debate was necessary. Wachiwi slid into the creekbed and crept up to the camp, to prepare an ambush. The three warriors led their horses to the top of the rise, and when they judged Wachiwi to have had enough time to approach, they attacked.

Wachiwi slid carefully and quickly up to the camp, and was able to take a position within an arms’ reach of the three torturers. From here she could get a clearer sense of what was happening in the camp. One of the men held a lemon, another held a handful of salt, and the one in the middle held nothing. The woman was tied to the top of the tree by her wrists, so her back was arched and she was helpless before them. They had flayed off parts of her face and shoulder, and were treating these parts with salt and lemon to encourage compliance. As Wachiwi watched the man in the middle struck the woman in the face, and demanded something of her in a language Wachiwi did not understand. A moment later the vulture began to croak, and out of its hideous curved beak came words in rough Sioux: “Where is it?!” The woman stared back at the man in disgust, and replied in Sioux, “My husband may be a coward, but I will give you nothing. Kill me as you did him, you dogs.” The vulture then croaked all this back to the men in their hideous gabbled tongue.

Wachiwi had heard enough; the time for battle had come. In silence she drew from her clothes a dried coyote’s paw, and whispering prayers to her ancestors she buried the paw in the soil near one of the sagebrushes. Having invoked her totem[1], she waited for the sound of her allies charging down the hill. As their ululations reached her, she slipped out of the sagebrush behind the man who slapped the woman, and slid her vicious knife deep into his side, fully intent on gutting him from hip to armpit.

As she struck her comrades came hurtling down the hill, screaming and yelling and firing their weapons, all of which missed. The men in the gully were held frozen in alarm at the sudden ambush, so that their attackers had a chance to charge straight into battle. Wickaninnish leapt from his horse and fell on the salt man, striking him deep in the shoulder with a single blow; Weayaya smashed into the other man with his spear, knocking him back. Atha’halwe dashed past the three men at the campfire as they scrambled to their feet, decapitating two immediately with his katana.

Battle was joined. The man with the lemon was revealed to be a wizard; he invoked some spell that confused Weayaya so that he was unable to strike him. The salt man tried to regain his feet and fight Wickaninnish, but he was too damaged; Wickaninnish surged over him beating and hacking with his axe. Everyone left Wachiwi to deal with the man she had ambushed, but he was tougher than she expected, and was able to recover from the near-fatal wound and draw a sabre, badly damaging her leg. Meanwhile Atha’halwe circled back to kill the last man at the campfire. As the struggle proceeded, the wizard cast another spell, yelling some imprecation in his ugly tongue as he did so. The vulture, of course, translated: “The Great White Mother does not allow her loyal servants such cowardly rest!!” Moments later the two beheaded soldiers rose to their feet, shakily moving towards the battle zone. Fortunately the wizard cast his spell too soon to reanimate the salt man; having clubbed him near to death, Wickaninnish drew from his belt a nasty-looking device made of a huge bear’s claw. With his last axe strike he shattered the hapless foe’s jaw, so that he could stretch the mouth wide enough to insert the bear-claw hook. Moments later he surged up from the twitching body, raising the bear-claw hook to the sky and yelling in triumph. Sunlight glistened on the man’s tongue, ripped out whole and intact from the back of his throat[2]. Wickaninnish flicked it disdainfully to the earth, and turned to take his next foe.

Now the battle had turned desperate for the defenders, and the Vulture translated for both sides as Weayaya speared the wizard to his death and the others teamed up to kill Wachiwi’s foe. “Die, you stinking white man!” “No, please, not that…” “Oh fuck, I’m done in…” “Get behind me, satan!” “aaaaaaaagh!” At the last, Weayaya smashed the wizard to the earth with his spear, and then used the point to score deep cross-marks in his chest. Then, as he twitched and groaned, Weayaya savagely tore back the skin from the crosses, so that he was flayed in a great x-shape, chest and muscles opened to the cleansing sun. With a roar he stood up and joined the battle to fell the remaining soldier.

Having dispensed with their enemies, the PCs took stock. They lay one surviving soldier and the leader, who was still vaguely conscious, next to each other by the fire. Then they cut down the woman. She fell to her knees in the dirt, then rose unsteadily to her feet. She took just one deep, steadying breath and then leapt screaming onto the leader. Knees astride his chest, she grabbed his face and tore out his left eye as he squealed and grunted in horror. Then she stuffed it into his mouth, forcing it shut with one hand while she held his nose fast shut with the other. There followed a minute or so of savage grunting and struggling as the severely wounded soldier tried desperately to shake her off, and our heroes stood around approvingly, catching their breath and watching the woman take her vengeance. The woman screamed curses at him in Sioux, promising him that he would suffer in eternity for torturing her and killing her baby; the Vulture translated her imprecations as the man twitched and kicked. Eventually the leader’s struggles stilled, he stopped kicking, and with some final desultory gurgling sounds, he choked to death on his own eyeball. The woman stood up proudly, spat on his corpse, and then collapsed in the dirt.

Having witnessed justice dispensed fair and honestly, the characters questioned the other man, before ending his miserable existence. The soldiers were English, from a large camp deeper in the wilderness, and were here searching for something that the Vulture translated as “the well of souls.” They thought this might be an entrance to the underworld, but it wasn’t clear in translation. The woman told them that she, her husband and her baby had been traveling when they were abducted for questioning by these soldiers; her husband had proven a coward and told them that there were rumours of a village that held the well, however he had also proven weak, and died before he could tell them more. The woman was a good sioux woman, however, and had held out for an hour before the characters arrived. Atha’halwe healed her, and she told them she would return to her village to tell stories of their heroism, and curse her husband for all time as a coward and a weakling.

The characters decided to continue the path they had been following. These soldiers had come from the direction they were tracking their quarry in, and they suspected that their Frenchmen had been killed by an English patrol. Thus, the story of this quest for the well of souls, and their totem, were intertwined.

 

Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Custer’s Last Stand

The characters traveled slowly and carefully, aware that they might cross more such patrols. They stopped to rest the night rather than risk stumbling on enemies in the darkness, and next morning set out early to follow the trail. They traveled for the whole day, and towards evening they found what they were looking for. From a hillside they saw a large British camp in the near distance. It was set out against a steep slope, that curved up to a nearly unscalable bluff. In the shadows of the bluff rested a huge Corvette, something none of our heroes had seen before, though perhaps they had heard of such miracles from the British. This huge vehicle was large enough to carry perhaps 200 men, and indeed set out in its shadow was a large camp for about that many men. The camp was set in the lee of the bluff, so invisible to people in the plains beyond. A wide picket on the edge of the camp ensured that noone would find the camp without alerting its occupants. This picket held three gun nests, and also had a soldier every 30m or so. Wandering the line was a six-legged, two-headed chimaeric dog. This force was obviously deep in hostile territory, and moving with extreme caution to avoid being detected by large Red Empire forces.

The PCs had to get in there to find out what was going on. They waited until dusk, and then Weayaya disguised himself as the dead captain. He and Wachiwi slipped into the camp, and set about finding out what was happening. Weayaya found himself enlisted into the senior officers’ meeting, where with the help of a little magic he was able to understand the proceedings. The meeting was convened by a big, arrogant British general called General Custer, and his plans were very clear: in the morning the entire force was going to do a forced dawn march to a town two hours’ walk away, in the shadow of a hill called Little Bighorn. They were going to descend on the town and kill everyone in it, and then his two wizards would enter the well of souls – for reasons not disclosed at the meeting. They would then leave, leaving no trace that they were ever there. Any squad leader who left any evidence that they 0r their men had been there would be thrown from the Corvette on the return journey. The corvette – which Weayaya discovered was called the Custer’s Last Stand – would remain here, to be called in if things went wrong. The attack would take place at dawn.

While Weayaya learnt these military facts, and then went on a tour of the autonomous sentinel cannon gun-nests at the periphery of the camp, Wachiwi was investigating the two huge warrior-beasts standing in the shadow of the corvette. She had never seen anything like them before: three metres tall, made of human bone and demon flesh, with plates of metal armour embedded amongst the organic mess. Each was armed with a huge sword and an infernal blaster, and though they appeared to be inactive at dusk, their eyes still burned with an evil light inside their heavily-armoured skulls. These beasts were Myrmidons, the pinnacle of British military technology and formidable opponents by any measure, likely worth 20 braves in close battle. The force amassed here, though not capable of defeating a major sioux battle group, would certainly be able to wipe out a single town with a surprise raid.

Something would have to be done.

The dawn battle

Their plan was simple. Weayaya remained in camp disguised as the British captain, and would ride near Custer into battle, with Wachiwi hidden in his saddlebags. They would ambush Weayaya when the battle began. In the meantime, Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe raced ahead to the town of Little Bighorn, to warn the residents of the coming battle. The chieftain of the town was one Sitting Bull, currently deeply involved in the politics of Imperial Ascension and eagerly looking for a victory to present as proof of his candidature. He agreed to the ambush, and they set their ambush in a forested hollow at the base of Little Bighorn.

The trap was easily sprung. Custer’s forces were moving fast and quiet, and had little time for outriders; those they sent were easily neutralized. When his forces entered the hollow the braves attacked, and as soon as the battle began Wachiwi and Weayaya attacked Custer. Wachiwi’s ambush was not enough to seriously hurt him, but she pinned his leg to his saddle with her knife. As he struggled to throw her off, Weayaya struck him with a spear. Custer’s wizards were riding near him and reacted in outrage at this attack, but Weayaya confused them by yelling,

“Custer! You coward and traitor! You have led us into a trap!!”

This declaration worked so well that the wizards were briefly confused, and did not rush to Custer’s aid. As he battled Weayaya and Wachiwi, his men were caught in ferocious battle with the Sioux attackers. Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe cut their way through the throng, making their way towards Custer. Custer was guarded by one of the Myrmidons, but with a stroke of luck Weayaya was able to confuse it with an invocation to the spirits, and for a few brief flurries of battle it did not attack.

As Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe approached, Custer realized he was beyond salvation. Calling to his elite cavalry, he spurred his horse from the battle and led them up the slopes of Little Bighorn, declaring that they would make a last stand on the hilltop. As he fled, Weayaya yelled

“Custer! You cowardly traitor! You lead us to an ambush and flee! You are a low-down servant of the red man!”

The wizards, convinced by Weayaya’s declarations, decided to take sides, and they both let loose balls of balefire on Custer. As he rode up the hill, he was engulfed in two huge balls of black fire. He fell roasted from his horse, and his men riding behind him fell into disarray as the lead horses crashed into the fire and fell. Pursuing Sioux fell on them, hacking them to death.

With their general revealed to be a cowardly traitor, and now dead, the remaining British began to panic. Weayaya rode up to Wickaninnish, and their followed a remarkable piece of stage-managed deception. Wickaninnish dismounted from his horse and, drawing his tomahawk and letting loose a great cry, plunged it deep into the ground. A ripple of confusion spread from the axe, and all across the battlefield people stopped attacking each other[3]. The vulture, circling overhead, translated for Weayaya from English to Sioux, as he said

“Oh brave and powerful warleader, I offer you the surrender of all my men on this battlefield if you will show us mercy.”

All about them soldiers and braves looked on in amazement as the Vulture translated. Wickaninnish raised an arm and replied,

“Pale-faced captain, you have fought well and bravely. It is not your fault that your warchief was a coward and a traitor. Because you acquitted yourselves well, I grant you mercy. If your men throw down their arms and admit their error in this attack, we will allow them to live, and will escort you all back to your camp. I assure your safety!”

Weayaya looked around at the soldiers, and issued this demand. They threw their weapons down and with cries of sorrow, offered themselves to the tender mercy of the Sioux. The battle was over, Custer disgraced, the mission to the well of souls a complete failure, and Wickaninnish now a proud and revered warchief.

They led the men back to the corvette, which they claimed for the Red Empire. Inside they found their totem, which the British had simply stolen opportunistically when they stumbled on the French mercenary band. A few Sioux prisoners were freed, Custer’s documents and plans were stolen, and the wizards questioned. The men would be forced to return on foot to the nearest French outpost, their mission revealed but their lives spared. All that remained was for our heroes to find out why the British were willing to risk so much for a raid on the well of souls. What did they want in the Underworld that they were willing to risk an elite force to do it? What was their interest in the mysteries of the Red Empire…?

fn1: This totem enables everyone in battle to replace one characteristic die with a reckless die. Totems need to be placed at the point of battle, so charging braves cannot deploy totems; Wachiwi was the only person who could invoke a totem for this battle.

fn2: This is counting coup! From this Wickaninnish regained a coup point and one point of fatigue.

fn3: This is one of Wickaninnish’s powers, “Bury the hatchet,” which forces a temporary peace on a battle.

Picture credits: the corvette is obviously from Nausicaa. The picture at the top of the post is a piece of ledger art depicting Custer’s last stand, by Kicking Bear, 1896.

Things as they were...

Things as they were…

There are three main coherent nations of native Americans in the mid 19th century. They are the Iroquois Confederacy, the Red Empire and the Empire of the Sun.

The Iroquois Confederacy is a group of six nations in the north east of modern America, on the border of Canada. Their most famous members are the Mohawk nation. They are a matrilineal society, possibly also Matriarchal depending on how one defines this historically elusive concept. They have a functioning democracy and are probably the most politically sophisticated of the nations. They are bordered to the north by the Huron, with whom they are in regular conflict, and to the South by the English colonies. To their west is a disputed borderland that leads to the borders of the Red Empire. They trade and farm, and are most familiar with Europeans. An Iroquois character would speak their own nation’s language, and also would be fluent in French (the language of the Confederacy).

The Red Empire covers the area of the Great Plains, basically from somewhere around Chicago west to the rockies, and from the Canadian border down towards Texas and Florida. It is bordered by the Rockies on the west and the English colonies on the East. The Red Empire is populated by many of the Great Plains tribes, most famously the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Pawnee. Some of these tribes are nomadic (e.g. the Sioux) and others semi-nomadic. The Cheyenne, for example, are farmers and traders, and the Pawnee live in earth houses but go on long journeys chasing the buffalo. The Red Empire is newer than the Iroquois Confederacy and less stable, with even its political structure still undecided. There are not enough people in the Empire to police its borders or its polity. This means that on the edges of the Empire there are French forts and settlements (to the North) and English forts and settlements (to the East), and on its southwest side its border with the Empire of the Sun is undetermined. It also means that the “law” of the Empire is enforced at a tribal level – although the tribes are at peace with each other and part of a common nation, they often have disputes and resolve legal disagreements according to competing legal settlements. The Red Empire is the main way by which the other native Americans, French and English can trade with each other, though, so everyone is interested in maintaining peace within the Empire, so different tribes can meet and interact and travel (relatively) freely.

The Empire of the Sun covers the conglomeration of the Hopi, Navajo Chumash and Comache people of California, New Mexico and Arizona. They are the guardians of the Grand Canyon, and another ancient and proud culture. The Navajo are the central powers of the Empire. This Empire trades with Mayans and Incas to the South, is rumoured to have a navy, and also trades with nations from across the Pacific (especially Japan, China and Russia). The Empire of the Sun is close to a religious dictatorship, however, and lacks the same freedoms and chaos of the Red Empire.

There are other tribes in America which, untouched by colonialism (or victorious against it) are thriving and powerful cultures. These three nations are the primary agents in the Compromise and Conceit One-shot that I prepared, however.

A coward and a traitor!

A coward and a traitor!

On the weekend I ran a one-shot set in my Compromise and Conceit world, using my improvised high-speed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) rules. This adventure was set in North America in 1865, in the Red Empire. This setting is 100 years after the death of George Washington at the hands of my London group, and the subsequent collapse of the British colonial effort in America. In the aftermath the British controlled a narrow line of territories on the East coast, and over the subsequent 100 years repeated attempts to regain colonial ground had come largely to nothing. In 1865 the great land mass of North America now consisted of a huge native American Empire covering the centre of the land, and smaller nations on the eastern and south-western corners. Our group consisted of a mixed band of native Americans from these disparate nations, all gathered on a mission of revenge in a remote northern area of the Red Empire, some days’ ride south of the border with New France (Canada). Our party consists of:

  • Wachiwi: a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya: a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe: a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish: an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

For these characters I introduced some new ideas to make the system more redolent of the type of adventuring I am most fond of in wild west epics, which I always imagine as being based on the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. This type of adventuring requires individual bravery and recklessness, with feats of physical prowess that are obviously magically based, and leavened with a heavy dose of purposeful savagery. I also, of course, needed to infuse it with magic (since this is the fundamental basis of the Compromise and Conceit alternative history), and include some famous people. To achieve this style of adventuring, I made some small additions to the fortune point rules:

  • I changed their name to “coup points”, and made them more powerful: in my hyper-lite version of WFRP 3 coup points can be used to reroll all dice of one colour in a dice pool. They can also be used to add an expertise die to a dice pool – not just two fortune dice as in standard WFRP
  • Coup points are regained through scalping! Each PC has a form of “counting coup” that they can use on an enemy they have killed themselves. This enemy must be killed in melee, and a PC can only count coup on their own victim. Each PC establishes their own specific style of counting coup – it doesn’t have to be scalping, but it has to be something that humiliates a dying enemy. When the PC delivers the killing blow their player declares that they will spend the next round counting coup: this means they lose their action for a full round, and spend it doing something horrible to their victim. They make a fellowship check, and if successful they gain a coup point – plus they may also recover damage, fatigue or stress. This mechanism ensured that the players would privilege melee combat over missile and stealth, and would have a powerful reason based in the rules for engaging in the kind of savagery that every western movie about native Americans naturally makes a centerpiece of the narrative.

I am aware that scalping was probably imported by the white colonists, and that this depiction of the “noble savage” is extremely contentious amongst modern native American activists (though I get the impression that Last of the Mohicans was well-received, and included a major role for a major native American activist), but I wanted to make this campaign fit the dramatic style of movies like Last of the Mohicans. Also, the Compromise and Conceit world is all about myths and ideological caricatures from western literature made real – Catholics in this world are demon-summoning hypocrites and everything in Dr. Faustus came true. Compromise and Conceit also involves confronting the colonial powers with their own stereotypes and mythical notions about the “uncivilized” lands they are colonizing – but making these myths and stereotypes real, and seeing how the colonial powers handle their enemies if even half the things they said about them were actually true. As a result of this, for example, the British lost any chance at colonizing New Zealand, and are trapped on the fringes of a hostile and inhospitable Australia where the land itself rises up against them. It seems natural that when trying to colonize America they should meet magical larger-than-life versions of all the fears they have about native Americans!

I also introduced a system of totems. Totems are objects that the PCs carry that they can deploy for blessings in battle: only one per battle, and totems are largely the province of non-magical characters – they are charms carried into battle by those who lack magic. The party have to make a decision when they enter battle as to what they will deploy, and this is the only benefit they obtain through the whole battle. They cannot be deployed outside of battle, but everyone benefits from them. These totems are a unique magic item for native American characters – there is no equivalent thing for the British, for example.

On this basis we prepared a one-shot set in the Red Empire. Stay tuned for the record of battle …